Thursday, May 29, 2014

Barth's Theological Method

I have been reading Barth for about five years now. My birthday present in 2010 was the Church Dogmatics, which at a special price of $100 may just have been the biggest bargain since 5p Woppa bars. (Church Dogmatics will now set you back $995, and Woppa bars no longer exist.)

The beauty of Barth's billion pages of theological reflection is that, due to his particular way of writing, you can just jump in to any volume at any point, and it will more or less make sense. He is always circling around the same object, looking at it from different angles, emphasising different parts of the whole. This method is captured in a little technique that Barth uses repeatedly. For example, he takes the commandment "Thou shalt love thy neighbour" and examines it using different emphases. So...

Thou shalt love thy NEIGHBOUR.

Thou shalt LOVE thy neighbour.

Thou SHALT love thy neighbour.

It is a simple method, homiletical in nature, and it is this simplicity that makes Barth's theology so forceful and so compelling. Barth is said to have summed up his theology with the children's song "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so." The volumes of Church Dogmatics can almost be understood as different emphases on this sentence.

JESUS love me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

Jesus loves me this I know, for the BIBLE tells me so.

Jesus loves me this I KNOW, for the Bible tells me so.

Jesus loves ME this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

Jesus LOVES me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Breaking the Cycle

Since I first watched The Wire, I have only watched one TV series in its entirety: The Wire. As of yesterday, that is no longer true. I have watched Friday Night Lights. And in its own very different way, it is equally magnificent.

Well, "equally" is pushing it. Season 2 of The Wire is a masterpiece of bold and complex storytelling. Season 2 of FNL is crap. Really, really crap. That it was cut short because of a writers' strike may just have been the show's saving grace. From then on in the show lived up to the standards it set itself in the first season.

Though it went through something of an identity crisis, a run-of-the-mill teen-centric drama this is not. If The Wire is really about Baltimore, FNL is really about small-town Texas. These two places might seem like world's apart, and in many ways they are, but the presence of Michael Jordon (a different one) in both shows hints at a deeper correspondence. The two Americas that David Simon likes to speak of are both on display in FNL, though it must be said that there is an (unrealistic?)optimism in FNL that is utterly absent from The Wire. Yet perhaps, just perhaps, that is more a criticism of the latter than the former.

***Spoiler alert for FNL*** That said, I like to see a certain pessimism in FNL which may or not be intentional. One of the most surprising plots in the show is its (tentative) criticism of the military. It leaves us, to some degree, resentful of a soldier. That is something of a miracle for a series which is set in Texas and which aired on network television. In the final montage, we see one of the high school football stars in military gear, headed off to base camp to begin life as a soldier. The scholarship he presumed upon never materialised. He hadn't thought of anything other than playing football. So he hands his State championship ring over to his sweetheart, gets on a bus, and joins the army. This might be meant as a touching moment, but given what we have witnessed in the previous five seasons I have my doubts. Are we not in fact seeing the emergence of a new Saracen family, destined to end in division, resentment, and death?

There is also the character of Julie Taylor, fictional proof of Shakespeare's comment that good wombs can sometimes bear bad sons or daughters. For all the infectious virtue of her mother and father, she is annoying and immature to the end, evidence that life does not always correspond to our formulae.

Where FNL really triumphs - and in this it also mirrors The Wire - is in its development of what appear initially to be throw-away characters. In one way, the show can be said to find its centre in Billy Riggins and Buddy Garrity. More than the Taylors, they embody Texas, and that is what this is all about.

There are many great scenes, numerous inspirational speeches, and excellent passages of American Football action. The game itself - since it is so scripted - is almost designed to be televised, so when it is depicted on television it is just like watching the real thing. But it's not really the winning or the losing that matters. This is hammered home to us in that wonderful portrayal of the final game. The coin is tossed, a sign that fate (or perhaps destiny) has more of a say than we like to think when it comes to winning and losing. There are, after all, things that we cannot control. Fitting, then, that the final shot of the final game is quarter-back Vince Howard throwing a Hail Mary. We do what we can, and then we pray like hell that it all turns out okay. But it's the doing what we can for which we are responsible. Or as Coach Taylor says, it's in the trying that character is revealed.

If I have a favourite scene, it is one that is of little consequence to the plot, but which captures the heart of the show. A few of the high school football players meet on their respective balconies in a hotel before a game. They don't realise that Coach Taylor is also outside, listening in on what they have to say. A lesser show (or season 2 of this show) would have them saying all kinds of stuff that would create drama for later on. This show just has them talk and joke with each other, with Coach Taylor enjoying the moment.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Trouble With Words

It's not often a sermon makes front page news. But as I glanced at the newspaper section in Tesco this morning, I read of a "firebrand evangelical" in Belfast who labelled Islam "the spawn of the devil." Any publicity is good publicity, right?

