Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Scandalous cartoons

Should a Christian be offended by blasphemy, in the way that various Islamic groups have been offended by those cartoons? I believe not – and I’d like to explain why.

There is no shortage of material that could be cited as offensive to Christians – the ‘piss Christ’ is possibly the most egregious – but I’d like to focus on the graphic novel ‘Preacher’, written by Garth Ennis, partly because it is a cartoon/ comic, and partly because it is a work that I am familiar with.

To understand ‘Preacher’ you must imagine a tale composed of a blend of three other stories, but then put through the blender of a particular film. The three stories that ‘feed’ it are: Unforgiven, the Clint Eastwood western; the Da Vinci Code (although it predates the Da Vinci Code – it’s actually drawing on the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail); and Anne Rice’s ‘Interview with a Vampire’; and all of this is then fed through the blender of Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”. It is certainly blasphemous, also obscene, disturbing and very funny. I believe it also makes some interesting theological points – not as profound or interesting as I had once hoped, when I was first reading it, but interesting nonetheless.

The basic plot is this: an angel and a demon come together and conceive a child; when the child is born it is immediately expelled from Heaven, and God vanishes from His throne. Genesis (the child) plummets to earth and is ‘united’ with Jesse Custer, a preacher (probably Episcopalian ;-) who was raised by some rabid and violent fundamentalists in the Deep South of the United States. You could say he has some problems with his faith… However, once Genesis is united with him, he gains the Word – the power to command people to do whatever he tells them. Through various adventures involving the Priory of Sion and his best friend, an Irish vampire, he ends up producing a confrontation between God and the Angel of Death. God, of course, isn’t the God that a ‘normal’ Christian would recognise – God is schizophrenic, in the popular sense, in that there is sometimes a raging Old Testament father figure full of righteous anger, and sometimes there is a radiant New Testament figure seemingly all sweetness and light. The end of the tale is the death of God – and the continuance of the world without Him, seemingly all the better for it.

Ennis grew up in Northern Ireland, not a place where balanced Christian thinking has been much in evidence, and there is clearly a kinship between the God in ‘Preacher’ and the attitudes of someone like Ian Paisley. I had hoped that there would be something theologically creative at the end – that was what kept me reading – along the lines of Genesis becoming a renewed God, essentially a retelling of the Christian story but in a modern idiom. Instead, Preacher is profoundly atheistic, and is in fact much more of a story about the importance of friendship than anything about theology. It remains deeply memorable, and the set-up I think is wonderful, but in the end there is little engagement with ‘mainstream’ Christianity – Christians within it are portrayed as either fundamentalist fascists or as idiots, and the ethics that are vindicated are those of the western, ie righteous violence.

Now, in the face of such a sustained and offensive criticism – how should a Christian react? Should a Christian shun any contact with such writing, with a view to avoiding ‘contamination’ from its blasphemy? My reading of Christianity, influenced from what I know of the work of René Girard, (partially mediated via James Alison) is rather the opposite, and that the degree of our ‘offense taking’ is the degree to which we remain to be converted to the gospel.

A key word in Girard’s analysis is skandalon (see the analysis here). It means the taking of offence, seeing something as shocking or blasphemous. As part of his anthropology, Girard argues that scandal is contagious and reproduces itself across a society, forming a major way in which a society polices its own customs. (In MoQ terms it is the most important social level pattern of value). The practices of societies are founded in sacred violence and scapegoating – in other words, societies reinforce their identity by choosing a person or group as the ‘cause’ of all their problems (think Jews in 1930’s Germany) and the society achieves a sense of unity by combining against that person or group, expelling them violently from their midst, and then telling a religious mythology justifying their actions. This practice persists over time, for the society is never able to completely eradicate tensions within itself, due to the maintenance of rivalrous desire, when one person wants what another person has.

Girard describes this contagion of scandal as the way of the world, and sees the Satan, the ‘lord of this world’ as that force which seeks to reproduce scandal, the taking of offence – for it is in the shared nature of the offence taking that the social solidarity is affirmed and reinforced. A society has a vested interest in ensuring the maintenance of scandal, for that is how the society itself is maintained. What such a society cannot accept is the continued existence of the source of scandal.

I believe this can be seen rather clearly in the case of the cartoons published by Jyllands-Posten. When they were first published, nobody in particular took offence – they were even reproduced by an Egyptian newspaper! Yet certain authorities have a vested interest in shoring up the unity of Islamic societies over against the West – the West being scapegoated as the source of the problems (internal tensions) experienced in Muslim countries. Thus it is Islamic sources which seek to generate a sense of scandal about the cartoons – to great success.

Christianity, however, begins with the scandal of the cross. That is, in the story of Jesus we have the unmasking of this process – a scapegoat who isn’t simply a victim, but one who is cognisant of this process and who forgives those who take part in it. In other words, a victim who does not take offence. This “non-taking of offence” is central to Jesus’ entire ministry – indeed, he is regularly criticised for eating with sinners and tax collectors, and memorably criticises the religious authorities saying that the prostitutes will get to heaven before them! Through not taking offence, through not seeing religious pieties as things to be defended, Jesus changes the social dynamics and enables a non-violent reconciliation with the excluded to take place. That is the essence of the Kingdom – an unmasking of this process of scandal, scapegoating and violence, in order that a new common life, not built upon these elements, can come into being.

Thus, for a Christian, it is wrong to take offence. To take offence is to play the devil’s games, to enter into antagonism between the ‘righteous’ and the ‘unrighteous’, the ‘sinner’ and the ‘saved’. In letting go of any sense of offence, one is released from the mythological pressures embedded in all stories of ‘them and us’, and is set free to become the sort of person that God originally intended – living in peace and loving the neighbour. This is what lies behind the striking language in Matthew’s gospel (5:29, where Jesus commands us to pluck out our eyes if it “causes us to sin” – language taken up by a great many moralists seeking violent self-harm, as it is, of course, to scapegoat a part of oneself). The original language used in Greek, however, is related to this word skandalon and the passage means ‘if your eye is scandalized, pluck it out’ – in other words, do not see offence.

