Month: November 2009

a theologian’s business?

I know it’s a bit marketing-y, but I’m quite taken with the concept of ‘core business’ (which wikipedia tells me is all about helping an organisation express its “main” or “essential” activity).

So … what’s a theologian’s ‘core business’?

In his essay ‘Beginning with the Incarnation’ (On Christian Theology, p 86), Rowan Williams shares his answer: ‘It is not a theologian’s business first and foremost to defend this or that dogmatic formula, but to keep alive the impulse that animates such formulae — the need to keep the Church attentive to the judgement it faces, and the mission committed to it’.

I can appreciate that attempting to beat back all challengers against some cherished theological term or construct runs the risk of making too big a deal out of a relative insignificance. Or of drawing too tightly the lines of demarcation between ‘them’ and ‘us’. As John Milton once put it, it’s possible to be ‘a heretic in the truth’ — to cling to the theologically-correct form while surrendering the beating heart of what it’s supposed to protect.

But I do wonder about the wisdom of driving a wedge between dogmatic formulae and the impulse that animates them. How else do you get at the impulse apart from the formulae? Or, to put it the other way around, why does anyone bother formulating anything if it’s the impulse that really matters?

We should try to resist pitting form and content against one another — even if we need to distinguish between them in order to guard against the slide into lifeless ‘orthodoxy’.

Theologians — and I take it all pastors are called to be theologians (but that’s another story) — will inevitably have to clarify things. They’ll need to expound and defend old expressions of truth. But also to search out fresh ways of articulating it. And even occasionally to trim the Church’s theological vocabulary as the cultural freight loaded onto key terms (like ‘person’ or ‘freedom’ for example) makes their use more fraught.

And so I’m wondering if a theologian’s core business may be better conceived along the lines of translation. Would that work?

living in the victory?

Colin Gunton makes a comment that has captured my imagination (The Actuality of the Atonement, p 183):

The test of the church’s form of life … is not whether it merely preaches against contemporary idolatry and lies, but whether, first, its manner of proclamation truly reveals things for what they are, idolatrous perversions of God’s good creation; and, second, it develops a way of being in the world in which they are seen to be in the process of defeat.

Speaking the truth about contemporary idolatry and lies must involve more than a knee-jerk reactionary We Told You So kind of triumphalism.

For example, it’s not enough to simply point to the bankruptcy of the modern financial set-up in the wake of the GFC (like everyone else). We’ve got to be able to bear some sort of witness — however tentative and provisional — to God’s alternative. And that’s a lot more challenging. But what if we actually took this seriously? What would our preaching be like?

Likewise, becoming communities in which the victory God has won in Christ is actually being realised in anticipation of its final implementation is a big ask. It’ll need to take us far beyond being known simply for what we’re against.

How beautiful would it be if Sydney Anglican churches were known as places that love life — that go all out to see it flourish, to see new life welcomed or the end of life met with dignity and grace — rather than that simply institutions that stand against various forms of death (abortion, etc)? I know that many churches already are these kinds of places — or at least long to be. But can you get a sense of the possibility of becoming communities in which lies and idols give way to God’s victory?

how not to argue online

Natalie pointed me in the direction of this list from King of Bloggers, Seth Godin. It speaks to what does and doesn’t count as a genuine discussion online.

Point number 5 (about acting anonymously) particularly resonated with me. In my experience, anonymous — or near-anonymous — ‘drive by’ comments are rife on theoblogs.

I totally get how you may react to something you read on a blog and feel compelled to comment (even though you’re unlikely to subscribe to the comments feed or sign up to be notified by email about the unfolding discussion). I’ve done it myself. More than once.

But that’s a long way from the ideal Seth pins to the board:

Earn a reputation. Have a conversation. Ask questions. Describe possible outcomes of a point of view. Make connections. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Align objectives then describe a better outcome. Show up. Smile.

I really want to take seriously the fact that blogging is all about conversation — constructive collaboration. I want to respond to stuff I read not just react to it. When I make a comment about something I find odd — or even off the wall — I want to do so out of curiosity, because I’m fascinated and want to understand not because I’m frustrated and want it to be known that I’m right.

