Thursday, February 27, 2014

Run, Florist, Run

In Arizona, there are bills in the pipeline that, if passed, will ensure, among other things, that Christian florists can refuse to sell flowers intended for use at a same-sex wedding. Here is a quote from the piece in which I read about this:

The backers of these laws claim that a Christian cannot, in good conscience, provide a good or service for a same-sex wedding because it violates the teachings of Christianity.

This mode of thinking is an abomination, and represents a failure to witness to the God who causes the sun to shine on homosexual weddings and heterosexual weddings. These Christians are obviously worried about being guilty by facilitation, but they would only be as guilty as God was when he created the world and thus "facilitated" sin, or as the father was when he gave the prodigal son all that money to spend on prostitutes and heroin. Did he not know what was going to happen, and could therefore plead innocent to any charges of facilitation?

That defence reminds me of the funniest 6 minutes of stand-up comedy I've seen. You can check it out by typing "Bill Hicks military industrial complex" into YouTube. Hicks riffs on America's claim that it sold "farming equipment" to Iraq, impersonating one of the sales people:

One of the things we gave them was a new thing we came up with, called a, the a, ahem, flame-throwing rake. No, it was for the farmer. See, he would rake the leaves, and then just turn around and *makes flame-throwing noise** 
But you know what the Iraqis did with that?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Dunphy on City-Barcelona

Living away from Galway has many disadvantages, but up there among the most disadventageous of them all is not being able to watch RTE's coverage of the Champions League. I have grown up watching football through the fading eyesight of John Giles, Liam Brady, and Eamon Dunphy. Their pre-match, half-time, and post-match analysis is as important to me as the match itself. Indeed the two cannot properly be distinguished. There is no match without this trio to analyse it. Whether there is a trio without the match is another question. So when Man Utd put in a shocking first half display, I would be giddy with anticipation, waiting for Dunphy to put the boot in. And if the second half didn't get any better for them, I was treated to what can only be described as 15 minutes of analytic heaven, without the analysis: instead, it was simply three men who loved football making as many conclusions and accusations as they possibly good before Bill sent the program to a law-suit-avoiding commercial break. Choice memories from these moments include:

"Steven Gerrard: found out tonight. A nothing player." (This was after Liverpool having knocked Barcelona out of the competition)

"Ronaldo is a disgrace." (After Man Utd getting a very credible draw at the Nou Camp)

Of course Dunphy would later go on to recant from these heretical positions, adopting a far more rational stance regarding the merits of Gerrard and Ronaldo (the latter has become, in Dunmphy's eyes, a "great player"*). But in these instinctive, a-rational, emotional outbursts I always felt like I was getting nearer to the truth.

I mention all of this because I have just purchased the Irish Star. It is my way of keeping in touch with my roots, since every Monday Dunphy "writes" a column about football. This week I was hoping for this take on the upcoming Man City v Barcelona game. He didn't disappoint. The headline is "Barca are there for the taking." Dunphy, a great believer in the Catalan club over the last 5 years, has lost faith. But what exactly is his pre-match take on things? Analysing a Dunphy article for its argumentation is like critiquing the theology of The God Delusion or the science of Genesis 1-3. But here is what the analyst-poet has to say:

Yes, Barcelona look good at the moment (they just beat Rayo Vallecano 6-0), but don't read anything into their form. La Liga, according to the "student of the Spanish game," is in rag order. "What did Barcelona learn from this cruise to victory? Nothing." Inequality has rendered the result irrelevant. If you want a relevant result, Dunphy takes us to a different game on Saturday - Man City's victory over Chelsea.

