Saturday, October 11, 2014

To Run and Plan Liturgy is To Know the Christian Faith

There are two ratios whose truth has been manifest to me:  a town with more liquor licenses than churches is a town you can trust and a church with more lay people leading worship than pastors is a church you can enjoy.  The first ratio has a lot to do with my prejudices about American Christianity and is probably suspect, especially given the many problems Americans have with alcohol.  But the latter is really important.

Most letters of call in the ELCA state that a pastor is responsible for public worship or the liturgy.  This responsibility is right and meet.  But to leave a wide swath of lay people out of the planning and performance of liturgy is to neglect a massively important and regular means of Christian formation and catechesis.  It further can be a means of aggregation of power in the one truly common thing that a congregation does together:  worship and listen to God's Word.

Some people may have no interest.  Pastors may think it inefficient.  But praying, selecting hymns, considering art for worship, arranging space, and reading lessons are all decisions that both require and give entry into the many important questions of the Christian faith.  Planning has to be done, so why not make it an avenue of Christian formation?

The other benefit of this is that worship will be truly public.  Pastors and staff worship leaders have their proclivities and private enthusiasms that ought not be foisted on the congregation.  Lay people have questions and complaints.  All of these things deserve a regular forum.

So, increase the number of people involved in the regularity of worship planning. Split up the assisting minister roles among multiple lay persons.  Require monthly rotating service on the planning group of all members.  This requires Bible-study, requires prayer, requires charitable conversation.  It requires asking questions of how to be hospitable, to be welcoming, to be evangelical in the best sense. 

Of course this would require a new kind of vulnerability for many pastors and worship staff.  They are used to making their decisions on their own.  But if members of a planning committee start to suggest to a pastor what she or he should take as his or her point entry for a sermon, perhaps pastors would benefit as well.  If we are to make catechesis permeate everything we do, then planning liturgy together can benefit everyone.

Monday, July 7, 2014

How Not to Compare The Lord of the Rings and A Game of Thrones

The Lord of the Rings and A Game of Thrones seem like they bear comparison.  They both have cultures that rely on swords and horses.  They both have learned sages and wicked rulers, strange creatures and fantastic architecture.  They both engross and require pause from their readers.

But they really don't have anything in common.  They do such different things that they belong to two different worlds.  And these worlds are further apart than Middle Earth and Westeros could ever be.

[I'll refer to these two works as LOTR and AGOT even though the latter is more properly ASOIAF.]

My main point here is:  AGOT is Daniel Defoe and Stendhal and Hemingway.  LOTR is Joyce and Pynchon and Woolf.  AGOT is hyper-modern; LOTR is post-modern.  AGOT is our world with additions.  LOTR is another world all together.  The difference between the two works is the difference between realist novels and modernist literature.

Any argument about these two works really depends upon the purpose to which this literature is put.  AGOT is a realist novel and fantasy literature.  LOTR is faerie, that is, a constructed form of modernism that rejects the realist novel.  AGOT is realist in that the narrator is the traditional, modern third-person narrator; there are chapters that are written in the first-person but these are the exception.  LOTR is a "found manuscript."  It is written by two characters in the book.  It is translated into English.  It is a fragment of a larger story.

The things that AGOT has in spades are conventions of the realist novel:  characters we can identify with motives that we share.  Even if we may never stare into the Dothraki Sea or go north of the Wall, we breathe the same air as the characters who do.

Faerie does things differently.  It does not give us extensions of ourselves but grotesque and utterly strange forms that make sense only in that other world.  Trees that have names identical to their deeds.  Halflings identical to us except for the furry feet.  And the tough hides.  This is not our world.  If it is, it is the world utterly changed.  It is Charles Dickens's famous moment.  Sitting in a coffee-room, he saw the sign outside and read it backwards:  MOOREEFFOC.  Transfixed, he was homeless and alien.  He saw everything anew.  AGOT does none of this -- indeed, no realist novel does this.  It merely adds to what we already experience, perhaps a richer set of actions, a deeper set of motives, a bit more psychology.

It may seem that these features -- the fallen and fractured human beings, the mixed motives, and the full range of human experience -- means that AGOT is somehow closer to us, that the world of hobbits is more "escapist."   But, in actuality, these are just features of the realist novel.  Westeros should reflect our own world.  It gives us ourselves back without change.  For all of Martin's innovations in the realist novel, such as the remarkable fluidity of protagonist and antagonist, he remains bound to the kind of negative escapism that does not conjure human possibility.  Rather, it endorses a kind of conservative cynicism, accepting the situation as we see it.  Or at least how some of us see things.  Life is horrid and anyone may die.

