From Fancis Spufford’s essay, “The Past as Zombie Hazard, and Consolation”:
Take the newly revivified rituals surrounding the commemoration of the British war dead. As someone who was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was an undramatic commonplace that most of the older men you passed in the street were veterans of the Second World War, I remember Remembrance Day being scarcely celebrated. There were far fewer poppies, the two minutes’ silence was something you could read about in school history books, and there was a general sense of the world wars receding, in time with the receding of private memories of them. Now (not coincidentally) that the First World War has entirely passed out of living memory, and the Second World War nearly has, we memorialise the wars like crazy, in a profusion of public forms. Larger crowds gather round war memorials to people we don’t (individually) remember than did in the decades when the British Legion stood there in their berets, mourning remembered, specific friends and comrades. The new wars of New Labour provide part of the cause, giving us new dead to mourn, and new Heroes to be Helped, with a corresponding need to find ways to honour sacrifice irrespective of the new wars’ justifications. For this, the First World War can provide a useful context. But most people these days standing serious-faced on 11 November wearing their poppies don’t know any currently serving soldiers either. They’re there to do some imaginative business on their own account. They’re there to participate in a symbolic performance of national continuity, centred round the armed forces as the institution in some ways least corroded by our scepticism. They’re there to assert that they are joined to previous generations’ story of collective sacrifice: despite the fact – because of the fact – that little in their daily experience bears it out.
Your Correspondent, Supports just about any prejudice you can mention but your hero-phobia disgusts him
I am still committed to emulating the cool, old-skool blogging of my friend R, and their excellent Slow Growing blog, but for a host of excellent reasons, I was unable to write an update for April.
I was really sick with a virus. It mimicked lymphoma pretty well, so for a period there my doctor was worried and that made me worried.
I am almost certainly cancer free however, or at least I was when I last had my bloods tested. Perhaps since then I inadvertently consumed some crisps or biscuits or bread or chips or red meat or salt or peanuts or any grain or baby food or coffee or alcohol and have therefore since developed multiple tumors?
Stressed out with sickness and work and other stuff, the border between April and May flew right by. But May was a momentous month and I wanted to note four important things that happened.
1. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Season 3 of the most joyous television show in history was debuted and Wife-unit and I spread it out over a week. We finished it last night and it ended deliciously. It continued its amazing chain of episodes so densely-packed with jokes and references and allusions that you feel an illustrated annotated guide should be published for each episode. It continued to be so colourful that my childlike intelligence never got bored. Most importantly, – SPOILER ALERT – Titus finally high-fived Kimmy.
Now though, it is finished for another year.
2. A Conference Happened
My friend Emily Hill let me help her in running a big fancy academic conference in Aberdeen. We got economists and philosophers and marketing people and business academics to talk with theologians and the theologians didn’t make the others fall asleep. It was good fun, even though it was also stressful, but like all academic conferences, one wonders at the end, “Was that it? What now?” The answer is, as with every other aspect of life, usually “The next thing” but one still anticipates a more satisfying endorphin rush.
Among the things I learned was that economists should at least study JM Keynes more to learn how to write well and that there are a lot of young academics who really do get the importance of ethically examining the orthodoxies of our age.
3. Wisdom Extraction
I had a wisdom tooth that was more askew than than a Michael Bay essay on the male gaze. I was meant to have it removed under the NHS in Britain but then I foolishly decided to move home the day after the scheduled operation. In Scotland they were going to put me under a general anesthetic and were warning me about the dangers of losing the use of my tongue. In Ireland I had to pay for the extraction (€320 for reference!) and they were like, “It’ll take less than five minutes and you can go to work the day after the day after.”
I showed up at the dentist off the back of all the medical anxiety about the possible cancer and was exhausted. My dentist and his assistant (his wife) had a laptop in the surgery, with youtube loaded up and a Pakistani imam singing prayers in a mosque. It was lulling and calming in the best way possible. The sounds that his tools made were despicable but I closed my eyes shut and thought about classic goals scored by Kinkladze and four minutes later he sent me away.
My friend came to collect me and I couldn’t talk for a few hours and I spent a few days subsisting on mashed bananas, mashed eggs, mashed parsnips and custard. But I avoided all the nightmares and my mouth seems to be almost better.
The point is: don’t let the fear-machine angst you out if you face a dental extraction. It can go well and it probably will.