Problem #1 - Barcelona have played four games against Europe's best this season: three against Atletico Madrid and one against Real Madrid. They are yet to lose. Their game against Vallecano is not an indication that they are back to their best, but they have been tested this season and the results are good. Moreover, while Man City did beat Chelsea in the cup, they have lost to Chelsea twice in the league. If any team has shown weakness against quality opposition, it is not Barcelona. Furthermore, it is arguable that it is in fact Man City who have not been tested to the same extent that the Catalans have been. I don't think Chelsea are at the level of Atletico or Real Madrid, and apart from Chelsea who is there to test Man City? Arsenal? Man Utd? Liverpool? Only the latter appear to be a serious team, and they should have beaten Man City at the Etihad. In short, Dunphy's argument actually works better going the other direction.

Dunphy then talks of Barcelona's decline. He is not wrong. Barcelona are not at the same level as they once were under Guardiola. Their players are older, perhaps less motivated and disciplined on a football pitch. Though he doesn't mention him in his article, Xavi is now the symbol of decline as much as he once was the symbol of the Barca way. Tata Martino didn't play him against Vallecano, probably in order to rest him for Tuesday. But there is a strong case in favour of leaving him out of the first eleven. He simply is not able to get around the pitch like he once was, and he is a defensive liability.

Dunphy also brings up the experience that Pelligrini has of playing against Barcelona. What Dunphy doesn't mention, however, is that Pellegrini has a terrible record against Barcelona. He may know how they play, but he has by no means proven that he knows how to stop them. Also omitted from Dunphy's argument is the lack of experience that this City team has in the knock-out stages of the Champions League. Barcelona may be affected by last year's heavy loss to Bayern Munich, but they remain vastly experienced at playing football at the highest level. True, their coach is a novice when it comes to managing a team in the European Cup, but then so was Guardiola.

Finally we get some classic Dunphy: "You can't depend on Toure." There's that telling-it-like-it-isn't truth that I know and love, and with which I am in agreement. Toure has the potential to be explosive going forward. But he is tactically deficient. The result may well depend on which of these aspects of his game comes to the fore.

Personally, I am not sure what to think about this game. Guardiola usually kept things tight away from home in the knock-out stages. His Barcelona team never beat English opposition on English soil. I would be surprised if that changed under Martino. If Martino was to be pragmatic, he would play Busquets and Song in midfield, with Xavi ahead of them, and Iniesta on the left. If he was overly shrewd, he would play Messi on the right, pitting the Argentine against the defensively suspect Kolorov/Clichy, and severely curtailing any attacking ambitions David Silva might have. In fact Martino did something like this against Real Madrid, and it worked very well. This would leave either Fabregas/Neymar Alexis leading the line. That is a team I would trust not to lose, and also to score. City don't have the same tactical flexibility, but (cliche alert) they will be dangerous from set-pieces. I wouldn't be surprised if Milner is used as a second full-back on one of the wings, with Navas's speed kept in reserve for when it will be most useful. Or perhaps both Navas and Milner will start, with Silva playing instead of either Dzeko or Negredo. That would probably be the most conservative option. Indeed, if both managers go conservative we could be in for something of a disappoint, albeit an understandable one.

Prediction: 2-2

* For a rigorous description of what constitutes a great player, see the discussion on Riquelme after the Argentina-Holland match at World Cup 2006. Giles's verdict was that "Riquelme is a good player, but he's not a great player." History has, of course, proved him right.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Canon, Criticism, and the Church

I'm in the middle of reading and writing about Brevard Childs's canonical approach to the Old (and New) Testament. I don't know what to make of it, but Childs (and his critics) have convinced me of something: there is an enormous gap between biblical scholarship and the church.

It is interesting how Childs and Barton (one of his constructive critics) see this gap. For Childs, the old, entrenched historical-critical method of reading Scripture begins from a "neutral" position, and therefore can only end in a neutral position, unconnected to the life of the church. It is this method that is to blame for the gap between academy and church, because this method lives and dies by its critical distance from the church, and that distance can never be bridged.

