Friday, December 25, 2009

Remember the Feast(s)

Christmas Is Really For the Children

By Steve Turner

Christmas is really
for the children.
Especially for children
who like animals, stables,
stars and babies wrapped
in swaddling clothes.
Then there are wise men,
kings in fine robes,
humble shepherds and a
hint of rich perfume.

Easter is not really
for the children
unless accompanied by
a cream filled egg.
It has whips, blood, nails,
a spear and allegations
of body snatching.
It involves politics, God
and the sins of the world.
It is not good for people
of a nervous disposition.
They would do better to
think on rabbits, chickens
and the first snowdrop
of spring.

Or they'd do better to
wait for a re-run of
Christmas without asking
too many questions about
what Jesus did when he grew up
or whether there's any connection.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christianity and the Crash

Hanna Rosin's Atlantic article, "Did Christianity Cause the Crash?," has generated a fair bit of conversation. The core thesis is that something like Joel Osteen's prosperity gospel planted seeds of greed that overstretched many--and that subprime mortgage sharks found these congregations to be, well, "prime" targets.

The folks at Immanent Frame have pulled together a little symposium of responses from a diverse array of voices, including my friends Anthea Butler, D. Stephen Long, and Michael Horton, along with other scholars such as Harvey Cox, Mark C. Taylor, William Connolly, and Jonathan Walton, and several others (including me). [We were instructed to keep our responses to 300 words; I see some of my peers had a little trouble counting words! ;-)]

Consider joining the conversation over at IF.

This also lends a new frame to my article from last spring, "What's Right with the Prosperity Gospel?"

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Q&A on "Desiring the Kingdom" at

Over at "ThinkChristian," Nathan Bierma poses a few questions to me about my argument in Desiring the Kingdom. Check it out, along with some of the other cultural commentary at the ThinkChristian site.

Update: A slightly expanded version of the same Q&A is available on the blog of the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Top Reads 2009

Not wanting to be left out of the fun, over at What I'm Reading I've begun the annual ritual of reading retrospection, highlighting some of my favorite reads from the past year. I've begun with five of my favorite short stories read in 2009.

I'm hoping to follow up with posts on poetry, non-fiction, and fiction. We'll see...there's a fresh stack of exams sitting here on the desk waiting to be graded, staring at me with an accusatory eye. All the more reason to blog!

Thursday, December 17, 2009


In the midst of grading papers from a Philosophy of Language seminar now past, seeing students wrangle with Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandom--with the game-relative nature of meaning, the contexts of our linguistic practice--and looking for any sort of sloth-inducing distraction from this work, somehow Albert Goldbarth's poem, "Sentimental" came to mind. (Perhaps because the overarching question in the course, which I pressed regularly, was this: "What sort of philosophy of language does it take to account for poetry--to account for why we read poetry?")

What counts as "sentimental?," the poem asks. What difference does context make? And why should we think sentimental is simply synonymous with "bad?" Is "sentimental" the charge of cynicism? What if it turns out that sentimentality is part of the fabric of our being-in-the-world?




The light has traveled unthinkable thousands of miles to be
condensed, recharged, and poured off the white white pages
of an open Bible the country parson holds in front of this couple
in a field, in July, in the sap and the flyswirl of July
in upper Wisconsin, where their vows buzz in a ring in the air
like the flies, and are as sweet as the sap, in these rich and ritual minutes.
Is it sentimental? Oops. And out of that Bible the light continues
to rush as if from a faucet. There will be a piecrust cooling
out of its own few x’ed-out cuts. And will it make us run
for the picklier taste of irony rolled around protectively on our tongues
like a grab of Greek olives? My students and I discuss this
slippery phenomenon. Does “context” matter? Does
“earned” count? If a balled-up fidget of snakes
in the underbrush dies in a freeze is it sentimental? No,
yes, maybe. What if a litter of cocker spaniels? What
if we called them “puppydogs” in the same poem in that same hard,
hammering winter? When my father was buried,
the gray snow in the cemetery was sheet tin. If I said
that? Yes, no, what does “tone” or “history” do
to the Hollywood hack violinists who patiently wait to play
the taut nerves of the closest human body until from that
lush cue alone, the eyes swell moistly, and the griefs
we warehouse daily take advantage of this thinning
of our systems, then the first sloppy gushes begin . . .
Is that “wrong”? Did I tell you the breaths
of the gravediggers puffed out like factorysmoke
as they bent and straightened, bent and straightened,
mechanically? Are wise old (toothless) Black blues singers
sentimental?—“gran’ma”? “country cookin’”? But
they have their validity, don't they, yes? their
sweat-in-the-creases, picking up the lighting
in a fine-lined mesh of what it means to have gone through time
alive a little bit on this planet. Hands shoot up . . . opinions . . .
questions . . . What if the sun wept? the moon? Why, in the face
of those open faces, are we so squeamish? Call out
the crippled girl and her only friend the up-for-sale foal,
and let her tootle her woeful pennywhistle musics.
What if some chichi streetwise junkass from the demimonde
gave forth with the story of orphans forced through howling storm
to the workhouse, letting it swing between the icy-blue
quotation marks of cynicism—then? What if
I wept? What if I simply put the page down,
rocked my head in my own folded elbows, forgot
the rest of it all, and wept? What if I stepped into
the light of that page, a burnished and uncompromising
light, and walked back up to his stone a final time,
just that, no drama, and it was so cold,
and the air was so brittle, metal buckled
out song like a bandsaw, and there, from inside me,
where they’d been lost in shame and sophistry
all these years now, every last one of my childhood’s
heartwormed puppydogs found its natural voice.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Two to Remember in Your Year-End Giving

