23 December 2006

Christmas greetings

He will come, he will come,
will come like crying in the night,

like blood, like breaking,

as the earth writhes to toss him free.

He will come like child.

Rowan Williams

The verse comes from Abp Rowan’s poem ‘Advent Calendar’ (The Poems of Rowan Williams, Oxford, Perpetua Press, 2002, p. 15). The nativity scene is a study for a stained-glass window by Edward Burne-Jones.

05 December 2006

Fly me to the Moon

Yesterday NASA officially unveiled its plans for returning to the Moon. They are aiming for a first test of the new lunar spaceship in 2009. The Orion crew exploration vehicle should be ready for testing in 2014 and the first flight to the Moon is scheduled for 2020. For the next four years there will regular lunar flights, allowing astronauts to spend a week at a time on the Moon’s surface. By 2024 they hope to have a permanent base on the Moon with astronauts doing six-month tours of duty.

The cost of the first flight is estimated to be in excess of $100 billion, with analysts throwing around figures of $500–800 billion for the cost of establishing a permanent base. And where will the money come from? NASA seems to think that it can come out of their existing budget, which probably means that their expenditure on doing real science will be decimated.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the press release sounds as if NASA has been taken over by management consultants, e.g. ‘This strategy will enable interested nations to leverage their capabilities and financial and technical contributions, making optimum use of globally available knowledge and resources to help energize a coordinated effort that will propel us into this new age of discovery and exploration.’

28 November 2006

In praise of reading aloud

Recently, I found myself thinking about my tendency to read aloud. When the opportunity arises, I read aloud for enjoyment. But I also read aloud while reading the Bible, praying with a prayer book or working on my novel. Increasingly, I even find myself reading aloud when editing or proofreading.

This flies in the face of years of conditioning to believe in the superiority of silent reading. The moral superiority of silent reading is drummed into us from our schooldays onwards – the silent pupil is the good pupil, the silent reader is the good library user. Its intellectual superiority is reinforced by all those jokes about people’s lips moving. And its practical superiority is extolled by any number of books on effective studying, which equate efficient reading with fast reading and fast reading with silent reading.

Reading aloud is, of course, a slower way of reading. And, for me, that is its chief virtue. It creates a reading experience that is quite different from fast reading. It forces me to slow down sufficiently to give every bit of the text the attention it deserves. By helping me resist the temptation to skim over the text – a temptation created by too many years in academia – slow reading helps me to get more out of the text.

I find myself with a strange ally in defence of slow reading. According to Friedrich Nietzsche:
let us say it slowly . . . we are friends of the lento, I and my book. I have not been a philologist in vain – perhaps I am one yet: a teacher of slow reading. . . . Philology itself, perhaps, will not ‘get things done’ so hurriedly: it teaches how to read well: i.e. slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with the mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eyes (from the preface to Daybreak)

27 November 2006

Creation Set Free

Another book review for ESSSAT News:

Sigurd Bergmann, Creation Set Free: The Spirit as Liberator of Nature, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans (2005) xvii + 388 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8028-2224-6 (pbk)

In this volume Sigurd Bergmann offers a very demanding re-exploration of theology in light of the environmental crisis. The title suggests that the book is about the role of the Holy Spirit in setting creation free; and a glance at its contents might lead to the gloss – free to participate in the life of the triune God. But such a summary would be entirely inadequate to convey the sheer scope and complexity of what Bergmann has packed into fewer than 400 pages. His own summary of the book runs to 7 pages and no fewer than 28 theses!

Since this is a contextual theology of the environment, Bergmann begins with the context, namely, the altered understanding of nature in modernity and the ecological challenge that is presented to theology. Environmental scientists (and many others) will be surprised to discover that the problem areas he focuses on are not such things as pollution and climate change. Instead he chooses to concentrate on the problematics of ecological discourse. The challenge to theology appears to be how can we speak adequately about the natural world. He notes that, to date, theologians have responded to the challenge in one of three ways: conjunction (a flat refusal to integrate theological and ecological discourse), syncretism or critical integration.

Having outlined the context of his study, Bergmann moves on in Part Two of the book to his main dialogue partner, the church father Gregory of Nazianzus. This part consists of two chapters: ‘The Context of Cappadocian Theology’ and ‘Gregory’s Theological Interpretation of Creation Set Free’. In the first of these, Gregory is shown to have been himself a contextual theologian who struggled to formulate a theological response to problems that have parallels with the present day. In the second, Bergmann expounds Gregory’s theology under four headings: sociality, movement, suffering and spirit. This chapter is unquestionably the centrepiece of the book, making up as it does nearly a third of the text, in which Bergmann offers a painstakingly detailed survey of Gregory’s understanding of creation as set free by the triune God. It makes for a fascinating introduction to one of the most important theologians of the early church. However, one does wonder how Bergmann arrived at the schema into which he fits Gregory’s theology. It is not clear that the schema comes from Gregory himself and the neatness with which it fits into Bergmann’s larger project suggests that this reading of Gregory owes a great deal to the questions Bergmann brings with him from his survey of the ecological challenge. To be fair to Bergmann, this is no mere postmodern ransacking of a texts in order to create a theological bricolage in response to a modern problem. On the contrary, Bergmann approaches Gregory’s texts respectfully with his questions.

Part III is entitled ‘Cosmology as Soteriology—a Constructive Correlation’ and consists of three chapters. Chapter 4, ‘Correlating the Interpretations of Late Antiquity and Late Modernity’ uses the schema developed in Chapter 3 to explore how modern theologians have addressed the challenges of ecology and compares their responses to those of Gregory. I felt that this chapter tried to do too much. Specifically, Bergmann seems to be working with too many modern dialogue partners (I noted at least a dozen in a 70-page chapter). The result is that he is forced to write in a condensed, even cryptic manner heavily laden with unexplained technical terminology. If Chapter 3 was the centrepiece of the book, Chapter 5 is Bergmann’s constructive proposal. Entitled ‘Considerations from the Perspective of Liberation Theology’, it proposes an ecological expansion of liberation theology. The main text of the book finishes in a strangely anticlimactic fashion with a chapter on ‘Methodological Considerations’ in which Bergmann considers criticisms of various theological approaches to correlation and justifies the method he has adopted in the book.

I began the book with high hopes that here at last was a serious theological response to the environmental crisis. By the time I reached the end those hopes had transmuted into a strange ambivalence. On the one hand, I think this is an important study. It is stimulating and suggestive because full of valuable insights and perhaps even more so because it raises more questions than it answers and points intriguingly at lines of enquiry that one might pursue further. But on the other hand, it is a very frustrating book. This is largely to do with the impenetrability of the English translation. Contrary to what is suggested on the back cover, this is not a book that ‘will appeal to thoughtful pastors’ or ‘educated laypeople’ for the simple reason that they won’t understand half of it. Indeed, I suspect the text will try the patience even of theologians who are familiar with the subject. The environmental challenge is an urgent practical, ethical challenge – perhaps the most urgent challenge the human race has faced to date – but this treatment feels too cozy, too academic, perhaps even too complacent. Ironically for what aspires to be a liberation theology, I can’t help feeling that the entire tenor of the book privileges theoria over praxis. On the basis of what I have read here, I shall certainly be looking out for more from Bergmann – hopefully he can be persuaded to follow this work up with a practical liberation spirituality of the environment.

20 November 2006

The oratorio with everything

OK, not quite everything: Mendelssohn’s Elijah doesn’t have exploding airships, but it comes close, with fiery chariots ascending into heaven. And it also has animal sacrifice, mass execution, earthquake, wind, fire and a raising from the dead!

The RSNO’s 2006–7 season is now in full swing and last weekend we performed Elijah in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Mind you, the concert had more than the usual amount of drama: Walter Weller, who was supposed to conduct, had to pull out a couple of weeks ago after an operation and the principal soloist, Matthew Best, was replaced by Peter Sidhom with just hours to go before the first performance.

In spite of the difficulties, the performances went really well. Both The Scotsman and The Herald have good reviews. I think the replacement conductor, Andreas Spering, had a lot to do with the success: he brought a Handelian lightness to a piece that sometimes can seem too heavily romantic.

11 November 2006

Writing – not a spare-time activity

Scot McKnight has some wise words on writing here. In brief, his blog entry explains why it is impossible to treat writing as something that can be done ‘on the side’. He is writing as an academic theologian for other theologians and academics, but his comments hold true for other kinds of writing. As he says,
writing is a lifestyle, a way of life, a way of being, a modus operandi, a way of breathing and eating and drinking. Better yet, writing is a way of learning, a way of coming to know what someone wants to know, a way of discovering.

