Thursday, 8 December 2011

Paying for Utopia

My attention came to Isaiah 61 today. Jesus quotes from here when he announces his mission in the synagogue. "The spirit of the Lord is upon me..." and so on. Typically, the idea is that when someone quotes from a passage, they invoke the whole passage. The exact parameters of a passage of text are hard to define, but that's the point of exegesis and argument.

I looked a little further in the chapter, to read this:
Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
you shall be named ministers of our God;
you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.
Because their shame was double,
and dishonour was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;
everlasting joy shall be theirs.
To be clear, "they" refers to the captives and the mourners and "you" refers to "Zion, the City of God" as the place and the people who live there. So, because the Zionites (not Zionists) were beaten down, they'll be raised up again, to the point that Zion will be exalted. What an amazing city it'll be! People won't have to work hard because they're enjoying riches!

But whose riches? Strangers. Foreigners. The people who will do the work are strangers and foreigners. Ironically, that's probably why Israel was invaded by the larger powers around them in the first place (despite the judgements proclaimed in the texts). The other powers needed slaves, a lower class to do the work. In this Isaianic utopia, all the wealth comes from foreigners to make life easy for the Israelites.

We can't use this kind of text to generate a vision of an equitable society. What it shows is an inverted society, where oppressors are oppressed. The sense of social justice in this passage is to treat people as they were treated; an eye for an eye, an exploitation for an exploitation. This vision demands vengeance as part of the restoration of the world. Tomorrow's utopia will be paid for by today's bourgeoisie, but will turn today's workers into tomorrow's oppressors. The dark side of this vision is that it requires someone to be the future oppressor, enjoying the utopia at the expense of others.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Faith and Reason

Last week was the feast of Andrew the Apostle. Maybe because I share his name, or maybe not, I had a discussion about him that day, feeding off Ecclesiasticus 14:20.
Happy is the person who meditates on wisdom
and reasons intelligently
We all worked through some of the pros and cons of privileging faith or reason, and I brought up the tradition of faith seeking understanding. Eventually, it came around to Andrew. The key question I asked was about his initial encounter with Jesus, way back before signs or crucifixions or resurrections.
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed*).
I'm going to impose some titles here to help bring out my question.

Andrew starts with Rabbi John, then spends an afternoon with Rabbi Jesus, and finishes his afternoon by bringing his brother to meet Messiah Jesus. What was the reasoning that took place to change Andrew from calling Jesus a teacher to calling him the Christ? He went to Jesus looking for rabbinic reasoning, but got more than that.

We'll never know, of course, because no one took minutes of the proceedings. So it's just speculation and hypothesis for us, with a healthy dose of reasoning intelligently.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Early Church Soap Opera

WARNING! I'm about to ignore scholarship.

The lists of the Twelve are slightly different from one gospel to the next. Traditionally, we've dealt with this by saying things like, "Thaddeus, also known as Judas (not the Iscariot one!)."

But I wonder if it was symptomatic of a fight, or a disagreement about who Jesus called the Twelve. Was there a thirteenth wheel in the group?

It's all soap operatic speculation to while away a Friday afternoon.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Gospel Statistics

Some statistics for you. It's a count of some of the titles used in the gospels to refer to Jesus. Down the left is a group that identifies who used the title, along with the book that records it. Across the top are the four titles that I looked at. This is the NRSV translation. Probably should have done it in Greek, but I didn't. This is an approximation.

Who
Book
Christ
Lord
Messiah
Teacher
Total Count
Angels
Luke
1
1
2
Matthew
1
1
Criminals
Luke
1
1
Crowd
John
1
8
9

Luke

3

3
6

Mark



6
6

Matthew



1
1
Demons
Luke


1

1
Disciples
John

28
2
3
33

Luke

16
1
2
19

Mark


1
3
4

Matthew

9
1

10
Jesus
John
1
2

2
5

Luke

3
3
2
8

Mark
2
3
3
1
9

Matthew

7
6
4
17
Narrator
John
2
5
1

8

Luke

13
1

14

Mark
1
2


3

Matthew


6

6
Political authority
Luke



1
1

Matthew


2

2
Religious Authorities
John


2
2
4

Luke


3
6
9

Mark


2
3
5

Matthew


2
6
8
Sick
Luke

3


3

Mark

1


1

Matthew

11


11
Tax collectors
Luke



1
1

Matthew



1
1
Total Result

6
109
47
47
209

I know, I know. Statistics and the Bible are dangerous bedfellows. You can't really prove anything from them. Just look at things like the Green Bible. It doesn't take much tweaking to find common words in the Bible and think that they're a theme. All I wanted to see here was if there were any major differences in style and titular usage between the gospels and the people who used them.

It's no surprise that "Lord" gets used a lot, especially by disciples. Jesus can be a bit self-referential with it too. Although it's not shown in the table, it's also true that a lot of this usage is by people who want things. It seems that (especially in the synoptics) that if you want something, you call him Lord. It gets a bit whiny after a while.

Also no surprise is that the religious authorities don't say Lord. They ask about whether Jesus is Christ/Messiah, though, and appear to hold Jesus as a teacher.

The one that did catch me out a bit was how often Jesus refers to himself as Messiah. I'd expected it to be a feature of the narrator, or the crowd, or the disciples, but in the end it's mostly used by Jesus himself - about 25% of the references are by Jesus.

