25 February 2009

Stringfellow on Christian witness in a secular world

I have recently discovered the American lay theologian William Stringfellow and what little I have read so far seems to resonate with the writings of a couple of thinkers I admire, Jacques Ellul and Walter Wink. Here is a sample of what Stringfellow has to say on approaching the contemporary world from a Christian perspective:
In the face of death, live humanly. In the middle of chaos, celebrate the Word. Amidst babel, speak the truth. Confront the noise and verbiage and falsehood of death with truth and potency and the efficacy of the Word of God. Know the Word, teach the Word, nurture the Word, preach the Word, define the Word, incarnate the Word, do the Word, live the Word. And more than that, in the Word of God, expose death and all death's works and wiles, rebuke lies, cast out demons, exorcise, cleanse the possessed, raise those who are dead in mind and conscience. (from A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow, ed. Bill Wylie Kellerman, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994, p. 354)

18 February 2009

Spiritual direction: beyond professionalism

The other day a friend told me that she would be reluctant to recommend someone to ‘a spiritual director who had not completed some sort of training course’.

Why am I uncomfortable with this?
  • I think of training courses in spiritual direction as resources rather than qualifications. There is no way a training course can qualify you to be a spiritual director.
  • It smacks of the professionalization of spiritual direction: spiritual directors become a specially trained elite; if you haven’t been through the training, you can’t join the elite.
  • Professionalization narrows the range of spiritual direction that is available to us by excluding those who for whatever reason are unable to do the training: those who can’t afford the cost of training; those who can’t spare the time; those who lack the educational ability to do the training; those who are deemed not to fit because of their personality type or other emotional or psychological factors. Thus some of the finest spiritual directors of the past would have been disqualified.
  • Most of the formal training in spiritual direction in the UK appears to be Ignatian in orientation, perhaps because Ignatian spirituality lends itself more easily to a formal structured approach than, say, Franciscan spirituality. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear this can leave directors who have completed such courses ill at ease with directees seeking something less structured.
  • But, ultimately, competence in spiritual direction has little to do with a paper qualification. On the contrary, it is about quality of relationships: the relationship between the director and God and the relationship between director and directee.

17 February 2009

Countering terrorism?

According to the BBC (here), the government is planning a major shift in its counter-terrorism strategy:

Conservative Muslims who teach that Islam is incompatible with Western democracy will be challenged as part of a new approach . . . A senior Whitehall source said that Muslim leaders who urge separation will be isolated and publicly rejected. He also said this would occur even if their comments fell within the law. This will include those who argue that Muslims should not vote and that homosexuals should be condemned on religious grounds.

I must admit this intriguing snippet from the BBC report rings alarm bells for me. Is it about defending Western democracy or Western liberal values? (In the space of three sentences the former has elided into the latter.) Will the strategy target Muslims alone or will it also target others who dare to criticize Western liberal values (such as orthodox Jews, traditionalist Christians, ultra right-wing politicians and academics, or for that matter unreconstructed communists)? What price freedom of speech if the government is going to encourage the isolation and public rejection of individuals whose criticisms fall within the law rather than answer those criticisms in robust public debate? I do hope the strategy is thought through carefully before implementation.

11 February 2009

Bultmann reads Mother Goose

I first came across this some years ago and was reminded of it the other day. Jack Lundquist speculates on how the New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann would have treated a nursery rhyme:

Bultmann Reads Mother Goose

by Jack Lundquist

I–A: Hey diddle-diddle,
I-B: The cat and the fiddle,
II–A: The cow jumped over the moon,
II–B: The little dog laughed to see such sport,
III–: And the dish ran away with the spoon.

Authorship and Date

Internal evidence rejects the view that we have here an original composition by Mary (Mother) Goose of Boston (1686–1743).[1] The phrasing of I–A is definitely late eighteenth century, since the Goose Period would have rendered it ‘diddley-diddley’ (and thus ‘fiddley’ in I–B). Furthermore, the sequence ‘cat-cow-dog-dish’ represents an obvious redaction and is a compilation of at least four different accounts.[2] Thus, the author of the piece is unknown,[3] and its date set between 1780 and 1820.[4] The Sitz im Leben of the Depression of 1815 may be reflected in III.


The received text is very corrupt. The mythological element in II–A is typical of many other interpolations, as is the anthropomorphism in II–B.[5] However, I–A may be original, excluding, of course, the ‘hey’.[6]


Stripped of its thought forms, the piece tells us of something revolutionary as existentially encountered by three animals, two cooking implements, and one musical instrument.[7]


1. Discussed in F. Sauerkraut, Gooses Werke, vol. XXVII, pp. 825–906; G.F.W. Steinbauger, Gooserbrief, pp. 704–8636; Festschrift fur Baron von Munchausen, pp. XIII–XX; R. Pretzelbender, Die Goosensinger vom Bostom, p. 10.