This I find profoundly helpful, in terms of guiding my engagement and interest in the world. We are not to seek to preserve some sort of moral purity – that runs counter to Jesus’ own well documented practice. Nor are we to protest at being offended. If God does not take offence at the murder of his Son, how can we take offence at anything milder?

The lesson I take from Girard and ‘Preacher’ is that the Christian community must understand why it is seen in such negative terms, in order to move more completely into the Kingdom itself. Paradoxically, it is precisely because of this bias against ‘offence’ embedded in Christianity from the beginning that Western society has grown up with this remarkable notion of free speech and free enquiry, which is what is now at stake in the confrontation with the Islamists. It is the unmasking of the sociological processes of scapegoating and sacred violence by Jesus on the cross that fundamentally enables the fruits of Western society that we presently enjoy – including, not least of all, modern science. Girard puts it well: “The invention of science is not the reason that there are no longer witch-hunts, but the fact that there are no longer witch-hunts is the reason that science has been invented. The scientific spirit … is a by-product of the profound action of the Gospel text.”

Western civilisation is under threat and it is worth defending, but not by being offended by those who hate it, whether the Islamists, or delinquents like Andres Serrano:

Monday, February 27, 2006

The temper of the truth

The Learning Church process on the Creeds has now come to a conclusion, and I feel that it has been one of the most beneficial that we have had so far, not in the sense of immediate pleasure, but in terms of long term impact.

I began this last session with two questions: hands up if you

a) think we should say the creed on a Sunday morning (about 2/3 yes)
b) fully understand and accept the creed (about 1/2 yes).

That gave me a real 'temperature check' on the overall sense of the group, about 35 strong. I explained my own answers (yes and no - the word 'virgin' being my sticking point, as you're all aware ;-)

Lots of challenging discussion eventually ensued, with one question in particular staying in my mind: "What difference does it make if you confess Jesus as divine" - but I'll pursue that more in the next sequence, which is on other faiths.

I tried to argue strongly, in this final session, for the claim that a) truth was independent of our own choices ("heresies" comes from the word meaning 'choice' in Greek; the Creed is about insisting on a truth which is independent of our own views on the subject). This seems to me essential to Christianity - and something distinctive about Christianity as compared to other religions, and linked to the how and why of science being born out of Christian womb, to do with a fundamental trust in the reliability of the natural world (reflecting the reliability of a Creator behind it).

This assertion of truth, combined with the assertion that Jesus IS the truth (ie the reality of the world expressed in human flesh) lies at the centre of my own faith: a very Anglican insistence on the reality of the Incarnation, along the lines of John 1. I also realise that when, in the classes, I used the language of 'submission' to the truth - which I do see as a hallmark of Christian faith - I had my own experience in the background, of being called to a vocation which I absolutely did not want to enter into, and yet, once submitted to, that vocation becomes precisely the source of the peace which the world cannot give, in that I am now much more truly myself than I was when I was the person who did not want to be ordained. The call to be ordained lies more deeply in me than my own power or sense of choice.

This applies more broadly, I believe, in the sense that for all of us, full human fulfilment, ie the becoming of who we are, depends upon a right understanding, acceptance and integration into 'the way the world really is'. A different way of saying this - but one which I think ends up saying the same thing - is that the pursuit of truth is non-negotiable. We have to pursue the truth wherever it leads, for to shy away from the truth, to shy away from something which may seem unpleasant or unattractive, is to shy away from precisely that fullness of life which we are called into. The truth is what sets us free, and we cannot turn away from it.

Which is the context for my losing my temper recently, when I was accused of intellectual cowardice and running away from open discussion (on the MoQ discussion pages - if I can get a specific link to what I said I'll put it here). It's an extremely rare event (although it's not as rare as it used to be, and that makes me wonder what is going on) and it has caused me a fair deal of soul searching and reflection.

The question of anger is an odd one for Christians, simply because Jesus is shown as being angry on a number of occasions (most obviously when he drives out the traders from the temple). I preached on a text from the letter of James a couple of weeks ago: "My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires."

Anger is something which indicates a wrong, an injustice - but it doesn't, of itself, say whether the wrong is in us or in another - hence we must be slow to anger. Yet we are not called to allow injustice to continue - we have to act, but we do have to act in a considered fashion, because anger doesn't bring about righteousness.

It's a difficult thing. Most of the time my own emotions are kept tied up, but perhaps I'm realising that this is not always for the best - that I do need to let my own specific thoughts and feelings come out. I certainly felt much better - 'cleaner' - having vented my spleen. And I am certain that it qualifies as 'slow to anger' - it had been building for over five years!!!

At Morning Prayer today we had Psalm 123, from which I drew comfort:

"Have mercy on us Lord, have mercy on us,
for we have endured much contempt.
We have endured much ridicule from the proud,
much contempt from the arrogant."

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Mad Essex vicar quoted in The Guardian

Mentioned in the first paragraph no less (and at the end).

Update: I have also now been asked by the BBC and Sky to take part in TV audience discussions; the Essex County Standard are running a follow-on piece, for which they sent a photographer(!), and BBC Radio Essex want to do an interview. (Update: went out at 8:10am Thursday 23 February. My Mum had a nice birthday surprise, hearing her son on the radio :o)

I think this might add up to more than fifteen minutes. I wonder what that is going to do to my karma and how I'm going to have to make up the difference.

Update 3: quoted in East Anglian Daily Times article here.

