Saturday, December 24, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Wendell Berry (Christmas Day)

Merry Christmas!

It's not often that Christmas falls on a Sunday. And what better way to celebrate than with a poem by Wendell Berry, his sixth Sabbath poem -- and so unnamed, the title below being mine -- of the year 1990.

Blessings on this day of happy celebration.

- - - - - - -

St. Vith, December 21, 1944

By Wendell Berry

Cut off in front of the line
that now ran through St. Vith,
the five American tanks sat
in a field covered with snow
in the dark. And now they must
retreat to safety, which they
could do only through gunfire
and flame in the burning town.
They went, firing, through the fire,
GIs and German prisoners
clinging to the hulls, and out
again into the still night beyond.
In the broad dark, someone
began to sing, and one by one
the others sang also, the German
prisoners singing in German,
the Americans in English,
the one song. "Silent night,"
they sang as the great treads
passed on across the dark
countryside muffled in white
snow, "Holy night."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Just Because: Predictions for the 2011-2012 Lockout-Shortened NBA Season

It's usually an annual October tradition -- see the last three years' iterations -- but, of course, the lockout has delayed and contracted this year's season; so now, the week of Christmas, I offer my usual predictions for how things are going to shake out in the National Basketball Association.

It's odd: continuity and experience take on a bigger role in this sort of season, even as youth and depth absorb the toll of 66 games in 120 days. (You read that right.) All in all, things look basically similar to last season, with the ascension of the Clippers to NBA royalty and my premonition that Indiana will make a leap. Note also the asterisk for Orlando and New Jersey: my pick for the Magic presumes the presence of one Dwight Howard, while if he leaves, they will almost certainly bottom out while their trade partner (the Nets?) will take their place in the playoff picture.

I'm also gunning for a first round Staples Center showdown between the Lakers and Clippers, though I have Kobe's maniacal competitiveness winning out over Lob City's inexperience. (Also a repeat of last year's Boston-New York series, with the same result.) And while the good guys won the prize last year, I have the Heat triumphing in the Finals over the ultimate good guys, the Thunder. LeBron and Wade holding a trophy while the camera pans to Kevin Durant in tears? That sounds just tragic enough to become true. Just know that, after the Spurs, I'll be cheering for OKC all the way.

- - - - - - -

Western Conference
1. Oklahoma City Thunder (53-13)
2. Dallas Mavericks (49-17)
3. Los Angeles Clippers (47-19)
4. San Antonio Spurs (45-21)
5. Memphis Grizzlies (44-22)
6. Los Angeles Lakers (42-24)
7. Denver Nuggets (40-26)
8. Portland Trailblazers (36-30)

9. Minnesota Timberwolves (34-32)
10. Phoenix Suns (33-33)
11. New Orleans Hornets (27-39)
12. Utah Jazz (23-43)
13. Houston Rockets (19-47)
14. Golden State Warriors (13-53)
15. Sacramento Kings (10-56)

Eastern Conference
1. Miami Heat (56-10)
2. Chicago Bulls (53-13)
3. Orlando Magic (44-22)*
4. New York Knicks (40-26)
5. Boston Celtics (39-27)
6. Indiana Pacers (37-29)
7. Atlanta Hawks (34-32)
8. Philadelphia 76ers (33-33)

9. New Jersey Nets (32-34)*
10. Washington Wizards (30-36)
11. Milwaukee Bucks (29-37)
12. Detroit Pistons (18-48)
13. Toronto Raptors (13-53)
14. Cleveland Cavaliers (9-57)
15. Charlotte Bobcats (8-58)

Western Conference First Round
Oklahoma City Thunder (1) over Portland Trailblazers (8) in 5 games
Dallas Mavericks (2) over Denver Nuggets (7) in 6 games
Los Angeles Lakers (6) over Los Angeles Clippers (3) in 6 games
San Antonio Spurs (5) over Memphis Grizzlies (4) in 7 games

Eastern Conference First Round
Miami Heat (1) over Philadelphia 76ers (8) in 5 games
Chicago Bulls (2) over Atlanta Hawks (7) in 6 games
Indiana Pacers (6) over Orlando Magic (3) in 6 games
Boston Celtics (5) over New York Knicks (4) in 7 games

Western Conference Semifinals
Oklahoma City Thunder (1) over San Antonio Spurs (5) in 7 games
Dallas Mavericks (2) over Los Angeles Lakers (6) in 6 games

Eastern Conference Semifinals
Miami Heat (1) over Boston Celtics (5) in 7 games
Chicago Bulls (2) over Indiana Pacers (6) in 6 games

Western Conference Finals
Oklahoma City Thunder (1) over Dallas Mavericks (2) in 7 games

Eastern Conference Finals
Miami Heat (1) over Chicago Bulls (2) in 6 games

NBA Finals
Miami Heat (1) over Oklahoma City Thunder (1) in 7 games

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: G.K. Chesterton (Advent #4)

A bit belated, but better late than never. My assumption is, apart from one more Sabbath post next Sunday, it's going to be tumbleweeds around here for a few weeks. If so, have a blessed rest of Advent, and Christmas, and holiday break for the academics. I hope it's a good end to a good year, as it is for us.

The neat little poem below is taken from Chesterton's 1900 collection, The Wild Knight and Other Poems. And while you're at it, go check out Richard Beck's two recent posts on Christmas carols as resistance literature.

- - - - - - -

A Christmas Carol

By G.K. Chesterton
The Christ-child lay on Mary's lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary's breast,
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary's heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O wear, weary is the world,
But here the world's desire.)

The Christ-child stood at Mary's knee,
His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens: Rest in Peace

Christopher Hitchens passed away last night. Having done serious battle with the debilitating Stage 4 esophageal cancer that overran his life some 18 months ago -- as he put it, "There is no Stage 5" -- he finally lost the fight he knew would be a losing one.

A lifelong political journalist, Hitchens didn't hit the national spotlight in America until after 9/11, an event that changed his life in more ways than one. Once a card-carrying communist -- literally: in his memoir there is a picture of his "commie card" from the late 1960s -- Hitchens remained a leftist of some sort all his life; but 9/11 marked a line in the sand his former comrades found themselves on the wrong side of. Thereafter he became a recognizable spokesman for two things above all: the West's war on Islamist terrorism, as led by the U.S.; and a radical secularism bent on exposing the poisonous evils of religion.

This is largely how Hitchens' death will be received: as that of the secular fundamentalist who betrayed his politics in order to back an imperial invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. And that description is no doubt earned. (Though I do wonder about the extent to which his politics were ever so far from where he eventually landed.)

However, Hitchens' death raises a different set of issues, and feelings, for me. See, Hitchens was (is!) one of my favorite writers. Though our politics were (are -- tense is challenging here) opposed, our worldviews disparate, our convictions contradictory, I loved the man's work. Over time I developed that curious feeling for his writing -- and so for him -- that is somehow capable of attending signs on a page or screen: affection. Whether reading his weekly piece in Slate, his longer monthly essay in Vanity Fair, his random book reviews and speeches to fellow atheist believers, or his fascinating memoir, Hitchens' writing brought me what I know he sought to occasion -- namely, pleasure. The literary world for Hitchens was not unlike a vast and unending pleasure machine; if we learn and grow, enculture ourselves in the process, all the better. I'm happy to know that, churning out material even in his final dying weeks, Hitchens the man succeeded in the singular thing he knew his life was preeminently given and ordered to, that which he so evidently loved with an almost religious fervor. Writing was his life, and he died one of the half dozen or so best living essayists in the English-speaking world. A happy thing, to die having fulfilled your call.

The second set of issues raised by Hitchens' death, hinted at by some of my language in the preceding sentences, is his radical atheism. I am a Christian, and a theologian in training. What does it mean to have affection for Hitchens, a man who in no uncertain terms ridiculed any and all who belonged to the Christian faith, as well as the God of that faith? And what does it mean to remember him in his passing, given traditional Christian convictions about postmortem consequences for those without faith?

The first question, though problematic for some, is not for me. As I knew and know him in his writing, Hitchens was and is a friend -- one gained, to be sure, from books and essays and speeches, and so an odd sort of friend, but a friend nonetheless. Therefore there is nothing strange in having affection for him and his work, just as I have had and do and will have friends in life with whom I disagree fundamentally about ultimate matters. I would have been happy for Hitchens to know while living that he had a Christian theologian -- a "true believer"! -- for an admiring reader. I'm sure he would have laughed, and got on with it. Fine by me.