2. See P. Katzenjammer in Goosengeschichtliche Schule Jahrbuch, vol. X.

3. Some attribute it to Mary’s grandson, Wild Goose (1793–1849), and others to Wild Goose’s nephew, Cooked (1803–1865). Both views are challenged by A. Kegdrainer in the thirty volume prolegomenon, Gooseleiden, vol. XV.

4. F. Pfeffernusse contends it is an English translation of a German original by the infant Wagner. See his Goose und Volkgeist, pp. 38–52; see also his Geist und Volkgoose, pp. 27–46.

5. The authenticity of both II–A and II–B is poorly argued by the reactionary American Goosologist, Carl Sanbag in his Old Glory and Mother Goose (see vol. IV, The Winters in the South, p. 357).

6. The meaning of the word ‘hey’ is now hopelessly obscure. See my articles on ‘Hey, That Ain’t’ and ‘Hey, What The’ in Goosengrease, Fall, 1942.

7. Perhaps an eclipse of the moon?

07 February 2009

Lunchtime recital

I went to a recital at Renfield St Stephen’s Parish Church this lunchtime given by the Japanese pianist Maki Yoneta. We were treated to a wide range of piano music from Scarlatti to Ginastera.

I was a bit disappointed by the three Scarlatti sonatas that began the concert. It wasn’t just that they were being played on a piano rather than a harpsichord. Somehow I felt Maki just wasn’t comfortable with Scarlatti. By contrast the Mozart piece that followed, Twelve Variations on ‘Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman’ (aka ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’) was great fun – what a pity so many of the audience seemed to take it so seriously; it is a wonderful little musical joke. When she moved on to Liszt, I felt she was moving on to home territory. Her performance of a tarantella from Années de Pèlerinage was a tour de force.

For a change of pace she offered us three songs arranged for piano by Gershwin. These pieces seemed too measured, too dependent on the score. Perhaps if she had thrown away the score, shut her eyes and imagined herself in a smoke-filled Prohibition era bar instead of a Glasgow church, they would have been more successful.

The finale of the recital was Ginastera’s 1st Piano Sonata (again played from the score). This was a real eye opener for me: I knew of Ginastera as Piazolla’s teacher, but I don’t think I’ve ever listened to any of his music before. The sonata opens with a driving Allegro marcato. This gives way to a Presto misterioso, which is really quite creepy. The third movement, an Adagio molto appassionato, paints a picture of a bleak, wintry landscape. And the sonata concludes with a brilliant Ruvido ed ostinato. Interestingly at some point in the sonata Maki stopped looking at the score and her playing ramped up from very good to spine-tingling. A superb end to a very satisfying recital (and her encore, a Chopin Etude, was the icing on the cake).

05 February 2009

Facing the shadows

Just before his death from cancer, the theologian Alan Lewis wrote the following:

We face suffering, distress, and death with courage, faith and trust, not by maintaining serenity of psyche or buoyancy of soul within, but precisely by casting ourselves in all the times of emptiness, aridity, and wordlessness – as well as those still more spiritually dangerous times of optimism or elation – upon the gift of grace outside us and around us. God promises to do what we cannot do, and go where we need not go, to enter the dark valley ahead of us and defeat on our behalf the frightening foe. And the Spirit undertakes to pray for us, and stirs others to intercede on our behalf, just when we feel awful, overwrought in body or in spirit, when faith eludes intellect or consciousness and our tongues have lost all utterance. (Between Cross and Resurrection, p. 430f)

There’s not much one can add to that, except perhaps ‘Amen!’

04 February 2009


I have just discovered that Adam Roberts has a blog called Punkadiddle, wherein he writes about the books he has been reading. Since he is not only an excellent science fiction author (I had the pleasure of copy-editing his novel Splinter for Solaris some time ago) but also an English lecturer, I expect it to be a valuable source of recommendations for future reading.

Recent highlights on Punkadiddle include an irreverent post mortem of some of John Updike’s poetry and a very amusing critical look at Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. Even if you disagree with his take on Stephenson, this is worth looking at simply for the collection of hilarious neologisms he has coined for the occasion.

In another recent entry he alerts us to the fact that Ursula Le Guin has a new novel out and that he thinks its the best thing she has written since the glory days of Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. Thanks for the tip, Lavinia has just gone to the top of my 'must read' list.