Clare Boyd-Macrae on Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth 

Over at Art/s and Theology Australia, the wonderful Clare Boyd-Macrae has shared a reflection on Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. Here’s a snippet:

They poured out their very souls in these letters, in a way that I suspect contemporary lovers rarely do with their instant messaging and their moving in together five minutes after they ‘hook up’. The sheer longing for each other in these epistles is a world away from the instant gratification we have come to expect in everything, including sex. I’m not wishing myself back there exactly – I do wonder how marriages panned out when these heightened times were over and a couple had to settle down to jobs and housework and the daily irritations that are a part of a long love. But the contrast with current practices is staggering.

Those interested in submitting short essays, reviews, poems, photos, and critical reflections to ATA can do so here or via email.

Book Launch: A Dialogue Between Haizi’s Poetry and the Gospel of Luke

Whitley College has the pleasure to host the launch of Dr Xiaoli Yang’s recent book A Dialogue Between Haizi’s Poetry and the Gospel of Luke: Chinese Homecoming and the Relationship with Jesus Christ. 

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The book has been well received by a wide range of scholars:

“This is no mere correlationist project wherein Haizi provides the questions and Luke(‘s Jesus) responds. Instead, there is a dizzying multi-directionality through which various chasms – East-West, Yin-Yang, ancient-contemporary, modern-postmodern, rural-urban, terrestrial-cosmic, poetic-philosophical, symbolic-discursive, epistemological-ontological, immanence-transcendence – are bridged, irreversibly through the Dao of Haizi’s suicide and ultimately through the way of Jesus’ cross. Yang herself emerges as poet giving profound expression to the contemporary global (dis)location, as prophet naming and diagnosing its instable homelessness, and as priest mediating the possibility of a fresh gospel homecoming precisely in and through the desolation of late modernity’s interface with the post-Mao Chinese soul. The word Dialogue in the title is too modest; be forewarned of the tremors this book will unleash to those who think philosophy and theology are mostly discursive Western undertakings.” — Amos Yong, Professor of Theology & Mission, Fuller Seminary

” A Dialogue between Haizi’s Poetry and the Gospel of Luke is a welcome contribution to the field of intercultural theology. It skillfully employs together four lenses for hermeneutical reading – the historical, literary, philosophical, and religious — to see freshly Luke and the message of Jesus, now heard along with the poetry of Haizi (1964-1989), a voice still new in the West. Drawing poetry into the work of intercultural learning, Xiaoli Yang also brings new resources from the Chinese context into theological reflection, giving new substance to the ideals and practices of an Asian Christian theology. Comparative theologians too will enjoy learning from Yang’s methods and purposes, broadening our repertoire for the work of interreligious theological learning today.” — Francis X. Clooney, SJ, Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology, Harvard University

“This book offers us an insight into the souls of the contemporary Chinese genuine intellectuals, who have lost their cultural and spiritual home. Through the unique approach combining literary study, intercultural dialogue and comparative theology, Ms. Yang helps us get to such a highland, where we could see clearly the home way of an honest genius poet who committed suicide but never ‘died’, and more importantly, see why millions of Chinese people today are struggling to leave their homeland for new home in foreign land, and for the heavenly home to be with Jesus Christ.” — He Guanghu, Professor of Religious Studies, Renmin University of China

“Historical events claim our attention and can generate a desire to rethink our own philosophical stance. Haizi agonized over social realities of his day through his poetry and ultimately through suicide. This is a fascinating yet tragic personal revelation. The advantage of this tragedy is that it opens up for the reader an opportunity to reflect on one’s own ideas. Dr Xiaoli Yang’s book provides some assistance in this by outlining how one can dialogue with Haizi’s poetry and compare the thinking with another historical figure, Jesus, who also challenged attitudes of the day and finally was killed for his revelations.” —David Claydon, OAM; previous International Director of the Lausanne Movement; author & theological lecturer

Patrick Deneen on the three pillars of liberal anticulture

Yesterday, I started on a book that’s been on my ‘must read’ pile for most of this year – Patrick Deneen’s gripping and highly-readable Why Liberalism Failed. While Deneen appears to read some of the most significant historical shifts in the West’s cultural and political imaginary in ways that are markedly less contested than do I, there is no doubt that, at least to where I’ve read up to so far, his book offers a stimulating and broadly-compelling diagnosis of liberalism, its vacuous promises, its parasitic nature, and its self-defeating vision.

Here’s a taster:

‘Liberal anticulture rests on three pillars: first, the wholesale conquest of nature, which consequently makes nature into an independent object requiring salvation by the notional elimination of humanity; second, a new experience of time as a pastless present in which the future is a foreign land; and third, an order that renders place fungible and bereft of definitional meaning. These three cornerstones of human experience—nature, time and place—form the basis of culture, and liberalism’s success is premised upon their uprooting and replacement with facsimiles that bear the same names.

The advance of this anticulture takes two primary forms. Anticulture is the consequence of a regime of standardizing law replacing widely observed informal norms that come to be discarded as forms of oppression; and it is the simultaneous consequence of a universal and homogenous market, resulting in a monoculture that, like its agricultural analogue, colonizes and destroys actual cultures rooted in experience, history, and place. These two visages of the liberal anticulture thus free us from other specific people and embedded relationships, replacing custom with abstract and depersonalized law, liberating us from personal obligations and debts, replacing what have come to be perceived as burdens on our individual autonomous freedom with pervasive legal threat and generalized financial indebtedness. In the effort to secure the radical autonomy of individuals, liberal law and the liberal market replace actual culture with an encompassing anticulture.

