Thursday, June 6, 2013

Comics as Comparative Theology: Jesus and Buddha in Saint Young Men

Jesus and Buddha, living in an apartment in Tokyo.  Buddha, he wanted to learn the piano.  Jesus:  he's keen on the theremin.  Jesus even reads Osamu Tezuka's manga biography of the Buddha.

Enjoy and start reading here.

Keep in mind that these comics read right to left.  They haven't been "flipped" to mimic the reading direction(s) of Western comics.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Just Promise: Reformulating Justice as a Practice of the Gift

I published a new article in dialog:  A Journal of Theology.  It is part of a discussion of the ELCA's recent social statement on criminal justice.  I am an admirer of this statement and the theology of justice, hospitality, and accompaniment that it articulates.

This is the abstract:

The triune God's justice is best understood as promised justice. Promised justice enables Christian practices that critique and end injustice.

In this article I take a theological approach to justice that draws from Adorno's view that the medium of justice is injustice.  In short this means that injustice is always the starting point for developing or practicing justice.

You can find more about this article here.

Sadly dialog is not a free online journal.  You can request a copy of the article through your local public library's inter-library loan service.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Six Theses on the Pursuit of Unhappiness: Minima Theologica

Formulate any theological methodology, purpose, or goal toward remedying misery and injury and injustice.  Attend to the closed-off and forgotten injuries of the past.

1.  Starting with a vision for the future interdicts the present.

2.  Interdicting the present ignores the present and closes the forgotten and buried past even more.

3.  Real progress is pulling the emergency-brake on the train of the present hurtling toward the future (Benjamin).

4.  Positing a future or vision for the future that does not attend to the present creates a false agency for the visioning community.

5.  Looking to the future in place of the present enables one to pathologically ignore pain.

6.  Truth is only gained through the exposure of falsehood (Adorno).

This is the theology of the cross. 


Saturday, May 25, 2013

You Wonder How the Spirit Got There -- Robert W. Jenson's Early Trinity

Persons of the Trinity are defined by their future, their relationship to the Spirit, not by their origin.

Robert W. Jenson states this principle that others take up much later in God After God:  The God of the Past and the God of the Future, Seen in the Work of Karl Barth (Bobbs-Merrill, 1969).  For instance, this way of defining Trinity is adopted by Wolfhart Pannenberg as well as John D. Zizioulas.  It is not just Jenson's insight since there are many ways to arrive at this salutary conclusion, but he states it with a force and power and then explores it in a way in this book in a way I'm not sure he has elsewhere.

Robert W. Jenson has famously (or infamously depending on your point of view) identified a pneumatological deficit in Karl Barth (and by extension lots of theological positions) in his article "You Wonder Where the Spirit Went," Pro Ecclesia 2 (1993): 296-304.  

That article should be seen in the light of this earlier work:
This gathering to the past, to the Beginning in which all has already been decided,pervades all Barth's thinking.  The direction of trinitarian formulations toward the past is something Barth shares with the tradition.  ... But if the true temporality of the triune God, and the true meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity, is at least to appear without ambiguity, this shadow must be banished.  That is, the futurity of the triune God must be made plain.  The formal pattern of the doctrine must be reversed, to give the Spirit some of the formal role which the Father has had.  ... Instead of defining all three hypostases by their relation to origin, they must be defined by their relation to goal.  The Spirit is the goal of the Trinity, and this doctrine must be given the function which has long belonged to the doctrine that the Father is the "fount of the Trinity."
God after God, p. 173-174.

After this quote, Jenson goes on to anticipate his later criticism.

In my own idiom, what is at stake here is that a God worthy of the name is a God who promises, who demands nothing except faith in that promise, whose graciousness is not the rescue of creation from its temporality and frailty into a timeless eternity or a pre-temporal election but its reclamation and conviviality.

But before this quote there are three chapters (and several afterward) that show in great detail how Jenson moves from Barth's (and Bonhoeffer's) criticism of religion to futurity and promise.  These two categories are central to the book:  the future and promise.  These two immensely important theological concerns are the engine that drives his criticism of classical trinitarian theology.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Response to Clint Schnekloth on Pope Francis' Inclusivism

Clint Schnekloth wrote a great summary of Pope Francis' recent sermon that highlighted Roman Catholic thinking on inclusivism

This is inclusivism but it might not be good news to anyone except to Christians.