I find it hard to know how to respond to this kind of story. I usually like to distance myself from crazy evangelicals and console myself with the reminder that they don't represent "true Christianity." Christianity, after all, is a religion of love and tolerance and acceptance.

Then comes more tired liberal-multicultural speak, the kind that George Bush would have given before the U.S. invaded an Islamic country and killed its men, women, and children: Islam is a religion of peace. It is fundamentalists who give it a bad name. They have co-opted it for political-ideological purposes.

In sum, I am tempted to distance myself from Christian fundamentalists, and to distance Islam from Islamic fundamentalists. All of this tends to be based on the vague notion of "tolerance." The same strategy can be employed by any reasonable secular liberal: Christianity with any "public" or "political" interest is dangerous, but "true Christianity," which is a private matter practised by a collection of pious individuals, is a perfectly acceptable phenomenon with which we can peacefully co-exist.

I think one of the reasons I find it difficult to respond has to do with the nature of language. This is one reason why the media is not a neutral observer reporting the news. The media shapes the way words like "Christian," "evangelical," "Muslim," "political," "religion" and "fundamentalist" are understood. These words carry an enormous amount of rhetoric and emotion, but very little concrete meaning. Much is assumed when one uses these words, but many of these assumptions don't stand up to scrutiny. Moreover, they sometimes distract from what is really going on.

There is a word that appears four or five times in the extract from the sermon that appears in the paper. It is a word that Christians would do well to scrutinise. That word is "Britain." If there is a fundamentalism on display here, it is this word that might give us a clue to its true source.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Rollins, Zizek, and Ecclesiology

Slavoj Zizek likes to tell an anecdote about physicist Niels Bohr. It goes like this:

Surprised at seeing a horseshoe above the door of Bohr’s country house, a visiting scientist said he didn't believe that horseshoes kept evil spirits out of the house, to which Bohr answered: ‘Neither do I; I have it there because I was told that it works just as well if one doesn't believe in it!’
The point of this anecdote for Zizek is its commentary on the nature of ideology: a social structure - say, democracy - works even if none of those members of the society really believes in the ideals of democracy.

Peter Rollins transposes this into an ecclesial context. For Rollins, the Church functions as an ideological structure which, in a sense, believes for the individual so that the individual does not have to believe. This is where Zizek's comments about laughter tracks also comes into play. According to Zizek, the purpose of the laughter track is not to prompt us to laugh, or to accompany our laughs. The laughter track exists as a substitute for our laughter. The laughter tracks laughs so that we don't have to. The Church believes so that the individual does not have to.

Rollins's "insurrectionist" Christianity is an attempt to move away from this ideological ecclesiology. I am sympathetic with this attempt, which I understand to be an extreme and undiluted form of evangelicalism. What Rollins wants is authenticity. It doesn't matter what form that authenticity takes: it could be authentic faith or authentic doubt. What matters is that it is authentic. Christianity as a religion which critiques religion should be about fostering authenticity.

This places a great burden on the individual to be authentic; that is to say, to be an individual. My worry is that individuals were never meant to be as individual as Rollins thinks they should be. At this point Rollins even departs from Slavoj Zizek's "faith." For Zizek it is precisely the Church as institution which interests him. For Rollins, on the other hand, the Church as institution is in tension with authentic Christianity. This is why Icon did "non-membership courses" and "Omega courses," which were designed to free the individual from the clutches of institutionalism.

In being so freed we are free to be ourselves. But are we made to handle this freedom? What Rollins is trying to do is to create a space in which the individual is free, even obliged, to doubt. "To believe is human; to doubt, divine" hangs over his webpage. The reason we do not need the Church to have faith for us when he have lost our faith is that losing faith is not a bad thing. Quite the opposite: doubt, for Rollins, is a cardinal theological virtue, given its paradigmatic expression by Jesus on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Rollins - like Zizek - makes much of the verse, but I'm not sure it can carry the weight he attaches to it. The overwhelming testimony of Old and New Testaments is that faith (or "belief") is to be commended, while doubt, in the end, is shown to be unreasonable. "Oh ye of little faith" was not a compliment to the disciples.

Rollins is right that doubt or lack of faith should not be suppressed. It should be given a voice, as it is in the hymn book of the Bible, the Psalms. Where Rollins is wrong, however, is that it is precisely the Church as believing (or faithful) community that can carry these doubts within the context of faith. It can do this because it does not depend on the individual to be always faithful. That the Church has faith even when the individual is at the end of her faith is good news.

In what was a very Hauerwasian moment, the preacher in Everwood said the following: "The gift of community is that each one of us is absolved of the burden of completeness." One of Hauerwas's students, Chris Huebner, wrote about this very gift in an essay on memory, faith, and Alzheimer's disease. He describes the Church as a place of memory for those who can no longer remember. This is what being a member of the body of Christ is all about.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Sweet Hereafter: A Recommendation

I read today that 18 people have been detained during the investigation of the mining disaster in Turkey. As heartless as it might be to move from this story to a film recommendation, I couldn't but be reminded of The Sweet Hereafter. It is a film about a tragic and fatal accident in a small town, and one man's need to make moral and legal sense of it.