4. I became a Doctor!
I finished my thesis earlier in the year and in the middle of May I was summonsed to Aberdeen to account for that mess of ill-advised analogies and dodgy reasoning. Astoundingly it, the defence went well. My examiners, Mike Laffin and William Cavanaugh, were gentle with me to begin with and then asked some really hard questions before the whole thing turned into a very enjoyable conversations.
I got a letter on Friday last from the university saying that the senate had accepted my results and yesterday I sent the final thesis off to the printers who will pass it on to the registrar who will submit it in the library. And with that, almost four years of work comes to an end.
It was good work and it was hard work and I am glad it is done. Right after the viva, my examiners and my supervisor and some fellow PhD students went off to a distillery and drank scotch for the day and I barely mentioned theology again until I was back at work. It was heavenly.
Your Correspondent, Keeps the crowd away like a Greenpeace volunteer.
I couldn’t have timed it better. Two days after arriving home, my brother turned 30 and I got to be there as we lavished him with jokey presents and sincere gifts. We dispatched a sickeningly large pallet of our belongings by courier from Aberdeen and then filled our car and still had enough material wealth to require 2 or 3 suitcases and Wife-unit and I made our way separately home. She flew. I drove and took the boat. We rendezvoused in our new home, which was much too big and very lovely, late at night. We ate food lovingly prepared by one dear friend, in the company of another, and we breathed a sigh of relief. It is good to be home.
2. I started a new job.
I am now a social theologian for the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. I have an office on the top floor of an old Edwardian building in a little-loved part of Dublin. I work with social scientists and environmental researchers as we try to offer analysis on aspects of Irish society with a view to making the society in which we live a little less brutal. I still don’t quite know for sure what this means day-to-day, but I start each morning reading the Bible and doing the Examen, and I think that is probably an excellent first step for a young (maybe that’s stretching it, a “beginner”?) theologian. On Friday all the different social justice works of the Jesuits gathered for a day of discussion and it was jaw-dropping to be in a room with such an array of expertise dedicated to relieving the hardship of those most firmly in the dark. Refugees and prisoners, those mired in generational poverty and people in prison: the Jesuits seem to be everywhere you would want to be.
They still have an inexplicable and frankly suspicious love of rugby, but apart from that, I have already grown very fond of them. You should get to know them.
3. I saw live music.
In all the years in Aberdeen, I think we went to three gigs. One was my friend’s band. One was the Hold Steady, for which we had to drive to Glasgow. One was Ben Folds, for which I had to drive to Edinburgh.
It was not a culturally rich place.
Dublin is. Friends had bought us tickets to go see Postmodern Jukebox during our first week back in town and it was a tremendous reintroduction. The setup can be easily mocked but as a gig, it is infectiously good fun.
Yesterday we went to the Unitarian Church to see Over the Rhine. That Karin Bergquist can sing. Still, even though my friend JM will raise a skinny fist in my direction from Coleraine, their pristine music never quite manages to get my pulse racing.
4. I savoured quiet
It is madness to go from finishing a book to finishing a PhD to making an international move to starting a new job, in one three month period. I know this. I don’t want to do it this way. But rent has to be paid and deadlines have to be met and I will take a break after the viva and the corrections, when things have settled in a bit at work and when the boxes are unpacked.
But while I cannot for a moment suggest that the month just passed has been easy, it has been marked by periods of wonderful stillness. In Aberdeen we lived on the edge of chaos in our building. We lived under the territorial disputes that the mutant seagulls of the North Sea perpetuate without cessation. There was always noise. Here, in our little secluded suburb that is way too far from our workplaces for optimum quality of life, there are commonly moments when the most obtrusive intrusion is birdsong or, increasingly, buzzing bees. It is a change we relish.
Your Correspondent, He outstrips himself in succulence
Starting my new job a week or so after I finished my PhD is not a wise move, but it does have the benefit of extending my intense, concentrated stance of concentration into the new role. In any creative work – and theology is most certainly a creative art – concentration is the game. Jurassic 5 said it best:
But that kind of focus, that has me reading documents and reports and books and compressing them into A4 pages and then editing those pieces of paper to strip them down so that people who are very rushed and not very interested can follow them is not the kind of concentration involved in prayer.
But where Jurassic 5 are silent, the greatest writer working in Ireland, Aidan Mathews, has spoken. He has prepared six truly luminous Lenten reflections and the second one, which I read this morning, demands distribution.
