Saturday, 27 February 2010

Ontology of the boudoir

Ontology of the boudoir
Just go and read it, because "Rule 34: If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions."
And now I wonder if, because this blog exists, there is porn of it. :)

Apocalyptic action

Halden's live-blogging of two Harink lectures on Peter let to this interesting quote.
Because of Christ’s transfiguration, we are called, not to passivity, but to radical apocalyptic action, which, in summary means to subject all our actions to the lens of Christ’s own agape, the radical love that gives itself away for others, even to death. - Apocalyptic action – Inhabitatio Dei

The genius of this is that, once again, we can see that Christianity is not about pie in the sky when you die, but must be focused on the here and now. The sooner we get rid of the phrase, "get into heaven" the better we'll all be.

Enemies of the Faith

Four easy steps to conservatism. Thanks Roland!
Enemies of the Faith – the Radical Orthodox and Red Tory Version

Barth on the Christological centre of the Old and New Testaments

I just read this quote from Barth. It seems that I have more in common with him than I previously thought.

Narrative and Ontology: Barth on the Christological centre of the Old and New Testaments

Velvet Elvis, Movement Two: Yoke

This chapter concentrates on the problem of the authority and reliability of the Bible. Simply put, the problem is that the Bible was written by people, and was assembled into a canon by synod vote much later than the events described in the texts, and yet it is considered to be the authoritative Word of God. This kind of construction leads to a Bible that is neither complete nor self-consistent, and that treating it as absolute will cause problems. What, then, does Bell have to say about this?

He begins, as always, with a story. This story takes the form of a love story, in which he did not set out to love the thing he encountered (preaching the Bible) but once he'd been on a first date (his first sermon) he couldn't tear himself away. It became his lifelong passion. However, he quickly points out that the Bible is a difficult book, and is consequently misused by well-meaning Christians. Typical problems are misquoting a verse in isolation, using selections as proof-texts to justify evil, and so on. Other problems arise from the inconsistencies between the character of Jesus and the character of the vengeful God of the Old Testament.

Bell's solution to this problem is twofold. First, the Bible should be read and interpreted using Jesus' reference to Scriptures as a touchstone. In other words, we should use the Old Testament as Jesus used it. Second, the Bible must be interpreted rather than read at face value, and we should trust authoritative figures to approve interpretations. He argues for this by citing a rabbinic tradition that one rabbi would derive authority from the rabbi who taught them, each one pursuing a hermeneutic purity.
The rabbi was driven by a desire to get as close as possible to what God originally intended in the command at hand. (47)
Jesus is incorporated into this rabbinic tradition by the authority of his own teaching, and also because he came to fulfill the law rather than abolish it. Jesus' life shows "what it looks like when the Torah is lived out perfectly, right down to the smallest punctuation marks." (48)

This rabbinic tradition has continued from Jesus to the disciples and onwards, allowing Christians today to make new interpretations of Scriptures. This ought to produce an "endless process of deciding what it means to actually live the Scriptures" (50), from the Jerusalem Council onwards. Christians are expected to acknowledge that the canon is God's Word without confining themselves to sola scriptura. This acknowledgement should lead to "wrestling" with the text, just as Jacob wrestled with Yahweh. It should be a struggle, and leave the Christian with a limp as a sign of the struggle.

Bell gets top marks here for pushing the case that Christians should interpret the Bible and not have some naive view that it can be read at face value. I couldn't agree more, and I'd like to see this turn into genuine and thoughtful engagement with the Bible. Caught up in this approach, however, is the danger of heterodoxy and the sectarian squabbles likely to ensue. The usual Church structures shudder at the thought of allowing (encouraging!) people to disagree with the pastor. Ultimately, Bell can do no more than let people interpret, but within the bounds of canon. Swim between the flags, people.