My guess is that, like me, you're receiving a barrage of end-of-year solicitations from all sorts of good organizations and ministries who are struggling to continue their good work--particularly in a difficult economic climate. There are many that deserve our support. Let me encourage you to consider just two:

The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee is a ministry committed to global justice and mercy in all sorts of way. As they put it on their website, the "CRWRC responds on your behalf and with your help to the needs of people who suffer from poverty, hunger, disaster, and injustice." Consider making a donation today, and perhaps becoming a regular supporter.

As Fors Clavigera readers well know, I'm a big fan of Comment magazine (published by the Cardus Foundation). It is a singular magazine publishing material that is wise, provocative, stimulating, and generous. They are especially important in reaching the next generation with a winsome vision of kingdom-building commitment to shalom. Do consider making a donation to help keep this work going.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Still Hope?

In Jay Neugeboren's review of Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer's Life (Other Press, 2009), which tracks Greenberg's (relatively late) emergence as a "writer" (in his early fifties), Neugeboren makes the following disclosure, reflecting on Greenberg's tale:

"I found myself noting that I had myself accumulated, by my count, 576 rejections before I sold my first story, and more than two thousand rejections on eight unpublished books before I sold my first novel. What keeps writers going, as it does Greenberg, is a sense that though, when rejected or ignored, we may feel such things intensely, we learn not to take them personally."

Strangely encouraging...

Friday, December 11, 2009

"Wendy and Lucy"

Kelly Reichardt's film, Wendy and Lucy, is a mesmerizing adaptation of Jon Raymond's story, "Train Choir." Reichardt well captures Raymond's Pacific Northwest--a solitary, derelict region, yet populated with quick conversationalists and in-breakings of charity, bringing to mind other Oregon films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or even The Postman (indeed, Will Patton makes a showing both in Wendy and Lucy and The Postman).

I was particularly struck by how Reichhardt takes ownership of the short story as a film. From the voyeur-like opening slide of the camera, long peering at Wendy and her dog Lucy from behind the bushes, Reichardt is a master of suspense on a thread. Indeed, the film regularly points up how thin our securities are--how little stands between us and either danger or destitution. (For example, what looks like the insecure exposure of sleeping in a car can, by the end of the film, look like a veritable fortress compared to the alternatives.)

The very sparsity of the film is also short-story-like (yea, Raymond-Carver-like). Michelle Williams (as Wendy) carries an entire story on her back, wearing the same drab apparel for the entire film. Reichardt never lets the camera give us one of those sprawling, breath-taking panoramic views of lush Oregon hills. Instead, she takes a vow of cinematic chastity and poverty. The environs of the story are equally drab and depressing--which is just to say that Reichardt's camera honestly looks at--honestly sees--the delapidated, broken-down strip malls and car ports of our gutted towns and imploded rural spaces. The only thing that has a shot at beauty in this film are the relationships.

Reichardt also resists the easy supplement of a score: there's no soundtrack save Wendy's occasional humming of a few bars that, from the opening shot, bore their way into your soul as chords of enchanted melancholy. There is a discipline to her visual story-telling which is remarkable.

And she manages to pull off this discipline without falling into either Joyce-Carol-Oates-ish violence or Hollywood's uplifting cliches. As a result, she doesn't buy into the lie that so-called "reality" is only monstrous and merciless. Instead, she makes room for charity--but without falling prey to our sitcom-induced desire for resolution.