The second question seems to me the more pressing. How do Christians pronounce the blessing Requiescat in pace on behalf of a man like Hitchens without some irony, doubt, or even hypocrisy nagging at their conscience? Not because we do not want him to rest in peace, but because the overwhelming claim of the tradition is that he will not in fact do so.

The challenge is not solved by a resolute universalism. For, as Hitchens was quick to point out to his still-evangelizing Christian readers, would it not be better for him to retain the integrity of his convictions to the end, rather than abandon them out of fear and self-concern? From the Christian vantage point -- this is perhaps the voice of C.S. Lewis -- should we not afford an unbeliever like Hitchens, following God's own lead, the courtesy of his commitments and so not relegate him to heaven's dark corner of unwilling converts?

I don't have a quick fix for these theological problems. Christians trust the God of cross and resurrection to act in exact accordance with the love, mercy, and grace revealed in Christ. In this way -- in a profoundly freeing way -- the fate of the departed is simply and completely out of our hands. It is just not up to us.

Given this position, then, what are we we left with? What is our "stance" in such a situation? I have two suggestions.

The first is an absolutely steadfast faith in the victory of God's love in Christ. Christopher Hitchens was as subject as you or I to the vagaries and consequences of a world filled with sin, violence, falsehood, and death. And the God who created Christopher Hitchens, who upheld him at every moment of his life, who quite literally loved him into being and sustained him in love for more than six decades -- this God came near in Christ and acted once for all to deliver all things from bondage to death. If Christian faith excludes the Christopher Hitchenses of the world from the scope of God's redemption, it might as well give up the game.

My second suggestion is much smaller in focus, a rather homely theological gesture. I shared above of my affection for Hitchens. Though it did not take much effort -- and, of course, required zero cost -- this could be interpreted as a kind of literary love of enemy: Hitchens' distaste with me-and-mine could not win out against my genuine fondness for him. In the face of the rhetorical violence he perpetrated against "religious people," and even the actual violence he commended against those he deemed unworthy of life, I sincerely desired Hitchens' well-being; I wanted him to flourish, to succeed, to know love and health and long life. (I also hoped he would lose his enchantment with the Enlightenment, and open a book of real theology, and reject the myth of redemptive war -- but then, those are forms of loving him, too.)

In other words, my affection for Hitchens the atheist fundamentalist overwhelmed any other feeling or attitude I might have had for him. And I suspect this is something like the stance Christians should take in relation to all the (radically) unbelieving departed; for when I say "rest in peace," I really mean it. Not because I have worked-out ideas about the afterlife, or a backdoor deal with God, or secret hope that Hitchens was "right with the Lord" when he died -- although, to reiterate the first point above, Christian faith should presume and pray for the universal victory of God's love. No, my blessing on the life of Christopher Hitchens, and on his passing, comes not from intellect or doctrine, but from a love that overrules these other instincts. And my sense is that something like this overruling love is closer to where we ought to be than sure knowledge of any person's eternal fate.

A last time, then: Rest in peace, Christopher Hitchens. May the wordy affection your work inspired in this believer be a testament to your lifelong gift, and a lasting irony you would have enjoyed to no end.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Capitalism at its Best: Google Chairman Eric Schmidt on the Purpose of Social Networking

Last week Slate published an interview with Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, and I thought I'd pass along the concluding back-and-forth, which is both telling and damning. Ask yourself: Why is Google et al in the social networking business? Hint: It's not for the sake of social networking. You’ve launched three social networks in two years with Wave and Buzz and Plus…

: I’m not sure Wave is a social network. Wave was a different version of e-mail. But yes.
: Why would Google+ succeed where Wave and Buzz didn’t?

: Well these things are hard to do. I want to say that what Facebook has done is very difficult to do and they should be given credit for that.

It’s hard to get the privacy right, it’s hard to get the scale right, it’s hard to get people to spend time on it and so forth. In Wave, the product simply didn’t work, from the moment we announced Wave, its adoption declined. In Buzz, we had problems with privacy because it was centered on email, and we made some mistakes there. So we canceled them both.

With Google + we learned from those two experiences. I use Google+, and I find the quality of the comments are very sophisticated because there is more trust inside of Google+ than there is inside of Twitter and Facebook for example.
: Would you consider not pursuing the social network if this doesn’t work?

Schmidt: We need the information about yourself and your friends to make our products work better so we will always, I think, have something like that.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: R. S. Thomas (Advent #3)

It's been an R. S. Thomas year for me, in terms of poetry, so what better way to mark Advent than one more poem from the Welsh master? Especially fitting, given Advent's penitential character, is the poem below, "Christmas Eve." An anti-consumerist indictment of the so-called holiday season from the pen of a priest born the year before World War I began, it was written during Bill Clinton's first term.

Thomas was a great poet, and -- as should by now be clear -- part of that greatness is his enduring, almost absolute relevance. Enjoy.

- - - - - - -

Christmas Eve

By R. S. Thomas

Erect capital's arch;
decorate it with the gilt edge
of the moon. Pave the way to it
with cheques and with credit --

it is still not high enough
for the child to pass under
who comes to us this midnight
invisible as radiation.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Week's Reads: Incarnation, Christmas, Wendell Berry, and more

As school takes the time for writing I would otherwise use for blogging, I thought I would at least share what I'm reading this week (and perhaps going forward). Here goes:

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Andrew Hudgins (Advent #2)

This past Thursday Yale Divinity School hosted poet Andrew Hudgins as part of its ongoing Literature and Spirituality series. (Past guests have included Barbara Brown Taylor and Franz Wright, among others.) It reminded me how much I enjoy Hudgins' work, from which I have shared at least one poem before in this space.

Per request, Hudgins concluded his reading with the poem below, "Piss Christ: Andres Serrano, 1987," published first in 2000 in Slate Magazine. I had read it before, but to hear it again was deeply powerful in a new way, not least due to our being in the YDS chapel. The poem also reminded me of an anecdote I have shared often with others. When I first saw and learned about Serrano's "Piss Christ," I assumed without a second thought that he was a Christian, and the work of art was a deeply faithful reflection on the mystery of the incarnation. People had to clue me in after the fact that the work was considered "outrageous" and "blasphemous" by the general Christian community upon its arrival, and caused all sorts of public outcry.

Fortunately, even as my naivete about popular sentiment can know no bounds, I find solace in the fact that Hudgins gets it, too. As we prepare for the unaccountable miracle of Bethlehem during the season of Advent -- as we wait for none but God to act -- let us be mindful of what Serrano and Hudgins will not let us forget: "if there was a Christ," then Christ, too, like us, was "born between the urine and the feces." If we affirm anything less of the incarnate one, we might as well be silent.

- - - - - - -

Piss Christ
Andres Serrano, 1987

By Andrew Hudgins

If we did not know it was cow's blood and urine,
if we did not know that Serrano had for weeks
hoarded his urine in a plastic vat,
if we did not know the cross was gimcrack plastic,
we would assume it was too beautiful.
We would assume it was the resurrection,
glory, Christ transformed to light by light
because the blood and urine burn like a halo,
and light, as always, light makes it beautiful.

We are born between the urine and the feces,
Augustine says, and so was Christ, if there was a Christ,
skidding into this world as we do
on a tide of blood and urine. Blood, feces, urine—
what the fallen world is made of, and what we make.
He peed, ejaculated, shat, wept, bled—
bled under Pontius Pilate, and I assume
the mutilated god, the criminal,
humiliated god, voided himself
on the cross and the blood and urine smeared his legs
and he ascended bodily unto heaven,
and on the third day he rose into glory, which
is what we see here, the Piss Christ in glowing blood:
the whole irreducible point of the faith,
God thrown in human waste, submerged and shining.

We have grown used to beauty without horror.

We have grown used to useless beauty.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Read: (Film Critic) Charles Taylor on "The Problem with Film Criticism"

Charles Taylor, New York film critic (and not eminent philosopher), has written a sterling piece in Dissent Magazine entitled, "The Problem With Film Criticism." Go read the whole thing, but here's a teaser:
The same progressives who bemoan the way Fox News has polarized political discourse in America, masquerading as news while never troubling its followers with anything that would disturb its most cherished and untested convictions, happily turn to the satellite radio station of their preferred genre or subgenre of music or seek out the support group or message board that fits their demographic, the political site that skews their way. Entering the realm of the other seems done solely to express rage.

