Thursday, April 29, 2010

Out and About

"Out and about" is a Canadianism. Friends in the States inevitably tease us when we say it ("oot and aboot?," they ask). Yeah, it gets old... Anyway, here are a few of my recent essays, articles, and reviews from around the web that might be of interest:
  • "Practice Overload? A Response to Willimon" at the Duke Divinity Call & Response blog--responding to Willimon's recent recantation of practice-talk.
  • "Whose Rome? Which Catholicism?," a review of Francis Beckwith's Return to Rome, over at The Other Journal
  • "Making Sense of Church," with my friend and sociology colleague Mark Mulder, in Perspectives (March 2010). This makes the case for a "Chalcedonian" approach to congregational studies, integrating theology and sociology to understand the church.
  • My poem, "We Learn to Love," won 2nd place in the Comment magazine rondeau competition (focused on the theme of education) last fall, and is now available online.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Poetry and the End of Theology

Theology is not usually home to imagination and creativity. Indeed, the sober vocation of the theologian looks on creativity as a temptation, the lure of novelty as a dangerous seduction. The fuel of theology is not the imagination but the intellect. It traffics not in metaphors but propositions, those terse building blocks of arguments and outlines and doctrines. The republic of theology, like Plato’s city, is built on the exile of the poets whose “fictions” are a dangerous distraction.

But how did a discourse so uncreative become the deputized voice of the Creator? How did a genre so flat and sober and unimaginative become the official mouthpiece of a God who created platypuses and larkspur? Frankly, how did the boring disquisitions of “systematic” theology emerge as the authoritative voice for a people who follow a story-teller like Jesus?

Well, there’s a story to be told here. To make it short: theology picked up some very bad habits in modernity. In particular, and most disastrously, theology somehow became enamored with a rather Cartesian picture of human persons that reduced us to brains-on-a-stick—to cognitive processors temporarily (and regrettably) housed in bodies. On this account, we are essentially “thinking things”—and “systematic” theology bought such thinking-thing-ism hook, line, and thinker. The result was that the story of God’s wonder-working was boiled down and reduced to “beliefs” that could be formulated in propositions, lodged in syllogisms, and linked together in learned treatises. What’s worse, preaching became captive to the same thinking-thing-ism with the sermon reduced to a lecture for cognitive machines.

But what if we are not essentially “thinking things?” What if we are the sorts of animals who love before we think? What if we imagine the world before we perceive it? What if we are not just minds regrettably housed in these meaty frames but rather embodied creatures who make our way in the world through the gift of the senses?

Then wouldn’t images and metaphors be our most natural way of making sense of the world? Wouldn’t story be our first and most natural language—and the language of propositions and syllogisms an acquired, artificial habit? Indeed, wouldn’t fiction and poetry be closer to the truth?

These are the sorts of questions that haunt me as a philosopher and theologian—as someone who makes his living in a world where propositions are the coin of the realm. What if poetry is the end of theology? That is, what if poetry is the telos of theology—its goal and aim? What if the so-called truths of theology are just dimmed-down intimations of the rich truth that can be embodied in the imaginative worlds of poetry and fiction? Then wouldn’t Graham Greene and Franz Wright be more faithful good-news-tellers than most of our theologians? Wouldn’t the short story be our most faithful genre? Wouldn’t the novel be our most powerful explication of the human condition? Wouldn’t poetry be our most intense site of revelation? Could we imagine theology otherwise?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Church, Christian Scholars, and "Little Miss Sunshine"

I'm not a digital native, as they say, so I'm always learning to catch up to technology: texting still gives me fits; I'm not on Facebook ("MyFace" in 30-Rock-speak); and I have no idea how Twitter works, or what it's for. But it was cool to discover that the opening chapter of The Devil Reads Derrida is available on Google Books, and that I could embed it here (I know, I know: "yawn" for most of you). Anyway, here's a snippet from the introductory essay that frames the work of Christian scholarship as "public intellectual" labor.

Monday, April 26, 2010

May Music Samplers

I'm looking forward to two new releases in May: Josh Ritter's next album, So Runs the World Away, will debut on May 4. And then The National, of Boxer fame, will release their new album High Violet on May 11.

But in a kind of already/not yet anticipation, right now you can listen to both albums in their entirety:
Needless to say, both are the soundtrack for my Monday labors today.

For the Record, Cont'd

In Sunday's Grand Rapids Press, the editor Paul M. Keep responded to my earlier letter about their coverage of a tea party event. As you may recall, I called into question their grand claims about attendance at the event given the complete lack of any evidence to substantiate those claims. In response to my letter, Keep says the following:
We prefer journalism to illusions. It is a little hard for me to understand an argument that covering a tea party rally in our area amounts to poor journalism, but several readers have told me that. Tea party activities have made national news and are of interest to a lot of Press readers. I think this boils down to a situation where a reader disagrees with what the tea party stands for and is taking out that frustration on the messenger, The Press.
I'm not sure whether Keep is cynical or willfully ignorant (maybe both?). In any case, he seems in dire need of a liberal arts education that might teach him how to read a text or discern an "argument." There is not a single sentence in my letter which calls into question whether The Press should cover a tea party event. The issue is how it was covered. How one could miss that point baffles me, and is particularly disappointing when one considers that this person--who doesn't seem to be able to read--governs what news is read in West Michigan.

