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Sunday, 19 December 2010

Blogging Through Advent - 4th Sunday

Readings Advent 4 (Year A)

Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

The readings for this Sunday in Advent, particularly the passages from Isaiah and Matthew need to be read in the wider context. The full force of the connections aren't fully obvious. Terms like Emmanuel, God with Us, are hard to read through the lenses that we have inherited from the experence of Christendom in which monarchy came to be equated with arbitrary power. what we need to anticipate and open ourselves to is that in this week in Advent our expectations will be turned upside down.

Walter Brueggeman, the Old Testament traces this turning of our expectations upside down in his compact reflection on the readings for this Sunday.

The two central texts, the gospel narrative of Matthew and the Isaiah text to which Matthew alludes, speak about the biology of this evangelical event. The biology does not leave much to argue about. Let us say simply and at the outset, "Yes, born of a virgin." And we say that in the innocence of Christmas without quibbling over translation problems of which something likely could be made. We simply follow the creedal way of the church and leave these niceties undisturbed.

But the biological event does not stand as a bald medical claim. In the context of Isaiah 7:10-15, the birth of the unnamed child points us to two other considerations.
First, the child is given to King Ahaz as a notice that the present world should not be feared, trusted, or credited. The virgin birth is a sign that the known world, the one we treasure, is not permanent. It is in jeopardy, under assault by the power of God, and it will soon be terminated.

The scholarly inclination is that the years before the "knowing good and evil" are to be reckoned at two years. That is how long it takes a child to learn. So this odd birth is a time bomb. In two years, O king, the landscape of the human world will have completely changed. It is not to be treasured or relied upon.

The season of Advent invites us to imagine what in the landscape of this world will change in two years because God is God. What threats will dissipate? What evil will be overcome? What chances for obedience will be take—or missed? And if we take Isaiah 7:17 seriously, under what threats will we be in two years?

The whole passage reminds us that the present world is not locked into a safe or predictable mode. It is open and on the move, precisely because Yahweh is Lord. We must not be so fascinated with the biological as to miss the news that is here, good and bad.
Second, the name of the child, like so many names, is an anticipation: Immanuel—God with us! That is the evangelical claim of the biological event. Immanuel could be royal propaganda, a throne name. Or it could mean the most important new reality ever made available in creation.

The God who has been far off draws close. The one who is enemy and judge becomes comrade and friend. The calculus of heaven and earth is changed, and earth becomes the place of God's governing presence. This is cause for celebration.

In the epistle lesson, Paul begins with reference to the same gospel (Romans 1:1). It is far from clear that Paul knows anything about virgin birth. If he does, he makes nothing of it. But he does know about and makes a great deal of the odd reality of Jesus. He uses a barrage of titular terms to try to express it. What all the listing of names and the celebration of Jesus yields for Paul is a call to be set apart for the gospel, a call to obedience and apostleship (verses 1,5).

Advent and the birth are not events that happen and just sit there. They are events with futures. They open new lives and establish fresh vocations. They call baptized folks to live lives as odd, abrasive, and unacceptable to reason as any biological miracles. A World on the Move
Yes, the world is not safe or predictable, as we have had reason to be reminded this week with the shipwreck and drowning of refugees within sight of, note the irony of the title of the geographic feature, Christmas Island.

The passage from Isaiah comes at a time of empires clashing, people being uprooted and dispersed. The promise recorded in the encounter between Isaiah and the king is a ticking time bomb for those in power trying to play it safe. An openness to the future of God's salvation is paradoxically risky and uncertain, played out in the reality of women giving birth and empires on the march.

I find no easy comfort here in these readings. It does not offer salvation as something spiritual disconnected from the world of politics and the wonder of the birth of a child. It offers to us a way in which salvation has to be lived, not an intellectually constructed creed to be believed.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

The sacredness of the secular, Incarnation Gace and the Wrold according to William Stringfellow

In one of his early works, A Private and Public Faith, theological polemics at their best, William Stringfellow charts in compact yet elliptical prose the relationship between Christian witness and the  presence of the grace of God in the secularity of the world.

The cohesion and commonality of the vocation of Christians originates in their power to discern the truth of the word of God in any event whatever, and precisely because the Word of God is present in all events that power may be exercised in any event... No man - for that matter, no creature, no idea, no institution, no nation, no issue, no action - is beyond the reach and intercession of some member of the Body of Christ. It is in this way, indeed, that is by the width and the depth of the implication of Christians in the life of the world, that the unequivocal fact of grace is communicated, that the universality of Christ is represented and that the ubiquity of the Word of God is exposed.
For lay folk in the Church  this means that there is no forbidden work. There is no corner of human existence, however degraded or neglected into which they may not venture; no person however beleaguered or possessed whom they may not befriend or represent; no cause, however vain, or stupid in which they may not witness; no risk, however costly or imprudent which they may not undertake.
This intimacy with the world as it is, this peculiar freedom, this awful innocence towards the world which a Christian is given is what makes Christian look like a sucker. He looks like that to other men because he is engaged in the wholesale expenditure of his life. 

A Christian is not distinguished by his political views or moral decision, or habitual conduct or personal piety, or least of all by his churchly activities, A Christian is distinguished by his radical esteem for the Incarnation ... by his reverence for the life of God in the whole of creation, even and in a sense especially in the travail of sin. 
The characteristic place to find a Christian is among his enemies. The first place to look for Christ is in Hell. (pp.42-43 A Private and a Public Faith)

For links with access to resources by and about Stringfellow see: Stringfellow - Ethics and Theology and the archives of Ben Myers Blog Faith and Theology March 2009.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Terrorism and the Terror of God

One of my tests of a book is whether I want to go back and re-read it. Lee Griffith's The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God passes that test. I am not sure why but I think it has something to do with the way he undertakes the theological task.

Griffiths sets out his theological agenda and method in the Preface. 
... consideration of the terror that people inflict on one another necessarily entails a consideration of faith. Karl Barth once called on believers to read Bible and newspaper side by side. An understanding of current events sheds new light on the hermeneutical context from which the reader approaches the biblical text., but more importantly the juxtaposition of newspaper and Bible makes more readily apparent the manner in which the biblical word demythologises our contemporary ideologies and social and political circumstances. A reading of Barth's Church Dogmatics reveals that Barth added a dialogue with church history into the mix of newspaper and Bible. The encounter with the biblical word is less individual than communal. It is within the community - both the living communion of saints as well as the host of witnesses that have gone before us - that we come to understand our own idiosyncratic readings of Scripture and faith ... (p.xiii)
This method makes for a richness of discussion that continually pulls against any simple ideological positioning and rush to judgment of the obvious "badies" or uncritical accounts of those who we might have expected to see as obvious candidates for uncritical approval. Griffith's discussion of the abolitionist movement is a particularly good example of the discriminating complexity of his assessment of the differing strands of that movement.

Particularly challenging and likely to be counter-intuitive to many both Christians and atheists alike is his reading of the book of Revelation. He opens his discussion with the observation that there is general agreement that the author of the book of Revelation was a criminal and goes from there. If John was not well loved by the Roman empire he observes the book of Revelation indicates that the feeling was mutual.

Griffith makes the important point that while there is much violence in Revelation we need to be clear as to the perpetrator of the violence, Babylon, the Beast and the dragon. God's weapons are the truth of God's word and the blood of the slain lamb. The other theme he highlights is that it is not a book about the end of the world it is about re-creation and a new heaven and new earth. The terror of God he notes is the resurrection. ... the resurrection is terror to all who assume that death and bloodshed will have the final word.(Publisher's Interview)

The author does not remain detached in a theoretical vein. The theology becomes personal and passionate at this particular point when he draws to our attention the two best sermons that he has ever heard preached on the book of Revelation. The first was an address by the lawyer/theologian/activist William Stringfellow on the defeat of the saints.
His meditation on the defeat of the saints was a renunciation of all triumphalism, be it academic, ecclesiastical, economic, political or military,  It was a reminder that the saints are not raptured out of terror and into victory. It was a reminder that Easter is preceded by the cross, that God's cause is not served by the righteous who are triumphant but by the faithful who re defeated.(p.216)
 The second sermon took the form of the recitation of a text by a wino in a ramshackle soup kitchen in Washington DC. The story is worth reading in its entirety but I cannot forebear to quote from the account. Late at night in the kitchen open to provide warmth for the homeless following the death by hypothermia and the funeral of North Carolina one of the regular visitors to the kitchen.