The rigorous division of websites into narrow interests, the attempts of Amazon and Netflix to steer your next purchase based on what you’ve already bought, the ability of Web users to never encounter anything outside of their established political or cultural preferences, and the way technology enables advertisers to identify each potential market and direct advertising to it, all represent the triumph of cultural segregation that is the negation of democracy. It’s the reassurance of never having to face anyone different from ourselves.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Noting the Additions and Replacements in the New Second Edition of the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics

I was both excited and dismayed to notice at AAR that a second edition of The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics (edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells) has been published. (Excitement at potential new or edited material; dismay because I already shelled out money for the first one!) This may be old news to some, but I had no idea, so I was especially surprised when I realized not only that new chapters have been added, but also that some have been removed and replaced by new versions by different authors. Since I haven't seen this sort of comparison anywhere else, I thought I would make note of it if anyone else is interested.

Excised chapters from the first edition

Part V: Re-Enacting the Story
27. Breaking Bread: Peace and War (Gerald W. Schlabach)
28. Receiving Communion: Euthanasia, Suicide, and Letting Die (Carol Bailey Stoneking)
32. Being Thankful: Parenting the Mentally Disabled (Hans S. Reinders)
New chapters in the second edition (whether in addition or replacement)

Part II: Meeting God and One Another
11. Praise: The Prophetic Public Presence of the Mentally Disabled (Brian Brock)
Part IV: Being Embodied
20. Interceding: Standing, Kneeling, and Gender (Lauren F. Winner)
21. Being Baptized: Race (Willie Jennings)
25. Sharing Peace: Class, Hierarchy, and Christian Social Order (Luke Bretherton)
Part V: Re-Enacting the Story
31. Breaking Bread: Peace and War (Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells)
32. Receiving Communion: Euthanasia, Suicide, and Letting Die (Kathryn Greene-McCreight)
Part VI: Being Commissioned
40. The Virtue of the Liturgy (Jennifer Herdt)
The additions all look wonderful, of course. The only question is why the three excised chapters were replaced by newly written ones by different authors. Assuming the best (i.e., not weird academic politics, but rather reasons of mutual agreement or subpar quality or lack of fittingness or whatever), at the very least it should make for useful and interesting comparison.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: John Mason Neale (Advent #1)

On this the first Sunday of Advent -- worshiping, as we are, for the first time with a strongly liturgical church -- my wife and I . . . slept in. After criss-crossing the last 10 days from New Haven to San Francisco, then on to Texas and Mississippi for Thanksgiving before returning late last night to Connecticut, our bodies were exhausted enough, and our internal clocks disordered enough, that we missed the alarm. Oh well.

In any event, it's still time to celebrate. Each Advent season I usually try to share a hymn or a poem that is thematically fitting, and so I thought I would begin this year's with one everybody knows and sings. Blessings in this (all too often) hectic but happy time of the year.

- - - - - - -

O Come O Come Emmanuel

Translated from the Latin by John Mason Neale

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o'er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
In ancient times did'st give the Law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

It's Business Time: AAR/SBL Thread

This is the weekend when hundreds upon hundreds of contentious (not to say sententious) scholars of religion, theology, and the Bible descend upon some unsuspecting city's hotel district with all the force of a shy, swag-dangling hurricane. I'll be there (neither interviewing for a job nor glad-handing for PhD admissions: that happy golden mean of doctoral studies), so I thought I'd let this be an open thread for anybody who'll be there or presenting.

Either way, see you there! San Francisco's not a bad place to spend a few days in mid-November.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Alena Synková

A friend of ours performed with the Chamber Chorus of the Yale Camerata this afternoon, and the very last piece was an adaptation of a deeply powerful poem. Written by a 14-year old deported from Prague to Terezin in 1942 -- she survived and eventually returned home -- its simple, affecting words take on added resonance given the young girl's experiences.

What hopefulness against what surely seemed so hopeless. May it bless you as it did me.

- - - - - - -

Before Too Long

By Alena Synková

I'd like to go away alone
Where there are other, nicer people,
Somewhere into the far unknown,
There, where no one kills another.

Maybe more of us,
A thousand strong,
Will reach this goal
Before too long.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Coining a Neologism: Pneumaterialism

A couple nights ago a colleague asked a question concerning "the new materialism," but I misheard him and thought he said "pneumaterialism." By happy accident, however, isn't this a wonderful theological term? I recall Nicholas Lash talking somewhere -- much more eloquently, of course -- about "Spirit" not being opposed to "matter," but rather death. For Spirit is in fact the life of all matter, the animating force, principle, energy, Person behind and beneath and within all that lives, all creaturely material existence everywhere at all times.

In this sense, then, we might say that "pneumaterialism" names the theological conviction and rule that pneuma contrasts not with matter, but death. In fact, matter that is not pneumatized is no matter at all, for it has no life, no connection to the living God who is Spirit.

The term could also serve to remind us that the rule goes both ways: materiality is not bad, is not "merely" itself but as it were wistfully disconsolate about not being the "better" stuff, namely insubstantial, immutable, incorruptible spirit. The cosmos as God's creature is matter all the way down, and just so good. At exactly the same time, it is not independent of the Creator, divorced from God because not God, but rather (in Hopkins' words) is "charged with the grandeur" of the Spirit's enlivening power.

In short: it is -- because all that is, is -- pneumatic matter.

And now we'll never forget, thanks to the brilliant shorthand: pneumaterialism.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Ben Knox Miller

The Low Anthem has been one of the more pleasant musical surprises of the last few years, a band gentle or abrasive depending on the song, but always thoughtful in its lyrics and themes. The following is the first track off their 2008 album Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, which you can listen to here and (thus) follow along if you like. As it happens, I wrote about OMGCD as one of my favorite albums of the year back in 2009:
The album as a whole is equal to its beginning, an energetic mix of acoustic harmonies and electric hooks. But the lyrics are the biggest draw, evocatively interlocking -- as the album's title suggests -- God and world in an intimate dance. Consistent water imagery overlays the music with the sense of a threatened narrative, a worldview under siege, waters rising but somehow stayed. Time and life "float above the storm," and "them ghosts who write history books" look back at the chaos and pen the songs that tell the story of a world that keeps marching along. The Low Anthem's music and words themselves become the means through which that chaos comes to order.
Sounds like some legit music criticism to me. And yes, I did just quote myself from a previous blog post. My blogging credentials are now complete.

(Note: The song may be co-written by fellow T.L.A. co-founder Jeff Prystowsky. I don't think it is, but just in case: now you know.)

- - - - - - -

Charlie Darwin

Ben Knox Miller (of The Low Anthem)

Set the sails: I feel the winds a-stirring
Towards the bright horizon, set the way
Cast your reckless dreams upon our Mayflower
A haven from the world and her decay

Who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin?
Fighting for a system built to fail
Spooning water from the broken vessels
As far as I can see there is no land

Oh my God, the water’s all around us
Oh my God -- it’s all around

Who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin?
Lords of war just profit from decay
And trade their children’s promise for the jingle
The way we trade our hard-earned time for pay

Oh my God, the water’s cold and shapeless
Oh my God -- it’s all around

Oh my God, life is cold and formless
Oh my God -- it’s all around

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Who Forgot to Tell Me That Jenson Has a New Book Out?

Ben Myers, that's who. Or maybe the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. (Is there some kind of online Jenson fan club we can bookmark for all new RWJ news?) In any case, it's called Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse, apparently in the same style (and by the same publisher) as his A Large Catechism from 1991. Looking forward to a quick and provocative and no doubt wry read.

(While you're at it -- "it" being following links from here, where no actual content to read can be found -- go check out this piece about Jürgen Moltmann visiting Candler School of Theology in Atlanta and, in the process, speaking at the graduation ceremony for the women's prison seminary program there.)

(P.S. My stylistic preference for blog post titles with every word capitalized, like the title of a chapter, article, or book, comes out oddly in a post like this one, doesn't it? In my liberal gobs of free time, I'll have to give that some serious thought.)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Franz Wright (V)

Sometimes it likely appears as if I don't read any poets except Wendell Berry, Mary Karr, R. S. Thomas, and Franz Wright -- but as I'd rather share something rather than nothing, and this poem struck me this week in a re-reading of Wright's Earlier Poems, this is what you get.

The following is from Wright's 1989 collection Entry in an Unknown Hand. Enjoy.

- - - - - - -

North Country Entries

By Franz Wright

Do you still know these early leaves, trans-
lucent, shining, spreading on their branches
like green flames?