Barton, while agreeing on much (though by no means all) of Childs's description of historical criticism, thinks that it is not inherently anti-church. Throughout its history, he argues, most practitioners of this method have been church people who have not ceased to be church people simply because of their critical (in the neutral sense of the word) stance towards Scripture. For Barton, historical criticism lets the text speak with all its depth and dimensions, its historicity and contextuality. He admits that there is a gap between this scholarship and the life of the church, but he attributes that gap to a spirit of anti-intellectualism (at least in England). The insights of historical-criticism may be irrelevant to the church, but for Barton that is mainly because the church has not allowed itself to be shaped by these insights.

So, Childs or Barton? I am tempted to simply say Yes.

That there is a gap between biblical studies and the church is undeniable. Take one of biblical studies' fairly uncontested conclusions in the 20th century about the book of Isaiah: it is divided up into three parts, or at least it is certainly not the work of one author. This is almost a given for scholars. Yet ask a selection of church goers if they've ever heard of Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah and I would posit that the answer from about 90-95% would be No. I don't say this to illustrate how naive or simplistic the "average" church goer is. Rather, it simply illustrates that there is a real gap between what scholars think about the bible and what non-scholars think.

Why hasn't a scholarly insight such as this made its way into church vocabulary? There are undoubtedly a host of reasons, some specific to each congregation. But I also think that Barton is right: there is a pervasive anti-intellectualism within the church.

I went along to a morning lecture at a bible conference here in Northern Ireland a few years back. The conference is a way for young singles to meet each other young adults to get some good, solid bible teaching into them. D. A. Carson has been a speaker at a few of these events, but this particular weekend featured a pastor from South Africa (or maybe Zimbabwe). He was working his way through the book of Isaiah, and the morning I heard him he was beginning at chapter 40. He prefaced his talk by telling us that there are some "liberal scholars" who think that this is not the work of Isaiah; they call it "deutero-Isaiah." But he said that as evangelicals we can ignore this sceptical attitude towards Scripture and hold fast to our belief that this is really the work of the prophet Isaiah, and thus the inspired Word of God.

If I keep writing this will quickly end up like one of those tortured Peter Enns posts that just can't get its head around evangelical closed-mindedness. Nevertheless, Enns has a point. And what's more, that pastor speaking in Castlewellan had a point. Critical scholarship really is considered to be "liberal" by much of the church. I could almost guarantee that a church that had an unusually high percentage of people who were familiar with deutero-Isaiah would either be one of those annoying, self-consciously liberal churches, or would be considered "liberal" even if it didn't think of itself that way.

Rather than using the old liberalism-conservatism divide, is anti-intellectualism a fair name for what is going on? Is the faith of the church afraid of understanding? For many, it seems like there is a fear of any understanding of the historicality - to use one of those made up words - of Scripture. If the Bible is shown to be rooted in history, undergoing amendment and addition over time, subject to contingency, then it seems to lose its inspired quality. Barton and other biblical critics are not out to undermine the status of the Bible, however. Rather, one of the questions these scholars raise is: what does it mean for the Bible to be inspired by God? What is the nature of that inspiration? If we can speak of deutero-Isaiah, what does that do to and for our faith? Can this insight actually enrich our engagement with Scripture?

Childs doesn't think that it can. Or, at least, that historical critics haven't been able to provide good theological answers to the issues they've raised. This is where Childs's canonical approach comes into play. It takes some of the critical insights of the historical approach on board, but it brings everything back to the reality of the canon. So, while Childs is perfectly willing to speak of deutero-Isaiah, he nevertheless reads it in its canonical context, which means that it really does flow seemlessly after Isaiah 1-39 in the canon, even if that's not the case in history.

The canonical approach is therefore "post-critical". It does not act as if critical scholarship never happened, but it does not allow itself to play the same language game as this scholarship. It beings with new questions - theological and religious questions - and looks to the canon rather than any putative reconstruction of history for answers. In this way it is vitally connected to the community of faith.

I do wonder, however, if Childs was not running ahead of the rest of the community of faith. Childs himself may be "post-critical" but I don't think that the church is. Not by a long shot. I'm with Barton on this front. The church hasn't even begun to become critical. The church isn't wrestling with the synoptic problem or the dating of Daniel. Many today - I think of Hauerwas, for example - would say that wrestling with these things is a distraction, a distinctly un-theological way of reading Scripture, and that we are better off when these questions are left to one side so that we can get on with the real business of reading this text as Scripture, and as members of a community of faith. Does that mean we write off three centuries of scholarship as one long, bad dream?