Update 4: interviewed by the Daily Mail today - longest interview yet, it'll be interesting to see what actually makes it in. I can't help thinking that this is getting a bit bizarre....

Update 5: apparently the Daily Mail article is going in tomorrow - I'll link to it here if possible - but today I've also had to turn down BBC TV who wanted me to do something for a programme to go out on Saturday. Odd, odd, odd. Who cares what a rural vicar thinks?

Monday, February 20, 2006

Meres Igge

Stuart Staniford is my hero. Another astonishingly good analysis from him here, but this one looking not at Peak Oil but at sea level rise.

Bottom line - the sea level rise will happen more swiftly than expected, and be larger.

Which means for Mersea residents - much less reliable use of the Strood, beginning now. And probably no use of the Strood, in a couple of decades or so. And the bottom of the Lane will be unliveable. I wonder if where I live will become beach front property? (We're about 10-15 feet above high tide level, I'd guess)

Ho hum.

House of Flying Daggers

This was sublime. Made me fall in love with China again - it was all so beautiful.

I do wonder, though, whether there is script approval at the level of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. I couldn't imagine a film that was more in tune with their agenda.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Musing still on VB

Doing some research for the Learning Church process on the creed (the talks are going reasonably well but the material is seriously dense) and I came across this passage from Joseph Ratzinger, quoted in Nicholas Lash's 'Believing Three Ways in One God': "...the doctrine of Jesus' divinity would not be affected if Jesus had been the product of a normal human marriage." Lash goes on to spell this out: "Confessing Jesus to be Son of God most certainly does not entail denying that he was any other father's son."

There are certain things I believe about Jesus. I believe John 1.1 (on which I'm preaching tomorrow) - that Jesus is the Word made flesh. I adore the passage in Colossians, that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, he is 'before all things and in him all things hold together'. I believe that Jesus was - as Son of David - inheritor of all the Old Testament prophecies, that he became King of Israel and that those prophecies come true in him - ie they are fulfilled in him.

Which is a roundabout way of saying I have a very 'high' Christology. I'm not a liberal - according to Sven's test I'm 100% Chalcedon compliant(!) - and I certainly don't think that Jesus was "just" a good man, tho' he was indeed that, of course.

Put differently, I do think that Jesus embodies the purpose of creation - he shows it forth in human form - and that this Divine purpose is personal and human, thus fitted to become incarnate in the shape of a particular man. I think this purpose was hidden before the foundation of the world, and that it was revealed in Jesus at a moment that could be described as evolutionarily appropriate.

Thing is, I just can't reconcile any of the above with the Virgin Birth.

Another quote, from Ignatius' letter to the Ephesians, quoted in Frances Young's 'The Making of the Creeds': "For our God Jesus Christ was conceived by Mary according to God's plan, of the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit."

This 'seed of David' stuff is pretty explicit in the Old Testament. It comes from the original promise to Abraham, and it is pretty directly male - the mother doesn't get much of a say or interest in the process. So how does a birth in which the 'seed of David' isn't involved fulfil the promise?

In one sense, tho', that's still trivial. The fundamental point is 'what he has not assumed he has not healed' - ie, the VB undermines Jesus' humanity. It seems more and more to be a simple category mistake - in just the way that Lash outlines. Being the Only-Begotten Son of the Father is not something that takes up the same sort of ontological space as being the first-begotten son of Joseph the Carpenter from Nazareth.

Now Jon the Jedi left a helpful comment last time I wrote about this topic which was essentially challenging me not to feel bad with my doubts - why work myself up about it? Why not just let it go?

Part of me thinks that this is right - it's probably the way in which I will eventually go - but I'm too much of a conservative to feel happy with it. Stepping outside the framework of the creed - hmm, not sure I like that. (Next week's learning church is going to be all about how far we can use the creed today - and in particular whether we should sign up to the whole package. I tend to think that we should).

Two final points.

First, belief is not volitional. This is the mistake that the fundies make, assuming that refusing to share their beliefs is a matter of bad will, rather than the incapacity of a rational mind to wrap itself into contortions. You can't force yourself to believe something which you cannot accept to be true. That's dishonesty, and I think Simone Weil had that right (paraphrase from memory) - if you leave truth in order to pursue Christ, you end up leaving Christ as well. If you believe firmly - as I do - that Jesus IS the truth, then you are set free to pursue truth wherever it leads.

Second, it's fairly clear to me that a belief in the Virgin Birth in today's society is a different beast to belief in the Virgin Birth in the society of the early church. I don't know sufficient details to make a conclusive argument, but I'm pretty sure that in the early church the VB was an argument used to assert the humanity of Jesus. It made more sense then - there was no notion of DNA or equal contributions from two human parents. Today, it seems to have the opposite effect to what is doctrinally correct. And at the end of the day it is precisely that doctrine that I would wish to affirm.

In other words, where Ratzinger wrote: "...the doctrine of Jesus' divinity would not be affected if Jesus had been the product of a normal human marriage", I would say: the doctrine of Jesus' humanity is only confirmed if Jesus had been the product of a normal human marriage.

So there we go.

Notes on atonement

These are some notes from an atonement conference I attended from 5-7 July 2004.

On the whole I found the conference extremely worthwhile, enlightening and provocative. The doctrine of the atonement, unlike eg the doctrine of the incarnation, has never received an official definition within Church history, and the church's understanding of it has changed over time. The aim of the conference was to bring together people with different understandings to seek mutual awareness and acceptance. The following are some of the key thoughts that I have taken away from it (this isn't a representative account of all that was said!).