This is Clint's breakdown:

1) Everyone is redeemed through Jesus, including atheists.
2) Everyone can do good, even non-Catholics or non-Christians
3) Pursuing that which is good is a a place of encounter... do good and we will meet each other there.
Here's my response:

Salvation, redemption, and the good are defined by Francis either "in Christ" or from a Christian perspective. The inclusivisms or universalisms are exclusive of non-Christian perspectives so far as they cannot be absorbed into that "in Christ" or Christian perspective.

Sure, an atheist can be saved, but it would be quite a surprise to the atheist as well largely deflating the atheist's perspectives and cherished claims, especially if the atheist was denying the existence of non-natural agents like the Triune God. If Francis were to hold that the atheist would be saved as the atheist, that would be fascinating.

Likewise, the good that Francis intends is not something like the pluralist, liberal good that John Rawls or others intend in their "overlapping consensus." How can this good be a common ground? Perhaps in an ad hoc and fragile way, but certainly not in a pluralist or liberal-procedural way.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Future Bears the Burden of the Present, Or, Why I Like to Punt

Even though I'm not a football fan, I like to punt.  It's my favorite classroom habit and so my favorite theological habit.

When I'm teaching my theology classes, I like to punt.

When problems get too large or diverge from the task at hand, I sometimes have to say to that subject that presents itself:  we're just going to punt here.   I noticed some of my teachers of theology liked to use boxing and shipping metaphors:  they'd say that they would need to "unpack" that idea, which meant they wanted to look at this definition or phenomena, explain it a bit more.

I hope my students remember me as the professor of punting.

After all, there's only so much I can do.  And only so much you can do.

To punt, as I understand it, is to ask the future to bear the burden of the present.  It is to act on the chance that you might have a chance.  It is to imagine that things might be different than they are right now, that we will live to converse another day.

To punt is to hope.

So. I'm not going to try to answer all of that right now, dear student.  Let's just punt on that.


I mean American football.  When I explain that I like to punt to my students, especially those who play football at St. Olaf College, they wince.  Punting is the last ditch effort in American football, usually something you have to do when you fail, when your team is out of options and downs.  Football is played by a clock and so punting, aside from other mistakes that would turn the ball over to the other team, is the lowest option for a football team.  It is considered shameful and sometimes a disaster to punt.

Which is why I like using it as an act of hope.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

How Not To Read Comics

Comics, as Chris Ware has repeatedly stated, is a visual language.  It is more than just text and pictures.  It is not literary prose.

This distinction between comics as a visual language and literary prose needs some work to explain it though I think it's the case. 

In the Morning News Tournament of Books, Natasha Vargas-Cooper recently reviewed a YA novella and Chris Ware's Building Stories.  Ware lost.

He lost because Vargas-Cooper read his comic as if it were text and pictures; she clearly prefers text.

Read this essay closely and you'll see exactly, with precision and clarity, how not to read comics.

Two excellent discussions of the visual language of comics can be found in Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics and Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Robert W. Jenson - The Knowledge of Things Hoped For

Go to the old record bins.  Flip through the back issues. 

Because you need to get Robert W. Jenson's old work.

Admittedly, you need to read his new work, too.  As well as the recent stuff.  And the older mid-80s material when he experimented with nu-wave pop.

That actually didn't happen.

There's lots of old gems.  Not all of them are available through reprint publishers. 

One of the best is The Knowledge of Things Hoped For:  The Sense of Theological Discourse.  Published by Oxford University Press in 1969, this book is out of print!  From my correspondence with Wipf & Stock, Oxford will not permit reprinting so you'll have to find it in libraries or used.

The joy of this book is Jenson's engagement with still-important concerns:  semiotics with Origen, analogy with Thomas, ordinary-language issues with the analytical types, and narrative/hermeneutics with the Bultmann folk and history with Pannenberg and Moltmann.

All of this stuff is in the background in the systematic theology.  He references it a few times and is really the lengthy discussion of history and hermeneutics that many would have liked to see in the first volume.  Not that it would answer all the questions they would lodge against Jenson.