I'm not convinced that should be done. I'm not convinced that we need to leave deutero-Isaiah to one side, as a sort of failed experiment. The strength of Childs's approach is that it really is post-critical. His work could not have been done 300 years ago. But I think it is jumping the gun to see Childs's way of reading Scripture as being commensurate with the church's way of reading. The church, unlike Childs, is still pre-critical. The full import of his reading will therefore not be available to the church until the church is also post-critical. We may like to think of the church as trans-critical. Perhaps in a way it is. Certainly the church's being is not defined by the movements of the scholarly world. But the church exists in history, and cannot imagine herself to be impervious to the contingencies of history. Thus far the church - at least that part of the church I'm familiar with - has remained largely aloof from criticism. I am not sure that is a good place for the church to be.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Master

At what point does Rob Bell become the leader of a cult, albeit a cool one that in my very weakest moments I'd like to be a member of, at least for the surfing part? Consider this from his website, concerning another of those events that cost $500:

How similar will this be to the 2Day events Rob did last year?
Quite similar, but with some new insights and content and teachings.

Rob's "new insights" may not be as wild and fanciful as those of Lancaster Dodd, played by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. But when you have a group of 100 people willing to pay $500 to hear your latest piece of wisdom, you are not far from being the leader of a cult. Indeed, are we not here seeing the future of cults as they take shape in a globalised, consumerist world? Register online, fly in, meet up with 99 other followers around a charismatic leader, gain some insight, and then fly back to wherever you came from. Do you need to go to the next meeting? Well no, not exactly, but are you sure you can afford to miss out on the new insights, content, and teachings?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Malick and Wealth

I didn't realise it until a couple of weeks ago, but there is a thread running through the films of Terrence Malick that I have completed missed. Malick is often considered by his fans and detractors to be a film maker concerned with the Edenic resplendence of creation. Look! A glorious tree basking in sunlight! Blades of grass blowing in the wind! For critics, this is not necessarily a good thing. In Donald Clarke's words, "Everything is crushed by demands of the suffocatingly handsome Malick aesthetic."

But is Malick's vision of the world so idyllic, so hopelessly perfect?

From Badlands to To the Wonder there is another theme at work that gets lost amidst the splendour: the theme of money, or wealth. To give a quick run through (possible spoilers):

Badlands: A film which centres around a man who collects garbage for a living, and gets laid off from his job.

Days of Heaven: The story is about a poor couple with a rags-to-riches scheme.

The Thin Red Line: As Sean Penn's character says, this war is "all about property". It is a fight for ownership, a fight fought by men who increasingly own nothing but each other.

The New World: The film begins in a largely uncultivated woodland and ends in an English city. Smith's voiceovers often sound like the words of a good capitalist, and we see the sacrifice and struggle it takes to establish a wealthy colony. Indeed Smith himself sacrifices love for the sake of colonisation. Is it worth it? we are left to ask.

The Tree of Life: Brad Pitt's character takes this theme forward, as he gives ruthless advice to his sons about getting ahead in life, and as he strives to make it big, envying and praising the wealth of others. Like Penn in The Thin Red Line, he speaks about "ownership" - "ownership of ideas".

To the Wonder: Father Quintana works among the impoverished of society, while big business threatens the surrounding environment. Nature (in the Tree of Life sense of the word) seems to war against Nature (in the New World sense of the word).

What is Malick's perspective on wealth? It is hard to say. But what is clear is that we get much more than a suffocatingly handsome aesthetic in his work. The beauty of creation might be the context in which the drama plays out - though even here creation is often as dreadful as it is glorious (the plague of locusts, for example) -  but within creation there are complex stories to be told concerning class relations: stories about haves and have nots, about haves falling in love with have nots, about doing pastoral work among have nots, about fighting and dying so that we can have, and about the precarious nature of all our having.