Writing is not something to do when everything else is cleared off the desk; no, it is something that makes order of the desk. I don’t get up wondering what I will write about, but I write about what I’m wondering.

What he has to say reminds me strongly of one of my favourite books on the craft of writing, Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer. Unlike most books on the subject, it does not have much to say about plot, characterization, dialogue or description. Nor does it say much about grammar or good English. Instead, Brande focuses on the secret of just getting words onto paper. The book should be compulsory reading for anyone who has ever felt intimidated by a blank sheet of paper or computer screen.

10 November 2006

Prayer wheels go digital

I chanced upon a scary piece of software while doing a Google search this morning. Simply type in your prayer and the program will repeat it for you a pre-set number of times. So you can get on with your life while your computer ‘prays’ on your behalf! This is scary because although the website claims to be Christian (indeed, the statement of faith on the site seems to identify it as conservative evangelical) it is promoting a profoundly un-Christian view of prayer.

Whatever else it is, Christian prayer in all its manifestations is first and foremost an expression of the loving personal relationship between the believer and God. I fail to see how a computer repeating a set of words time after time in an empty room is expressive of anything personal. Imagine how you would feel if, rather than spending time with you, your significant other programmed their computer to email a message to you repeatedly.

Granted the website in question warns that the program is not ‘a substitute for your personal rapport with God. But rather, it is to be used as an additional mode of reinforcement for your Prayers, thanksgiving and dialogue with God.’ But, in what sense is a computer that repeats a prayer for you reinforcing your prayers? As far as I can see, this only makes sense if it is the prayer itself that is important rather than the relationship. It seems to reduce the prayer to a magical formula: repeat this so many times and you will manipulate God into giving you what you want.

06 November 2006

Denying and Disclosing God

Another book review, this time for Science and Christian Belief:

Michael J. Buckley SJ
Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004

This book (an expanded version of the author’s D’Arcy lectures given in Oxford in 2000) is an exploration of the internal contradictions of theism as it has developed in the modern era. Its starting point is the conclusion of his earlier work, At the Origin of Modern Atheism, that atheism was generated dialectically from contradictions in theism.

The first chapter of the book, ‘The New Science and the Ancient Faith’, is perhaps the most directly relevant to the interests of this journal. Here Buckley sets out to demolish the popular conviction that atheism arose out of the antagonism of the new sciences to religion. He does so by examining three ways in which the new sciences embraced religion. The way of Galileo was to see them as separate enterprises. Kepler, by contrast, reduces them to a single Neoplatonic enterprise: ‘a deduction of what is likely and appropriate within the universe from the triune nature of God and the suggestion or the confirmation of that deduction from observation and mathematics’ (23). Finally Newton’s universal mechanics offers an inferential base for religion.

But if early modern science embraced religion so enthusiastically, what led to the emergence of atheism in modernity and the apparent hostility between science and religion? Chapter 2 explores aspects of this question by examining ‘A Dialectical Pattern in the Emergence of Atheism’ with particular reference to three early modern theological experiments – Lessius’s 1613 apologetic against atheism (then understood as the opinions of certain ancient philosophers); Cotton Mather’s use of science in religious apologetics; and the internal philosophical wrangling of seventeenth-century French Catholicism. What these various experiments have in common is an unacknowledged denial that interpersonal religious experience has any cognitive cogency. The subjective dimension of religion is effectively bracketed out in favour of a range of inferential approaches.

In an important essay published in 1946 Paul Tillich traced this turning away from experience towards inference back to the work of Thomas Aquinas. Buckley’s third chapter takes the form of a close reading of specific passages of the Summa, from which he concludes that ‘For Aquinas, God is given initially or primordially in his effects, rather than simply inferred from his effects. God is a presence, not simply a conclusion’ (68). Thus the Summa pointed in a radically different direction from that taken by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century rationalism.

Chapter 4 explores the radical shift in the evidential basis for theism that occurred in the nineteenth century. The secular autonomy of the sciences, Kantian epistemology and the rise of evolutionary explanations of design in nature conspired to force the apologists of theism to look increasingly to human nature. The human being became the implicit absolute and God was reduced first to a function in modern philosophy and then to a mere projection.

But, for Buckley, this is by no means the end of the story. The dialectical process may not be arrested at this point. Rather, the initial negation must be allowed to generate its own further negation. So, in the fifth chapter, he explores two different paths taken by the negation of religious experience: atheism and negative theology. Both accept the liability of religious discourse to projection. But while Freud and Feuerbach stop here and call for the disclosure of the authentically human through the deconstruction of the divine, St John of the Cross goes beyond to the negation of these projections in the classical night of the soul.

Finally, the author proposes one way of passing over the atheistic negation of a theism in which primacy has been given to inference and ‘scientific evidence’. He calls for religious experience to be restored to its proper place; ‘not a flight into the irrational or the enthusiastic, but the retrieval of a specifically religious intellectuality’ (xv). His concluding paragraph is worth quoting in full:

[T]his book argues that inference simply cannot substitute for experience. One will not long believe in a personal God with whom there is no personal communication, and the most compelling evidence of a personal God must itself be personal. To attempt something else as foundation or as substitute, as has been done so often in an attempt to shore up the assertion of God, is to move into a process of internal contradictions of which the ultimate resolution must be atheism. (138)

While *Denying and Disclosing God* is a valuable supplement to Buckley’s important earlier work, to see it only in those terms would be to undervalue it. This closely argued and elegantly written set of lectures will be immensely helpful to anyone who wishes to enter into a serious dialogue with modern atheism.


In the middle of last week I logged onto my blog intending to delete some comments I had made which on reflection were better not made. I deleted the offending entry and tweaked some of the settings. Not long afterwards (the next time I tried to access it, in fact), I found that my blog seemed to have disappeared in its entirety! Twenty-four hours later most of it was back. However, the most recent entries (in particular, the one I had originally intended to delete) and all the comments that folk have added to my blog in the past year seem to have permanently disappeared.

So my apologies to all whose words of wisdom have gone AWOL. In future, I shall keep an offline archive of my blog entries and comments (or, at least, the interesting ones) so that if this should happen again I am able to reconstruct the blog.

19 October 2006

Another bit of Star Trek comes true

The New Scientist is reporting (here) that some clever person in the States has just developed a working cloaking device. Admittedly it only works in the microwave part of the spectrum, and only at one specific frequency, and only in two dimensions (so you would still ‘see’ a distorted shadow of the object), but it’s a start. Doubtless the US military will now be watching the research with great interest.

12 October 2006

The limits of government

Yesterday on Radio 4’s PM programme, Phil Woolas (Minister of State for Community Cohesion) made the following statement: ‘Some faith-based organizations argue that religious law should take precedence over democratically elected law . . . That’s not something a democratic country, here or anywhere else in the world, can tolerate.’

The context of the interview was the British Government’s take on Islam, so I suppose he might have meant it simply as a veiled attack on Islam. However, if it genuinely represents the direction in which our political leaders are leaning, it has serious implications not merely for Islam but for people of all religious faiths.

Speaking as a Christian, I cannot accept this statement as it stands. The fact that our law makers are democratically elected does not give the laws they make the absolute status implied here. At best, members of Parliament are only human; they can be honestly mistaken, or they can be corrupt, prejudiced or even evil.

In direct contradiction of Phil Woolas, I would argue that for Christians God’s law must always take precedence over manmade laws. Granted part of God’s law is a proper respect for and obedience to lawful human authority, but that can only ever be a relative obedience.

If a democratically elected Parliament passes laws that are unjust by Christian standards or compromise the life of the Church in some way, those laws can have no authority over us. This is so because ultimately the authority of Parliament is lent to it by God and is conditional on its acting justly. Unjust laws can have no authority, because in legislating for injustice Parliament would have gone beyond its God-given bounds.

Faced with unjust or anti-Christian legislation, Christians have a duty not only to speak out in protest but to act against that legislation in any ways that are compatible with being a Christian.