Even though the books he wrote before this one on Karl Barth (Alpha & Omega) and after it on Karl Barth (God After God) are obviously Barth-driven, this one is incredibly less so.  Rudolf Bultmann is the main instigator here -- and it is mainly about hermeneutics and history. 

This is hardly a review or an engagement with his work.  There is much I would argue with but since I read it so early in my theological formation I imagine my arguments with it stem from the book itself.  

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Jesus - Divinity is Humanity

Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig is not known as an innovator.  He's held out as a romantic and as cultural conservative.  One way in which he is radical, perhaps without knowing it, is when he states that to be Christian is to be merely human.  Or just human.  Clint Schnekloth explored this a bit in a recent post.

And Grundtvig is even more powerful when he, like many throughout history, state that Jesus' divinity precisely in his humanity.

This means that there is no divine add-on, no hidden divine actor cooperating with a human partner.  No quality or divine sheen that is the +1 that enhances Jesus.

As the truly human one, Jesus is as the crucified, one with God.  It is not by being a certain thing or being sent in a certain way from the eternal pre-historical prom party that is the divine life that Jesus is God but by his history, by his actions, by his flesh-and-blood life that is truly human, love for others.  He is the one in whom creation finds its fulfillement because he not only responds to the call creation and all creatures ask of one another but attends to the injury and pain of life.  This is his divinity, his human solidarity and death, held together in a strange way by the resurrection in the Spirit.

The divinity is his humanity, meaning that to be divine is for God to be God in this Jesus, to have given up all divinity waiting on this Jesus and his fate, for them together to single out their Spirit and mutual love to be their future and utterly possibility.

In a way, this theologomenon is a kind of test.  If you worry:  adoptionism!  arianism!  monophysitism!  You just might be perpetrating the kind of Jesus that is not truly human.

Worried about adoptionism?  Jesus is truly human in his relation to God throughout his life -- there is no time in which he wasn't human.  So goes adoptionism by the wayside.

Worried about arianism?  There was when he was not?  There is no Jesus pre-Jesus unless it is the stage of eternity and history clearing its way for Jesus to be conceived.  Jesus' eternity is precisely his relation to God the Father.  Does this make me go for some Barth election stuff?  Perhaps.  But the freedom in the Spirit, which is their future, is more eternal and important than all that election-pre-stuff to me.

Worried about monophysitism?  Naw.  Step aside.  As Pannenberg and Jenson have it, the divinity is precisely in Jesus self-differentiation from God and God's self-differentiation from Jesus.  Divinity is their eternal common life, not a thing that Jesus is.

Christians feel variously bound by ancient ways of talking.  And I like it when there are theologomena that explode and shake up those ancient ways without utterly abandoning antiquity.

This is what Jenson calls the revisionary task of theology.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

How to Write a Theology Book #2 - Revisions

If you want to write theology, revision is in order.

I have page proofs from the publisher for my book Being Promised:  Theology, Gift, Practice, so I think I can look back at the drafts.

Here's the lowdown:

Revisions of each of the five chapters:

chapter 1:   5 drafts
chapter 2:  10 drafts
chapter 3:  13 drafts
chapter 4:   6 drafts
chapter 5:  10 drafts

After putting it into one whole book:  10 more drafts.

Size of file that contains paragraphs and sentences eliminated:  301kb.

Revise, revise, revise.

No Writers without Readers

No writing for a while.  Just catching up on book reviews.

So Johann Georg Hamann:

"As children become people, young girls become women, so writers emerge out of readers.  Most books are therefore a result of the capabilities and incapabilities that one has read and can read."
Johann Georg Hamann
 Leser und Kunstrichter (1762)

As we have young readers in our house and my spouse is a reading specialist, there is reading and reading and still other kinds of reading.

Hamann rejected book reviews that merely report and so laud the author and those reviews that excoriate and so condemn the author utterly.  Most of his writing was in the form of the book review.

He thought the best form of book review was massively critical and emerged from within the plane the book creates.  Thus, his most important work, the Metacritic of the Purisms of Reason (1788) is a review of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.


