The Quest for the Trinity: a review

The Quest for the TrinityStephen R. Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012). ISBN: 9780830839865.

The Quest for the Trinity makes plain again that Steve Holmes is among the most erudite and trustworthy theologians working today. His acquaintance with the tradition’s own wrestlings to articulate its speech about God, and its nuances and real game-shifting moves, is extraordinary, and his ability to communicate these in an accessible, albeit at times dense and somewhat dry, 200-page account is nothing short of remarkable.

The book has an encyclopaedic and ecumenical character about it. Holmes writes with a disciplined handle on the primary literature, its various nuances and theo-historical location, and is conversant with, but not distracted by, much recent secondary literature. His treatments on Irenaeus, Origen, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Hilary of Poitiers, Augustine, Aquinas, Hegel, Schleiermacher and Dorner, in particular, as well as of the various anti-trinitarian movements between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, are exceedingly helpful and clearly laid out.

Holmes is concerned to defend the thesis that apart from some relatively minor disagreement and development, the doctrine of the Trinity was basically settled by ecumenical consensus in the fourth century, enjoyed ‘essential stability’ until the eighteenth century, and has been the accepted position of the church, with no significant modification, until the modern period and its various ‘recoveries’. Holmes believes that rather than representing a genuine recovery of a lost doctrine, however, the modern ‘trinitarian revival’ represents a departure, misunderstanding, and misappropriation of the received tradition, sometimes in the name of underwriting some social, political, or ecclesial programme. He builds a strong case, and those who believe particularly that unambiguous continuity with traditional articulations of doctrine central to the faith remains an indispensable feature of doing theology responsibly today will find much here to bolster that claim.

Of course, there are additional ways to tell the story of faith’s efforts to think and speak about God – ways which are no less responsible to revelation, which are not necessarily at odds with the articulations offered by the Fathers but which offer some different ways of expressing such claims, and which remind us that we might be better to acknowledge a greater plurality of expressions within the one tradition.

Whether Holmes holds that such different accents represent voices too insignificant to hear, or too far removed from settled orthodoxy, or whether it is due to editorial concerns, he chooses not to engage with modern contextual (including feminist) accounts of the Trinity, or with the work of Christian mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen, John of the Cross, and Julian of Norwich, or with some other ways that faith has sought to ‘speak’ of the Triune God: for instance, ways that some visual artists and poets and musicians have taken. Here, the catholic and innovative work of Sarah Coakley is to be much welcomed (for it represents both a fruit of the tradition that Holmes is keen to guard as well exhibiting something that is actually demanded by it), along with that of J. S. Bach, William Blake, Dorothy Sayers, and Marlene Scholz.

These niggles aside, The Quest for the Trinity is an extraordinary and timely achievement, and no reader – even those who may finally remain not entirely convinced of Holmes’ thesis vis-à-vis modern accounts and retellings of the tradition – could fail to learn much here, and to be challenged again about what it means, and about how, to speak of Father, Son and Spirit, and of the ‘persons’ of the Trinity. Such a challenge is most urgent, particularly for those of us whose task it is to preach the gospel, and it may be most timely for those of us who have looked primarily to the likes of Rahner, Zizioulas, Pannenberg, Moltmann, Gunton, Jenson, Volf, and/or Plantinga to interpret the history, and articulate the meaning, of the doctrine for us. On those parts of the tradition given attention by Holmes, teachers and students alike will find here a reliable and fruitful guide, and, for some of us, a challenge to rethink what we may have been taught about the apparent gulf that exists between Latin and Greek doctrines of the Trinity, and about accounts that have painted the Fathers to be working at some odds with the authors of the Bible. Indeed, if Holmes’ thesis is anywhere near correct, then most of what passes for ‘trinitarian theology’ today will have to be re-thought.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s Contemplations from the Heart

Congratulations to Grace Ji-Sun Kim on the publication of her latest offering, Contemplations from the Heart: Spiritual Reflections on Family, Community, and the Divine, now available from the good folk at Wipf and Stock. Grace invited me to pen a wee endorsement for the book, which I was happy to do. Here’s what I wrote:

To be human is to be bound to this earth—to its concerns, frustrations, passions, pains, loves, vulnerabilities, and hopes; but to stake all on the claim that the bounds of humanity interplay with the movement of God is to be a theologian. Kim’s reflections on a wide range of subjects are an invitation to think further about what this claim looks like in the turbulence of the ordinary.