The theory of penal substitution
The first keynote speech was given by Dr Christina Baxter, the principal of St John's Nottingham, and she had been asked to describe the way that evangelicals understand the Atonement, which is through the 'penal substitutionary theory of atonement'. This is the view that Jesus' death on the cross was a satisfaction for the sins committed by humanity, which meets the righteous demands of the wrath of God and through which Christians gain 'imputed righteousness' - Christ is punished on our behalf. That's quite complex, but it is put across in the Alpha course a bit more clearly:

"What does self-substitution mean? In his book Miracle on the River Kwai, Ernest Gordon tells the true story of a group of POWs working on the Burma Railway during World War 2. At the end of each day the tools were collected from the work party. On one occasion a Japanese guard shouted that a shovel was missing and demanded to know which man had taken it. He began to rant and rave, working himself up into a paranoid fury and ordered whoever was guilty to step forward. No one moved. 'All die! All die!' he shrieked, cocking and aiming his rifle at the prisoners. At that moment one man stepped forward and the guard clubbed him to death with his rifle while he stood silently to attention. When they returned to the camp, the tools were counted again and no shovel was missing. That one man had gone forward as a substitute to save the others. In the same way Christ came as our substitute. He endured crucifixion for us." (Nicky Gumbel, Questions of Life, p48)

Dr Baxter outlined seven 'drivers' behind the evangelical acceptance of this understanding of the doctrine. These were:
1. The 'suffering servant' in Isaiah, especially the text 'he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we have been healed';
2. The words of institution at the Lord's Supper, and the idea that it is through blood (which is understood as a reference to propitiatory sacrifice) that we gain access to God;
3. An acceptance of language referring to the wrath of God - there are apparently 375 references to God's wrath in the Old Testament;
4. The pervasiveness of 'for us' language in the New Testament (ie 'Christ died for us');
5. The relational framework employed by this doctrine, ie that God acted in Christ on our behalf;
6. The way in which this doctrine is effective as an evangelical tool (especially in prisons); and
7. That it represents a truth that has been found to be worth dying for, eg with missionaries.

In some ways the conference could be summarised as an extended discussion and debate about whether this understanding of atonement was the right one.

Objections to the penal substitutionary theory
At the end of Dr Baxter's talk I overheard one of the group leaders saying 'I didn't agree with a word of that!', and certainly there was significant disagreement with this way of understanding the doctrine. The objections included the following:
1. The Early Church did not put great weight on this way of understanding salvation, if indeed they employed it at all (Frances Young, another keynote speaker, spoke eloquently on this point; see below);
2. It employs a very thin understanding of 'sacrifice'; in the Old Testament, for example, the oldest root for the understanding of sacrifice is simply saying 'thank you' to God. The idea that sacrifice is fundamentally about appeasing the wrath of God is not true to Scripture; it is a development associated with the Temple; and a strong case can be made that Christ's achievement was in large part about overturning that theology (see Tim Gorringe, God's Just Vengeance);
3. In particular, understanding the Eucharist through the lens of propitiatory sacrifice ignores the Passover context in which it is set. Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world - this is a reference to the passover sacrifice as described in Exodus, and the establishment of a new covenant community which is offered life through that sacrifice. So the sacrifice reflected in the Eucharist is an achievement of life, not an appeasement of divine wrath;
4. The character of God (the Father) portrayed in this doctrine seems in profound contradiction to the understanding of God (the Father) portrayed in Christ's overall life and teaching; eg, in the Nicky Gumbel example above, God the Father is portrayed as a psychotic sadist, not the Father of prodigal sons;
5. The doctrine places violence at the heart of God's activity in creation and redemption, and this carries through into the human activity of the church. So a culture which upholds the notion of penal substitution emphasises punishment as retribution, rather than notions of repentance, reconciliation, rehabilitation and restoration, all of which seem more Christian and grace-filled. Specifically, support for the death penalty is logically tied in with the notion of penal substitution, so if the death penalty is seen as anti-Christian, so too should the notion of penal substitution.

Alternative understandings of atonement
As Frances Young argued in her keynote talk, the idea that Christ was executed on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice in punishment for human sin is one that is, at best, marginal for the first thousand years of Christianity, and one that is largely unknown in the Orthodox tradition. It descends from the 'objective' account of atonement first put forward by St Anselm, whereby God's honour and justice must be satisfied, but no human has the capacity to make such satisfaction - therefore God must become man. The early church's understanding centred much more on 'Christus Victor' - that in Christ the 'principalities and powers' have been overcome, Satan's hold over humanity in sin and death has been overthrown, and so the Christian is set free for the glorious liberty of the Children of God.

One contemporary account of atonement theory which was discussed is the 'non-violent Christus Victor' developed by J Denny Weaver, which seems to hold much potential. Specifically, the achievement of Christ on the cross is seen as being wholly consistent with his teaching and life, in that there is never a resort to violence or coercion, and that it is precisely in that loving approach that the principalities and powers are overcome - as much by exposure to the light as anything else. It is the resurrection that governs how we are to understand the cross, ie that the violence of the world is expressed on Good Friday, but that God's sovereignty and love surpass that violence, and allow for creative resolutions of conflict within a community of reconciliation and redemption, which is the church. Without the resurrection the cross can only be interpreted through the ideology of wordly power and violence, and as a triumph for the world not for God. It is the resurrection that presents each believer with the choice of which way to follow - violence or non-violence?

There was no consensus at the end of the conference, although there was some agreement that the penal substitutionary theory should not be seen as the exclusive way to understand the atonement. If the atonement is the 'crown jewel' of Christian doctrine, then penal substitution is merely one facet.