An excellent film.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Race, History, and Christian Intellectuals

I'm currently reading J. Kameron Carter's book, Race: A Theological Account with an interdisciplinary group of faculty from across the college (and the seminary). Much to ponder here, and it will take me til next spring to digest it, but I couldn't resist sharing this gem from the end of chapter 3 (on Albert Raboteau, author of the groundbreaking book, Slave Religion). Throughout the chapter, Carter is pursuing fundamental questions about what history would (or should) look like for a Christian intellectuals, and then expands the scope of his question in this way:

"What would it mean to refuse dialectical intellectual arrangements altogether, arrangements that allow us to neatly but insistently sequester the dispositions of faith from the dispositions of the modern academic, and then rewrite history, do literary criticism or philosophy or sociology or political science or what have you as Christian intellectuals? What would the intellectual life then look like? How would [Raboteau's] Slave Religion have to be rewritten? But more to the broader issues of this book, how much more would the pseudotheological backbone of whiteness be broken for the sake of the redemption of us all, were we to escape the intellectual dispositions of whiteness and the ambiguities of blackness that it creates?" (p. 156)

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

We Learn to Love

Comment magazine, one of my favorites, recently ran a poetry contest--more specifically, a rondeau competition. (Those from commonwealth nations will recognize a familiar rondeau in John McCrae's, "In Flanders Fields.") The contest invited entries focused on the theme of education for their 4th annual "Making the Most of College" issue.

In my tentative poetic scribblings, I've increasingly felt the need to be disciplined by form, so I thought this rondeau exercise would be a good discipline. Well, turns out I was awarded second place! My poem, "We Learn to Love," appeared in the September issue of Comment and is now available online.

We Learn to Love

We learn to love in family,
Protean school of charity,
its mundane halls and humble space
parochial tutors of grace,
an intimate academy.

Then leave behind simplicity
for a sagacious faculty,
unaware even in that place
we learn to love.

Love at the university?
Where learning’s a commodity?
Despite erasing every trace,
schooling of hearts persists apace.
Apprenticed incrementally,
we learn to love.

Friday, December 04, 2009

"Rethinking the Secular and the Religious" at the University of Guelph

Those in southern Ontario might be interested in my upcoming lecture at the University of Guelph, "Rethinking the Secular and the Religious: Explorations in Postmodern Philosophy and Fiction."

January 21, 2010, 7:00pm
War Memorial Hall, The University of Guelph

Here's a brief description from the website:

To the surprise of many who expected the steady triumph of secularization, "religion" remains an important feature of our globalized world. Even the emergence of the "new atheism" and a secular fundamentalism are features of this resurgence of religion. This presentation will argue that we need to reconsider our assumed distinction between the "secular" and the "religious." Drawing on Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Charles Taylor, I will argue that if we understand religion, not as a certain set of doctrines and beliefs, but in terms of practice--as "liturgy"--then in fact much that we consider "secular" is actually religious. I'll illustrate this using the fiction of David Foster Wallace.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Giving Thanks to Who?

Al Mohler's post on Thanksgiving reminded me of something that struck me this past Thursday. "Giving thanks," he rightly notes, is a theological act. Indeed, isn't it interesting that at the heart of Christian worship is a meal which is itself indexed, even named, by this act: the eu-charist is a "thanksgiving," and at the heart of this theological practice is a prayer of gratitude:

Let us give thanks to the Lord.
It is right for us to give him thanks and praise.

So Mohler notes how odd it is to give thanks without recognizing a Giver. Odd, but not surprising, since the same was noted by Paul: "they did not honor Him as God or give thanks" (Rom. 1:21).

I had been thinking about something similar, but with a different analysis. "Giving thanks" is a transitive verb that requires an object (person) to whom one is grateful. As I spent more hours than I should have watching football (a coy way to escape the mother-in-law), it struck me that NFL programming came up with a substitute–the American military. Indeed, all three NFL broadcasts were run like a Memorial Day ceremony. On this re-interpretation of Thanksgiving, we, in our “blessed” nation, end up being thankful to military might.

So while some try to give thanks without a Giver, others give thanks to another giver: the “chariots and horses” of military might (Ps. 20:7), which is no less idolatrous.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Our "Other Education"

Once again, David Brooks nails it in today's column, "The Other Education"--broaching a core argument I make in Desiring the Kingdom. Listen to how Brooks' puts it:

Like many of you, I went to elementary school, high school and college. I took such and such classes, earned such and such grades, and amassed such and such degrees.

But on the night of Feb. 2, 1975, I turned on WMMR in Philadelphia and became mesmerized by a concert the radio station was broadcasting. The concert was by a group I’d never heard of — Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Thus began a part of my second education.

We don’t usually think of this second education. For reasons having to do with the peculiarities of our civilization, we pay a great deal of attention to our scholastic educations, which are formal and supervised, and we devote much less public thought to our emotional educations, which are unsupervised and haphazard. This is odd, since our emotional educations are much more important to our long-term happiness and the quality of our lives.