Clarke may lament Malick's sermons. I think they answer some of Clarke's misgivings. Here is one from The Tree of Life, and present us with an alternative vision of what counts as wealth:

Job imagined he might build his nest on high – that the integrity of his behavior would protect him against misfortune. And his friends thought, mistakenly, that the Lord could only have punished him because secretly he’d done something wrong.
But, no, misfortune befalls the good as well. We can’t protect ourselves against it. We can’t protect our children. We can’t say to ourselves, even if I’m not happy, I’m going to make sure they are. 
We vanish as a cloud. We wither as the autumn grass, and like a tree are rooted up.
Is there some fraud in the scheme of the universe? Is there nothing which is deathless? Nothing which does not pass away? 
We cannot stay where we are. We must journey forth. We must find that which is greater than fortune or fate. Nothing can bring us peace but that. 
Is the body of the wise man, or the just, exempt from any pain? From any disquietude, from the deformity that might blight its beauty, from the weakness that might destroy its health? 
Do you trust in God? Job, too, was close to the Lord. Are your friends and children your security? There is no hiding place in all the world where trouble may not find you. No on knows when sorrow might visit his house, any more than Job did. 
The very moment everything was taken away from Job, he knew it was the Lord who’d taken it away. He turned from the passing shows of time. He sought that which is eternal. 
Does he alone see God’s hand who sees that He gives, or does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that He takes away? Does he alone see God who sees God turn His face towards him? Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back?

Friday, February 7, 2014

Happiness, Work, and Amusement

Happiness, then, does not consist in amusement, because it would be absurd if our end were amusement, and we laboured and suffered all of our lives for the sake of amusing ourselves. For we choose virtually everything for the sake of something else, except happiness, since it is the end; but serious work and exertion for the sake of amusement is manifestly foolish and extremely childish. Rather, as Anacharis puts it, what seems correct is amusing ourselves so that we can engage in some serious work, since amusement is like relaxation, and we need relaxation because we cannot continually exert ourselves. Relaxation, then, is not an end, since it occurs for the sake of activity. (Nicomachean Ethics, X.6)

To put what Aristotle appears to be saying into contemporary terms, the weekend exists for the sake of the working week, and not the working week for the sake of the weekend. In other words, our job is not incidental to our lives, a neutral means to earn money so that we can fulfil our true end, which is amusing ourselves. Rather, we relax in order to be refreshed for the attainment our true end, which is virtuous activity. That many people would rightly struggle to think of their Monday-Friday life in this way shows how unintelligible work has become within a system whose end is the possession and expenditure of money.

I don’t know exactly how this squares with Scripture’s concept of Sabbath, both in its cyclical and eschatological sense. Aristotle could also be interpreted as diminishing the relationship between virtue and play. However, what Aristotle says may also tie in quite nicely with one of Jesus’s most underrated and radical aphorisms: Humans were not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for humans.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Homely Matters

It's hard to find much information about William Davidson Geoghegan on the internet, but whoever he is, reading one of his essays for a module on philosophy and theology was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

I have for a while agreed with those who place question marks over the questions marks that have been placed over Greek philosophy's "corrupting" influence on something called Hebraic thought. Geoghegan articulates as well as anybody why the questioners need to be questioned.

It is easily conceded that in the Biblical view man has creativity and thus, as it were, imitates God; and that all that men do matters. But it cannot be conceded that the ordinary round of human existence is for Plato a "meaningless shadow play" (Cherbonnier, p. 463). Even in the protracted allegory of the cave in the Republic, which superficially appears to support this view, ordinary human life is not meaningless; for it is capable of producing a philosopher who can save it. And, incidentally, Socrates, that apostle of the rational life, is not portrayed by Plato as an aloof intellectual aristocrat but as quite a plebeian fellow who is forever talking about such homely matters as shoemakers and tables.