Thursday, 21 January 2010

The disappointment with Jesus

Over at Narrative and Ontology, Phil has some remarks on one of his projects.
Around about six years ago I decided to read the New Testament as little as possible, focussing all my attention and energy on the Old. The aim was (and is!) to be able to see the witness of the New in all its particularity and difference. Christians tend to work in the other direction: we are thoroughly acquainted with the New and thus complain when the Old Testament doesn't seem to fit the paradigm. "Is the God of the Old Testament really Jesus' father?" Doing things the other way round raises a different question: "Is Jesus really the Son of the God of Israel?"
Take the time to read his first post on the issue. It looks like he plans to write more about it later.

My only trepidation in the project is the difference between Christianity as somehow continuous with Judaism, or Christianity as an interruptive break from everything despite its origins being historically situated within Judaism. I've argued elsewhere for the latter, taking my cue from Kierkegaard, Zizek and Badiou. The question becomes one of authority. Does Jesus have authority which is derived from the God of Israel because he is the Son, or does Jesus have authority independent of a Big Other?

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Martin Luther King said other things too

My blog feed has had a few comments about other aspects to Martin Luther King's political activities. It's worth noting them here, even if they are a little tautological.

Adam Kotsko points to an old article on King's "missing years" between 1965 and 1968, along with the missing messages from that time.

Inhabitatio Dei points to the same article, and throws some comments in as well.

And a little clip from
Where's My Jetpack? in which King decries America as arrogant, with God's judgement just around the corner.

It's little wonder that he made someone angry enough to shoot him. He probably never meant to be a one-trick pony, just fighting for certain civil rights. Unfortunately, that's mostly what's he's remembered for.

I feel the same about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Too often remembered only for his role in the assassination plot against Hitler, too little remembered for Act and Being and Sanctorum Communio.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

The Superstitious Pat Robertson

Pat Robertson has declared that the recent Haitian earthquake is the result of a pact with the devil, a pact entered into by the Haitians to free themselves from French colonial rule.
You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.
And in case you think I'm quoting him out of context, this is from his own website.
His comments were based on the widely-discussed 1791 slave rebellion led by Boukman Dutty at Bois Caiman, where the slaves allegedly made a famous pact with the devil in exchange for victory over the French. This history, combined with the horrible state of the country, has led countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed.
In other words, bad things happen to you because you did something evil.

As the young kids say these days: Theology Fail.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

lolcat Translation

There is a lolcat translation of the Bible.
Wun last thing about forskinz
My handrietin sux LOL!
Sum peepl wantz u to cut ur forskin off. Dis iz bcz dey iz afraid peepl wil treet them bad bcz dey is Christians. Dey jus wantz to talk about ur bodi LOL. i nevr bragz about anithin xcept Jesus. Forskinz iznt importnt. Jesus's work iz all dat mattrz realli i jus wantz evribodi who duz Ceiling Cat's work to be happi.
So doant giv me so much trubl no moar.
Galatians 6:11-18
Armageddon can't be far away.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Our burden

Listening, as I was, to a podcast from The Economist, I was enthralled by the delightful chatterings of the hosts as they speculated about what will be in the headlines for 2010. They usually do this on a weekly basis but since it was the end of the year, the crystal ball came out with a telescope attached.

Since these guys are part of the team that decides what the headlines will be, the whole exercise is a disguised ad in which they entice readers to buy this week's editions, but since I can't be bothered reading The Economist, listening will have to do.

And as I listened, I heard the conversation move across the realm of economic predictions, and the idea floated was that in 2010, the various national economies which had avoided a depression are going to have to pay for the stimulus spending that took place in 2009. Which other country will Germany help: Italy? Surely not! The Western nations are all spent out, both nationally and as individual shoppers, so...

- and this is the slip that made me pause -

...the prime hope is that the Asian countries will bear the burden of spending in 2010.

Spending your cash is not about buying something you need, or buying something you want. It is now your responsibility to shop. Buy more than you did last year, or last week. Buy more, not because you need it or you want it, but because it is your duty. Citizens of the world, shop for humanity! Your economy needs you.

This is a case of "Think Global, Act Local" enslaved to the economy. Growth is necessary and can only be facilitated by growth in consumer spending. That's our duty, and now our burden in the economy. The mistakes that led to the GFC were made by a minority in the finance industry, and must be corrected by the majority in the workforce.

Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Shop less. Your soul needs you.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Stephen the Martyr

In some church calendars, December 26 is the celebration of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. At first glance that seems like an odd sequence, but on second glance[1] it works quite well.

It reminds the reader that to celebrate Jesus' arrival and to follow Jesus is ultimately the path to martyrdom, figuratively or literally. Stephen died for proclaiming that Jesus was the Son of God and pointing out to the Jewish leaders of the day that they'd missed this one and had executed the Son of God.

The easiest solution is to execute Stephen as well. Make corpses while the sun shines, so to speak.

But it really does show that to celebrate Jesus is to follow Jesus, and Jesus died at the hands of the powerful. Stephen is a sobering element to Christmas. The baby grew up, criticised the established order, and was killed for it. And so were his followers.

1. Is that a real and common expression?

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Žižek's Trinity

I realise that this is, like, so six months ago, but I've only recently started reading The Monstrosity of Christ and it's, you know, like cool. But if I'm behind the times by quoting Žižek six months after the book is out, then I'm in a world of hurt every time I quote my mate Kierkegaard.