Faerie and modernism generally does not accept the novel to be a simple reflection of ourselves.  Whether it is Joyce or Tolkien, what others call escapism in LOTR is not flight but rather the creative exploration of possibility -- science fiction may also join this kind of liberative fiction, as can the more powerful detective fiction.  These writers touch the edge of what is possible, they break what is expected.  Realist novels can scandalize and transgress, to be sure, but they maintain a basic pact with the world.  This contract they will never breach:  that the world is sealed and its possibilities given.

Granted, Martin has not yet finished his books yet.  We may find that his bait-and-switch tactics with various protagonists may result in the emergence of a standard plot with one or more of the surviving minor-become-major characters.  His elves may come back.  His dragons may become terrible and desirable.  But if they do, he will have to escape the orbit in which his books have firmly settled, the orbit of the realist novel that is escapist in the most mundane sense.

We deserve a world that expands beyond the possibilities of the present day; we demand more than just what is the bare given to us.  And so we need to be able to see beyond conflict and characters and desires.  LOTR and AGOT really belong to two completely different worlds and two fundamentally different kinds of literature.  AGOT may break some of our vision but things like LOTR can open us up beyond what we could ever see.  Whether we need to have that possibility or if we should just rest with what we have is another question.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Things are Bigger on the Inside than the Out: Doctor-Who-Object-Oriented Ontology

We should be about enlarging rather than reducing.   We should be multiplying the names for things, not boiling them down to one.  We need a Doctor-Who-Object-Oriented Ontology (DWOOO).

I'm not much for reductionism, which usually means that appearances are not what they seem but that what is about religion, for instance, is really about self-delusion in all its cases.  This means that what may seem to be about God (God is love) is really about one's own trauma or wish-fulfillment.  (Of course there are many cases where something that is religious has nothing to do with religion -- a reductionist is consistent and thorough, not ad hoc and nimble to say:  this particular view of God is not God but instead a product of your own self-interest.) 

I think there can be reduction but not to an absolute bottom nor a final resting place.  I can understand that some want to work with objects, some with events, some with relations, and some with substances.  And I can respect the turn away from the priority of epistemology that Graham Harman and others advocate.

But things are bigger on the inside then they are on the out.  They are much bigger.  This is what the Doctor says of the TARDIS but I think it is about all things.  To put this in the terms of Thomas Aquinas' theology of the creature, creation is the depth of mystery.  I can take issue with lots things in Thomas' theology and philosophy but this is the most important that I've found.  If what a thing is is its relation to God, that is, its essence and existence alike (in Thomas' terms), then there is a kind of mystery appropriate to creatures.  Things may appear one way but there is a depth to them, an abyss that opens once one contemplates the most common chickadee and the most sublime natural scene.

No one can say what a thing is for sure -- not because what they are is simply too small to view (Locke) or because of a difficulty with our mental or sensory equipment -- but because we are dealing with a mystery that always remains in all things. Is God an event, a person, a being, a constellation of relations, a being-beyond-being?  The reductionist wants one of these, perhaps two.  God is that which makes things the mystery that they are.

The only way to get at things, though in this mystery, is not the positive depth that they disclose but the moment of injury.  We can't think that our efforts to reduce and squelch the mystery of things are so easily overcome.  Rather, it is the cross, the theologia crucis that opens up the way to disclose the truth of things.  When we try to get at things to name them one thing, to siphon off their mystery and freedom, that moment, that pain, is the pain of the cross and so the point at which we might discover the depth of all things.

You might say that this is all a new form of an old theology.  You'd be right.  It's the real name of that ancient writer hidden behind a psuedo-nym:  Dionysius the Areopagite.  And one more Doctor, whose theology is usually taken to be the opposite of that so-called Dionysius:  Martin Luther.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Church Without Any Place in a Post-Secular Age

I've got peregrenetic Christians on my mind.  Aragorn (who wanders but is not lost) in my dreams.

I've been teaching Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Tegel or Prison Theology to my undergraduates.  Teaching the Tegel material has some challenges to it since the old Harper edition that is well within a student budget lacks some material and the Fortress edition is hardback and priced completely out of reach.  But that aside, probably one of the most challenging parts of Bonhoeffer's theology is the third chapter of his book outline for religionless Christianity in his August 3, 1944 letter.  This chapter concerns Christian community.

The challenge comes from the theological necessity Bonhoeffer draws for Christians to abandon any church property, building, pastoral salary, and presumably any other ... what? After pages of reflection on spirituality, criticism of long-standing traditions of the concept of God's power, Bonhoeffer comes to some conclusions about the institutional shape of Christianity and urges them to abandon any form of place, whether a church building or even perhaps any kind of direct public presence whatsoever, which nowadays would include presence in any kind of public, whether spatial, virtual, or networked.