So, if these data are anything to go by, "Lord" is the winner, with more than half, and about 81% of those used by adorers and petitioners. But in terms of recorded self-identity, Jesus sees himself as Messiah more than anyone else does.

But hey, that's just statistics in historiographical texts.


Monday, 31 October 2011

The Same As Dead

I tweeted something the other day.

It's a truism of stories. By the time we get to Happily Ever After, the characters aren't interesting any more and drop out of the story. Telling the story of someone who lived happily ever after isn't what we do. In fact, they're as good as dead. We can reminisce and remember, but we can't interact. There's certainly no struggle.

I wonder whether this idea was also in the consciousness of messianic authors. The visions of a religious utopia, presided over by God (and / or his appointed human agents) sound much like a happily ever after, and to my mind, an everlasting death. Although the general conditions of such a utopia are discussed (lambs sitting down with lions, etc.), there is very little other detail.

We can read those passages as incomplete, intentionally or otherwise. If the author didn't mean to leave out the details, then they just weren't being exhaustive in their work. If the author deliberately left out those details, they've made an assumption about their readers.

Another way to read them would be as aspirational. The author has written about specific features of life that they would like to see changed. We can treat them as a giant Ought, limited to a specific issue or circumstance. The blanks are still blank, however. Even Marx has been accused of this. He critiques the capitalist system nicely, identifying its failings, but when it comes to proposing his alternative there are still some features missing. Someone still needs to collect garbage and clean toilets - and if we have machines for those tasks, someone still needs to clean and repair the machines that collect garbage and clean toilets.

Happily ever after is the same as death. No matter who's writing the story, the moment we remove the struggle we may as well stop telling the story.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Christian distinctiveness

I like this topic. Sure, we call ourselves Christians, but what does that mean? Do we have different clothing, different food, different economies? I sometimes ask Christians, "What do you do, that you only do because you are a Christian?"

"Being nice" doesn't count, for example. There are plenty of nice non-Christians. One possible view is covered over at Inhabitatio Dei.

Christian distinctiveness | Inhabitatio Dei: "Here is the point of distinctiveness, according to the author: not that the Christian possesses an alternative cultural reality over against the ones in which they are set, but rather, that, regardless of their cultural setting, they manifest a distinctive character of involvement in it."

From that analysis (and you should really read the whole article), the distinctive is that we don't build cities as Christian cities. We don't build nations as Christian nations. Being Christian transcends the structures of humanity in the name of love (see the parable of the Samaritan, for example). Christians are marked by what we don't do, rather than what we do.

There seems to be something lacking from that, though - yes, I realise the irony of saying that in the face of a kenotic interpretation - and I can't help but feel that it's only the emptying without the action. Badiou's view on truth, expounded in his excellent analysis of Paul, relies on a distillation to a single, positive, axiomatic command. "You shall love..." It's not a prohibition, because prohibition instills the corresponding urge to commit that sin. Rather, it is the positive definition of what must be done.

Christianity, defined as absence alone, doesn't seem adequate to me. Absence of the world from the Christian, coupled by the presence of the command to love, is a fuller picture. Perhaps this is what is meant by, "they obey established laws, but transcend them by love (5:10)." And maybe that's the reason that it's so difficult to pin down precisely what it is that Christians do only because they are Christians.

Friday, 23 September 2011

A Divine Impossibility

After listening to several episodes of the Iconocasts podcast in the last 12 months, the folks at Jesus Radicals have started writing on the fundamentals of their position as well. Most of their podcast episodes seem to assume that we in the audience already know what they mean, and that would be a fair assumption if the audience were already Jesus Radicals. Either way, I'm delighted to see a blog series starting up on
the intersection of Christianity and anarchism.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Church Dogmatics

After reading this post I think I need to make time in my life to read Church Dogmatics.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Consequences

All systems of knowledge are, in one way or another, axiomatic. No matter how thorough our logic is, we ultimately begin with a premise and make the assumption that it is true. Everything else unfolds from that, whether by syllogism or dialectic or whatever. If the rules of logic hold true, then they only hold true for the consequences of a premise. And that's logic 101. It's also part of the basic argument that John Lennox uses about rationalists and faith.

We always start with an axiom or a premise and infer its consequences. It's great technique to use those inferences to determine whether the axiom is true. In the more complicated questions, the logic can be quite convoluted. Not everything is just a matter of "David is unmarried. Is he also a bachelor?" When it comes to questions of God, both theists and atheists have appealed to nature to support their arguments, and in both cases there is an interpretative element to the logic that's based around some axiom. Ultimately, I think axioms are inescapable. We need to postulate them in order to understand the world, and we need to test them to make sure we aren't being deceived, but we can't do without them.