And the hair-raising stars flowing over the
ridge late at night.

No one home in the house by itself on the
pine-hidden road,

or the 4-story barn up the road, leaning on
its hill.

The two horses who've opened the gate to their
field, old, wandering around on the lawn.

The sky becoming ominous.

Which is more awful, a sentient or endlessly
presenceless sky?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Kathryn Tanner on the Trinitarian Shape of Christian Service to God's Mission for the World

"It is as workers of the Father's will in the world that we go out or descend from the Father empowered by the Spirit in Christ's own image. The Spirit that is to sanctify us, make us holy as Christ is, is a commissioning Spirit, empowering us to participate in Christ's own mission of loving service to the world. 'As the Father has sent me, so I send you . . . Receive the Holy Spirit' (John 20:21-2). Receiving from the Father the gifts of Spirit-filled Sonship in unity with Christ, we are to do as he did when sent out from the Father.

"The Christian experience of service to God's mission for the world in this way assumes a properly trinitarian shape. 'The formula of the Christian life is seeking, finding, and doing the Father's will in the Father's world with the companionship of the Son by the guidance and strength of the Holy Spirit' [Leonard Hodgson]. More specifically, service takes the form of trinitarian descent: from the Father to become the image of the Son in the world by way of the power of the Spirit, or from the Father to live a Spirit-filled live with Christ in his mission for the world. Those are two ways of saying the same thing.

"Son and Spirit are sent out to us in order to enable our return to the Father. But returned to the Father we are sent out with Son and Spirit again to do the Father's work of service to the world. The return brings with it another going out because in returning we are incorporated into the dynamic trinitarian outflow of God's own life for the world.

"Descent could be understood as service to the world that follows the ascent of service to God. There would then be two sequential movements here in different directions, distinguished by their respective goals or objects: a movement toward God in worship or toward the world in service to it. Worship itself models the relationship between the two. At the end of worship comes the benediction and we are then sent out like Christ into the world to do the Father's business in the power of the Spirit.

"Just as they did in the life of the trinity itself, however, the two movements should properly coincide. Worship—explicitly God-directed action—is an essential dimension of the task we are given for the world's sake. And in serving the world we turn ourselves to God, in service to the God who loves it. The whole of our lives, inclusive of both worship of God and service to others, becomes in this way an offering to God, a form of God-directed service (see Romans 12:1). The two coincide for this reason in Christ's own human life. Christ is both worshipper and worker of the Father. Both his prayers and his life's work are offered by him to the Father; and they both come back from the Father to him, in the power of the Spirit transformed—completed, perfected in the end."

—Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 205-206

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Links: Thinking Through Religious Critique in America

Doctoral life comes as advertised: time does not merely evaporate, it is consumed, stolen before it even seems to appear. Thus the serious lack of substantive content around these parts lately.

And for the immediate future, as I only have a few worthwhile links to pass along at the moment. I've been reflecting on the hubbub surrounding the question of Mitt Romney's being a Mormon and running for national office, prompted recently by a conservative Dallas politicopastor publicly labeling the Church of Latter Day Saints a "cult." (And so, of course, unfit for the Presidency -- because here in these United States, Christians only allowed on top!)

Three bits worth reading in this case. First, William Saletan's article on Slate claiming that anti-Mormonism is today's acceptable prejudice, akin to (in the past) racism and heterosexism. ("Overblown" and "uncomprehending" are two words that come to mind.) Second, Christopher Hitchens' article on Slate a week later on the (supposed) evils of Mormonism, and (so implicitly as well as explicitly) on the normative openness of inter- and extra-religious critique in any public situation, and especially in a political one such as this. Third and finally, Adam Kotsko's impassioned post on the whole question of inter-religious critique in America and the ways in which (the religion of) secularism disallows it in principle.

Good stuff all around, and certainly better (or at least more) reading than you'll find here these days. Enjoy.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Steven Delopoulos

I was surprised to realize that I haven't yet shared anything from Steven Delopoulos, one of my favorite contemporary singer-songwriters. Delopoulos came onto the scene in the late 90s as the front man for Burlap to Cashmere, a wildly talented motley crew that offered an energetic mashup of acoustic guitars, mountainous harmonies, and relentless drumming. Unfortunately, they broke up after just one album, Anybody Out There?, which led Delopoulos to the solo gig for nearly a decade (producing two albums himself in the process: Me Died Blue and Straightjacket). The band has gotten back together, however, and released a self-titled album just this year.

Delopoulos's lyrics are not the most conducive to poetry, as the form they take in the rhythm and cadences of his guitar-voice combo is essential to their odd beauty. However, the lyrics below, taken from my favorite song off the new album, are complete enough in themselves to offer a taste; do check out the song, though, if you like.

(Pre-final note: I forgot that I wrote up a post for 80 Minutes For Life about Delopoulos a couple years ago -- worth checking out, especially if you'd like an introduction to his best songs.

And a final note: Apparently the song's title and chorus refrain -- "I see the other country" -- is taken from the last words spoken by a dying family member of Delopoulos's. Opens up the song quite a bit more, I think.)

The Other Country

By Steven Delopoulos

Your eyes see the shining city
Your love heals the poisoned mind
When the journey ends
There’s a new beginning
When the risen man
Heals the weight of time

I can feel it over the line . . .

I see the other country
I see the other side
Do not be afraid of this earthly city
Do not be afraid when the pharaoh's nigh

Draw near, the lamb's awaiting
Where the river runs through, the skies align
From that painting of a ship
We have all been chosen
To the painter's creation
In his dream design

I can feel it over the line . . .

I see the other country
I see the other side
Do not be afraid of this earthly city
Do not be afraid when the pharaoh's nigh

When I was a child, I walked like a child
But now I’m a soldier
Like the bride and groom I will be married

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
Even though I sink through the ocean
You will rescue me

I am standing in the fire, but I can hear the choir singing
I was a blind man stumbling
But now I see

I was blind, blind, blind, blind
But now I see

I was blind, blind, blind, blind
But now I see

Friday, October 14, 2011

An Appeal to End the Death Penalty: Signed by Christian Theologians and Ethicists in the U.S.

There is a new petition online drafted by George Hunsinger and Steffen Lösel, and signed by dozens of the most prominent Christians theologians and ethicists in the U.S., which calls for the end of the death penalty in America in the name of Jesus. It's clear, to the point, and correct. Go join Stanley Hauerwas, Cornel West, Serene Jones, James Cone, Nicholas Wolterstorff, J. Kameron Carter, Carol Newsom, Mark Taylor, Ian McFarland, et al -- and sign it:
We believe that the execution of Troy Davis on September 21, 2011 was a grievous wrong.

We reject the grotesque idea that mere "reasons of state" could ever be more important in death penalty cases than the accuracy of its verdicts.

Powerful and mounting doubts about the accuracy of the verdict against Troy Davis led many observers -- including Amnesty International, the European Union, a UN Special Rapporteur, a former FBI director, a former U.S. president, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Pope Benedict XVI -- to call for a stay of execution. The decision not to grant clemency despite worldwide protests is a terrible stain on our country.

We oppose the death penalty for both principled and pragmatic reasons. In practice death penalty cases have been riddled with misdeeds like prosecutorial misconduct, police coercion of witnesses, misidentification of suspects, and not least racial prejudice -- all of which seem to have played an appalling role in the Davis case, as they have in so many others.

More fundamentally, as Christians, we would call upon our churches and our nation to heed the example of Jesus.

• Jesus rejected the law of retaliation ("an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth") commanding us instead to treat anyone who may have wronged us with a measure of dignity and compassion.

• He intervened to prevent capital punishment when he challenged those who would put to death a woman accused of wrongdoing: "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."

• Above all, he taught the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

• The One who forgave his enemies while dying for their sins on the cross -- "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do" -- is the One who shows us the way.

• Finally, Christians worship a Savior who died by capital punishment. That puts them at odds with any who think capital punishment is a necessity (for the state).

Those who adopted the slogan "I am Troy Davis" were exactly right. Someone we care about might one day be sentenced to death on the testimony of eyewitnesses who later recanted.