11 October 2006

The real price of Iraqi ‘freedom’

The New Scientist has reported the results of the largest study so far conducted into death rates in Iraq (here). Here is a summary of their findings:
Around 655,000 people have died in Iraq as a result of the US-led coalition invasion, according to the largest scientific analysis yet. That is 2.5% of the country's entire population. . . .
The death rate before the invasion was a fairly normal 5.5% of people per year. Since March 2003, it has averaged 13.2%, the researchers found. More worrying, the death rate has risen every year since the invasion: this year reaching 19.8%, a near-fourfold increase over pre-invasion levels.

09 October 2006

Whatever is true . . .

‘Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’ (Phil. 4.8)
I have just removed a number of Anglican blogs (both liberal and conservative) from my Bloglines feeds. Over the past few months comments on these blogs have gone from being bad tempered, to vicious to downright venomous. Today one American liberal blog finally went over the top and published an image of a group of bishops with monkey heads superimposed upon them. Given that the blog in question has been very critical of a number of conservative African bishops, the image can only be interpreted as racist. Even without the racist overtones, it is gratuitously offensive. So in the spirit of the above quotation from St Paul I have decided not to waste any more time on any blog that has tolerated intemperate remarks about the current tensions within Anglicanism.

What do they think they’re doing?

I’m still thinking about that peculiar morning service in Oxford. One of the oddities of this church is that, in spite of being an Anglican parish church, it has its own baptistery (or, as the curate referred to it, ‘jacuzzi’). Even stranger was what they did with the baptistery the morning I was there. Several adults reaffirmed their baptismal vows and were immersed in the baptistery. The only thing that stopped this being believers’ baptism by total immersion was the omission of the trinitarian baptismal formula. Instead the person doing the dunking used a form of words that declared it to be no more than a reaffirmation of baptismal vows. But, if so, why all the symbolism of baptism? If these people simply wanted to reaffirm their baptismal vows, Anglicanism already has a perfectly good way of doing so – it’s called confirmation. As it is, these people have been given a dunking to no purpose. Without the baptismal formula, no Baptist church worthy of the name would recognize it as baptism. And without episcopal confirmation, the candidates have not in fact become members of the Church of England. It seems an entirely pointless exercise.

God is no one’s mate!

A week ago I was in Oxford and I made the mistake of going to the morning service at one of the city-centre churches. I suspected the moment I saw the rock band and the TV monitors sprouting from every pillar in the place that this was not my sort of church. However I am prepared to tolerate such things on occasion in order to get a better picture of the diversity of the Church. What I couldn’t tolerate that morning was the chorus in which we were invited to affirm of God that ‘He’s my mate.’

I’m sorry, but it simply is not so. God is the mystery of the world. He is the emperor of emperors before whom all created principalities and powers must ultimately bend the knee. He is my truest lover, who knows me more intimately than any human lover could, who knows me more fully than I know myself. To refer to him as my ‘mate’ is to trivialize that relationship and is, to my mind, a mark of the most appalling disrespect.

03 October 2006

A prayer for the Amish

Internetmonk has published the following prayer in light of yesterday’s horrific events:
Father, the brokenness of the world has intruded into one of the places where we like to pretend it would never go … the Amish community. Your people there are devastated with the losses and the wounding of their children. Comfort them. Give to them the quiet dignity of hopeful people, even in the face of great suffering. Comfort the Roberts family, whose grief and sorrow are of a different kind, but are no less painful. May parents whose grief will know no bottom rest in you. May traumatized children and teachers find peace beyond these awful events. Help us, O Lord, to contemplate what we are capable of in our isolation, loneliness, brokenness and emptiness. Surely, O Lord, that we are capable of such evil is a measurement of who we are, and what we have become. May the Love of Christ, that endured the cross and lived again on Easter, surround your hurting, fearful, grieving children. In Jesus Name. Amen.

21 September 2006

A call to an ancient evangelical future

I have just come across the following item on the Christianity Today website. Setting aside the ridiculous title and the fact that it is addressed to American ‘evangelicalism’, it struck me as a fairly good summary of the kind of radical orthodoxy that is needed in the Church today.


In every age the Holy Spirit calls the church to examine its faithfulness to God's revelation in Jesus Christ, authoritatively recorded in Scripture and handed down through the church. Thus, while we affirm the global strength and vitality of worldwide evangelicalism in our day, we believe the North American expression of evangelicalism needs to be especially sensitive to the new external and internal challenges facing God's people.

These external challenges include the current cultural milieu and the resurgence of religious and political ideologies. The internal challenges include evangelical accommodation to civil religion, rationalism, privatism, and pragmatism. In light of these challenges, we call evangelicals to strengthen their witness through a recovery of the faith articulated by the consensus of the ancient church and its guardians in the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, the Protestant Reformation, and the evangelical awakenings. Ancient Christians faced a world of paganism, Gnosticism, and political domination. In the face of heresy and persecution, they understood history through Israel's story, culminating in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the coming of God's kingdom.

Today, as in the ancient era, the church is confronted by a host of master narratives that contradict and compete with the gospel. The pressing question is: Who gets to narrate the world? "The Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future" challenges evangelical Christians to restore the priority of the divinely inspired biblical story of God's acts in history. The narrative of God's kingdom holds eternal implications for the mission of the church, its theological reflection, its public ministries of worship and spirituality, and its life in the world. By engaging these themes, we believe the church will be strengthened to address the issues of our day.

1. On the Primacy of the Biblical Narrative

We call for a return to the priority of the divinely authorized canonical story of the triune God. This story—Creation, Incarnation, and re-creation—was effected by Christ's recapitulation of human history and summarized by the early church in its rules of faith. The gospel-formed content of these rules served as the key to the interpretation of Scripture and its critique of contemporary culture, and thus shaped the church's pastoral ministry. Today, we call evangelicals to turn away from modern theological methods that reduce the gospel to mere propositions, and from contemporary pastoral ministries so compatible with culture that they camouflage God's story or empty it of its cosmic and redemptive meaning. In a world of competing stories, we call evangelicals to recover the truth of God's Word as the story of the world, and to make it the centerpiece of evangelical life.

2. On the Church, the Continuation of God's Narrative

We call evangelicals to take seriously the visible character of the church. We call for a commitment to its mission in the world in fidelity to God's mission (
Missio Dei), and for an exploration of the ecumenical implications this has for the unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the church. Thus, we call evangelicals to turn away from an individualism that makes the church a mere addendum to God's redemptive plan.

Individualistic evangelicalism has contributed to the current problems of churchless Christianity, redefinitions of the church according to business models, separatist ecclesiologies, and judgmental attitudes toward the church. Therefore, we call evangelicals to recover their place in the community of the Church catholic.

3. On the Church's Theological Reflection on God's Narrative

We call for the church's reflection to remain anchored in the Scriptures in continuity with the theological interpretation learned from the early fathers. Thus, we call evangelicals to turn away from methods that separate theological reflection from the common traditions of the church. These modern methods compartmentalize God's story by analyzing its separate parts, while ignoring God's entire redemptive work as recapitulated in Christ. Anti-historical attitudes also disregard the common biblical and theological legacy of the ancient church.

Such disregard ignores the hermeneutical value of the church's ecumenical creeds. This reduces God's story of the world to one of many competing theologies and impairs the unified witness of the church to God's plan for the history of the world. Therefore, we call evangelicals to unity in "the tradition that has been believed everywhere, always, and by all," as well as to humility and charity in their various Protestant traditions.

4. On the Church's Worship as Telling and Enacting God's Narrative

We call for public worship that sings, preaches, and enacts God's story. We call for a renewed consideration of how God ministers to us in baptism, Eucharist, confession, the laying on of hands, marriage, healing, and through the charisms of the Spirit, for these actions shape our lives and signify the meaning of the world. Thus, we call evangelicals to turn away from forms of worship that focus on God as a mere object of the intellect or that assert the self as the source of worship. Such worship has resulted in lecture-oriented, music-driven, performance-centered, and program-controlled models that do not adequately proclaim God's cosmic redemption. Therefore, we call evangelicals to recover the historic substance of worship of Word and table and to attend to the Christian year, which marks time according to God's saving acts.

5. On Spiritual Formation in the Church as Embodiment of God's Narrative

We call for a catechetical spiritual formation of the people of God that is based firmly on a Trinitarian biblical narrative. We are concerned when spirituality is separated from the story of God and baptism into the life of Christ and his body. Spirituality, made independent from God's story, is often characterized by legalism, mere intellectual knowledge, an overly therapeutic culture, New Age Gnosticism, a dualistic rejection of this world, and a narcissistic preoccupation with one's own experience. These false spiritualities are inadequate for the challenges we face in today's world. Therefore, we call evangelicals to return to a historic spirituality like that taught and practiced in the ancient catechumenate.

