David Malouf: ‘Long Story Short’

The appearance of a new book by Australian writer David Malouf tends to be a happy occasion on my calendar. Since being introduced to his work as a high school kid (Fly Away Peter was one of only a small handful of books that I ever finished reading at school, and I have re-read it many times since), I have looked out for his books. The most recent novel I read of his was Ransom, published in 2009. I thought it was excellent. He now has a new book out, Earth Hour, his first collection of published poems since Typewriter Music (2007) and Revolving Days (2008). Here’s one of its offerings:

The Book of Grievances has its roots
in singular griefs. A man keeps his list,
his hit list. Writes down times
and places where the knife went in, was twisted. Writes
it down in the ample folder of
his heart as we call it, to be underlined
in red and revisited. The gun he keeps
oiled is also there in the heart’s darkness.

He takes it up and aims. Somebody falls, only he knows who
and where. In the place where grief
began and the wrong was done. When the dead
are as many as his griefs and the books are balanced he too
will be done.

The book, like the gun, is as warmly secret
in him as hoarded sweets. Along with the rough plan
sometime soon
to light out to the Territory, and once
gone send back no message.

– David Malouf, ‘Long Story Short’, in Earth Hour (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2014), 33.

‘Synod’, by Bill Wallace

synod

Synod –
    a piece of time stolen from the rest of life;
    a Law book infested, resolution dominated monument to the status quo;
    a time for living in the ‘cloud cuckoo’ land of statement,
        letter, and a world controlled by church leaders;
    an occasion when right answers are given to wrong questions
        and democracy is worshipped as deity.

Synod is
    a place where illusions are reinforced –
    for the solemn, it provides evidence that life is a machine operating on dour efficiency;
    for the passive, proof that they have no contribution to make;
    for the lively, confirmation that the rest are rather dull and dim-witted;
    for the pious, a demonstration that they alone are in touch with God.

Synod –
    the district feast
    in which clowns have been replaced by committees;
    overeating by verbal obesity
    and the celebration turned into a question.

    Now, before the insecure take umbrage
    and the machine revenge,
    let me hasten to add
    that these are the thoughts of one for whom

    SYNOD HAS COME ALIVE

    because he now sees every human gathering,
    whether on church premises or not,
    as part of the age-old struggle,
    the struggle to be truly human –
        to be liberated from the chains which we make for ourselves,
        to escape from the masks which we choose to wear
            and
        to see people and things as they really are.
            In short

Synod is
    beginning to become an act of worship in which
    resolutions become devotions,
    people become prayers,
    and the laughter of the inner child
    becomes the adult’s life force.

‘O God, help us
    with joy to see the ridiculous behind the reasonable,
    with hope to see the world bursting out of the church,
    with love to see the people taming the machine;
Then the groan in Synod
will evidence the labour of new birth
rather than the death cry of the living church
crushed by its own organization’.

2022 World Cup slave labour deaths

wpid-wp-1405716695317.jpeg

Reading The Saturday Paper has become an exercise that I look forward to each weekend. (I read somewhere that exercise is supposed to be good for you, and I’ve noticed that lots of people seem to do it on the weekends as well.) It is mostly intelligent and well-written journalism which helps me to be a more critical and responsible citizen, something which is important to me. It’s also why I look forward to reading The Monthly, and why I hardly ever read The Australian – that dish rag which, according to Anthony Abbott, is Rupert Murdoch’s ‘gift to our nation’. All the time, I am trying to discern where the spirit of the age is in harmony with, and in discord with, that other Spirit.

Among this morning’s reads was Matteo Fagotto’s piece about soccer’s slave labour deaths, and how FIFA’s decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar is already unmasking widespread abuses in that country. So Fagotto:

While the past two World Cups, in Brazil and South Africa, caused the death of nine workers, the International Trade Union Confederation has warned that the systematic abuses faced by labourers in Qatar could cause the death of up to 4000 people before the first ball is kicked in the Gulf nation in eight years’ time.