I simply cannot concentrate. But perhaps complex inattention is more fruitful (although I should not be thinking in productive terms) than a rudimentary focus. It is hard to consider infinity when we experience the good Creation only in the act of detail. In any event, private prayer is impossible at church services, mostly Masses, because I am so interested in the biodiversity of the congregation around me, and my weekday attempts at expectant vacancy, the honours course in prayer when you’ve exhausted rote petitionary phrases, philander very promptly. God dammit, it is my nature.
An example: I am contemplating a Crucifixion. At any rate, I am looking at a picture of it; and the picture I have in mind is by Salvador Dali, who also, as it happens, had portrayed the Blessed Virgin Mary spanking Jesus in another, earlier and more picaresque canvas. (That kind of mischief, like the Catalan cagon in the crib, is very Spanish, and escapes Northerners, even Catholic ones.) His John of the Cross crucifixion, on the other hand, is superbly sombre and longitudinal, seen from above and overhead, effaced entirely, from the hovering perspective of a very absent Holy Spirit; and I want to pray about it, not in a predatory but in a porous manner, in the hope of what I felt for twenty seconds thirty-five years ago when I followed a tour guide’s umbrella to Mantegna’s Lamentation, which exhibits the same cadaver feet-first, angled obliquely, on a damp mortuary slab, wholly defunct.
But I cannot help remembering that Dali’s model for the dead Christ was a famous Hollywood stuntman called Russell Saunders (but not the Russell-Saunders of the coupling scheme in quantum electrons, he was different); and that the stuntman Saunders, he of Shane and Singing in the Rain, was married at some stage, perhaps permanently, to no less a person than Paula Boelsoms, a studio trainer who had actually taught two African elephants to water-ski for the purposes of a big-budget period rom-com, although, admittedly, the skis were outsize. And then I think of Cicero, writing in a letter to Atticus, was it, a generation before Jesus, about the slaughter of the elephants at the Roman games, and how their death-cries were so human and high-frequency that the amphitheatre’s terraces shushed and the crowd stopped cheering for a while.
I simply cannot concentrate. I haven’t a prayer.
Take and read, for the things he writes will be better for you than any quinoa salad.
Your Correspondent, Perpetually late, even for coffee
It was a horrendous anti-climax in the end. The University of Aberdeen are busy turning much of the work of the university into the work of an educational retailer, replacing “students” with “consumers”. But they really need to improve the process by which a student completes a 41 month, 109,000 word, 345 page research project. The administrator to whom I entrusted my tome did not even have the presence of mind to say “Congratulations”.
Still, let me not complain too much. I finally got the damn thing done and some people think it is pretty good. Not me. By the end of it, I hated every single paragraph and thought all the arguments barely deserved that descriptor. I sealed my copy in a box which I won’t open again until April and hopefully by then, I won’t think it a mammoth chain of bald assertions strung together with some punchlines and the occasionally illuminating footnote.
Wife-unit and I were fans of Maria Bamford’s stand-up and were delighted she got her own tv show but this is amazingly better than our high expectations. It folds in on itself and then disappears into absurdity, but never fails to do the fundamental thing that a comedy is meant to do: make you laugh.
3. I went to a table quiz.
Americans call them pub quizzes. And this table quiz was in a pub, the undergraduate pub just down the road from my office. On a Sunday evening, it was full of 19 year-olds trying to flirt while answering trivia questions. And us. Our team consisted of 2 phd students, one college lecturer, a nurse and a prison chaplain. Our average age was probably twice that of the 19 year-olds. But worst of all, our team name was The Eventual Winners. Having been in the running through all seven rounds, it wasn’t until the very last gasp that we took our rightful place at the top of the tree.
We tried to be classy and mature about our triumph, but we may have failed.
4. I saw a baby get water poured on him.
On my last Sunday in my church, my friends brought their son for baptism. He was calm as could be as he was marked into the covenant, the whole church gathered around him as his priest said ancient words over him, poured clean, cold water over his head, and told us all what we already knew but could never grow tired of hearing: that he was a gift from God.
After the service, we ate cake and drank tea and his father said some wonderful things to help make sense of why we do something as absurd as baptise babies and his godmother read a poem set to music and I was sad that it was my last Sunday in that place.