Here's my review queue:

A massive in-the-works review of recent political theology
Svend Andresen, Macht aus Liebe:  Zur Rekonstruktion einer lutherischen politischen Ethik
Vitor Westhelle, Eschatology and Space
Jean-Luc Marion, Reason of the Gift
Jan Assmann, The Price of Monotheism (stand-alone review, though referenced in the state-of-political theology review essay)

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Models of Gift-Exchange

So you'd like to think about giving, gifts, and receiving gifts.

A theology of the gift can concern faith, money, resources, social stations, community, forgiveness, difference, power, media, and ecology.

Gifts are an anthropological study.  Lots of anthropologists agree that gifts are not free.  They don't agree on why people feel obligated to give.  Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion are philosophers who think about the limits of these gifts.  They want a gift that has no obligations at all. 

What kind of gift do you want?

Here's your options:

1.  Ignore the theology of the gift.  Most likely you are at the mercy of whatever theories or strategies those who use gift-language employ.  You'll usually end up using a form of agonistic giving.

2.  Agonistic gift.  Gifts are not free and require action.  If you fail to give, there's trouble, whether violence or shame.  Gifts always carry with them obligation.  They can be welcome or unwelcome.   Giving is competitive between giver and recipient.

Examples of agonistic gift reasoning:

a.  If you want to get anything, give.
b.  Because you are so grateful for what you've received,  you'll give.
c.  You have received, so you should give in turn.
d.  Don't let what you've been given sit idle.  Give it in turn.
e.  Since you've said you are sorry, you can be forgiven.

Basically any time you are urged to act out of gratitude, know that the agonistic gift is being used.

3.  Unilateral gift.   Gifts are free but are one-way.  There is no return, nothing, no obligation.  Most think this is impossible.

Examples of unilateral gift reasoning:

a.  You have inherited this.
b.  It's yours, no strings attached.
c.  It doesn't matter if you repent or are sorry:  you are forgiven.
d.  Surprise discoveries.
e.  Many forms of anonymous organ-donation.  But not all.

Caveat:  if you are urged to act out of gratitude, an obligation is introduced that makes a seemingly unilateral gift into an agonistic gift.

4.  Negotiated or Purified Gift:  Both parties agree that the gift is wanted and not poisonous and that both agree what is involved in the exchange; there is no hidden ploy or strategy but there is force and exchange.  Both parties are on a level playing field.

Examples of negotiated gift reasoning:

a.  Use of covenant/contract examples to illustrate giving.
b.  Any giving which is done "with eyes wide open" and no deception about force and 
c.  God is Trinity and God gives between Father, Son, and Spirit in peace.  This is the kind of giving we are taken up into.

5. Pure Gift.   A gift that is impossible because it is the gift utterly free of obligations.  This requires the giver to not know that a gift is given, the receipient to not recognize the gift as gift, nor to receive it as such.  This is the gift that is more than the unilateral gift.

Examples of pure gift reasoning:

a.  The ungodly are just.
b.  God is a mad giver.
c.  Utterly surprising and unknown gift.  A forgotten and disappering gift.

6.  Promise.  A gift that is recognized but has no force.  It enables other kinds of exchange but does not itself obligate anything.  Utterly unilateral but enables those who trust it to engage in the other kinds of giving in which they are immersed.

Example of promissory reasoning:

God promises and so you may give to those in need in the impure, halting, and difficult ways that you do give.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Faith Creates Divinity (Fides creatrix divinitas)

We need to embrace the prevenience of faith. 

Yes, with all its risks and dangers.  Faith is omnipotent, without limit, and creates God.

Western Christians talk a lot about the prevenience of grace, that God's grace is powerful, that it is before everything else, and sets all things in motion.  The human will is bound to that prevenience, love is nought without out it, and freedom waits upon the arrival of grace.  This, and so much more, is wrapped up in grace.

But faith is more powerful since it makes God God.  Faith is not alone, no autonomous power of the self that constructs God as the idealist tradition would have it.  Faith is correlated to promise, God's pledge in Christ.  Faith alone preceeds all else.  It has powers that deserve the highest praise, writes Luther in his 1531/1535 Galatians Lectures on Galatians 3:6. No one can praise it highly enough, give it proper accolades.

Suddenly, we see the peril and promise of the left-Hegelian tradition.  Only promise is needed to distinguish the creative power of faith and the subjective faculty of imagination that results in human self-deception and self-alienation.  Promise is the critical discrimen that distinguishes fancy and pathology from the hope of the Crucified, Triune God.  And that faith makes God God.  Without it, there is no divinity, no majesty anywhere in the world.