We’re become numbingly accustomed to reading these kinds of stories of human rights abuses surrounding big sporting events. Whether one recalls the NSW State Labor Government and the Sydney City Council’s shameful action of removing homeless people from the streets of Sydney prior to the 2000 Olympics, or about human rights activists in China being detained to prevent them from disrupting the Beijing Olympics in 2008, or about the reported 170,000 favela residents who were forcibly removed (by thousands of Brazilian militia) from their homes prior to the recent World Cup in Brazil (a country in which 80% of residents are afraid of being tortured by their own police force ), these stories are all too common. To the three well-publicised examples mentioned here, thousands could be added.

Reading Fagotto’s essay this morning made me feel powerless, and angry. It also made we wonder about the positive pressure that sanctions can provide, reminded me why I support trade unionism, reminded me why responsible theology is an imperative ingredient in the Christian humanist vision for just and flourishing societies, and why perhaps the greatest theological service that the church can provide through its various assemblies is to remind us all that the church and the basilea of God only very occasionally sing from the same song sheet. It also haunted me to think again about the hypocritical disparities in our world (and particularly in my own life) between a desire for just practices and for products (like sport) whose greatest cost is borne by the world’s most vulnerable. If only our power as citizens and consumers – and as theologians! – was matched by the kind of courage that justice seeks. I will carry these thoughts too to one of the texts upon which I will preach tomorrow morning – Romans 8 – about a creation groaning as in the pains of childbirth and hoping for what it does not yet have.

Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky are recording together

Shindell and KaplanskyI was very excited to learn this morning (as were my wee sprogs) that two of my favourite musicians – Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky – are teaming up again (remember Cry Cry Cry, the album they recorded together with Dar Williams?) to make a new album. ‘Tomorrow You’re Going’ is being produced by Larry Campbell and funded through Kickstarter, and they are seeking supporters. If you’re already familiar with Richard and Lucy’s music, you’ll be as thrilled as I am to know about – and support – this great project. And if you happen to be one of those unfortunate souls to whom their music is unfamiliar, then don’t you think it’s about time you remedied that situation?

 

A couple of poems by David Lumsden

hermitHermit

He carried no phone
and sent no text.

He took holidays
but no photos,
downloaded no jpegs,
burned no CDs,
got no snapshots printed.

He maintained no blog.

He had no email address,
deleted no spam,
subscribed to no mailing lists,
unsubscribed from no mailing lists.

He downloaded no songs,
and ripped no music to mp3s.
He created no playlists.

He carried no camera or iPod.
He recharged no devices.
He never backed up.

Cosmè Tura. St Dominic, c.1475Cosmè Tura: St Dominic, c. 1475

The theme is those dry wrinkled hands,
The stark high-contrast folds of white
And dark cloth, how the knuckles glint,
An emaciating holy blight
Upon the spirit, one lean face
That pities all the world, he stands
Jointed in diamonds, in iron hurled,
To intercede between God’s wrath
For Man, and iconise belief,
Minted in an abstract space.
The metallic backdrop of gold leaf
Makes it plain this is no scene
Of earth, or what earth can ordain.

[The poems appeared sometime back on Eureka Street, and the source of the images is the Mendocino Coast Model Railroad and Historical Society and Virtual Uffizi]

From Luke to Acts: free open lectures in Korean

I’m excited to learn that Dr Oh-Young Kwon, of Whitley College, will soon be teaching a New Testament course for Korean pastors, Church leaders and anybody else who is interested in studying theology in Korean.

When: On Monday nights (5:30 to 8:30 PM) for 10 weeks, beginning on 28 July 2014.

Where: Whitley College, in Melbourne.

Cost: Free!

For more information, or to enrol, email or phone (03 9340 8021) Whitley College.

Korean course

 

The 1884 Model Minister

The 1884 Model Minister

It seems that Qoheleth was right, yet again:

All things are wearisome;
    more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
    or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
    ‘See, this is new’?
It has already been,
    in the ages before us. (Eccl. 1.8–10)

[The image is taken from Ian Breward, ‘1871–1901: Clamant Needs, Determined Battlers’, in Presbyterians in Aotearoa, 1840–1990, ed. Dennis McEldowney (Wellington: Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, 1990), 50.]

Anabaptist theologies in South Africa – Continuing the Conversation

The Anabaptist Network in South Africa is organising a conference on ‘the past, present and future of Anabaptist thought and practice in South Africa’. Information about the conference, and about the call for papers, is available here.

Abstracts for short papers are due by 31 July, 2014.

