Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Colossian Forum Blog

The Colossian Forum is launching a new blog that should get some more energy in the coming months thanks to their recruitment of Matt Dodrill as a Junior Fellow.

Truth in advertising: Matt is one of my former students, just graduated from Calvin College, and is now headed to Duke Divinity School.  One of the rare students at Calvin from south of the Mason-Dixon line, Matt has been one of the bright lights for us over the past few years--part of a crew of bright students working at the intersection of philosophy and theology.  We'll miss him, but I'm glad to see he'll be involved in the work of The Colossian Forum.  (To learn more about Matt and other folks involved with TCF, visit Faces of the Forum.)

In fact, Matt's first post is a nice encapsulation of the mission and vision of TCF--an invitation to a new kind of conversation.  (And despite the title, you'll quickly see that this is not a covert emergent/McLaren project: the "new" conversation is actually an invitation into a "old" conversation which is the Chalcedonian tradition.  

Check it out.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tradition FOR Innovation

The good folks at Duke's "Faith and Leadership" magazine have just posted an article they invited me to write on the dynamic interplay between tradition and innovation.  A snippet from the conclusion of my talk at the 2012 Q conference, the article focuses on how and why liturgical tradition can foster cultural innovation.  

Read "Tradition for Innovation" at Faith and Leadership.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Picturing "Church" & "State": Crayer's "Benedict receiving Totila"

Last week our family enjoyed an evening at the Art Gallery of Ontario here in Toronto.  (Note to large families: the museum is free on Wednesday's from 6:00-8:30pm.)

Earlier that day I had led a seminar on William Cavanaugh's classic essay, "'A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House': The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the Nation State."  In this 1995 article, reproduced in the Radical Orthodoxy Reader, Cavanaugh documents that the so-called Wars of Religion were not actually driven by theological and religious difference but rather by the consolidation of nation-states after the demise of feudal arrangements.  While the modern, liberal, democratic stated claims the status of "savior" who delivers us from the violence of religion, in fact it was the rise of the nation-state that engendered these wars.  The state gets to play "rescue hero" fireman because it was also the arsonist.

In the course of the analysis, Cavanaugh debunks the myth of secular neutrality that undergirds the modern state.  The nation-state doesn't deliver us from theology; it delivers us over to a different (covert) theology.  Indeed, in the words of Hobbes, Leviathan doesn't deliver us from the ecclesia; Leviathan swallows the church and functions as a parody of the ecclesia.

How striking, then, to run into this gigantic canvas later that afternoon at AGO:

The work, by Flemish painter Gaspar de Crayer (1584-1669), is entitled "Saint Benedict Receiving Totila, King of the Ostrogoths, 1633."  The huge canvas (it must be 8' x 12') hung in a Benedictine Abbey in Flanders.  It portrays the repentance of Totila for having previously deceived Benedict (by sending a servant dressed in his armor).

It might be easy to think that this painting depicts the inverse of what Cavanaugh notes, namely, the church ruling over the state.  But of course that's not the case: Benedict is not the Holy Roman Emperor, he is an abbot. Totila is being received at an abbey, not submitting to a rival king.  And yet Benedict does not shrink for prophetically denouncing Totila's violent rule.  Retreat into the abbey was not a withdrawal from worldly concern; it is a retreat to contemplative work for the world.  The painting itself depicts what we might call the "porosity" of the abbey.  It also illustrates that the abbot is not indifferent to the shape of worldly rule, even if he might be characterized by a sort of holy ambivalence.

Friday, June 08, 2012

A Photographic Allegory

I absolutely love this Nicholas Nixon photograph from MOMA's collection.  Entitled simply, "Covington, Kentucky," it's a picture you can look at for hours and still feel something new and different.  The composition is exquisite: those horizontal lines and shadows backing the smooth, light skin of innocent childhood in summertime; the young girl looking longingly at his repose; the others glaring at us behind the camera...

But when you look at it alongside the commentary in MOMA Highlights, the art of the photograph can take on a suggestive, almost allegorical vibe that resonates, I think, with the situation of the church in our postmodern age.  Consider this commentary and see if you don't sense a kind of "ancient-future" sensibility that might illustrate postmodern retrievals of ancient, catholic practices.

The taut clapboards zip across the open middle of the picture as if to measure the outward stretch of the boy's arms, while he blissfully tilts his head skyward. A photograph can only describe what the camera sees, but this one also shows how a body can feel. There is something else, which the reproduction cannot fully capture. The print was made from a negative as large as itself—eight by ten inches. To make the negative, Nixon used a big camera on a tripod and put his head under a black cloth to focus the image. All of that old-fashioned effort was worthwhile because the richness of detail in the negative yielded a print that is at once sharp as a pin and smooth as a child's skin and the light that falls upon it.
By the 1970s the artistic traditions of photography were old enough for abandoned styles and techniques to serve as fresh points of departure. After photographers had been in love with the ease and quickness of hand-held cameras for two generations, the cumbersome cameras of the past presented a new challenge. For Nixon, the challenge was to make the old box responsive to unfolding experience: to marry the ancient precision of photography with its modern agility.