I've long been skeptical of the origins of canon, and the origins of texts. Although I like that Bell brings up the human origins of the texts, I'm not convinced that the vote at Hippo was entirely about marking the truth as it was about suppressing broadening heterodoxy. This idea that the vote was somehow divinely-inspired seems flawed, leaving out the insight available from other Christian thinkers of the first few centuries. Bell also performs his usual acrobatics in this chapter, alternating between "written by Man" and "God spoke" without ever resolving it. We're left with the feeling that he regards both statements as true or identical, rather than allowing them to be complementary or differentiating.

So his answer is interpretation that gets us as close as possible to what God intended. This kind of interpretation comes, not from peers, but from rabbis. Bell's model of authority is inherited, and seems a little like the Greek idea that the older generations were closer to the gods and were therefore closer to divine wisdom. Or perhaps he advocates an Hegelian approach, in which we will eventually synthesise our way to divine truth. This is a step in the right direction, but I don't think he takes it far enough. If we combine his ideas of heterodoxy, discussion and a Christological hermeneutic, I think we find our way to authentically lived Christian theology. Rather than trying to inherit a sense of "what God intended" from the rabbis, the discussion should be grounded in Christ. That is, after all, the key identifier of the Christian.

Christ as the definition, not the exemplar. This puts paid to the idea that Jesus was the only one to perfectly and completely obey Torah. The problem of "fulfill, not abolish" isn't resolved by a Jesus who obeyed every clause of Torah, but by the definition of a positive law, rather than a negative law. Yes, this is Badiou through and through, but more importantly it's how the problem was resolved by both Jesus and Paul. Jesus' "perfection" is not "full ethical compliance" but an inversion of a flawed and incomplete negative. Once again, Bell posits Jesus as an extension of Torah and the laws of the cosmos, rather than an interruption to nature. If Christ is foundational at all, then Torah should be read in light of Jesus, rather than the other way around. Bell grasps at this, but by this stage of the book is yet to completely commit to the idea.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Yes Minister meets Alice in Wonderland

This is a little interruption from the Velvet Elvis event. Time is ever so fluid in the blogosphere.
Midway through last year I was head-hunted by the federal Department of Health and Ageing to write speeches for their ministers - a surprise as I had no experience or qualifications. As far as the department was aware, my limited skills were derived from reviewing video games for The Canberra Times. - Myles PetersonYes Minister meets Alice in Wonderland
Worth the read. This is written after Peterson had left the department and is a litany of woes about writing speeches for government.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Velvet Elvis, Movement One: Jump

This first chapter (Movement One: Jump) revolves around a metaphor, as do most of Bell's encyclicals. In this case the metaphor is jumping on a trampoline. The act of jumping represents (Christian) life, and the springs of the trampoline represent (Christian) doctrine. Jumping is the actual living, but the springs assist the jumping. Furthermore, the springs are flexible so as to allow exploration, discussion and change. Bell returns to this metaphor throughout the chapter, but it is largely unchanged as he goes.

Writing to a Christian audience, Bell brings out familiar material to start this chapter. First, he asserts that there is more to life than the daily grind of working, sleeping and eating.
What is fascinating to me is that at the center of the Christian faith is the assumption that this life isn't all there is. That there is more to life than the material. That existence is not limited to what we can see, touch, measure, taste, hear, and observe. One of the central assertions of the Christian worldview is that there is "more". (19)
Secondly, he puts forward that every human is ultimately following in the footsteps of someone else (parents, teachers, etc.), and that this is the basic framework of an individual's worldview. "Everybody follows somebody." (19) Specifically, the Christian follows Jesus Christ, with three particular characteristics. The Christian follows what Jesus taught, the Christian thinks that this is the best possible way to live, and that this way puts the Christian in touch with the "ultimate reality"of the universe.
You find yourself living more and more in tune with ultimate reality. You are more and more in sync with how the universe is at its deepest levels. (21)
This kind of life Jesus was living perfectly and completely in connection and cooperation with God, is the best possible way for a person to live. It is how things are. (21)
Being a Christian is a kind of flourishing, in which the Christian engages with the universe itself, becoming part of how the universe was always intended to operate.