6. On the Church's Embodied Life in the World

We call for a cruciform holiness and commitment to God's mission in the world. This embodied holiness affirms life, biblical morality, and appropriate self-denial. It calls us to be faithful stewards of the created order and bold prophets to our contemporary culture. Thus, we call evangelicals to intensify their prophetic voice against forms of indifference to God's gift of life, economic and political injustice, ecological insensitivity, and the failure to champion the poor and marginalized. Too often we have failed to stand prophetically against the culture's captivity to racism, consumerism, political correctness, civil religion, sexism, ethical relativism, violence, and the culture of death. These failures have muted the voice of Christ to the world through his church and detract from God's story of the world, which the church is collectively to embody. Therefore, we call the church to recover its counter-cultural mission to the world.


In sum, we call evangelicals to recover the conviction that God's story shapes the mission of the church to bear witness to God's kingdom and to inform the spiritual foundations of civilization. We set forth this call as an ongoing, open-ended conversation. We are aware that we have our blind spots and weaknesses. Therefore, we encourage evangelicals to engage this call within educational centers, denominations, and local churches through publications and conferences.

We pray that we can move with intention to proclaim a loving, transcendent, triune God who has become involved in our history. In line with Scripture, creed, and tradition, it is our deepest desire to embody God's purposes in the mission of the church through our theological reflection, our worship, our spirituality, and our life in the world, all the while proclaiming that Jesus is Lord over all creation.

This call is issued in the spirit of
sic et non; therefore, those who affix their names to this call need not agree with all its content [Anyone who does want to sign up to the call may do so here]. Rather, its consensus is that these are issues to be discussed in the tradition of semper reformanda as the church faces the new challenges of our time. Over a period of seven months, more than 300 persons have participated via e-mail to write the call. These men and women represent a broad diversity of ethnicity and denominational affiliation. The four theologians who most consistently interacted with the development of the call have been named as theological editors. The board of reference was given the special assignment of overall approval.

15 September 2006

Creation and Double Chaos

This is a book review I have recently written for ESSSAT News:

Sjoerd L. Bonting, Creation and Double Chaos: Science and Theology in Discussion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005. x + 275 pp. pb. $22.00. ISBN 0-8006-3759-3)

At first glance, this is yet another general dialogue between Christian theology and the natural sciences. What sets it apart is the author’s take on theology, arising from his rejection of a central feature of the Christian doctrine of creation, namely, creation from nothing. Instead, he opts for creation from primordial chaos, of which more later.

In his introductory chapter, Bonting sets out his methodology for bringing science and theology into dialogue. He sees both as ‘God-given worldviews of a single reality’(16), so that in principle there should be no conflict between them. Dialogue is possible because both disciplines seek a rational explanation of basic data: natural phenomena in the case of science and biblical data in the case of theology. Further, such dialogue can be direct without any mediating role for metaphysics, which he regards as essentially non-theistic and therefore unsuited for such a role. Interestingly, the role of religious experience is quietly marginalized to such an extent that the famous Lambeth Quadrilateral is reduced to a tripos (106) of Bible, tradition and reason (in that order).

After his methodological introduction, he moves on to give a brief overview of cosmic and biological evolution (the two aspects of the scientific world-view which he thinks most pertinent to the dialogue between science and theology). Inevitably, specialists in the various disciplines invoked in the course of this chapter will quibble with details but setting that aside Bonting has achieved a remarkably lucid non-specialist introduction.

He then turns his attention to the doctrine of the creation. Chapter 3 surveys a variety of creation stories from around the world (rather oddly, in light of his earlier insistence that the ‘data for the dialogue with science must be the canonical texts delivered to us’ (6)), before outlining what the Bible has to say about creation. He sees no evidence for arguing that the Bible offers any support for a doctrine of creation out of nothing. In chapter 4 he explores the origins of creation from nothing and concludes that the doctrine emerged from the Church’s conflict with Platonism and Gnosticism. While it may have had a certain apologetic value for the early Church, in Bonting’s view its introduction presented Christian theology with a number of serious problems, not least the problem of evil. He concludes his examination of the doctrine of creation from nothing with a brief survey of contemporary approaches. However, this is far too brief (13 theologians in fewer than 20 pages) to be helpful to the reader or fair to the theologians surveyed.

Over against the doctrine of creation from nothing, Bonting asserts in chapter 6 that God created from primordial chaos. God’s continuing action in the universe may, therefore, be seen as a matter of overcoming the remaining vestiges of chaos until complete order is achieved in the eschaton. While he denies that chaos as he envisages it bears any relation to gnostic evil matter, he suggests that evil may be seen as arising from the elements of chaos still present in the universe. In chapter 7, he explores how God acts in such a universe, concluding that he does so by influencing chaotic events in an undetectable manner.

The remaining seven chapters are devoted to various applications of Bonting’s chaos theology. He begins by addressing the problem of evil, which he has effectively dissolved by denying that God created the chaos from which evil arises and asserting that he is acting against evil continuously by reducing remaining chaos to order. Chapter 9 goes into greater detail concerning God’s action in the world, while chapter 10 focuses specifically on the cosmic Christ. He is critical of traditional doctrines of reconciliation, accusing them of portraying God as entrapped in divine justice when they assert that God cannot act in a manner contrary to God’s own nature. Apparently chaos theology offers an alternative, but he fails to explain how crucifixion and resurrection play a decisive role in overcoming residual chaos. Chapter 11, on genetic modification and cloning, really adds nothing to either his dialogue between science and chaos theology or current debates on biotechnology. Likewise chapters 12 (on disease) and 13 (on extra-terrestrial life) seem to add little to the dialogue.

Finally he turns to the future, contrasting the pessimism of scientific forecasts with the glorious promise of the Bible. Judgement there will be, but he re-presents this as self-judgement. Having said that, his doctrine of the last things seems to be more informed by the biblical vision than by his own chaos theology. Little is said about the implications of the final state being one of complete order and zero chaos.

Creation and Double Chaos
is well written and offers a refreshingly unconventional perspective on the doctrine of creation and the dialogue between science and theology. I must confess, however, that I remain unconvinced by his approach. In particular, I think the lack of serious engagement with contemporary creation theologies needs to be addressed if his thesis is to be taken seriously on the theology side of the dialogue.

14 September 2006

Novel? . . . Oh, that novel!

As you may have gathered from my stony silence on the subject, my novel has been stalled for some months. I passed the 100,000 word mark in January but since then have done so little with it that I have only just reached 105,000 words. This is not due to anything serious like writer’s block, but simply because of the unusually heavy demand for my editorial services recently. My workload now seems to be easing off for the first time in several months, and I am looking forward to getting back to the writing.

As an added incentive, I have decided to combine the final push to the end of the novel with a trial of yWriter, a piece of software designed to assist in the novel-writing process. I was reminded of its existence when Gary made a passing reference to it on his blog a few weeks ago. yWriter was written by Simon Haynes who is an author of science fiction as well as a computer programmer. Since I am always on the look-out for pieces of software to make my life easier, Gary’s reference to it made me go back and take a closer look.

First impressions are good: yWriter successfully swallowed my novel and painlessly dissected it into scenes. The main project screen offers an overview of the novel, chapter by chapter and scene by scene, with useful statistics (number of words in each chapter and a running total for the novel as a whole) and a screen in which you can view the outline and text of a selected scene. Most of the real work is done in a text editor that loads one scene at a time: it is very basic (no italics or bold text) but it gets the job done. I particularly like having the scene outline visible while working on the scene itself (previously I have kept scene outlines and other information in a database while working on the text in Word). yWriter also keeps track of point of view character and the time and duration of each scene (particularly helpful as I am working three major and two minor points of view, and sometimes their scenes overlap to give multiple perspectives on an event so there is plenty of scope for temporal inconsistency in the novel). And last but not least, yWrite is freeware.

12 September 2006

The Senility Prayer

Seen on the wall of a loo while on retreat last week:
O God, grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway,
the good fortune to run into the ones I do like,
and the eyesight to tell the difference.

11 September 2006

Advance from retreat

Last week I took a few days off to go on my annual retreat. I usually go on one of the guided retreats organized by the Third Order, but this year I opted for a slightly longer unguided break at Key House, Falkland. It was an opportunity to slow down, read and pray far from any possibility of interruption by phone or email. As usual I found the experience both relaxing and refreshing.