A final analogy for understanding God's wrath
I found the conference very useful as a means for clarifying my own thinking about the doctrine, and specifically for how it should be employed in teaching. In particular, my understanding of wrath has benefited. I was struck by the notion that although wrath in the Old Testament is personalised (ie it is always God's wrath), in the New Testament it is more of an impersonal force. I find the following analogy, using terms taken from modern biology, quite helpful at present. In studying various species, biologists and zoologists distinguish the genotype from the phenotype. The genotype is the DNA sequence which is found in every cell of the life-form. The phenotype is the expression of that DNA sequence in a specific context, eg the wing of a bird as opposed to the beak, where both have the same DNA but the end-result is very different. In the same way, it seems to me that we must understand 'God is love' as referring to his essential nature, his 'genotype', whereas we must understand God's wrath as something which derives from the interaction of that nature with a particular context (our sin), and so is derivative or 'phenotypical'. The problem that I have with the notion of penal substitution is that it makes God's wrath part of his genotype (and therefore part of the fabric of His creation), rather than being a reflection of human sin. If we are called to work towards a 'peaceable kingdom', as I believe we are, then I don't think we will achieve it by worshipping a God whose fundamental nature is violent.

Welsh photos

This is where we go for most of our holidays. A beautiful place.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Man on Fire

One of the best films of its type that I have seen.

The only trouble is that I begin to be troubled with the mythology of redemptive violence. But if you're not troubled by that, you'll find this an outstandingly good film.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Catholic envy

Defn: that vice from which I suffer whenever I read James Alison.

Could also be described as 'Christian envy', ie this is what writing from a Christian perspective looks like...

classic popular versions of substitutionary atonement are heresy

Great set of posts here looking at some 'emergent' theology questions (think Brian McLaren). I particularly liked this bit on atonement theories:

"brian said that at least among evangelicals there is almost a litmus test regarding one's adherence to the "penal substitution" theory of the atonement which portrays god as a wrathful god because of human sin, and requiring sacrifice or punishment for that sin, and that rather than punish humans, jesus was the 'sacrificial lamb' sent in humanity's place, and by his suffering and death he frees all of us from our guilt. the issue, brian said, is 'who was punishing jesus on the cross?' if you look at it as a case of the romans or the religious leaders, then it fits with a sort of interpretation of the powers killing jesus to maintain their own power. god rejects such violence and injustice and the resurrection is a final 'no' to such evil and the first fruits of god's 'yes' to reconciliation and justice. but if you look at it as god punishing jesus because he was angry about our sinfulness, doesn't that make the christian community like a disfunctional family who pretend that the dad is nice all the while that same dad beats his kids in private? it makes for confusing god-relationships, it makes for fearful christians, and it makes of god one whose right it is to make people suffer when they've done wrong. in a powerful response, miroslav said simply that is heresy. there is no 'third party' who is punished on our behalf. the guilt is not 'transferable'. it is god in jesus who takes the evil and sin of the world and by taking it in, then can transform it once for all, and marking the deepest reality of the future glimpsed now--no place for retribution, for suffering, for tears and pain and death. and by our participation in the sufferings of god in christ we also die to such sin and are reborn a new creation, ready to move towards gods future of reconciliation..."

Quite so.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Twelve Links

One of the most coherent MoQ posters is now blogging! See the site here if you're interested in metaphysics, Buddhism, that sort of thing.

It must say something about the nature of that particular discussion group that the attractions of blogging outweigh the attractions of dialogue. I don't think it's because we don't enjoy debate - I suspect it's simply that there are some heavyweight trolls there whose intellectual mills grind exceedingly slow....

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Dark Angel

Watched almost the whole of the first series whilst on holiday; finished it off on arriving home.

On the whole: very enjoyable, I liked the characters, especially Logan, and Original Cindy, and I particularly liked the conception of a post-'Pulse' economy in Seattle, USA - one which bears a strong resemblance to how I imagine a post-Peak Oil economy would look like.

But I was disappointed with the end - shouldn't have had the last five minutes of frankly unbelievable plot-compression. It has put me off getting series two, although I was already put off by the fact that the third series was cancelled.

I also kept comparing it to Alias whilst watching it. Some points of parallel - a Lara Croft type action-babe experiencing various adventures - but the differences were ultimately quite stark. The script of Alias is much more interesting, and Sydney Bristow as a character - lacking Max's special powers - has to rely more on intelligence and wit, and suffers rather a lot more. Dark Angel lacked a 'Rimbaldi' element - something to sustain interest beyond the humdrum, and beyond what becomes, eventually, the repetitive and formulaic beating up of the bad guys.

So, I'm sticking with Alias - we're just about to finish Series 3 - Dark Angel, despite some good elements, didn't have enough to sustain itself.

Avenging Angelo


I retain the minority opinion that Sly appears in decent films - not great ones, excepting maybe Cop Land, and maybe First Blood and Rocky 1, but that, on the whole, his films are normally watchable.

OK, I'll give you the Specialist as a counter example. Keep quiet about the others!!

Of course, this may simply be proof positive of the collapse of my judgement after too many Budweisers on a Saturday night....

Friday, February 10, 2006

Bono links

First, with thanks to Peter B here; second here.

Rudeness and fear

A condensed thought or two about those cartoons.

One way of looking at the issue is to say it is about not causing offence - that whilst something may be permissible (legal) it is immoral, or rude. So Jack Straw: "I believe that the republication of these cartoons has been insulting, it has been insensitive, it has been disrespectful and it has been wrong."

There is something in this. I can't imagine a cartoon which is gratuitously rude towards Jesus being published in an Islamic newspaper (please point out the error if anyone has proof!) and I can see this as one aspect of a general (religious, ie both Muslim and Christian) view of Western society as decadent, barbaric and uncivilised - a large part of the critique developed by Sayyid Qutb with which I have some sympathy.

However, I don't believe that that is the principal issue. For the cartoons are not being rude about Mohammed on the grounds of his followers being religious, or not quite. They are - so far as I understand - about the way in which his followers are prepared to murder in the cause of advancing their faith.