We call for an immediate end to the death penalty in the United States, we ally ourselves with all those who work toward this long overdue goal, and we challenge our churches and church leaders to join in this public witness.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Read: Andrew Krinks on Social Movements, Vulnerability, and Solidarity with the Marginalized

My friend Andrew Krinks, a second-year MTS student at Vanderbilt and all-around superman writer-cum-activist in Nashville, has written a wonderful piece for Vanderbilt Magazine. In it he tells the story of his journey over the last few years with injustice, institutional power, homelessness, and vulnerable solidarity, as only a poet-theologian can. Here's a snippet, but go read the full thing:
A friend once said that there are at least two kinds of social movements in the world: the kind you sit down and start from scratch, and the kind that comes like a river to sweep you away. I found myself advocating for Nashville’s homeless community as a 20-year-old college student not because I possessed any sort of unique virtue, but because, faced with the reality of thousands of people spending night after night without shelter in my own backyard—people who, as I was beginning to understand, bore the very image of God in the lines of their faces—I had no other option.

Part willing, part eager and perhaps part foolish, I let the river guide me, and before I could think twice, I was standing with more than 100 other students and faculty before our city’s seat of power trying, as best I knew how at the time, to proclaim some fragment of good news to those who bear the burden of homelessness in our city.

Four years later I am still trying to echo, as concretely as possible, the words that Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed to the crowd in his inaugural sermon: good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. Indeed, I will only ever be trying to echo and embody this proclamation. I am, as I have come to understand it, a laborer in a vineyard not my own. Grand outcomes and solutions are good and fine, but they’ll only ever matter if I’m willing to get my hands dirty.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: R. S. Thomas (V)

The fourth and final poem from R. S. Thomas for 2011. (Though it should be clear by now that we could just keep going -- the only thing stopping us being copyright law.) Enjoy.

- - - - - - -


By R. S. Thomas

Yeats said that. Young
I delighted in it:
there was time enough.

Fingers burned, heart
seared, a bad taste
in the mouth, I read him

again, but without trust
any more. What counsel
has the pen's rhetoric

to impart? Break mirrors, stare
ghosts in the face, try
walking without crutches

at the grave's edge? Now
in the small hours
of belief the one eloquence

to master is that
of the bowed head, the bent
knee, waiting, as at the end

of a hard winter
for one flower to open
on the mind's tree of thorns.

Friday, October 7, 2011

A Clarifying Note for Committed Essentialists Regarding Discussions About Gender and Identity

Not a single person or group involved in discussions about sex, gender, and identity contests the incontestable fact that there is both a biological and a social difference between women and men. The only question is whether, and to what extent, the former ought to determine the latter. Or to put it differently: Given that the former does shape and determine the latter in various ways, and has in all societies everywhere throughout history, should it in a normative way -- today, in our society -- or are there factors to consider related to context, time, place, polity, religion, etc.? And to whatever extent that it (possibly) should, ought it to bracket or peremptorily define societal role, personal value, and/or social opportunity?

Even the most committed of essentialists cannot rule out these questions, if for no other reason than the equally incontestable fact that modern patriarchalists and complementarians allow and even encourage certain social roles, forms of life, and cultural participation (for both women and men) that were considered unthinkable just a century ago. The discussion, therefore, is a legitimate one, and has not been answered once and for all time, and is, so to speak, discursively up for grabs.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Must Read: Richard Beck on Lady Gaga, Little Monsters, Gays, and the Church

Go check out Richard Beck's extraordinary post from this past weekend, ostensibly about Lady Gaga, but in truth about hospitality, the socially and sexually marginalized, and the prophetic call of the church.

Seriously, go read it now.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Jeff Tweedy (II)

This past week was, if you did not know, Wilco Week -- at least in the East household -- as Tuesday heralded the release of the great Chicago band's tenth studio album (eighth if you discount the Mermaid Avenue sessions with Billy Bragg -- which you should not), The Whole Love. As expected, it's excellent.

Ask yourself this question: Apart from Radiohead, is there another band that's been around longer than 15 years which both has sustained a stable output of quality (and diverse!) music across that time and continues to do so? I'm all ears.

In any case, Jeff Tweedy isn't often theological, but every once in a while he deigns to be, and especially on 2004's A Ghost is Born. (For his most explicit, see my post from a couple years ago on the song "Theologians." According to Tweedy, we don't know nothin' about his soul.) Here's a bit of that album's melancholy dissonance in lyrical form for your Wilco-loving pleasure on a restful October Sunday.

- - - - - - -

Hell is Chrome

By Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco)

When the devil came
He was not red
He was chrome, and he said:

"Come . . . with me . . ."

You must go
So I went
Where everything was clean
So precise and towering

I was welcomed
With open arms
I received so much help in every way
I felt . . . no fear . . .
I felt . . . no fear . . .

The air was crisp
Like sunny late winter days
A springtime yawning high in the haze

And I felt like I belonged

"Come with me . . ."

"Come with me . . ."

"Come with me . . ."

"Come with me . . ."

Friday, September 30, 2011

Kosuke Koyama on Subordinating Great Theological Thoughts to the Needs of the Farmers

Re-posting a wonderful quote from my brother Garrett's blog:

“I decided to subordinate great theological thoughts, like those of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth, to the intellectual and spiritual needs of the farmers. I decided that the greatness of theological works is to be judged by the extent and quality of the service they can render to the farmers to whom I am sent. I also decided that I have not really understood Summa Theologiae and Church Dogmatics until I am able to use them for the benefit of the farmers. My theology in northern Thailand must begin with the need of the farmers and not with the great thoughts developed in Summa Theologiae and Church Dogmatics. . . . The reason is simple: God has called me to work here in northern Thailand, not in Italy or Switzerland. And I am working with neither a Thomas Aquinas nor a Karl Barth. . . . The theology for northern Thailand begins and grows in northern Thailand, and nowhere else.”

-Kosuke Koyama, Water Buffalo Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books: 1999 [1974]), xvi

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Wondering What Will Campbell Would Say About Last Night's Two Executions

Last night two men were executed. You've probably heard of the first, Troy Davis, a man whose guilt has become more and more questionable every year since his conviction in 1989. The other is a man you may know less about: white supremacist Lawrence Brewer, who by all accounts is absolutely guilty of brutally murdering a black man in 1998 by dragging him from the back of his truck.

The publicity that the sentencing and the (for so long pending, for so long prolonged) execution of Davis garnered across the nation as well as internationally is -- despite its tragic failure -- something to be celebrated. A profound injustice was planned, coordinated, and enacted in spite of the evidence and massive public outcry, and to have highlighted this as flagrantly and prophetically as possible is nothing but good news for advocates of the end of the death penalty.

But in light of the odd, awful coincidence of the execution of both these men on the same night, and in such politically and socially inverse situations (clearly guilty racist murderer, questionably convicted African American), an enormous question arises for anyone concerned with the question of the justice of capital punishment.

Are we willing to fight for a world in which both Troy Davis and Lawrence Brewer would still be alive today?

That is a hard question to answer. And we should resist the temptation to be rash in answering "radically," as if we don't have, deep inside us, a vengeful satisfaction in the death of a white supremacist. I know I do. Troy Davis's case is so clearly and profoundly a matter of injustice that it overwhelms me that people had to fight for him at all -- and that they lost!

But Lawrence Brewer? I don't know how to "fight" for him. I don't know if I could.

So I'm wondering, today, what Will Campbell would say about all this. Campbell is that extraordinary apocalyptic minister of the gospel of radical reconciliation, present in solidarity with oppressed blacks in the 50s and 60s and on, and somehow equally present in solidarity with white racists and killers. Not, mind you, in solidarity with their bigotry or actions, but with them as human beings for whom Christ died, whose sins are not too great for the work and love of the God of the cross.

What would Campbell have us say about last night's executions? Some have made a start in that direction. For myself, the question is shattering; it reduces me to ungrasping, unknowing prayer -- prayer, in this case, to the God whose own human life was lived in solidarity with such men, even to the point of death. To the point, that is, of being executed himself at the hands of an unjust state.

Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Politics All the Way Down: On Rick Perry's "The Response"

In early August, a friend of mine sent a message out to a dozen or so people he trusted to help him in a process of discernment. He lives in Houston and was drawn to attend (with his family) Ricky Perry's "The Response." However, he had heard vitriolic critiques leveled at the event, going so far as to call it a heretical event. He was honestly seeking to discern whether attending would be a wise decision, feeling as he did (and does) the moral and spiritual and political morass in which the nation finds itself today. Others replied, more or less unanimously in support of going -- even if not personally enthusiastic about it -- while I offered a different perspective. I thought it would be worthwhile to share it here, much after the fact, for reflection. (A bit of an epilogue is attached to the end.)