Key House is located in the centre of Falkland beside Falkland Palace. Apparently the house was originally the palace inn. From the back garden of the house you can get into the palace orchard and thence into Falkland Estate. There are some very attractive woodland walks in the estate and I spent several hours simply exploring.

My reading for this retreat was chosen from two very different traditions: A Little Exercise for Young Theologians by the Lutheran theologian Helmut Thielicke and Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen (Roman Catholic). Very different books written in very different styles for different readerships and yet they share an emphasis on the prayerful reading of scripture. Essentially both authors, from their different traditions, are both saying that we should approach scripture expecting God to speak to us through its pages; that we should read it contemplatively and obediently rather than critically. How different from some of the books I have been working on recently!

Of course, both books had far more to say to me than that. I imagine it will take some time for all the implications of what I have been reading to sink in. Perhaps just one other point is worth mentioning now: Nouwen reminded me that there is a certain lightheartedness to genuine Christian spirituality. The great saints of the Christian tradition never took themselves too seriously. How different from the deadly seriousness that seems to have infected the various factions currently threatening to fragment the Anglican Communion. I know I have been taking news and opinions on the tensions within Anglicanism far too seriously. One of the things I learned on retreat was that I need to sit more lightly to what is going on.

22 August 2006

More good news for Glasgow SF writers

Congratulations to Hal Duncan, whose novel Vellum has just been shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award. And also to Mike Cobley, who has just sold his new epic SF series Humanity's Fire to Orbit.

07 August 2006

GSFWC does it again!

The nominations for the World Fantasy Award have just been announced and several members of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers’ Circle are in the running for awards. So congratulations to Al Duncan for the nomination for best novel (for Vellum, see my review here) and also to Mike Cobley, Al Duncan, Phil Raines (together with the long-eared and fur-covered Harvey Welles) and Neil Williamson for their contributions to the collection Nova Scotia: New Scottish Speculative Fictions, which has been nominated for best anthology.

18 July 2006

My starting point

I was re-reading some old papers by Lesslie Newbigin from my days with ‘The Gospel and Our Culture’ yesterday and came across the following, which pretty well sums up my starting point for doing theology:

The great shift which set Europe on a course different from the rest of Asia is encapsulated in the famous phrase of St Augustine ‘Credo ut intelligam’. I believe in order to know. We do not lay down prior conditions for acknowledging God’s address to us. That address is always an act of grace evoking the response of faith. To seek something more certain than this is to lose the possibility of the knowledge of God. We must learn from Scripture itself how God addresses us and therefore what it can mean to speak of the Bible as the word of God. We must also employ all our critical powers in the reading and understanding of Scripture. To do less would be to dishonour God. But, and this is the crucial point, all critical activity depends upon the acceptance of beliefs which are – in the act of criticising – held uncritically. (To attempt to criticise all our beliefs at the same time would be a descent into insanity). The stance for our critical reading of the Bible, providing us with the tools for understanding and the criteria for judging, will be the fact that in Christ God has reconciled us to himself and called us to follow Jesus. It is from this standpoint that we will exercise our critical powers in reading the Bible. Our reading must also be historical, in the sense that we read every part of Scripture with an awareness of the historical situation in which it was written, and in the sense that we read it in the context of the whole story which the Bible tells.

Four Ways to Forgiveness

No, this isn’t another theological blog entry. It’s the title of a collection of short stories by Ursula K. Le Guin. I have just finished reading it and decided to recommend it to anyone who might read this blog.

As always Le Guin's writing is powerful and, in places, very moving. She also happens to be a very, very good storyteller. Here, she tells four linked stories set on the planets of Werel, a slave-owning oligarchy, and Yeowe, its colony. The title of the collection is interesting – and possibly misleading – because the stories have less to do with forgiveness than with the struggle for freedom. However, while the emancipation of the slaves of Werel and Yeowe forms the inescapable backdrop of these stories, Le Guin actually focuses on other less obvious, but no less important forms of oppression.

13 July 2006

Theological liberalism – in memoriam

From time to time, I dip into the Fulcrum website to keep an eye on what is happening in moderate evangelical Anglicanism. A couple of weeks ago they posted a piece, misleadingly called a sermon, by Oliver O’Donovan (the new professor of Christian ethics at Edinburgh University) on ‘The Failure of the Liberal Paradigm’. Since then, I have had occasion to read it over more than once and those re-readings have just confirmed my initial impression that this was a very incisive analysis of the demise of the liberal consensus within Anglicanism.

O’Donovan sees the current divisions within Anglicanism, highlighted by the consecration of Gene Robinson, as symptomatic of the collapse of the Anglican liberal consensus. The tried and tested technique of maintaining unity by ‘synthesizing’ opposing dogmatisms (traditionally evangelicalism and catholicism) ‘within a central, undogmatic stream of opinion’ (what one of my theological teachers used to call ‘the unexamined Anglican via media’) is no longer working.

In order to understand why the middle way appears to have been closed off, O’Donovan analyses the theological liberalism that gave birth to it. He characterizes theological liberalism thus:
When qualifying a religious posture, "liberal" suggests independence in relation to spiritual authorities, scriptural, hierarchical or congregational. This distance may be no more than a questioning habit of mind, an independence of judgment that may lead back to a new and clarified recognition of authority. It may, on the other hand, be a deep alienation that fosters resentments that never quite proceed to an open breach.

More specifically, the independence of theological liberalism is achieved by giving priority to human reason over all spiritual authorities. This was, of course, the Enlightenment solution to the problem of religious intolerance – the Kantian vision of a religion humanized by being contained ‘within the bounds of reason alone’. And that led in the nineteenth century to the ethical reconstruction of Christianity as the most developed expression of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man (as Ritschl et al. put it). In keeping with that slogan and programme of reconstruction, Christian doctrines were redefined to purify them of any offensive particularity. For example, ‘incarnation’ ceased to refer to God becoming a particular human being at a specific time and in a specific culture and became instead, in O’Donovan’s words, ‘a paradigm or model for a conjunction of the human and divine to be effected in all times and places. The incarnation of the Word takes place continually. Being party to the positive conjunction of God and world is the specific form of theosis offered to believers in liberal theology.’ Classical theological liberalism was nothing if not world-affirming.

Unfortunately for classical theological liberalism it affirmed a world that simply is no more. The world it affirmed, with its evolutionary optimism and its easy identification of the dominant moral tradition of post-Enlightenment Europe with universal truth, died on the battlefields of the First World War. Ninety years ago Karl Barth rightly rejected a theological liberalism whose moral bankruptcy was made only too clear by the support of his theological teachers for the Kaiser’s war. It took much longer for the liberals to recognize (if not admit) the same. However, O’Donovan suggests that recognition eventually came with the pluralism of the postcolonial era, which left liberalism ‘without a dominant moral tradition that it could claim as forerunner of the Kingdom of God’. Thus, ‘Comparatively late in the story, the tradition of theological liberalism reached for narratives of emancipation to give its cause fresh propulsion.’

The various causes that recent theological liberalism has espoused have certainly breathed new life into it, allowing it to re-present the gospel as promise of liberation to oppressed minorities of all kinds. However, there has been a price to pay. As O’Donovan points out, ‘From that point on, it became identified with one kind of moral cause to the exclusion of others. It became a church-party proper, a specific agenda to pit against other agendas.’ In other words, it has abandoned the centre ground, the position that once gave it the mediating role between conflicting dogmatisms within Anglicanism.

Personally, I am not convinced that classical liberalism can survive the enthusiasm of the causes it has espoused. Liberation from injustice is a matter for passion rather than cool critical reason. Liberalism may have espoused the cause of liberation but mainstream liberation theology looks elsewhere for nourishment – to the Bible and to Marxism rather than to liberal thinkers of the past or present.

That raises one final question for me. To what extent can theological liberalism today be regarded as a source of spiritual nourishment? Perhaps it was at one time, when it was identified with the moral tradition of the social and political Establishment. But those days are long gone.

That theological liberalism has failed is only too apparent from trends in contemporary religion. Where is the growth? Not in liberalism but in fundamentalisms of various kinds, from the religious right of the USA to the Vishva Hindu Parishad. Not in liberalism, but in a variety of experientialisms from charismatic/Pentecostal Christianity to the ever-changing kaleidoscope of New Age spiritualities. Theological liberals constitute a tiny (and ever-shrinking) minority of affluent Western Christians.