Scott Wright one of the members of the Community for Creative Non-Violence who ran the kitchen asked if people wanted to recite some poems or have some readings. An old wino, Cool Breeze, asked for a reading from the Bible, "The Revelation to Saint John, chapter twenty-one, verses one through seven".

Scott read, and right from the very first word, Cool Breeze recited alon: "Then I was a new heaven and a new earth ... " Coo, Breeze - his words were slurred but there was no mistaking it. It was Revelation 21, the word of God spoken in a way I had never quite heard before or since. " ... and God himself will we with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more ... See, I am making all things new."

Well, for reasons I do not understand, that was one of several conversion experiences in my life. What was it? Was it the words of promise spoken in a ramshackle setting? Was it the conjoining of voices? The voice of Scott a man of gentle faith and nonviolence, with the rough and slurred voice of Cool Breeze, also a man of faith  who had been brought low by the great society as surely asby his bottle? Or was it simply fatigue that left me open to hearing the versus of Scripture in my guts as well as my ears? I do not know.

But this I do know. As day broke and Scott and I left the kitchen I knew it to be absolutely true - there will be a new heaven and a new earth. And we are going to be there. O we may be transformed. We may not have our finery and fancy attitudes, but we're going to be there. ... And that no-good old wino Cool Breeze he's gong to be there too. Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus. (pp217-8)


Blogging Through Advent - 3rd Sunday

Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146: 5-10 or Luke 1:47-55; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Debra Dean Murphy in her reflections on this weeks readings for Advent draws our attention sharply  to the outdoor character of what we are waiting for in Advent. Here is no vague Aldi brand spirituality that we can briefly tune into as a form of therapy before resuming business as normal in the frantic rush to consume.
Wendell Berry observes that it’s not enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is. For many, such an insight serves mainly to underwrite the idea that we can worship God best in nature’s environs: mountaintops, seashores, golf courses. But I think that Berry is on to something else, as are the appointed texts for the season of Advent generally and for the third Sunday especially.

The Advent scriptures are relentlessly eschatological: preoccupied with consummation and completion, concerned with all things, at long last, being set to right.

Even more of a challenge, perhaps, is the particular vision of Advent’s eschaton: transformed landscapes (blooming deserts, water in the wilderness); the glory and majesty of forests and mountains (Lebanon, Carmel, Sharon). Eschatology here is topographical, earthy, local. It is, at heart, about the renewal of creation. Christ’s second Advent portends not the sweeping of souls up into the clouds but heaven come to earth. It’s land reform, people.

But it’s people reform, too: blind eyes opened, deafness cured, lepers healed, the dead raised. It is justice executed: food for the hungry, prisoners set free, the rich sent away empty. It is good news, at long last, for the poor.
(Advent Outdoors)
The richness of the good news that surfaces in the readings for Advent is revolutionary in the deepest sense of that term. Walter Brueggemann advises us that:

The news is that big change is coming. Mary sings (in Luke) her revolutionary song about the reversal of social arrangements and Isaiah offers a poem about homecoming for the alienated. Advent is about pondering the big changes that are set in motion by Christmas.
In the narrative about Jesus in Matthew 11, John the Baptizer wonders whether Jesus is the long expected Messiah. Jesus urges John to consider the “facts on the ground,” which are the consequences of Jesus’ effective ministry. The list of beneficiaries of that ministry is not unlike that in Psalm 146. The list includes the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, and the poor (Matthew 11:5), that is, all the devalued and marginalized.. In the psalm “the Lord” does the work. In the narrative, Jesus does the work. Ergo … yes, Jesus is the Messiah. Yes, Jesus is the one expected and welcomed. It is no wonder that Mary sang her revolutionary song: the birth and ministry of Jesus constitute a social revolution that keeps reverberating through every time and place. (The Jesus Revolution)
How do we wait for such a revolution? We are in this for the long haul as the reading from James reminds us.  We wait patiently for the rain, we can't rush it, we can't live without it and sometimes it comes down not as the Palestinian farmers knew it in regular quantities and at regular times, but as we have experienced it in Canberra this week unexpectedly and with a force that reminds us we are not in control.

What does patience mean in a time of speed, where speed translates increasingly into violence against the world, animals and people, psychologically and physically. Note the kangaroos killed on the road, the people who lose family members in the road toll, those people who are notable to keep up with technology which places more and more demands on us to fit in with the drive to efficiency and has little pity for those who cannot accommodate themselves to its demands.

The ultimate in speed is war in which we refuse to take the time to converse with our enemy and assume that only the speed of violence can bring about change and justice. Patience begins with James reminds us not complaining against one another. Taking the time to listen. Patience is non-violence as a practice which trusts that we have all the time we need to be changed by our neighbour and by God so that we might be able to recognise and respond with joy to the changes that Advent is announcing when they actually arrive.


Thursday, 9 December 2010

Different take on Non-violence

William Cavanaugh provides a different take on the theoloogical rationale for non-violence.
Christians who embrace non-violence are often accused of unrealistically trying to impose a perfectionist ethic on mere sinful human beings. I find it remarkable that travelling to the other side of the world to shoot people is considered somehow everyday and mundane, while refraining is considered impossibly heroic.
The reason we should reject violence is not from a prideful conviction that we are the pure in a world full of evil. The gospel call to non-violence comes from the realization that we are not good enough to use violence, not pure enough to direct history through violent means. Peacemaking requires not extreme heroism, but a humble restraint in identifying enemies, and an everyday commitment to caring for members of one's body in mundane ways: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, all of whom, Jesus says, are Jesus himself.
Christian non-violence imitates Jesus' nonviolence, but it also participates in Jesus' self-emptying into sinful humanity, his sharing in the brokenness of the world. It is this peacemaking that we enact in sharing the broken bread of the Eucharist.
Breaking Bread, Making Peace

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Blogging through Advent - 2nd Sunday

Advent 2 (Year A) 
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12
The readings for Advent seem to bring out the best in the compilers of the lectionary. The readings hang together, the connections are not forced and we find ourselves confronted with themes that run deep in the tradition. We sense and are given theological and narrative warrants for the connections between Isaiah, Jesus and the prophet John.

The passage in Romans shows Paul at his most Jewish, writing as a Jew about the inclusion of the pagans in mutual care in the new community that God is bringing into being. Doug Lee in the meditation on the these readings on the Ekklesia Project Blog draws out the political implications of these readings in his critique of the limits of a liberal polity. Paul in his reference to Isaiah declares that the ancient promise is on the way to fulfilment.

The day of hope has come, for Jesse’s root has risen to rule the Gentiles (Romans 15:12). While Isaiah sees only the eventual emergence of the coming king (“he shall stand”), the Greek translation cited by Paul signals something far more startling. It employs the word regularly utilized for “resurrection” and thus ignites Paul’s proclamation that Christ’s rising from the dead actualizes apocalyptic day of hope. “The Lord of our longing has conquered the night,” declares the lyrics of the Catholic hymn City of God. God has fulfilled the longing of Israel and the nations, and so Paul proclaims Christ as Lord of the nations to those who live under the nose of that Roman pretender, Caesar.

But this is far from revolutionary ideology or political theory. For Paul, all politics is local.

Therefore, the politics of hope begin at home, in the church, and around the table. The weak and the strong shall sit together at table and not devour each other with their condescension and condemnation. They can now eat together without qualms about each other’s dietary restrictions or voting affiliations.

Under Caesar and American liberalism, the best humanity can hope for is to maintain a sham unity enforced by power. When we bump up against intractable differences, the most we can practice is a tolerance that allows us to coexist but at a safe distance from one another. “Peace” is won through enforced division.

But under the reign of the coming king, the people of God are liberated from merely tolerating each other, from practicing that forced cordiality that plagues too many of our relationships in the church, and from mouthing that nonsense that we are all the same on the inside.

