Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Don't vote for Kant!!!

Hard As Nails

While trying to make the extended argument that Slavoj Zizek is a Gnostic and persuade PhD programs I'm their guy, I've had the opportunity to see a few things on HBO out of the corner of my eye.

Here's one. Hard As Nails Ministry. There will be an HBO documentary airing on December 17 in the states (already aired at the Tribeca Film Festival). You can see the trailer on the site. Or you can peek in on their website.

I'm a little disturbed. There's a kind of insane energy to the whole thing. And this is a primarily Catholic organization. Moreover, the President of Seton Hall and other East-Coast Catholic dignitaries endorse the group. Oh my.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to checking out the documentary once it airs. If you have time to check it out and have any thoughts, I'd love to hear them.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Recommended Reading Meme

So, apparently two months ago Travis tagged me to provide a short list of books to which I frequently return and would recommend to all and sundry (especially for their theological merit). Somehow I lost track of that meme.

So here goes.

1. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Pay especial attention to the characters of Ivan, Alexei, and Father Zosima. These are the most theologically sophisticated personae in the book. A classic of literature, Dostoevsky's work is a mature and pregnant theological work. For a reading of theodicy in the novel see David Hart's The Doors of the Sea. This book engrafted a strong mystical element into my faith and theology. (The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation is superb.)

2. St. Augustine, The Confessions

Foundational to my own academic path in theology. The Confessions is a classic of understanding the Christian experience. Let Augustine lead you to the heart of faith. That's where all theology begins--at least for one doctor of the Church.

3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

A great work from a great theologian. A small but remarkable treatise of Christian community and the genesis of my concern with ecclesiology. What does authentic Christian community look like? How do individuals fit into and thrive within Christian community? If you have these questions, read this book. You'll get some answers and a lot of ideas.

The next two are more on the academic side but have been integral to my theological formation.

4. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God

The first of Wright's multi-volume Christian Origins and the Question of God. The series intends to be a full-scale New Testament theology. The first volume was especially formative for me due to its use of story (narrative) and worldview as frames for theological questions. Wright's "critical realism" also aided my navigation of critical biblical studies.

5. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Volume 1: Seeing the Form.

The reason my work has shifted from largely biblical studies to dogmatic theology. Balthasar's aesthetics offered me the paradigm for theology I was looking for. At once modern and ancient--scientific, artistic, and mystical--Balthasar's perception of the theological task, form and content provided me a new space for theology. As I put it to some colleagues while reading the volume, Balthasar is the first theologian I have read who makes me want to pray.

Honorable mentions. Among the many other books I might recommend, my recent reading of Charles Williams's Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church really impressed me. For a basic overview (theological interpreted) of Christian history and the history of Christian thought, it is really a fine little book. In the same vein, I would recommend much of C.S. Lewis, especially Mere Christianity, The Last Battle, and possibly The Great Divorce. I'm sure there is more Lewis I could recommend, but that is what comes to mind just now. Also, I would suggest soaking up as much of John Donne's and George Herbert's poetry as possible. Finally, Luke Timothy Johnson's work has influenced me greatly. I recommend especially Living Jesus and Scripture and Discernment.

Happy reading. I think I've run out of theo-bloggers, but I'll broaden it to include other fields of study. So, most influential books in your area (or just for you personally). With that amendment--Emily, Chris, and Jason--tag, you're it!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

charles williams explains it all

At a recent book fair I stumbled across Charles Williams' Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church in paperback for fifty cents. I call that a bargain. The first Charles Williams I read was something like three years ago, when I read All Hallows' Eve in preparation for the All Saints'/Halloween celebrations. I had only begun to learn about the Inklings (through my love of Tolkien) and had only heard vague things about Williams. Once I learned of his (non-fiction) theological writings, I was immediately attracted to the title for Descent of the Dove.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Passion Play

Last night I had the good fortune to be taken to the theatre by a stunning benefactress. After a quick mimosa, we were drawn into a web of politics, religion, and theatricality in Sarah Ruhl's three-play cycle, entitled simply, Passion Play. Currently in production at the Goodman, Passion Play portrays three communities and their passion plays: the first in 1575 northern England; the second in 1934 Oberammergau, Germany; the third beginning in 1969 South Dakota. All three are set on the backdrop of political upheaval.