Many Christians accept most of Bonhoeffer's attempt to formulate a Christianity suitable to a post-secular age where religion has disappeared all together.  It is all very well to run with him on the theological concepts or his "nonreligious interpretation of biblical concepts," which is the bulk of his reflections.  But his final insistence that Christian community exist permanently in borrowed rooms is quite difficult to sign on the dotted line.  It's enough of a shock that this outline is usually dismissed as Bonhoeffer's fragmentary and inchoate thoughts that he did not have enough time to develop.

Actually, this church-without-place is part and parcel of any Christianity without religion.

Bonhoeffer's idea of a religionless age corresponds to many currents of thought in reflection on the secular and post-secular.  Instead of lamenting the increase of the "none's" or the decline of the cultural influence of Christianity, Bonhoeffer takes secularization as the key to Christians becoming a community for others, to truly become the body of Christ.

The basis of this idea is that of religion.  Though Bonhoeffer seems to rely on the critique of religion that comes from Karl Barth and others, for him religion is any social or cultural arrangement that pushes God to the gaps of life, to the periphery.  This means that a religious use of Christianity pushes God into a compartment -- a restricted sphere of life, whether it is the soul, whether it is a set of practices called discipleship, or some gap of human knowledge about how the mind works or how the universe came into being.  A world come of age, or a wholly secular and therefore post-secular world has no gaps in it.  There is no place for God to hide out.  Whether it is the person who is anxious over death or has lost a great deal, there is no need for God there.  There is a fully worldly explanation for this or that and so God is not in the picture at all.  This is the process known as differentiation according to theorists of secularization.

For Christians to obtain a separate sphere where they do their thing on their own is to perpetuate the God of the gaps.  It is to carve out a niche for God where none need be.  And, for Bonhoeffer, what this means most of all is that it betrays the claim of Christ on the whole of life, to use his idiom. Strangely, for God to be pushed out of the world is for God to be in the world.  This pattern seems to combine strange fabric:  God is with the world when God is without the world.  The pattern Bonhoeffer finds is the pattern of the crucified God.  And so for God to be God, the suffering God who alone can save the world, Christians must be public only in serving others.  Bonhoeffer perhaps betrays his liberal theological heritage here even as he fulfills it.  This "life for others" is the fulfillment of the arcana, the secrets that Christians hide from view: the Eucharist and Scripture.  To Bonhoeffer reading Scripture out loud profanes it because its use is only in bringing its hearers to live for others.  The Eucharist is hidden and never made visible since it is only seen in the life of the baptized.  Only the service, only the life for others is the publicity of the otherwise hidden church.

Only by being utterly secretive about Christian liturgy (Scripture, Eucharist, baptism) can Christians be public in a secular age.

It is as if Christians ought to take the guise of Strider, covered over and without place.
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Baptismal Hospitality and The Eucharist: Preliminary Theses

1.  Baptism is the public face of Christian mission.

1.1.  Most properly, the baptized are properly the public face of Christian mission.  Their actions and identities are what the world sees.  "You are our letters." 2 Cor 3:2.

1.2.  Public reasoning progresses not from Christ but from the way that baptism liberates creation to be creation.  It does not advance specific Christian reasons, a kind of knowledge that is only available to the baptized but advances a kind of solidarity.

2.  Hospitality can only equally apply to the Eucharist if it does the same thing as baptism.

2.1.  Sacraments are not uniform.  They do not deliver the same "grace" or the same sort of thing and so they are related to one another and not just different delivery systems of the same goods.  The medium is the message.  Baptism does one thing, the Eucharist another.

2.2.1.  Baptism welcomes.

2.2.2.  The Eucharist reinvigorates, sustains, and holds forth the end of the baptismal journey.

2.2.  Hospitality concerns invitation to baptism.  Eucharist only follows after the welcome of baptism.

3.  The Eucharistic liturgy has remain largely unchanged despite drastic changes in the public and private, in Christendom and now, after Christendom.

4.  It would seem that the most hospitable act would be to welcome to the Eucharist without restriction but that would be to perpetuate the liturgy as warped by Christendom.

5.  Thus, contemporary efforts to hospitality should be driven by a welcome of baptism.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Four Theses On What Weak Power Is Not

Weak power is an incredibly important concept in political theology.  Walter Benjamin has articulated it in his On The Concept of History.  I have examined this concept in detail in my recent book, Being Promised.

It is hard to succinctly define weak power without contrasting it with other forms of power.  Here I hold out several negative theses to begin such a discussion:

1.  Weak power is not self-restraint.  Weak power does not originate from any power one has.  It is not taken up or learned.