I'm also interested in the consequences for another reason. If we have an axiom that holds reasonably true (albeit beyond proof either way) then we should take time to figure out what that means for our daily lives and then do it. I don't think there's enough of this going on, and I think that's because we're happy not to have to do that work. And that, I think, is the point of any philosophy that matters.
"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."
Marx, Theses on Feuerbach

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Simulation Argument

I know I'm eight years behind the game on the Simulation Argument, but that's a lot more recent than my catchup with other thinkers. If you're like me and also just playing catchup, the argument says that only one of the following three propositions is true.
(1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage;
(2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof);
(3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.
It sounds odd and is definitely counter-intuitive, but the logic is sound. I think that they can be re-written a little for clarity.
(1) there are no beings capable of creating a computer simulation of sentient life
(2) there are no beings capable of creating a computer simulation of sentient life, who also have the interest in creating such a simulation
(3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation
Or, to put it in grand theological terms.
(1) there is no being capable of creating a universe with sentient beings
(2) there are no beings capable of creating a universe, who also have the interest in creating such a universe
(3) we are almost certainly living in a created universe
Even just putting it into those terms makes me feel as though there's a fault somewhere in the logic, or that I've engaged in some trickery. It reminds me of the classic formulation of theodicy.
Only two of these are true.
(4) God is omnipotent
(5) God is omnibenevolent
(6) There is evil in the universe.
The simulation argument appears to be a negative expression of the same form. With that sense of structure in mind, let's abstract it some more.
Consider an act (A) which is conceivable but just a little bit beyond our capability
Only one of these is true.
(1) There is no agent capable of (A)
(2) There is no being capable and interested in (A)
(3) There is almost certainly (A)
Or perhaps in the very simple form, "If there is an agent who is willing and able to perform (A), then (A) has almost certainly happened."

When (A) is conceivable and just a little bit beyond our capability, we're more likely to take the argument seriously. However, if we define the act (B) as something far beyond our capacity to imagine or achieve then we have a hard time with the whole thing. In the very simple form, "If there is an agent who is willing and able to rebuild the universe out of subatomic matchsticks then it has almost certainly happened." If we can imagine a posthuman technology capable of creating a simulated universe, why can't we imagine a being (posthuman, transhuman, transcendent, or other) capable of subatomic matchstick constructions?

In its complex form, the simulation argument sounds all well and good, but with your friend and mine, the reductio ad absurdum, it starts to fall apart. I'm not convinced that it's a fatal flaw in the argument, but it's much less convincing at the far end of the scale.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Psychopaths and the Law

The latest episode of The Philosophers Zone is all about psychopaths. It brings a great perspective to the issue of mental illness and the law, specifically around psychopaths and their awareness, or lack thereof, of what is morally right and wrong.

They hinted at the purpose of punishment and how that changes when the guilty party is mentally ill. The notion that a person should be punished disappears when the capacity for moral awareness is absent. However, that doesn't mean that the culprit shouldn't be incarcerated. In that case, the incarceration is for the protection of society and to, for want of a better word, force treatment upon the perpetrator.

Generally speaking, I'm ok with this. I think it still allows a legal system to identify who committed the illegal act, but also the liberty to apply a different kind of sentence for the mentally ill than for others.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Tax Free Threshold To Rise

I'm just delighted to see that part of the balance of the Gillard carbon tax is an increase to the tax free threshold from $6,000 to $18,000. Of course, I'd like it to be higher, but this is a great step in the right direction. It's the best way to apply tax cuts.

I don't know about the rest of the package, though, except that there'll be $23 per tonne of CO2 and some tax rate increases for the high earner bracket. Both of these seem like good ideas.

As for families in worse financial conditions, I'd have to say that if they were the low income earners then the burden is in the wrong place.

Overall, dealing with carbon-based pollution is going to cost money, and applying a consumption-based tax is a way to put the power of choice into the hands of the spenders. It's quite a liberal concept. Of course, wealthy people will be in a position to buy-off their pollution - another reason why the burden should be shifted away from low incomes to high incomes. Money buys freedom, but it shouldn't be a license for carelessness and disregard.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Comments Policy Update

Did you make a comment on a post but you haven't seen it yet? Then you should read the new Comments Policy for this blog.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Mobile formatting is go!

I just turned on the mobile formatting for this blog. If you view it on a mobile device and have troubles with it, leave me a comment so I know whether to persist with the option.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Lennox Lennoxing

I've listened to two lectures delivered by John Lennox, both recorded by The Veritas Forum. Inasmuch as I normally despise apologetics, the titles of the two lectures intrigued me enough to take the time.

Lennox is, without doubt, a proficient and entertaining public speaker. Everything from his accent to his sense of humour to his subject matter make for an engaging talk. I can't help, though, think that these two lectures fell victim to similar problems as those I noticed in a talk by AC Grayling. Both lectures appear to have been preaching to the choir. They had all sorts of little quips in them, each belittling the arguments of his opponents with a lashing of sarcasm. Maybe that's just the way Lennox talks, though.

Most specifically, I wanted him to elaborate on his claim that the mind is more than neurological firings. He didn't, but he asserted it quite strongly. He's clearly opposed to materialism but I haven't yet heard him advocate for a position of idealism in which he explains consciousness or the mind, even in part.

The rest of his argument appears to be working in and around the teleological arguments for the existence of God. Instead of Paley's Watch, he talks about his Aunt's Cake. The arguments are much the same, but seem much more personable focused on a cake than the technical nature of sprockets and gears. It's hard to argue with the kindly old man and his kindlier older aunt over her cake than it is over the stuffy sounding fellow who tripped over a watch in a field.

The next step is to browse some of his books. Perhaps his writing is more revealing than his speaking.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Cultural Superiority

I was once in an argument (let's not insult anyone by calling it a debate) about multiculturalism. I took the position that no culture was really any better than any other, whereas my opponent insisted that there were still barbaric cultures in the world.

I've almost changed my mind.

