The-Oak-Tree-by-Craig-Martin

“The Oak Tree” by Michael Craig-Martin

The following reflections from Matt Walsh helpfully uncover the shallow “authenticity” of our identity-obsessed age:

I don’t believe that Grayson’s affinity for My Little Pony has anything to do with “individuality” or “self-expression.” This is a cartoon show produced by a subsidiarity of the multinational conglomerate known as Hasbro. The Pony gear is mass produced kid’s apparel, which his mother likely bought at Toys ‘R Us, Target, Walmart, or some such place. This stuff is packaged, marketed, and sold in bulk. Individuality? Hardly. Call it whatever you want to call it, but “individuality” isn’t involved here.

As mentioned above, many bloggers and internet commenters have lamented that Grayson is being made to feel ashamed of “who he is.”

Seriously?

So he is defined by his affection for cartoon unicorns, is he? That backpack speaks to the very substance of his soul, does it?

This is precisely the problem with modern culture (well, one of the many problems). We all walk around following fads and trends — some of which are DESIGNED to elicit glares and guffaws from non-trendy “prudes” — and then we act as if we’ve been attacked on a molecular level when someone expresses distaste for our plastic-wrapped, calculated, corporately constructed “image.” I’m not accusing nine-year-old Grayson of falling into this category, but this does describe many in the Outraged Mass who choose to hoist up a My Little Pony backpack, and march under it like a battle flag.

To prove my point, the “Bronies” have turned Grayson into a martyr for their cause.

What are Bronies, you ask? I was unfamiliar myself until recently. Evidently, these are a sub-culture of grown men who love My Little Pony. They gather together on internet forums and discuss the show. They congregate at Brony Conventions.

They are involved in a fad that is one in a long line of similar fads, all bound by one goal: to do bizarre things, then dare anyone to call it a bizarre thing.

I, for one, will take the challenge. It is bizarre for grown men to be such passionate lovers of a little girl’s cartoon show about unicorns.

Yes, it is bizarre. But bizarre ain’t unique these days. It isn’t individualistic or bold. It is precisely what it purports to attack: collectivism.

You should read the whole thing before accusing Walsh of being an insensitive asshole, since he repeatedly makes clear that the bullying is unjustified and should be punished. Of course, he will still be called an asshole, but that is par for the course nowadays. As far as I can tell, the millennial generation (those, like myself, born in the 80’s or 90’s) solely value a rather clearly identifiable pair of attributes: kindness/nicety and tolerance. These are fine qualities, to be sure, but they have a tendency toward banal self-assertion and ritualization of the same, to put it mildly. Saner generations would have called it narcissism, but apparently Jesus identified himself with the narcissistic credo’s of his day, not (as I thought) the sinners falling on their knees.

____________

Image: “The Oak Tree” by Michael Craig-Martin (1973), a famous and influential work of existential and postmodern “conceptual” art. In this instance, the artist defines the essence of a thing — or, as Sartre said, “existence precedes essence” — because essence is not a given or “out there” in the reality of a thing.

Needless to say, I despise this “art.”

Mozart composed this at only 19 in Salzburg, 1775. Hilary Hahn is graceful as always. The location is the Vatican for the celebration of Benedict XVI’s birthday. The production quality is very nice, and the video can be increased to high definition:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216
I. Allegro (00:00)
II. Adagio (10:35)
III. Rondeau. Allegro (21:00)
Hilary Hahn, violin
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

You can purchase the DVD of the entire concert.

Recent books of interest

March 25, 2014

Bach-Gardiner

I did a “recent books of interest” list this past September, and I think it is time for another one! So, here are some books that I have wisely and solemnly chosen to commend!

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John Eliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven

Paul Johnson, Mozart: A Life

Hanspeter Nüesch, Ruth and Billy Graham

Michael Bird, et al.How God Became Jesus: A Response to Bart Ehrman

Roger Scruton, The Soul of the World (a follow-up to The Face of God, which I really enjoyed)

Jason Goroncy, ed., Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth

D. G. Hart, Recovering Mother Kirk: The Case for Liturgy in the Reformed Tradition (back in print from W&S)

Buck Owens, Buck ‘Em!: The Autobiography of Buck Owens

Myk Habets, Theology in Transposition: A Constructive Appraisal of T. F. Torrance

Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology

Michael Horton, Calvin on the Christian Life

Stanley Rosen, The Idea of Hegel’s ‘Science of Logic’

John Walton and D. Brent Sandy, The Lost World of Scripture

Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal

George Marsden, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950’s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief

Douglas Moo, Galatians (BECNT)

Robert Hilburn, Johnny Cash: The Life

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Clearly, the most important book on this list is Buck Owens’ autobiography! Oh, and on the prior list of recent books, I tragically forgot to mention Travis McMaken’s book on why Barth doesn’t believe babies are loved by God, or something like that. I do plan to read it soon.