2.  Weak power is not pretending to be weaker than one is.  If one's power is weak it simply is such -- it emerges from another and cannot be mechanized, expected, or otherwise planned-for.

3.  Weak power is not "slumming" or somehow allowing oneself to be taking by another.  That is a self-restraint whereby I am negating or limiting myself.   Weak power is not a phone call away from being restored to a stronger or more forceful power.

4.  And, regarding the interpretation of Paul's discussion of power in 1 and 2 Corinthians:  God's power is not stronger than our strength because humans can only reach 10 and God is an 11.  Rather, God's weakness is weaker than any weakness we might have.

Benjamin, Walter. “On the Concept of History.” In Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 4:  1938-1940, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Translated by Edmund Jephcott et al., pp. 389-400.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 2003.

Walter, Gregory.  Being Promised:  Theology, Gift, and Practice (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).

Friday, February 7, 2014

J.R.R. Tolkien Minimalist Bibliography

This is my shortlist and an essential guide to the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien.  I've decided to create this list because the various editions of Tolkien's work can be quite confusing, especially given the range of publications and even copyright scandals that Tolkien's work has experienced in the United States.  There are a few works that at the moment only can be found in the UK but because they represent variations of  Tolkien's books that cannot otherwise be found, I recommend them here.  Also, I don't include links to booksellers because the information there can also get muddled.


1.  The Lord of the Rings.  50th anniversary edition.  2005. paper.  ISBN  978-0618640157

This is the edition to get.  Forget picking up mass market paperback editions.  Instead, you should find your way to this, the most accurate and essential edition of LOTR.  Edited by W.  Hammond and C. Scull, this edition finally corrects the text of tremendous error, provides corrected maps, and includes a full index.  The introduction by D. Anderson tells the sorry history of the publication of the LOTR in the US.  This version sets everything right.  There are two higher grade bindings of this edition:  I prefer the "deluxe edition" (ISBN 978-0544273443) which is better bound than the paper and more easily handled than the most expensive hardbound with slipcase (ISBN 978-0618517657)

2.  The Hobbit.  Cover by Peter Sis.  2001. Hardbound.  ISBN 978-0618150823

There are other versions of the Hobbit available but this is the most readable and the most accessible to you and to younger Hobbits you may know.  The 1973 hardbound with slipcase edition (ISBN 9780395177112) includes all of Tolkien's illustrations as well as the realization of his ideas for the cover illustrations.  Interested readers of all of Tolkien's illustrations can find them collected in the excellent book The Art of the Hobbit, eds. W. Hammond and C. Skull (ISBN 978-0547928258).  

3.  The Silmarillion.  Ed. Christopher Tolkien.  2nd. ed.  Hardbound.  ISBN 9780618135042

This is the book that Tolkien wanted to publish but never got to.  Hobbits got in the way.  Tolkien's unfinished writings on, in, and about Middle Earth exceed but include this fantastic book called the Silmarillion.  This volume, edited by Tolkien's son Christopher Tolkien, includes the creation of Middle Earth (the amazing Ainulindale) and the downfall of the human civilization known as Numenor.  

4.  On Fairy Stories.  

While planning a sequel to The Hobbit, Tolkien was invited to give a lecture about fairy stories.  This essay was the result.  It represents a significant reflection on aesthetics, ethics, and theology.  It is essential to Tolkien.  I love this essay so much it almost eclipses my love of the other writings!  

The problem is that the best edition of this is unavailable in the US.  Tree and Leaf (ISBN 9780007105045) contains the essay as well as the parallel poem on faerie "Mythopoeia."  Older editions of this book can be found used but they are scarce.  The cheapest way to get the essay is in the mass market paperback The Tolkien Reader (ISBN 9780345345066). You may find a better version of it included in the collection Tales from the Perilous Realm, 2008 (ISBN 9780547154114).


5.  History of Middle Earth (12 vols) and Unfinished Tales.  Various editions.

You should only start reading these things until after you have read the appendices to LOTR and the entire Silmarillion.  The History of Middle Earth and Unfinished Tales are collections of various manuscripts and writings of Tolkien some of which Christopher Tolkien edited to create the Silmarillion.  This is hard to wade through but worth every effort.

6.  Artist & Illustrator, eds. W. Hammond and C. Skull.  2000.  Paper. ISBN  978-0618083619.

A fine collection of Tolkien's art that either land the ground for his writing or was intended to accompany it.  Essential to pondering the interaction of his text and visual art.

7.  The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. H. Carpenter.  2001.  Paper.  ISBN 9780618056996

Reflections on the Hobbits, their economy of birthdays, among discussions of evil, the relationships of characters, theological speculation, and ordinary human laments make these letters indispensable for any reader of Tolkien.