03 July 2006

Lord of the Bagels

Another musical season ended on Saturday night with the Last Night of the Scottish Proms. Think of the Last Night of the BBC Proms, but with saltires and ‘Flower of Scotland’ in place of union jacks and ‘Rule, Britannia’. We performed our medley of potential Scottish national anthems, and the compère announced the results of a web-based poll to determine the most popular. No prizes for guessing that ‘Flower of Scotland’ won hands down, with 41 per cent of the vote. No prizes, either, for guessing that my personal favourite, ‘A Man's a Man for a’ that’, came in second from bottom. The punters loved every minute of it, which of course made the evening worthwhile. (For the results of the poll, see this page.)

The title of this entry actually refers to a couple of concerts a week earlier. We had the interesting experience of singing Elvish (not to mention Dwarfish, Orcish, etc.) to packed audiences at the Royal Concert Hall. Yes, Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings Symphony has come to Glasgow. It was a tremendous success. I wish I could say I really enjoyed performing it. Unfortunately I was struggling with a cold and by the end of the Saturday night my voice was wrecked.

I must admit that I wouldn’t give house room to a recording of the Lord of the Rings Symphony. As a piece of programme music, it fails because it is too condensed to give a fair reflection of the novel or the films. And it certainly fails as a symphony because it is far too long and musically incoherent. Admittedly some of the music is very attractive and there is some very interesting orchestration, but it also has its fair share of cringe-making themes. For example, the Shire/Hobbit leitmotif is uncannily similar to the music used in the Hovis adverts. (Hence, Lord of the Bagels!)

My voice is now looking forward to a well-earned summer rest. Next up is a performance of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony at the end of September and then Mendelssohn’s Elijah in November. Now there’s an oratorio with everything: famine, invocation of pagan gods, mass murder, earthquake, fire and whirlwind!

15 June 2006

Assisi 2006

Since my last entry I have been to Italy and back. I meant to blog about this some time ago, but shortly after my return my computer crashed and I have been busy retrieving data (full marks to PC World for extracting all my files from a dead hard disk for only £15), setting things up again and catching up with work.

Anyway, the holiday:

We flew out from Prestwick with Ryanair – a very basic service but they were on time (which is more than I can say for my experiences of Easyjet). The worst part of the journey was Ciampino Airport, which seems to be permanently hot and overcrowded with only the most minimal facilities.

For me the trip was as much a pilgrimage as a holiday, visiting Assisi and several other sites associated with St Francis.

Monday 22nd May

Our first full day in Italy and a day for orientation: gentle wandering through the byways of the old city of Assisi. We found a footpath barely two feet wide that snakes up the hillside to the Rocca Maggiore, the old fortress where German princes once lorded it over the people great and small of the city below.

Lunch – paninis stuffed with pecorino cheese and wild boar salami, iced tea, consumed in a shady spot in the Piazza di Santa Chiara.

After lunch we were taken on an introductory tour of some of the sights, notably the Basilica of Santa Chiara and the Cathedral of San Rufino. San Rufino, in particular, is wrapped about by a sense of great age – perhaps because of the bits of Roman sculpture incorporated into the building; perhaps too because of the glass panels in the floor, allowing you to see the ruins of the Roman temple beneath. At times it felt like walking on the bones of a lost civilization.

Tuesday 23rd May

An early start and a long coach journey to Orvieto. The city struck me as quite oppressive by comparison with Assisi. Two churches stood out, however – San Francesco and San Lorenzo de Arari – the former because of its Tertiary connections (dedicated to Francis as founder of the Third Order and the place where St Louis was canonized); the latter because of its atmosphere. San Lorenzo is an ancient and slightly neglected building. The fresco in the apse is a Byzantine-style Christ Pantokrator. The altar is even more unusual: an Etruscan altar surmounted by a simple stone slab and enclosed by a giant stone ciborium.

On the way back we stopped at Rivotorto, site of the earliest Franciscan community. All that is there now is an undistinguished nineteenth-century church containing a life-size ‘replica’ of the original buildings. I’m afraid it left me cold.

Wednesday 24th May

This morning was spent at the Basilica of St Francis. Our guide, Eduardo, made a striking comment about the place. He pointed out the deliberate contrast between the outward simplicity of the building and its interior ornateness, with its frescoes by Giotto, Cimabue and others. He suggested that this was iconic of the Christian life – outwardly simple, but inwardly rich because of the grace of God. It doesn’t do anything to change my distaste for overly ornamented churches, but it does help me understand them a little better.

After lunch we went up to the Carceri, Francis’s hermitage on mount Subasio. There I felt much closer in spirit to Francis than in the basilica. The ancient ilex that was there in Francis's day is still (barely) alive. When I last visited the place twenty-five years ago, the local doves were perching in it – very appropriate for one of the traditional sites of Francis's sermon to the birds. Today it was raining so the birds had to find somewhere else to perch.

Our next stop was San Damiano. I know I have visited the place before but I couldn’t remember much about it. Unlike many Franciscan shrines it has not been spoiled by the over-enthusiasm of later generations. It was possible to get a sense of what the place must have been like for Francis and Clare: the church itself is much the same as it was when Francis restored it; the nuns’ dormitory and refectory are pretty much as they would have been during Clare’s lifetime when it became the base for the Second Order. For some reason, I found the little oratory that Clare used particularly moving.

Thursday 25th May

Today’s trip was to La Verna in Tuscany – the mountainside hermitage where Francis is reputed to have received the stigmata. I found the place strangely disappointing. What I expected was a quiet place like the Carceri, a place where prayer has been valid (as T. S. Eliot would put it). Instead the place was full of visitors, crowding into the various chapels and creating quite a din. Granted the Italian concept of silenzio is several decibels louder than British silence, this was considerably noisier than the silenzio demanded in, for example, the Basilica of St Francis: Italian housewives gesticulating and shouting their gossip halfway across the courtyard; an American priest reading loudly from a guidebook for the benefit of his companions and, it seemed, everyone else within fifty yards. I did find one quiet spot, which seemed more in tune with the spirit of St Francis – a rock cleft below the Chapel of St Peter of Alcantara.

On our way back we detoured via San Sepolcro to see the Piero della Francesca painting of the Resurrection. It was interesting as a piece of art history, but not terribly relevant to Francis.

Friday 26th May

Today we visited Isola Maggiore in Lake Trasimene. This might seem an odd choice, but again there is a strong Franciscan connection: Francis came here to mediatate during Lent in 1211. With a population of only thirty or forty and no cars allowed on the island, it is like stepping back a century (or at least several decades). The place was quiet, sunny and peaceful. Everywhere lizards were sunning themselves on stones. Grebes dived for the little fish that seemed to form shoals near the water’s edge, while bigger fish flashed silver in the sunlight as they jumped out of the water.

Saturday 27th May

I made it up to the Carceri on foot this morning! There were a couple of times I thought I might not make it at all. It may not be the historical or liturgical heart of the Franciscan movement, but for me this place seems close to being its spiritual heart.

In some ways the walk down was worse than the walk up. My knees decided they didn’t like the strain I was putting on them and I managed to put a hole in my trousers, falling on the loose chippings covering the path.

For lunch we went to one of the many small restaurants in Assisi for pizza and panna cotta – very pleasant.

In the afternoon, we walked down to San Damiano for another visit to the convent. We had more time to wander round and drink in the atmosphere. This time I made a point of looking out for the giardinetta where Francis composed his Canticle of the Creatures.

Sunday 28th May

Our last day in Italy, but since our flight out of Rome wasn’t until late in the evening there was time for one more piece of sightseeing on our way to the airport. The coach took us by way of the Rieti Valley, the site of a number of early Franciscan hermitages. We had lunch in the village of Greccio; the food was indifferent, but the view across the valley to the peaks beyond was magnificent. After lunch we visited the hermitage just outside Greccio where Francis put on the first nativity play.

02 May 2006

Rabbit’s friends and relations

I’ve just dicovered a communal blog devoted to research into the theology of my Doktorvater, Colin Gunton. If you’re interested, it can be found here. Inevitably Colin, in his own gentle way, had a very profound effect on the way I approach theology. Sadly he is no longer around to contribute to theological thought in the UK, but it is good to see that a number of people still take his work very seriously.