I like this little quote, a kind of nested quote of Davis quoting Žižek, because it's a succinct description of his materialist Trinity, beautifully placed in the text after Milbank's ontology. On with the show.
By contrast to this ontology, Žižek's "God" reveals himself in a radically self-emptying process, to the point where God's love for the world results in sacrificing his own transcendence -- that is, his own distance from the world, if you will -- in order to be more fully God. "This is why," as Žižek says, following Hegel, "What we have after crucifixion, namely, the resurrected God, is neither God the Father nor God the Son -- it is the Holy Ghost." And, as the Scriptures say, the Holy Ghost is love between believers -- it is the spirit of the community of believers. These famous words of Christ: "whenever two or three are gathered together [in love] I am in the midst of you." Žižek thinks we should all take this passage literally. (Davis, The Monstrosity of Christ, 18)

For a while now I've thought that the Trinity was a concept developed to help believers grasp their experience of God. God was experienced as transcendent, then as human flesh, and then as Holy Spirit. One way to reconcile this with the thought of an eternal God is the Trinity. But it's not a concept that's ever fully expounded in the Bible, and that gives the believer (and the theologian, especially) plenty of wiggle room to articulate this experience of God. And so I take it seriously as something to consider, and frivolously as something not worth fighting over.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Prophecy 2: Revenge of the Prophet

My last post needs some clarification. I must have been tired when I wrote it.

The line of continuity from Hebrew text to Christian gospel was intended by the gospel writers, but I have my doubts about its necessity to Christian truth. If we take Matthew's quotes as an example, he writes a lot that things "took place to fulfill what was spoken through the Lord through the prophet." It gives the impression that these were fixed points in time, unable to be changed because a prophet had identified them as a sign, and therefore an indication that what happened was divinely appointed and therefore true.

If that's the case, what should we do with all the prophetic verses which haven't yet been actualised? I think we have two options open to us. We can either wait for them to happen (this life or the next, it seems) or we can look at the relation between prophetic texts and Christ in a different way.

I suggest that rather than saying the prophetic texts legitimise Jesus as the Christ, we should say that Jesus legitimises texts as prophetic. A verse, or a quote, or a symbolic picture is only given value through the interpretive lens of Jesus, and not the other way around. Furthermore, this doesn't mean that Jesus legitimises the text so that we can say that the text was right all along. I think it means that Jesus has invoked the text, much like we would quote someone today, in order to bring some implicit baggage with it.

For the gospel writers who quote scriptures, I think we are left with a situation in which they want to associate Jesus with a thread of Hebrew thought. It's like saying, "Jesus reminds me of the book of Isaiah's this way." Quoting a small piece of text from one Jew (Matthew) to another (his readers) is like two nerds quoting lines from The Simpsons or Monty Python to each other. Just one line is enough to trigger the whole scene in the mind of the audience.

I'm going to leave you with the mental image of a group of nerdy rabbis quoting lines from Ezekiel and erupting in a chorus of, "Ah hah!"

Saturday, 2 January 2010


I think one of the challenges to Christianity is the Hebrew Bible. The god of the Hebrew Bible is in stark contrast to Jesus in many ways, but not every way. Did God change between his commands for conquest and genocide, and his commands to love one's enemy? Maybe Marcion was right in some respects; perhaps there are two different entities at work here.

The gospels are certainly in no doubt about drawing a continuity of thought between the Hebrew texts and the life of Jesus. Matthew identifies various prophecies that Jesus fulfilled (especially through his Christmas story), and is clear to point out that Jesus didn't want to abolish the law. John is equally as clear to make sure that Jesus is thought of as the I AM.[1]

They way through this is, as always, to start and end with Christ. What is God like? God is like Christ. And if we take that further, then it's fair to say that prophecy only gains value as future-telling if it is true in Christ. If we miss the vital step at the beginning, then we run the risk of mis-reading any other text we encounter.

1. Then again, drawing Jesus as the logos is a very Greek thing to do. By that logic, if Jesus were born into a taoist society, it would be fair to have written, "In the beginning was the tao ... The tao became flesh and made his dwelling among us."

Friday, 1 January 2010

A variety of stories

It's easy to think about the Christmas story as the Christmas story, as though there is only one version of how Jesus arrived in the world. Even if we limit our scope to the canonical gospels, we have enough variety to give us food for thought.

So let's go with the thesis that they were written in this order: Mark, Matthew, Luke then John. It's all a bit of a speculation about precise dates, generally, but relative to each other and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans this is about right. Read in that order, the four books give these accounts of how Jesus arrived.

Mark: Announced by cousin John out in the wilderness. Cue baptism and a ministry that begins with a call to repent.
Matthew: A genealogy, angelic visitations, a parade of visitors, a holiday in Egypt and then in the wilderness with John.
Luke: A genealogy, angels, prophecies by elder Israelites, prophecies by cousins, more visitors, and so on.
John: Forget the virgin birth, Jesus is the incarnation of the divine logos itself. His cousin said so.

Two of these books don't even have a Christmas story. Of the other two, one is more elaborate than the other. Clearly, the events hold different value for each of the authors. The Christmas story is not a unified whole, a single story about a baby in a manger.

Matthew and Luke did us a favour with the additional information, for sure, but most of the time I think I'd be happy with the introduction from Mark, and put John a close second. There's something appealing to me about the Jesus who bursts on to the scene and just starts preaching.