Mike Crowl’s Grimhilda!

Almost two years ago, my daughter Sinead (who had just turned six at the time) and I attended the opening night of a delightful musical called Grimhilda!, written by local musician, poet, blogger and author Mike Crowl. It was a really fun night, and from the moment we left, Sinead, who was already a bibliophile,  was already asking two things: (i) is there an accompanying book? and (ii) when is Mike going to make the next musical thingy?

We were both very pleased when the answer to Sinead’s first question was answered a few months ago with the appearance, on Kindle, of Grimhilda! – a fantasy for children, and their parents. An animated storyline brimming with a generous splattering of dry humour and colourful characters, and a pace that affords some time for the narrative to unfold in ways that give due attendance to layers beyond the mere pedestrian, combine to make this a rollickingly good read for parents and their wee sprogs. Sinead and I read this tale, this invitation to adventure, and we didn’t want it to end. At times we felt that we were journeying with the Pevensie kids. This is good thing. We look forward to more from Mike’s pen.

Grimhilda is also about to be released on Smashwords.

Wendell Berry on loss and recovery

I remember feeling sad when I got to the final pages of Wendell Berry’s magnificent Jayber Crow; sad because I didn’t want the story to end, sad because I’d fallen in love with Berry’s prose and couldn’t imagine the next book I’d read to be anywhere near as exquisite, sad because I wanted to linger longer in Jayber’s barber shop in Port William, Kentucky, wherefrom I might look at the world – its history and its gnawing hopes – through Jayber’s truthful eyes and to see things familiar but as if for the first time.

And, while soaring from Austin to San Francisco, over landscape both infertile and august, I felt that sadness lift a couple of days ago when I returned to Berry’s Port William via his book A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port William Membership. Two passages in particular struck me. Both, in their own way, concern the theme of loss and recovery:

‘Well, you get older and you begin to lose people, kinfolks and friends. Or it seems to start when you’re getting older. You wonder who was looking after such things when you were young. The people who died when I was young were about all old. Their deaths didn’t interrupt me much, even when I missed them. Then it got to be people younger than me and people my own age that were leaving this world, and then it was different. I began to feel it changing me. When people who mattered to me died I began to feel that something was required of me. Sometimes something would be required that I could do, and I did it. Sometimes when I didn’t know what was required, I still felt the requirement. Whatever I did never felt like enough. Something I knew was large and great would have happened. I would be aware of the great world that is always nearby, ever at hand, even within you, as the good book says. It’s something you would maybe just as soon not know about, but finally you learn about it because you have to’.

‘Our descendants may know such a time again when the petroleum all is burnt. How they will fare then will depend on the neighborly wisdom, the love for the place and its genius, and the skills that they may manage to revive between now and then’.

One could learn a hell of a lot by hanging around in Port William. Some day soon, I hope to return and …

A couple of endorsements

It is a privilege to be invited, either by a publisher or an author, to pen a wee endorsement for a book that’s worth endorsing. (In those cases where one is invited to endorse a lemon, the feeling is very much a vexed otherwise, and one feels compelled to either decline the invitation or to employ one’s skills to write in code.) Recently, a number of such invitations have come my way, two titles regarding which I am pleased to see are now available, and which I was pleased to endorse without recourse to the game of codes. They are:

Karl Barth in ConversationKarl Barth in Conversation. Edited by W. Travis McMaken & David W. Congdon (Pickwick Publications, 2014)

‘In this welcome collection of colorful and stimulating input from young scholars, we get to eavesdrop on some new “conversations” surveying a diverse range of themes, and in the wake of the fresh questions raised, we are invited to hear again what Barth and others have heard and misheard’.

Christopraxis

Christopraxis: A Practical Theology of the Cross. By Andrew Root (Fortress Press, 2014)

‘This stimulating and challenging volume advances the claims that theology is grounded in the cruciform ministry of the Triune God and fashioned in the intersections of concrete human affairs, and that ministry is revelatory of God’s being-in-movement. Root’s dogmatic and pastoral instincts inform a renewed and much-welcomed intent to stay on a course recognizably determined by the life of God present and experienced in the world’.