- - - - - - -

Thanks so much for your thoughtful message. As you might imagine, I have lots of thoughts, so I'll try to organize them in some kind of coherent way.

1. Regarding the event as "heresy," I can't imagine on what grounds someone would make that claim. And I'm not sure if the source (I couldn't find it on Google) is "left wing" (and so not liking this "right wing" event) or "super right wing" (and so not liking something that's to the so-called "left" of it). Either way, heresy is a big accusation, and doesn't just mean "bad idea," but is a categorical claim that some belief or practice stands in direct opposition to the gospel, such that a Christian could not share in it without thereby undoing their own Christian identity. "The Response" is something worth critically thinking about, but it's hard to imagine finding grounds to label it heresy, at least in my book.

2. Having said that, I do have real and serious concerns about the event, more or less all of which are in contrast to the responses I saw from others who responded to your message. Let's see if I can get them in a readable order...

a. I appreciate and admire your desire to get "beyond" politics, or to set politics aside, but I don't think that's possible in this situation. This event is inherently political: organized and led by the governor of Texas, bathed in American colors/language/etc., "by" and "for" Americans concerned about the status of their nation. I can't imagine anything more political!

b. This is more of an aside, but I am also working out of the assumption that there can finally be no clear line between "spiritual" and "political." By that I don't mean that "the spiritual" always picks a side in governmental policy -- there is always ambiguity and disagreement there -- but rather that "the political" names the thousandfold perspectives and practices that make for "living our life together," for ordering our shared life in the neighborhood, municipality, town, city, state, region, nation. So that even something as simple as worshiping Jesus as Lord is a political act, because, even though it seems normal or "only" spiritual, it says to the rulers and authorities that they aren't ultimately in charge, and that we serve a different master -- which means that they can't be sure of our obedience or loyalty, which in turn is an enormous political fact.

c. Returning to "The Response" (TR for short): my concern is that this event is political in a bad way. First, because it is spearheaded and advertised by the sitting governor of Texas, a profoundly conservative Republican politician who -- perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not -- is a potential presidential candidate. That fact alone "colors" TR in a certain way that, in my opinion, marks it out as a certain kind of political territory; and that kind of political alignment quickly becomes a popular alignment between "that party" and "those Christians," whether true or not, since it is a public event and so a matter of public perception. And that, to me, seems not to be a good thing.

d. Second, apart from the political partisanship in play, there is an extraordinary blurring of the lines between "Christian" and "American" (or "church" and "nation") here that makes me extremely uncomfortable. Notice the video ad by Perry: what is he standing in between? A cross and a communion table? Nope: an American flag and a Texas flag. Note also the confusion of "we" language in his address and in the longer video accompaniment: Who exactly is the "we"? Is it "we Christians," the "we" of the church? Or is it "we Americans," the "we" of the nation? The constant overlap seems to imply that "we" names a single subject, when there are always two; moreover, it suggests that the "dominant" identity is American, to which "Christian" is subordinate.

In other words, it is not the church that is gathering in Houston to pray for the country in which it happens to reside, but rather the nation as such, praying out of a fierce loyalty and overriding patriotism and identity-giving love for the country. But can Christians "be" and "feel" that way, when they know that America is merely one nation among others, a mere grain of sand or blade of grass before God, to be raised up and brought down at whatever point in history? "America" names something temporal and non-lasting, and so something which cannot ground our fundamental identity: nothing more (but also nothing less) than the concrete neighbors to whom we have been sent in mission, to witness to God's kingdom -- which mission and kingdom give us our true identity.

e. I also have concerns about something that seems to be less on the surface, but no less a part of TR. It is this subtle theme of "bad things happening to us recently," and that this is related somehow to "we" (again, as a nation) not being in proper relation to God. I have encountered this before, and while I realize it means well, it strikes me as somewhat of a bizarre notion. The implication seems to be that if "we" (Americans) get "back" (was there some previous golden age?) into a proper relationship to God, as a nation, then prosperity, or a lack of problems, or a lack of natural disasters, or other bad things will stop happening to us. Which then implies that those things are God's punishment of "us" for not being who "we" need to be.

To be honest, I can't make heads or tails of this, except as straightforward prosperity gospel. By contrast, the church-we, disciples of Christ, know that suffering and hardship and difficulty are not consequences of disobedience, but something we should expect just as much if not more so when we are faithful, as well as what happens "to the just and the unjust alike"! So how could we interpret "bad things happening" in themselves as God's judgment on us or punishment of us?

f. Besides what would it even look like for the nation as a whole to "get back on track"? Sometimes there is this notion that there was a golden age in the past when America was "more" Christian or more "faithful" -- but that is 100% false. It certainly wasn't in the first 90 years of horrific enslavement of black brothers and sisters, nor the following century of rampant abuse and exclusion and bigotry, alongside poverty, war, and mistreatment of women. (And this, no matter how many people were going to church or self-identified Christians.)

That leads us up to the last 50 years, which I doubt anyone would call an exemplary time of America's relationship to God. Hence my queasiness with these kinds of sentiment: they seem to posit a return to some kind of prior mythical "good" time, when there in fact was none; and they seem also, simultaneously, to suggest that if only we'd get our house in order, then bad stuff would stop happening. But unless we're willing to jump on the prosperity gospel train, I can't see endorsing that way of thinking.

f. Last two thoughts. First, regarding sincerity: I don't disagree at all with some others who replied to your message, talking about certain people organizing and involving themselves with TR, that they are sincere and well-meaning and faithful believers who only want to submit themselves to God on behalf of a tired and struggling nation. Nor do any of my comments above have anything to do with your own desire to participate, insofar as you are coming from a place of serious and authentic desire to turn to God, before anything else, for comfort and deliverance in times that are truly challenging for us and our neighbors and the nation in which we find ourselves.

My thoughts and comments have to do with the event itself, with what it "is" and "stands for," and with the implicit philosophy or worldview that seems to be driving it. My only critique of the claim to sincerity is the following: I don't think sincerity of heart is the only thing to evaluate in situations like this. People can be well-meaning and have good character and still be wrong -- or, at the very least, they can go about what they want to achieve in a less-than-wise way. That's not an indictment of the men and women themselves, only an indication of how ridiculously complex all this is.

g. Finally, I should be clear that I think many of the stated purposes and objectives of TR are worthwhile things I agree with: seeking God's leading; repenting of injustice; prayer for wisdom and guidance; communal expressions of worship and self-forgetfulness; etc. It would be interesting to imagine what faithful forms of these and other practices might be on the part of the church, and/or how those might intersect with something like a national (non-religious/non-Christian/inter-faith) expression of repentance/turning/changing/justice-seeking, if at all. My interpretation of "The Response" is simply that I don't think it succeeds on either front, but rather is a self-damaging blend of the two.

- - - - - - -

My friend ended up going, and afterwards wrote about how powerful and meaningful an experience it was. Other than what he perceived to be a couple minor exceptions, the event seemed to be apolitical, God-focused, and uplifting -- with Perry largely sidelined. Moreover, he said that the makeup of the attendees was as ethnically and socioeconomically diverse as anything he'd ever participated in, perhaps reflecting the political diversity present, too. In the subsequent weeks, however, I noted the essays and articles piling up in critique of the event, seemingly confirming my fears about it. I sent some along to him; he politely but firmly demurred, and again defended himself and the event; and so I replied with my concluding thoughts below.

- - - - - - -

Thanks for your thoughtful reply. A brief reply of my own:

To some extent, it seems like this comes down to a question prior to the one about whether the event was authentic and God-glorifying "on the inside." That question is: How should Christians, particularly in America, evaluate and discern their participation in particular events whose image presented to society is likely to communicate something negative -- especially if what is communicated does not "match" what actually occurs within the event itself?

My open bias and inclination is always suspicion, particularly of events bound up with governmental politics. Hence, whether it was actually the case -- and from your report, which I of course trust, it sounds like (at least in some respects) it definitively was not the case -- the broad cultural image cast around the country of "The Response" was a kind of "warm-up with the evangelicals" for Perry as a lead-up to his announcement to run for President. And, to be honest, that remains my cynical (but sincere) reading.

Thus, the question now becomes: If all that is true, can the event have been as authentic and God-present as it seemed to you?

And I want to make clear that I think the answer to that second question can still be "Yes" even if the motivations and political machinations behind the scenes were as cynical as I suspect (or, better, fear).

