30 September 2008

Words of comfort

Neil Gaiman has recently been interviewed over at Goodreads. Among other things, he says the following about his most recent book:

I had that idea when I was 24 years old. I sat down and tried writing it and thought, "This is a really good idea, and this isn't very good writing. I'm not good enough for this yet, and I will put it off until I'm better."

And I'm glad I waited. I think it's a better book than I set out to write 23 years ago, and I feel like the gods smiled on me, and I got very lucky. Normally, in anything I do, I'm fairly miserable. I do it, and I get grumpy because there is a huge, vast gulf, this aching disparity, between the platonic ideal of the project that was living in my head, and the small, sad, wizened, shaking, squeaking thing that I actually produce. And then there is The Graveyard Book, which is, I think, the first time I've felt really satisfied.

Having spent the best part of a decade trying to write a novel that would do some justice to the idea that inspired it, I found those words very comforting. Contrary to one of the central myths of our society, some things take time. The book written to the publisher's deadline is more likely to be a 'small, sad, wizened, shaking, squeaking thing' than the book that is allowed to come to birth naturally.

20 September 2008

Meanwhile . . . some humour

The past two or three weeks seem to have gone by in a blur of activity. Perhaps more on that later . . . meanwhile here is a piece of theological humour from Theommentary:

The Ultimate Comprehensive Exam in Theology (may also be used as a General Ordination Exam)

1. Summarize Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae in three succinct sentences. You may use your Bible.

2. Irenaeus, Pope Clement VII and Martin Luther King, Jr. were not contemporaries. Had they known each other, how might the history of the Reformation have turned out differently?

3. Devise an ethical system that would satisfy Anabaptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Fundamentalists, and the entire population of Ancient Rome, ca. 3rd century BC.

4. Memorize the Greek NT according to the NA27 and the Textus Receptus texts, recite both, and provide an apologetic for the superiority of one version over the other.

5. Imagine you have the stigmata. Would it affect your productivity in sermon preparation? Would you still be admitted into fine restaurants? Would it be covered by your medical insurance, or should it constitute a pre-existent condition?

6. What would it mean to be eternal, co-eternal, and non-existent all at once?

7. St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine of Hippo decide to rob a bank. The note to the teller is 1,200 pages long, not counting footnotes, complete with a promise of damnation if the teller does not accept immediate Baptism. In the middle of the heist, they engage in an extended debate as to whether or not the money really exists. Are they committing a mortal or a venial sin?

8. Speculate on what the current status of salvation history might have been if Abraham had just stayed in Ur. You have 2 pages.

9. Define God. Use examples if necessary.

10. Provide a compelling resolution to the infralapsarian/supralapsarian debate. You may use your Bible, but not Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

Bonus question

11. Hymns or choruses? Provide an answer that will persuade all parties and all generations.

04 September 2008

Engaging Deconstructive Theology: a review

A review of Ronald Michener’s Engaging Deconstructive Theology (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007) for ESSSAT News:

‘If Christians are to continue to communicate and incarnate the gospel in a world with postmodern assumptions, then they must seek to understand their culture and seek relevancy’ (p. 7). This is Ronald Michener’s starting point for an exploration of what he calls deconstructive theology with a view to developing insights that might make Christian apologetics more relevant to postmodern culture.

In his introduction Michener acknowledges the intellectual and cultural diversity of the postmodern phenomenon. Clearly it would be impossible to treat the entire spectrum of postmodernism adequately in a single volume. Michener opts instead to focus on what he sees as the most radical intellectual strand of postmodernism: deconstructionism. Having set the boundaries of his study, he proceeds in Chapter 2 to offer a very sketchy outline of the historical context of deconstructionism, focusing on its intellectual forebears from Francis Bacon to Claude Lévi-Strauss, before offering a brief introduction to the deconstructionist programme.

Part II of the book offers an account of the ‘holy trinity’ of deconstructionism: Lyotard, Derrida and Foucault. The three chapters in this part provide useful but inevitably brief introductions to their thought. Michener’s main aim here is to identify themes in their work that are relevant to the task he has set himself. Among the themes he highlights are Lyotard’s scepticism with respect to metanarratives and Foucault’s rejection of the Enlightenment self. Most of the space in this part is devoted to Derrida. Picking up on hints in Derrida’s work, Michener suggests that deconstruction does not amount to the destruction of theology. Rather Derrida’s goal is destabilize or subvert the traditional metaphysics that is so closely wedded to Western theology. Thus deconstruction can be seen as a new via negativa. Michener is even prepared to recontextualize Derrida’s notion of the ‘messianic’.

