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 …

Academic position: Dean of Studies and Lecturer

kcmlApplications are invited for the position of Dean of Studies and Lecturer at the Knox Centre for Ministry of Leadership in Dunedin, New Zealand. The Knox Centre forms and trains theology graduates for ministry and leadership in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. This includes running a two-year internship programme for people training for the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. As Dean of Studies, you will handle course enquiries and manage the ordination programme’s curriculum. As Lecturer, you will teach at least one paper in the ordination studies programme, preferably in the areas of Theological Reflection and/or Presbyterian-Reformed Studies. As well as having the requisite skills in administration and education, you will be familiar with the Presbyterian-Reformed tradition, you will have a proven background in Christian ministry and leadership, and you will have either a D.Min or a PhD in Theology. A full Job Description for this position can be obtained from the Registrar. Applications can be submitted to the Principal. The position is available from 1 January 2015. The closing date for applications is 16 May 2014.

Butcher’s Crossing: a commendation

I recently finished reading – very slowly, because this is a book that deserves much time – Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams. Like Williams’ Stoner, this book is a masterpiece. At core, it is a critique of the Emersonianism that has dogged the American dream, and a commentary on American history itself – marked by the triumph and tragedy of human conquest on the frontier, the ambiguity of friendship, the pursuit of individual identity and the risk of its loss vis-à-vis the natural world, the temptation of escape from the common, and the seductions of violence in its cold and mindless destruction. All that is told by way of a story of a group of men who leave Butcher’s Crossing, a little town in Kansas, and head off into an isolated valley in the Colorado Rockies in search of buffalo, wealth and self.

I’ll not write any more lest I give away too much of the plot, but here’s a section that could have been penned by Qoheleth himself:

“Young people,” McDonald said contemptuously. “You always think there’s something to find out.” “Yes, sir,” Andrews said. “Well, there’s nothing,” McDonald said. “You get born, and you nurse on lies, and you get weaned on lies, and you learn fancier lies in school. You live all your life on lies, and then maybe when you’re ready to die, it comes to you—that there’s nothing, nothing but yourself and what you could have done. Only you ain’t done it, because the lies told you there was something else. Then you know you could of had the world, because you’re the only one that knows the secret; only then it’s too late. You’re too old.” “No,” Andrews said. A vague terror crept from the darkness that surrounded them, and tightened his voice. “That’s not the way it is.” “You ain’t learned, then,” McDonald said. “You ain’t learned yet … Look. You spend nearly a year of your life and sweat, because you have faith in the dream of a fool. And what have you got?

Austin Diary III: Raison d’être


Frierson Seminar

Aside from a little day trip down to magnificent San Antonio, this past week has seen me in Austin. My principle reason for being here has been to participate in the Inaugural Clarence N. and Betty B. Frierson Distinguished Scholars’ Conference at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The theme of the conference—“Always Being Reformed: Challenges, Issues and Prospects for Reformed Theologies Today”—provided a welcome invitation for a diverse and international company of scholars to address themes, questions, and issues in the Reformed tradition resonant with their own contexts and areas of expertise. The participants were Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi, Deborah and Henk van den Bosch, Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Lameck Banda, Margit Ernst Habib, Martha Moore-Keish, Mary Fulkerson, Meehyun Chung, Bill Greenway, Cindy Rigby, David Jensen, and myself. Our three days together were marked by joy, gratitude, friendship, good scholarship, trust, ego-free candour, great food, wonderful hospitality, and with hope that we might be able to do it again—a gathering of qualities still a little all-too-rare at academic gigs.

Austin Diary II: Introductions

I met you yesterday. It was the first time. I thought you were a god. It was your long smooth back. Long, even longer than Ingrid Bergman’s, and marked by as much pulchritude. Or was it that voice—so confident, and free? Or the way you greeted friends and strangers, sojourners and indifferents alike, and me?

I asked many locals about you. Only one even knew your name. And where I thought you exotic, they named you ‘common’. Where I named you ‘generous’ and ‘kind’, they called you ‘scavenger’, and ‘crow like’, and ‘a varmint’, at one time even in the same breath.

