03 May 2016

Impossible Stories

A review of Impossible Stories by Zoran Živković (PS Publishing, 389 pages, limited edition hardback, 2006)

The nice people at PS Publishing have collected five of Zoran Živković’s mosaic novels into a very attractive limited edition hardback. Many of the short stories of which the novels are composed first appeared in Interzone but it is good to have them gathered together in a more durable form.

So what is a mosaic novel? It is more than just a themed collection of short stories. To my mind, ‘story cycle’ would be a fairly accurate translation. The individual stories within a particular cycle may be very different but they share certain themes, motifs and possibly characters. And the final story in each cycle tends to be a recapitulation of those themes and motifs. Živković’s use of the term ‘mosaic’ is suggestive: each story is a complete entity in itself, but when the various stories in a cycle are fitted together they constitute a unity that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The first cycle in the collection is ‘Time Gifts’. In each story the devil offers someone a time-related gift. An astronomer facing possible execution is offered a vision of the future and with it the choice between posthumous fame and a long life of obscurity. A palaeolinguist facing retirement and obscurity is given the chance to visit the distant past as a disembodied spirit and hear for herself the languages about which she has speculated. A watchmaker is given the chance to change a tragic event in his past, thus creating a very different present. Finally, an artist in an asylum learns the stories of the other characters from the devil. But, as you might expect since the devil is the source of the gift, each gift hides a curse.

As the title suggests, ‘Impossible Encounters’ relates a series of meetings: a narrator recounts a post-death meeting, a young man meets his Doppelgänger on a mountain top, a science fiction writer meets a character from his latest novel, a businessman meets God on a train journey, a priest with a guilty conscience is absolved by the devil. Finally, the author meets a character from ‘Impossible Encounters’. Tying the stories together are the themes of death, loss and forgetfulness.

‘Seven Touches of Music’ explores the revelatory impact of music on the lives of seven characters: a teacher, a librarian, a widower, a spinster, a painter, a dying scientist (hints in the story imply that Živković had Einstein in mind) and a luthier’s apprentice. In each case, the central character has an unusual or extraordinary experience that is connected with music, and in each case the experience leaves them more isolated from their fellows than before. Perhaps because of my love of music, I found these stories particularly evocative.

‘The Library’, which won a 2003 World Fantasy Award, examines the nightmares that can be created by misplaced or excessive love of books. Perhaps the scariest one for writers is the story ‘Virtual Library’ in which an author discovers a website on which he can read all his future works. Živković has chosen to use the first person in all the stories in this cycle, which makes reading through them in succession a bit of challenge as you have to remind yourself that each ‘I’ is a different narrator.

Finally, ‘Steps Through the Mist’ presents five women of different ages each confronting in her own way the hand of Fate. However, you might only discover that all the stories are about women by reading the dustjacket, since the central three stories are written in the first person. Again Živković uses a variety of tools to tie the stories together into a satisfying whole, not least the mist of the title, which appears throughout in one guise or another.

Not content to see five of his mosaic novels merely juxtaposed in a single book, Živković has supplied an epilogue for the entire collection. ‘The Telephone’ draws together the central themes of each story cycle into a final autobiographical fantasy (or should that be fantastical autobiography?) in which a writer receives a phone call from the devil.

Živković’s characters are simply drawn, perhaps even bland, but nonetheless effective. Often they are unnamed. Most of the time they seem very ordinary but they do tend to be neurotic, even obsessive-compulsive. Likewise the settings of these stories are unembellished, almost generic, though almost invariably claustrophobic: dingy mid twentieth-century Eastern European cities (no, they are never identified as such, but that is what his urban descriptions evoke in my mind’s eye), small (often rather shabby) rooms, fog-bound hilltops. Even when he describes an abundance of light, it seems to be blinding, imprisoning.

I can’t say that Živković’s work makes for comfortable or enjoyable reading. It is too dark and claustrophobic to be either. But it is certainly one of the most compelling things I have read in a long time.

30 March 2016

Postmodernity and Univocity

A review of Postmodernity and Univocity: A Critical Account of Radical Orthodoxy and John Duns Scotus by Daniel P. Horan, OFM, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.

In recent years, John Duns Scotus has come under concerted attack from the Radical Orthodoxy school of theology. Until now, their treatment of the Subtle Doctor has met with surprisingly little resistance: those medievalists who know better have largely confined their critiques to specialist journals and have been ignored both by the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy and the wider theological world. However, in this little book the Franciscan Dan Horan offers a useful summary of both Radical Orthodoxy’s Scotus myth and the critiques of Scotus scholars in the hope of setting the record straight.