(Melbourne) metro

I didn’t believe it at first. I mean, the thought of him – my father-in-law of all people – voluntarily joining a non-AFL affiliated group that has its own website, and apps!, was simply too incredible. But of all the things that might be said of him (his disdain, for example, of the most wonderful gifts of life – like butter, and real football, and whisky, and Bob Dylan), being a perjurer and fabulist is not among them. Deluded about many things he may be, including the wholesomeness of his son-in-law, he remains one of the straightest shooters I’ve ever met. And so while his piano abilities far outstrip his gifts in the singing department, when he pronounced recently that he had joined a singing group called Men in Suits (a little ironic, I suppose, given that I’m not sure he owns a suit that he can fit into) I had little reason to doubt him … and I was elated.

I paid for that doubtlessness, however. For upon its vocalisation, I was forced to listen – at very high volume! – to song after song, too many songs, while strapped in to the back seat of his car. Among my favourites was this one called ‘Metro':

 

another discussion paper on marriage

leunig-if-you-see-anything-unusualIt seems like lots of people are doing it these days. Sometimes they are doing it without the express invitation of the wider assembly, and sometimes with the expressed request of such bodies. But in each case their doing of it represents a defiant expression of the conviction that nothing in life is a settled matter, and that theology, like other responsible sciences, remains an enterprise which opens up space for deeper engagement and reflection on things which matter deeply to us.

So, earlier this year, the Doctrine Core Group of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand prepared a discussion paper called Christian Perspectives on Marriage: A Discussion Document.

And now the  Doctrine Working Group of the Uniting Church in Australia has prepared their own discussion paper on marriage and same-gender relationships in the form of a commentary on the marriage service in Uniting in Worship 2.

The two documents take different approaches, but both are accompanied by an invitation to respond in some way. More importantly, I think, both are an invitation to a form of prayer – an invitation to think, to listen, to confess, to say ‘Thank you’, to say ‘But I don’t understand, although I want to’, to together hear the Word of the patient Lord.

I commend them to you.

A Review of Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, by John Swinton

John Swinton, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012), pp. x + 298, ISBN 978-0-8028-6716-2 (pbk).

‘Somewhere out there right now, a man is wiping the drool from an 85-year-old woman who flinches because she thinks he’s a stranger’ (p. 287).

Dementia directly affects some 800,000 people in the UK alone, two thirds of whom are women, and 17,000 of whom are young persons, plus some 670,000 carers; and the numbers are growing. Consequently, it is a subject of increasing interest to medical research, bearing significant implications for government and other funding and care bodies; and accompanied by a growing anxiety amongst a public still largely ignorant of its medical and social realities. John Swinton’s informed, intelligent, accessible, and honest engagement with this subject seeks to speak into and to earth these realities, and to specifically remind us that dementia is as much a relational and spiritual condition as it is neurological. At core, he argues that a relationality characterised by real presence and by the promise of a God whose memories of us are constitutive for our full humanity offer a much-needed antithesis to the malignant narratives often provided by some social psychology and theology. He challenges the inference that to live meaningfully in the present requires the cognitive ability to remember, to recall our past, and to imagine. Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us in his prison letters, more than is understood is present.

Among the book’s many strengths is the care that its author takes to explain and introduce difficult concepts – whether medical, theological, psychological, or philosophical – that are indispensable for thinking constructively about dementia. It also offers many (perhaps too many?) lived examples of how our relationships with those who have become strangers to us can be honoured and sustained in meaningful ways. Insofar as it does this, Swinton’s study serves as a helpful introduction to this troubled subject. Its foremost strength, however, is to champion the claim that this subject might be something that Christian theology, theologians, and communities could be interested in, might learn from engaging with, and about which they might have something valuable to contribute.

