Friday, April 24, 2009

Not dead yet...

...although you would certainly be pardoned for thinking otherwise!

I am just now in the midst of trying to finish writing up my dissertation, hoping to submit in the summer. This autumn, I'm to begin a new teaching post, so I'm starting to prepare lectures and curriculum. We're getting ready for a transatlantic move. Oh, and did I mention we've just had our second child?

We've just had our second child.

She's Samantha Brigid Danielle; although she was a little over a month premature, she's flourishing and growing and doing well. But it does make for a bit more on the to do list.

So, I assure you, I'll be back some time in the future with witty observations, stentorian pronouncements and the occasional anguished soul searching - or whatever it is I do here, I haven't quite figured it out myself. Keep your bookmarks!

Also - Gower Street may undergo a slight format change, too: there's a possibility it might become a team blog. So (as they say): watch this space.

(BTW, I'm also over at Facebook, and I sometimes do something like blogging within the parameters of their format - so if you use Facebook as well, look me up!)

Labels: ,

Friday, October 03, 2008

On worshiping the 'Big Jesus'

Mark Driscoll is an evangelical and missional sort of Christian, and one of the founders of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. He is outspoken and brash in much of what he says; he isn't afraid of making hasty generalisations and seems particularly fond of false dischotomies. His rhetoric is sharp and he's not afraid of making enemies. Some have said that he has made a difference in their lives, and I have no reason to disbelieve them, but I'm not a fan of his and disagree sharply with him on a number of issues.

Last year, in the magazine 'Relevant', he was part of a seven-person panel of church leaders asked about where they see the church headed. One of the questions was as follows:

What do you see as the greatest challenge for young Christians in the next 10 years?

Mark Driscoll: There is a strong drift toward the hard theological left. Some emergent types [want] to recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in His hair, who drank decaf and made pithy Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes. In Revelation, Jesus is a pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up. I fear some are becoming more cultural than Christian, and without a big Jesus who has authority and hates sin as revealed in the Bible, we will have less and less Christians, and more and more confused, spiritually self-righteous blogger critics of Christianity.

[From:7 Big Questions; Seven Leaders on where the church is headed. 8/28/2007]

I think this has massive, serious problems with it. First, this shows a troubling tendency towards simplistic black-and-white thinking: either Jesus is a ‘limp-wrist hippie in a dress’ or ‘a pride fighter’. There is no sense that Jesus, whom we confess as being ‘fully God and fully man’ might be strong enough to genuinely elude our own neat and tidy categories. Moreover, Driscoll’s characterisation of Jesus, taken from Revelation 19, betrays a great selectivity. True, in this one passage in Revelation (although Jesus is not named, his identity seems clear from context) he is presented as wielding a sword ‘to strike down the nations’ (9.15). The sword is metaphorical – it comes ‘out of his mouth’ – but the author of Revelation thought it a fit metaphor for the act of God in Christ. This cannot be explained away and needs to be, somehow, incorporated into our language about Jesus – although in a manner that reflects this as one minor element in his overall character, since most of Scripture presents Christ otherwise.

The odd selectivity of Driscoll’s judgement can be shown in two ways. First, although he states that he can worship someone who is committed to ‘making someone bleed’ and ‘cannot worship a guy I can beat up’, he seems unaware that Revelation more often presents Jesus as the Lamb who was slain. This is purely a passive image, not that of a warrior or fighter, and relativises presenting Jesus as a warrior without reserve.

Moreover, and perhaps even more troubling to Driscoll, in the same chapter which presents Jesus as killing with a sword, presents the church, the saints, as the ‘bride’ of the lamb, who has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ (19.7,8) The text makes clear that this language is just as metaphorical as Jesus as a warrior or a lamb, explaining that the linen represents the ‘righteous acts of the saints’ (19.8) Nevertheless, Driscoll and those like him who want to emphasise the (stereotypically) masculine characteristics of Jesus must explain why they pass over other images of Jesus (as slain lamb, for example).They also need to explain why they see Jesus’ stereotypically masculine characteristics as underwriting their embracing of the same, rather than, in the light of their identity as the saints of God, embracing (stereotypically) feminine characteristics. Otherwise, one seems justified in suspecting that Driscoll has simply co-opted Jesus into a project which he has arrived at by other means- to put it bluntly, idolatry.

There is also, just as troublingly, no sense that there might be a problem with allowing who one can ‘beat up’ to be a sure guide to who one may worship. It seems to me rather that (to borrow Driscoll’s polemical terms, which I do not accept) the power of the decaf-drinking ‘limp-wrist hippie’ is that he can change us, quite despite ourselves, into someone who no longer needs to worship only someone he can’t beat up, but is willing to worship God – who is both infinitely ‘bigger’ than us, yet can also, because he wants to, embrace radical vulnerability and contingency in the incarnation and cross. A God who loves the creation enough to act for its salvation, even though it is entirely his creation and has no being of its own apart from him. A God who is wrathful at our disobedience, sin and injustice, yet who has repented of and foresworn violence. A God whose power is not the simple power of force. A God who can take the humiliation of a cross and turn it into life for the world. A God whose ‘extraordinary power’ is entrusted to ‘clay jars’ such as us so that it is ‘made clear’ that the power isn’t our own. (2 Cor. 4.7) This is a gracious God whose glory and honour works itself out through honouring sinners such as ourselves with new life, making those who were his enemies adopted sons and daughters, and brothers of his only son, whom we killed. (Rom. 5) This is a God who graciously reveals himself, but loves us enough not to let us control him.