Calvin: The Man and the Legacy

Calvin The Man and the Legacy

After over four years in the wings, it is indeed a delight to see that Calvin: The Man and the Legacy has finally hit the press. (One recalls Walter Benjamin’s words in Aesthetics and Politics―‘I came into the world under the sign of Saturn―the star of the slowest revolution, the planet of detours and delays’).

The book, which is edited by Murray Rae, Peter Matheson and Brett Knowles, consists mostly of papers delivered at a conference held at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership in 2009, one of a plethora of conferences organised to mark the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth. It really was a great two days—marked by intelligent papers on a diverse range of themes, good humour, abundant attendance, a generosity of spirit, real coffee, and low testosterone, a combination of features relatively rare at these kinds of gigs.

The book’s description reads:

Alongside essays on aspects of Calvin’s theology, Calvin: The Man and the Legacy includes studies of Calvin as pastor, preacher and liturgist and traces the influence of Calvin as it was conveyed through Scottish migration to Australia and New Zealand. Fascinating stories are told of the ways in which the Calvinist tradition has contributed much to the building of colonial societies, but also of the ways it has attracted ridicule and derision and has been subject to caricature that is sometimes deserved, sometimes humorous, but often grossly misleading.

And the TOC reads:

Part 1: The Man and His Thought

1. Graham Redding—Medicine for Poor Sick Souls?: Calvin’s Communion Service in Profile
2. Jason Goroncy—John Calvin: Servant of the Word
3. Randall Zachman—The Grateful Humility of the Children of God: Knowledge of Ourselves in Calvin’s Theology
4. Elise McKee—A Week in the Life of John Calvin
5. Murray Rae—Calvin on the Authority of Scripture
6. Randall Zachman—Calvin’s Interpretation of Scripture

Part II: The Legacy and the Caricature

7. John Roxborogh—Thomas Chalmers and Scottish Calvinism in the Nineteenth Century
8. John Stenhouse—Calvin’s Own Country? Calvinists, anti-Calvinists and the Making of New Zealand Culture
9. Peter Matheson—The Reception of Calvin and Calvinism in New Zealand: a Preliminary Trawl
10. Alison Clarke—Popular Piety, the Sacraments and Calvinism in Colonial New Zealand
11. Kirstine Moffat—‘Mr Calvin and Mr Knox’: The Calvinist Legacy in the Fiction and Poetry of New Zealand Scots
12. Ian Breward—Calvin in Australia and New Zealand

You can pick up a copy here.

Tikkun Olam, now available on Kindle

Tikkun Olam CoverA quick note: the Kindle edition for my latest edited volume, Tikkun Olam – To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts, is now available from Amazon in the U.S., UK, Canada, Germany, France, Spain, Brazil, India, Japan, Italy, and Mexico.

Those in Australia can download a copy from here.

For those after a paper copy, the publishers, Wipf and Stock, are selling discounted copies for under US$21. Details here.

On Matheson’s The Rhetoric of the Reformation

The Papal Belvedere by Lucas Cranach the Elder in the 1545

It had been on my ‘to read’ list for years, which is probably one reason why I never got around to reading it; that all-too-familiar self deceit that accompanies the knowledge that having placed something somewhere it is now under one’s ‘control’, done with. Done with, at least until someone else mentions it in such a way that the chicanery threatens to become exposed, as happened a few weeks back when William Storrar was in town to deliver a couple of public lectures.

In one lecture, titled ‘The Common Good: A Question of Style’, Storrar attempted to offer a kind of theological justification for democracy. (My friend Andrew wrote a bit about it here.) With refreshing ease, wit and insight, the big Scotsman drew upon a host of material from a wide range of sources. He spoke about David Hollenbach’s Christian ethic of the common good. He mentioned Paul Tillich’s brilliant essay on ‘The Protestant Principle and the Proletarian Situation’ in which Tillich argues that ‘what makes Protestantism Protestant is the fact that it transcends its own religious and confessional character, that it cannot be identified wholly with any of its particular historical forms’. Storrar referred to this trait as a way of underwriting Protestantism’s ‘prophetic scrutiny’. And Protestants need to recover their nerve, he said, to be both disciples and citizens who seek the welfare of the city. Here he drew, I guess unsurprisingly, upon Marilynne Robinson’s very fine essay ‘Open Thy Hand Wide’ (published in When I Was a Child I Read Books), and upon, somewhat surprisingly given the topic, Alan Lewis’s extraordinary study on Holy Saturday, and upon the work of the Scottish architect Alexander Thomson who championed a vision of public space which is both open and horizontal. Most cited, however, and not only because he happened to be in the room, was my dear friend and distinguished church historian Peter Matheson and his book The Rhetoric of the Reformation.