Swinton’s stated intention to offer a specifically Christian ‘theological perspective on dementia’ (p. 6) is, however, finally unsatisfying. Specifically, his twin claims that ‘memory is first and foremost something that is done for us, rather than something that we achieve on our own’ (p. 198) and that our being remembered by God is ‘our only real source of identity and hope’ (p. 217) is offered with insufficient regard for the foundation and centre of Christian theology itself; namely, God’s personal entrance into our estranged humanity in Jesus Christ. Had he explored beyond mere paradigm, for example, the ways that the divine journey into memory’s tomb in Holy Saturday – that ‘non event’ and ‘time of waiting in which nothing of significance occurs, and of which there is little to be said’ about which Alan Lewis writes in his extraordinary book Between Cross and Resurrection – might transform and deepen and provide the theological grammar for our understanding of his claim about the divine memory, and had he attended more critically to the ways in which his articulation of social trinitarianism (on pp. 158–60) might actually undermine his claims about the relational ontology of human personhood, the book might have offered a more robust witness to the deep resources within the Christian tradition that speak most acutely to the subject at hand.

With these reservations aside, the book is good news for those who embark upon love’s costly journey of remembering and caring for those who, in Andrea Gillies’ words, ‘are no longer able to make memory’. It is also a welcome contribution to theological conversations about the radically-contingent nature of human personhood.

________________________________________________________

A version of this review will appear, in due course, in the International Journal of Public Theology.

Learning from Calvin

Young Calvin, woodcut from library in TurinI’ve just finished teaching an intensive on John Calvin. Some of this has involved dispelling myths (ones both positive and negative), and some has been about first introductions to the life and thought of one whom I consider (notwithstanding those nasty words about ‘perverting’ Anabaptists) to be the greatest catholic theologian the church has produced in the past millennia. (The extraordinary study on The Young Calvin by the Roman Catholic theologian and historian Alexandre Ganoczy, for example, points out the astonishing degree to which the Second Vatican Council came to agree with much that was decisive for Calvin – a Christ-centred ecclesiology, constitutional pluralism, a return to biblical and patristic sources, liturgical reforms, Eucharistic renewal, the ministry of the so-called ‘laity’, etc.) It’s been exciting to see students engage with the ideas of, and have their minds changed about, one that some of them had previously thought to be pure rogue, pure saint, embarrassment, and/or simply irrelevant for doing theology and church today. (No one quite followed Barth and called him ‘a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, [or] mythological’.)

We concluded the intensive by reflecting on Calvin’s deeply inclusive vision of humanity, and by returning again to the opening paragraph in Book I of the final edition of his Institutes which articulates the conviction that our knowledge of self and our knowledge of God are inextricably related. Regarding the first of these, some might find it odd or even mistaken, given the way his doctrine of election has sometimes been articulated, to consider Calvin’s vision of humanity to be a deeply inclusive one but it seems to me that Calvin’s vision of the God-given dignity of the human person – broken by recalcitrance and restored in Christ – celebrates the sheer giftedness and mystery and freedom of being a human creature in such a way that all other identifying markers – such as religion, race, culture, social class, or gender – are secondary. And this means that love of God is inseparable from love for others; that faith and discipleship belong together; that theology and ethics are part of the same enterprise; that the renewal of church life and public life are intrinsically connected; that justice, good governance, ecological responsibility and global well-being above national and sectarian interests are part of what makes human life valuable and good and beautiful.

Regarding the second, the personal, theological, and pastoral instincts behind Calvin’s claim (in Inst. I.1.1) that ‘nearly all the wisdom we possess … consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves’ are, it seems to me, extremely important. Those who claim to know God but display very little self-awareness ought to send off as many alarm bells in us as those who claim to know themselves really well but have little or no interest in God. If Calvin is right, then the two cannot so easily be disentangled, if at all. This is what it means to be a creature.To be human is to be a person-in-relation, with creation and with the Creator.

This twin reality – the interdependence between our knowledge of God and our knowledge of self – is powerfully articulated some 400 years later in the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The question which throbs at the centre of Bonhoeffer’s theology is ‘Who is Christ actually for us today?’ But this question could not be considered in isolation from the question he asked from his Tegel Prison cell in July 1944 – ‘Who Am I?’. ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’, and ‘Who am I?’ – for both Calvin and Bonhoeffer, these questions are inextricably linked.

I’m already looking forward to teaching on Calvin again …

Communion: On Being the Church – the Lutheran–Reformed Joint Commission

Lutheran-Reformed dialogue - Communion. On Being the Church_Page_01The latest report of the Lutheran–Reformed Joint Commission between the Lutheran World  Federation and the World Communion of Reformed Churches is now available. Its title is Communion: On Being the Church. To read and/or download the report, click on the pretty picture.