At the same time, as a blogger — and this will hardly surprise to anyone who reads my stuff even semi-regularly… — I don’t always produce fully thought-through, coherent or comprehensible stuff. I even sometimes waffle!

But, besides the silent majority who keep reading through all our worst moments, what I really love are contributors who care enough about us to discuss something they disagree with rather than simply sniping and then melting into the background.

What say you — Yay or Nay?

compelling food

One of our favourite pastimes is cooking. (This well and truly predates Masterchef.) There’s something about studying a recipe or the contents of our cupboard, methodically performing all the operations — chopping, combining, stirring — smelling the developing aromas, and finally enjoying the product that is just so … satisfying.

Occasionally, however, things go haywire. Often the product is salvageable — if a little ‘rustic’. Sometimes it’s almost irretrievable (at such moments it’s handy to have some back-up ice-cream in the freezer; there are very few situations you can’t fix by concluding with a bowl of ice-cream).

But sometimes we end up producing food that we like to think of as ‘compelling’. The most outstanding example of this we’ve ever served up was a green tea panacotta. It was fascinating. Every mouthful hinted that maybe, just maybe, it could be a mind-blowingly excellent dish. Either that or it was an abomination. You couldn’t quite decide. And you just had to keep eating in the hope that the next mouthful would bring resolution. It was … well, compelling.

Last night we made something that fell into the compelling category — baked pumpkin, green pea, pesto and fetta lasagne:

The idea was sound. In fact, it had the potential to be amazing. But something didn’t quite work. Not in a Turn You Off Your Dinner sort of way. But in a … compelling kind of way.

the bits that Barth left out?

Christmas is coming! And in honour of the annual celebration of our Saviour’s birth, I’m hoping to do some hard thinking about the incarnation.

I’ve set myself the challenge of engaging with Barth’s account of the human life and ministry of Jesus with which he launches the Church Dogmatics IV/2. And I’m inviting you to join me!

Ary Scheffer's 'The Temptation of Christ' (1854)

In the preface to IV/2, Barth describes the significance of his extended ‘reading’ of the NT presentation of Jesus’ life-story with reference to the ‘two natures’ Christology enshrined in the Chalcedonian definition:

Perspicuous readers will surely notice that there is no break with the basic view of which I have adopted since my parting with Liberalism, but only a more consistent turn in its development. To make this clear, I had to give particularly careful expression to the christological section which stands at the head and contains the whole in nuce, speaking as it does of the humanity of Jesus Christ … There is no legitimate way to an understanding of the Christian life than that which we enter there. As I see it, it is by the extent to which I have correctly described this that the book is to be judged.

This is also the point where Nathan Kerr (Christ, History and Apocalyptic) thinks Barth really let the side down, betraying his own best insights about the importance of the concrete flesh-and-blood life of Jesus. According to Kerr, it’s the bits that Barth left out that are most worrisome:

[C]onspicuous by its almost complete absence is any reference at all to the tragic complexities and discontinuities of this life, such as Jesus’ temptation in the desert, his agony at Gethsemane, and the freedom with which he goes to Jerusalem, all of which shape his identity as distinctively human and limited by that humanity.

That’s why I want to read what Barth says and try to work out how it squares with the NT insistence on the non-negotiability of Jesus’ genuine humanity.

Just a bit of light summer reading. Anyone up for it?

defining moments

My time at Theological College has run its course. And although Natalie and I are still unsure exactly what we’ll be doing next, God-willing I’ll be turning my attention from study to practice as Natalie sets herself to do the reverse.

(Presumably, there’ll be significant continuity for both of us. Natalie hopes to move from research into … well, more research as she commences a PhD. And I certainly don’t intend to leave theology behind after College.)

But arriving at this point has got me thinking about the future. Even if we can’t nail down all the details, we can set ourselves some priorities. Here’s one I’d like to share with you — via two anecdotes:

  • I distinctly remember the moment I was convinced of the supremacy of Christ. I can clearly recall the sermon that did it. It was preached by a missionary on furlough. The text was Colossians 1.15-23. It hammered home the fact that because the One who is supreme is both the Creator and the Reconciler, we can actually trust Him. In all the ups and downs of life. Concretely, as the preacher shared his own sense of weakness and inadequacy of himself, I got a glimpse of what it looks like to build a ministry — and, more importantly, a life — on Christ’s supremacy.
  • I also remember the moment I first got a clear sense of God’s holiness and love. Another sermon — this one at a week-long conference — was responsible for this. The preacher was talking us through Numbers. Homing in on the priestly benediction — you know the one: ‘The LORD bless you and keep you…’ (Num 6.24-26) — he asked us to call to mind its concrete context: the inaugural worship service at the tabernacle. To imagine everything spattered with blood. Smelling of burnt flesh (and hair). The tremendous cost of the blessing of God blew me away. (And it’s only a preview of what God achieved in Jesus!)