Matheson

Which brings me back to that ‘to read’ list that I mentioned, and to Peter’s extraordinary book (which I’ve since read) on the Reformation as social choreography. In The Rhetoric of the Reformation, Matheson builds a stunning case for why we should understand the Reformation movements as characterised by a real sense of playfulness, as a game. In his own words:

The Reformation ‘game’ succeeded because it lured onlookers into becoming participants, to join the dance … [T]he word spiel, game, was often used by the Reformers to describe the events in which they were involved. The difficulty of course, was that the traditional referees – the bishops, councils, and Popes – had been sidelined, ‘sin-binned’.

It was a game, therefore, in which the rules were being reinvented as it proceeded. The daring, passionate preachers, the initiators of communal liturgies, the authors of the smudgy, cheap pamphlets and broadsheets which landed on German laps in their tens of thousands in the 1520s were, of course, serious enough, ready to risk career and even life for their convictions. But on another level they were hucksters standing behind their several booths, enticing people to ‘have a go’, to sing along with the Wittenberg nightingale. ‘If, then, you long for truth then come and join us in the dance’, writes Thomas Müntzer to the people of Erfurt at the height of the Peasants’ War.

Matheson gets – and that much more than most – that the Reformation was about something much more profound and basic than structural and doctrinal reform. It was ‘a paradigm shift in the religious imagination’. ‘Each pamphlet’, he argues, ‘is witness to a collapsed consensus, and simultaneously signposts the dream of a new religious landscape and inscape. The broadsheets and wood-cuts of the period confirm this. They present the birthpangs of a new age in visual terms: a drastic, simplistic confrontation of dawn and dusk, light and dark, discipleship and corruption, freedom and tyranny. Their striking images are littered with rhymes, slogans, catch-phrases which decoded them, above all with what we can call God’s graffiti, quotations from Scripture’.

Like his The Imaginative World of the Reformation and his most recent Argula von Grumbach (1492–1554/7): A Woman before Her Time, Matheson’s The Rhetoric of the Reformation is a much welcome breath of fresh air among the shelves of mostly turgid and arenose literature on the Reformation. There are some remarkable exceptions of course, MacCulloch’s general introduction being the most obvious, but there might not be anything nearly as fun or which liberates the sixteenth century movements of reform from those flat retellings and makes it come alive in 3-D as a period in which we see our own foibles and idiosyncrasies being played out.

While on the topic of books, I hit a wee jackpot at a book bin this week where, in an act of the most fortuitous blasphemy, titles by Donald MacKinnon, G. W. H. Lampe, John Macquarrie, Alexander Schmemann and G. A. Studdert Kennedy, among others, were being thrown out. Yippee.

 

December stations …

Reading:

Listening

Leunig love

Real Men

And finally, to end the year and all – a gift especially for those likely to be sucked in to making New Year’s resolutions – some advice from Thelonious Monk:

Advice from Thelonious Monk

… and some great sounds to see the new year in with:

2013: some favourites, some thanks

Amidst all that I have read, re-read, listened to and watched during this past year, I am especially grateful for having read, re-read, listened to, and watched the following:

Books

Biblical Studies

Biography

Cooking

Fiction

History

Philosophy

Poetry

Theology

Music

Films

I am equally grateful to those readers of this blog, and to those fellow wayfarers in blogdom, who have recommended some of these gems.

I am grateful too that this year has seen the birth of three books that I have either written or edited – Hallowed Be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. ForsythDescending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth, and, most recently, ‘Tikkun Olam’ To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts. I hope that each of these prove beneficial – and rollicking good fun – for those who take up and read them.

As 2013 approaches expiration, I wish to sincerely thank readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem for stopping by, for reading my periphrastic prose, for offering comment (both online and via email), and for subscribing to and linking to posts. I hope that you have been blessed by what and by who you have encountered here, and I look forward to continuing a further leg or two of the pilgrimage with you. Ngā mihi o te Tau Hou ki a koutou katoa.