But let me clarify. I still think that human cultures are flawed - all of them. There are social norms in every culture which are defective and loathsome, no doubt. Do some cultures have more of them than others? Or, more accurately, is the sum total of barbarity greater in some cultures than others? From the perspective of a kind of moral accounting, in which evils are quantified on a cosmic scale, we could actually create such a score card. It would be a kind of anti-utilitarianism. Rather than trying to quantify maximum happiness or satisfaction of preferences, it would be quantifying barbarity or unhappiness or prevention of preferences. Immediately we're left wondering how to quantify various acts or attitudes. Should we rate them on a 1-10 scale? Multiply them by population sizes? The task would have the same troubles as survey research, and then some. It's not impossible, but it has flaws and perspective problems.

Another way of looking at it is (no surprise here) Kierkegaardian. For Kierkegaard, every effort of humanity to build something is always met by a divine "No!" No matter the intent, every human system is flawed and, to paraphrase Romans, "falls short of the glory of God." Whether it's the Danish state church, the Soviet State or the capitalist free market, each and every instance is another attempt by humanity to create a system. Systems always produce hierarchies and these hierarchies mediate access between people and from people to God. Kierkegaard's solution is to insist on the subjectivity of the individual who encounters God without the mediation of systems or hierarchies.

In Kierkegaard's view, it doesn't matter if we can create a moral score card of cultures. What matters is that we recognise that no matter how good those cultures are, they are always an impediment to salvation, as well as the very thing that we need to be saved from.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Coffee and The Representation of Absence

Zizek's recent talks at Birkbeck have included the illustration of a man ordering coffee. It's from a film, but I haven't yet found the name of the film. So, at the risk of butchering some otherwise fine dialogue, here's a paraphrase.
The man ordering coffee says, "I want coffee without cream." The waitress replies, "I'm sorry, we've run out of cream, but I can still bring you coffee without milk."
Zizek makes the point that in this exchange we see the importance of the representation of absence. Even though black coffee is black coffee, whether caused by the absence of milk or the absence of cream, the specific absence makes the difference.

I think a similar logic is at work in the question of existential goodness. In other words, a person might give aid to a needy person because they follow the Christian command to love, and another person might do the same thing because they've concluded that it maximises the total amount of happiness in the world. The distinction between the two is only the unseen motivation.

In a pragmatic view, the two should be judged the same. The need was met. Are we then just quibbling about the details if we consider motivation? How about a third case?

A person gives aid to a needy person because they know that doing so they will make the needy person dependent on aid, and later can exploit this dependency. The need was met, but the motivation is vastly different.

The representation of absence can be quite important, especially in cases where something is defined by its absence, or defined by the absent motivation. Sometimes it's a necessary addendum, albeit secondary. After all, there's no point ordering coffee without cream if you don't even get the coffee at all, whether without cream or milk.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Rapture Redux

Some pithy thoughts about Harold Camping's predictions. Twitter didn't seem to be the right place for this.

1. Followers gave away their possessions leading up to the event. But why leave it until the last moment? If it's important to give away all you have, then do it anyway.

2. Judgment Day predictions come and go all the time. This is just another one.

3. Camping is probably a sincere and devout believer, even as much as he's wrong about this. Christians need to be gracious, even if our fellow believers piss us off or do some other stupid thing (e.g., odd peripheral doctrines, false claims of illness, and so on).

4. There was an interesting sense of expectancy because this had such a high profile. Such certainty is intimidating.

5. The whole thing has an escape clause of, "I was wrong, but the Bible is right!" It just saps credibility.

Last one (for now):

6. After the rapture, the earth was meant to be abandoned by God for judgment. What if that's true? What if the world as it is has been abandoned by God's direct intervention, but his command to love remains? The burden falls to us and us alone, and our punishment or reward is to live in the world of our own making.

I like the last one best.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Rapture

I know I'm giving it attention when I shouldn't.

I can't help it, though. It's silly. It's big. It's a target and I'm giving in to temptation.

See you all on the 22nd.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Warning! Speculation!

This is something of a woolly idea at the moment, a comparison of axiomatic foundations for revealed knowledge.

The easiest thing to criticise about a revealed religion is the foundation of revelation. All three religions of the book are open to this problem. The text is sacred because it is named as revealed. Revelation makes it authoritative. Readers who were not privy to the revelation must assent to the underlying workings which produced the text.

I speculate that there is a similar structure at work with physics texts. Readers who were not privy to the calculation need to assent to the underlying workings. The reader may never have worked through the various mathematical proofs of the theory, so is one step removed from the creation process.

But (ah hah!) the science is peer-reviewed! Unfortunately, so is canon. Lots of texts didn't make it into Christian canon, as reviewed by a learned body. In both cases, we trust the authoritative body (editorial boards, synods, etc.) which is comprised of people who are insiders to the privileged knowledge. Therefore, the implicit trust is in the reviewing body who approve the individual's text as authoritative. The primary trust is not in the mode of production of the knowledge, but in the mode of production of the review.

If someone outside that venerated group is unable to comprehend the production of the knowledge (has no mystical experience, cannot grasp calculus), they're left only with the choice to trust people who can comprehend it. We are alienated from the truth because there is a veil over its mode of production and must rely on testimony to overcome the alienation.

With such similarities in the production of authoritative texts, any comparison between the two can't be done in this arena. We're forced back into looking at reason and revelation as modes of production in themselves. It makes me wonder if, like natural theology or revealed theology, there is Reasoned Theology. If so, it sounds like the greatest excuse ever developed for lots of books on apologetics. And I can't stand apologetics.

