Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Nicolas of Myra

Christmas is a weird time.  On the one hand, it's a festival to celebrate the arrival of Jesus into the world, but on the other hand it's marked almost exclusively by consumerism and capitalism.  We celebrate, not by giving, but by shopping.  We celebrate by shopping because that's what we know how to do.

Rather, I think that it's worth taking the time to remember Santa before he was Santa - back when he was just Nicolas of Myra.  Here is a man who had a reputation for giving in secret to the needy.  Go read the wikipedia article for an overview.

Should we teach our children about Christmas?  Sure.  Teach them about Jesus.  And what about Santa Claus?  Teach them about the original Santa - the man who gave in secret to the people who needed it.  Christmas is a Christian holiday, and we usually celebrate it as capitalists.  Instead, let us celebrate it as Christians.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Thoughts on the Hebrew Bible

For several years I've had a love-hate relationship with the Hebrew Bible. In my youth, I believed the 66 books of the protestant Bible to be the canon, the holy scriptures, the words of life. Later, I began to doubt the continuity between the Old and New Testaments (to use the Christian labels). The character of Yahweh and the character of Jesus seemed to be incommensurable, so the texts which support these two also have some measure of incommensurability.

To resolve this, for a while, I followed Pannenberg's lead and insisted that theology begin and end with Christ. Begin with Christ, move through the text in question using the starting point as interpretive locus, and then return to Christ to conclude. It seemed like a reasonable methodology. However, it's tantamount to taking a pair of scissors to the Hebrew texts and slicing out large sections. It reduces the Hebrew Bible to a Christian apocrypha: interesting to read and useful for exegesis or comparison, but not authoritative for the Christian. As with anything apocryphal, there can be overlap and supporting sentiment; a Christian message could be found in it, but the link is, for want of a better word, accidental.

Perhaps the way to read it is to return to the initial assessment and reinterpret it. The Hebrew Bible does contain the words of life, but life isn't always divine or good. Life has good and evil, respite and suffering; and there is no booming voice of authority from the sky (or the pulpit) to identify which event is which. A man hears a voice that tells him to sacrifice his son... such is Abraham. A woman gets close enough to a foreign invader to drive a tent peg through his skull... such is Jael. A man hears a voice to lie on his side for a year, cooking his food on a fire fueled by dung... such is Ezekiel. A king kills one of his officers in order to sleep with his widow... such is David. A song is sung about the joy of smashing babies against rocks... such is Psalm 137. Who is to say which is good and which is evil? They are prompts for contemplation, they are accounts of what happens in life, but they aren't categorical imperatives.

Does this help the Hebrew Bible at all? Not really. It remains apocryphal, as a wisdom tradition, as a politicised and theocratised history of an ancient culture. It makes for good reading and good contemplation, but no more than that.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Islam in Australia

Straight from the pages of Moral Panic for Dummies come the stories about the Brisbane Islamic Schools. In the first story, a proposal to put a new Islamic School on the Gold Coast, near a Christian Church has received vocal opposition from some locals. In the second story, barely a week later, a Brisbane Islamic School apparently banned the singing of Advance Australia Fair in the school.

For the first story, the sheer hypocrisy of the protestors beggars belief. On the principle that, "It's segregation, not integration," (Tony Doherty) this school should be opposed, and yet a Catholic school is "the same as us" and should not be opposed. The problems with this are many, and here are just a few. First, the proportion of Australians who are Catholic is not great, and yet they are over-represented in the schooling system. Second, the Islamic schools of Australia need to follow the same guidelines as any other private school, including the use of government curricula and the problems of integration (boys schools, girls schools, Catholic schools, pentecostal schools...). Thirdly, the "same as us" argument smacks of discrimination on the basis of the Other. Anyone who is not ostensibly "the same as us" should be denied opportunity to be different from us. If Australia is to be the secular liberal democracy that grants certain freedoms, then it cannot oppose the different but must promote that which is the same between Muslims, Christians, atheists and so on. Lastly, the original religion of Australia is not Christianity, it is the aboriginal religion. Christianity is an import to this land. If one was to rely on tradition and geography to identify the Australian religion, Christianity is the incorrect result.

For all these reasons and more, the protest against the Islamic School is wrong on the ground of discrimination.

In the second story, the school that allegedly banned - note the inflammatory introduction of the word "ban" by the news outlets - singing the national anthem at assemblies is more interesting. The Islamic Scool, wishing to teach Islamic values in the midst of a secular liberal democracy, is trying to assert itself as a minority. It is attempting to identify itself as different in the wider community of Australians but is doing so from a position of fear, and therefore will not succeed. Zizek might suggest that they aren't being "violent" enough (in the Zizek sense of violence, not in the normal sense). In other words, if they truly want to be different then they will assert Islamic values, regardless of the wider community. However, such is the state of play that they will probably continue to press on with "safe" Islam, being "safe" in the midst of a culture which fears and loathes the different Other.

This is the predicament of the different in the midst of the prevailing order. To assert this difference is to generate opposition. It is a sad case of affairs that although Australia is quite secular and irreligious, Christian actions are not opposed in the media because of how flavourless we Christians are. Kierkegaard's situation has not changed. In this regard, Australia may as well be the Denmark of 200 years ago.