That led me to ask myself who else has had a significant impact on the way I do theology. I surprised myself by coming up with only three names. Even stranger, given that it was one of my main areas of research, none of them has had much to do with the contemporary dialogue between theology and the physical sciences.

After Colin, I think I would put his PhD supervisor, Robert Jenson. The main reason for this is that, having more or less taught myself theology, it was a little book by Jenson that gave my rather inchoate thoughts some structure.

A third, very significant influence on my thinking has been Dan Hardy, for two very different reasons. First, the very efficient demolition job he did on the first research paper I ever gave (at one of the Durham theology research seminars) made me do some serious thinking about the way you do theology. Second, he co-authored with David Ford, what is simply one of the best theology books of the past quarter century: Jubilate: Theology in Praise.

Last but not least, I have to mention Lesslie Newbigin. Lesslie wasn’t a great theologian, he was something more – a saint, someone who went further than most of us in integrating his theological insights into his life.

25 April 2006

‘A great Verdi Requiem’

I am gradually recovering from last week’s performances of the Verdi Requiem. If you include the rehearsals, we must have sung through the chorus sections at least six times in four nights. Interestingly it was not my throat but my stomach muscles that ached by the end of it.

But the effort was worth it. Not only were the audiences in Edinburgh and Glasgow extremely appreciative, but the performance actually persuaded Michael Tumelty of The Herald to give us an unreservedly good review (the first in The Herald for as long as I can remember). In fact, the review is so good that it is worth quoting in full:

To what should we attribute the artistic achievement of the RSNO’s performance of Verdi's Requiem on Saturday night, an interpretation compelling in its drama, emotional power, integrity and sheer beauty?

To the RSNO Chorus, producing for the orchestra's principal conductor, Stephane Deneve, its best singing in years, from the theatrical whispers, Arthur Oldham-style, at the beginning, to its fleet, light singing in the Sanctus, to its power in the Dies Irae, to the lucid intricacy of its contrapuntal play with the soprano in the final movement? Or should it be to the soloists, spearheaded by the extraordinary Italian soprano Norma Fantini, whose range of colour was breathtaking: creamy, silvery and of a stratospheric intensity that pierced like a laser (and who took her opening phrases in the Offertorium in a single breath, as Schwarzkopf did)? Or the amazing Russian mezzo Elena Manistina, a singer of mouthwatering depth? Or the two men, tenor Miroslav Dvorsky and bass Reinhard Hagen, even though neither, clearly, was on top form?

Or should we include, high up the list, the RSNO itself, with string playing of magical sensitivity, and a brass section of wondrous sonority and rare balance?

All were essential components in a wonderful performance, but, first and last, this was Stephane Deneve’s night, with a gloriously operatic approach to the Requiem that gave his singers all the space they needed to breathe, and was fashioned with myriad theatrical touches, from the fractional drag in the rhythm of the Lacrimosa to the imperceptible delay in the mighty bass drum thwacks of the Dies Irae, which underlined the emotional depth of the music.

This was more than a fine performance. It was a great Verdi Requiem. And Deneve’s stature increases as a consequence.

19 April 2006

Book reviews

I have just finished another book review for Infinity Plus, having been nudged into action by the news that my last review (of Brian Aldiss's Sanity and the Lady) has now been uploaded to the site (here). Earlier reviews include (H)al Duncan's Vellum (here) and China Mieville's Iron Council (here).

Sometimes I wonder whether reviewing is simply another displacement activity to keep me from getting on with the novel. Reviews in the past three months: 2. Words added to the novel: not nearly enough. And I have four more books sitting on my shelves waiting to be reviewed!

13 April 2006

Easter, no con

Most of the people I know seem to be going to Eastercon. Several friends and acquaintances are appearing on panels there. One is even filming a documentary about it! For anyone reading this who doesn’t know what Eastercon is, it’s the annual convention of the British Science Fiction Association. And this year it is happening in Glasgow.

However, much as I would like to attend some of the sessions and drop in on a couple of the publishers’ parties, I won’t be going to Eastercon. As the name suggests, it clashes with Easter. While I enjoy writing and reading SF and fantasy, it definitely takes second place to my Christian faith, which is fundamental to who and what I am.

So what will I be doing instead of shmoozing at Eastercon? I will be immersed in the various acts of worship that make up the latter half of Holy Week. These can be seen as a stylized reworking of the events of that first Easter in Jerusalem. Alternatively, the period from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday is a kind of extended meditation on those events and their significance.

For me the meditation will begin with the communion service on Maundy Thursday evening. This, even more than most eucharists, is a recollection of the Last Supper. Immediately afterwards, at St Mary’s, the church lights will be dimmed (recollecting that after the Last Supper was over Jesus and the disciples walked into the night towards Gethsemane) and all altar coverings and decorations will be removed (symbolizing Jesus’ abandonment by his disciples and subsequent stripping before the crucifixion). This will be followed by a vigil until midnight – an echo of the disciples waiting with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Good Friday is the day of crucifixion. At St Mary’s it is marked by three hours of meditation on the cross, finishing at 3 p.m. (according to tradition, the time at which Jesus uttered his last words from the cross). It is a day of mourning, but one that is nevertheless set against the hope of resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Traditionally on Holy Saturday the usual church services are suspended until after sunset. It is a day for quiet meditation on the darkness of a world without hope.

Easter Sunday actually begins after sunset on Holy Saturday with the Easter vigil. The service begins with the church in darkness (just as the service on Maundy Thursday ended), then the paschal candle is lit and from that one light candles held by all the worshippers are lit until the church is full of light. This, of course, represents the resurrection of Christ, the triumph of light over darkness. And that celebration flows over into Easter Sunday itself with its light, colour, music and smells (yes, at St Mary’s we sometimes use incense). We have even been known to have an Easter ceilidh after the festal choral evensong on the Sunday evening.

And all this happens because we believe Jesus Christ (God incarnate) was crucified and then rose from the dead in order to reconcile the world to himself.

24 March 2006

London: sights, sounds, etc.

I had a holiday last weekend: my first visit to London since 1999. As always I found the place overwhelming. It’s a great place to vist for a few days, but I’m glad I live in Glasgow.

For me, the highlight of the weekend was our visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum, specifically the St John's Bible display. It is a modern illuminated Bible still in the process of being created for St John's Abbey, Minnesota. The images are stunning. For example, the folios displaying Ezekiel 37 show a dark and atmospheric valley of dry bones, such as might be left after some apocalyptic battle.

I also visited the Courtauld for the first time. In addition to a remarkable collection of important impressionist works, I was particularly struck by Cranach’s Temptation of Adam. The other unexpected highlight of the Courtauld was the basement café: excellent French food at what for London was an incredibly low price.

Since we were in London, we could hardly avoid the theatre. On Friday night we went to see Glorious!, a play about Florence Foster Jenkins, the wealthy eccentric New York socialite whose notoriously bad singing earned her the title of the ‘diva of the sliding scale’. Maureen Lipman played Jenkins and I must admit to some disappointment in her performance (or more probably the part she was forced to play). In spite of that I found the play as a whole very funny. Some of the audience reactions were quite amusing too: the woman in front of us who maintained a stony face throughout and who (apparently) glared at me more than once when I laughed; the silence that met one of the characters' comment that ‘We’re all friends of Dorothy here' (one of the central characters is called Dorothy and another central character is gay).

Saturday night was Shakespeare: the RSC performing As You Like It. It was a first-class performance with some very clever scene changes. I was particularly struck by the acting of Lia Williams (Rosalind) and Joseph Mydell (Jaques). However, even very strong performances could not completely disguise the fact that this is not one of Shakespeare's better works.

On Sunday we went to a morning service at All Souls, Langham Place. As you would expect from one of Anglicanism's foremost preaching shops, the sermon was superb. But I was left wondering what has become of (evangelical) Anglican worship. It looks as if the Eucharist has been marginalized to 8.30 a.m. and the singing was monotonously hearty. Under the watchful eye of Noel Tredinnick everything had to be sung at double forte regardless of the text!

28 February 2006

American Icons

I am basking in the warm glow of a couple of really good reviews of the RSNO’s concert last weekend. Garry Walker conducted in his usual lively fashion. The chorus’s contribution was John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls, a desperately bleak piece commissioned to commemorate the victims of the Twin Towers. According to the Scotsman, this was ‘one of the most eclectic, imaginative and excellently performed RSNO shows in recent memory’.