All three locations have a tradition of passion plays (the passion play of Spearfish, South Dakota was begun by a displaced German actor in the 1940s), and all three are set in times of conflict. The passion play, for those without knowledge of theatre history, has its origins well into ancient ecclesiastical rites, but became especially popular during the Middle Ages. With plague and upheaval everywhere, the guilded (though not often gilded) productions of passion plays were a popular source of hope and the acclamation of a community's faith in the midst of desperate times. One could almost call the production of a passion play in a community a kind of lay rite, a ritual of theatre that empowered ordinary people to do something holy. It is in this context that we follow the key characters in their portrayals of biblical characters (especially prominent are Mary, Pontius Pilate, and Jesus) and in their more "real" lives.

Although the setting of producing a passion play is a constant, the political backdrop of each is unique. Queen Elizabeth's reform of England was in full-swing in 1575; 1934, naturally, is located in the foothills of Hitler's Nazi regime and WWII; and in 1969, there was no part of America not affected by the Vietnam conflict. Three influential and theatrical leaders rise up and claim the stage at crucial moments in each movement. Queen Elizabeth, whose reform of England was the cause of much spilt Roman Catholic blood, figures prominently throughout the cycle. Hitler naturally appears in one movement and makes a small appearance in another. And Ronald Reagan, who eventually inherited the veterans of Vietnam, charms his way into the final piece of the cycle. All three political heads had a flair for theatricality: Elizabeth with her makeup and royal pomp; Hitler, who utilized acting and theatricality to enhance the effectiveness of his speeches; and Reagan the former and charismatic actor.

The cycle is humorous and haunting, tender and tragic, comedic and carnivalesque. Of course Ruhl investigates questions of faith and doubt, of politics and repression and enlightenment. But perhaps the most important question we are initiated into in her cycle is the question she puts in her notes to the cycle. After describing the aforementioned theatrical leaders, Ruhl asks, "But what is the difference between acting as performance and acting as moral action? It is no accident that we refer to theaters of war." Or consider the words Reagan says at one point (loosely quoted), "I think people are afraid of actors. They're afraid we're good at lying. But really we're just extraordinarily good at telling the truth." Again from her notes: "Never have the medieval world and the digital age seemed so oddly conjoined. I'm interested in how leaders use, mis-use and legislate religion for their own political aims, and how leaders turn themselves into theatrical icons."

Although she could use a staff (historical) theologian, Ruhl's cycle is magnificent. Every once in a while a bit of the dilettante in matters religious comes through (I speak as a trained theologian, what can one expect). Even so, the cycle is brilliant in its examination of the intersection of theatricality (performativity?), politics, and religion. A work of art of the highest caliber.

As an added bonus, however, Emily was wise enough to realize the playwright was sitting next to me through the first two movements (only moving to the empty row one down from us for the third). Upon discovering that it was she, the production stage manager, and director (Mark Wing-Davey), I was naturally very pleased to have handed her her waterbottle at one point, which she had forgotten in her previous seat. But in truth it was such a wonderful opportunity to peripherally be informed by their reactions as well. Upon leaving I made a point to thank the director (the playwright was otherwise engrossed in her laptop) for the beautiful event, which I think caught him a bit off guard since he responded with a bemused, "Well...yes...thank're welcome."

So it is with great pleasure that I recommend to you all Passion Play: A Cycle in Three Parts by Sarah Ruhl.