In the end, who knows? I'm glad it was a good experience, and so cross-culturally edifying. I retain my doubts about Perry, even as I'm delighted to hear that he wasn't exactly center stage. In any case, glad to have the dialogue.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: R. S. Thomas (IV)

Another -- perhaps final, perhaps not -- R. S. Thomas poem to continue my recent string of them. An alternative title, as you'll see by the end, might be "On Prayer." Whole theologies could be woven out of this extraordinary vision of Thomas's. So I'll leave you to it.

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By R. S. Thomas

Never known as anything
but an absence, I dare not name him
as God. Yet the adjustments
are made. There is an unseen
power, whose sphere is the cell
and the electron. We never catch
him at work, but can only say,
coming suddenly upon an amendment,
that here he has been. To demolish
a mountain you move it stone by stone
like the Japanese. To make a new coat
of an old, you add to it gradually
thread by thread, so such change
as occurs is more difficult to detect.

Patiently with invisible structures
he builds, and as patiently
we must pray, surrendering the ordering
of the ingredients to a wisdom that
is beyond our own. We must change the mood
to the passive. Let the deaf men
be helped; in the silence that has come
upon them, let some influence
work so that those closed porches
be opened once more. Let the bomb
swerve. Let the raised knife of the murderer
be somehow deflected. There are no
laws there other than the limits of
our understanding. Remembering rock
penetrated by glass-blade, corrected
by water, we must ask rather
for the transformation of the will
to evil, for more loving
mutations, for the better ventilating
of the atmosphere of the closed mind.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Martin Luther on "no other God than this incarnate and human God"

"[T]rue Christian theology . . . does not present God to us in His majesty, as Moses and other teachings do, but Christ born of the Virgin as our Mediator and High Priest. Therefore when we are embattled against the Law, sin, and death in the presence of God, nothing is more dangerous than to stray into heaven with our idle speculations, there to investigate God in His incomprehensible power, wisdom, and majesty, to ask how He created the world and how He governs it. If you attempt to comprehend God this way and want to make atonement to Him apart from Christ the Mediator, making your works, fasts, cowl, and tonsure the mediation between Him and yourself, you will inevitably fall, as Lucifer did, and in horrible despair lose God and everything. For as in His own nature God is immense, incomprehensible, and infinite, so to man's nature He is intolerable. Therefore if you want to be safe and out of danger to your conscience and your salvation, put a check on your speculative spirit. Take hold of God as Scripture instructs you: 'Since, in wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.' Therefore begin where Christ began -- in the Virgin's womb, in the manger, and at His mother's breasts. For this purpose He came down, was born, lived among men, suffered, was crucified, and died, so that in every possible way He might present Himself to our sight. He wanted us to fix the gaze of our hearts upon Himself and thus to prevent us from clambering into heaven and speculating about the Divine Majesty.

"Therefore when you consider the doctrine of justification and wonder how or where or in what condition to find a God who justifies or accepts sinners, then you must know that there is no other God than this Man Jesus Christ. Take hold of Him; cling to Him with all your heart, and spurn all speculation about the Divine Majesty; for whoever investigates the majesty of God will be consumed by His glory. I know from experience what I am talking about. . . . Christ Himself says: 'I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father, but by Me.' Outside Christ, the Way, therefore, you will find no other way to the Father; you will find only wandering, not truth, but hypocrisy and lies, not life, but eternal death. Take note, therefore, in the doctrine of justification or grace that when we all must struggle with the Law, sin, death, and the devil, we must look at no other God than this incarnate and human God."

--Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians: Chapters 1-4, trans. Jaroslav Pelikan (Luther's Works Vol. 26; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963 [1535]), 29

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Wendell Berry for the Anniversay of 9/11

My intention was to post a Wendell Berry poem on the third anniversary of beginning this series, in the last week of August. As it happens, however, even though I've shared this particular poem before, these words are especially worth pondering today, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

What follows is the fifth in Berry's series of unnamed Sabbath poems written in 1995, found in A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997.

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Now you know the worst

By Wendell Berry

To my granddaughters who visited the Holocaust Museum on the day of the burial of Yitzhak Rabin

Now you know the worst
we humans have to know
about ourselves, and I am sorry,

for I know that you will be afraid.
To those of our bodies given
without pity to be burned, I know

there is no answer
but loving one another,
even our enemies, and this is hard.

But remember:
when a man of war becomes a man of peace,
he gives a light, divine

though it is also human.
When a man of peace is killed
by a man of war, he gives a light.

You do not have to walk in darkness.
If you will have the courage for love,
you may walk in light. It will be

the light of those who have suffered
for peace. It will be
your light.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Q&A With a Closeted Christian Universalist

In the recent hubbub surrounding Rob Bell's book -- to which I contributed my own (more meta) reflections back in March -- I got into a conversation with a friend who is an avowed, though closeted, universalist. My own mind remains unsettled, and in a double sense: I am unsure of what, ultimately, to think on the matter, and the question itself is a kind of destabilizing force in my attempts to answer it. That being the (perilous) situation, I sent my friend some questions for my own personal benefit; but it turned out I appreciated them so much that I thought (with permission) that I'd share them here.

My questions, obviously, are in bold; universalistic answers follow.

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Who is the final arbiter of the conviction that all will ultimately be saved? Is it, or can it be, more than than merely the individual believer?

Who is the final arbiter of any Christian conviction other than God? I am not sure we have a "final arbiter" for anything until the eschaton when God makes everything clear. In the present, individuals must make choices and discern what to trust and where to place their faith, in conversation with a variety of sources and relying on those sources to varying degrees.

Doesn't it seem at least somewhat compromising/sketchy that universalism would seem most compelling to "us," a notoriously relativistic and pluralistic generation/culture, plus one that knows almost no suffering, sectarianism, isolation, persecution, encounter with evil, etc? Sure, as a person of almost complete privilege, who has never had to suffer seriously, it "sounds good" to affirm universalism -- but then again, I would!

In a sense, yes. But, it is not like this is a new doctrine. Of course, it has always been the minority view and that definitely counts against it, but it is not like it was only thought up today. Also, there are universalist accounts that bend towards relativism, but not all of them. And it would make sense that it would become appealing in a pluralistic generation/culture, when people are regularly confronted with people of other faiths. It is remarkable that anyone post-Constantine could formulate a doctrine of universalism, considering almost everyone was a Christian, except for their enemies!

In regards to our being a generation that knows almost no suffering/persecution/encounter with evil/etc., I don't think that is necessarily fair. In fact, I think many are drawn to universalism in light of the Holocaust. At least for me, that makes it very attractive. How can I say that Nazi Christians are going to inherit eternal life with God, while the tortured and slaughtered Jews are going to eternal hell? I would say it is in light of the horrible suffering people in the 20th century witnessed and heard about that makes universalism attractive. I (we) want God to make things right for every single Jew that was deprived of their humanity in the Holocaust, and I desire the same for their persecutors.

Richard Beck's recent post resonates with me big time: either God chooses people's eternal destiny or people choose their own. So either God sends people to hell or people choose to go there. But if God does, that seems messed up. If people choose, then it seems really unjust that I get to spend eternal life with God, in large part because where I was born and to whom I was born, while someone else was born in a different place and to different parents. I want to uphold a level of responsibility for human choices, which is why I believe in a limited judgment, but eternal condemnation seems a little disproportionate.

In the opening monologue to the film Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck says something like, "In this neighborhood people don't fall through the cracks, they are born in the cracks and then fall through them." If that is true, then it seems like God's grace ought to ultimately redeem those people.

Don't most New Testament texts seem to imply what's usually called "dual destiny"? How ought we to read these texts?

Indeed. First, you should read Beck's series on this because he devotes an entire blog post to it. Second, I think the texts that bend towards universalism seem closer to the center of the gospel (Philippians 2). Third, I think we could probably make sense of many of those dual destiny texts in light of universalism, as limited judgments. Fourth, I think there are super-strong extra-biblical reasons for universalism that need to be taken quite seriously.

What is hell?

Isn't this a question for a dual destiny person, like yourself? For me, I think of hell like purgatory, a place of purification and purging in the "refiner's fire" of God's love. I don't think I am happy with the "absence of God" interpretation of hell, but instead I like to think about it as the full presence of God overshadowing the evil in people's lives and cleansing them of it.

What are we to do with a belief/conviction that we refuse to proclaim? In what way is universalism, then, good news? Is it? Or is it just a largely unspoken hope?