Now available: Tikkun Olam—To Mend the World

Tikkun Olam CoverI am delighted to announce that my latest edited volume – Tikkun Olam—To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts – is now available. It has received kind endorsements from Jeremy Begbie and Paul Fiddes, and the Table of Contents reads:

Foreword: Alfonse Borysewicz
Introduction: Jason Goroncy

1. “Prophesy to these Dry Bones”: The Artist’s Role in Healing the Earth — William Dyrness
2. Cosmos, Kenosis, and Creativity — Trevor Hart
3. Re-forming Beauty: Can Theological Sense Accommodate Aesthetic Sensibility? — Carolyn Kelly
4. Questioning the Extravagance of Beauty in a World of Poverty — Jonathan Ryan
5. Living Close to the Wound — Libby Byrne
6. The Sudden Imperative and Not the Male Gaze: Reconciliatory Relocations in the Art Practice of Allie Eagle — Joanna Osborne and Allie Eagle
7. Building from the Rubble: Architecture, Memory, and Hope — Murray Rae
8. The Interesting Case of Heaney, the Critic, and the Incarnation — John Dennison
9. New Media Art Practice: A Challenge and Resource for Multimedia Worship — Julanne Clarke-Morris
10. Silence, Song, and the Sounding-Together of Creation — Steven Guthrie

A brief section from the Introduction provides a summary of each chapter:

The essays compiled in this volume, each in their own way, seek to attend to the lives and burdens and hopes that characterize human life in a world broken but unforgotten, in travail but moving toward the freedom promised by a faithful Creator. Bill Dyrness’s essay focuses on the way that the medieval preference for fiction over history has been exactly reversed in the modern period so that we moderns struggle to make a story out of the multitude of facts. Employing Augustine’s notion of signs as those which move the affections, the chapter develops the notion of poetics as the spaces in peoples’ lives that allow them to keep living and hoping, suggesting one critical role that art can play in imagining another world, a better world. For art offers to carry us to another place, one that doesn’t yet exist, and in this way offers hope and sustenance to carry people through the darkest times. This is illustrated by the outpouring of Haiku after the recent tsunami in Japan, or in the spaces made available for poetry in Iraq. Most importantly, it is underwritten by the centrality of lament in the biblical materials wherein we are reminded that lament and prophecy provide aesthetic forms that carry believers toward the future that God has planned for the world.

The essay by Trevor Hart considers the place of human “creativity” (artistic and other sorts) and seeks to situate it in relation to God’s unique role as the Creator of the cosmos. It draws on literary texts by Dorothy Sayers and J. R. R. Tolkien, as well as theological currents from Jewish writers and Christian theologians, to offer a vision of human artistry as (in Tolkien’s preferred phrase) “sub-creation,” a responsible participation in a creative project divinely initiated, ordered, and underwritten, but left deliberately unfinished in order to solicit our active involvement and ownership of the outcomes.

Beauty, Hans Urs von Balthasar has suggested, is “a word from which religion, and theology in particular, have taken their leave and distanced themselves in modern times by a vigorous drawing of boundaries.” More recently, a number of theologians have addressed this distance and attempted to dismantle the boundaries widely assumed between certain Protestant theologies and the realm of the arts or aesthetics. In her essay, Carolyn Kelly seeks to contribute to that communal exploration by addressing the particularly imposing boundary line demarcating, on the one hand, Reformed affirmations of the beauty of Truth and, on the other, a Romantic commitment to the truth of Beauty. Kelly reflects on what Romantic and aesthetic “sensibility” might gain from its modern counterpart and, in turn, what Reformed theological “sense” might have to gain from a re-cognition of Beauty.

But what place is there for extravagant works of beauty in a world tarnished with the ugliness of poverty and injustice? This is a question taken up by Jonathan Ryan in his essay. Beginning with the recollection of the disciples’ objection to an extravagant act of beauty retold in Mark 14:4, Ryan allows the “anointing at Bethany” narrative in Mark 14 to frame this question and to suggest the legitimacy—and necessity—of works of beauty and creativity for bearing witness to God’s extravagant love for the world.

