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.