But they do not see you as I do. Most do not see you at all. Not on 6th Street East, anyway—on 6th Street East where they even named a bar after you once; one of those hipster ‘Sorry, No Kids’ joints all caged in like a jail full of lost souls playing the jukebox and bad darts. But no saloon here could produce anything near matching the magnificence of your song. Down the road in Fort Worth, they named an art gallery after you, and a couple of guys from LA, Ken Neufeld and Scott Guy, teamed up to write a little love song, ‘for 8-part mixed voices’, about you … but not here, not here in this music mecca of the desert with its Willie Nelson Boulevard.

But it was given to one guy—an out-of-towner who loves the Liverpool Football Club and the New England Patriots (not an entirely unacceptable combination) and Irish beer and blond middle-aged women and Ben & Jerry’s—‘Vermont’s Finest’—ice cream (the Cake Batter is his favourite)—to introduce us. And with the help of a smartphone—smart, I assume, because it knew of you—was able to tell us both your full name, and about your dietary habits, and about your mating patterns.


‘She’s a grackle’, he said. ‘A quiscalus quiscula’. ‘Ah, a grackle’, I said with a sense of great accomplishment; for my pursuit was near over. And, knowing your name, I was filled with wonder ever more.

And later, when I was eating outside at La Condesa, you were there too—did you follow me?—striding elegantly around my table while I enjoyed my platos fuertes of mole dominguero (seared airline chicken breast, three day mole, grilled green beans, crema) and my Austin Beerworks Pearl-Snap German-style pils. You seemed to welcome my worship. You seemed unbothered by the crowds, those masses whose anthem was ‘Save the grackle, my ass!’. You seemed more aware than all of us of the sun’s setting. And you won me again with your song, and that long blue back.

And as I wandered back along Guadalupe Street, from 2nd up to 27th, I was greeted by what seemed like all your mates—an entire grackle orchestra, playing, free of charge in the trees outside the University Baptist Church whose current edifice was erected in 1921 (when the Reverend A. L. Aulick was kicking about doing his thing) and is now ‘listed in the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior’. And I thought, stuff the Department and its register. The end and the beginning of all things—interior and exterior and posterior—was being played out right here, right in these trees above the pavement outside ‘Austin’s Progressive voice of faith’, the music which was, with great success, drowning out all the traffic with which the new creation is joyously unfamiliar.



I’m not, it seems, the only grackle worshipper here in Austin. Sophie Gilbert, a wildlife researcher, educator, and PhD student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has created a video, ‘Shrieks of Joy: The Grackles of Austin’, and has posted it just last week:

Austin Diary I: You realise (or realize) that you’re visiting another planet when …

… while out for an innocent stroll, you happen across sights like this:


and this:


and this:


All in a public place; just there—there, right in front of you—there where anyone, even left-handed people, and people who like to taste the coffee in their coffee, can see it.

And all that, just down the road from this—but which you have to sign in to see (presumably because anywhere in the world where Finney and Forsyth appear within such close proximity of each other is cause for grave public concern, and confusion):


All told, I’m enjoying Uncle Stanley’s home state. And I’ll post something a little more intelligent about it tomorrow.

An invitation to read in ‘community’

The Isolator, invented in 1925

The Isolator, invented in 1925

Dear readers,

I hope that this finds you well, and firing on all (or at least on most) of your cylinders. I have a request to make of you: if/when you have read one or more of my books or anyone else’s books, may I ask you to please resist the urge to read in isolation and instead share your thoughts on what you’ve read, whether via a blog (it seems that us bloggers used to do this more often in the ol’ days than we do now), or via Goodreads, or via penning a few ‘review’-like words on the relevant Amazon or other bookseller’s site … or even with an actual person. I ask this because I’m increasingly bothered by the way that most of us read ‘alone’. One of the reasons that I greatly appreciate emails from readers about my books—and I will continue to welcome such!—is that the conversations and comments that emerge in such correspondence are very often of mutual help to both reader and author. Most of this could be widened.