P.S. Should any of you be in the Chicago area to see it at the Goodman, please be advised that the parts of Village Idiot/Village Idiot/Violet, played by Polly Noonan; Pontius the fish gutter/Footsoldier/P, played by Brian Sgambati; and Queen Elizabeth/Hitler/Reagan, played by T. Ryder Smith, are exceptionally wonderfully played.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

...and taking names (4)

The most recent of Jamie Smith's published works is a fine little volume entitled, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. I found the expositions of recent films that opened each chapter a fitting tribute to Francis Schaeffer, not to mention a fine practice of cultural interpretation. But quite beyond this fitting structural element, the book is a welcome argument for the current ecclesiastical milieu.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

...and taking names (3)

Having indicated my suspicions that a Leibnizian-Deleuzian ontology offers itself to as many slippery slopes as a Platonic one, it is now time to turn attention to the heart of Smith’s creational ontology. I indicated that the basic attempt at a creational ontology is brought into question by two ontological events and an array of biblical aesthetic. Before I arrive at these three, let us consider the most valuable element of Smith’s argument against Radical Orthodoxy (RO).
The real value of Jamie Smith’s argument for creational ontology is that he attempts to affirm the goodness of the body, which has suffered at the hands of many theologians. The current spike in interest in theology of the body is welcome, even if the scholarship is a bit flat. One does feel that there is often a rather uncritical acceptance or else a deep paranoia of the body and its passions in Christian theology. It is not often that one finds a middle ground. Although I did not grow up in a fundamentalist tradition, a mutation of Reformed evangelicalism did exercise its influence at a crucial point in my faith development. Often enough in such a tradition the body, especially the sexual body, is feared or otherwise to be tamed and broken for the sake of the [s]pirit. Smith, having grown up in similar circles, has exactly this kind of negative appraisal of the body in his sights when he loads the ammunition for his creational ontology. One gets the feeling that it is not so much materiality, but the body in particular (as proposed microcosm of the entire material order) that drives Smith’s campaign. And so it seems the closer we come to this issue the more we penetrate to the core of Smith’s argument.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

random fun

I have returned from NYC. Good times. I'll put up a separate post about my time in the Big Apple. But in the meantime, I bring you a brief meditation on the ever-addictive blog surveys. I can't not do them. Especially when other people I know or really really like (voted best girlfriend ever in another recent survey by...well, me) do them. So I came across this one on Daily Cornbread.

I answered the five or six questions as best I could (there are always multiple answers that could be given). After some deliberation, I decided the little button marked, "Submit" was not a command from the World Wide InterWeb overlords, but merely a means of getting the site to tabulate my results. I was right. Anyway, I pressed the button and up came this:

You Are a Yellow Crayon

Your world is colored with happy, warm, fun colors.
You have a thoughtful and wise way about you. Some people might even consider you a genius.
Charming and eloquent, you are able to get people to do things your way.
While you seem spontaneous and free wheeling, you are calculating to the extreme.

Your color wheel opposite is purple. You both are charismatic leaders, but purple people act like you have no depth.

Yellow? I don't even like yellow. AND--that means I'm the opposite of Emily. Well, try and try again, said I. Let's go with the other answers I would have chosen (which, I might add, seem just as fitting to my personality). So I did. And got this:

You Are a Purple Crayon

Your world is colored in dreamy, divine, and classy colors.
You hold yourself to a sky high standard, and you are always graceful.
People envy, idolize, and copy you without realizing it. You are an icon for those who know you.
And while it is hard to be a perfectionist, rest assured it's paying off!

Your color wheel opposite is yellow. While yellow people may be wise, they lack the manners and class needed to impress you.

Apparently I am also my own opposite. More importantly, it would seem that I lack the manners and class needed to impress myself, and I act like I have no depth. Emily suggested that my color is not even on the wheel. Cerulean...or turquoise, she says. Turquoise is my birthstone, after all. I hope she's right, 'cause I don't want to know what happens when purple and yellow mix in one person. Ew.

Well, that's all for now. Gotta go get the laundry out. Sorry I've been slow on the posts, but well, I just got back from NYC and then I moved into a new apartment. Been a busy month. I'll be back to Smith's ontology soon enough. Thanks for reading, blogosphere, now get out there and be somebody!

(What's with the pep talk at the end?)

Friday, August 24, 2007

...and taking names (2.75: Herbert Excursus)

I am sorry to have to keep interjecting poets into theology (ok, not really), but I was reading George Herbert this morning and came across this gem. It seemed a fitting follow-up to Donne and a nice intimation at a response to wtm's questions regarding my Interlude.