Returning to the metaphor of the trampoline, Bell attempts to make doctrines less intimidating. As the springs of the trampoline, doctrines help to live the life, but they aren't the life itself. They aren't, however, a complete and accurate picture of God. God is utterly transcendent and incapable of textual embodiment. For Bell, any doctrine that claims to completely describe God is a false doctrine.
The moment God is figured out with nice neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God. We are dealing with somebody we made up. (25)
This kind of doctrinal certainty is, in Bell's extended metaphor, like brickwork. It's inflexible and divides the insiders from the outsiders. With reference to the gospel tradition of inversion, he points out that Jesus reversed the positions of insiders and outsiders, the pharisees and the sinners. Those who define the brick-doctrines are the self-proclaimed insiders who exclude those who don't understand or agree. The inflexible nature of brick-doctrines is responsible for this.

The flexibility of the springs is necessary, he argues, for people to ask questions about God. Although he cites a long list of questions, they're all the same basic question about the problem of evil. That is, if God is all-powerful and all-loving, why does evil exist? Bell doesn't engage with the question, instead indicating that the reader should do that for themselves, perhaps fruitlessly. It's entirely possible that there is no answer for this, but the correct response is not to give up on God, but to live with the mystery. And mystery, when revealed, will lead to other mysteries. What's important is that the Christian continue to jump, to live the Christian life.

And jumping is joyful. Bell closes the chapter by finishing his story about being on a trampoline with his son. He had fun on the trampoline with his son, and thanked God for it. This, then, is the whole point of the Christian life.
The point is our joy. That is when God is most pleased. (35)

Overall, this chapter could be summarised as, "Follow, obey, enjoy, ask questions if you must, expect no answers." Its reminiscent of a story about Pascal who advised, "Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe!" with the added condition that "you will enjoy!" This is ideology at its strongest, as a little trip through Louis Althusser's theory will show.

Surprisingly, both Althusser and Bell agree that everyone is following someone, although Althusser might phrase it as "always-already in ideology" but that's a minor point. Ideology is inescapable, but that's no reason to let a particular ideology dominate the individual. The integration of ideology and institution is perhaps the most destructive of them all, resulting in a mediated belief system. This is the object of Kierkegaard's attack against the Danish state church in The Book on Adler. Christian truth is universally addressed, and not mediated through any institution. The only way to prevent this is to ensure that the individual is actively engaged with that truth, including having the tools and techniques required for this. Christian education (that is, theological education in content and technique) is necessary.

Whereas the potential for a Christianity mediated through the institution of the Church is the lesser of the two critiques, the more troubling part of Bell's view is the insistence on joy for the individual. That sounds like I'm just being a grumpy old bugger, that I think joy is irrelevant. Let me be clear, though, that I'm not kicking joy out but I want it to be in the right place. Joy is good, but the idea that "God is most pleased" when we feel joy gives Christianity an Epicurean spin that it shouldn't have. It seems to me that the Christian life should be marked by a pursuit of showing love, and joy should be consequential.

This brings us back to the start of the chapter, in which Bell says that being Christian puts the individual in touch with the deepest workings of the universe, a universe that God has created and which is disconnected from humanity except through God. Conversely, I see that the universe is a cold, hard place in which natural forces reign - including the self-interest of survival. Natural behaviour is self-interested, whereas Christian behaviour is not. Christian behaviour is love, and that's not self-interested. What this means is that following Jesus and obeying his teachings actually puts the Christian in opposition to the natural forces of the universe. Christianity is an interruption to natural desires and drives, not a complement to them.

If there is anything that should be taken away from this chapter, it's the sense that this is encouragement for the doubting Christian. It should be encouragement to persevere in the Christian life, despite the presence of evil. It should be encouragement to question doctrine and theology, and not simply swallow what comes from the pulpit. Eventually, the end should be Christians who have thought about, prayed about, and researched about the hard questions of faith and found answers.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Velvet Elvis, Introduction

For whatever reason, I've been given a copy of Velvet Elvis to read. I haven't read anything like this for a while, probably not for eight years or so. I thought I'd write some notes about it as I go.