Christ did not die for generic people; he died as a servant of the circumcised and to fulfill God’s promises to the Hebrew people. Christ did not live at a safe distance from others so that everyone could go on pleasing themselves; he denied himself so that the Gentiles might be grafted and join a redeemed Israel in praising God with one voice. Therefore, we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us. We see that we could never be whole without each other, even in—and because of—our differences. We disturb the powers, liberal and imperial, when people who have no business eating together share one table. Our little welcomes are deeply interpersonal and vastly public, political, and apocalyptic at the same time. Paul’s politics of hope is practiced in the near and now. The Power of Hope : American and Apocalyptic
More particularly according to the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman, the Advent readings announce the end of the world as we know it, not through some spiritual experience detached from the world that we live in, but in practices of hope living towards justice in that very same world. A generic spirituality just doesn't cut it in the Scripture readings for Advent. The account of the readings that he offers us challenges much about what we thought being a Christian was all about. If we are not uncomfortable with the status quo and its distribution of power and wealth then it may be doubtful whether we have begun to grasp, or be grasped by the message of Advent.
In the epistle reading, Paul writes of God's truthfulness, by which he means reliability. God does what God says, that is, keeps God's word. This same God is described as the "God of hope", (verse 13). God's truth is about God's resolve to transform our world, to make it utterly new. That is why Gentiles may rejoice, praise, and hope (verses 9-12). And we believers, out of that promise, are invited to joy, peace, and power (verse 13).

So we ask, what is the promise? As the lectionary is arranged, we are bound to say the governing promise is the coming of a new leader, of the line of David. Both Psalm 72 and Isaiah 11 articulate a new leader who will be empowered by the Spirit (Isaiah 11:2), who will have great dominion and much prosperity (Psalm 72: 8-11, 16). The common element in these two poetic forays is that the new governor will attend to the well-being, equity, and worth of the poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised: "May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy and crush the oppressor" (Psalm 72:4). Also, "With righteousness he will judge the poor, and decide with equity for the poor of the earth" (Isaiah 11:4).

... the pivotal point is the transformed situation of the poor. That is what the coming governor will do.

Note that the promise is not social evolution or developmental improvement. It is rather the inversion of the present in which the devalued will become the properly valued. So the promise is, at the same time, an enormous hope and a heavy judgment on how things now are. The function of the promise is to make the present provisional and tentative, even while we tend to make it absolute and treat it as an eternal arrangement.

In Matthew 3:1-12 the promised sovereign now draws near in the words of John the Baptist. Matthew uses the language of Isaiah 40:3 to envision a homecoming of the new king in triumphant procession. John calls for repentance (verse 2), which means ending old loyalties for the embrace of the new regime.

Jesus did indeed come to do exactly what Psalm 72 and Isaiah 11 had promised. He came to cause inversion, to displace the old marginalizing arrangement. He summoned people to abandon the old patterns for God's new truthfulness.

It does not surprise us that John has conflict with the ones who value the present arrangement (verse 7). The establishment figures do not understand that this coming of the new king means the end of privilege and priority. They trivialize the baptism of Advent as a religious act without realizing that it means the end of the known world.

And so John disputes with them, urging that their pedigrees of status, conviction, and influence are of no use, because all these belong to the old age now placed in deep jeopardy. The lesson ends in verse 12 with images of harsh judgment on those who hold too intensely to old power arrangements that do not grant access to the poor and marginal. ...

Advent is for pondering the promise. And so it is a time for joy. But Advent is also a time for sober inventory, to face how deeply enmeshed in and committed to the old regime we are. Many of us benefit from the marginality of the poor, and we do not want it to change. In the real commitments of our lives, we are deeply in conflict with the new reign. And we are without hope, meaning we do not want, expect, or welcome the new leader. In our moments of honesty, we crave our hopelessness because it lets us keep things as they are.

But the new sovereign comes on the wind—by the Spirit (Isaiah 11:2, Matthew 3:11, Romans 15:13). That means he cannot be stopped and will not be resisted. The Spirit works through us, among us, and even against us. The Spirit in these days would indeed work against our hopelessness to let us hope.
Amen and amen!

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Defining Terrorism

Like the terms community and religion, the definition of terrorism has proved controversial and created a literature of its own. In his powerful work The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God, Lee Griffith makes a couple of salient points on the relationship between religion and terrorism and how we might define it.

On the relation with religion he comments:

O Brother Job, the terrors are with us still. The raiders still come and the firepower falls from the sky: the winds still rage and the edge of the sword is bloody (Job1:13-19). While some suffer these horrors others try to sleep. Are these terrifying dreams by which sleep is invaded a warning from God (Job 33:14-18). While the source of the dreams is unclear, in Lebanon, the violence can be traced to its sources. When we follow the trail, and trace the violence back we do not find God. We find a mad confluence of godlets. We find principalities and powers; imperial nation states and barely organised guerilla fronts, all self exalted , all petty, and all appealing to as much inhumanity as humans can muster. It is called liberation and martyrdom. It is called defense and justice. Call it what you will. It is terrorism. (p.6)

Griffith goes on to suggest that in the confusion of defining what terrorism is perhaps we should let the victims of violence do the defining.

... what better experts are there? They recognise it when they see it. Both the US Marines subject to the truck bombing in Beirut and the Lebanese citizens subject to US shelling - they knew terrorism when they saw it. The women who are subject to rape and abuse, the African Americans who are subject to racist attack, the gay men and lesbians who are beaten in homophobic rage - they all know terrorism when they see it. Hutus and Tutsis, Palestinians and Israelis, Iraqis and Kuwaitis, Serbs and Croats - they all see and they know. No matter the identity of the perpetrators or the class of their weaponry or the nature of the motivation it is terrorism. (p.8)

Light, Love and Resurrection in "A World Lost"

At the conclusion of Wendel Berry's short novel A World Lost, Andy Catlett who has told the story of his Uncle Andrew, his murder when he was a child and his attempt many years later to unpack the events of that day, reflects on the members of his family and the way their story has unfolded.
One by one, the sharers in this mortal damage have borne its burden out of the present world ... At times perhaps I could wish them merely oblivion. But how can I deny that in my belief they are risen?

I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light's awful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been , and so are changed into what they could not havbe been, but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.

That light can come into the world only as love, and love can enter only by suffering. Not enough light has ever reached us here among the shadows and yet I think it has never been entirely absent.

Remembering, I suppose, the best days of my childhood, I used to think I wanted most of all to be happy - by which I meant to be here and undistracted, I thought I would be at home.

But now I have been here a fair amount of time, and slowly I have learned that my true home is not just this place but is also that company of immortals with whom I have lived here day by day. I live in their love, and I know something of the cost> Somewhere in the darkness of my own shadow I know that I could not see at all were it not for this old injury of love and grief, this little flickering lamp that I have watched beside for all these years. (p.326 - pagination from the the reprinting of A World Lost in Three Short Novels)

Wendell Berry and pastoral theology - Part 3

As discussed in the two earlier blogs on this theme, Wendell Berry has provided us with some closely observed and challenging accounts of pastoral care, in which a one way relationship often assumed on such occasions is challenged and something closer to a mutuality is demonstrated, a mutuality that challenges the expectations of the clergy involved.

In a recent engaging collection of essays, Wendell Berry and Religion: Heaven's Earthly Life edited by Joel James Shuman and Roger L Owens, (for an interesting review of the book see the review "Living the Incarnation" by Ragan Sutterfield) there is an essay by the Baptist minister Kyle Childress "Proper Work: Wendell Berry and the Practice of Ministry".

Berry is a farmer. How, asks Childress, are we to read him as a pastoral theologian?

"I engage Berry as a guide to good pastoral ministry" says Childress, "by starting where he starts, with his place. Place is a beginning from which to counter disincarnate forms of the Christian faith that raise the hackles of Wendell Berry and go against the grain of biblical faith that is lived out in the flesh."(p.73)

Childress reported that he wanted to commit to a congregation for the long haul - to pastor like Berry farms. "Just as Berry committed to staying on the farm, somewhere along the way I decided I needed to do the same - commit to a particular congregation of people over the long haul." (p.73)

The chapter is a report that bounces Childress's experience of pastoral ministry over 15 years at a Baptist church in rural Texas against insights from Berry's writing particularly his stories and novels.
Instead of designing  a blueprint for how the farm ought to be and then reworking the farm to fit the design, Berry pays attention to the particularities of the land itself and listen to others who might have wisdom about what has worked well in this place and what has not.  He works patiently and humbly and lovingly. There is a kind of "hermeneutics of farming" similar to the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder's hermeneutics of peoplehood", in which one patiently and humbly listens to the sense of the congregation and the Bible and the Spirit in a particular context.  (p.76)
Childress explains what this has meant for him with regard to dealing with issue of racism. He started out in the full prophetic "thus says the Lord" mode.  But after  conflict and near brawls with some people ... I began to pay attention to my congregation and to what God was saying through themas well as to them. I began to learn he says, to do a hermeneutics of peoplehood, sitting on front porches, and working gardens with the people, and drinking iced tea afterward while listening to their stories, including their stories of race and fear. As a result my preaching and teaching changed. I still talked about race, but how I talked about it was different. My sermons began to grow out of a conversation between the people and the Bible and the place where we lived. (p.76)

Childress points that while Berry's writing is drenched with the Bible, one of the key stories and images is that of the lost sheep and the lost son in Luke 15. These stories provide a lens through which he explores how he sees what community, friendship and the extended family look like. Stories that reflect these images include "Making it Home" in which a lost son who has been away at the war is journeying back home, "Thicker than Liquor" is about a nephew seeking his lost drunk uncle and bringing him home, "Watch with Me" is an account of a community watching out for a lost member who has had a "spell" come over him and concludes with a sermon from the one who was lost on the parable from the point of view of the sheep that was lost.