While Desiring the Kingdom is very much interested in our "formal" education, a big part of its argument concerns what Brooks here calls our "second education" or our "emotional education." And in the book, I try to provide a news lens in order to see all sorts of cultural practices (the mall, the stadium, the dorms) as a powerful "second education," as well as the lineaments of historic, intentional, Christian worship as an arena of the same. And as I think I note in a footnote, it was some of Brooks' own columns--particularly his persistent forays into cognitive science over the past several years--that led me to think about this "formation" in dialogue with contemporary work in neuroscience (particularly work on "automation").

Today's column also points to themes I'll be developing in Volume 2 of the Cultural Liturgies trilogy about the "mechanics" of formation, or "how worship works" (cribbing on James Wood's How Fiction Works). Again, consider how Brooks paints the picture:

This second education doesn’t work the way the scholastic education works. In a normal schoolroom, information walks through the front door and announces itself by light of day. It’s direct. The teacher describes the material to be covered, and then everybody works through it.

The knowledge transmitted in an emotional education, on the other hand, comes indirectly, seeping through the cracks of the windowpanes, from under the floorboards and through the vents. It’s generally a byproduct of the search for pleasure, and the learning is indirect and unconscious. [...]

I find I can’t really describe what this landscape feels like, especially in newspaper prose. But I do believe his narrative tone, the mental map, has worked its way into my head, influencing the way I organize the buzzing confusion of reality, shaping the unconscious categories through which I perceive events. Just as being from New York or rural Georgia gives you a perspective from which to see the world, so spending time in Springsteen’s universe inculcates its own preconscious viewpoint.

I'm particularly interested in the dynamics and mechanics of this "absorption," how this non-cognitive education "seeps" into us (a continual metaphor in Desiring the Kingdom, too). I think Brooks' rightly intuits--but doesn't articulate--that this is fundamentally a matter of aesthetics. This is precisely why what he "feels" (or "understands") can't really be described "in newspaper prose." I'm fascinated by that tension and dynamic. Thus in volume 2 (yet to be titled), I'll be working out an analogy between literature and liturgy, drawing on recent work at the intersection of cognitive science, literature, and poetry in order to find a framework for understanding how and why liturgical practice can also function as a "second education."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanks Be to God for Robert Brandom

Yesterday morning while riding the bus to work I was re-reading a section of Robert Brandom's Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism in preparation for my seminar on Philosophy of Language & Interpretation. And I experienced one of those wonderful philosophical moments of transport, where I had this sense of being caught up in something new and important and significant, and grateful for a life than enables me to call this my "work." I sometimes have nostalgic whiffs of this sensation when I'm reading old, marked-up copies of my books where the marginalia takes me to another time and place--like when I'm reading my battered, dog-eared copy of Derrida's Of Grammatology and can remember picking it up at the University of Waterloo bookstore, then plunging into its strange waters.

I had also just finished watching American Beauty (for about the 612th time), which ends with Lester Burnham's testimony that sounds like a page out of the Heidelberg Catechism:

"It's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much; my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it. And then it flows through me like rain, and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life."

So, in that spirit of gratitude, I wrote this little litany of thanksgiving to open our Philosophy of Language class. (The little shot at Rorty is a bit of an inside joke--jokes in prayers are OK, right? ;-)

We Give You Thanks

L: We give you thanks, gracious Lord,

for the leisure we enjoy

in our philosophizing,

grateful for what Aristotle would call

our moral luck,

but which we name as graced privilege.

All: We give you thanks, sustaining Lord,

for the gifts of friendship we enjoy,

in these halls, around this table,

in the welcoming space of the Jellema room,

for a community that nourishes our imagination.

L: We give you thanks, creating God,

for making and sustaining a world

that gives birth to our wise conversation partners,

and we’re grateful that your world has gifted us

with Ludwig Wittgenstein and Robert Brandom,

even Richard Rorty.

You must take delight in their wranglings and questions,

their probing, idiosyncratic attempts to make sense

of our incessant words.

We are grateful to be part of their conversation,

to listen in and talk back.

All: We give you thanks, loving God,

for that geeky thrill of

being immersed in new ideas

and that strange delight in

being awash in unfamiliar concepts,

that makes us feel like uncanny explorers

of foreign territories.

L: We give you thanks, Word of life,

for giving us the words to give thanks—

You who are the Word become flesh,

speaking to us in the baby talk of our

furtive mumblings.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

January Series: Remote Locations

The January Series is a 23-year tradition at Calvin College. During our January-term, the college offers free public lectures by notable public intellectuals, policy experts, journalists, and other leaders in their fields. Past January Speakers have included folks like Dr. Paul Farmer, Bill McKibben, Jean Kilbourne, George Weigel, N.T. Wright, Barbara Brown Taylor, Miroslav Volf, and many others. An archive of their lectures is available (all for free).