This anticulture is the arena of our liberty—yet increasingly, it is rightly perceived as the locus of our bondage and even a threat to our continued existence. The simultaneous heady joy and gnawing anxieties of a liberated humanity, shorn of the compass of tradition and inheritance that were the hallmarks of embedded culture, are indicators of liberalism’s waxing success and accumulating failure. The paradox is our growing belief that we are thralls to the very sources of our liberation—pervasive legal surveillance and control of people alongside technological control of nature. As the empire of liberty grows, the reality of liberty recedes. The anticulture of liberalism—supposedly the source of our liberation—accelerates liberalism’s success and demise’.

– Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 65–67.

On Geoff Thompson’s A Genuinely Theological Church

A Genuinely Theological Church.jpgThis afternoon, I had the joy of being at the wonderful Pilgrim Theological College and to share some words at the launch of Geoff Thompson’s fabulous new book, A Genuinely Theological Church. Below’s what I said, more or less.

Thank you to Geoff and to folk here at Pilgrim for the kind invitation and privilege to be here today to help launch Geoff’s latest book, A Genuinely Theological Church.[1] I wish to acknowledge that we meet on Wurundjeri land, of the Kulin nation with whom there have yet been no treaties and whose sovereignty has never been ceded. I pay my respects to any elders past, present, and emerging who may be here among us.

Well, what a wonderful gift to the church Geoff Thompson is! He keeps summoning us to love God and neighbour with our minds, and does so without the levels of anxiety that tend to characterise a great many church discussions. As an expression of Geoff’s love for the Uniting Church, this very timely book is an invitation to develop an explicit rationale for the study of theology in ministerial education. It is also an invitation to the church to understand itself as a theological community, ever renewed by rediscovering its life rooted ‘within the history of Jesus Christ’ (72).

It is difficult to imagine anyone better placed to write such a book. It reflects the wisdom of one who has wrestled long with questions about ‘the highly contested nature of theological education in the Uniting Church’ (7) and beyond.[2] Geoff maps the recent history of theological education against the background of ‘almost incalculable’ (23) cultural and intellectual change in the global church, and he calls upon the church to not retreat from but rather to engage with such realities with the full resources of the Gospel. To this end, Geoff argues that theological colleges ought to be located in ‘larger communities responsible for developing a culture of debate, research, resourcing, advocacy and public engagement’ (68).

He laments that while the demands, orientations, and contexts of ministry and of ministerial training have changed, there has been very little reflection on the role of theology in the church, and about why theology should assume the constant place it does. He surmises that this ‘suggests that we’re convinced that theology is important, but we’re not entirely sure why’, and that this absence of clarity means that ‘theology tends to become little more than a hoop that must be jumped [through] on the way to something else’ (24). He accepts that ‘theologians … have to take some of the blame for this situation’. ‘We have’, he says, ‘been either too defensive or … too confident that people will simply know what to do with a theological education and that the church … will know what to do with its theologically-educated leaders …. who are often appointed leaders for their expertise in other areas’ (25).

Geoff wants us to scrutinise what he and other theological educators have been doing, to ask if we have gotten the ‘questions about theological education right’, and to interrogate that question ‘with meaningful criteria’ (7–8). Drawing upon the extraordinary witness of the Basis of Union, he invites us to reflect on more basic questions, like: why does the church bother with theology at all? Indeed, why is there a church at all? What is this strangely ‘embodied way of life sustained and normed by the novel message of the gospel’ (9) of which Geoff speaks?

Of course, Geoff has been talking about this stuff for a long time. Some might say that he has a bit of ‘thing’ for it. Indeed, in an article in this month’s Crosslight he again advances the claim that ‘theological education is not about developing a theological “position”’ but is, rather, ‘about shaping a theological imagination. It involves learning to see and experience God [and] the world … through an ongoing critical but constructive engagement with the tension-filled biblical material, an immersion in the ebb and flow of the history of Christian doctrine, and a ruthlessly honest familiarity with Christianity’s history and its diverse practices’.[3] This book too is a call to see in the ordinary work of theology that which cultivates the church’s ‘collective imagination’ (73). It therefore rejects as unhelpful the ‘sharp contrast between scholarship and practice’ (14) as, in Geoff’s words, ‘a furphy’ (27). He laments ‘the ease with which’ members of the Uniting Church have allowed ‘scholarship to define theology’, or to ‘reduce theology to scholarly theology …. Theology … is much larger and far more important to the church than its scholarly forms’ (15).

The reduction of theology to the purview of church ‘ministry’ – whether lay or ordained – is another part of the problem that Geoff is keen to diagnose. He does not follow the worn path of thinking that ‘everyone is a theologian’, however. Indeed, he judges this to be ‘one of the more unhelpful slogans at play in the Uniting Church’ (43). Instead, he argues that the theologian is one who ‘relates to particular features of the social imaginary by attending in an explicit way to what otherwise remains implicit’ (46), and who does so with attention to biblical texts, to analysing historical doctrinal developments, to debating contested interpretations, to generating constructive theological proposals, to writing and presenting papers and preaching sermons about such matters, and to critically articulating the faith in public fora (42–43).