This is truly a counter - cultural account of what pastoral care is all about in shaping ministry by the images of being an attentive patient farmer and in the rejection of the model of a professional career with the implication of needing to move on and climb the ladder.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Wendell Berry and pastoral theology - Part 2

As promised I will provide a sketch of another pastoral encounter in a Wendell Berry novel, this time from A Place on Earth, a novel in which land and community in the small Kentucky village of Port William are closely engaged against the backdrop of World War 2, the absence of young men from the
community serving overseas.

This story is more substantial than the interview I discussed previously and provides a more complex and nuanced account of the interactions between the people involved. What it shares with the first story is the fact that the people who are the supposed recipients of pastoral care are active agents in the encounter and challenge the expectations of the minister who expects to be in control. Not only is he not in control but he is a subject who has to respond to the actions of those who he expects to be the subjects of his visit.

The elements of the story that I want to draw attention to comes at the point at which the news gets around the community that Virgil Feltner is missing in action and the minister Brother Preston comes to pay a visit to Matt and Margaret Feltner his parents and his wife Hannah, who is pregnant and living with her in-laws. Matt it should be noted featured in previous incident in part 1 of the blog on this topic. Berry titles this episode involving the pastoral visit "A Comforter". Berry offers three accounts of how this visit was experienced and understood. The first is a direct description in which the progress of the visit is reported from the perspective of its direct impact on the four people directly involved.

Early Wednesday afternoon Brother Preston leaves the parsonage and walks across town to the Feltner house, ... The town is shut against the weather, and quiet except for the sounds everywhere of water dripping and running. He meets no one along the road. There is no sign of life at the Feltners' either.
 ... He draws a small black leather Testament out of his coat pocket , faces the door and knocks. His knock is itself an act of ministerial discretion; the sound is perfectly modulated, both quiet and loud enough.  As he waits he continues to face the door, standing erect , lifting himself slightly forward now and then onto the balls of his feet, patting the little Testament with a sort of casual correctness against the palm of his hand.
The door is opened by Margaret Feltner.
She smiles, greets him, moves aside from the entrance in welcome. The openness of her welcome is a little disconcerting; she is putting him at his ease - which is not why he has come. He senses that she has anticipated him, forseen his coming and his purpose, but greets him now on her terms, not his. (p.95)
The minister sits down while Mat is called back by Margaret from the barn.

Out of the sound of her voice - not speaking to him now, remote from him - and out of the look and atmosphere of the room where he sits, there comes to him the sense of the completeness of this household, the belonging together of Mat and Margaret Feltner, the generosity of these people, in which there is maybe no need form him. He is alone in his mission, which whole in itself surrounds him with its demands and isolates him. Uneasiness coming over him, a swift tremor, he thinks of the burden of his duty. And then, as though under the pressure of his own hand, he knows his old submission to the mastering of this duty and he knows he will do it. (p.96)
 While waiting for Mat the preacher sits talking with the two women about trifles, by unspoken mutual agreement staying clear of their feelings and the shared understanding of the purpose of the visit. The preacher is not unaware of the emotions and the body language of the two women and Berry portrays him as in many ways very aware of the unspoken messages. Watching Margaret ...

He believes that he sees in her face the marks of her grief for her son - but no sign that she expects to be comforted, or asks to be.  ... To Brother Preston, it is as if something in her leans in waiting, not for him to begin the business of his visit but for Mat. (p.97)

When Mat..returns from the barn the conversation remains at the level of pastime which as Berry observes ...  moves by no force of its own but by a determination in all of them against silence.(p.97)  The preacher struggles with hesitation feeling that he is failing in his duty. Finally he moves into a break in the conversation ... "My friends, I've come because I know of your trouble".

But he has begun and he goes on hastened like a man walking before a strong wind, moved no longer by his own intention but by the force of what he is saying.  His eyes have become detached from his hearers; he might be speaking from his pulpit now, looking at all, seeing none. But beneath the building edifice of  his meaning, he is aware of something falling between them. It is as though in the very offering of comfort to them he departs from them. And now he is hastened also by an urgency of haste. He feels the force of his voice is turning back toward himself, that he is fleeing from the safe coherence of his own words, away from those faces shut between him and their pain. He speaks into their silence like a man carrying a map in a strange country in the dark.(p.98)
Mat in his response of listening to the preacher is aware of his need to bear with Margaret and Hannah what he is coming to accept through the fear that he is acknowledging will be the loss of their son Virgil. The  preacher's voice is by this stage riding above mortal and worldly hope, moving toward rest in the hope of Heaven.

In the preacher's words the Heavenly city has risen up, surmounting their lives,  ... the final hope in which all the riddles and ends of the world are gathered, illuminated and bound. This is the preacher's hope, and  he is moved to it alone, outside the claims of time and sorrow, by the motion of desire which he calls faith. In it having invoked it and raised it up, he is free of the world.
Mat in Berry's account is not free to engage with this hope as announced by the preacher. Berry here is moving it seems to me by the impulse towards tracing out tine implications of the incarnation as opposed to the dangers of the unintentional but nevertheless real evangelical gnosticism of the preacher.
He (Mat) is doomed to hope in this world, in the bonds of his own love. ... His hope of Heaven, must be the hope of a man bound to the world that his life is not ultimately futile, or ultimately meaningless, a hope more burdening than despair.
It is from this possibility of meaninglessness that the preacher has retreated. So that the earth will not be plunged into darkness, he has lifted up the Heavenly City and hastened to refuge in its gates. and Mat in the act of leaning toward that restfulness, turns away from it to take back his pain. (p.99)
The preacher as the interview comes to a close feels that he is the subject of the generosity of Margaret and Hannah ... that they are offering to him, out of some kind of hospitality, the safe abstraction of his belief. (p.99)

The second perspective on the visit comes later when Brother Preston returns to the church and reflects on the visit.

He came away from the Feltner house grieved by the imperfection of his visit. It was not as he hoped it would be, a conversation, It was a sermon. this is the history of his life in Port William. The Word, in his speaking it, fails to be made flesh.  ... He belongs to the governance of those he ministers to without belonging to their knowledge, the bringer of the Word preserved from flesh. (P.101)

The third perspective comes in a letter from Burley Coulter in a letter to his nephew Nathan Coulter serving overseas and reflects Burley's presumption as to how the interview went based on his experience with the minister following the death of his older nephew Tom.

Wednesday after the news had pretty well got around, I seen Brother Piston going in up there at Mat's. And I says to Jayber "I know the speech he's going to make". And so would all of us. He came and said all that to me after we knew Tom was dead. and none of it quite fit.  ... Here in away he came to say the last words over Tom. And what claim did he have to do it? He never done a day's work with us in his life, nor could have. He never did stand up in his ache and sweat and go down the row with us. He never tasted any of our sweat in the water jug. And I was thinking, Preacher, who are you to speak of Tom to me, who him and knew the very smell of him?
And he sat there in your granddaddy's chair, with his consolations and his old speech,. Just putting our names in the blanks. and I thought, Preacher, he's dead, he's not here, and you'll never know what it is that's gone. (p.104)
Berry leaves us with a rich account of the complexity of what is going on in these pastoral conversations. There is no doubt that he places a strong emphasis on the limits of what the minister has to contribute. What he leave us with is an emphasis on the active role of those who are suffering grief and loss. That there is a mutuality in the encounter cannot be doubted and that underlying this is a strong ecclesiology - not of the institutional church but of membership of a community of people committed to a common place, a common purpose and the good work of sharing a life, work, food, joy and grief and  an accountability for the care of the land that they are part of.