Libby Byrne’s essay explores the premise that the artist’s calling is to “live close to the wound.” Locating this contention within the nexus that seems to exist between art, theology and philosophy, she argues that we are able to consider the prevailing conditions required for the artist to work toward the task of mending that which is broken, and, drawing on theory from Matthew Del Nevo and Rowan Williams, Byrne helps us understand the importance of melancholy and vulnerability in the sacramental work of human making. She provides examples of how this theory may work in practice with particular reference to the work of Anselm Kiefer and finally with her own studio practice, reminding us that it takes courage to choose to live and work close to our wounds, and also that by so doing the artist not only opens themselves to the possibility of transformation but also offers to others gifts that reverberate within the world and that call us to healing and wholeness.

New Zealand artists Allie Eagle and Joanna Osborne discuss the Sudden Imperative, Eagle’s art project that reframes much of the ideology she held as a feminist separatist during the 1970s. They also outline a reappraisal of direction and motivation in Eagle’s thinking and highlight the theological and reconciliatory center of her current art practice.

Murray Rae takes up the question posed by Theodor Adorno following the Jewish Holocaust and considers whether art can have anything at all to say in the face of evil or whether some evils might, in fact, be unspeakable. Through a consideration of architecture and, in particular, the work of Daniel Libeskind at Ground Zero and in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Rae contends that while architecture, along with the arts more generally, has no power to redeem us, much less to make amends, it can nevertheless give expression to our memories, our sorrow, and our penitence. He concludes that art may also reveal the extent to which the Spirit is at work within us, prompting us toward forgiveness and reconciliation and a true mending of the world.

In his essay on the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, John Dennison argues that one of the most notable—and least understood—aspects of Heaney’s trust in the good of poetry and the arts in general is the way in which his account approximates religious faith. Some critics have been encouraged toward the conclusion that Heaney’s poetics constitutes an active (if heterodox and often apophatic) extension of Christian theology through the arts. Most importantly here, John Desmond in his book Gravity and Grace argues that Heaney’s writings assume certain fundamentals that mark his transcendental cultural poetics as Christian. Central to Heaney’s thought, Desmond insists, is the doctrine of the Incarnation. Christian doctrine, and in particular the doctrine of the Incarnation, is indeed central to understanding the character of Heaney’s public commitment to the restorative function of art. But, Dennison argues, if we attend to the development and structures of Heaney’s thought, we can see how this influential account of the arts’ world-mending powers is not so much extensive with Christian soteriology as finally delimited by the biblical and theological descriptions it knowingly appropriates. It allows us to see, also, the degree to which Heaney’s trust in the adequacy of poetry turns on a refracted after-image of Christian doctrine, particularly that of the Incarnation.

Julanne Clarke-Morris’s offering proposes that multimedia worship and worship installations would benefit from a more consistent approach to aesthetics and context than is often the norm. She suggests that new media art forms offer communities of faith a range of ready-made critical practices that could amiably be brought to bear in the case of liturgical installation art. Seeking to draw attention to the coherence and communicative power of multimedia liturgical installations in order to improve both their accessibility and artistic credibility, she investigates some significant insights from virtual reality art, immersion art, multimedia installation art, and site-specific art as resources for preparing worship installations and assessing their effectiveness.

The closing essay, penned by Steven Guthrie, bears witness to ways in which Christian scripture and the Christian theological tradition both testify to a natural world that has a voice; one that not only speaks, but sings. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah speaks of mountains and hills “bursting forth in song” (Isaiah 55), and St John exiled on the island of Patmos listens with astonishment to “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth” singing (Revelation 5). This idea is taken up in turn by Augustine, Boethius and many others in the tradition, where it is often joined to the Pythagorean idea of “the music of the spheres.” According to this tradition, all of creation comprises a finely tuned symphony, the combined voices of which articulate the Creator’s praise. This tradition of thought—conceiving of the world as a singing creation—is a valuable resource for all who hope to faithfully care for God’s world. The musical creation described by Augustine and other theologians is a beautiful and profoundly interconnected cosmos, filled with an astonishing harmony of human and non-human voices. In this universal song, humans have a vital but circumscribed role. Silence, song and harmony have the capacity to make us more—or less—fully aware of, and more—or less—responsive to the world we inhabit. Music may act as a kind of aural armor by which we shut out the voices of the creation and others who inhabit it. It may also be a weapon by which we dominate the surrounding space. Or music may be a schoolmaster from whom we learn attentiveness and responsiveness, and with which we might join with all creation to participate in God’s symphonic work of healing the creation.