Geoff’s reference to theologians clearly preferences those whose work is concerned almost exclusively with words. If I was to venture a small criticism of this terrific book, it would be that it might have donated more ink to the ways that words do not exhaust the making explicit what otherwise remains implicit; that engagement in the joyous burden of enquiry and witness to the hope born of a faith that Easters us is not done with words alone. Yes, theology does much of its critical work through ‘exegesis, analysis, construction, writing and debating’ (50) and so on, but unlike work on say dogma and doctrinetheology does these with more than words. What of cultural myths, ritual, image, architecture, time, music, hospitality? I wish that Geoff had also explored some such ways in this book.

For those, like Geoff and myself, committed to serving God through the atmosphere of the Reformed project, the dynamic and free character of the living Word is as uncompromising a priority as is the hope that faith communities are ever born through its hearing. But it is very easy to be blind-sighted by such a commitment. Edwin Muir’s criticism of King Calvin’s kirk comes readily to mind. Muir, a Scottish poet, spoke of how ‘the Word made flesh … is made word again’,[4] exposing an enduring proclivity in Reformed Christianity to attempt to secure the truth of the Gospel through words alone.

Don’t get me wrong: I love words, and theology can’t do without them. But language has a tendency to pretend ‘to a precision, a finality that it cannot deliver, and this, ironically, is what makes it potentially more idolatrous than the images of which it is so suspicious’.[5] Responsible theological education must constantly underscore this fact by undertaking its work in an abundance of performative modes. This is indeed to take seriously Geoff’s own claim that theological work ought to correspond to the modes by which divine revelation has come into the world. It is also to underscore the theological community’s ‘vocation’, in Geoff’s words, ‘to counter the myth that reason is the only legitimate mode of truth-telling’ (60). Or, to cite Luther: ‘It’s not reading books that makes a theologian, but living, dying, and being damned!’

A Genuinely Theological Church is a welcome challenge to those faith communities still breathing late-Christendom air to imagine that the church’s ‘validity is derived [solely] from its availability to Jesus Christ’ (29–30). It is this that assists the church to counter the ever-present temptations of abstraction and domestication. And it is this, primarily, that makes the Christian community to be stranger than we hardly ever dare imagine. How fitting, for its sole existence is to bear witness to the peculiarity of God’s own strangeness among us in Jesus Christ. This is part of the novel gift that the ‘decline of Christendom allows us in the West’ (34–35). And it is theology’s role, Geoff believes, ‘to help shape the church’s collective imagination around’ this strange and novel story of the crucified God ‘with which Christianity launched itself into the world’ (38). Geoff believes that this calls for ‘leadership which is embedded in a post-Christendom [or we might be better to say late-Christendom[6]] theological imagination which can articulate and shape the Christian faith in the midst of the other social imaginaries that make up the cultural plurality of Australian society’ (82).[7] Geoff’s book made me pause and ask myself the question: What would it take for the UCA to produce another kind of Davis McCaughey, but for today’s Australia?

A few years ago, the Church of England produced a consultation document called Resourcing Ministerial Education. Among other things, it argued that the Church needs a ‘significant increase in the number and quality of ministerial leaders’ to meet its new challenges. One thing that it highlighted is that, as one commentator put it:

To be asked to minister without an informing vision of God (which is what theology is really all about) … is like being told to make bricks without straw …. We cannot evade discussion of issues of finance, resourcing, and patterns of ministerial education. Yet there is a risk that we may fail to ask the right questions – particularly if we allow the institutional needs of the Church to trump the spiritual and pastoral needs of congregations, or lose sight of the importance of a theological vision in inspiring and sustaining Christian ministry.[8]Geoff’s book is concerned to articulate and to invite engagement with many of these ‘right questions’.

You know, many scholars write excellent fat books. Very few get read. Many, however, do a most admirable job at elevating computer monitors. Geoff’s book would make a useless computer monitor stand! A few years ago, when Julian Barnes’ short novel The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize, readers and critics were reminded that form matters as well as content. At 88 pages, A Genuinely Theological Church frees its readers – and its author – of the burden of being comprehensive. Like Walter Benjamin’s 38-page The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, or Helmut Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, Geoff’s fabulously-hobbit-sized book doesn’t need to pretend that it’s the only material its reader has at hand. Of course, short books are only very rarely indeed a substitute for more complex works that advance challenging arguments. But they can certainly delight in piquing curiosity and in provoking further thought, and perhaps even action. Geoff’s book seeks such ends, and for that the church is again truly in his debt.

[1] Geoff Thompson, A Genuinely Theological Church: Ministry, Theology and the Uniting Church (Reservoir: Uniting Academic Press, 2018).

[2] While Geoff properly resists the temptation to commit on other parts of the church, the relevance of this book clearly extends beyond the bounds of the UCA.

[3] Geoff Thompson, ‘Forming Disciples – Theologically’, Crosslight, June 2018, 18.

[4] Edwin Muir, ‘The Incarnate One’, in Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 228–29.

[5] Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 11.

[6] The judgement that we are living in a ‘post-Christendom’ context is debatable in my view and, as Geoff notes, a not-entirely-accurate description of the Australian scene.

[7] Geoff is right to argue that ‘a simplistically-formulated faith, and a faith reflected on only simplistically, will betray its own substance’ (39). Unremitting and unqualified silence is not a final option for those called to discipleship in the world because such would mark a retreat into pure subjectivity at the very point when those so called find themselves already committed to the world. But as Kierkegaard diagnosed in his own context, the most carefully parsed words offer no guarantee that the truth of Christianity might be rendered more or less meaningful.