Parts III and IV turn to the effect of this on two American academics (Mark Taylor and Richard Rorty) and one British theologian (Don Cupitt) whose writings have had an impact on recent theology in the English-speaking world. These chapters follow the same pattern as those in Part II: a brief introduction to their thought followed by a teasing out of various themes that are relevant to the challenge of developing a Christian apologetic for a postmodern context. Again he finds concepts that can be appropriated by a postmodern Christian theology, for example, Taylor’s notion of ‘mazing grace’ and Cupitt’s ‘solar living’ and ‘poetical theology’.

With Part V we arrive at the real heart of the book: the development of an apologetic methodology in view of the deconstructionist concerns highlighted in Parts II to IV. Chapter 9 deals with some methodological preliminaries, highlighting the inadequacy of some current apologetic methodologies and indicating what those deconstructionist concerns require of a postmodern apologetic. Specifically, such an apologetic must be post-individualistic, post-rationalistic, post-dualistic and post-noeticentric (by which he means shifting away from knowledge to wisdom). In the next chapter he turns to Scripture, with an examination of the beginnings of Christianity in the book of Acts in the light of deconstructionist concerns. Michener is concerned to present the gospel as a non-totalizing metanarrative (i.e. one that does not fall foul of postmodern scepticism). The early Christian community as it appears in Acts is heterogeneous: open, multicultural and pluralistic. And St Paul provides us with an apologetic model that majors on listening and dialogue.

That last point is developed further in Chapter 11, ‘Apologetic Engagement and Dialogue’. Michener stresses the importance of being a good listener. He is even prepared to speak of atheism as being ‘prophetic’ for those prepared to listen well. This leads him in to a discussion of what is involved in a critical reappropriation of deconstructionist concerns, providing the theoretical underpinning for the examples of reappropriation earlier in the book.

If Michener were to stop at this point, his contribution would be just one more rationalistic approach to apologetics. However, he is not content to leave it here and moves on in Chapter 12 to explore the ‘Apologetic Imagination’. It is his contention that imagination, myth and story have a powerful role to play in apologetic dialogue. His role model for this change in apologetic strategy is the literary scholar and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, perhaps a surprising choice given his intention to engage with deconstructionism/postmodernity. In this chapter, Michener also explores the place of hope in Christian apologetics.

Finally Michener takes up the question of foundationalism. Postmodernism is notoriously resistant to any suggestion that our beliefs can have any indubitable grounding. By contrast, much Christian apologetics (at least since the Enlightenment) has taken such foundations for granted. Is it possible to develop a Christian apologetic that can engage constructively with the anti-foundationalism of the deconstructionists? Michener proposes what he describes as a soft foundationalism: he accepts the postmodern critique of classical foundationalism but does not want to give in to complete scepticism. Certainty about religious beliefs is not possible, but neither is it necessary. He wants to speak instead of provisional beliefs, which cohere together into a ‘belief mosaic’ that is open to continual testing, reinterpretation and recontextualization. Furthermore, this gathering of truth is eschatologically based, rather than foundationally based.

I must admit that, as I read through the book, I could not shake off the nagging question of whether the French deconstructionists were the most appropriate dialogue partners for a Christian apologist seeking to engage with postmodern culture. Nevertheless, there is a lot of interesting and thought-provoking material here, and, for the most part, it is presented in a clear and approachable manner.

03 September 2008

Et in Arcadia ego

Last weekend we went to Pitlochry to see Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre. It was a very enjoyable day out. The theatre is modern, well designed and quite comfortable. As for the cast, they were excellent – not a single weak link in the performance.

The play was new to me. On the surface, it is a very entertaining comedy alternating between a pair of contemporary researchers studying a nineteenth-century literary mystery and the incident itself. But beneath the glitter, the brilliant word play and the humour lies something much bleaker.

Lady Croom is trying to turn the gardens of Sidley Hall into a latter-day Arcadia with the assistance of landscape gardener Culpability Noakes. But all is not well in Arcadia as rivalries and jealousies flare between the house guests (including Lord Byron, who never appears on stage). In the midst of all this, the precocious Thomasina presents her tutor with an essay anticipating the Second Law of Thermodynamics and foreshadowing her own premature death in a fire at Sidley Hall (tragic accident or suicide after being spurned by her tutor?). In the end all must come to dust. Even in Arcadia, I (death) am present.

Meanwhile in the present day Hannah is investigating the Hermit of Sidley. Her rival Bernard is trying to establish Byron’s connection to Sidley Hall. Valentine is studying grouse populations using Sidley Hall’s game book. And all of this worthy academic activity comes across as utterly trivial – a meaningless dance we indulge in as move ever closer to death.