In this situation, where it is perceived that one party is intent on causing grievous harm to another, it seems rather beside the point to talk about rudeness - imagine a black man making fun of the Klu Klux Klan - why should we care if the Klansman gets upset???

The issue seems to me to be about two competing arguments. The one which the mainstream media buy into, because it accords with their secular presuppositions and political correctness is that of free speech vs religious respect. The other argument is about the possibility of co-existence between a militant Islamism and any other perspective, whether religious or not. It's the latter which is more important. I'm doing a Learning Church session on Islam soon - that will be the suitable opportunity to clarify my wider thoughts.


BBC website on energy

BBC 'gets' the energy crisis: here.

It was interesting to see that Bush came out with a fairly explicit nod to peak oil in his state of the union address. The particular measure he proposed is rather meaningless, but simply the fact that he was using the language of addiction, and pointing out the need to shift, that is important.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Freakonomics – Steven D. Levitt

This was fun, full of interesting information, but strangely unsatisfying as a book. Levitt is the economist who has become notorious for pointing out the statistical link between the legalisation of abortion in the United States, and the drop in crime twenty years later; a good example of the law of unintended consequences which is discussed in detail in the book. Having read Rudolph Giuliani’s autobiography, it was sobering to see the discussion of the drop in crime in New York, in the light of the drop across different cities in the US. The bigger drop in NYC was – according to Levitt – much more a consequence of the rise in police recruitment undertaken by Giuliani’s predecessor David Dinkins than anything which Giuliani himself developed.

The elements on crime were most interesting, especially the research undertaken by one academic ‘on the ground’ in a Chicago drug gang, the principal conclusion being that the organisation of the gang resembled less the Mafia and more McDonalds!

Unfortunately, given the various interesting snippets of information scattered throughout the book, the last chapter was underwhelming, being a discussion of the socio-economics of naming of children. This did have some interest, but compared to the foregoing discussions, not a great deal.

The Exorcist, Director's Cut

I watched the Director’s Cut whilst on holiday, the first time I had seen it for many years, and what struck me most in watching it this time was the priestly side – the way that the Eucharist is celebrated, and the meaning (or lack of meaning) that this had for Fr Kerras, and the way that this fore-shadows what happens to him.

Once past the schlock, an amazing film. Not sure I would go so far as Mark Kermode in claiming it as the best film of all time – not by some measure – but it is surely one of the best horror films of all time, despite the copious quantities of pea soup.

Very satisfying. I think I’m going to obtain my own permanent copy, not least so that I can listen to the Director’s Commentary.

Energy Beyond Oil - Paul Mobbs

If I were to recommend one book on the energy crisis, to a reader in the UK, it would be this one. It is thorough, running through all the aspects of the problem – Peak Oil, viability of alternatives, conservation and consumption. It is almost entirely non-partisan, and steers clear of discussions of foreign policy, concentrating primarily upon the physical constraints that a diminishment of energy represents. It is written from a UK perspective rather than a US or world perspective, which makes it more readable and relevant for a UK resident.

It reads in many ways like a school text-book, and I mean that as a compliment. There are a great number of ‘side boxes’ going into detail about various technical elements, and Mobbs takes great pains to explain all the different terms that he uses.

Of course, the bottom line remains the same however it is explained, and his essential point is expressed pithily: could you cut your energy use by 60%? I found his final discussion of alternative paths quite useful – the ‘burn everything’ model, as opposed to the ‘renewables only’ model. In a hundred years the amount of energy available to the economy from choosing those opposite paths is exactly the same(!) – the difference is that one will cause global warming, exacerbation of income inequality and associated chaos – whilst the other will minimise all those associated problems.

It is clear which way we must go. We just have to summon the spiritual will to walk that path.


The Cluetrain Manifesto

I came across this from reading Chris Locke’s ‘Mystical Bourgeoisie’ blog (which I read whenever it is updated – I’ll do a post about that separately), and it wasn’t at all what I expected. It was good to read something totally surprising, which was also informative about the business world, and personally clarifying for me.

The Cluetrain Manifesto began as a website developed by Locke and some friends, articulating the way in which the internet was changing the viability of standard business models. In sum, the cluetrain manifesto argues that the internet allows a genuine market to re-emerge, the genuine market being a meeting place of individuals, with a high level of human contact, and consequent structures of trust and authenticity shaping the boundaries of trade.

For example, if you are considering purchasing a digital camera, it is now possible to use internet search engines, not simply to find the cheapest model, or the cheapest outlet for any particular model, but also to discuss the qualities of the different models with other users. In this situation where there is a wealth of available information to the purchaser the producer of any particular digital camera can no longer enjoy what economists call ‘informational asymmetry’ – we can’t be brow-beaten or intimidated by the (apparent) possession of superior knowledge on the part of any particular seller. Often (and this has often been my experience in places like Dixons!) the purchaser knows >much< more than the salesman.

In this context, a viable business model is one that ‘lowers the barriers’ between the company and the purchaser. There is no benefit to a company in enforcing ‘company speak’ or a ‘line to take’ – all that happens is that the purchaser comes to the reasonable conclusion that this particular company ‘doesn’t have a clue’, and therefore disengages. A company which, on the other hand, allows its own workers to speak directly to customers, without insisting on corporate ‘firewalls’ (whether electronic or social) stands to benefit directly from the high quality human interactions (trust) thus generated.