On January 13, I'll be speaking in the 2010 version of the series, focused on my new book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. But I thought friends and family might take note of a number of remote locations that will broadcast the lecture live, including sites near some of my old haunts such as Bellflower, CA, Ancaster, Ontario, and Brampton, Ontario.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Fearless Speech, Courageous Eyes

My presentation from the Faith, Film, and Justice Conference in Seattle has now been published in The Other Journal. "Fearless Speech, Courageous Eyes: A Theological Engagement with Freedom of Expression" was occasioned by the documentary Burma VJ which provides a behind-the-scenes look at the role of video journalists who documented the "Saffron revolution" in Burma in September 2007. (The article does not assume readers know the film, but I encourage readers to try to get hold of it for its own merits.)

Here's a snippet from the opening paragraphs:

Is anything more sacred to democracy than freedom of speech?1 And in our late modern world, is anything more sacred than democracy? Indeed, despite all the laments about the erosion of absolutes and a proliferation of perspectives, isn’t freedom the last absolute standing—the one prized universal that launches not only a thousand ships, but ten thousand missiles, a hundred thousand marketing campaigns, and a myriad of global protests? Freedom is that byword that unites the strangest conglomeration of devotees. It rolls off the tongue of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama; it is a rallying cry for both Thomas Friedman and Naomi Klein; it is the banner under which the American military and Hardt and Negri’s “multitude” both march.2 Freedom is the minaret of global democracy calling us to pray—well, whatever we damn well want because, after all, it secures our freedom of expression.

Freedom is both a stern and lenient god, demanding to be worshiped, but letting us decide what that will look like. Freedom demands that everyone play its game, but playing the freedom game permits us to make up our own game. So freedom is like a strange circus master, a smiling but demanding ringleader who shows up in town and demands that everyone make room for the big top. But within his big tent, there’s room for an infinite numbers of games and performances.

And nothing affects us more viscerally than the refusal of freedom. We might not know exactly what freedom is, but we certainly know when it is being quashed and denied. Indeed, our most powerful iconic images of martyrs have been images of repression: that lone figure standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square; the anonymous faces in South Africa; the haunting images of the last moments of Neda Agha-Soltan on that street in Tehran. It’s as if the body knows what freedom is, and the body marks the limits of repression. Our bodies recoil at images of repression that make their mark on the body of others, stirring our imaginations to both protest and imagine things otherwise. What tyranny does to bodies elicits a gasped whisper of “No. . .” from us, which then wells into a fist-raised shout, “No!” And that tiny monosyllabic “no” is the compression of a longer claim: “That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.”

Read the rest of "Fearless Speech, Courageous Eyes."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Room for Martyrs?

This week I was invited to give the homily in the Coram Deo chapel service at Indiana Wesleyan University, which I post below.


Is There Room for Martyrs in our Church?

James K.A. Smith

Coram Deo Chapel | Indiana Wesleyan University | 18 October 2009


I recently had opportunity to enjoy a kind of reverse “Grand Tour” in northern Italy—a very foreign territory for Protestants. I found myself impressed—even haunted—by images that constantly confronted me on this journey: images of martyrs. The Venetian empire just oozes with images of Catholic martyrs: Sebastian and Barbara, George and Perpetua.

What made me uncomfortable with the ubiquity of these images of martyrdom is that I seemed to lack the imaginative space to make room for martyrdom. Or perhaps I should just say that my imagination lacked triggers that could be activated by images of martyrdom, as if the semiotics of martyrdom were a foreign language in a script I couldn’t even make out. These images of witnesses (martureoi) who bore witness precisely by suffering for the faith are not part of the pantheon of Protestant saints that tend to populate our imaginative landscape.

Room for Martyrs?

I came away from this experience with a question: Is there room for martyrs in our church? Or, to put it a little differently: Do we North American evangelicals have space in our worldview to even make sense of martyrdom, let alone revere and celebrate it?

The tension, I think, is this: over the past several decades, North American evangelicals—especially evangelicals committed to colleges and universities—have steadily absorbed the idea that as Christians we are to be “transforming culture.” We see our commission as a cultural mandate to redeem “all things,” perhaps even to be “world changers.”

Now, don’t get me wrong: I do think God calls us to be engaged in the good work of culture-making. But I’m not sure that’s the same as “transforming culture” or “changing the world.” The reason is this: it seems to me that when Christians get hooked on “transforming culture,” it often turns out that the transformation goes the other way. In particular, I think that when we see our mission as transforming culture or changing the world, we end up thinking that the church is out to win. We slowly but steadily become a people who are bent on “outcomes,” on “success,” on winning a culture war. And what we don’t realize is that, slowly but steadily, it’s the world that’s changing us into people who are “purpose-driven” just like the rest of our success-driven world.