More information about the book is available here.

Parents. Children.

Yesterday, with all the grief that attends just completing reading a great book, and with all the joy-in-anticipation of beginning a new one, I began reading Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. This deeply personal and somewhat cathartic book is about the forming and reforming of identities, those attributes and values which are passed down from parent to child across generations not only through strands of DNA but also through shared cultural norms (vertical identities), and those traits that are foreign to one’s parents ‘and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group’ (horizontal identities), identities which ‘may reflect recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences, or values and preferences that a child does not share with his progenitors’.

Through a series of reflections on deafness, dwarfism, autism, Down syndrome, disability, prodigies, schizophrenia, rape, crime, and transgender sexuality, Solomon is concerned to challenge notions of ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’, to examine the value judgements we carry, create, project and/or dismiss about such, and to ward off temptations to play down the ambiguities and ambivalences that surround notions of extra/ordinary.

In lieu of the likely event that I do not get around to writing a review of the book, and because I wanted to share something of my interest so far in reading this book – and for the consideration of fellow parents – here’s the (scene-setting) opening two paragraphs:

‘There is no such thing as reproduction. When two people decide to have a baby, they engage in an act of production, and the widespread use of the word reproduction for this activity, with its implication that two people are but braiding themselves together, is at best a euphemism to comfort prospective parents before they get in over their heads. In the subconscious fantasies that make conception look so alluring, it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own. Having anticipated the onward march of our selfish genes, many of us are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs. Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity. We depend on the guarantee in our children’s faces that we will not die. Children whose defining quality annihilates that fantasy of immortality are a particular insult; we must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do. Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination.

Yet blood, in modern as in ancient societies, is thicker than water. Little is more gratifying than successful and devoted children, and few situations are worse than filial failure or rejection. Our children are not us: they carry throwback genes and recessive traits and are subject right from the start to environmental stimuli beyond our control. And yet we are our children; the reality of being a parent never leaves those who have braved the metamorphosis. The psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott once said, “There is no such thing as a baby—meaning that if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone. A baby cannot exist alone but is essentially part of a relationship.” Insofar as our children resemble us, they are our most precious admirers, and insofar as they differ, they can be our most vehement detractors. From the beginning, we tempt them into imitation of us and long for what may be life’s most profound compliment: their choosing to live according to our own system of values. Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us’.

November stations …

Reading:

Listening

Leunig

Real Men

Launching

Book LaunchLast night, the Knox Centre hosted the launch of four books:

John Stenhouse and John Roxborogh spoke to Kevin’s books, and Mike Crowl and Murray Rae spoke to mine. All did a super job. It was a great night. Post-launch, the two authors (and a few others) then partied on with Chinese food and whiskey. The gastronomical combo seemed to work well.

Mike has since posted what he really would have liked to have said, some reflections on his experience of reading P T Forsyth.

Those unable to make it along to the launch can still pick up a copy of the books at the special book launch price. If you’re interested, please contact either Kevin or myself.

‘God dies in the world’: an interview with an artist

SAMSUNG

The front cover of my most recent publication, Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth, includes a section of a painting (above) by my daughter Sinead. The decision to use her painting – a decision which, to be sure, required some grovelling for permission – was not, I hope, motivated by cutesiness but rather by a profound sense of the work’s fittingness to the book’s themes. The painting, which is used upside down, is called ‘Crosses’.

Forsyth.DescendingonHumanity.90702Now that Sinead and I have both finally seen the book in real life, I wanted to ask her again about the painting, about what it ‘means’ (her word), and about how it relates to the material in daddy’s book. So while on the way to school this morning, I conducted a brief ‘interview’ with Sinead. As part of that conversation, Sinead offered the following statement:

God dies in the world, and the God who dies in the world is the same God who dies in heaven. And yet somehow these two deaths, which are really the same, are related. In the end, it’s all really a mystery – but in the mystery the church is created and the world is saved. And that’s what my painting is about.

I buzzed.

[Copies of the book are available here or via here or by contacting me directly. If you are interested in reviewing the volume, then please contact James Stock at Wipf and Stock. And if you are interested in a copy signed by Sinead, then it'll probably cost ya some serious dosh, or a packet of mints!]