And to think that I, in a moment of weakness, had just re-subscribed to The Press after the fiasco of their John McCain endorsement...

Friday, April 16, 2010

For the Record

Somehow the Grand Rapids Press managed to completely garble my letter to the editor regarding their coverage of a recent "Tea Party" event. For the record, I here provide the my correct text of my letter, and have pasted the photo that appeared with the print version of the story in last Sunday's paper.

The Grand Rapids Press should perhaps change its format to a tabloid layout. That would be more appropriate for the kind of journalism featured on the front page of the Sunday paper. There a story headline proclaimed "Tea timers turn out in force." The article itself claimed that they "packed" Riverside Park for a rally on Saturday.

But curiously, the only picture we're offered is a cropped shot of two people. (A "packed" Riverside Park would be a site to behold. No picture available?) Furthermore, the article provides not a single estimate of the number attending the rally.

You can do better. Whether you want to is the question. Or would the Press, in league with talk radio, prefer to cynically foment an illusion?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Forthcoming: Thinking in Tongues

Eerdmans has just rolled out the announcement for a new venture: the "Pentecostal Manifestos" series which I'm co-editing with my good friend, Amos Yong. This will be a series of scholarly books from a pentecostal/charismatic perspective, speaking into wider conversations in theology and Christian scholarship. You can see a bit about the series here.

And I'm very excited that one of the first books in the series will be my own contribution, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to a Christian Philosophy. This should be available in late June; in fact, we're planning a bit of a launch event in conjunction with my lecture on the same theme at Regent College in Vancouver, June 30, 2010.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What I'm Listening To: Mumford & Sons

Every once in a while I become obsessed, infected with a CD. The most recent is one that my son, Coleson, put me onto: "Sigh No More" from Mumford & Sons, a West London band whose melancholic melodies just bore down into my soul (and my own melancholy). You can listen to a healthy dose of samples on their MySpace page.

It is now the official soundtrack of the "Cultural Liturgies" project! Maybe it's the mandolin, or the haunting sigh in the lead voice, or the hint of banjo every once in a while, but I have not been able to turn it off.

And on top of all its affective power are poetic lyrics that convey a certain earthly mysticism. Consider, for instance, the opening track, "Sigh No More":
Love that will not betray you,
dismay or enslave you,
It will set you free
To be more like the man
you were made to be.
There is a design,
An alignment to cry,
At my heart you see,
The beauty of love
as it was made to be.

It doesn't get any more Augustinian than that! Or consider this snippet on love and embodiment from "Awake My Soul":
In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die;
Where you invest your love, you invest your life.
That could pretty much read as an epigraph of Desiring the Kingdom. These selections don't do justice to the interplay between music and lyrics. Give them a listen.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Other Journal Podcast

When I was out in Seattle last fall for the "Faith, Film, and Justice" conference, I sat down for an interview with Tom Ryan, host of The Other Journal Podcast, a new venture from our friends over at TOJ.

They've launched this venture with sources from the conference and, in addition to posting the audio of my lecture ("Fearless Speech, Courageous Eyes"), they've just posted a new interview with me about a range of themes, particularly around Desiring the Kingdom. Tom does a nice job of just giving me room to ramble, priming the pump in some provocative ways. Check it out.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Life from Death: Of Soil and Stones Rolled Away

Easter Sunday was a beautiful spring day here in Grand Rapids, so in the spirit of sabbath-keeping we actually set about laboring in our gardens. Such work is restorative in many ways: it's a labor of stewardship, but it's also get-your-hands-dirty work that is a welcome change from the cerebral labor of my week. Sometimes work is rest.

But this first day digging into the garden was particularly special this year. All last summer we were dumping the detritus of our eating and living into a vast compost at the back of the yard. Carrot peels and avocado skins, maple leaves and pea pods, all piled in hope and expectation that from this waste would come soil. For this process, the death-dealing of winter is actually a period of incubation.

And so we expectantly pried the pitchfork into the pile and cracked open the crust, peering beneath. To our delight and surprise, the gray layer gave way to a dark, rich humus teeming with big, juicy worms. "That's black gold!," my wife giddily observed. As we trucked loads of this new soil over to the garden, it was hard to resist the analogy: that here in our backyard was its own kind of resurrection--that from death was springing life that would now give abundant life to our parsnips and eggplant and zucchini.

The analogy has its dangers. I don't want to backhandedly naturalize Good Friday with a kind of biological necessity. But might it be that resurrection is kind of "natural?" That the creation called into being by our life-giving Creator has an impulsion to triumph over death? That the Son in whom this all holds together put on display the resurrecting impulse of his creation in an especially intense way?

In any case, it seems to me that we hit upon a new Easter tradition--that nothing could be more appropriate than rolling away the stones and getting our hands dirty in the gift of new soil, with hopes of life to come.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

New Season of Deadliest Catch

[Yes, it's been a while since a post here at Fors Clavigera--not that I think anyone has missed it. I observed a blog fast for Lent, and have since been swamped with my real job. It was good for me to have been away from it, but hope to get back to my usual irregularity.]

This Tuesday is a big day: the season premier of Deadliest Catch. The trailer for this season is a work of art in itself (see below): a moving little slice of documentary affectively backgrounded by Eddie Vedder's "Rise." No doubt the emotional force of this is amplified for devotees who are also thinking about the death of Captain Phil during the filming of this season. I continue to find this a compelling family drama that will get me through til the new season of Mad Men.