[8] Alistair E. McGrath, ‘It’s the theology, stupid’, Church Times, 17 April (2015), https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2015/17-april/comment/opinion/it-s-the-theology-stupid.

On the unpacking of books

sortingbooks1.jpg‘The unpacking of books, perhaps because it is essentially chaotic, is a creative act, and as in every creative act, the materials employed lose in the process their individual nature: they become part of something different, something that encompasses and at the same time transforms them. In the act of setting up a library, the books lifted out of their boxes and about to be placed on a shelf shed their original identities and acquire new ones through random associations, preconceived allotments, or authoritarian labels. Many times, I’ve found that a book I once held in my hands becomes another when assigned its position in my library. This is anarchy under the appearance of order’.

– Alberto Manguel, ‘The Art of Unpacking a Library’

[Image: Juno Lamb]

The Original 1851 Reviews of Moby-Dick

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On first inspection: some amusing and intelligent reviews here of Moby-Dick, published in the year of the release of that book well described as a ‘tale … disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English’. It’s hard to imagine a higher compliment!

 

Some afternoon meanderings

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Some Recent Watering Holes

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Brenda L. Croft, ‘shut/mouth/scream’ (detail), 2016. Source

 

I haven’t posted one of these for a while. Here are a number of pages I’ve appreciated visiting this past week or so:

And this:

Theology and Issues of Life and Death: A Review

Theology and Issues of Life and Death

A guest post from Scott Jackson

John Heywood Thomas, Theology and Issues of Life and Death (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2013). ISBN: 13:978-1-62032-228-4; xx+136pp.

According to philosophical theologian John Heywood Thomas, Christian theology must vindicate itself by addressing practical questions: When does life being? How can we die with dignity? How can we uphold human values in the face of rapid advances in medicine and technology? To meet this need, these thematic essays mobilize concepts from Christian thought and modern philosophy to address contemporary moral decision making. Thomas, professor emeritus at the University of Nottingham, writes, ‘What I want to show is that Theology is of temporal as well as eternal use and that it has light to shed on problems that concern us and guidance to offer us in our perplexities as we live our lives in this world’ (p. xvi). By and large, Thomas succeeds at this task with sensitivity, erudition and an engaging style. The collection is somewhat eclectic and lacks a central thesis; still, these seven essays, which were developed from public lectures and previously unpublished pieces, hang together fairly well.

Thomas draws from his extensive research into Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy and theology. He reiterates the Danish philosopher’s clear distinction between time and eternity and his characteristic emphasis upon the lived dialectic of existence. Like his mentor Paul Tillich, Thomas conceives theology as a ‘boundary’ discourse that impinges upon the human sciences at the level of their existential rootedness in ultimate reality. Thomas quotes Aquinas and catholic spiritual writers with ease. In one of the more engaging aspects of this collection, moreover, he draws from literary sources, showing a special affinity for the poets from his Welsh heritage who share his surname (Gwen Thomas, Dylan Thomas and R.S. Thomas), and he teases out religious implications from these works.

Thomas rejects typically modern dichotomies in religion and morality. Thus, for example, he insists that all philosophy and theology stem from existential commitment and the authors’ specific contexts, as Kierkegaard taught; yet, as Tillich insisted, religious thought also entails a speculative dimension (Thomas does not share the postmodern antipathy to asking big questions.) Good theology, he holds, transcends the dichotomy between theory and practice and embraces the keenest insights of contemporary research. In this vein, he goes beyond the absolute stance of the Roman Catholic against abortion and argues that the contemporary science of brain development can help us address the question of when human life begins. Still, as Christians, we cannot rely merely upon modern notions of individual rights when facing problems in medical ethics: All our deliberations must be framed by our paradoxical situation as ‘created creators’ and by the central events of our redemption in Jesus Christ. Similarly, in our common human experience, we respect the bodies and last wishes of the deceased, and these commitments inform the practice of transplant surgery, tempering the utilitarian impulse to treat bodies as mere sources for parts to save the living.

Some of the most provocative insights in this book emerge from the author’s attempt to frame a theology of death and a ‘theology of the funeral’. Although Thomas references the Christian story explicitly and seems fairly comfortable with traditional religious language, he also seeks to respect the mystery that permeates the meaning and ending of human life. Thus, he affirms the resurrection hope believers share in Christ, but he refuses to speculate about the character of our post-mortem existence. In faith we proclaim that the frontier line between time and eternity has been overcome in Christ’s death. Whatever eternal life means is not something we can know before we experience it. Still, scripture provides images – e.g., the last supper as eschatological banquet. In conversation with Sartre, Heidegger and Rahner, Thomas explores the notion of death as the quintessential act of human freedom that gives meaning and shape to life as a whole. Moreover, today, contemporary climate science urges us to ponder the spectre of death on a global scale and points to a potential catastrophe for life on earth. Western individualism does us a grave disservice as we face questions of ecology and sustainability; yet, Christian eschatology has always had ‘cosmic’ strands that may help us learn to take the natural world more seriously; Thomas engages such thinkers as Jürgen Moltmann and Teilhard de Chardin, who have offered powerful models for addressing these questions.