This might seem overblown – surely the internet is, even now, a minority pursuit, and most companies can safely ignore it, at least for some time to come? This ignores what economists call ‘marginal income’. If a company manufactures widgets, the cost of manufacturing widgets is split between the ‘fixed costs’ (establishment of factory, salaries etc) and the ‘variable costs’ (the material used to make a particular widget). So to make any money at all, the company must first cover all of its fixed costs; once that has been done, then the level of profit accruing from the extra sales of widgets increases radically. Let us assume that a company has to sell 100 widgets to cover its fixed costs in any particular year. If the company sells 110 widgets then those extra ten widgets only have ‘variable costs’ associated with them (the raw material from which the widget is made). That raw material cost is generally a much smaller proportion of the total cost of each widget. What this means is that the ‘marginal widget’ – ie the widget that is sold last – provides a much bigger contribution to overall profits than the first widget; and each extra widget sold is crucial. However, if a small proportion of the company’s market is put off from purchasing widgets due to the company ‘not having a clue’ – ie behaving in a bureaucratic and generally inhuman fashion – then the sale of those marginal widgets becomes immensely problematic. Even if the internet only diminishes sales by a few percent – that few percent can make all the difference to a company between profit and loss. This is why the internet hugely magnifies the effect of informational symmetry between buyer and seller – it is the impact that it has on the margins which levers in huge social and cultural changes at the level of the corporation.

The theme in the book which most struck me, however, was the emphasis upon the human voice. That the traditional market was one in which the human voice made the difference between buying and selling, and where all participants become experts at sniffing out the bullshit. The development of Fordism in all its forms minimised this historic aspect of the economy – giving rise to the corporation in all its alienated and alienating glory – and it is this which the cluetrain manifesto argues is coming to an end. The most important thing for any company now is to be a recognisably human institution, with recognisable human beings working within it. One recent example – the Times newspaper is encouraging its writers to start blogging directly, as with Ruth Gledhill or David Aaranovitch. If there is to be a viable economic model for news organisations, it will surely be along those lines.

This is, of course, why it made so much sense to me – for the blog is indeed the best expression of particular human voices on the ’net, and it is why I enjoy blogging so much. Here I can express my own thoughts, in my own voice, and it is liberating.

So: an excellent book, thoroughly recommended. It is available free, on-line, here.

Anglican Liberalism, and the interpretation of Scripture

My mother-in-law lives near Lampeter, where there is a university with a good theological faculty (indeed, should I ever be enabled by God to scratch the theological itch and finish a PhD I may well end up doing it there). Whilst on holiday I attended a lecture given by Professor Paul Badham on Anglican Liberalism. After a promising start, it was deeply disappointing.

The promising start was the argument that Anglican liberalism was not driven by the agenda of the Continental Enlightenment. Badham pointed out that in the dispute over Henry VIII’s divorce, the salient question became ‘what is the authority to interpret Scripture?’ In other words, if the authority of the Pope was rejected, what was to be put in its place?

Cranmer’s answer was: ‘the consensus of the universities in Europe’. From this Badham argued that the Anglican tradition had developed a liberal ethos on a different track to that of the Continental theologians, arguing, amongst other things, that Schleiermacher’s writings were not translated into English until very late in the day (some 20th Century) and that Anglican Liberals “derived their views direct from their Biblical and theological work”. The continental theologian that Badham felt was most influential was von Harnack, whose work ‘What is Christianity’ was apparently the best-selling theological work before John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’. In addition to that, Badham alleges that the Enlightenment critique of religion had been considered answered within British culture by the writings of Joseph Butler, especially his ‘Analogy of Religion’ in 1736.

Badham sees the Liberal tradition as defined by an acceptance of Modern Biblical Criticism (MBC), and he went on to run through the key stages by which influence of the Liberal tradition within the Anglican establishment developed – so 1862 marked the legal acceptance of MBC by clergy, and 1864 saw the right of clergy to deny substitutionary atonement and the doctrine of hell; 1917 saw the appointment of Henslow as Bishop of Hereford despite his denial of the Virgin Birth; 1938 saw the publication of a Church Doctrine Commission affirming the place of Liberalism within the Anglican church; 1995 saw the same Doctrine Commission denounce the doctrine of Hell as ‘incompatible with belief in the love of God’. So Badham argues that Liberalism is now the broad mainstream of church opinion within the Church of England: all theological faculties accept the validity of MBC, and consequently (after Cranmer), the Church of England is a Liberal church.

Some of Badham’s historical material was interesting, and plugged a few gaps in my knowledge, especially in terms of the 19th century. Yet on the whole his argument seemed weak, almost vacuous. One suspected a desire to protect his flank from contemporary criticisms, given his beginning with a distancing from the continental enlightenment, yet – although I believe a significant argument could be made supporting the point – Badham did not succeed in persuading this particular listener that Anglican Liberalism was not hugely influenced by the mores and assumptions of the Enlightenment. In large part that is because I follow Roy Porter’s analysis of the Enlightenment, rooting it in English culture of the seventeenth century, most especially the influence of John Locke. (The links between Locke and the Anglican church, esp Clarke, are an area of much interest for me.) Badham, for example, cites Paley as being ignorant of the Enlightenment – and thus an instance of the ‘separation’ from the Continent of the English tradition – due to his deployal of an argument from design, despite Kant having ‘demolished’ such arguments a generation previously. This argument does not achieve what Badham wants it to achieve. Irrespective of its relationship to Kant, Paley’s argument is saturated with Enlightenment assumptions, not least the notion that the correct analogue for the creation is a mechanism, viz a watch, thus betraying the thorough-going Newtonian perspective governing his approach. To say that the lack of reference to Kant demonstrates the independence of English thought from Enlightenment presuppositions is vapid.

My suspicions were confirmed at the end of the lecture when I asked Badham about his beginning with Cranmer. Was it not the case, I asked, that when the church accepts an authority outside of itself (the interpretation of Scripture no longer being a matter for the church to determine, but for the ‘consensus of the universities in Europe’ to establish) it has lost something essential, that it has ‘sold its soul’? Badham was robust in his response: No! the church is accountable to Reason!