The structure is straightforward: In the first two chapters, Horan summarizes the charges laid against Scotus by Radical Orthodoxy, then outlines the influence of their account of Scotus on contemporary theology and beyond. Chapter 1, ‘Radical Orthodoxy’s Use of John Duns Scotus’, traces the development of the Scotus myth from John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock to Conor Cunningham, Graham Ward, and Gavin Hyman. Horan clearly shows how Radical Orthodoxy presents Scotus as the antithesis of Thomas Aquinas. Since their appropriation of Thomism is at the heart of their anti-secular project, we thus find Scotus being identified as the key figure in the emergence of modernity (John Milbank), the father of nihilism (Conor Cunningham), and even denounced as a heretic (Gavin Hyman). In chapter 2, Horan offers examples of the way in which Radical Orthodoxy’s Scotus story has been adopted by a wide range of contemporary theologians and philosophers, including Stanley Hauerwas, Charles Taylor, and Terry Eagleton.

The remaining chapters set out the case for the defence. Chapter 3 outlines the major critiques of Radical Orthodoxy’s understanding of Scotus’s theology. In summary, he argues that Milbank et al. have misunderstood Scotus’s doctrine of univocity. By treating what is essentially a semantic theory as a metaphysical one, they create the false impression that Scotus has reduced the difference between God and creatures to a merely quantitative one, thus fatally distorting Western theology and enabling the emergence of the concept of the secular. Furthermore, he points out that their entire narrative is dependent on a narrow range of secondary sources and shows little evidence of engagement with Scotus himself (beyond a few well-known texts available in translation in introductory readers). Horan concludes the case for the defence in chapter 4 by offering a corrective to Radical Orthodoxy’s reading of Scotus’s doctrine of univocity. Finally, in a brief conclusion, he suggests that far from being the root of all postmodern evil, Scotus may in fact offer contemporary theologians a constructive way forward in engaging with postmodern culture.

The book is not without its flaws. In particular, I found it rather repetitive. Strangely, he chooses to leave his explanation of univocity (and other crucial Scotist concepts) until after his substantive critique of Radical Orthodoxy’s view. As a result, he has to anticipate his explanation more than once while presenting his critique. The impression of repetitiveness is reinforced by his decision to structure his overview of Radical Orthodoxy via its key personalities rather than thematically. By contrast, his corrective explanation of Scotus felt rather compressed. It would also have been good for there to have been rather more in his conclusion about how Scotus might be used to develop an alternative to Radical Orthodoxy’s eccentric neo-Thomist agenda.

However, those are minor caveats. Horan has done the wider theological community an important service by making accessible the reservations of leading Scotus scholars and thus raising important questions about the foundations of Radical Orthodoxy. This book should be required reading for anyone seeking a critical understanding of Radical Orthodoxy.

21 January 2016

Idealist and Windows 10: A word of warning

Some time ago I upgraded to Windows 10 and was relieved to discover that Idealist (my ancient and much loved database system) appeared to work OK. I even blogged about it (here). Sadly my relief was premature. I have recently discovered a serious problem with the operation of Idealist.

One of the great things about Idealist is the ability to create new record and field types on the fly in existing databases. I last needed to do this while I was still running Windows 7 and the system worked OK then. The other day I wanted to add a new record type to a membership database that I maintain in Idealist. Unfortunately the commands to do this no longer work. I can define a new record type but I can’t populate it with existing fields or for that matter define new field types. Beyond the immediate inconvenience, this implies that I can now only create new databases that make use of existing record and field types.

As far as I can see, the only options are:

  • Revert to Windows 7. (But I’m past the 30-day limit on the Win 10 upgrade so this would require a factory reset of the laptop, which would involve wiping the drive and reinstalling everything.)
  • Bite the bullet and look seriously for a replacement for Idealist. (ConnectedText is my number one contender at the moment.)
  • A third possibility (for some folk) might be to keep a backup laptop with Windows 7 on it, use that to make field and record changes, then transfer the changes to the Windows 10 system.

Update (13 February 2016):

I’ve just had a brainwave. The record and field types in Idealist 3 are determined by a global definitions file (Idealist.def) in the Idealist program folder. It turns out that this is a plain text file, which can be opened in any text editor. Although I am no longer able to play with the record and field types using the commands available in Idealist itself, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why I can’t simply edit the def file directly to achieve the changes I want. In fact, this strikes me as potentially a quicker and more powerful way of making such changes than the rather old-fashioned dialogue boxes in Idealist. If I’m right, Idealist can continue to be my information manager of choice for the foreseeable future.

11 January 2016

Thought for the day: humility vs humiliation

Here’s a thought-provoking passage from something I’m editing at the moment:
we are humbled when we encounter some surprising aspect of raw reality, whereas we are humiliated when others intentionally diminish us. You could say that when we are humbled we have found our true place on the planet, whereas being humiliated puts in the place that someone else has in mind for us. It is one thing to be ‘down to earth’, another to be pushed to the bottom of the pile by those scrambling upwards. Humility is subtle and nuanced, because it is a real human virtue.
It comes from an article entitled ‘Discipleship and Christian Character’ by Stephen Cherry of King’s College, Cambridge and is due to appear in the May edition of the journal Theology. The entire article if well worth reading.