Gene Robinson

March 21, 2014

St. Stephen's Basilica

“Old School” Christianity

So, Bishop Gene Robinson, of gay Episcopal fame, is now doing a column for The Daily Beast. In his inaugural column, he manages to deliver every postmodern sentiment in his vast repertoire, including:

This column will also go far beyond Christianity. God is infinite, and it comes as no surprise to me that there have developed, over time, many credible and faithful approaches to understanding God. In the end, no religion holds a lock on the reality of God. Each religion grasps only a part of the infinite God and offers insight into God’s reality, and we would do well to exercise a good measure of humility in claiming we know God’s will. Better to begin each pronouncement we make about God with “In my experience…” or “From my perspective…” or simply “For me….” At the end of the day, no matter how much we believe we know God’s will, we must acknowledge that each of us is only doing the best she/he can.

Yep, “in my experience” the fullness of God dwelt bodily in Jesus Christ, but that’s just me talking. Jesus Christ is Lord of the universe my inner self.

Christians are being persecuted and killed at unprecedented rates around the world, all of which is totally unnecessary if they would simply explain to their persecutors that Jesus is just a subjective fancy, personally meaningful but nothing to get all upset about!

_______________

Image: St. Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest, Hungary. “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

Lutheran Satire

March 17, 2014

Within the last year, a number of blogs have posted sketches from Lutheran Satire, especially St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies. Here is their latest on why the kids are not alright:

They also have a hilarious take on Pope Francis. I love these guys!

SimoneWeil-attention

Simone Weil made a distinction between affliction (malheur) and simple suffering. Affliction is “a laceration of the soul” that endures, not a transitory moment of pain. There is a deep hopelessness for the afflicted. Their humanity has been forced into “thingness,” and there is no going back — at least not apart from a grace that pierces through this bondage or necessity (force). Weil explains this fundamental insight that permeates her theology:

In the realm of suffering, affliction is something apart, specific, and irreducible. It is quite a different thing from simple suffering. It takes possession of the soul and marks it through and through with its own particular mark, the mark of slavery. …Affliction is inseparable from physical suffering and yet quite distinct. With suffering, all that is not bound up with physical pain or something analogous is artificial, imaginary, and can be eliminated by a suitable adjustment of the mind. [Waiting for God, p. 67]

Weil’s remarkable skill is how she discerns the “imaginary” adjustments of our minds to deflect our attention away from affliction and the affliction of others. And in our own day, I would point toward an abundance of preachers and their followers as especially enthusiastic about making these “adjustments.” This is deeply ingrained in our churches. On this point, I offer you this perfect anecdote from Philip Yancey’s Reaching for the Invisible God:

My roommate for two years at a Christian college was a German named Reiner. Returning to Germany after graduation, Reiner taught at a camp for the disabled where, relying on college notes, he gave a stirring speech on the Victorious Christian Life. “Regardless of the wheelchair you are sitting in, you can have victory, a full life. God lives within you!” he told his audience of paraplegics, cerebral palsy patients, and the mentally challenged. He found it disconcerting to address people with poor muscle control. Their heads wobbled, they slumped in their chairs, they drooled.

The campers found listening to Reiner equally disconcerting. Some of them went to Gerta, director of the camp, and complained that they could not make sense of what he was saying. “Well then, tell him!” said Gerta.

One brave woman screwed up her courage and confronted Reiner. “It’s like you’re talking about the sun, and we’re in a dark room with no windows,” she said. “We can’t understand anything you say. You talk about solutions, about the flowers outside, about overcoming and victory. These things don’t apply to us in our lives.”

My friend Reiner was crushed. To him, the message seemed so clear. He was quoting directly from Paul’s epistles, was he not? His pride wounded, he thought about coming at them with a kind of spiritual bludgeon: There’s something wrong with you people. You need to grow in the Lord. You need to triumph over adversity.