But that brings me to some broader theological issues in the work of Wendell Berry and that will have to wait  as i anticipated for part 3 of this blog.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Wendell Berry and pastoral theology - Part 1

Doing some reading recently through some of Wendell Berry's novels I was struck by his account of a number of incidents of death and dying and attempts at pastoral visitation. I thought that these rich accounts of the interaction between the minister and the families might prove a rich source for reflection by those involved in such visitation. Certainly there is a substantial cultural difference between early 20th century Kentucky the situation a century later in Australia. Nevertheless, I reckon there is still something to be learnt particularly for engagement in pastoral care with people who are members of the Christian community. Stories such as this are a great source of material for reflection as they are interesting to read and rich in substance and nuance in a way that formal case studies can never be.

The first incident comes in The Memory of Old Jack as Matt Feltner the long time friend of "Old Jack" (Jack Beechum), takes up the responsibility for organising his funeral to prevent the funeral falling into the hands of Jack's daughter and son-in-law from whom he was deeply estranged, in both sympathy, and understanding as to what was important in life. Jack remained committed to his farm and community while they had moved to the city and lived life devoted to the pursuit of money and its comforts.

The story displays Matt's efforts to be faithful to the friendship in death, a claim that for him overrides the formal claims of family. Matt,
... put on his glasses and looked up the number and dialed the undertaker in Hargrave. It was a strange and stubborn mood he was in. He was standing guard over Old Jack and over his death. He would not have the outline of that absence blurred or its dimension narrowed. The voice of the gentleman at the other end of the wire was full of solicitude, prepared for death no matter whose, and Matt propped himself against it. The voice assumed that Matt would be down later to select a coffin and to make the necessary arrangements. Matt thought not. The gentleman would be informed of the arrangements when they were made; as for a coffin the dead would be well satisfied with whatever was cheapest. Ans so it went on. Each exchange followed by a silence in which the gentleman on the other end was perhaps taking notes. The dead, Matt allowed were noted for their frugality. (p.149)
Matt then moves on to deal with the preacher, Brother Wingfare, a seminary student recently arrived in the community to arrange the actual funeral service. The seminarian was,
... a pale, slightly plump, impeccable young man, very new to his profession, eager to please both God and man, a difficulty of which he had not yet encountered either extreme. He began of course by saying that though he had not had the privilege of knowing- uh- Mr Beechum, he was very sorry to learn that he was dead. "But' he said " the Lord knows of our affliction, and is our refuge in the hour of trouble. ... Matt sat down in the easy chair facing the preacher."Well" he said "I don't know that you should be sorry. After all you didn't know him particularly. And it is not a tragedy when a man dies at the end of his life." (p.150)

The interview of Matt's with the preacher continues where it has begun, on Matt's terms, with each of the assumptions of that the preacher makes is undercut by Matt's directions as to what needs to be done and how the service will be conducted. The entire exchange reverses our presumptions as to how such a conversation should be conducted and who is in charge and who is the specialist in such a time and on such an occasion. After announcing that what is required is a simple graveside service, Matt goes on to explain to the preacher why he is making this request.

"My friend" he said "I want you to understand this". He considered a moment and went on. "He was not a churchly man. He was a man of unconfining righteousness. He stuck with us to the end. He never liked a great deal of fussing and formality, and we don't want to impose it on him now. That would be kicking him while he's down, if you know what I mean.

Brother Wingfare either did, or did not know what was meant. He did not say. But he was paying attention. He heard something in Matt's voice that did not permit his mind to wander. There was a strange authority in this old man with his white hair, with the dirt of the filed on his clothes, who spoke as the younger kinsman of a dead man much older. Nothing in his training at seminary had prepared him for this. He was supposed to be the spiritual authority. But he knew he was receiving orders. And he was afraid he was taking orders.(p.151)

Matt presents him with a list of Psalms that he wants read, that will comprise the service. There is then an exchange with the preacher who asks if he wants a few remarks, or a prayer at the end of the service, a request which is answered with a clear and definite no. As it happens when it comes to the service, the preacher ignores this final instruction. and after reading the Psalms well, as Matt acknowledges, then launches into a long prayer, which Berry reports with an acute ear for the genre, ... and having thus notified the Almighty of so much, the truth or error of which, He presumably already knew, Brother Wingfare concludes by imploring special blessings upon the bereaved mourners in their hour of sorrow. (p.160)

The question of authority in this context, who has it, and on what basis is it exercised is central to this moment in the novel. Matt is exercising his authority out of his place in the membership of the community of Port William and his relationship over time, and in that place, to the other members of that community. Granting of specialist religious authority by a distant institution does not cut the mustard in Berry's telling of the story. It is Matt, not Brother Wingfare who has faithfully exercised his authority in the conduct of the burial.

In Part Two of the blog on this theme, I will look at another incident, this time in A Place on Earth, involving a pastoral conversation with a family dealing with the news that one of its members has gone missing in action during World War 2.  I suspect that there will be a Part Three looking more broadly at what Wendell Berry has to offer on the practice of ministry, drawing on a discussion by Kyle Childress that forms a chapter in Wendell Berry and Religion: Heaven's Earthly Life.

Blogging through Advent Ist Sunday

 1Advent appeals to me in one way but is an uncomfortable time as well. It is part of the church year that makes sense to me, in the way that it provides an approach to Christmas, in a way that Lent, quite frankly does not.In other words I "get" the liturgical logic of Advent. Lent as a time of discipline and learning to be disciples, of disciplining our desires, fits much more appropriately, in my view, into the long haul of "ordinary time". The approach to Easter is a time of engagement with the world of the principalities and powers, the time of public witness and confrontation as God's kingdom confronts the powers that be and the injustice and exploitation of Empire.

Anyway this year I thought I would try blogging on the Scripture readings for each Sunday in Advent, noting some thoughts and questions, using the readings in Sojourners - noting that the lectionary they use may differ somewhat from those in use in mainstream churches in Australia. Before moving to that I want to draw attention to a great collection of readings: Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas put together by the folks at Plough Publishing, still in print I believe. Some of them are brief, suitable for meditative reading. while others are longer. there is a hard challenging edge to the readings, particularly for Advent.

Isaiah 2:1-5 reminds us that the coming of God's kingdom is not some detached spiritual affair, unconnected to our politics and economics. Laurel A Dykstra in comments on this in Sojourners preaching the Word Commentary points out that:

The transformation of weapons into tools used for planting and harvesting crops shows that war and hunger are intimately connected, that finite resources cannot feed both the hungry and conquest. As Dwight Eisenhower said of modern weapons in a 1953 speech, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in a final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.” 

The Isaiah reading also points out the deliberate and studied nature of war: Nations learn and teach it. It is neither natural nor accidental when farmers are trained as soldiers and tools of life become tools of death.
Romans 13:11-14 offers us a challenge to our frenetic consumerism - anticipating the demands of Lent where they are separated from the themes of waiting and anticipation that Advent offers. Walter Brueggeman, the distinguished old Testament scholar makes this connection explicit in Light the First Candle in his discussion of the passages for this day:
These readings ponder both preparation and expectation

The preparation is delineated in Romans 13. Paul urges the avoidance of “reveling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling, and jealousy” (verse 13). The mad rush of “Christmas preparation” drives us to self-indulgence and enough fatigue to make us edgy and quarrelsome. The alternative for Paul is to be unlike the world and not consumed by our “desires.”

The Gospel reading for the day, Matthew 24: 36-44 writes the message of waiting and expectation in large letters, underlining the theme. Matthew hits bold and underlines his theme to make sure we don't miss it.

Bonnie Greene in her meditation on this passage comments that:
Jesus' story of the people working in the field, one of whom was taken and the other left, has often been a touchstone of traditional spiritualities, particularly of the "that's incredible" variety. Most are otherworldly and focused on a Jesus who appears to bear the passkey to an otherworldly kingdom of God.