If you haven't seen the film, I can't recommend it enough. It is part of a trio of Atom Egoyan films from the 1990's that are some of my all-time favourites, the other two being Calendar and Exotica. Egoyan seems to have lost his muse of late, but these earlier films, and particularly The Sweet Hereafter, are intelligent, delicate, melancholic and intricate masterpieces. I will let Roger Ebert do my bidding for me:

This is one of the best films of the year, an unflinching lament for the human condition. Yes, it is told out of sequence, but not as a gimmick: In a way, Egoyan has constructed this film in the simplest possible way. It isn't about the beginning and end of the plot, but about the beginning and end of the emotions. In his first scene, the lawyer tells his daughter he doesn't know who he's talking to. In one of his closing scenes, he remembers a time when he did know her. But what did it get him?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Benefits of Far-Sight

Barth, in one sweeping sentence, shows us why the self-consciously postmodern theology of our era will not pass the test of time. Although perhaps this kind of theology does not wish to pass such a "modern" test!

In theology, at least, we must be more far-sighted than to attempt a deliberate co-ordination with temporarily predominant philosophical trends in which we may be caught up, or to allow them to dictate or correct our conceptions.

Of course it should be remembered that Barth wrote this on the brink of his engagement with the existential philosophy of Sartre and Heidegger. Perhaps all those works that show us how Richard Rorty illuminates the thought of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite have a place, after all.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Hard Grace

This blog has very quickly descended into a venue for me to post snippets of the essays I'm currently working on. "Hasn't it always been that," you say? Like Arsene Wenger, I refuse to comment on speculation.

Since Barth is playing a role in both of my essays at the moment, I'm reading more Barth than I can quote. One of those essays has to do with the relationship between philosophy and theology (which I've made more concrete by examining the hypothetical relationship between Iris Murdoch's philosophical ethics and Karl Barth's theological ethics). Here is what a Barthian must conclude:

The Christian is not distinguished from the non-Christian, nor the theologian from the philosopher, because she has received a grace which the other has not received. The difference between the two, rather, is that one has been awakened to see the grace that encompasses the world, whereas the other remains blind to it. Yet the grace exists for both, and it affects even those who cannot name it.

Barth puts this in other, better, and more succinct terms:

The fact that God is gracious to us does not mean that He becomes soft, but that He remains absolutely hard, that there is no escaping His sovereignty and therefore His purpose for man.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Karl Barth, Hypocrite

What was all that "Nein!" talk about?

Barth is the self-proclaimed opponent of natural theology. Yet in one of the early books of his Church Dogmatics, he talks about a "natural proof of God adduced in world-history." What is this natural proof?

It is the continuing existence of the Jews.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Creeping Death

I've been tasked with providing a theological reading of  Joshua 1-11. Here is apologist William Lane Craig's take on the text:

I won't go into the details of how I read Joshua - in a word, critically - but I will say that I disagree with almost everything that WLC says in these 10 minutes. He ends up defending a view of God that has Him ordering the slaughter of children for the sake of a "greater good." In other words, WLC wants us to believe in a God who engages in child sacrifice. This is a line of interpretation that stems back to Calvin at least, and leads me to believe that something went badly wrong at some point in the church's hermeneutical history.

This lecture from David Bentley Hart (which has an intro that sounds like the theme tune to 'Everwood') goes some way towards explaining that history. If I remember correctly, DBH identifies nominalism - which portrays God as pure, unadulterated will - as the problem.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

God-Breathed: A Proposal

"God-breathed" is a beautiful term often used in ugly ways. For example, those who want to "take Genesis 2-3 literally" say that. given the text God-breathed, it must give us the facts about what really happened at the moment of creation. Since God is truthful, then something that is God-breathed must be truthful, that is to say, factual. Those who deny that Genesis gives us an accurate historical-scientific account of the world's beginning are thus denying the "God-breathedness" of scripture.

As beautiful as the term is, its precise meaning is notoriously difficult to grasp. But can Genesis 2 actually help in this regard? Perhaps being God-breathed is not a sign of scripture's divinity but of its humanity. It is humans, after all, who are said to be "inspired" by God, made alive by God's breath (Gen. 2:7). We are, in a sense, God-breathed. As are other animals. The primary function of God's breath is to make animals alive. Is that also what it means for scripture to be God-breathed? That it is "made alive"?

A reasonably common view of scripture is that it is both divine and human, a sort of literary version of the incarnation. But given the God-breathedness of humans in general, is scripture more like humans in general than Christ in particular?