Instead, after a night of prayer, Reiner returned with a different message: “I don’t know what to say,” he told them the next morning. “I’m confused. Without the message of victory, I don’t know what to say.” He stayed silent and hung his head.

The woman who had confronted him finally spoke up from the room full of disabled people. “Now we understand you,” she said. “Now we are ready to listen.”

[pp. 22-23]

Hart

D. G. Hart

Since I often enjoy Darryl Hart’s writings, even if not always in full agreement, it is about time that I post something from him. Here are some thoughts worth pondering, related to my own criticisms of “worldview” on this blog:

…Christian “conservatives” insist that philosophy precedes religion, which of course is remarkably ironic since these believers (both Reformed and Roman Catholic) are arguing for the ultimacy of faith. But to do so they use philosophical arguments about incoherence, epistemological foundations, and moral consistency that wind up making human reason, not faith or Scripture or tradition or Christ, the answer to life’s most difficult questions. Mind you, the question, “how am I right with God?” is hardly the same level of difficulty as “how do I know?” or “how do I become virtuous?” …

[There is a] great affinity that neo-Calvinism and pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism have in privileging philosophy. Both of those traditions grew up spooked by the French Revolution and carved up the universe between theism and atheism, both fought the Enlightenment with Christian philosophy or w-w, and both left a legacy of antithesis — intellectual, cultural, political. If a gateway drug for Protestant converts to Rome (the anti-revolutionary anti-modern one) exists, it could be neo-Calvinism with its bending the knee to philosophy.

[“Religious Tests for Having an Opinion”]

Hart has done a significant amount of work demonstrating that worldview-ism is what happens when pietism supplants Reformed theology proper. Where I disagree with Hart, and his kith at Westminster California, is their too uncritical identification with scholastic Protestantism. The subjective ills which they identify in pietism can also be detected in scholastic moves to “secure” theological foundations.

Karl-Barth

This is from the frequently fascinating and humorous Karl Barth’s Table Talk, recorded and edited by John D. Godsey:

Student: Because of your desire to avoid any dualism between God and His adversaries (Satan and his angels, principalities and powers), it seems to me that you have left no room in your Doctrine of Reconciliation for what appears to be a genuine biblical element in the work of Christ, namely, His triumph over these adversaries as Christus Victor. Is this criticism valid?

Barth: I do not think it is a valid criticism. This sort of question can only be asked by those who cannot see the wood for the trees. If you consider the whole of the Church Dogmatics, including all that is said regarding sin and Satan, how could I give a stronger statement regarding Christus Victor? I am often criticized about this. Berkouwer, in his survey of my theology in his book, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, complains of too much triumph in the Church Dogmatics because I treat demons, sin, the Nothingness, and so forth, too lightly. Now you say there is not enough room for the triumph — just the opposite! How can we make clear the victory of Christ? In this way: when speaking of sin, demons, darkness, by not speaking of them in too tragic a manner — like the German theologians, all so serious! The further north you go in Germany, the more they are concerned with the realm of darkness. And if you move to the Scandinavian countries, all is darkness: God against Satan, and vice versa! Gustaf Wingren is proud to be a ‘serious’ theologian, because he takes Satan seriously. I understand. But because there must be room for the victory of Christ, you cannot be so anxious and pitiful and sad. Go on, explain the Work and Word of Christ, and you are above! We cannot deny the reality of evil and the Nothingness, but in and with Christ we are above these mysteries. It is not wise to be too serious. We must be serious, of course; life is hard. But we are not to take Satan as a reality in the same sense that Jesus is real.

[pp. 16-17]

Barth organized a regular series of seminars for English-speaking students in Basel during the 1950’s. The questions are rather wide-ranging, from basic questions about the “architecture” (not his favorite term) of his dogmatics to doctrinal particulars and even social-political questions.

domain-of-the-word

John Webster (St. Andrews) published The Domain of the Word a little over a year ago, and it has recently been released in paperback for the financially disadvantaged among us. It is the exciting culmination of Webster’s labor within the doctrine of Scripture, with prior installments including Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch and Word and Church.