Some readers, no doubt, are likely to find these essays unsatisfying. Thinkers who seek a bolder and more direct account of how Christian witness may inform contemporary moral issues – including some liberationists, postliberals and radical orthodox thinkers – may find Thomas too indebted to modernist philosophy and theology. Nonetheless, the author engages his resources with skill and thoughtfulness. Contemporary Christians, especially lay and ordained ministers, can find much in Thomas’ work to challenge and broaden their perspective on some of the most vexing issues of our day.

Scott Jackson, a member of the Episcopal Church, is a theologian and independent scholar who lives in western Massachusetts. He is a regular contributor to the wonderful blog Die Evangelischen Theologen.

Always Being Reformed

PICKWICK_TemplateA new collection of essays on reformed theology, arising from a wonderful conference hosted by Austin Seminary, has just been published. Always Being Reformed: Challenges and Prospects for the Future of Reformed Theology was edited by David Jensen, who was also a contributor to the volume along with Cynthia Rigby, Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi, Deborah van den Bosch, Henk van den Bosch, Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Lameck Banda, Margit Ernst-Habib, Martha Moore-Keish, Mary Fulkerson, Meehyun Chung, and Bill Greenway. The collection includes a few scribbles from me too.

My essay is titled ‘Semper Reformanda as a Confession of Crisis’. It is unambitious and simple in its three broad aims, each of which earns a section. 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 virtue of the reformed project has evolved. The second, and longest, section asks more specifically about how that commitment relates to reformed patterns of confessing. Principally, what I argue 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. The final section attempts to place on the table one theo-political commitment that might call for reevaluation; namely, how the reformed conceive of 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 unsettled, unpredictable, and unreliable when it comes to its relationship with whatever current arrangements might be in place in the world.

I look forward to seeing the book when it arrives, and to revisiting some of the wonderfully-stimulating essays therein.

The conference was memorable in many ways. So was Austin. It was there that I met, for the very first time, a quiscalus quiscula.

 

Prayers of a Secular World: a review

Prayers_FC_HR1Prayers of a Secular World. Edited by Jordie Albiston and Kevin Brophy; introduction by David Tacey. Carlton South: Inkerman & Blunt, 2015. 160pp, ISBN: 978-0-9875401-9-5.

Inkerman and Blunt recently published a new anthology of work, a relatively little book by an impressive range of some 80 mostly Antipodean poets, some very well known, others hardly at all. The collection, Prayers for a Secular World, was edited by Melbourne poets Jordie Albiston and Kevin Brophy, and is introduced, fittingly so, with a brief essay by David Tacey on the religious nature of secularism. The latter helps to orient the reader to some of the terrain they are about to enter.

In their call for submissions, the editors said that they were ‘looking for poems of wonder and celebration, poems that mark the cycle of the day – dawn, midday, evening, night – the seasons, the progression of planets, the evolution of weather; poems of becoming – first steps, first words, transitions, epiphanies and inspirations; poems of belief and of doubt, pleas for protection, poems of remembrance and blessing, of forgiveness and redemption, poems of gratitude’. Short of the sternest editorial policing, such an invitation almost guarantees, more than most edited collections I think, the kind of hotchpotch smorgasbord of aptitude evident in the volume’s final form. Still.

The book’s title – which echoes Donna Ward’s claim, in Australian Love Poems, that ‘poems are prayers of the secular world’ – appears, at first glance, to promote the somewhat late-Victorian idea that poets are the new priests. But the pages therein are marked by a welcome avoidance of such presumption, their words occupied with patterns of time and of place, of dying and of encountering the world anew, and with the sounds of landscapes mostly suburban, where the majority of its readers, no doubt, dwell and pass through. In a review published in The Australian, Geoff Page noted of the title: ‘They are certainly not be [sic] “prayers” in the intercessory sense but they are contemplative and very likely to widen and diversify the metaphysical sensibilities of all but the most hardened of fundamentalists ­– who, no doubt, already have their own (more limited) rewards in view’. This is a point worth repeating, especially perhaps for those uncomfortable, in Tacey’s words, with the notion that ‘the transcendent doesn’t happen elsewhere, apart from the world, but is a dimension of the world’. Still, the publisher’s description of the book as ‘a meditation on living in a post-religious world’ strikes me as very odd – odd not only as a sketch of the book’s content, but also odd in terms of its assessment of things. Observers of the cultural landscape of our day might well enquire what world exactly is being spoken of here.

There is, for many, the perennial temptation to will oneself into a kind of authenticity. Such efforts are an expression of a romanticism that either refuses or forgets to weave into the solidest realities a knowledge of its loss. The result is, as the poet Christian Wiman has observed, a ‘soft nostalgia’. There are here, happily, a good number of notable exceptions to what might otherwise be merely another unwelcome example of such, of groping disorientated by a handful of tamed Emersonian ghosts trying to iron out the highs and lows of life apparently naïve to the view that our being of dust does not equate to an uncritical defence of some pathetic form of natural theology. In this volume, poems by Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Andrew Lansdown, Fiona Wright, Robyn Rowland, Debi Hamilton, Ron Pretty, Anne Elvey, Michelle Cahill, and David Brooks, for example, serve this end particularly well. So do, I think, these two contributions:

‘Da Barri Barri Bullet Train’, by The Diwurruwurru Poetry Club with Mista Phillip

we bin get up with mista an habim gooda one feed
we bin jumpin da mudika
an millad bin go lunga bush
mimi an kukudi bin come too
an dey bin singim kujika
dey bin learnim us mob
for sing im kujika
we likim learn for sing us mob kujika
wen us mob bin lyin down in da darkes
darkest night I bin look da barri barri
e bin movin really really like da bullet train
I bin hold ma mimi really tight
da fire us mob bin make next ta millad mob
poking tongue like a big one king brown
an millad mob listen noise one side na water
must e bin da buffalo drinkin water
den us bin listen da croc bin snap da buffalo
da gnabia out there too
an he bin make us mob so frightn
but ma mimi bin sing out
hey you mob stop all da noise
ma mimi bin start to sing
da song na us mob country
sing in da old language
dem old people did sing
an make millad mob so shiny an strong
an I bin lyin da listen na mimi
I bin feel really really safe
den I musta bin go sleep

And

‘Eucalyptus Regnans’, by Meredi Ortega

for Brandi

that was some fiery trajectory you took, moving to Kinglake
to be among giants and clouds
I recall you dying once before
…….. .. run down at the crossing, going home for lunch

but you’re on Yea oval, among the nightied and discalceate
and you’re okay
road posts gone
all delineators and signs, the way forward and way back
…….. ..only black stags, ash deafening

one charred fence post
and your old weatherboard like a kind of gloating, it falls to you
…….. ..to be the lucky one
better to believe in regnans than luck, they have what it takes
martyrdom, lofty sentiments
…….. ..all crown and nimbus and resurrection

up on the mountain, no one knows if lyrebirds
are mimicking silence
…….. ..volunteers go into the wasteland, leave songs out
musk and fern and siltstone tunes

it rains and then some
…….. ..and the green is giddying
stags wash white, their millioned saplings serry
…….. ..knit roots, squeeze out the other then each other
ashes move up the escarpment and up
to the yellow-raddled cockatoo, yellow-eyed currawong, to the sun
and you are in the very dawn of things

A little commendation for The Givenness of Things

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I want to commend Marilynne Robinson’s recent book The Givenness of Things.

The result of this collection of wise and intelligent essays on profoundly human themes, proclivities, and experiences – like poverty, theology, freedom, randomness, fear, fads, greed, faith, science, and alarmism, breathed through with decent doses of Shakespeare, Calvin, Locke, and Saints Matthew and Luke, and marked by a remarkably high christology – is a perspicacious map which assists those of us living in and with Western cultures to read better the signs of the times, and to live better orientated towards those things that will outlast all else. A gift, from one who on her next birthday will be seventy.

I read large amounts of this book while sitting by two kangaroos – a big one, and a little one. They seemed to enjoy my company as much as I did theirs, and that of this book. And nearby hung this sign, another telling commentary on the state of things:

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Richard Flanagan on books

Gould's Book of FishMy (re-)reading of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North turned me into a disciple, a Flanaganite, a lover of all things Flanagan, and so determined to enjoy my way through everything he’s published. I recently finished reading his Gould’s Book of Fish, doting on quirky page after quirky page of this delightful story, and along the way falling in love with William Buelow Gould who lived ‘once upon a time … long ago in a far-off place that everyone knows is not here or now or us’.

Here’s one of my favourite passages; it’s about books:

‘Perhaps reading and writing books is one of the last defences human dignity has left, because in the end they remind us of what God once reminded us before He too evaporated in this age of relentless humiliations—that we are more than ourselves; that we have souls. And more, moreover.

Or perhaps not.

Because it clearly was too big a burden for God, this business about reminding people of being other than hungry dust, and really the only wonder is that He persevered with it for so long before giving up. Not that I am unsympathetic—I’ve often felt the same weary disgust with my own rude creations—but I neither expect nor wish the book to succeed where He failed … I had begun with the comforting conclusion that books are the tongue of divine wisdom, and had ended only with the thin hunch that all books are grand follies, destined forever to be misunderstood.

Mr Hung says that a book at its beginning may be a new way of understanding life—an original universe—but it is soon enough no more than a mere footnote in the history of writing, overpraised by the sycophantic, despised by the contemporary, and read by neither. Their fate is hard, their destiny absurd. If readers ignore them they die, and if granted the thumbs-up of posterity they are destined forever to be misconstrued, their authors transformed first into gods and then, inevitably, unless they are Victor Hugo, into devils’.

– Richard Flanagan, Gould’s Book of Fish

Kevin Considine reviews my book Hallowed be Thy Name

Hallowed be thy nameThe most recent edition of the journal Horizons (42.1, June 2015) includes a review (pdf), by Kevin P. Considine (Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Calumet College of St. Joseph, Indiana), of my book Hallowed be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth.

The book is now available in paperback at a friendlier price too.

Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History – now available on Kindle

Forsyth.DescendingonHumanity.90702The publishers have informed me that the Kindle edition for my edited volume Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth is now available from Amazon in the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, France, Spain, Brazil, India, Japan, Italy, and Mexico.

It’s also available in regular paperback and in ePub formats direct from the publisher, Wipf and Stock, and from wherever good books are sold.

Hallowed Be Thy Name – now available in paperback

Hallowed be thy nameUntil recently, my major study on P. T. Forsyth – Hallowed Be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth – has only been available in hardback (which is usually my preferred format for non-fiction titles but can be, and in this case is, reasonably pricey) and in e-book format (convenient but not, in my view, the nicest way to read theological tomes).