I’ve ummed and ahed about writing this ‘letter’, mostly out of fear that it is motivated by a desire to increase sales. I sincerely hope that this is not the case, although my—and probably yours too—adroitness for self-deception is significantly developed. On my most conscious level, this request is motivated by a conviction that anything that helps readers read and to both articulate and gain a guileless assessment of a book is helpful, especially when one feels free to be as ruthlessly honest and as critical and as fair as one needs to be.

Thank you for considering this wee request.



Kim Fabricius on climate change

Bury head in sand

‘Young-earth creationism is an intellectual disaster, but anthropogenic climate-change* denial is, more, a moral disaster. It is not merely risible, it is repugnant; not just bad science but odious ideology. And world leaders for whom the penny has finally dropped – what do they do but loiter without intent, hands in pockets, counting their change? To wilful ignorance, economic self-interest, and political opportunism, add the global “bystander effect” – the more nations that witness other nations in even more distress than their own, the less likely any one nation will say “Enough is enough!” and act – well, one despairs even of damage limitation (like chemo with late-stage cancer). And you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows: extreme meteorological events, environmental devastation, human suffering will worsen; mass migrations and territorial conflict will ensue; only fundamentalists will rejoice – they’ll have a sodden field day with the book of Revelation. We say climate-change denial is an “opinion”; our grandchildren will ask us why we didn’t call it like it is – a sociopathology’. – Kim the doodle man.

* On the evidence for anthropogenic climate change, see the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, released in 2007. A synthesis of the report can be accessed here. While it is no understatement to admit that I am considerably science-challenged, I found the report accessible, and deeply troubling. Heck, I reckon that even Tony Abbott and John Key could understand it, if they wanted to. The IPCC’s latest report is due out next week.

Semper Reformanda as a Confession of Crisis

Girolamo ZanchiSoon, I will be making my way to Austin TX. It will be my first time in ‘the live music capitol of the world’ (other candidates for the accolade are Melbourne and Berlin), and I’m not a little gutted that I won’t be there in time to enjoy the South By Southwest events. Still, I’m very much looking forward to participating in the ‘Inaugural Clarence N. and Betty B. Frierson Distinguished Scholars’ Conference’ at Austin Seminary. The conference theme is Always Being Reformed: Challenges, Issues and Prospects for Reformed Theologies Today.

Any excuse to think critically about matters at the very heart of the reformed project is to be welcomed because this strange beast called ‘Reformed’ can never be a default or settled position, and because it is through such self-examination that the reformed serve the church catholic and its witness to Christ in the world. Is this not precisely the only justification for the reformed project at all?

My paper is unambitious and simple in its three broad aims, each of which earns a section. Here’s a wee summary, for those who may be interested:

I. The first section is an attempt to identify the historical beginnings and theological intentions of the aphorism semper reformanda, and to trace some of the ways in which the commitment to this animus of the reformed project has evolved among us. I note that the etymological history of the reformanda sayings is sketchy, but whether their geneses were in 1670s Holland (in the writings of Jacobus Koelman, Johannes Hoornbeeck, and Jodocus van Lodensteyn) or in 1562 in the Italian reformer Girolamo Zanchi (the strong case for priority in Zanchi’s writings is in reference to some correspondence with Theodore Beza, and his treatise De Reformatione Ecclesiarum), they all use the idea of semper reformanda in a similar way—namely, as a summons to the church to be restored to a former purity. Only then, it is argued, can the church really be called ‘reformed’. Zanchi, Calvin, the early reform movements in France and indeed most of the tradition since (with few exceptions; e.g., the Synod of Privas, 1612, argued that ongoing reform would be destabilizing for the church. Another way to read this is to say that those who found themselves benefiting from past reforms did not want their new positions to be undermined), believed that such reform is both possible and is to be a permanent characteristic of the church’s existence in the world.