"The World"

Love built a stately house, where Fortune came,
And spinning fancies, she was heard to say,
That her fine cobwebs did support the frame,
Whereas they were supported by the same:
But Wisdom quickly swept them all away.

Then Pleasure came, who liking not the fashion,
Began to make Balconies, Terraces,
Till she had weakened all by alteration:
But rev'rend laws, and many a proclamation
Reformed all at length with menaces.

Then enter'd Sin, and with that Sycomore,
Whose leaves first sheltered man from drought and dew,
Working and winding slily evermore,
The inward walls and Sommers cleft and tore:
But Grace shor'd these, and cut that as it grew.

Then Sin combin'd with Death in a firm band
To raze the building to the very floor:
Which they effected, none could them withstand.
But Love and Grace took Glory by the hand,
And built a braver Palace than before.

I will forego interpretation for the moment. The next post should be a nice exposition of this poem, not least the last stanza.

Pax vobiscum, y'all.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

...and taking names (2.5: Interlude)

This is my playes last scene, here heavens appoint,
My pilgrimages last mile; and my race,
Idly, yet quickly runne, hath this last pace,
My spans last inch, my minutes latest point,
And gluttonous death, will instantly unjoynt,
My body, and soule, and I shall sleepe a space,
But my'ever-waking part shall see that face,
Whose feare already shakes my every joynt:
Then, as my soule, to'heaven her first seate, takes flight,
And earth-borne body, in the earth shall dwell,
So, fall my sinnes, that all may have their right,
To where they'are bred, and would presse me, to hell.
Impute me righteous, thus purg'd of evill,
For thus I leave the world, the flesh, the devill.

~John Donne, Divine Poems, VI

John Donne, master of the pen as he was, was also apparently a Platonist. He, a Christian, prayed a Platonic prayer. And he is certainly not alone. I once met an old, blind Methodist minister who told me, “I have no fear of death.” (And if ever I believed someone who told me that it would be him.) “When this body wears out,” he continued, “I’ll go home to my Lord.” Well, something like that. I think he said it better, but you get the point.

What is the root of this Platonism? How can faithful Christians so devalue the body? The first answer I will offer comes from the perspective of the ninety-four-year-old Rev. Smith. As we age our bodies seem less like friends and more like hindrances. When the mind stays sharp, or in fact sharpens, while the body becomes frail and infirm, how can we not feel some division between soul and body? Well, it’s only a suggestion.

But a second answer comes from John Donne’s similar reflections. Not only does Donne experience the decay of the body, but he dares to provide a theological framework for his experience. All of this Donne provides by meditating on the moment of death. For Donne it is not Plato, but “gluttonous Death” who instantly unjoints soul and body. At the moment of death, soul and body are cleft; the body sleeps while the soul attains the beatific vision. Donne’s Platonism does not come from a lack of respect for Creation or materiality, but rather from a face-to-face encounter with Death. What is it that drives death? In Romans 5 Paul says death came into the world through sin, and all are subject to death because all have sinned. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 15.56 Paul says the sting of death is sin. The witness of James (1.15) tells us that sin, when full-grown brings forth death. Sin is the death-bearer. This is also Donne’s claim. All the hell-born sins must have their rights. The right of sin is death; the exemption of the Christian is the victory over death.

The last four lines of the poem are the most important for our interests. We can hear in Donne’s last lines the plea for redemption from death. “Impute me righteous, thus purg’d of evill / For thus I leave the world, the flesh, the devill.” Donne here wrestles with the ontological stain of sin. While the material may not be inherently evil, the world strives against the kingdom. While the body may not be intrinsically bad, the flesh ever strives against the spirit. And the Devil, that elusive figure, more believed in by agnostics than by many educated Christians, never ceases his necrophilic campaign against life.

There is (still) something not right with the world. In spite of the original goodness of Creation, the world, this material world is not as it should be. Death should not reign. Elsewhere, Donne offers us more to ponder:

I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright,
But black sinne hath betraid to endlesse night
My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.
(Divine Poems, V)

If Christ came to give life, why do we still die? If death has been swallowed up in victory, why does Death yet reign? Because Sin must have its say. The ontology of the world is not what it once was. The original has been marred by the deleterious death-bearer.