An Interview with Setri Nyomi

In this recent interview, Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, reflects on the 14 years he has served with the WCRC. I was both interested and challenged about what he had to say about the Accra Confession, a document whose 10th anniversary this year will ironically be marked by a series of consultations:

The issues that the Accra Confession talked about are still with us. And in fact they are expressing themselves in more vicious ways than they were in 2004. We still have economic injustice, we still have many, many, many people dying as a result of the way the global economy is shaped. Since 2004, that has also touched the global north in a way that couldn’t have been envisioned in 2004. In 2004 people thought, “oh that’s the issue for Latin America, and Africa and Asia.” But in 2008 we had the economic meltdown that impacted the north and I personally had letters from people in the global north saying, “Looks like this is the very thing the Accra Confession is talking about.”

And so ten years later we have those issues still with us. For me the unfortunate thing is I don’t see how it is being lived out, even in the lives of our church members, to the extent I would have liked to see. If I had any evaluation of the Accra Confession I would count that a failure, that it is still not part of the mainstream of the life of people. And I hope this tenth anniversary we’ll be able to do that kind of evaluation and redirect ourselves because it’s not the kind of confession that you put on a shelf and say, “We’ve achieved a good statement.” It’s not even the kind of confession that you’re happy about if once in a while you recite it in churches as one of the wonderful confessions of the church. It is one that calls on us to engage in some actions, and unless we are doing those I would say we need to say we have failed.

Dialogue of Love: Breaking the Silence of Centuries: a review

John Chryssavgis (ed., with contributions by Brian Daley and George Florovsky), Dialogue of Love: Breaking the Silence of Centuries (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014). 96pp. ISBN: 9780823264001.

A guest review by Graeme Ferguson

Dialogue of Love was prepared to coincide with the meeting between Pope Francis and Bartholomew, Patriarch of Constantinople, on 25 May this year in Bethlehem. Dr Chryssavgis – who has edited three volumes of the writings of Patriarch Bartholomew, along with his own writings on ecology, on the theology of the Desert Fathers, and on spirituality – is one of Australia’s leading theologians with wide ecumenical experience. He is ideally suited to edit this celebratory gift to the Church both East and West. (He has recently been elevated to the post of Ecumenical Archdeacon of the Throne by the Patriarch.)

Although the meeting between the leaders of the Churches of the East and of the West was overshadowed in the secular news by other significant gestures by Pope Francis during his weekend visit to Jordan and Israel, it marked fifty years of changing relations between the Churches since the day when Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI first greeted each other in Jerusalem in May 1964. When Athenagoras was asked by reporters what he would say to the Pope, he replied: ‘I came here to say “good morning” to my beloved brother, the Pope. You must remember that it has been five hundred and twenty five years since we have spoken to one another!’ This breach was the ‘great silence’ that had marred any communication between East and West.

Dr Chryssavgis details the steps in the ‘pilgrimage towards unity’ with loving regard and a fine attention to the momentous nature of the changes first raised in the Second Vatican Council. This chapter gives an insightful overview of the steps that have been taken. Relations between East and West have become cordial and mutually gracious.

Fr. Daley has been closely associated with the theological conversations between the Churches in North America. He deals with the theological questions that have needed to be considered in ecumenical conversations. His chapter is a fine reminder of the way ecumenical courtesies are fostered and developed as people work together to overcome the breaches of past centuries.

The third contribution is a previously-unpublished paper giving Fr George Florovsky’s evaluation of the 1964 meeting where he dealt with the questions that gave rise to the breach and the style of dialogue needed to move once more towards unity. He writes of the hope that lies beyond the contradictions in the self-understanding of the Church of Rome, as the watchman watches for the morning to break (Isa 22.11). Florovsky taught in Edinburgh as well as Princeton, and helped both catholic and protestant theologians to act with respect and grace towards each other.

Together, these articles focus well the grace and courage with which the leaders of the Churches bring to their meetings with each other. They are theologically perceptive, written by people who engage in the dialogue as it continues, and convey a sense of joyous hope as people begin to discern the outlines of a restored and reconciled Church. Dr Chryssavgis has prepared a gift which warms the heart as it stimulates the mind. It is an encouragement to continue the pilgrimage further.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Graeme Ferguson is the former Principal of United Theological College, Sydney.