Catherine Keller’s Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming is a wonderfully-creative, beautifully-written, and seriously-provocative read. An entanglement of biblical studies, poetry, and feminist and process theologies, Keller offers a profound commentary on a most neglected Hebrew text, Genesis 1.2: ‘… the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep …’.
The book represents Keller’s effort to take seriously Genesis’s claim that creation is not creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) but creatio ex profundis (creation out of the deep waters, creation as the germinating abyss). She sees this in stark contrast to the tendency in western theology to emphasise the creative and omnipotent Word which is, in a sense, spoken against creation with a view to taming and ordering its chaos. She writes:
Christianity established as unquestionable the truth that everything is created not from some formless and bottomless something but from nothing: an omnipotent God could have created the world only ex nihilo. This dogma of origin has exercised immense productive force. It became common sense. Gradually it took modern and then secular form, generating every kind of western originality, every logos creating the new as if from nothing, cutting violently, ecstatically free of the abysms of the past. But Christian theology … created this ex nihilo at the cost of its own depth. It systematically and symbolically sought to erase the chaos of creation. Such a maneuver … was always doomed to a vicious circle: the nothingness invariably returns with the face of the feared chaos – to be nihilated all the more violently.
Our tradition, she says, has leaped from Genesis 1.1 to 1.3, from the beginning with God to the divine speech, ‘Let there be light’. In this view, God does not work with the ‘formless void and darkness’ but, in a sense, against it. But wedged between these two verses, she reminds us, is ‘a churning, complicating darkness’ which ‘refuses to disappear’. She writes:
It refuses to appear as nothing, as vacuum, as mere absence highlighting the Presence of the Creator, as nonentity limning all the created entities. It gapes open in the text: ‘and the earth was tohu vabohu, and darkness was upon the face of tehom and the ruach elohim was vibrating upon the face of the mayim’ …
To make her case, she engages constructively with the work of Augustine, Barth, Deleuze, Derrida, Whitehead, and others. My favourite chapter was on Melville’s Moby-Dick, ‘“Leviathanic revelations”: Melville’s hermenautical journey’, wherein she suggests that ‘the infinity of a chaosmic hermeneutic signals … not a dearth but an excess of meaning, a meaning-fullness or meaning-flux released by the refusal of hard lines and clear boundaries’. Religion which tries to protect us from the risk of ‘being eternally stove and sunk by [the great Leviathan]’ (Melville) has, Keller avers, ‘offered us cartoons instead: a God-thing, an evil thing, and a creation full of things, surrounded by nothing’. ‘When religion pretends to “systematized exhibition,” it removes us both from the streets and from the deep’.
One real achievement of Keller’s book is how effectively it reminds us that creation is not a beast to be tamed, but a deep mystery – a mystery that we experience the echo of in our own times of chaos and deepest prayer, and over which the ‘wind from God’, the ruach elohim, ‘vibrates’. We are, in our most primordial reality, vulnerable creatures of this earth in which the ‘formless void and darkness’ from time to time reasserts itself. Where Keller’s work is less satisfactory, however, and that characteristically so for a process theologian, is in the absence of any serious christology – the journey which the kenotic God undertakes into and with creation’s dark and formless depths. Put otherwise, while Keller certainly plumbs the subterranean depths of creation, and that with some existential bite, she stops short of going where God in Christ goes, and so where a fully Christian account of creation bids theologians go.
Reading Keller’s book reminded me of Arvo Pärt’s De profundis, and led me to reflect more deeply on three texts from the Hebrew Bible (Pss 47.2; 139.5–12; Gen 15.12–13), and two verses from the Second Testament (Mark 15.33–34). Perhaps the true test of any book, however, is whether or not it lures one to prayer. Keller’s did that for me:
O God, who created the heavens and the earth, for whom nothing that is is apart from you, and who mends all the tears in the canvas of creation, we bless you.
We thank you for the promise that nothing in all creation can keep us from your love, even while we confess that that love is so often a stranger to us and that our lives are more often characterised by anxiety than by the courage to enter the deep caverns of creation and of your love’s mysterious shadows.
We mostly live in the shallows, and for that we are relieved the burden of constant darkness – our greatest fear that the sense that our very being is under threat. And sometimes we find ourselves in water too deep, where your presence is marked by an absence, and our presence is marked by our own nightmares, the storehouses of forgotten memories and open wounds that recoil at your gracious promise of healing and redemption. Thank you that even the darkness is not dark to you.
Give us a candle of your Spirit, O God of the depths, as we encounter and are encountered by the deeps of creation’s being, that these might be for us the spring of new life, and that our service in your name might bear witness to the profound depths that you have traversed and continue to transverse in Jesus Christ. Amen.
While the Australian Human Rights Commission conducts its own inquiry into children in detention, and while Scott Morrison (and Tony’s ‘gift to our nation’) stays on his own delusional course, The Guardian has published this piece based on an interview with the courageous Dr Peter Young:
Read the full article here.
Carlton Johnstone, Embedded Faith: the faith journeys of young adults within church communities (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013). ISBN: 9871625641236; 213pp.
A guest review by Geoff New
I have been aware of Carlton Johnstone’s work for some time. The thought of reading his book was akin to the thought of going to the dentist; I probably need to but I’m scared of the pain that will no doubt result. The anticipated pain of reading this book was centred on the anxiety I held about the young adults in my congregation. Why? I’m jealous for the young adults in my congregation because I have pastored them since they were in primary school. The prospect of reading this work was like hearing what your children have been up to from other ‘concerned parents’. Denial was a tantalising option. Nevertheless, I decided I needed a check-up so I read the book. Spoiler alert: insofar as the emotional effect upon me as a pastor, it was exactly as a dental assistant once said to me, ‘Today dentistry is a painless exercise’. Surprisingly!