Monday, 9 May 2011

The darndest things

I was going to start a new feature on this blog, called Pentecostals Say The Darndest Things. I even had a few lined up. Try this little gem.
Pente: I'm just thinking about the house with the deck and the pool that I'm going to have.
Me: How long's that going to take you to save up for it?
Pente: God's going to give it to me. He gives me the desires of my heart, and that's what my heart desires.

And it honestly sounds like a fun sport, but I think I'd be hopelessly blown out of the water by Fundies Say The Darndest Things. It's a mission for them, but it's just a hobby for me.

Nevertheless, I might drop one in from time to time, as the mood takes me.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Musing over the future

This morning's drive to work spawned an idea in my mind about the future of this blog. But like all good things, it will have to be synthesised repeatedly until it's properly Hegelian.

Watch this space.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Life After Easter

Today's episode of Things I Think About And Find Someone Else Writing About is all about
Life After Easter over at Jesus Radicals. Take this quote, for instance.

If Jesus came to Earth only to die for our sins and to be resurrected to conquer death, He never had to utter a single word; He never had to call a single disciple; He never had to perform a single miracle. None of the actions of His life had any impact on His death and resurrection. We cannot, as the unfortunate Apostles’ Creed, brush off the life of Christ by only remembering that “He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried” and so on. We must ask ourselves, and each other, what happened between the birth and the suffering? And what does that mean for us?

Herein lies my single great objection to the relentless, single-minded pursuit of "Souls! Souls! SOULS!" that permeates much of contemporary protestantism and is little more than a hyper-distillation of selected passages from Romans. It's a reminder that Jesus commanded his disciples to "make disciples" and not "mark notches." It's also a reminder that disciples are more than just people with a stamp in the divine passport. Disciples are required to obey their master, and he gave just one command; one simple, emancipatory, command.

Love one another.

The conversion to disciple does not entail endless and effortless drifting through a cloudy afterlife, but requires immediate and sustained action on the part of the new disciple. Life after Easter is work, to bring about the kingdom of God through mass obedience to the command to love, and all that this entails. Life after Easter is profoundly material.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Sucker Punch as Apocalyptic

I'm convinced that Sucker Punch (yes, the movie) can be read as apocalyptic. On the surface it's easy to see it as a video game, or source material for costuming, or as a trivial action-fest. But it has all the features of apocalyptic literature.

From memory, my preferred definition of apocalyptic is a text written to an oppressed people, from the point of view of a single mediator who collapses the dualism of space and/or time. The text is meant to be encouraging (inspiring?) for the oppressed people, telling them that ultimately they'll have victory.

And if you've seen Sucker Punch, this ought to pop out of the screen at you. The girls in the institution are oppressed by the orderlies (including the crucifixion of lobotomy), making them an ideal community as audience. The mediator is Baby Doll. She's the only one who sees both sides of the dualism (even the multiple layers of the heavenly aspect of the dualism). Through her the heavens are revealed, but they are only directly visible to her. All the action sequences that take the place of the dance scenes are those heavenly revelations. They feature dragons, beasts, fires, wars, earthquakes and other symbols common in apocalyptic literature. At the end of it all, there is a victory (no actual spoilers here), complete with an epilogue of encouragement and inspiration to the fellow characters, and to the cinema audience.

None of this makes the film any better or worse as a film, but it gives a new way of reading the film. Contrary to Christian apocalyptic, in which the "weapons" for Christians are acts of faithfulness and love, in Sucker Punch the weapons are entirely sexual. As Baby Doll dances, she immerses herself into the heavenly world of symbols, but is actually using sexual titillation to fight back against the men who oppress her, manipulating them. On the other side, also, the oppressors use sex as weapons, but sexual violence of forced prostitution. If anything, the message of the film is for the girls who are forced into sex slavery to use their sexuality against their oppressors in order to achieve freedom. Outside the film, this isn't the best way to overcome oppression, but it's within the frame of reference of the film itself.

So Sucker Punch is apocalyptic, quite overtly. I'd love to have the time to analyse it more thoroughly. The symbols of dragons, Nazi clockwork zombies, warrior robots and so on are interesting choices for the men in power (the mayor, the orderlies, the father, etc.). And so is the choice of the old man as angelic messenger who lays out the missions and dispenses wisdom. If you go to see it, watch it as apocalyptic.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Politics is about looking seriously at maps

Campbell Newman is quitting the Lord Mayoralship of Brisbane to run as a candidate for the Premiership of Queensland. Regardless of the ship he's spinning, I quite like the importance his spin doctors have placed on maps, and the pointing-at thereof.

LNP parliamentary leader Jeff Seeney (left) says he is keeping the seat warm for leader-in-waiting Campbell Newman (right).The ABC reports today about the move, along with a great picture of him and Jeff Seeney pointing at a map. It's very commanding, as though the leader is receiving advice from a trusted lieutenant. And yet, it's casual, over a coffee (branding included at no extra charge).






Julia Gillard meets with former prime minister Kevin Rudd in Brisbane today.
Pointing at maps is important. It shows strategy and team work all in the same image. After all, we need to remember how well it worked for Julia and Kevin.

I think the problem for Julia and Kevin is the lack of coffee cups. That glass of water just doesn't convey friendliness at all.