I was happy to learn of late that the publishers have followed a habit with the T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology series  and have now made Hallowed Be Thy Name available in paperback (at a more reader-friendly price too). Those interested can pick up a copy here.

By the way, if you do happen to head over to the Bloomsbury site, some readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem may also be interested to note the appearance of a forthcoming title, The Spirit and the Letter, edited by Paul Fiddes and Günter Badder. It looks great.

John Roxborogh’s A History of Christianity in Malaysia

A History of Christianity in MalaysiaThe Presbyterian minister and historian John Roxborogh has been accumulating research notes and scraps of information on Christianity in Malaysia and Southeast Asia for thirty years. Some of the fruit of that work is now available to us in his recently-published (and very-reasonably priced!) A History of Christianity in Malaysia (Armour, 2014). The volume comprises of a series of intelligent, well-researched, and accessibly-written reflections on how Christianity has been – is – part of the Malaysian story, not only from the beginning of ‘Malaysia’ in 1963, but through the centuries leading to the nation’s creation as well.

Roxborogh’s aim throughout is twofold: to offer a framework for further study, and to ‘provide an integrated narrative of how, as a universal faith, Christianity became a religion that was part of Malaysia at its formation’. Among the kaleidoscope of stories are accounts of some early generations of missionary scholars who felt pressure to recast stories in order to win support at home, while others worked to document more honestly the way of life of those they found themselves among and because of such better recognised the need to champion the cause of others rather than their own. This is, of course, a story that is not without echoes elsewhere. And part of the achievement of Roxborogh’s disciplined attention to its Malaysian contours is how it assists us to not only better understand the Malaysian parts of that story but also to interpret other contexts in more informed light.

The final chapter, ‘Praying and Belonging: 1989 to 2013’, owes some debt to Grace Davies, Kevin Ward, and others who talk about ‘believing and belonging’ as separable variables in European and Western Christianity. In Malaysia, praying and belonging is, according to Roxborogh, a fair description of the current situation. It also indicates something of the dynamic change in Christian self-identity and sense of mission that has taken place, in Malaysia and elsewhere, over the past 60 years. We need to know more about that story, about why it has happened and is still happening, and to think more deeply about what might be involved in faithfully documenting the story as it continues to unfold. Here in this book, Roxborogh shows us one way that this can be done.

I understand that some thought is already being given to a Chinese edition. Were such to eventuate, this may occasion an opportunity to consider additional themes and emphases, and to revisit too the ones that Roxborogh has already attended to but in a new light. For example, as Roxborogh is well aware, the challenges that attend being both ‘Malaysian’ and ‘Christian’ is mirrored in the dilemma of how to be both ‘Malaysian’ and ‘Chinese’, or ‘Malaysian’ and ‘Indian’ and ‘Eurasian’. Such questions remain pressing ones, and ones that are not to be discarded when the weight of being an indigenous church in Malaysia is now carried primarily by large groups of local Christians from East Malaysia.

Understanding Christianity as a global movement demands taking Asia and the Pacific Rim – its histories, practices, and theologies – seriously. Roxborogh’s study ably helps to serve this end.

A surprise among the ‘best-sellers’

Tikkun OlamFor everything, there’s the first.

Apparently, one of my edited books, ‘Tikkun Olam’: To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts, has made a best-sellers list, coming in just behind Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful new novel Lila. Thanks to the discerning readers at Eighth Day Books.

My wonders are new every morning, just like my sins.

Who would have thought …

The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret

The Mumbersons and The Blood SecretSome moons ago, I posted an interview with the Dunedin author, composer, and musician, Mike Crowl, in relation to his book, Diary of a Prostate Wimp. Mike is a good friend who has, besides his literary foray on his surgical experiences, published two fantasy books this year for children. One of these was based on a really delightful musical he wrote and produced in 2012, called Grimhilda! (I posted about it here). This month, Mike released a ‘sort of sequel’ to Grimhilda! called The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret.

The Mumbersons is a ‘sort of sequel’ because here new characters take the lead, and only a very few of the people from the first book appear. It’s an approach not unlike that which C. S. Lewis adopts in his Narnia series. The Horse and the Boy, for example, has distinct connections to the earlier book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but the characters driving the tale are quite new.

Mike’s fantasy world, like Lewis’s, isn’t explicitly ‘Christian’, although much of the strange new world of the Bible underpins the stories. In Grimhilda!, for example, the parents of a young boy called Toby are kidnapped by a witch, who later explains that she’s entitled to do this because they haven’t loved their son; they’ve been too busy with their own lives. After some initial reluctance, Toby sets out with some companions to rescue his parents. In the background to the story we learn of another young boy who tried to do the same thing many years before, and failed, dying in the process. This past sacrifice makes possible Toby’s new life of loving service.

And then there’s the blood. Indeed, a main thrust of the new story is about the secret of Billy’s blood, and whether it can be used for good or evil.

Both stories are adventures, with the heroes having to overcome a number of difficulties, sometimes by their own strengths, sometimes aided by the unlikeliest of gifts. In each story, the boy is accompanied by a female companion: in Grimhilda! she’s a bossy doll who’s come to life; in The Mumbersons, she’s a risk-taking girl with a rather strange family background.