25 December 2015

Christmas greetings

Welcome, all Wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span.
Summer to winter, day in night,
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little One! Whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.

Joy and peace this Christmastide

29 November 2015

Traces of the Trinity

 A review of Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience. By Peter J. Leithart. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4412-2251-0. 177 pp. £10.99

I really enjoyed this slim volume from the pen of Peter Leithart. It is a really imaginative and thought-provoking piece of work, which stands loosely in the ancient vestigia trinitatis tradition. Like other works in this tradition, its basic premise is that God the Creator has left traces of his handiwork within creation and so it encourages us to look for traces of the artist in his work of art. However, there the similarity ends. Many exercises in seeking vestiges of God in creation are essentially exercises in natural theology: such vestiges are taken to be evidence for the existence of God. By contrast, Leithart is more interested in looking at the world with the eye of faith.

Specifically, Leithart latches on to perichoresis or coinherence – allegedly the most abstract concept of Trinitarian theology – and looks systematically for traces of such mutual indwelling in creation. The result is an extended meditation on the importance of relationality in the created order.

Beginning with our relationship with the things around us, he calls into question modernity’s emphasis on things at the expense of their interconnectedness, for example reminding us that a hammer is only a meaningless lump of metal and wood when abstracted from its appropriate environment in the hand of a craftsman. More generally, creatures only make sense when seen in their appropriate environments, in the network of relationships that gives them meaning.

In Chapter 2 he turns to interpersonal relationships, criticizing in passing the individualism that has been such a feature of Western society for the last couple of centuries. Perhaps he could have lingered slightly longer over friendships (e.g. C.S. Lewis’s remarks on the death of Charles Williams could have been expanded helpfully in this context), but it is a short book and so he moves quickly on in Chapter 3 to sexual relationships.

The next three chapters offer a change of direction, moving from the social world to the world of the intellect. First he explores our perception of temporality, which he presents as a mutual indwelling of past and future in the present. In Chapter 5, he turns his attention to the nature of language, emphasizing the interpenetration and interdependence of ideal and sensible. And Chapter 6 brings together time and human expression in an exploration of the perichoretic nature of music.

Having thus traced the outlines of a perichoretic ontology, Leithart asks in Chapter 7 how this way of looking at the world informs ethics. And he argues that such an ontology implies an ethics of loving openness to the other rather than a deontological or a situational ethics. Chapter 8 explores the practical implications for human and specifically Christian existence of suggesting that rationality itself perichoretic. This leads him to re-present several well-known binary oppositions, including liberal vs conservative and divine foreknowledge vs human freedom, in terms of mutual dependence. Given the brevity of the volume, he can do no more than hint at ways forward, but the material is certainly thought-provoking.

The final chapter, ‘I in Thee, Thou in Me’, is a discussion of perichoresis in light of John 17.

The whole might be seen as an exercise in relational Trinitarianism, which is sometimes misleadingly referred to as social Trinitarianism and dismissed as tritheistic. But Leithart is not about to take such misrepresentation lying down. A concluding appendix offers a brief defence of the kind of Trinitarianism promoted by the likes of Colin Gunton.

The book is easy to read and written in a popular style with a minimum of footnotes, but there is nothing simplistic about it. It amounts to a profound devotional exercise in learning to look at the world through a Trinitarian lens. As such it ought to be compulsory reading for undergraduate theologians about to embark on a study of the Trinity. Equally it could be mined by clergy and Christian educators seeking material to enable congregations to begin to grasp some of the implications of the doctrine of the Trinity.

30 October 2015

TSSF Principles, Day 30

The Three Notes
(30) The humility, love, and joy, which mark the lives of Tertiaries, are all God-given graces. They can never be obtained by human effort. They are gifts of the Holy Spirit. The purpose of Christ is to work miracles through people who are willing to be emptied of self and to surrender to him. We then become channels of grace through whom his mighty work is done.
The image of Tertiaries as channels of God’s grace is a reminder that it is God who must work through us. We don’t set out to change the world, or our local community, or even ourselves. Rather, we make ourselves available to God so that he might transform the world through us.

It has happened before. In about 1204 a troubled young man thought he heard God saying to him, ‘Rebuild my church for, as you can see, it is in ruins.’ He took it rather too literally and so he begged, borrowed, and even stole in order to restore the little church of San Damiano just outside the walls of Assisi. Gradually other troubled young men joined him and Francis found himself the reluctant leader of a dynamic new religious order that, during his lifetime, transformed the Church in Western Europe.