Right from the beginning, the first thing to note about the book is that it's written in the same tone that the author speaks. It's a series of short paragraphs, interspersed with single sentences, or even single words. The pauses in the text are deliberate and paced. If you've ever heard Bell speak, or seen one of his nooma videos, then you get the idea. Or rather, you get



In his introduction, he draws a parallel between theology and art, identifying that in the same way that artists draw inspiration from each other in order to pursue their own artistic endeavours, so too must Christians with doctrines. No doctrine is the final word, just as no art is the final word. In other words, he identifies himself with the Reformed tradition (or "reforming" as he puts it). Perhaps his most interesting statement in this assertion is
Times change. God doesn't, but times do. (11)
Around this axiom he builds an argument to bring an unchanging God into contact with culture. This is an interpretive encounter, an interpretive instruction, as though Christianity is the result of viewing an absolute God through the lens of a changing culture. Christianity will always change, but the reason for a changing Christianity is not a changing God, it's a changing culture, and Christianity remains valid as long as attention is on God.

I began the summary with comments about style, so style will be first here as well. Although the general understanding of a Velvet Elvis is as the quintessential kitsch, Bell attempts to redefine his association with it and I'm not sure he succeeds. We're left with an image of his book as an attempt at art, rather than actual art; or rather, an attempt at theology, rather than actual theology. The book appears to be toying with the notions of the problem of evil, the heterodoxy of the Church, and other familiar themes of theology but without the substance. Bell is painting on velvet, and the result - despite any actual skill he has - is cheapened a little. It feels like the difference between authentic aboriginal art, and the aboriginal art found in a tourist souvenir shop. The ideas are there (check the endnotes to see glimpses at his sources), but it's not satisfying.

This is most evident in the broken paragraphs and the streams of questions. It's a style that seems to have more in common with books of aphorisms, koans and proverbs. The reader might be in a better position to think of Bell, not as a teacher or a writer, but as a guru, a wise man, or a mentor. Velvet Elvis, at its worst, is clever wordplay that sounds thoughtful. At its best, it's a trigger for thoughtful reflection by the reader. Throughout the book it will do both, but with more of the clever wordplay.

Bell is softly bringing his audience around to questions of interpretation, and perhaps towards postmodernity. Although he won't go so far as pluralism or relativism, he wants to step out of the confines of tradition by making some wiggle room for opinion and culture. Such a move views culture as neutral, not as ideology. It allows the values of contemporary society to take the role of lens, or perhaps coloured glass, without accounting for the distortion of that lens or colour. This model appears to be a confusion of the epistemological problem of knowing about a transcendent God, and the inculturation of the Church. It also leaves open the question about knowing an absolute God. How does the viewer know that the lens is pointing at God, when all we know about God was derived from what the previous viewer saw? The metaphor is limited, of course. Nevertheless, the only ingredients appear to be an absolute God, the changing times, and the viewer. There's no mention, as yet, of the transformative power of God, or the interruption of the gospel. These might come later in the book.

It's clear, however, that Bell is right about the need for theology to continue to develop, but not simply because the times change or because culture changes. Theology continues to develop because theology encounters itself and is manifest in the life of the Church as it embodies Christ. Theology is not driven by cultural changes; but the opposite is true, theology must drive the change in the world.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

A little roundup of links

While everything is quiet in my own mind, here are some of the interesting things I've been reading of late.

Roland Boer's comments on systemisers struck a chord with me. I tip between the urge to build one because of the rationalist world in which I live, and the urge to destroy them because they will always fail and always drive someone out.

Halden Doerge's scathing assault on the 9 Marks. He's right, it's a bucket of shit[1]. See the previous comments about systemisers.

Ben Myers is reposting a piece by Scott Stephens. Scott's always had the ability to say something so controversial that it's easy to misunderstand, and end up being offended about the wrong thing. That sounds like a summary of almost every interview that Zizek's done with the mainstream media. No wonder these two are on speaking terms. Still, Scott's piece is worth the read.

I think I've done enough name dropping for now.

[1] And not the good kind of shit, either.