Today's lesson in politics is therefore: give a great impression about team work and leadership by getting together in public with a colleague and pointing at maps. Having coffee on the table, consumed or not, is better than water.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Faith, Kierkegaard and Underpants Gnomes

Faith is a problem. It's not rational. It can't be argued for in the same way that we might argue for a political position or a deal on a new car. Faith works under a different logic. Kierkegaard's famous book, Fear and Trembling, delves into this problem. So this is a little of Kierkegaard 101, I'm sure, but I'm going ahead with it anyway.

Kierkegaard introduced the concept of the leap of faith. For him, it wasn't the same concept that we tend to think of today; a leap off the edge of a cliff onto unseen but solid ground. A bit like this scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.



In fact, if you dig around YouTube you'll see more than a few uploads of this scene and plenty of those with some commentary about a leap of faith. This, however, isn't Kierkegaard's metaphor at all. He proposed the leap as being like the leap of a dancer. The dancer leaps high off the ground, up into the air, and then lands nimbly where they wanted to be all along. The idea is that a person wants to get from where they are, to where they want to be, but cannot see any direct way to get there. So they must leap into the heavens, so to speak, disconnecting from the ground of rationalism and into encounter with God through faith, only to land again precisely where they want to be. Kierkegaard insists that the mechanism of faith is a mystery, but that it's only possible through the individual taking the leap of faith away from rational planning and into the heavens. The form of faith, according to Kierkegaard, is to give up rationalism, leap into the divine, and then receive the thing believed for in the first place.

The Underpants Gnomes from South Park have the same logic. They want profit, and they start by collecting underpants (disconnect from rationalism). Not knowing how it will work, they industriously labour to collect underpants in the faith that it will bring profit.



One of the boys understands it, and is ridiculed by another. It's the same with Kierkegaard's exposition of faith. Some people understand it, and the rest ridiculed him. Nevertheless, the form of faith is the same for the dancer and for the Underpants Gnomes. Phase 1: Act. Phase 2: Mystery of faith. Phase 3: Blessing received.

Kierkegaard's point, therefore, is that the mystery of faith requires that the individual is grounded in the choice to leap, grounded in the act of faith itself. Faith can't be attained by arguing for it. Faith is its own ground. Unfortunately, this sounds as silly as the Underpants Gnomes. Faith demands that the individual leave behind everything, even the very ground on which they base their life, in order to encounter the divine and receive the blessing.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Mother Earth is a Dirty Bitch

From a recent talk recorded by the BdBC, in which he touched on the topic of the Japanese earthquake:
I think that, if anything, Japan demonstrates that, yes, we are killing Mother Earth but Mother earth is a dirty bitch who doesn't care about us. - Zizek
Sure, he's going for laughs but at the same time he isn't. All too often we anthropomorphise the world around us and assume that it has human qualities like intent. Mother Earth is just thermodynamics at work, and we only think of it as evil because it interferes with our own plans and intent. The ancient goddess Fortuna is the most successful attempt at anthropomorphising the forces beyond our control, because she was thought of as fickle and capricious. Today, we'd probably call her a sociopath or a psychopath. She does what she does, without regard for the ones affected, and for reasons inscrutable to us.

So yes, Mother Earth is a dirty bitch who doesn't care about us, whether we experience an earthquake or a refreshing cool breeze in Summer. "Mother Earth" is the contingency of thermodynamics personified by us. We need to stop looking for the "behind the scenes" of reality, because there's nothing there. All we have is the scene.

Monday, 21 March 2011

What makes a theologian

Roland Boer has posted in the last fortnight about the credentials of Scott Stephens*, the online editor of the ABC's Religion And Ethics portal, and a recent interviewer on ABC's Compass. Clearly, there's some bad blood between Roland and Scott, and I don't really want to get involved in what is probably best left between those two.

But it makes me ask myself the question, "What really makes a theologian?" I know I think of myself as an amateur theologian, so the question is quite personal to me.

In one sense, any words about God are theo-logy; and anyone who does this over a sustained period could be called a theologian. But this opens the gate for a lot of bad theology. Maybe we should require formal qualifications, but I'm sure any student of theology has encountered well-qualified theologians that we think are doing bad theology. Is bad theology a good enough reason to call it non-theology?

On the other hand, are there some unqualified people who actually do good theology? Probably. I'm sure there was a time before qualifications in which people did good theology, so there's no reason that it can't happen again.

Maybe the proof of the pudding is in the eating. In other words, as long as the theology is good I'm not fussed about the qualifications; with the strong qualifier that the process of attaining qualifications should be the right training for a person to produce good theology. It's a probability game: qualifications are more likely to result in good theology, but it's no guarantee either way.

So then we have to ask; what makes good theology?


* I should also confess that I know Scott and studied in his classes about eight years ago. I'd call him a friend that I've not seen for a number of years. I don't know Roland, but I usually enjoy reading his blog and have one or two snippets of his writing in my library.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Striving with no guarantee of success

Reading from Luke 13:19-29 today, I'm reminded that there is an obligation on Christians to make an effort to do the difficult thing: follow Jesus, with all the sacrifice and service that this entails. In the passage he insists that we strive.

‘Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, “Lord, open to us”, then in reply he will say to you, “I do not know where you come from.” Then you will begin to say, “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” But he will say, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!” There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.