Paul Dafydd Jones (Virginia) has written a review for the most recent issue of Modern Theology (30:1), and I thought it was worth posting here. Presumably I am not allowed to post the entire review, but here is a good size excerpt:

It is the virtue of studiousness, above all else, that The Domain of the Word seeks to commend. The cumulative effect of the assembled essays is akin to an instructional performance: a protracted attempt to remind scholars, and the church at large, that God provides a distinctive “space” in which scripture should be read and explored, and the rational capacities of the Christian can be put to work. This provision of space is, of course, an act of grace. To play on Webster’s own combination of figures: the Word’s domain is a divine address, spoken by the risen Christ and distributed by his Spirit, that activates and guides the response of those whom it locates and encloses; a temporal iteration of God’s own immensity, such that the historical body of Christ becomes a vocal witness to God’s creative, reconciliatory, and redemptive work. Negatively, the scholar qua exegete is hereby afforded the opportunity to move past an anti-theological naturalism that,Webster believes, frequently compromises the field of biblical studies. Positively, the scholar qua exegete is enabled to do what she should have been doing all along: offering a faithful response to the scriptural witness that honors God through the exercise of redeemed intelligence. Given the “unified saving action and presence of Word and Spirit, reason’s vocation is retrieved from the ruins: its sterile attempt at self-direction is set aside; its dynamism annexed to God’s self-manifesting presence; it regains its function in the ordered friendship between God and creatures” (p. 122).

The essays that comprise part one of this collection consider scripture’s role in the divine economy. Two treat of Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance, and give ample evidence of Webster’s renowned interpretative skills. The others are impressively programmatic. In “The domain of the Word,” Webster traces the shape of the Triune God’s self-communicative acts, identifying the canonical texts as discursive media that Christ commissions to speak on his behalf—the goal being a bibliology that integrates claims about providence, inspiration, and sanctification, and makes clear why and how scripture functions as “an instrument in the fellowship between the revelatory Word and its addressees” (p. 24). With “Resurrection and Scripture” and “Illumination,” Webster adds more detail. The Bible’s authoritative status is a function of it being the “creaturely auxiliary” (p. 38) that the risen Christ employs to make himself and his saving work known. Indeed, precisely because Christ is risen, all times and places are present to and for him, and all times and places are poised to receive the saving light that Christ communicates through the creaturely prism of scripture. The result, if God so wills, is the event of illumination: persons and communities who are corrected, re-formed, and “lit up” to enjoy ordered fellowship with God.

The essays in part two fall under the heading of “theological reason.” Generally, they show Webster’s longstanding interest in moral ontology—that is, an expansive account of the way that human beings can act, before God, in obedience and freedom— connecting with his more recent studies of scripture. In “Biblical reasoning,” Webster argues that exegesis succeeds insofar as it locates itself and scripture within God’s reconciling economy; in “Principles of systematic theology,” theological reflection is conceived as the reproduction of God’s antecedent self-knowing, mediated through God’s hallowing of creaturely media and sustained, despite the ongoing fact of sin, by God’s regenerative grace. In “Theology and the peace of the church” and “Regina artium: Theology and the humanities,” Webster develops his insights with reference to the church and modern university. In terms of the church,Webster insists that theological discourse make manifest the peace that God has established between sinners and himself. Precisely because “peace is the metaphysically basic and enduring condition of the church of Jesus Christ” (p. 159), theology should view conflict in general and intellectual dispute in particular as unseemly; only when there is a well-formed “passion for gospel truth” (p. 167) may controversy be joined. In terms of the university, Webster protests the tendency to construe theology as one more humanistic field of study. This amounts to a defection of reason—a perverse reluctance, on the part of Christian scholars, to inhabit and participate in the divine economy. Webster advances an alternative perspective by way of Bonaventure and Augustine: one that perceives “the encompassing context” (p. 191) of all intellectual labor, refuses an overdrawn distinction of “sacred” and “secular,” and affirms the theologian’s Spirit-led capacity to draw selectively on “the disarray of the arts of intelligence” (p. 190).

I have no hesitation in declaring The Domain of the Word an important, insightful, and often brilliant work. Of especial value is Webster’s willingness to articulate a consistently positive theological perspective—that is, his determination to promote a style of reflection that engages the complexities of a late modern context only occasionally, given the more urgent task of describing scripture’s role in the divine economy and, complementarily, providing an account of God’s invigoration of human intelligence. This does not mean that Webster’s ad hoc appraisals of the modern period as largely inimical to sound thinking about scripture and exegesis ought to go unquestioned. I myself favor a more mixed judgment—one that balances critique with an acclamation of the benefits that accompany an expansion of learning, democratic processes of inquiry, and a criticism of certain “traditional” mores. Yet the point still holds. Webster’s account of God’s gracious activity is such that one need not (and ought not) spend time bemoaning the temper of the times. One can simply get on with the more interesting business of doing theology.