But there is afoot another spirituality that also draws life from this passage, one that is firmly rooted in human life and is responsive to the needs of our times. People who practice it tend to stress the real, historical Jesus and his behavioral as well as verbal announcement of the kingdom. For these people, Jesus' call to be alert and watchful for the coming of the Son of Man is a call to a way of life sensitive to God's active work of deliverance for the people of this world. Such a spirituality requires them to scan the horizon incessantly, watching for signs of renewal, for evidence that the suffering are rising up to new life.

In some parts of the world it's hard to miss the signs of God's work among people. But for us in the industrialized countries of the North, the distinction is often blurred by too close association with life-as-it-is-now; we haven't developed the skill to discern the spirits of our time. If the Son of God were to appear among us, some would scarcely recognize him; others would be utterly surprised and unprepared. (God in Mcdonald's)

The time of waiting in Matthew draws upon the somewhat discordant idea of God as a burglar.
Bill Wylie-Kellermann in Barbed wire and beyond: a theology of trespass unpacks this disturbing theme in a reflection on the activist tradition of Christian witness.
The preface to John's Gospel identifies the light with Christ Jesus. He is the one shining in the darkness and not overcome. It is abundantly clear that the light is not at all welcome in the world. He is not recognized or received, but hated and rejected. From the standpoint of the world and its claims, the incarnation is an intrusion, a divine incursion.

It is, I suppose, a kind of cosmic trespass. I am led to think of the way the New Testament speaks of the Lord's coming as a "thief in the night." The metaphor has always been troublesome to me. It evokes a little cringe. Our Lord the cat burglar. The point, of course, is the unexpected timing of things, but I suspect a further implication. Perhaps this glorified "breaking and entering" implies the breaking of our false securities. Our lives are penetrated and vulnerable. We are broken into. Here again, we find the truth sneaking in our back door.
Advent then is about dealing with a disturbance of our certainties and a breaking open of our comfortable life of business as usual. Perhaps our conversion starts from here.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Feast of Christ the King - subverting our ideas about Kingship

Simon Barrow in his column The subversive feast of Christ the King comments that:

After days of wall-to-wall media coverage about royalty, churches across Britain have today celebrated Jesus Christ as the true king. This is a truly subversive claim.

A carpenter's son executed as a political troublemaker by an oppressive regime does not conform to our understandings of monarchy; even less so when he teaches that the first will be last and the last first. The man who announced his engagement last week appears to be a far more suitable candidate for the position. 

The claim that Christ is king not only subverts common expectations about the nature of power. It is also a reminder that no-one can serve two kings. If Christ is king, then no other person or institution can demand our total loyalty – whether William Windsor, the British state, the free market or even the Church. 

Many early Christians attracted extra persecution by refusing to declare that “Caesar is Lord”. If Christ is Lord, they reasoned, then Caesar cannot be. After the coming of Christendom – when the Church became allied with the forces of power and wealth – this claim was softened. In order to get round the problem, earthly monarchs were presented as representatives of Christ. 

But if we no longer accept the notion that monarchs are anointed by God, why are we prepared to acknowledge anyone other than Christ as our king? It may well be argued that the British monarch has no real power. This claim is an exaggeration, but there is a lot of truth in it. However, the very use of words such as “king”, “queen” and “lord” reinforces the values of hierarchy and privilege whose emptiness is exposed by Jesus' radical message of the Kingdom of God.
Curiously enough there is support for the subversion of commonly accepted cultural ideas of kingship extends back beyond the New Testament accounts of Jesus that go back deep into the history of Israel. One of the more unexpected of these surfaces in the Old Testament reading for the Feast of Christ the King, in of all places the book of Deuteronomy. The account of kingship offered in Deuteronomy 17 attaches some requirements that qualify the support for the people of Israel having a king so drastically as to redefine the nature of kingship.

The king is not to:
  • have "too many horses" particularly from Egypt - limiting his military power severely
  • have too many wives - limiting the options for building alliances 
  • try to get huge amounts of silver and gold - again limiting the basis for dynastic power
  • not think of himself as better than anyone else - that is he is not to consider himself superior to his fellow Israelites - like them he is under God
The king must: 
  •  write out a copy of God's laws under the supervision of the priests
  • must read and obey these laws
  • learn to worship the Lord with fear and trembling
Given that the kings of the ancient near east saw themselves as having unquestioned and unlimited power and authority the limits placed on kingship in Deuteronomy fundamentally redefine the role of kingship. The authors of Deuteronomy are contributing to an ongoing argument in Israel about the desirability of kingship and its character and provide an account which cuts against the grain of their time and place.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Radical Christianity - Anabaptists & anarchy

The connections between radical Christianity in its Anabaptist form and a christian anarchy have not received a lot of attention but really come to focus in the life and writings of the southern Baptist activist and theologian Will Campbell. Christians uneasy with institutional church structures might find themselves both encouraged and disturbed by him. I'll try and use this blog as a work in progress.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

What is a good death?

Wendell Berry is a joy to read whether it be his essays, poetry or his novels. I have been rereading this week That Distant Land: The Collected Stories (Counterpoint, 2004) that being together all his stories about the small town of Port William in Kentucky.

This is a wonderful collection of stories that span nearly a century and encompass a variety of themes and emotions. Helpfully the contents pages gives a date for the story and locates it chronologically in relation to the other novels about Port William. 

One story in particular moved me to tears and set me thinking about the question: what is a good death? The issue is not academic as I am currently watching a family close to me try and accompany some one close to them trough the end of his life.

In "Fidelity" Berry explores what faithfulness means as we accompany someone in their dying. Burley Coulter is seriously ill and his family and friends who want to do something to express their car and concern take him to the Doctor who has him rushed off to hospital in the nearest city. There he is hooked up to all the machines and drips, the technology that expresses the predominant way we express our care for those who are dying. His family and friends quickly come to the conclusion that they have made a mistake.

When they had returned on yet another visit and found the old body still as it had been, a mere passive addition to the complicated machines that kept it minimally alive, they saw finally that in their attempt to help they had not helped but only complicated his disease beyond their power to help. And they thought with regret of the time when the thing that was wrong with him had been simply unknown and there had been only it and him and them in the place they had known together. Loving him, wanting to help him they had given him over to "the best of modern medical care" - which meant as they now saw they had abandoned him. (p.376)
 Berry is asking here, are there other ways of expressing faithfulness to the dying beyond that of the technology of medicine.

Berry as he unfolds the story is clearly not convinced that dependence on technology is the only possibility for a good death. But how is Burley to escape from the clutches of the hospital and the medical profession?

Burley's son Danny determines that faithfulness to his father requires that he be removed from the hospital which he proceeds to do that night without seeking the permission of the medical staff.

Danny's presence with Burley during the final hours of his life, his care for him and his burial in the woods where Burley has been most at home throughout his life is told with a restraint that is all the more powerful for its disciplined description of that presence and care. Berry's description of Burley's death is intertwined with the story of his community's support for Danny and approval of what they assume he has done and is doing against the forces of law and order's attempt to track down Burley.

In balance against the grief of Burley's death the other strand of the story has moments of humour and drama as the detective who supposed to be asking the questions finds himself under question as the community of Burley's friends gather to in a strange way give witness to Burley's life and why his disappearance is in keeping with the way he lived his life. In the course of that discussion Berry has the opportunity to ask some questions about whose interests are in fact being served by the specialisation of medicine particularly in the time of dying. The exchanges between Wheeler Catlett the community solicitor and the somewhat confused detective left me at times jolting between grief and an almost spluttering guffaw.

Berry too is no mean theologian. Wheeler Catlett takes his cue from Augustine in his discussion with the detective regarding the proper use of the law.

"Well anyway " Detective Bode said, "all I know is that the law has been broken, and that I am hereto serve the law".

"But my boy, you don't eat or drink the law, or sit in the shade of it, or warm yourself by it, or wear it, or have your being in it. The law exists only to serve."