And in that world, martyrs are just losers. Because let’s be honest, from the perspective of the ambitious project of renewing “all things,” “transforming culture” and “changing the world,” martyrdom represents a pretty stark failure. Somebody must have dropped the ball on transforming the structures of society if Christians are being executed. Has our penchant for renewing “all things” unwittingly made us allergic to failure?

Room for the Cross?

So what concerns me is not only that there isn’t room for stained-glass depictions of martyrs in our puritanical worship spaces. Even more importantly, there doesn’t seem to be room in our theological imagination for martyrdom. Our “worldview” seems to lack a place for a faithfulness to the scandalous radicality of the Gospel—the sort of faithfulness that gets you killed. Instead, we come up with scaled-down, comfortable versions of a “personal relationship with Jesus” that won’t upset the status quo very much—as if Jesus’ kingdom was just the best version of the American dream. As if embracing Jesus was just the best way to become a “success.”

But if our churches don’t have room for martyrs, then they don’t have room for the cross; they won’t have room for Jesus. Was Jesus a “cultural transformer?” A “world changer?” Was Jesus a “success?” Is execution a success? I think Jesus is, in fact, our exemplar of culture-making—but he also shows us that engaging in cultural labor is not a matter of cozying up to the powers-that-be. Faithful cultural labor isn’t looking for ways to get Faith in the Halls of Power (Lindsay). If that were the case, the Son of God would have been born to the Emperor. But he wasn’t—he was born in a stable to a family from the other side of the tracks.

And Jesus’ culture-making didn’t lead to the “transformation of culture”—it led to his execution, precisely because the kingdom he announced—the kingdom into which he calls us—will always scandalize the powers. As N.T. Wright provocatively puts it, “Jesus determined that it was his task and role, his vocation as Israel’s representative, to lose the battle on Israel’s behalf. This would be the means of Israel’s becoming the light, not just of herself…but of the whole world.”[1] If our vocation is to “follow Christ” as the way to take up our human vocation to be God’s image bearers, then our image bearing should look the same. “When we speak of ‘following Christ,’” Wright cautions,

it is the crucified Messiah we are talking about. His death was not simply the messy bit that enables our sins to be forgiven but that can then be forgotten. The cross is the surest, truest, and deepest window on the very heart and character of the living and loving God… And when therefore we speak […] of shaping our world, we do not—we dare not—simply treat the cross as the thing that saves us “personally,” but which can be left behind when we get on with the job. The task of shaping our world is best understood as the redemptive task of bringing the achievement of the cross to bear on the world, and in that task the methods, as well as the message, must be cross-shaped through and through.[2]

We are a kingdom people just to the extent that we make room for martyrdom, make room for the cross. We should be a people for whom martyrdom doesn’t take us by surprise. I don’t mean the faux martyrdom of people like Sarah Palin who invent tales about their persecution despite all the while serving the god of the status quo that knows nothing of the scandal of the kingdom. I mean a commitment to the scandal of the kingdom which recognizes that faithfulness does not look like success, does not look like winning. Indeed, more often than not, it will look like losing. We make room for the cross just to the extent that we’re willing to lose.


Saint Stephen shows us that martyrdom is inscribed into the very DNA of the church, this called-out people who are called to embody the coming kingdom in our worship of a crucified King. This is also why the advent of the kingdom pictured in Revelation 20:4 comes with the picture of “those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus.” They were martyred precisely because “they had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or hands.” I fear that we have become a church with no room for martyrs precisely because we’ve become a church that’s taken the mark of the beast in our devotion to wealth, power, and military might. May the God who makes room for a persecutor like Saul also have compassion on us, grab hold of us on our Damascus roads, and show us what it looks like to be the church of Saint Stephen.

[1] N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999)., p. 89.

[2] Ibid., pp. 94-95.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My Calling (or, Three Cheers for Dilettantes!)

Near the end of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Richard Rorty suggests a distinction betwee the philosopher as "epistemologist" and the "hermeneutic" philosopher. (Later this becomes a Kuhnian distinction between philosophers who play at "normal science" and those engaged in "abnormal" discourse.) The philosopher-as-epistemologist plays the role of cultural overseer and arbiter of all knowledge claims--playing the role of "the Platonic philosopher-king who knows what everybody else is really doing whether they know it or not" (p. 317).

He then contrasts this with a description of the "hermeneutic" philosopher in terms that would be abhorrent to most professional philosophers. But I find in them a liberating description of my own self-understanding, or at least my aspirations. As Rorty puts it, the hermeneutic philosopher is

an informed dilettante, the polypragmatic, Socratic intermediary between various discourses. In his salon, so to speak, hermetic thinkers are charmed out of their self-enclosed practices. Disagreements between disciplines and discourses are compromised or transcended in the course of the conversation.

