Month: December 2009

holiday reading: Free of Charge

Sometimes it can be hard to see what practical value might lie in a particular line of theological inquiry — or even a theological education as a whole. Which is why I was heartened to read Hannah Arendt’s observation (in The Human Condition) that the great scientific and technological advances of modernity didn’t originate in the quest for pragmatic pay-off but ‘exclusively in an altogether non-practical search for useless knowledge’.

Think of the watch. Rather than being the brainchild of some bureaucrat wanting to make sure the trains ran on time (or that Brad Pitt’s wrist looked really really good), it was invented by scientists to help them conduct their experiments and figure out how stuff worked. Despite its highly impractical roots, however, the invention of the watch has borne much pragmatic fruit.

Miroslav Volf’s book Free of Charge has helped me see how something similar could be true of the four year investment I (and my wife and the Australian Government etc) have made in my theological education.

How so? The subtitle’s the hint: giving and forgiving in a culture stripped of grace. As this might lead you to suspect, the book falls into two halves. The first half explains and illustrates — in remarkably clear, accessible, sensitive and well-grounded language — how we can and should give as God gives. The second, how we can and should forgive as God forgives. Continue reading

Satan’s doubtful origin

Natalie and I are big fans of the TV series Supernatural. It’s got the same kind of wry, self-conscious, highly referential style as Buffy and Angel (two other favourites). But it also raises some abiding questions about good and evil and the nature of faith — albeit in a comic book-ish and Impossible To Finally Pin Down way.

One of the big questions concerns the origin of Satan. Satan’s supposed status as a fallen angel has provided a foothold for speculation throughout the history of the Church, and reached its zenith (in my opinion) in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

In my corner of the world speculation about Satan is a non-starter. We scratch our heads at why other Christians make so much of it. And we doubt whether it’s possible to actually buy into the interpretation of the biblical passages that are usually cited in support.

And I totally get why. It’s a pretty dubious theological move to attempt to explain the origin of evil.

Evil is a fact. A menacing fact. It has invaded and left its dirty paw prints all over God’s good world. No-one’s denying that (I hope). But there’s still a mystery to it. Something that defies explanation. So it mustn’t be granted anything like the same status as all those other facts for which God is responsible.

We learn this lesson chiefly at the foot of the cross. There, evil isn’t affirmed. Nor is it somehow incorporated into God’s good plan (as a necessary stage in its evolution or a bit of cosmic contrast that allows its glory to shine more brightly). Rather, it’s defeated. Trounced. Brought to nothing.

But I’ve been thinking recently that it’s much the same truth that speculation about Satan’s origin seems intended to safeguard. Or at least the same truth from a different angle.

You see, however implausible and involved — and even frankly mythological — talk of Satan’s ‘fall from grace’ might sound, the idea that Satan was not originally evil appears to be another way of refusing to put evil on par with good. And that’s got to be good. Right?

summer work

Summer’s well and truly upon us. And even though College has wrapped up, and Natalie and I are still more or less in suspense about next year, I’m managing to keep myself occupied.

Among the things on my ‘To Do’ list are:

  1. Acting as Michael‘s research assistant — which basically means helping him out with some projects (such as this one on the Thirty Nine Articles of the Anglican Church).
  2. Continuing to visit patients at RNSH in my capacity as a ‘Student Chaplain’ — where I continue to be struck and surprised by human fragility and God’s great grace and power.
  3. Snorkelling off various Sydney beaches — yet to kick off for this summer, but I can feel it coming on!
  4. Thinking about the humanity of Jesus — to help with this I’m reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV/2 with Dan.
  5. Working on getting some stuff published out of my Fourth Year Project, etc.
  6. Oh yeah… And attempting to find work for next year!

Nice work if you can get it. Right?

music to live to!

A vineyard in the Chittering Valley just outside of Perth

When we were on holiday in Perth, Natalie’s mum and dad took us to hear Andrew Winton (brother of novelist Tim) play his particular brand of bluesy, rootsy stuff. It was terrific! Especially because he and his band mate, Paul Novosel, were clearly really enjoying themselves throughout their set.

And it’s got me thinking about the kind of music that appeals to me (and why). The secret of Andrew’s stuff is that it’s music to live to. So in good Blues style it honestly faces up to life’s ironies, complexities and even tragedies. And in doing so it reaches forward, straining towards something more. But at the same time it’s really quite upbeat and life affirming — there’s plenty of fun and a generous embrace of the everyday to it all.

Michael has recently been asking (here and here) what musical styles would most suit contemporary ‘hymn’-writing for our churches.

I reckon we need more music in this key!

cast your ‘cognitive surplus’ on the waters…

2009 seems to have been something of a watershed in terms of the rise to prominence of Web 2.0 technology — in popular culture and among evangelical Christians. One key indicator is the friction it’s been generating. (Of course, this could just be a symptom of the enhanced sensitivity Natalie and I have developed as a result of adopting it much more seriously ourselves this year).

As far as I can tell, there are least three different ‘stories’ vying to explain this:

  • It is common to write off a lot of the friction over blogging, Facebook, Twitter, etc as merely another inter-generational spat. And there’s a lot going for this account. This comment by J. I. Packer, for example — about the transience and lack of substance of much that flies the Web 2.0 flag — reminds me of stuff I keep hearing from the ‘elder statesmen’ of Australian evangelicalism (in tone as much as content).
  • An alternative account portrays it as a re-run of the conservative v ‘open’/liberal battle familiar from the culture wars in the United States. Hence, although Halden concedes the possible truth of Packer’s accusation in practice, he suggests that the explosion, e.g., in blogging among Christians may actually have more to do in principle with a new take on the old, old search for truth.
  • For my money, however, the notion of ‘cognitive surplus’ makes the most mileage — explaining both the uptake of Web 2.0 technology and the widespread resistance and dismissiveness it meets. Follow the link and see whether you agree that just as the Industrial Revolution was precipitated by the redeployment of surplus labour, what we are currently experiencing is the beginning of the redeployment of surplus brain power from simple consumption (e.g., watching TV news) to collaboration (e.g., contributing to Wikipedia).

I wonder which story you find most compelling.