"Serve what?"
"Why, all the things that are above it. Love."(p.418)
Brian Volck a medical practitioner who is himself no mean theologian, in his discussion of this story, comments that:
"Wheeler Catlett know something that his interlocutor, Detective Bode could not: that things are never as discrete and separable as we wish, that autonomy and specialisation, for all their productive power, cause apart from an embodied regard of a contextual whole. ... Wheeler - who chides Bode after the detective angrily accuses Danny Branch of burying Burley Coulter "somewhere in these end-of-nowhere godforsaken hill and hollows" - also knows something about finding grace and holiness even in the end-of-nowhere places of the created world. As Berry notes elsewhere:
There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places

Like a broken clock Detective Bode could not help but be right on occasion. Danny did in fact bury Burley in the hills the old man loved. Danny, who understands the landscape as anything but "godforsaken" returns after the burial to a Port William membership with "the aspect and the brightness of one who had borne the dead to the grave, and filled the grave to the brim, and received the dead back to life." ("Mr Berry Goes to Medical School" p. 46 in Wendell Berry and Religion: Heaven's Earthly Life edited by Joel James Shuman & Roger Owens University Press of Kentucky, 2009)
To return to the issue of dying well. For Berry this is not something that we can do alone, it is not a project arising from our autonomy as an individual charting our own life. Dying well requires that we be part of a community who can sustain us in our vulnerability and carry us with their presence when we can no longer walk by ourselves or even articulate clearly our intentions. We need a community who can remember who we were and who we have become so that they can express that appropriately in our dying.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Theology, politics an spirituality

I have been reading Barry Harvey's dense but significant book Can These Bones Live? A Catholic Baptist Engagement with Ecclesiology, Hermeneutics and Social Theory (Brazos, 2008).

A few notes on ideas and passages that struck me particularly in the second part of the book relating to the issue of spirituality.
 The fear of God entails accepting our very existence as gift, and to accept this is to come face to face with our contingency, our vulnerability as creatures, And from  this fact, says Nicholas Lash, nothing follows. Here we are. This is how things are. That's it. No safety belts, no metacosmic maps or guidebooks, no mental cradles for our 'ultimate' security. (pp252-3)
The spirituality promoted by state and market, by contrast, seeks constantly to capitalise on our fear of death, so that they might manipulate our creaturely vulnerability and anxiety to consolidate their hold upon our loyalty. Popular piety corrupts the insatiable human longing for wholeness and integrity with the lure of security, safety, stability and predictability through the eradication of tragedy. ... In some ... the lust for mastery runs roughshod over our created solidarity with one another and with all the world, as we are alternatively encouraged, enticed and threatened to seek safety and stability by taking ownership of the people and things around us.  For others ... the quest for security serves to drive them further and further away from the pain and disappointment of day-to-day contact with others, in a vain attempt to carve out an inner world of safety and tranquility within themselves. They flee to the inner garden of the soul to be alone with Jesus. (pp.256-7)
The discipline of unselfing divests us of the illusion that "I" exist apart from creation, apart from history, apart from a community, apart from a tradition, apart from the habits and relations that comprise my dealings with others. It is a discipline of demythologizing the working assumptions of contemporary existence, foremost among which is the idea that each of us is free to make up our own story, that our lives belong to ourselves instead of being a gift. (p.260)
 On Remembrance Day the following passage seems highly relevant:
 ...our own speech betrays us, for while the making of offerings to blood-thirsty gods is not generally a part of the working vocabulary of most nations, the language of martyrdom and sacrifice ... most certainly is. Time and again those in the military who have died for their country are extolled as having made "the supreme sacrifice." The question immediately arises: (Note: or it should but mostly doesn't) To whom do we offer this sacrifice, if not to the gods? If we respond to the God of Abraham ... then it would seem we are tacitly admitting that Christ's sacrifice was not sufficient ... If we say instead that we offer it to the nation-state of which we are a part, we are granting to a part of the created order what belongs entirely to God ... (pp268-9)

Thursday, 28 October 2010

27-28 October - some significant dates in war, peace and religion

30 October Remembering Marcellus Good blog entry by Tobias Winright on Saint Marcellus

Simon Barrow on the Ekklesia website has drawn attention to some significant events associated with 27-28 October, contrasting Imperial versus non-imperial Christianity.

... 27 & 28 October, are key dates in Christian history. Constantine's 'vision of the Cross' in 312, and his attribution of military victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge the next day to God, was the beginning of Christendom in Europe - an era which mixed civilisation with bloodshed, saints with militarism, and faith with often brutal sacralised-secular power.

With the defeat of Maxentius, Constantine became the sole Roman Emperor. The subsequent decree of religious toleration, which established Christianity alongside others in the Imperial pantheon, spared Christians persecution - but embroiled them in power politics in a way which bypassed or reversed key aspects of the Gospel message. The Jesus who refused violence and favoured the poor, women and the despised became an embarassment. He was replaced with an imperial version of Christ, degrading both his humanity and divinity.

The disease involved in all this was widespread. On 27 October in 1553 Michael Servetus burned as a heretic just outside Geneva. On the same day in 1659, two Quakers who came to America from England, to escape religious persecution, were executed in Massachusetts Bay Colony for their beliefs.

Yet embedded in this disturbing history (not least in its victims) there is another, liberating story. The Anabaptists, the Quakers and other non-conformists refused state religion and violence. In the nineteenth and twentieth century Christians campaigned for social justice and helped form peace movements which had a worldwide impact.

On 27 October 1967 Catholic priest, theologian and activist Philip Berrigan and three others (the 'Baltimore Four') protestested against the Vietnam War by pouring their own blood on Selective Service records - a very different understanding of the meaning of the Cross to the one Constantine perpetuated.

Then on 27 October 1968, 120,000 marched against war in London, urged on by campaigning Anglican priest Canon John Collins, one of a range of clerical heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Here we see the two sides of Christianity: not so much 'liberal' versus 'conservative', but an imperial version of the faith captive to earthly power, contrasting with a non- or post-imperial (and now post-Christendom) understanding of the Gospel, recovering the dynamic of the originating Jesus movement.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The gods of war

One of the more disturbing and yet revealing themes introduced to justify Australian military engagement in the (civil ?) war in Afghanistan is the argument that we need to keep going with the war and succeed in our aims, whatever they are, or else the deaths of Australian soldiers will have been in vain.

The logic of this is that the more deaths there are the more we should keep going with the involvement, otherwise their deaths will have been in vain. the more soldiers that die the more deaths we should be prepared to envisage to justify the increasing number of deaths.

This is nothing less than worshiping death - military deaths demand ongoing participation in war. From a Christian point of view this is a form of idolatry - the gods of war having received the "sacrifices" of the death of young Australians demand further sacrifices to justify the initial sacrifices.

Where is the point at which we stop this ongoing spiral of death demanding death?

Sunday, 17 October 2010

What is religion?

The loose use of the term religion as though we all know and understand what the term refers to continues to infuriate and frustrate me. David Bentley Hart has a passage in an entertaining and instructive article "On the Trail of the Snark with Daniel Dennett" that explains why I am frustrated.  The article appears in a collection of articles and essays entitled: In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments (Eerdmans, 2009).

And here, I think it needs mentioning - just for precision's sake - that religion does not actually exist. Rather there are a very great number of traditions of belief and practice that, for the sake of convenience we call "religions", but that could scarcely differ from one another more. Perhaps it might seem sufficient, for the purposes of research, simply to identify general resemblances among these traditions: but even that is notoriously hard to do, since every effort to ascertain what sort of things one is looking at involves an enormous amount of interpretation, and no clear criteria for evaluating any of it. One cannot establish where the boundaries lie between "religious" systems and  magic, or "folk science", or myth, or social ceremony. (Comment Anzac Day services?) There is not any compelling reason to assume a genetic continuity or kinship between, say, shamanistic beliefs and developed rituals of sacrifice, or between tribal cults, and traditions like Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, or to assume that these various developed traditions are varieties of the same thing. One may feel that there is a continuity or kinship, or presuppose on the basis of one's prejudices, inklings or tastes that the extremely variable and imprecise characteristic of "a belief in the supernatural" constitutes proof of a common ancestry or type; but all of this remains a matter of interpretation, vague morphologies, and personal judgments of value and meaning, and attempting to construct a science around such intuitions can amount to little more than mistaking "all the things I don't believe int" for a scientific genus. One cannot even demonstrate that apparent similarities of behavior between cultures manifest similar rationales, as human consciousness is so promiscuously volatile a catalyst in social evolution. ...
Moreover, the task of delineating the "phenomenon" of religion in the abstract becomes perfectly hopeless as soon as one begins to examine what particular traditions of faith actually claim, believe, or do. It is already difficult enough to define what sort of thing religion is,. But what sort of thing is the Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Truths? What sort of thing is the Vedantic doctrine that Atman and Brahman are one? What sort of thing is the Christian belief in Easter"? What is the core and what are the borders of this "phenomenon"? what are its empirical causes? What are its rationales? Grand empty abstractions about religion ares as easy to produce as to ignore. These by contrast are questions that touch on what persons actually believe; and to answer them requires an endless hermeneutic labor - an investigation of history, and intellectual traditions and contemplative lore ... (pp.192-193)
William Cavanaugh reaches a similar conclusion in his analysis of the difficulty of categorising what is and isn't a religion for the purposes of the flourishing scholarly industry over the relationship between religion and violence.  Cavanaugh makes clear in The Myth of Religious Violence  in a way that is not quite as clear in Hart's discussion the extent to which any consistent account of specific religions will end up drawing political and civic religions into the scope of scholarly work in this field.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Saying sorry is hard to do ...