Despite all this, there is something right in what Driscoll says, although perhaps not in the way he intends: despite our best efforts otherwise, Jesus is not safe. That’s not to say that he is a violent hothead liable to be out looking to ‘make someone bleed’. It’s to say he cannot be captured and used to our purposes; he can’t be domesticated by our own expectations, whether of the ‘pithy Zen’ or the ‘big Jesus’ variety. And to the extent we insist that only one of those two varieties – or any one of the vast number of other varieties – and exclude anything else, we’ve missed out on the real Jesus.

More than that, he isn’t safe because he isn’t content to leave us alone and unchanged, either. If we dare to come to this Jesus, the real Jesus, then perhaps in the bargain we might be changed into someone who doesn’t need to beat up another but can allow the power of God to transform us into someone new – someone who, for his sake and by his word, might even be willing to suffer for the truth, or give his life on behalf of another.

(Just so that you know - and so that he knows that I know - Halden over at Inhabitatio Dei has also written on this, with much that I would endorse, but I felt the need to elaborate my own thoughts on the matter.)

Labels: , ,

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Ricoeur Conference on Poetics and Religion

It is killing me that I cannot go, but I felt I ought to mention here that there is an upcoming conference at Leuven on Paul Ricoeur with the theme poetics and religion. I would love to go, but simply cannot. Here is a description of the conference, pulled in its entirety from their website:


Paul Ricoeur’s investigations into the hermeneutics of text and human being, the poetic force of symbol, metaphor, and narrative are a continuous source of reflection. The hermeneutical paradigm of text and interpretation in From Text to Action, the ‘little ethics’ in Oneself as Another, the incomplete ontology with its vehemence to be completed, the recurring themes of liberty, hope, poetics, attestation, recognition… are challenging issues for theologians as well as philosophers, revealing numerous fruitful trajectories between philosophy, ethics and theology.

The international conference ‘Paul Ricoeur: Poetics and Religion’ wants to contribute to the course of interpretation that Ricoeur’s oeuvre has instigated. The conference will be dedicated to aspects of the intersection between motivation and argumentation, between conviction and critique. Our purpose is to provide a forum for interdisciplinary dialogue on Ricoeur’s hermeneutical philosophy and its interaction with various theological disciplines.

The conference is organised around five general themes: the fundamental relation between theology and philosophy; textual, biblical and theological hermeneutics; metaphysics; ethics and morality; and practical theology.

No mention of a dealine, so I imagine there is still time to register.

If you go, tell me how it was - and if you like Ricoeur and good theology, spread the word. (Ben?)

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, September 25, 2008

on economics 2

I've mentioned elsewhere the tendency to think of economics as more-or-less a set of natural laws (e.g. the free market), and this correlates with its being taught (usually) as more-or-less a science. Yet it is also, intrinsically, an arena of human activity - and so it is always also open to moral analysis. This isn't as clearly the case about other sciences such as physics. This leads us to a dilemma of how to characterise economics, and what the human response to it should be.

Is economics primarily to do with science, a matter of nature? If so, then because it is a realm of human endeavour, it needs restraints and regulations placed on it from outside.

Is economics primarily to do with the human, a human construction, and hence a matter of history rather than nature? Then there are presumably resources within economics - human, moral resources - which can place checks and balances on economic activity.

Or is economics (as I suspect) some third thing, incorporating both? Economics thus may be seen as a human, social construction, one with a history* and as any contingency, may be otherwise, and yet which also includes regularities about which general and mathematical observations may be made. In this case, as above, economics - whether the teaching of economics and its statistical analysis, or even the actual acts of trading and business-keeping - are not free from moral analysis and constraint, but ought to be expected to serve humanity (broadly construed).

There is certainly more to be said here, but this is another modest foray into thinking through a topic which is turning into an ongoing project for me.

* The specific economic arrangements- whether tending towards modern socialism or towards modern capitalism - are virtually unthinkable 200 years ago, and literally impossible 1000 years ago. There is nothing more necessary or self-evident or 'natural' about our current arrangements than there is about our driving automobiles.

Labels: ,

Rowan Williams on Capitalism

Yesterday an essay by the Archbishop of Canterbury was published by The Spectator.