We, and the world, were created good. But were we also created in Sin? No. And Sin is far too deadly a thing to ignore…especially in ontology.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Which flute? The Magic Flute.

So I keep forgetting to tell everyone in the NYC area to check out this really fun young opera company, Project Opera of Manhattan. Opera by young artists, for young artists, and the public benefits by seeing promising young singers and actors at bargain prices. Their newest show is Die Zauberflote (I can't get the umlaut to work, sorry). For those of you unfamiliar, this was Mozart's final opera. It's a magical love story with plenty of mythic and Masonic imagery. At any rate, it is a perennial favorite of many opera goers and a bona fide classic. Always worth seeing.

So anyone in the NYC area should come to one of the performances. Tickets are between $10-15, for August 16-17 and 24-25. Ticket and performance info is on the website.

And--as an added bonus, if you want to see a familiar face in the cast, yours truly will be playing Monostatos, the amorously unfortunate bully who gets his comeuppance. So yeah, come on out.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

...and taking names (2)

Another of Jamie Smith's remarkable achievements is his fine introduction to Radical Orthodoxy (RO). Introducing Radical Orthodoxy is the best overall introduction to the themes and major figures of RO. An added bonus of the volume is the interaction Smith develops between RO and the continental Reformed tradition. One particular aspect of RO with which Smith expresses some reservation from his Reformed perspective is RO's "participatory ontology."

Whether it is best described as a movement, a school, a sensibility, or a book series, RO presents a politics (socialism), based on an epistemology (illumination), funded by an ontology (suspension). All of this is presented as a counter to a post/modern ontology (nihilism), with its faulty epistemology and agonistic politics. In the programmatic volume, Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, editors Milbank, Pickstock, and Ward single out the "suspension of the material" as the turn of Radical Orthodoxy. This turn of RO depends on an Augustinian Platonism, filtered through the Cambridge Platonists. In essence (!), RO espouses a view of the material that grounds every instance of immanence in transcendence. Only if the immanent participates in a reality beyond itself can its existence really be guaranteed. Another way of putting it is to say only a Christian (Platonist) can truly be a materialist without devolving into nihilism. While Smith applauds RO's defense of the project of metaphysics, he is not a great fan of the Platonic ontology RO employs (probably in part because he suffers from the Reformed allergy to the analogy of being, on which see millinerd's post).

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter month, continued...

...and that's how she ended it. Great book, huh?

Of course I will not tell you how what happens! Of course I will not tell you what parts I found interesting for what reasons! But I will say I loved the book. While I am sad the Harry Potter saga will not continue, I am glad for the very wonderful contribution J. K. Rowling has made to the world. For those of you still unfamiliar with the world of Harry Potter, do put all seven very close to the top of your reading list. I would like to say something about Harry Potter as an incredibly appropriate preparatio evangeli for our culture, but no doubt, without further explication that I will not offer here, the statement would be unjustly attacked or naively defended by some passerby.

So, in the spirit of Dumbledore, I leave suggestions of an idea for you, but my deeper intentions will have to be revealed more slowly if at all.

In the meantime, well done, Ms. Rowling, and thank you for sharing Harry with us!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Sorting Hat Says...

The sorting hat says that I belong in Ravenclaw!


Said Ravenclaw, "We'll teach those whose intelligence is surest."

Ravenclaw students tend to be clever, witty, intelligent, and knowledgeable.
Notable residents include Cho Chang and Padma Patil (objects of Harry and Ron's affections), and Luna Lovegood (daughter of The Quibbler magazine's editor).

Take the most scientific Harry Potter
ever created.

Get Sorted Now!

So, as Harry Potter month winds down, I am reconfirmed as a Ravenclaw (I took the quiz two years ago, too). Happy to be a Ravenclaw. Not about to be in Slytherin, and Gryffindor is a little overrated, I think. Just because "The Chosen One," the "Boy Who Lived" is in Gryffindor does not mean it's the best.