“Doing theology”—but in conversation with whom? The Domain of the Word is particularly interesting on this front. Webster’s fascination with the work of Eberhard Jüngel, prominent in the early part of his career, is now in firmly in abeyance. His interest in Karl Barth continues, but is overarched by a strong commitment to “patristic and medieval authors and . . . their heirs in post-Reformation scholastic theology” (p. ix). What does this shift in conversation-partners portend? Webster’s critical asides about the modern condition notwithstanding, there is little point in framing an answer in terms of the binary of modernity = bad/pre-modernity = good. For once that is in play, sound judgments are hard to come by: sweeping historiographical claims bulk so large that dogmatic arguments easily become peripheral. More important here is Webster’s prefatory admission that an account of “God’s infinitely deep, fully realized life” (p. ix), developed in conversation with patristic, medieval, and scholastic authors, has become fundamental to his thinking. …

Jones continues with some modest criticisms/questions about whether the limitations of the finite and sinful creature are lost in Webster’s account, which would obviously be a question hailing from the biblical studies crowd as well. As you can see, it is an excellent review. I especially like his recognition of Webster’s current dialog partners in the church’s history. A fine example of his scholastic ressourcement can be found in his “Trinity and Creation” article from IJST 12:1 (Jan 2010), which pertains in part to the proper ordering of Trinity and incarnation, a heated debate in systematics for over a decade now.

You can also read Ashish Varma’s review of Domain from the Wheaton bloggers.

Jesus’ deep joy

March 4, 2014

buttrick-george

George Buttrick never fails to inspire, without any of the trite sentimentality associated with that word. Here is one of his reflections from The Parables of Jesus:

“Like a wedding” is a description of the Christian life which in our persistent glumness we have refused to allow. Yet Jesus used it frequently. Old Testament prophets had said with daring, “For thy Maker is thy husband” [Isa 54.4-10, Hos 2.19]; and John the Baptist had claimed as his sufficient honor that he was the friend of the Bridegroom, his joy being to hear the Bridegroom’s voice [John 3.29]. The dominant note of the new religion was deep joy.

The scribes and Pharisees might fast. Religion to them was not joyous; it bound on them burdens grievous to be borne. By its dreary routine of rules and shibboleths men might gain merit, but not a song. Jesus came to lead them from that slavery into a new land of promise. They would still be under the law — God’s decrees welling up within the enfranchised soul — but it was a law whose service was perfect freedom. “The water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” [John 4.14].

The disciples of John the Baptist might fast. Religion to them was not joyous. It was a warning of impending doom, a fleeing from the wrath to come. To feel the holiness of God as a fan winnowing the grain from the chaff, or as an axe of retribution laid at the root of the tree, was life compared with the mechanical righteousness of the Pharisees; but it was not jubilant life. Jesus drove the Arch-Fear from the sky and revealed instead a Face of infinite pity, a Holiness inseparable from Compassion. The rainbow was set against the storm. The abounding sin was swallowed up in more abounding grace.

…Jesus replaced the weariness which hangs upon the soul’s quest for its own righteousness with the “large delight” of serving another’s need. Joy is not in defiance of pain, or in pain’s respite. It is through pain, — that pain borne for others by which the world is saved. He, “Who for the joy that was set before him endured the Cross” [Heb 12.2], had entered into joy’s deep secret. Therefore He could say with utter truth, “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full” [John 15.11]. It was joy like a wedding — the marriage of earth and heaven!

[George Buttrick, The Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973), 4-5. Reprint of the original edition from Harper & Brothers, 1928. The parable is from Luke 5.33-35 and synoptic parallels.]

In particular, the joy through pain of Christ and his disciples is much appreciated. This is not self-imposed for one’s own sake but only insofar as it is for another’s sake. And here is one more wonderful moment later in the book:

There are pulpits quick to indulge in orgies of denunciation but tardy to preach the positive tidings of life abundant. There are ministers’ associations and reform organizations more eager to expel disintegrating forces than to engage in the less spectacular task of constructive goodwill. So ready to banish the demon — so loath to welcome Jesus! Yet, if we would but know, when He comes to rule the demon flees of himself!

[p. 76]