[This, a preview of an article I've written for the fall issue of dialog: a Journal of Theology.]

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Books and Essays I Can't Put Down

In no particular order.  Not all of them are about theology but most are.

Graham Ward, Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice (CUP).

I prefer Ward's manifesto on practice in theology to the alternatives because he is sufficiently critical of Pierre Bourdieu's habitus and that Ward draws upon the best the hermeneutical tradition and critical social theory has to offer theology.  I am not so sure of the first chapter on Barth though I do think that the social portrait of the theologian is useful.  What made Barth Barth is Ward's question.  Not so much his intellectual formation but instead the resources and institutions that enabled Barth to do what he did rather than spend all his time doing other things.

Robert W. Bertram, "When is God Triune?"  dialog 28 (1989):133.

Several powerful theses that deserve a wider audience and a more full articulation.  Bertram is respectful of the post-Schleiermacherian insistence that "the economic and theological (immanent) trinity are one" but puts forward questions that suggest that the reliance on the immanent Trinity short-circuits the truth and nature of the resurrection of the Crucified One.

Ralf Stolina,  »Ökonomische« und »immanente« Trinität? Zur Problematik einer trinitätstheologischen Denkfigur.  Zeitschrift fur Theologie und Kirche 105(2):170-216

Stolina, a theologian to follow for his work on Pryzwara, mystery, and Trinity, has written the authoritative history of the modern distinction between economic and immanent Trinity.  There are many important statements of this distinction from the crucial essays by Eberhard Jungel or Joseph Bracken.  But Stolina does the historical-theological work to open up the questions afresh.  I wanted to go this direction after publishing my work on Schleiermacher's trinity treatise ("Trinity as Circumscription of Divine Love according to Schleiermacher" NZSyThRph 50:62-74) but I'm glad that Stolina did instead. 

Phillip Pullman, "The Republic of Heaven" The Horn Book (Jan/Feb 2001)

After completing His Dark Materials, Pullmann wrote this manifesto on the role of fantasy literature after the death of God.  This is nearly a point-by-point refutation of Lewis and Tolkien if not the whole Macdonald-faerie tradition.  It drove one of my students to create a poster mocking Pullman's derision of Susan's fate in the Narnia books.

J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories"  (variously found in The Tolkien Reader, Tree and Leaf [best], Adventures in the Perilous Realm, and The Monster and the Critics)

I cannot describe how valuable this essay is to me.  It's all here.  Mostly.  Shock.  Modernism.  Creation.  Imagination.  The event of surprise.  Eucatastrophe.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Two Kinds of Gift: Theology, God, and Giving

Christians talk a lot about sharing and stewardship.  Giving to each other and to the community is hardly their unique property.  And they talk about giving, gratitude, and sharing freely just like any community.

Christians miss out if they don't make use of the difference between a gift, which is found everywhere, and a free gift, which is impossible.

Giving a gift is pretty straightforward.  They are not especially unique; cultures are rife with them and variations on them.  Not only the gift of a material thing at a "gift occasion," like a birthday.  Hospitality, forgiveness, accompaniment and sharing of time, casual conversation:  these are all gifts.

Gifts are pretty straightforward in one thing:  they are not free.  Despite their diversity, they all carry with them force and obligation.  Every gift, even those that are mutually agreed upon, sets in motion a cycle that is aptly described as a circle.  One gives and so one has to return or pass on the gift.

The gift circle is continued if one gives out of gratitude or out of forced obligation.  Sometime unwelcome gifts are challenges and the beginning of battles.  Other times, they are to demonstrate equality -- I can give just as much as you can.  But they are always competitive, even when they work.  There's always slippage that could result in a misfire.

The problem:  Christians often invoke what amounts to a kind of Jesus magic (or God-gloss) to get other Christians to give money to make their giving seem, somehow more "joyful."   I don't just mean the big-time evangelical hoodwinks who pledge prosperity.  I'm talking about ordinary, low-level, mainstream protestant talk about giving.   This talk is bewitched, fascinated, and frequently employs a kind of magic.  This is a magic we should be suspicious of.