Anyway, I did get to see Order of the Phoenix last Wednesday, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Although, since I had just finished re-reading the book, I missed the major portions they had to cut out. I will not offer a full-scale review here.

But this very impractical thought occurred to me recently. In reading back through all of the books, and thinking how wonderful life at Hogwarts would be, my mind wandered into pedagogical climes. More specifically, I found myself wondering, in a move perhaps not far from Milbank's desire to take back the university, what it would look like to have a school of prayer (or spiritual direction, or whatever one wants to call it) just as Hogwarts is a school of magic. Consider ("indulge" is a better word maybe) if you will, a school where those who attend follow a strikingly different curriculum. Where the important science is a science of the Spirit. Led by experienced teachers who practice their art well (well, most of them--I'm sure there would be a couple of Trelawneys in the bunch), students would learn the life of the Spirit. In truth, this is what the churches should be, yes? Now, it sounds impractical, until you consider that the students at Hogwarts are still concerned with such plebeian things as dating and sports and so forth. Just as they cannot separate their magical existence from the mundane, so also, perhaps the students as such a school of divinity would not separate their spiritual existence from the secular.

Now, in theory, seminaries should function this way, but, again in theory, only for ordinands. It is long since parochial schools functioned this way--even here religion is one subject among others, rather than the queen of the sciences, or the lifeblood of education. Admittedly, what I would like to see is something of an actual Christian high culture. I think Milbank and the Radical Orthodoxy crowd have similar fantasies.

Anyway, just a bit of daydreaming. Only seventy-two hours until The Deathly Hallows, and I for one am super excited.

In other news, Portland was fun, although a church closed on July 4th abolished my hopes of communing with the locals. Seriously, when did July 4th become a religious holiday? And even if it were, that would only be more cause to celebrate the Eucharist. I also managed a trip to Columbus, Ohio that was short-lived but fun. And I am now working up my next Jamie Smith post--yes, yes, I'm getting there, I'm getting there.

Until then, Happy Harry Potter month, and blessings be with you all!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

...and taking names (1)

A good friend of mine in the homiletics doctoral program at Vanderbilt has some fondness for Jamie Smith's work. In fact, a cadre of the Vanderbilt graduate students in religion apparently nicknamed him "Kick Ass" after his official literary moniker: James K(ick). A(ss). Smith.

I confess that I, too, enjoy Smith's work. Well...some of it. Speech and Theology is an exquisite little book, for instance. The subtitle is inspired: Language and the Logic of the Incarnation. Smith's central focus is the philosophical possibility of theology, of speaking about God. The question he presents is how it is possible to speak about that which resists language. Since concepts are inadequate to the transcendent thing (they are not the thing signified by the concept),“what we are looking for is a ‘third way,’ a mode of speaking which is non-conceptual, non-objectifying, and non-predicative—and therefore non-reductive and non-violent. It will be what we might describe as ‘praise’ (Augustine, Marion) or ‘de-nomination’ (Marion), ‘prayer’ (Derrida), or Augustine’s strategy of ‘confession.’ (44)” In fact, language functions incarnationally, to incarnate the signified in the sign. This is similar to Marion's idea of the icon. In incarnational logic, the transcendent appears in the immanent and yet remains transcendent.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

New posts

Although I appear to have fallen off the face of the planet, I assure you I have not. For one thing, the planet is not flat, and gravity prevents us from ascending off of the sphere. But if you need more assurance, you can find a little taste of my work on the Karl Barth Blog Conference going on over at Der Evangelishe Theologe. Travis has graciously published a somewhat smarmy account of F. C. Baur I wrote and should be posting a small piece on D. F. Strauss in the very near future.

For other topics you must wait. I have three or four posts lined up in my drafts folder, but so far none are ready to post. My computer is all gummed up currently, so I use it sparingly. But summer should be an ideal time to get some thoughts out there for my critics to use as future blackmail.

In the meantime, check out the Barth Blog Conference and stay tuned here for future posts on such topics as the theological endeavors of James K. A. Smith, Drama and theology, and apostolic succession.