I got a photo of my favourite icon in all the world, which has never failed to make me smile as I walk to the communion rail. It reminds me in a visceral way that Jesus is my friend.
Props to my friend C, a 12 year-old in the congregation who held the artwork up for me to capture it.
Your Correspondent, Born in a diner, lived in a drive-in, died in a dive
In part inspired by my friend’s lovely old-fashioned habit of blogging and in part recognising that I am about to enter a new stage in my life, I have decided to keep a little monthly record of the things I am seeing and doing and eating and watching and listening to and playing.
1. At least I’m not tempted to waste time in the sunshine.
I am readying my thesis for submission. Sometime in the next few weeks I will pay a stupid amount of money to get my 300 or so pages hard-bound in two books, one that will get sent out a theologian in Chicago and another to a theologian in the Old Brewery on campus. Then in the middle of May, the three of us will gather and they will grill me like the Romans grilled St. Lawrence and if all goes well, they’ll send me away with a few changes to make before declaring me a doctor.
But while that happy day is coming into view on the horizon, it is still damn hard right now. Aberdeen is never really beautiful, but it is especially unappealing in January.
2. It will win Oscars for good reason.
One of the reasons life is hard is that the country where many of my friends are from is slowly descending into a horrible kleptocracy. Every morning I wake to find new Wotsit Hitler abominations and I do worry sometimes about how bad things might get if there is a terror attack that gives him a licence to act freely.
In that charged context, I am finding lots of pushback against La La Land because it is sentimental and nostalgic and flighty and insufferably white. It may be all those things and all those things might be insufferable in their own way, but watching movies in that register always leaves me cold. It feels like the fundamental task of telling a story visually falls aside in such analysis. And on that level, La La Land is remarkable. It is marred, perhaps, by revealing the truly astonishing shots in the trailer. But the songs are superb and the performances are charismatic and the final scene is the reason it deserves the accolades it will surely receive. Call me a Presbyterian, but an infinity of possible universes are sparked with every passing second of time. There is, however, a harmony and a melody and a tune that weaves the universes that go beyond possible into a song that one day we all will sing.
Maybe I was reading too much into it, but damnit, look where I live! I needed the colour!
3. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Country music gets a lot of hate. I hated it for most of my life but Gillian Welch converted me to its virtues and it is one of those musical genres that seems to constantly churn up wonderful new acts. A few years ago I found Sturgill Simpson off the back of a friend’s recommendation but somehow I missed his new album last year. It is so good that it is interrupting my usual January habit of listening exclusively to my friends’ Best Ofs from the previous year. This cover of Nirvana is not the best song on the album, but it might be a good one for convincing those suspicious of country music. If nothing else, it reminds you of how beautiful Nirvana songs were:
4. Hand-held relief
I have an ongoing shoulder injury that is making life hard. They should warn you that the life of academic research is a life beset by chronic back and neck problems. I hadn’t realised how dangerous my job was, but it seems everyone has some horror story of vicious pain! For the last three months I have been very careful with my computer usage as I slowly undo decades of bad habits and tend to years of slowly worsening strain. I’ve found, for the first time, the joy of simple computer games on your phone. Now that Twitter is just a nightmare machine, this is doubly comforting. If you are a fan of games that use your brain, but in a way that is entirely non-taxing, then I can recommend Antiyoy wholeheartedly. It’s a nifty little turn-based game like Civilization, but radically streamlined.
Alright, that’s it. I’m off to bed with some chamomile tea and dreams of a completed thesis.
Your Correspondent, The whole point of his Doomsday Machine is lost, if he had kept it a secret!
My friend Conor McDonough is a ferociously smart Dominican. It is Christian Unity week and so, he recently asked me and a bunch of his friends who are not in communion with Rome, what our traditions made of 2 Corinthians 5:14-20, which is the passage of Scripture we are all meant to reflect on this week. Paul tells the Christians in Corinth that God has given “us the ministry of reconciliation” which prompted Conor to ask:
So, a question for my Orthodox and Protestant friends: what does this phrase mean in your traditions, and what does the ministry of reconciliation look like today in your communities?
I can’t speak for the entire Reformed tradition, but I can allude to the two major figures in our family tree. John Calvin declares in his commentary that “Here we have an illustrious designation of the gospel, as being an embassy for reconciling men to God.” In unpacking this verse, it is clear that Calvin reads it as a message to the leaders of churches. “Ministers are furnished with this commission” and “when, therefore, a duly ordained minister proclaims in the gospel, that God has been made propitious to us, he is to be listened to just as an ambassador of God.”