It's a magic that has one basic logic but many forms.  The magic works this way:  if you give, you'll get back.  Or:  because you've been given, you should give.  Now, this can be spun in many forms.  This is just the circle of giving all over again.  There's nothing special about it even if it has a Christian or Jesus-y veneer.  This is, in fact, the world of creation and its economy.  There is a promise attached here, and it is graceful, after a fashion:  do this and live!  Take care of your children and they shall take care of you.  Give to your community and it will care for others.  You listen to public radio all the time and it's there for you, so show some gratitude.  This is the logic of creation.  There's nothing particularly free about it except that it got going in the first place.  It has its rewards and blessings and perils.

As a practicing Christian, I am frequently subject to a variety of ways of pleading and or raising money for various ecclesial or missional ends.  The other kind I get is from public school and other kinds of fundraising, I much prefer the later since there's not this additional layer of pretending that gifts are free when they are most certainly not.

I would much prefer, if there is a Christian difference in giving, to see how the economy of God's promise alters or frees up ordinary giving so that we can engage in ordinary giving in all its conflict and impurity. 

And so the free gift is a quest, a search, a gift that is without strings, without force, that is utterly free of charge.

Two economies are at work here, an intersection of two kinds of gift:  God's promise of Christ and the gift-circuit that belongs to the world, to the very creation.  Peril occurs when these two are flattened together.

Bible and Comics: Justification is a Fighting Doctrine

I am constantly amazed at the effort comics artists undertake to portray non-narrative material.  Most of the Bible is composed of non-narrative material, meaning stuff that doesn't pass like a basic, modern novel with characters, motives, and plot.  It is a mistake to think that comics must follow narrative -- surely they have, owing to the dominance of the superhero tale and attempts to mimic television and film.

But wait until you see what Siku did with Paul's letter to the Galatians. As Ernst Kasemann repeated:  justification is a fighting doctrine, yo!

(Click on any image to enlarge!)

Turning a letter into a facile debate rather than showing it through either juxtaposition or other non-narrative means would have served this much better.

But perhaps this is the force of the manga genre.  Of course, Siku can make Rembrandt blush with Jesus' Temple tantrum:

Siku's is one of the better manga out there to explore attempts to portray quasi-historical-romantic visions of the Bible.

Siku, The Manga Bible (WaterBook, 2008)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Bonhoeffer Graphic Novel by Moritz Stetter

Moritz Stetter has created a remarkable graphic novel that takes as its centerpiece Dietrich Bonhoeffer's time in the Tegel prison.  It integrates most of Bonhoeffer's life but focuses mainly on his involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.

Click on any image to enlarge!

It depicts with brevity and stark black and white drawings the historical events as well as Bonhoeffer's own actions and thoughts.

It incorporates his writings, speeches, and conversations, which include a radio address given during the burning of the Reichstag and the turbulent years of the rise of the National Socialists (above).

But there are also lovely depictions of conversations as well as the transformation of Christianity under National Socialism.  The aryan Christ is striking. (below).

The novel moves back and forth between past events but uses the arrest and imprisonment as the backbone of the novel.

Stetter is especially talented in demonstrating and inviting the reader to experience the anxiety and conflicts that attended Bonhoeffer's decisions to resist during the Kirchenkampf.

But no better pages, I think, are worth considering than those that involve Stetter's placing Bonhoeffer's prison poetry in juxtaposition with news of dead friends, relatives, pastors, seminarians:

He opens the book with Bonhoeffer's poem, "Who am I?"

And near the conclusion, other poetry fragments and memories set against an air raid that struck the Tegel prison:

All in all, I think this is a remarkable graphic novel that deserves translation into English and should be read widely since it so brilliantly puts Bonhoeffer's life and theology in a slim and striking form.

Stetter has also published a Luther graphic novel that promises to be similarly excellent.

Gregory Walter, Religion Department, St. Olaf College

Moritz Stetter, Bonhoeffer (Gutersloher Verlagshaus, 2010)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Against A Certain Use of Practices and Practice in Theology

What does practice do in theology?  How is it used?

Many in theology now write regularly of practice.  Practice can be used to describe what people do.  It can be the normative result of theological reflection ("Christians should adopt these practices or these should be changed").