It seems to me that there ought to be lots of beliefs/convictions that you, as a professional theologian, should refuse to proclaim, except when questioned. In fact, I would argue that plenty of things I (we) believe may be true, are not necessarily healthy for public proclamation in the church. I don't plan on talking to my children about universalism until they are old enough to understand and conceptualize it in a theologically sophisticated way. Universalism is dangerous for the developmentally, theologically, or spiritually immature.

I do think it is appropriate to share the doctrine of universalism for those who inquire, especially when those outside the faith are inquiring and dual destiny is a stumbling block to faith.

While I think the critique that the urgency for missions "is taken away" is a weak one, isn't there something to the idea that those who are persecuted and martyred, who hold to the good confession until the end, do so with exactly the same "reward" (biblical language!) as their torturers/murderers? Though this might be the very scandal/radicality of the thing, at the very least it seems to cut out from under the power and motivation on the part of the sufferer for Christ.

I hear you on this, but I guess I am inclined to a purgatorial view of things here. The martyr will be ushered immediately into the loving presence of God and will experience this as sheer joy and delight. The torturers/murderers will face that same loving presence as pain and judgment.

(Here I would highly recommend Marilyn McCord Adams' Christ and Horrors. It is excellent, and would be a great place for dialogue. She makes some fascinating philosophical claims.)

One last thing: It seems like the normative pattern for martyrs should be Jesus and Stephen: "Forgive them for they no not know what they do," not satisfaction that their tormenters are going to eternal damnation.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Oliver O'Donovan on the Indeterminacy of Understanding Scripture

"The distance between the text and ourselves can never be, and should never be supposed to be, swallowed up by our understanding of it. Whatever it may be that I have concluded from reading the Scriptures, that conclusion must be open to fresh interrogation, since the Scriptures themselves will be its judge. If, after reading the Bible faithfully, I am confident enough to make some ringing declaration, this does not mean that my declaration is as good as contained within the Bible. In a faithful dogmatic formulation there is, of course, a proper authority. There are times and places where that authority allows for, or requires, a ringing declaration. Yet the question of whether the dogmatic formulation has in fact faithfully expressed the Scriptures' emphasis is always worth discussing, even if the outcome of the discussion is affirmative every time. The question 'What does the Bible mean, and how does it affect us?' can never be out of order in the church, as though the giving of well-founded answers in the past could make the whole question of merely antiquarian interest. We must not, then, in the supposed interest of a 'biblical' ethic, try to close down moral issues prescriptively, announcing that we already know what the Bible teaches and guarding against wrong answers by forbidding further examination. The church's leading institutions may, of course, properly resolve that it is inappropriate for them to invest further time and effort in study of a matter that may be considered closed for all practical purposes. But what the leading institutions may quite properly resolve not to undertake, the Spirit in the church may prompt other believers to undertake, for the word authority means, quite simply, that we have to go on looking back to this source if we are to keep on the right track.

"Why should we find this difficult to accept? The truth is that we resist admitting indeterminacy in our understanding of the text. Once such an admission is made, we fear, 'anything goes.' A host of false prophets will take advantage of our respectful distance; they will rush forward to wrest Scripture out of its plain sense, force it into authorizing what cannot be authorized. And of course in the short run, at least, this fear is likely to prove all too well grounded. False prophets are, and always will be, legion. We must simply expect to hear abominations and absurdities put forward in the confident claim that such are compatible with or authorized by Scripture. To this intense annoyance we, like generation of faithful believers before us, are called. The question is this: What sacrifice of our faith would we make if, to avoid the annoyance for ourselves and the disturbance for the church, we closed down on the reading and interpretation of Holy Scripture, declared that there was nothing to discuss? To our fears we have to put the question in return of whether the Spirit of the living God is a match for the perversity of humankind, whether Jesus' promise about the gates of hell being unable to prevail is seriously enough meant to be trusted."

--Oliver O'Donovan, "The Moral Authority of Scripture," in Scripture's Doctrine and Theology's Bible: How the New Testament Shapes Christian Dogmatics, ed. Markus Bockmuehl and Alan J. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 174-75

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My Fall 2011 Course Load

It is finally here: my first semester as a doctoral student in theology. Perhaps the feelings will wear off as quickly as the first class session (scheduled for tomorrow), but I'm something of a Pollyanna Susie Derkins at the moment: one great bundle of gratitude and excitement. As I have the habit of doing, I thought I'd share the courses I'm taking this semester, which are an especially intriguing cross-section of theology, religious studies, philosophy, and sociology. No doubt themes and quotes and questions from the following will find their way onto the blog in the coming months.

I should also note that the course descriptions below are taken from the professors' syllabi, and so are not in "my" voice but rather in theirs.

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Theology Doctoral Seminar (Kathryn Tanner)

This is the required seminar for all doctoral students in theology. In keeping with the usual agendas for this required seminar, this year’s course is designed (1) to familiarize doctoral students with a faculty member’s current research—specifically, her methodology, rationale for research, and conclusions—and (2) to offer a broad overview of the contemporary theological landscape on selected themes, issues, and approaches of importance to theology today. The course this year will involve a close reading of Kathryn Tanner's most recent book, Christ the Key. One chapter of the book will be assigned each session, with supplementary readings to include (a) major historical sources in theology that inform her constructive work; and (b) contemporary theologies treating the same issues in theological anthropology, Christology, pneumatology, nature and grace, trinitarian theology, and atonement theory.
  • Gustav Aulen, Christus Victor
  • Basil the Great, On the Human Condition (ed. Verna Harrison)
  • Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society
  • Henri de Lubac, Augustinianism and Modern Theology
  • Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians: Chapters 1-4
  • Tuomo Mannermaa, Christ Present in Faith
  • John Milbank, The Suspended Middle
  • Janet Soskice, The Kindness of God
  • Dumitru Staniloae, Theology and the Church
  • Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key
  • Michael Welker, God the Spirit
  • Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness
The Life and Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Denys Turner)

This course is intended for those who would like to explore the reasons both why Thomas is a great theologian and why he is a saint, and is particularly addressed to those who would not be entirely surprised to discover that the reasons for the one are much the same as the reasons for the other. It is not a survey course covering his theology as a whole. It is a course designed to get to the place in Thomas’s mind and soul where theology and prayer, Dominican poverty and Dominican preaching, university professor and pastor priest, intersect so as to result in not only his best known work of systematic theology, the Summa Theologiae, but also in his Reportatio on the Gospel of John, in many ways his theological masterpiece. Something is canonized in 1323, and it is not a book. Nor is it a martyr. Nor is it a great preacher. Just a rather fat and balding theologian. There is hope for us all.
  • Thomas Aquinas, Reportatio (Commentary on the Gospel of John)
  • Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (selections)
  • G. K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas
  • Herbert McCabe, God Matters
  • Josef Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas
  • Josef Pieper, Guide to Thomas Aquinas
  • Denys Turner, The Life and Thought of Thomas Aquinas (draft monograph)
Theories in the Study of Religion (Dale Martin)

This course offers an introduction designed for doctoral students in religious studies to modern theories of religion from mainly the 20th century. The course includes study of major figures in anthropological, social-scientific, historical, comparative, and theoretical approaches to the newly created discipline of the academic and secular study of religion, which led in the latter part of the 20th century to “religious studies” and the creation during the past 50 years of departments of religious studies in American universities. That development will be traced as we also explore major intellectual and philosophical issues raised by its history.
  • Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy
  • Judith Butler, Gender Trouble
  • David Chidester, Savage Systems
  • Jacques Derrida, Dissemination
  • Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger
  • Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life
  • Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish
  • Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures
  • Edward Said, Orientalism
  • Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion
Secularism: From the Enlightenment to the Present (Elli Stern)

Secular worldviews are said to have emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the result of an attempt to find a lowest common denominator between various warring Christian denominations. Recent political events and social developments have brought historians, political theorists, and anthropologists to reexamine the nature of and relationship between secular and religious (or more broadly “traditional”) worldviews. This course examines the way secularism has been constructed and also the way it has shaped how we understand groups and ideas identified as traditional or religious. Specifically, it will understand the way contemporary scholars define, conceptualize, and in some instances critique “secular” notions of time, space, knowledge and self.
  • Talal Assad, Formations of the Secular
  • Jose Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World
  • Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative
  • Marcel Grouchet, The Disenchantment of the World
  • Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere
  • Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past
  • Marc Lilla, The Stillborn God
  • John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration
  • Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue
  • Saba Mahmood, The Politics of Piety
  • Charles Taylor, A Secular Age
  • Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self
  • Claude Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century