Even the reviewer in the local rag (The [Glasgow] Herald), who can usually find something critical to say when every other reviewer is lauding us, gave us a thoroughly positive review. Of Transmigration he said,

Even in John Adams's ethereal and anguished 9/11 memorial, On the Transmigration of Souls, which could have been ghoulish, a spellbinding sense of atmosphere was generated by the RSNO, its chorus, junior chorus and Adams's montage of a soundscape, as time seemed suspended in a multi-layered composition that had a strangely powerful emotional effect.

18 February 2006

Glorifying terrorism

It seems that Tony Blair is hell bent on making the glorifying of terrorism a criminal act. I find this a profoundly worrying attack on free speech; far more worrying than the recent intemperate response on the part of a small minority to the publication of certain cartoons.

It worries me because the definition of terrorism in the bill is disturbingly broad. We all think we know what terrorism is. How many of us would regard serious damage to property or electronic systems in order to advance a political, religious or ideological cause as acts of terrorism? But that is what the bill does. If it becomes law, peace campaigners who attack military installations, environmental activists who destroy fields of GM crops or socially concerned hackers could be labelled as terrorists.

I admire Daniel and Philip Berrigan. I think their attacks on American nuclear installations are a shining example of prophetic action. Furthermore, men and women who seek to emulate them are to be admired and encouraged. There you are, I have just glorified terrorism (at least, as defined by the Terrorism Bill).

Let’s go a bit further. One of my heroes is a man who found himself deeply out of sympathy with the democratically elected government of his country. Realizing that the government would not be swayed from what he regarded as its barbarous policies by reason, he became involved in a plot to murder the head of the government. I believe he was right to do so and I would encourage anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation to consider seriously his example. There you are, I have just glorified terrorism again. Oh, by the way, the man was Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the plot was against Adolf Hitler.

Perhaps I should just add, for the sake of clarification, that violence is never right. However, there are situations (such as in Nazi Germany) where it is the lesser evil.

Actually the Bonhoeffer example is not a good one. I read somewhere that the law won’t generally apply to acts of terror that took place more than twenty years ago. There will, however, be a list of older events the ‘glorification’ of which will still be an offence. It will be interesting to see what the Home Secretary puts on that!

05 February 2006

Habemus papam

White smoke was seen rising from St Mary’s Cathedral this morning. We have a new provost at last! Kelvin Holdsworth, who is presently based in Bridge of Allan, will take up office on 31st May. His first Sunday with us will be Pentecost Sunday; I can’t think of a more appropriate day for him to begin.

Kelvin is another blogger. If you are interested, you can find his blog here.

His appointment comes as a great relief to me because, as a member of St Mary’s Vestry, I have been heavily involved in the appointment process – late-night (and sometimes fractious) meetings to thrash out details of parish profiles, job descriptions, personal specifications, etc.; poring over seemingly endless drafts of the relevant documentation; agonizing over how to ensure that the process remained one of discernment rather than degenerating into a beauty contest.

The fact that our decision to invite Kelvin was unanimous is, I think, a good indication that we got the process about right. In fact, given the diversity of opinions and personalities among Vestry members, that we were able to reach a consensus rapidly and without bloodshed (metaphorical, of course) is little short of miraculous.

27 January 2006

A hundred grand!

The novel has just reached the 100,000 word mark! There is something very satisfying about that number. Yes, I know I still have another 30,000 or so to go, but 100,000 is a kind of watershed. For the past several months it has felt like an uphill struggle to get here. Now, hopefully, it will be downhill all the way to the end.

I am so pleased with having got this far that even the fact that I have just transferred the entire contents of my current account to the Inland Revenue can’t dent my mood!

Of course, once I reach the end I will still have a good deal of work to do. I have been working on the James Thurber principle of writing: ‘Don’t get it right; get it written!’ In the process the novel has sprouted any number of unexpected branches. They will have to be pruned (or cut out altogether). I anticipate losing between 10 and 20 per cent of the novel before it is fit to send out to publishers. But that is in the future; right now, I am really, really happy!!

23 January 2006

Arrogant, moi?

In a recent blog entry entitled ‘In god's image? Yeah, that'll be right...’ a friend comments that ‘I firmly believe that the entire "man is made in the image of God, animals are not" view is nothing more than complete arrogance on our part’. Now I happen to believe that the imago dei is one of the fundamental biblical metaphors which Christian theology must use to build up a Christian understanding of human nature. Does that make me arrogant?

I readily admit that many Christians over the past two millennia have unthinkingly added ‘animals are not’ to the belief that ‘man is made in the image of God’, but you won’t find that rider in the Bible. More importantly, I think the very location of the statement about being made in God’s image subverts any attempt to use it as a basis for asserting our superiority over other creatures. It comes before the story of the Fall. So, in some primordial paradise, humankind imaged God. Looking at ourselves honestly today (post Auschwitz, post Hiroshima, etc.), we can only say that if we reflect God in any way, we are a distorting mirror.

What then is the imago dei? In light of the realities of human nature revealed by the atrocities of the twentieth century, it is certainly not a statement of fact; not something which encourages complacency or arrogance. For a Christian, it can only be a call from God; a challenge to reflect in our daily lives something of God.

And if you still think that is arrogant, consider how God is revealed in the New Testament. God is not revealed as a Greek tyrant or an oriental potentate, but as a common member of an oppressed people; not someone who demands worship of his followers, but rather who gives of himself generously to all who come to him. And ultimately he gives to the point of death and beyond.

That doesn’t make me feel superior to anyone or anything. No, it scares me!

22 January 2006

Hello world

For years I have been promising myself that I would get around to creating a web page. Realistically that is not going to happen in the near future, so I have decided to start a blog.

For me the great advantage of the blog over traditional web pages is the possibility of bringing together all the different parts of my life in a single narrative. Sometimes I feel as if the world is trying to split my life into half a dozen different compartments, and a static website would only make that even more acute. I can see it now – a separate page for each of the compartments – when what I really want is to see those different aspects of myself as interconnecting parts of a whole.

So I may as well begin by introducing some of the aspects of who I am, which I hope will find expression in this blog:

First and foremost I am a Christian. The Christian faith is what shapes my life and makes sense of the world for me. At present that finds expression through membership of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Glasgow and the Third Order of the Society of St Francis. I also frequently attend evening services at Sandyford Henderson Memorial Church, an evangelical Church of Scotland with a tradition of preaching. OK, I admit it, I’m complicated: I find I need both the liturgical and eucharistically centred approach to worship of Episcopalianism and preaching that is both expository and relevant (a characteristic of evangelical Presbyterian preaching at its best). My Christian faith is also what makes me deeply dissatisfied with the notion of a life that is compartmentalized. Instead of sealed boxes, a better image would be the facets of a jewel none of which has any reality without all the others.

Inevitably, given my academic bent, I am also a theologian. At one time I even earned my living from theology. But, for me, it has always been more than a profession or vocation. It is about the way I relate my Christian faith to the world around me. ‘Faith seeking understanding,’ is the way classical theologians put it. In more modern terms, I am the kind of person who cannot help asking ultimate questions. Some of my attempts to answer those questions have even found their way into print.

That brings me to a third facet of who I am: I am a writer. This goes back a long way. I have been an avid writer for as long as I can remember. Yes, there are the theological books and articles. But I have also kept a journal for many years and I enjoy writing fantasy. At the moment I am nearly 100,000 words into a fantasy novel exploring climate change!

I earn my living from words as well; as a freelance copy-editor and proofreader. Sometimes this can be incredibly frustrating and stressful, e.g. when authors seem unable to follow basic instructions on how to set out a reference list consistently or a client forgets to pay you for three months. But it is also a fascinating opportunity to engage with new books on all kinds of interesting topics. For example, I have recently edited an academic monograph on the psychology of Jihad and am currently working on a Christian socialist critique of global capitalism.

Somehow I find time to be a singer. To be precise, I sing second tenor in the chorus of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. It gives me the opportunity to take part in a wonderfully diverse repertoire: everything from Bach and Vivaldi to John Adams and James MacMillan. In fact, next up is a John Adams piece: we shall be singing his On the Transmigration of Souls in Edinburgh and Glasgow at the end of next month.

Last but by no means least, I am a husband (a recent and wonderful development in my life) and, by a previous marriage, a father (of three teenage and post-teenage children). However, you are unlikely to read much about my wife or children in this blog for the simple reason that I feel it would be a violation of their privacy to publish anything about them without seeking their approval first.