But it can also be used in a dodgy way to explain or justify theological claims.  As if having abandoned the modern mode of using propositions or clear and distinct claims to legitimate and justify theology, now practice has a dual role.  It seems that practice not only is what we do, which I think uncontroversial, but also simultaneously justifies what I do or claim.  This is, I think, a natural shift in a post-foundational milieux that has moved from linguistic-turn to narrative-turn to now the turn to practice.

This is strange and unhappy.  It has made practices into the philosophers stone for justification.

Stephen P. Turner, The Social Theory of Practice (University of Chicago, 1994) helpfully outlines a critique of this use of practice.  He shows how Hume's conventions are a good way forward.  Theologically, Johann Georg Hamann's reworking of Hume is valuable here since he holds that it is in fact reason, language, and action that together work in a cross-justificatory system.  Convention and custom are not ruled out by Hamann but this does not mean a kind of reductive naturalism like Hume advocates.  Instead, it is a sense of multivalent reciprocity between these various human capacities and divine activity.

See Hamann's letters to F H Jacobi of April and May 1784 in ZH VII, 177-8.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Being Promised: Theology, Gift, and Practice

I have a book coming out in August 2013 with W. B. Eerdmans Publishing.  Its title is:  "Being Promised:  Theology, Gift, and Practice."

This is the summary I wrote of it:

Promise is an underdeveloped metaphor for the Triune God's gracious actions in contemporary theology. Being Promised addresses this oversight by arguing that promise is itself a kind of gift exchange and analyzes the power, time, and liturgical place of the Triune God's promise. Gregory Walter offers a theological analysis of promise by using anthropological and phenomenological reflection on gift exchange to support his argument.  Walter considers how the Spirit’s descent at Pentecost shows that God’s promise is a weak form of power and that promise enables Christian practice, the confrontation of impure giving and misrecognition.  He concludes with an account of the Eucharist as the topology of promise, putting forward the ecclesiological and eschatological dimensions of promise.  His argument begins with an analysis of the Hospitality of Sarah and Abraham to develop the phenomenon of promise as gift.  No other book theologically examines promise and gift exchange as this one does.

Bible and Comics

I teach, along with most members of the Religion department at St Olaf College, a Bible course for first-year students.  This is probably the most important course I teach.

So I'm doing it with comic books.  This Spring, 2013.

Well, not really just comic books.  The curriculum that guides this course states that I teach the major narratives and genres of the Bible, I should also teach the historical-critical and literary interpretation of the Bible along with how communities use this Bible.  This latter imperative is a nod to the cultural and theological life of the Bible so as not to treat it as artifact or as one might in a "Bible as literature" program.  As well as to note that this is not just a course in reading for which any other set of writings might do but that the Bible has sustained contemporary significance.

I've taught various takes on this course in the past. I'm not sure one can expect to have any course fit together in that pleasing sense that one might get from a finished chapter or article.  But I thought it was high time to try something new.

The plan:

1.  The core.  Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics is a brilliant work about reading, interpretation, and meaning in the juxtaposition of text and image. It's not as great as System of Comics by Thierry Groensteen (U of Mississippi Press, 2009)

2.  I have selected several major genres of biblical material and paired comics that somehow embrace the material.  Luckily, there are several Manga that approach the Bible A to Z with some success.  Also, R. Crumb's Genesis is brilliant.  And Rabbi Harvey shall ride again with the wisdom literature.  Unfortunately, Punk Rock Jesus was not available at the beginning of the term.

3.  Introduce the way that comics can alter and adapt the biblical texts.  This can be done well or horribly, good or bad, and develop technical language to aid students to talk about the meaning of biblical texts so adapted.  The final assignment is to select a comic and demonstrate how it uses biblical material, showing what happens to the meaning(s) of the text in its reworking in comic form.  I shall demonstrate how this works with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and christological texts.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Atrocity not Tragedy

I have no words for disasters like the recent Boston Marathon bombings.  Which means that I prefer to call them atrocities rather than tragedies.

I don't mean to nitpick but I'd rather stick to the semantics of the senseless than the cathartic.  I'm not going to get any effect out of trauma and try to squeeze it into a useful or manageable meaning.  Trauma and atrocity, after all, are those events that we can never master.

Call them atrocities.  Horrors and fears.