The voice of the mid-twentieth century could be heard clearly in the seminar room, on this January evening in 2006.

There was nothing in Badham’s lecture that could not have been said and argued fifty years previously. Fifty years previously this may have been stimulating. A young theologian would have found much to ponder – and not much room for disagreement. The theological consensus was overwhelming – there was no middle ground between fundamentalism and the relentless march of MBC – and so Liberalism would indeed have been the accepted consensus.

Yet these last fifty years have witnessed a tremendous transformation of the terms of the debate, and the greatest disappointment of the lecture, especially given the promise of its beginning, was the complete lack of attention given to the way these debates are now shaped, not least through a more developed suspicion of MBC, and an awareness of what the church as a whole has lost through its ‘delegation’ of the authority to interpret Scripture. To make an appeal to ‘Reason’ as an arbiter of Biblical interpretation is vacuous – it merely marks the argument as one long past its sell-by date. More than this, it seems a virtual dereliction of duty to be making such an argument in the context of teaching undergraduates for a university degree in theology. All the most interesting theology of the last thirty years – most especially Alasdair MacIntyre and John Milbank, but there are many others – has been concerned with overhauling this naïve construal of ‘Reason’. In such a context Badham’s arguments meet a far worse fate than being wrong, they have become dull.

Thomas Kuhn argued that a paradigm shifts not so much from force of argument as from a generational change. Where there is a dispute over the most fundamental framings of discussion, the old guard do not change, they die out, and new students coming in to a discipline simply don’t engage with the assumptions of the fading paradigm. The new one holds out much more interest.

It seems to me that the core debate within the church as a whole remains the question which Cranmer pondered – how to interpret Scripture? What authority governs the interpretation of Scripture? Fundamentalism is itself a creature of the Enlightenment, and offers very little in the way of theologically creative hermeneutics – and thus is of no service to the church community, proving by its lack of compassion the terminal absence of the Holy Spirit. Nor does the delegation of authority to the universities meet the need: this may, conceivably, have had some merit in an environment where theological faculties were staffed by committed Christians, where you had to take Holy Orders in order to teach – but now? The vast majority of theological faculties are wholly captured by secularity, both in terms of governing intellectual attitudes and the more obviously malign forces of government funding and bureaucracy. For the church to remain beholden to the interpretations of such a community is for it to remain in Babylon. How can we sing a love song in a strange land?

I am more convinced than ever that the centre of theological gravity must return from the academy to the cloister; that no coherent understanding of the faith can be formed apart from a viable eucharistic community. It is this line of thinking that every so often makes me wonder whether I should become a Roman Catholic, for there the lines of authority are much clearer – it is the Magisterium which provides for the definitive understanding of Scripture (a structure which, despite the most strenuous denials, is replicated in substance within the various Protestant establishments; so it seems to me, and at least the RC has [some] history on its side!).

Yet this offers not much more than the removal of one problem by the imposition of another: the Reformation was not without abiding purpose, after all. So the Anglican system, as developed by Hooker, with its three-fold division of authority between Scripture first and foremost; then the teachings of the early church; and then finally the application of our reason – there is something here that is beautiful, and is perhaps the distinctive gift of the Church of England to the wider church. A way in which to negotiate the hazards of premature closure to discussion; an openness to the continual promptings of the One who leads us into all Truth. That is the via media which seems authentically liberal; not one which takes its bearings from Modernist epistemology and Enlightenment secularity, but one which is centred upon the ongoing inspiration of the church; which takes the fruits of the Spirit seriously, not least in the gift of Scripture itself, the ordering of the church, and the creeds; and is therefore one which gives freedom, for it is for freedom that we have been set free.

This side of the eschaton, the final resting place for the interpretation of Scripture is, for me, the consensus fidelium – the considered and settled opinion of the faithful – and that settled opinion can itself develop over time, and change. It is expressed, most of all, through worship – lex orandi, lex credendi – this is why it must be rooted within the communion, when we sing our love songs to Jesus and renew our marriage vows. It is when we break the bread and renew the new covenant that we are authentically the church, that we are authentically the Body, and that we can authentically listen to His voice. It is when we are enabled to truly hear the word that we are enabled to interpret the word; and then to speak that word within the world. Scripture belongs to the church – it was formed by the church for the church, and it is for the church to interpret it, so help us God.

Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman

Long time readers of the blog will be aware that I consider Neil Gaiman to be a genius. Anansi Boys is his latest novel, and it follows on from American Gods in its exploration of magical realism and fantasy. It centres on Fat Charlie, a rather sad individual who seems to be fated to a life of boredom and ill luck, until he goes to his (estranged) father’s funeral in Florida. Here he discovers not only that his father was in fact Anansi the spider god, but that he also has a long-lost brother, Spider. Fat Charlie calls his brother back into his life, whereupon Spider proceeds to cause utter chaos, taking over Fat Charlie’s life – including his job and his fiancee… Fat Charlie (who isn’t fat by the way) seeks help from some of the other gods, and gets into deeper waters than he bargained for.

This was great fun, very readable (I stayed up to read it in one sitting – one of the pleasures of reading whilst on holiday) and satisfying as a story. The one caveat I have is that it seemed to be reprising some of the Sandman points in a minor key – Anansi being the weaver of stories in the same way that Morpheus is. The novel doesn’t have the psychological or theological depths that the Sandman sequence attains, but it doesn’t aim that high. It’s simply a good story, enjoyably told. A good place to begin reading Gaiman if you are unfamiliar with his work.


...and I have over 1000 messages in my in-box. I knew I should have switched off the individual mail setting on ROE2....

A flurry of posts about to be despatched.