It's not enough to sit back and enjoy the kingdom of God, as though "once saved always saved" were true. The kingdom demands a consistent and repeated effort of Christians.

And I don't see any indication of "success" at all. It's not even a matter of misunderstood success; we can't just say that we succeed by having a happy family rather than the false success of big house and a nice car. No, it looks as though it's the sincere intention of effort that is important in Jesus' message. Sincere intention of effort, and not just sincere intent; that's a necessary part of Christian being.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Gospel before Jesus

Reading Mark 8:27-38 today, and comparing it against the equivalent in Matthew and Luke, it struck me that only in Mark does Jesus mention the gospel message.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (35)

In Matthew and Luke, Jesus only talks about losing one's life for Jesus' sake. In some texts, it's only for the sake of the gospel and not for Jesus' sake.

What's Mark getting at? Or, what did Matthew and Luke miss? Can it be that even Jesus saw the gospel as more important than himself, not only in life - since this is the moment that he began to teach about his own death - but also in reputation? It's one thing to die a noble death that's remembered, and another to die an obscure death for the sake of something larger. I think we see in Mark that the gospel message must not be obscured by the person of Jesus. Given the other pointers in the text around v35, there's no way that we can say that Mark wants the gospel message ahead of Jesus. But suppose that's what Jesus wanted. Have we not given preference to Jesus the person over the gospel message each time we talk about a "personal relationship with Jesus" at the exclusion of our responsibilities for action?

It sits better with us to keep the two as inseparable - the man and the message. And that inseparability holds true for Christians - that we and the gospel message must be one and the same.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Are there Double Standards in the Intervention

I listened to a discussion about the Northern Territory Intervention this week and heard one of the speakers make this interesting claim. The incidents of alcohol abuse, drug abuse, sexual abuse and child abuse which formed the basis of the justification for the Intervention are also found throughout the remainder of the Australian population. We're left to infer that this renders the Intervention discriminatory, or that there should be an equivalent action taken in the rest of society.

This is going to make me sound heartless at first, but it needs to be said. I'd like to see some statistics about the incident rate across Australia, sorted by location rather than ethnic group, to help me understand this claim better. I don't doubt that the abuses are found everywhere (just look at any leaked video about a football team party, or trawl through the facebook status updates over the weekend) and across all segments of Australia. I would, however, like to know if it's uniformly distributed or whether we have problem areas; be they remote communities, suburban communities, or wherever.

Secondly, even if there is only a single case of abuse, surely some kind of intervention is required. We commonly think that the police should intervene and arrest the perpetrator. But how can we prevent things like this from happening in the first place? Or, what are the cultural and social conditions required to prevent abuse? And furthermore, should we apply those in the Northern Territory instead of the Intervention we now have?

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Ten theses about the church as a social ethic | Ekklesia

Ekklesia has an interesting summary of a book by Stanley Hauerwas. From their blog:

"Whether you find him inspiring or exasperating (and I sometimes find him both!), the work of US theologian Stanley Hauerwas provides a challenging alternative vision of church as subversive, exemplary community - rather than the cement or glue of society, as in the top-down Christendom model.

Most famously, he has declared: “The church does not have a social ethic; the church is a social ethic” - or not, I would add, looking at its actual performance in many instances.

Back in 1981, Hauerwas published Reforming Christian Social Ethics: Ten Theses. The appeal echoed Luther's famous 95 Theses, which disputed the ideology and practice of church in his era - though not sufficiently to stop his followers persecuting Anabaptists and sanctioning state churches, sadly. But then reformation is a continual (radical) process, not a one-off event."
Ten theses about the church as a social ethic | Ekklesia

The ten theses themselves give a decent framework for the church as a social entity, perhaps over-against any other social entity in history, including governments and corporations.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Alain de Botton on the nanny state

A recent topic of conversation on this blog has been the role of government in the affairs of private citizens. So when I stumbled onto this piece of Alain de Botton, I thought I should link to it - not because I agree with it, but because it adds grist to the mill.
"In this scheme, the state should harbour no aspirations to tinker with the inner well-being or outward manners of its members. The foibles of citizens should be placed beyond comment or criticism, for fear of turning government into that most reviled and unpalatable kind of authority in libertarian eyes - the nanny state.

Compare this with how religions handle things. Religions have always had much more directive ambitions, advancing far-reaching ideas about how members of a community should behave towards one another."
BBC News - A Point of View: In defence of the nanny state

Under his analysis, the modern (post-Mill) state perceives its own role to confine itself to defending rights in order to secure liberty for the citizenry, whereas religions are prescriptive in the minutiae of lives in order to create a specific kind of world. He claims that in doing this the state weakly misses an opportunity to effect a positive change in the world, but he doesn't go so far as to completely endorse a religious method of total control.

I think that all of this depends heavily on what the role of the state ought to be. For a libertarian, the role of the state should be as unobtrusive as possible, securing liberties through implied or actual violence (police, military, etc.). But is this really the best that we can do, to enforce the right not to be harassed while we pursue our own ambitions?

Monday, 31 January 2011

Invoking the Devil

This is almost a whinge. Almost.

Astute readers of this blog will have figured out that I have a kind of leftist leaning in politics. Simply, I think that if we form ourselves into towns, states and nations, then we have things in common like roads, parks and water. Things in common should be funded by shared money, and traditionally we've collected this money through the form of taxation. Sure, no one especially enjoys paying tax, but for me I think that it's fine as long as it's spent on things that benefit the community being taxed. If everything's going well, we ought to see the benefits in the lives of the most vulnerable in society: the sick, the lame, the orphan, the widow, and so on.