Long live informed dilettantes!

Lest We Forget

Smoke [1918]

By Carl Sandburg

I sit in a chair and read the newspapers.

Millions of men go to war, acres of them are buried, guns
and ships broken, cities burned, villages sent up in
smoke, and children where cows are killed off amid
hoarse barbecues vanish like finer-rings of smoke
in a north wind.

I sit in a chair and read the newspapers.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Korean Edition of "Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?"

As I've just noted over at The Church and Postmodern Culture, a Korean edition of Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? has just appeared from Sallim Books. Follow the link to access the new Preface for this edition.

A Korean translation of Introducing Radical Orthodoxy is also in the works.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

This Has to be Illegal, but I'll Take It

I find myself stuck home today, ill, and unable to go into the office. But today was designated for grading a set of papers on Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations--my copy of which is in my library at the office.

But lo and behold, a quick search turned up a treasure: the entire, definitive German-English edition of the Philosophical Investigations available online as a .pdf file (on scribd)! And downloadable for free! (Did I just hit this on a good day, in the small window of time before Blackwell issues a cease-and-desist order? If so, get there quick.)

Besides getting me through today, this will also be a great reference tool enabling electronic searches. Not a bad way to redeem a sick day.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Taste of Remembrance

How is it that cheese could contain an entire world? Splaying Old English white cheddar on a sandwich at lunchtime is, for me, a routine and ritual that is charged with an entire way of life. The cheese is enchanted, charmed with a sense of place. Like Proust's madeleines, its scent and texture is a catalyst for the remembrance of things past. While I'm trimming a slice in my Grand Rapids kitchen, it's as if the walls melt into the walls in our Yorkshire kitchen, and the scene outside my window gives way to the Minster over the rooftops of York Tandoori, and I can almost hear the chimes of the cathedral bell--and I imagine, just for a moment, that the kids are at Park Grove elementary, and Deanna will soon be home from the market, wet but heartened, and this cheese on crusty baguette will be consumed as a veritable communion. And all of a sudden this is the saddest cheese in the world.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Yorkshire, Place, and Faith

The Guardian has posted a wonderfully poignant little film that features Madeleine Bunting, (author of The Plot: A Biography of an English Acre), along with her son, as they visit her father's plot of land in Yorkshire--on which he built a marvelous chapel filled with his sculptures. (Unfortunately it can't be embedded here, but do follow the link.)

The mini-documentary does a tremendous job of capturing that tremulous English sense of "place" that suffuses Tolkien--a sense which is itself drenched with the mist and damp of grey northern skies. (The soundtrack is no small part of this.) It seems to me that Yorkshire is especially enchanted in this respect (but that's an effect of bias and my own sense of nostalgia for that place). It's also a reminder that the faith of England is much older than Anglicanism--and perhaps why the paganism of its tribal heritage was so well primed for the sacramentalism of Catholic faith.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Tyranny of Email

While the writing is far from lyrical, and while the book feels a bit "padded," John Freeman's The Tyranny of Email deserves attention and discussion. In a way, it's going to tell you something you already know; on the other hand, it synthesizes this common knowledge into a compelling and convicting account of how bad our habits have become. Like Aquinas' treatises on the virtues and vices, it provides a taxonomy to name our sins, and that diagnosis could be a first step to becoming someone else. Indeed, I read it as an invitation to consider spiritual disciplines as the only suitable countermeasure.

I'm only part way through, but consider a couple of snippets. Who, for instance, can identify with this?
E-mail is addictive, it has been shown, in the same way that slot machines are addictive. You press the send/receive button just as a gambler pulls down a slot machine lever, because you know that yo will receive a reward (mail/a payout) some of the time. The best way to increase the chance of a reward is to press "Send" a lot. In one study, participants manually checked their e-mail thirty to forty times an hour.

It's true, isn't it? You just never know when you could receive that email that might change your life! And while you're waiting, clicking and clicking and watching and waiting, you're not doing anything that could change your life. (So yes, I need something like EA: "My name is Jamie Smith, and I am an email addict...")

Most compelling, though, is Freeman's diagnosis of what this does to the way we inhabit the world:
Working at the speed of e-mail is like trying to gain a topographic understanding of our daily landscape from a speeding train--and the consequences for us as workers are profound. Interrupted every thirty seconds or so, our attention spans are fractured into a thousand tiny fragments. The mind is denied the experience of deep flow, when creative ideas flourish and complicated thinking occurs. We become task-oriented, tetchy, terrible at listening as we try to keep up with the computer. The e-mail inbox turns our mental to-do list into a palimpsest--there's always something new and even more urgent reasing what we originally thought was the day's priority.