It is a great essay, filled with human concern about the mythology which surrounds the market and the real damage it can do to people. A couple of quotations:

'We find ourselves talking about capital or the market almost as if they were individuals, with purposes and strategies, making choices, deliberating reasonably about how to achieve aims. We lose sight of the fact that they are things that we make. They are sets of practices, habits, agreements which have arisen through a mixture of choice and chance. Once we get used to speaking about any of them as if they had a life independent of actual human practices and relations, we fall into any number of destructive errors. We expect an abstraction called ‘the market’ to produce the common good or to regulate its potential excesses by a sort of natural innate prudence, like a physical organism or ecosystem. We appeal to ‘business’ to acquire public responsibility and moral vision. And so we lose sight of the fact that the market is not like a huge individual consciousness, that business is a practice carried on by persons who have to make decisions about priorities — not a machine governed by inexorable laws.'
'...ascribing independent reality to what you have in fact made yourself is a perfect definition of what the Jewish and Christian Scriptures call idolatry. What the present anxieties and disasters should be teaching us is to ‘keep ourselves from idols’, in the biblical phrase. The mythologies and abstractions, the pseudo-objects of much modern financial culture, are in urgent need of their own Dawkins or Hitchens. We need to be reacquainted with our own capacity to choose — which means acquiring some skills in discerning true faith from false, and re-learning some of the inescapable face-to-face dimensions of human trust.'
Read it all here.

But somewhat troubling is that the essay itself is entitled "Face it: Marx was partly right about capitalism". Now, I am assuming that, as with newspapers, the headline was not composed by the author but added in later by someone else. (I suspect but do not know - I am not a regular reader of the Spectator - that the deliberately provocative 'Face it:' is a regular feature, and that the specific headline follows the colon.) But the headline, whilst attention-getting, is not apposite to the essay. He does indeed mention Marx near the end, in a by-the-way fashion, but this is not his overarching concern, not the theme of the essay. As it stands, it might sound like a full-court-press defense of Karl Marx and Marxism, but this is far from the intent. In fact, he says of Marx, in the only mention of him in the essay:'Marx long ago observed the way in which unbridled capitalism became a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, power and agency to things that had no life in themselves; he was right about that, if about little else.' Hardly a ringing endorsement. And hardly a suitable headline for a passionate, thoughtful, and irenic essay.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

plus ça change...

I ran across the following recently in a discussion of political policy in one corner of the internet:

” … to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man …”

Was this a trenchant summary of America's recent foreign policy? Nope.
A retrospective indictment of American involvement in Viet Nam? No.
A historical condemnation of the conditions in Europe which led to World War I? Still, no.
A denunciation of Victorian hubris or Napoleonic vainglory? Again, no.

It could easily have stood in for these and much else of relatively recent vintage, but the fact is it is a quotation from Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, a fourth century BC account of a late fifth century war.

plus ça change...
...plus la même.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Life, giving and tragedy

An incredible, haunting, unsettling story from the Chicago Tribune today. Near Chesterton, Indiana, a 10 year old child fell into a surging river and was pulled into a metal drainage ditch (about 3 feet in diameter). His next door neighbor, Mark Thanos, a high school teacher and coach, jumped in to try to save him. After Mark began struggling, his father John jumped in to help.

In the event, the ten year old was pulled clear by the current, but the other two men died. The entire story is here.

In this one event, the selfless giving of one to save another costs him his life, and the selfless act of another seems to have been in vain. My thinking is not resolved on this - as I mentioned above, I find this haunting - but I think haunting is one of the things the Spirit does, so I'm not worried, just not through.

I think one intuition about this is that, in God, this is not lost. Yes, it can be allowed to be tragic - this is no eschatological quick fix to make everything alright - but maybe not finally or ultimately tragic.

Something else is that in these selfless but tragic acts, two families' lives, and the lives of three people not normally or necessarily connected, are now inextricably intertwined for the rest of their lives. Looked at in one way, how can the young boy who survived now live knowing what these other men gave him without his asking? How can that not haunt him every day?

Looked at in another way, how is this different - except perhaps in degree - from the whole of life as each of us knows it? And how can we be so blythe and dismissive?

Labels: ,

Monday, September 15, 2008

Donald MacKinnon on John Hick (plus a bonus quotation)

Professor David F. Ford, back in his early days as (I believe) an undergraduate was in a supervision at Cambridge with Professor Donald MacKinnon. Ford had been discussing John Hick and the sort of conceptual clarity that he brought to his work; MacKinnon was silent a moment and epigrammatically responded to Ford:

'Some thinkers strive for clarity at all costs, while others wrestle with reality at its darkest points.'

To that I would like to add a MacKinnon quotation on apologetics, cribbed shamelessly from Ben over at Faith and Theology:

“The philosopher is not an apologist; apologetic concern, as Karl Barth (the one living theologian of unquestionable genius) has rightly insisted, is the death of serious theologizing, and I would add, equally of serious work in the philosophy of religion.”

—Donald M. MacKinnon, The Borderlands of Theology: An Inaugural Lecture (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1961), 28.

Labels: , ,