Like the other two books, The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret has been published as an e-book. (It’s available on Kindle, Kobo, iTunes, and Smashwords. It’ll also soon be available at the Dunedin Public Library.) And, again, Mike has worked closely with Cherianne Parks, his co-author, whose ideas ‘permeate the story’, as he notes in the Acknowledgements. You can read more about Mike here.

It isn’t necessary to have read Grimhilda! to understand the new book. Although, of course, knowing the background of the earlier story will add to the enjoyment of the sequel.

Congratulations to Mike on this latest publication. It’s good to see that he’s relaxing in that most unbiblical of modern concepts – retirement!

Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: a guest review by Kim Fabricius

Forsyth.DescendingonHumanity.90702Jason A. Goroncy, ed. Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013). ISBN: 978-1-60899-070-2. 396pp.

 A guest review by Kim Fabricius

Somehow, I’m ashamed to say, P. T. Forsyth flew under my radar during the three years (1979–1982) I studied at Mansfield College, Oxford. I vaguely remember hearing about this former College Pastor and ‘Barthian before Barth’ – an epithet as complimentary to Barth as it is to Forsyth – but as I’d already been nurtured in the faith by Uncle Karl, why bother with a distant relative? Then, shortly after my ordination, a retired Old Testament professor who was downsizing his library offered me some of his books. Among them was Forsyth’s The Person and Place of Jesus Christ (1909). It was seriously impressive. Forsyth’s relentless Christocentrism, theologia crucis, and kenotic soteriology were an inspiration and encouragement to my own early theological formation. Over thirty years later – far too long – it’s been a pleasure to renew my acquaintance with the great Congregationalist scholar-pastor through this generous collection of sermons and addresses. A thousand thanks to Jason Goroncy for arranging the meet, and for his superb introduction, which not only reminded me of what I’ve been missing but also, with both affection and erudition, wondrously surveys it.

Every preacher should buy this book. It won’t tell you anything about sermons – for as Forsyth insists, ‘your duty as preachers is not to preach sermons, but to preach the Gospel’ – but it will indeed draw you more deeply into the Gospel you are called to proclaim. If, that is, you pay attention and persevere. These sermons are not an easy read (though they were surely an even harder hear!). They begin with no winsome appeal, they proceed with thick thought and lengthy exploration, they range with polymathic breadth, but they have a passion and energy that sweep you along like a river in flood, and they repeatedly stun you with powerful and memorable phrases. And while the sermons are based on texts, they proceed less by exegesis and more by focussing on the res, the heart of the matter.

My marginal notes on the sermon ‘Mercy and the True and Only Justice’ and ‘The Bible Doctrine of Hell and the Unseen’ read, respectively, ‘Wow!’ and ‘Wow x 2!’. Refusing a competitive understanding of the divine love and justice (God’s love is holy love and God’s justice is his ‘love in action’); denying the endlessness of the wrath of God (‘you offer men a devil to worship’) as well as the ‘miserable doctrine of annihilation’; dismissing the ‘whole immoral’ theory of (penal) substitution and – the hermeneutical key – declaring that ‘if Christ’s cross means anything, it means the destruction of evil everywhere and for ever’: here Forsyth gestures towards (without arriving at) a doctrine of universal salvation. He also anticipates and funds, by well over a century, the so-called new evangelical universalism.

These two sermons are, for me, the diamonds in the pack, but there are many gems. ‘The Pulpit and the Age’ should be required reading for ministers thinking of answering – and for churches thinking of issuing – a ‘call’. At a time when congregations have the attention span of a mayfly and the PowerPoint image threatens to turn the spoken word into a sound bite, one hears with an ‘Ouch!’ Forsyth’s deadpan declaration: ‘I believe myself that short sermons are mostly themselves too long.’

‘Dumb Creatures and Christmas: A Little Sermon to Little Folk’ is a delightful ecological plea for recognising that Christmas is not only ‘All Children’s Day’, it is also – because in becoming creaturely flesh, the Word hallows all animate creation – ‘All Creatures’ Day’.

One more favourite: ‘The Problem of Forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer’. Here Forsyth exhibits a truly evangelical understanding of forgiveness and repentance. Not only are we reminded that God forgives us before we repent, that God’s forgiveness provides both the power to repent and the motive – thanksgiving – for forgiving, we are also astounded to learn that ‘The love of God forgave sin before we sinned, and slew the Lamb before the world was.’ Because the heart of God is cruciform, it is also omnibenevolent.

Nobody, however, is perfect. In the midst of First Wave Feminism, Forsyth can be disconcertingly patriarchal. His take on colonialism is rather blithely Kiplingesque. He addresses the moral but not the material conditions of society; he was interested in socialism, but too suspicious of it to endorse a Social Gospel. It is not good enough just to say that Forsyth was ‘a man of his times’, but notwithstanding these deficits, his theology is lucratively in the Bible-black.

Finally: it is a largely unexamined cliché that you can’t judge a book by its cover: often, I think, you can. Certainly the thoughtful aesthetic of the cover of Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History is marvellously expressive of the formidable intelligence and fine sensibility of the person whose sermons it adorns and announces. There is a photograph of Forsyth – terrific moustache! – leaning his head on his arm. The pose is conventional, but so capacious is the man’s brain that one wonders whether the head is resting on the arm, or the arm is propping up the head. And beneath the photograph – the image of a painting: a trellis of colourful crosses, a perspicuous small white cross, and a lovely blue flower with a yellow pistil. On the back cover, in fine print, we learn that the artist is Sinead Goroncy.