Freeman eventually counsels some practices changes of habit (e.g., don't check your email either first thing in the morning or late at night; check it twice a day; etc.). Well and good, and I'm hoping--praying like mad--that I could incorporate some of these into my own rhythms. But of course what we also need is a community that structures itself in this way, which changes its expectations about instanteous communication. We can't fight this tyranny on our own; it will require institutional change, and big ships are hard to turn.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I've Loved You So Long

Visiting prisoners has historically been central to the church's works of mercy (Matt. 25:36). Philippe Claudel's film, Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (I've Loved You So Long), pictures the challenge of a more rigorous call to compassion: welcoming the prisoner back home. The story centers around Juliette, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, who embodies the most haggard beauty, the most tired elegance, with downcast eyes that are nevertheless enchanted. The film is worth watching just for the first five minutes of her performance. But it is matched, I think, by Elsa Zylberstein playing her younger sister Lea who is the "host," the one who has loved her so long.

It would be difficult to give the sort of rich reading I'd like without doling out spoilers. Suffice it to say that this is a must-see--a powerful meditation on love as forgiveness, an almost Derridean enactment of love as hospitality even to "the monster." But it is also a profound study in the ultimate nihilism of autonomy, including the autonomy of the closed family unit unhooked from a wider community of support. This is not a beautiful tragedy; it is about the beauty of love in the face of tragedy, even evil--a filmic testimony to the fact that love is stronger than death, even stronger than murder.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Problem with "Free Speech"

Michel Foucault's Fearless Speech is concerned with how parrhesia (free speech) became "problematized" in Greek democracy. But it doesn't take much imagination to start drawing analogies. Consider just this snippet:

"The problem, very roughly put, was the following. Democracy is founded by a politeia, a constitution, where the demos, the people, exercise power, and where everyone is equal in front of the law. Such a constitution, however, is condemned to give equal place to all forms of parrhesia, even the worst. Because parrhesia is given even to the worst citizens, the overwhelming influence of bad, immoral, or ignorant speakers may lead the citizenry into tyranny, or may otherwise endanger the city. Hence parrhesia may be dangerous for democracy itself (p. 77).

Could one imagine a better description of contemporary talk radio and its effects?

Peguy: The Mystery of Hope

Yesterday I was working through Graham Ward's (unfortunately neglected) book, Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice and there discovered a snippet from Charles Peguy's poem, "The Portal of the Mystery of Hope" (1912). It was like I'd been waiting my whole life to read these lines:

From The Portal of the Mystery of Hope

By Charles PĆ©guy

The faith that I love best, says God, is hope.

Faith doesn’t surprise me.

It’s not surprising.

I am so resplendent in my creation. . . .

That in order really not to see me these poor people would have to be blind.

Charity says God, that doesn’t surprise me.

It’s not surprising.

These poor creatures are so miserable that unless they had a heart of stone, how could they not have love for one another.

How could they not love their brothers.

How could they not take the bread from their own mouth, their daily bread, in order to give it to the unhappy children who pass by.

And my son had such love for them. . . .

But hope, says God, that is something that surprises me.

Even me.

That is surprising.

That these poor children see how things are going and believe that tomorrow things will go better.

That they see how things are going today and believe that they will go better tomorrow morning.

That is surprising and it’s by far the greatest marvel of our grace.

And I’m surprised by it myself.

And my grace must indeed be an incredible force.

~trans. David L. Schindler, Jr.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

New Small Joy

I just recently discovered that Canada's CBC Classical is available as a radio "station" on iTunes (no doubt it's been there for years), and haven't turned it off since. Commerical-free classical music from across the centuries, by top-notch orchestras, with no annoying commentary. And the running line at the top of iTunes helps you keep tabs on what's playing, helping to discover new works and composers that catch your attention. It's a fabulous way to enliven one's own tired playlist and doesn't cost a dime. O joy!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Faith, Film, and Justice in Seattle

Those in the Pacific Northwest might be interested in this year's Faith, Film, and Justice conference organized by the good folks at The Other Journal. This is an annual event that hosts the Human Rights Watch Traveling Film Festival. The conference includes keynotes by theologians, ethicists and activists (including, this year, Kelly Johnson, Emmanuel Katongole, Rob Morris, and myself).

I'll be giving a keynote entitled "Fearless Speech, Courageous Eyes: A Theological Engagement with Freedom of Expression" as a prelude to watching the film, Burma VJ, which documents the work of news VJs in the closed country of Burma, tackling issues of interpretation and freedom of speech/sight.

See a list of the other films being screened and discussed.