October stations …

SAMSUNGReading:

Listening

Link love

Leunig love

Leunig-iPad-The Lost Art

Leunig - Words for mystery

[Source: The Age]

The Story of Dr Beryl Howie

Beryl HowieIt was 1958 when the London-based Ludhiana Fellowship invited Beryl Howie, a young and newly qualified New Zealand obstetrician/gynaecologist, to join the staff of the Ludhiana Hospital in India. In this invitation, Beryl recognised God’s calling, and went to India.

It was no easy challenge. In addition to undertaking a very busy clinical load, she also had to learn at least one of two local languages. Along the way, she was sustained by her faith in God, faith which motivated not only her medical work, but which also encouraged the study of the Bible among the students and patients that she had come to love. It came as a bit of a shock, therefore, when just before she was due for her first furlough the Ludhiana Fellowship told her that they had decided to move their support to training Indian doctors and asked her to find support elsewhere. Bewildered but not undetermined, and after exploring several options, she soon accepted an invitation from the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand to become one of their missionaries and, in 1963, she set off under new colours but to essentially the same job.

Over the next few years, while Beryl’s own workload stretched, so too did the old buildings in which she worked and which became increasingly inadequate for the burgeoning number of patients and new theatre equipment which arrived. She was soon dreaming about a new hospital for women and, during her next furlough, she challenged the New Zealand churches to raise $500,000 towards this. People all over New Zealand took enthusiastically to the project. When they had reached $100,000, the New Zealand Government offered to contribute $500,000 if the project raised that amount by Christmas. This challenge sparked off further enthusiasm among New Zealand churches. Several other missionaries were ‘at home on leave’ from India and others with a strong interest in Ludhiana helped to enthuse congregations and individuals to great heights. Suffice to say that Beryl returned to India with the plans and funding to begin planning for a new hospital and to start building.

Teaching Hundreds to Heal Millions

At the same time, she continued to work towards raising the standard of care of patients and developing higher educational and treatment standards of doctors, nurses and midwives.

But there was another encouraging development. When Beryl first came to India, all newly-trained doctors with any available funding went to the UK and, if possible, the USA for postgraduate training. Most of them then looked for work there and didn’t return to India but rather supported their families from the high salaries they now earned. Beryl longed to change the natural path of graduates to keep them in India to serve their own compatriots. To that end, quality advanced training would have to be available. By 1980, 84% of all graduates in obstetrics and 29 of her MD graduates remained in practice in India.

In 1981, Beryl finally left India and found work in two other missionary challenges – one was to write a text book on obstetrics and gynaecology specifically for students in India , and the other was to visit missionaries all over South East Asia and further encourage the development of improved healthcare.

After finally retiring to New Zealand, she was honoured with an honorary doctorate in science by the University of Otago.

My friend Bartha Hill has just authored a beautiful little book on Howie – Teaching Hundreds To Heal Millions: The Story of Dr Beryl Howie – and those in Dunedin are warmly welcome to attend its launch on Sunday 17 November, at 2 pm, at Highgate Presbyterian Church, Maori Hill, Dunedin.

‘Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History’ is now available

Forsyth.DescendingonHumanity.90702After a very long gestation period, I’m truly delighted to finally announce the birth of Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth. As I mentioned in a previous post, it has been a pregnancy marked by great joy and hope, and, I might add, by very few bouts of morning sickness.

The book includes a marvelous foreword by Professor David Fergusson, a lengthy (and, I hope, helpful) introduction to Forsyth’s preaching ministry written by myself, and, from Forsyth’s pen, forty-eight sermons, over half of which are previously unpublished. It seeks to introduce Forsyth, his thought, his ministry, and the Word he served, to a new generation of readers, to provide those already familiar with his writings some new material to digest, and to encourage preachers – and those who hear the Word of the Lord through them, or in spite of them – to not abandon the ‘earth’s foremost part’ (as Herman Melville described the pulpit), especially at a time when the storms are so inexorable and the spoils of exile are so scrumptious.

It will, of course, be up to others to judge, but I think that the book would make a judicious gift for any minister, theology student, historian, or general reader. You can order copies here or via here or by contacting me directly.

If you are interested in reviewing the volume, then please contact Amanda Vanderhoof at Wipf and Stock.

Mother and baby are feeling great, and the siblings proud.