History points to a movement whose character and energy were ripe for transformation, believing that such would represent not a human achievement but an action of God who calls the church to renewed obedience and continuing reformation through Holy Scripture. Reform, in other words, was to be the fruit of a people attentive to the Word of God in the Bible and to the living Word who ever breaks himself open to us therein. So understood, Ecclesia semper reformanda is not ecclesia semper varianda. Or, as T. S. Eliot put it, reformation is not an ‘endless cycle of idea and action, endless invention, [and] endless experiment’ for its own sake. It is, however, as Michael Jinkins has argued, an invitation to adapt the lessons of the past ‘to new conditions in new environments and to do so in ways that remain appropriate to who we are called to be as a community of followers of Jesus Christ’.

II. The second, and longest, section asks more specifically about how that commitment relates to reformed patterns of confessing. Principally, what I am arguing for here is that to confess the faith in the spirit of the semper is to confess that the Christian community is, at core, in a state of crisis.

I begin by arguing that confession is first and foremost concerned with the community’s lived wrestle with and response to the live question ‘Who is Jesus Christ today?’ This question calls for some risk—faith’s risk that our response might drive us away from familiar formulations and into previously-unchartered territory. This is what it means to be a living tradition, continuously being brought into being by One who encounters us both in and for new contexts. So while we will speak in some continuity with the past, we must reject all moves to deify past confessions. I suggest that confession exemplifies something of the character of commentary insofar as exegesis always calls for new translation. Such work entails the risks of having misheard, of having spoken out of turn, of living with both continuity and discontinuity with one’s history, and of having no stable culture and no visible institutional identity upon which one can rely.

It seems to me that the formula ecclesia reformata semper reformanda serves to safeguard against the temptation to capture revelation as some fixed given, as ‘a thing’. Consequently, I suggest that it calls for something of an event metaphysics wherein the pilgrim community and its witness are continuously disrupted, created and reformed by the eschatological Word and Spirit. One implication of this is that our claims will have an invisible, indemonstrable, and unprovable character about them, and so will be of little value in the hands of those whose measure of reality is that which is passing away.

Drawing on the work of Hendrik Kraemer, Michael Weinrich, J. C. Hoekendijk, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Ernst Käsemann, William Stringfellow and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I argue that confession, as understood by the reformed, is a form of dispossession. That is, for a community-in-diaspora to confess Christ is to be entirely uninvested in its own self-preservation. It is a community whose attention to God’s address is such that ‘its whole life is put in question’ (Karl Barth).

III. The final section of my paper attempts to place on the table one theo-political commitment that might call for reevaluation; namely, how the reformed conceive their relationship vis-à-vis the modern state. I take it that this section is an implication of the previous one—i.e., an implication of the gospel’s eschatological character and what it means to be a community entirely unsettled and unpredictable and unreliable when it comes to its relationship with whatever current arrangements might be in place in the world. The Word of God creates a crisis particularly for those who want life to be secure and invulnerable and certain for it calls for faith to live what Donald MacKinnon names ‘an exposed life’ and to boldly resist all efforts to ‘justify’ its position in the world.

My invitation for us to do some critical thinking about what this might mean for our relationships with the state recalls, of course, that the reformed will share radically different—even contradictory—positions on this subject as on others, and this is how it should be. What ought to be unequivocal, however, is that such positions resist being settled ones, and that they emerge from our hearing afresh the Word in context. Again, the issue here is the divine freedom, and the provisional nature of the Christian community elected for service in this world.

I look forward to the ensuing discussion.

New Zealand and the demise of an egalitarian dream

Changing TimesMy antipodean readers, in particular, may be interested to listen to Phillip Adams’s interview with Jenny Carlyon and Diana Morrow, authors of Changing Times: New Zealand Since 1945, on the subject of changes in New Zealand’s social landscape. The blurb for the show reads:

Before WW2, New Zealand was among the most egalitarian nations on earth, but recent OECD stats suggest that its once narrow gap is widening so fast, it’s now ranked second from the bottom. But in contrast to its early years as a largely white, Anglo-centric culture, today 213 different ethnic groups call New Zealand home. This one hour special is a retrospective look at the vast cultural, political and demographic changes in New Zealand over the past 60 years.