Allow me to begin with a generalisation. For a busy minister who will be choosy about what they read and for how long, Embedded Faith is not an easy read. It is very academic in style and its main discipline is sociological rather than theological. If you are intending to buy this book, it’s important to know that. Also, this is not a how-to book; it is a what’s-happening-and-why book. As a reader, you will find a helpful map of what lies ahead in the Introduction (pp. xvi–xvii). Orientate yourself with this and then begin reading with your own people in mind.
Allow me to continue with what might appear as a painfully obvious point. Different chapters and sections will resonate and challenge leaders depending on the nature of their context and the length of time they have been in such a place. For me, I was intrigued with the chapters entitled ‘Worship and Modes of Engagement’, and ‘Preaching and Interpretative Communities’. What struck me about the findings articulated in these chapters was that with good authentic relationships with young adults, anxious leaders do not have a lot to be anxious about. Urban myths about what younger generations are after are debunked by the stories, experiences, and aspirations shared in these pages. Yes, there is work to be done but there is less of a them-and-us dynamic going on than is often claimed. This book, to a significant degree, is actually a tribute to the spirituality and conscientiousness of young adults that God has graced the church with.
The book reaches a conclusion where Carlton coins the phrase ‘two-timing’ to describe the spiritual practice of young adults attending two churches. At risk of over-simplifying this conclusion, a main feature is that it takes more than one church for the participants described in this book to enjoy spiritual nourishment. Outrageous? Well, in reading that section my mind went to Revelation 1–3 when the ascended and glorified Christ appeared to the apostle John on the island of Patmos. He then addressed the seven churches of Asia Minor at that time. His opening comment to each of the churches featured one or more aspect of the original description of Christ in Revelation 1.12–16; but no church had the entire vision presented. In other words, it took all seven churches to present the full vision of Christ. Maybe that’s where this research is heading? By the book’s end I was wishing for more application and reflection in terms of ‘what-now?’ It is there, but it is all too brief and general.
In my view, this work calls forth a commitment to a particular kind of open-hearted relationship with young adults. As mentioned earlier, it is not an easy read due to its academic style and referencing; but it is an empowering voice for young adults and encouraging for over-anxious pastors who feel like they are in the dentist chair.
Ed. In the spirit of both full disclosure and sheer delight, Carlton is one of my students. This means, among other things, that I am particularly happy to give his book a wee plug here at PCaL. – JG.
Michael Leunig has produced two cartoons (and possibly more) this year ‘named’ Earth. Here they are:
The Age, 4 April 2014
[Speaking of 'sorrow', reading Sarah Whyte's piece today had me in tears for hours.]
The Age, 30 July 2014
And his offering in today’s Sydney Morning Herald/The Age sustains and focuses the same theme:
This morning, two of my wee sprogs – Samuel (3) and Ambrie (2) – were keen to play on ‘my’ tablet. This is not unusual. They were especially keen to do some drawing. While they drew, I told them about the great Moby Dick. They thought that it was a ‘very funny story’ (clearly I have some work to do there!) and then they drew this delightful picture together:
I reckon that they got the proportion between The Whale and the Pequod about right.
Then Samuel, who is mildly obsessed with aeroplanes, thought that he would draw the flight paths for Air New Zealand’s domestic flights. He was certainly right about AirNZ cutting back on those flights to/from Dunedin:
Signed: A very proud dad
It is testimony to God’s persevering love that God has blessed the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand with some wonderfully-talented young people. And with the conviction that God’s blessings are given in order to be a blessing to others, a number of these (mostly) young troopers have banded together to make a wee album called Songs for the Road. There’s a couple of stand out tracks (like Jordan Redding’s two offerings – ‘Gather round the feast’ and ‘Kyrie eleison’ – and Zoe Henderson’s and Katie Lee’s song ‘Open our eyes’, performed by Lydia Cole) and a couple of theological disasters (such as Malcolm Gordon’s ‘Christ Before Me’). The stand out song, however, is ‘This Light’ by Hannah van Dorp:
Son of light, son of day
Don’t believe that your hope’s gone away
Friend of mine, how you shine,
Don’t allow your heart to be afraid
You’ve never seen anything like this before,
Never been anywhere on your own.
But you, my dear, see crystal clear this light
So don’t be afraid of the night.
You may not remember me
But I know where your heart’s always been.
Change your mind, you might fall behind but you know
Your reality’s seen.
You’ve never done anything like this before,
Never known any place on your own.
But you, my dear, see crystal clear this light
So don’t be afraid of the night.
no shortage of apples or artichokes
no shortage of walnuts or whiskey
no shortage of cherries or chickens
no shortage of lamb or leeks
no shortage of pork or pinot noir
no shortage of edible flowers or eggs
no shortage of sprouts or Green Man stouts
no shortage of capsicums or Colin’s creamy farmhouse brie
no shortage of potatoes or pies
no shortage of coffee or Cardrona merino lamb
no shortage of tabbouleh or Ken’s tussocks
no shortage of bread or beets
no shortage of galettes or garlic paste
no shortage of asparagus or Afife’s Lebanese delectations
no shortage of smoked salamis or short skirts
no shortage of pears or pizzas
no shortage of vegans or vendors
no shortage of buskers on the platform jamming the blues.
By the time we reached Tony’s ’Nemo’ van
the only fish left were
‘It’s been a shocker of a week’, he said.
‘With three hours out to the reef
and three hours back,
and with no calm
to get any sleep. Still,
there’s always next week,
© Jason Goroncy
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
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.
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.
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.
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
to see people and things as they really are.
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’.
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.
I 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?
[Source: The Canberra Times, 15 July 2014]
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.
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]
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.
For more information, or to enrol, email or phone (03 9340 8021) Whitley College.
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.]