Oh, to have a life built on the solid rock of Jesus’ supremacy and animated by a white-hot sense of the holy love of God in Him…

east west 101

Jami Masjid Mosque- tomb of Sheik Salim Chishti - Fatehpur Sikri - फतेहपूर सिकरी - فتحپور سیکری

Jami Masjid Mosque - tomb of Sheik Salim Chishti - Fatehpur Sikri (by sftrajan, on Flickr)

We’ve been watching series 1 of the Australian series East West 101. It’s a brave attempt to create television that more accurately reflects the diversity and conflict present in Australia. It goes a long way to nuancing the way we imagine Muslim people and communities.

But a couple of things have been bugging me:

  • In the first episode, there is a scene in which a married Muslim makes love. The intimacy expressed goes a long way to rendering the couple sympathetic to non-Muslim viewers. But I can’t help but think that it’s not particularly culturally sensitive to show images of a Muslim woman (I don’t know the actresses religious affiliation, but I think that’s irrelevant) in a state of undress.
  • The repulsively racist detective directs his racism solely towards his Iraqi colleague and not other migrant colleagues from the Pacific or Asia.
  • While I’m happy to be confronted by the representation of a repulsively racist character (I’m convinced they exist in real life), I’m mildly frustrated that there’s never any expression of solidarity with the Iraqi character from other white characters.

the Law and the victory of God?

I’ve really been getting into the idea that, without detracting from God’s sovereignty, we’ve got to say that sin and death and the devil are fundamentally enemies — triumphed over in Christ — before we move (cautiously) to say anything about their being instruments in His hands.

But at least since Luther, the Law (and sometimes also God’s wrath) has been counted among the enemies that Jesus defeated. The problem with this — as I see it — is that the Law appears to be first the instrument of God and only subsequently His enemy. As Paul puts it in Rom 7.6-13, speaking (I take it) of the Law of Moses:

Now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.

What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.

Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.

OK. So it’s notoriously difficult (not to mention hotly-debated). But I’m wondering what we should say about the Law with respect to God’s victory. Is it the exception that proves the rule? Or should we re-write the rule book?

on albums

There is something spectacular about a well crafted album — when a musician takes you on a deliberate emotional journey for an hour or so. You know a good album when, if you hear single on the radio, you’re disappointed that the next track doesn’t follow straight after it’s finished.

I skipped home in excitement last weekend with two new CDs: Florence and the Machine‘s Lungs and The Swell Season‘s Strict Joy. They’re both full of glorious music but, the problem is, neither feel as much like albums as I want them to.

Every song on Lungs is demanding. I imagine the tracks would be awesome on ‘shuffle’ amongst your other music, but it makes listening to the album from beginning to end like being repeatedly dumped in the surf: every time you feel like you’re about to get a mouthful of air, you’re dragged into the fury of the next track. Still, Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) is one of my favourite tracks of recent years.

Strict Joy is much more diverse than Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s previous album The Swell Season (which was repackaged as the soundtrack to the film Once — but I reckon the original album is better). The new album, however, changes gears more often and more overtly, and so fails to grip me with the same emotional intensity as the first album. It settles into a better rhythm in the second half and there are some smashing songs. You won’t have wasted your money on this one – but it’s the kind of CD where you may well skip past tracks and back again depending on your mood.

[BTW: The Swell Season will be playing the Opera House early next year and tix go on sale tomorrow morning – both Chris and I rate their previous gig among our best ever live music experiences…]

I suspect that the increasing ability to purchase individual tracks will erode the commercial imperative for making great albums. But, if you’re a musician out there, please keep making awesome albums not just great tracks. I look forward to buying them.