Often, when I write on political things, someone will suggest that my views were applied by Stalin or Mao, implying that views like mine will result in the deaths of millions under an oppressive regime.

Ouch.

I'm no Stalinist - that man presided over a horror, no question about it - but I'm not so sure that invoking Stalin is even a good argument, even an argument-by-similarity. If I look hard enough, I'm sure I'll even find that I have something in common with Jeff Buckley, but that's not enough to make me an avant-garde musician.

I suppose I could just deny that Stalin or Mao were ever "true socialists" or "true communists" and that (somehow) I know the One True Way which will lead us to a proper utopia. Maybe I should denounce them to themselves?

Perhaps I should find a capitalist devil to invoke. It's not hard to find them. Take Mobutu of Zaire. He was a staunch anti-communist and ruled over a land with astonishing mineral resources, and yet the population suffered under low living conditions. Is he representative of all capitalism? He was certainly similar enough to the American position for them to back him during his reign. Bush called him, "our most valued friend in Africa." This guy would make a great Capitalist Devil.

The hard thing to do in the face of diabolical invocations is to take them seriously without the baggage. In other words, to ask whether the policy can be turned into an evil. Can a pro-freemarket position about industrial relations lead to another Mobutu? Can a pro-regulation position about the finance industry create another Stalin? In most cases, the answer would be no, but it's worth a moment of self-reflection.

The other hard thing to do is to resist invoking the devil at all. One sin does not turn a person in to the lord of darkness, and it's absurd to even take a discussion in that direction. As easy as it is to bring Mobutu out to fight Stalin, it's little more than schoolyard name-calling.

So it's not quite a whinge. I just don't see the need to bring the devil to the debate.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Supply and Demand After Disaster

The economic model of supply and demand is often applied as justification for changes in price. In the years immediately prior to the 2010 financial crisis this was evident in the price of commodities like aluminium and copper as against the global stocks of those materials. It's no surprise to anyone that as the global stocks diminished, market prices rose.

After the floods in Queensland (and now Victoria) the prices of goods produced in destroyed agricultural areas has already begun to rise. Fruit and vegetables are being sold at higher prices, and I expect that if they're left to market forces they will remain high for about a year, or at least until the farms are rehabilitated and able to produce crops again. That was the experience of banana prices after a cyclone destroyed banana crops in north Queensland earlier in the decade.

Diabolically, we could apply this to other goods and services. Demand for food is the same and supply has dropped. Demand has climbed for other things like electricians, builders and housing. In a pure supply and demand economy, these service providers would be well within their rights to raise prices. Imagine for a moment that we apply the same increases in food to these services as well. Rent doubled or trebled? It sounds ludicrous, and yet the local papers are already reporting trades scams and exorbitant prices.

This is one risk of an unregulated freemarket economy. Our society needs strict economic regulation to take into account the additional demand from society: a demand for human dignity. This is an opportunity to look for cracks in the regulations, and to ensure that our society is built around the needs of the people rather than the exclusive needs of the economy.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Simultaneous πíστiς

With the first essay of The Faithfulness of Jesus Christ under my belt, I can start to bring the threads together in my mind. I think this passage covers the main thrust of the essay.
"Because the faithfulness of Christ implies that people can have faith in him and because an injunction to have faith in him assumes that he is faithful, both the faithfulness of Christ and faith in Christ are ideas that fit the context of each passage that uses πíστiς Xρiστoȗ. This is the primary cause for difficulty in making a strong case for one view against the other." - Debbie Hunn, Debating the Faithfulness of Jesus Christ in Twentieth-Century Scholarship, p30
This is an attractive notion, that πíστiς Xρiστoȗ somehow has a double meaning that was understood by the original readers, and which is lost in translation. It's not uncommon for this to occur in Biblical studies, and gives Biblical scholars plenty of years of work to unravel.

But I can't help feel that it's too conciliatory, that by trying to endorse both views it doesn't say anything at all. That feeling might just be an unrealistic desire for certainty on my part, because deep down I want the debate to definitively resolve the question. It's too early to make up my mind, though. At this stage, it's grist for the mill.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Influenced by Crossan

I've just finished listening to an interview with John Dominic Crossan and although I've not read much of his work, I've reached some similar conclusions. I imagine that I've probably been influenced by him indirectly through others. Maybe the most important commonality is the assertion that Jesus is the defining point of what it means to be Christian, and not the Bible. That's not an easy relationship to live with, but it does take into account the fallibility of human texts without losing the significance of Jesus as the revelation of God, and as teacher, as lord and so on. I might have to add one of his books to my reading list when I've finished the current exercise.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Pistis Christou

I've taken a break from reading ever since I trawled my way through The Monstrosity of Christ. Zizek and Milbank aren't authors to read quickly. Next on my list is this little gem: The Faith of Jesus Christ.

It's a collection of essays on the New Testament phrase pistis christou which is translated either as "faith in Christ" or "the faithfulness of Christ" or similar. As you can imagine, this has some nice theological consequences because the phrase is typically used in relation to salvation, as in "you are saved by faith in Christ" in contrast with "you are saved by the faithfulness of Christ."

I hope to be post a little about it as I go, with my own reflections about what the various authors have written.