Lutherans and Anabaptists in July this year took a big step towards tidying up some unfinished and deeply painful business from the Reformation. (I know, its October now but I only just got my head up from trying to put together a PhD proposal.)

Representatives from the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) asked forgiveness for the violent persecution of the Anabaptists in the 16th century and the negative portrayal of these Christian groups in their churches and theological institutions.

The interesting thing about the service of repentance and forgiveness was that it involved the Lutherans having to begin a process of teaching and re-interpreting their confessional documents, particularly the Augsburg Confession in the light of their seeking forgiveness for this violence. If you know how attached Lutherans are to their confessions you will realise what a big step this is.

The joint study report from the LWF and the Mennonite World Conference opens up the issue of how the story of that sixteenth century encounter in its violence and condemnation can now be retold.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Globalization of the church

Alan and Eleanor Kreider have done a great job with Worship and Mission after Christendom in providing an account of mission, worship and their connection that is reflective, informed by scholarship but is at the same time really accessible. Discussion of the contents in detail will haveto wait for another time.

A quote on the globalization of the church caught my attention.
Civil authorities may perceive the globalization of the church as subversive. The nation state attempts to constrict the freedom of affinity groups that come between the individual citizen and the nation, particularly if they are transnational. This is what the church of pre-Christendom was and the church of post-Christendom can be. William Cavanaugh rightly notes, "Christianity  produces divisions within the state body precisely because it pretends to be a body which transcends state boundaries." We Christians have a prior loyalty and a larger loyalty than the nation state. (p177)
Indeed. One other implication beside the relativisation of the claims of national identity is that the consumer capitalism shares with the nation state an interest in the creation of "the individual"who can more easily be shaped as a consumer if there are no intermediate bodies that might provide an alternative shaping of desires to that offered by advertising.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Travel Warnings

The latest round of public warnings by authorities in the US and the UK about potential terrorist attacks continues to leave me slightly puzzled. What are the relevant populations supposed to do with such warnings? What in practice can we do to respond to such warnings in any meaningful way?

Stay away from classy hotels that cater to international visitors? That's about all that I can come up with. Tough luck for the people who are employed in such facilities and cannot afford to change their job on the very slight chance that their might be a terrorist attack. There is a bit of a class bias there. Do we expect people in such places to resign their jobs in the face of ill-defined and statistically low level of risk?

What is the impact on the population at large of warnings that you cannot do anything much with? I am not a social psychologist but it seems plausible to me that the only result of such warnings can be to add to an undefined sense of fear and uncertainty.

The only value of such warnings is that they provide cover for the backside of government if their is a terrorist attack that enables them to say that they provided the public with a warning and justify the increasingly large and unjustifiable amounts of public funding spent on so called "security".

In a time where people are dying in large numbers from preventable disease that can be addressed at a relatively low cost, the expenditure of increasing amounts of money to prevent relatively small numbers of deaths in response to terrorist threats becomes increasingly hard to justify from a moral point of view,.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Resuming normal service...

Work on putting together a proposal for a PhD has slowed down my attempts at blogging with any regularity. As the end of that exercise is in sight ....

Brief note on climate change - the anticipated threshold for dangerous levels of impact might have been set too high at 2 degrees C.
... a study published in the September issue of the Journal of Quaternary Science suggests that the threshold may be lower than 2° C. (Click  for a press release on the research.)
“The results here are quite startling and, importantly, they suggest sea levels will rise significantly higher than anticipated and that stabilizing global average temperatures at 2˚C above pre-industrial levels may not be considered a ’safe’ target as envisaged by the European Union and others,” says study co-author Chris Turney of the University of Exeter in the U.K. (quoted in a press release).
This study has substantial implications for global policy making in terms of the targets that need to be met for cuts in emissions.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Right to die?

Clarity in the language of public debate would be wonderful. It is I think sadly lacking and nowhere more so than in the short hand surrounding the public debate on the legal issues related to life, death and dying.

The term "right to die" for example. Strictly speaking to talk of "a right to die" is redundant if not a nonsense. Dying is a necessary consequence of living. We do not get a choice about dying and consequently we need to make no claims about wanting to die as opposed for instance to the right to have a life which will not end. Neither are on offer and claiming aright to either is not something tht a court of law can assist us with nor will any government policy currently available.

Ah but I here the reader say that is not really what is meant by the phrase "right to die".

I agree. Let me translate the phrase or try and unpack it - what is meant be "the right to die" is something like:

-  assistance, or support to take one's own life at the point of one's own choice, without the persons assisting being subject to legal penalty. In summary people supporting such a claim are asking for active support for people to commit suicide, or relief from legal penalties for people who are implicated in what is actually the taking of a human life.

Committing suicide or assisting in taking a human life are actual acts in which volition is involved as opposed to "dying" which is something that one suffers or experiences.

The phrase "right to die" annoys me then for two reasons: it obscures the reality in human terms of what is involved and it does so by occluding the issue of agency and human responsibility.

None of this is designed to settle the issue of policy, how we are to be present with people in their dying and what the appropriate rules and policies around pain relief and withdrawal of treatment that respect the agency and humanity of all who are involved in such situations.

I am simply looking for clarity in language so that we can be as truthful as possible about the reality of the issues at stake.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Iraq after the Occupation

Christian Peacemaker Teams have issued a report on Iraq after the Occupation. Iraqis speak about the future of their country after the US military forces withdraw from combat missions.
This is an interesting report based on interviews with a variety of Iraqis that give their views on the future of their country.

As the US military seeks to wash its hands of Iraq, proclaiming victory and independence for the country it invaded in 2003, the truth is much more complex than the US narrative seeks to present. The contribution of the surge to a reduction in violence in Iraq is questionable. Opinions on the reliability of the Iraqi security forces, although not entirely negative, vary widely. Iraq faces an uncertain future, perhaps a success story of democracy, stability and reconciliation – but perhaps many more years of bloodshed, hatred and oppression.

The responsibility of the United States and its allies for this must not be ignored, as several respondents have clearly noted. However, CPT Iraq believes the United States cannot be solely held responsible for success or failure in Iraq. Many interviewees mentioned the responsibility of neighboring states, and of Iraqis themselves, ranging from top politicians to normal citizens. Much remains to be done that cannot be done by the United States, and will need to be shouldered by the Iraqi people.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Christendom and mapping religion

Attended the first day of a four day roundtable on spirituality in Australia to celebrate twenty five years of the Christian Research Association of Australia - an amazing effort by Philip Hughes at an intellectual level. (I was there to talk about spirituality and the Public service).

What struck me during the presentations on the first morning was that the basic research paradigm for the sociology of religion that had guided the work of both CRA and the NCLS reproduced the assumptions of Christendom and its decline without making those assumptions explicit. To put it another way, the ecclesiology is uncritically shaped by the Christendom paradigm. It finds what it looks for but doesn't find what it doesn't look for because its sociology and ecclesiology shapes the research program.

Let me see if I can unpack this:
  • the assumptions about church attendance are assumed to represent the norm for the pattern of the ekklesia, the gathering of the people of God for their public witness in the world.
  • the research focuses on attendance as part of an institutional structure on Sunday, that is an expression of something called religion - this is form a theological and historical point of view anachronistic
  • the research approach fails to to recognise or map the activity of christians as the scattered people of God - it fails to pick up the reality of disorganised religion, people gathering outside formally organised institutions or in movements that express Christian faith in terms of movement style characteristics nurtured by organisations such as for example TEAR.
  • The research paradigm fails to take account of the migration of the sacred into forms of civil religion