You can listen to the interview here.

A couple of conferences on theology and ethics

The Department of Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen, together with the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, are organising the following conferences:

Theological Ethics Conference Aberdeen

Bonhoeffer Events Aberdeen (2)

Note: If you are a fellow blogger and/or tweeter/G+er/facebooker, please consider helping to spread the word about these exciting events. Please feel free too to use the images (jpegs) that I have uploaded here.

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: 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’.

Hunting down Charles Darwin

Last night, the New Edinburgh Folk Club (aka the Dunedin Folk Club) hosted the great Jez Lowe for what was an absolutely fantastic gig. (Next week, we’ll host Andy Irvine.) Among the many wonderful songs performed was one that Jez penned in 2009 for the Darwin Song Project called ‘We’ll Hunt Him Down’, a song which imagines a band of conservative American preachers marching (or riding) across the US in a holy mission to rid the land of the Darwin scourge. Jez told of how he recently played the song in a US church, to a mixed response. I thought the song was very witty, and damn good fun, and so I wanted to share it here. So here’s a clip of the song’s first public performance at the 2009 Shrewsbury Folk Festival, performed by Jez Lowe, Chris Wood and Mark Erelli:

Across this noble country, this fair land of the free,
I’m searching for the man who stole my Lord away from me,
And God is riding with me, and half the town is too,
His name is Charlie Darwin and he must not talk to you.

We’ll hunt him down, we’ll hunt him down,
And every word he ever said we’ll grind into the ground,
We’ll hunt him down, we’ll hunt him down,
Charles Robert Darwin, you’re not welcome in this town.

At first we thought him crazy, so we just let him be,
Playing with worms and flies and little critters from the sea,
Then he started spreading rumours that you scarcely would believe,
That my ancestors were chimpanzees, not Adam and Eve.

We’ll hunt him down …

It’s hard to think about him without sinking to abuse,
They say that he’s an Englishman, but that’s still no excuse,
He’s robbed our schools and churches of the truth the bible tells,
So we’re out to stop his Godless ways and damn his words to hell.

We’ll hunt him down …

We’re holy and we’re righteous, and we know it to be true,
That it was on a Saturday morning that God made me and you,
He made us smart and clever, he even gave us tools,
Like guns and bombs and rifles, that shows you God’s no fool.

We’ll hunt him down …

Position: Senior Lecturer in Mission Studies

laidlawLaidlaw College in Auckland is seeking a Senior Lecturer in Mission Studies for its School of Theology, Mission & Ministry:

The Lecturer will be responsible for teaching in mission and contextual studies, ensuring that courses are developed and delivered in ways that are faithful to the Gospel of Christ, culturally incisive, and grounded in a biblical understanding of God’s missional purposes for Aotearoa New Zealand, the nations of the Pacific region, Asia and the world. They will also be actively involved in the College’s community and will lead the College’s Centre for Cross Cultural Mission (C3M).

The desired candidate will have the following skills and qualifications:

      • A PhD or equivalent in a relevant area of research
      • Significant missional experience
      • Active involvement in a local Christian community of faith and in Christian initiatives in the wider global community
      • Ability to publish papers and present research at academic conferences
      • Experience in teaching within a tertiary education provider
      • Experience mentoring students and providing pastoral care
      • Understanding of recent developments in the theological and general tertiary education sectors nationally and internationally
      • Experience and/or willingness to utilise e-Learning pedagogies and technologies

This position is a permanent full-time (1.0 FTE) position.

Please email your CV and cover letter to Natalie Tims, Human Resources Manager, at ntims@laidlaw.ac.nz to register your interest and request an application pack. Application packs include an application form related to your previous experience and theological principles, a Statement of Faith and a five-year Professional Development Research plan. Application packs must be submitted by Friday 2 May, 2014.

You can read the Job Description here.