In the context of church unity it is important to note that already, a generation into the Reformation, its key intellectual leader no longer feels a need to justify his (or his readership’s) status as a minister of God. Once they made the break, they broke.
Karl Barth takes up a similar note in Church Dogmatics (§19 is where I’m focused but the other references all sync closely to what I write here), where he considers what can be discerned about the apostolic vocation from this passage. Barth doesn’t read it as a message directed to leaders in particular, but to every Christian who might have business sharing the good news (all Christians, for old Karl). The reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ is one side of a coin, the other side is our ministry of reconciliation. So, for Barth, when a Christian proclaims the Gospel – which at base must be concerned with the gracious and costly redemption of humanity achieved by Jesus – their words have potency only to the extent that the Spirit speaks through us.
Admittedly this is a very brief overview of only two figures, but it is probably extensible across Reformed thinking generally: this text is read as being about soteriology. Verse 14 talks of Christ’s love and his sacrifice, which continues into verse 15. Verse 16 describes the epistemological transformation that follows from conversion. Verse 17 stretches that subjective transformation out to the objective, eschatological hope that we all await. So when Calvin and Barth reach verse 18, their Presbyterian DNA is exposed, as they see it as a reminder that whatever authority a Christian teacher might have is always rooted in God’s graciousness.
How does that answer Conor’s question? I think that it presses Presbyterians to remember the precarity of our ecclesial position. By our own lights we are meant to be temporary. We cannot assume that our generation still has reason to exist because the previous generation did. We are not authorised to engage in this ministry of reconciliation through our good intentions, impeccable logic, or the achievements of our forefathers and mothers. Our tradition, both in broad theological brushstrokes and detailed historical detail, emerged as a corrective for a church that had, in many ways, gone down several dead-ends. “Back to the sources!”, they shouted in Geneva. “Reject no light!”, they declared. But they maintained their commitment to the church catholic. In the Scriptures or in the Patristic mothers and fathers, no church outside that universal church can be found, and the desire to see that universal church in unity should be perpetually stoked.
But if unity is to flourish, it will blossom from Jesus. This is both a challenge to the Presbyterians like me who relish praying with other Christians and a comfort to the Presbyterians who can be commonly found around Ireland who are hesitant to enter into church unity activities. It is a challenge to me because no ecclesial creativity can generate unity. It is a comfort to my friends who are more exclusionary because they have no need to fear a slippery slope of manipulation. The ministry of reconciliation we are charged with in verse 18 is embedded inside such a payload of phenomenally explosive, Christ-centred theology, that we can never imagine that making the church one is a human act. We can do a bang-up job of shattering church unity on our own, but we need the Spirit if it is to be repaired. God’s reconciling action is always prior to our efforts.
So that is a quick attempt to answer the first part of Conor’s question. For Presbyterians, the reconciliatory meaning of 2 Cor 5:14-20 is, unsurprisingly, that God is radically sovereign and free, rampantly gracious, and utterly trustworthy when it comes to making peace. He makes peace with us and that makes us peacemakers on his behalf, but never on our own authority.
It leaves the last part of Conor’s question unanswered. My honest sense – admittedly from a few hundred miles away in north east Scotland – is that the ministry of reconciliation, from a church unity perspective, is only embraced in patches. There remain many in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland who are fearful of church unity efforts. There is a vocal margin that actively suspect that ecumenicism is a watering-down of Gospel clarity. They argue, with strong reasoning, that many of the dead-ends of the Reformation era have not been renovated and now we have Protestant liberalism to battle with as well. Then there is a bigger slice of ministers and leaders so busy with keeping things ticking over that they never have the time to reflect on and prayerfully commit to church unity. They are inclined, instinctively, towards embracing their brothers and sisters from other traditions but they have hospital chaplaincy duties and funerals, youth groups on Tuesday and homegroups on Wednesday and Presbytery duties on Thursday and on and on until they collapse on Sunday night exhausted and baffled at how so beautiful a job as ministry ends up being so bitty. Then there are people and places where church unity is taken very seriously. Steve Stockman at Fitzroy is an obvious example, as is Keith McCrory in Maynooth.
The nature of the Presbyterian church structure means that there is unlikely to be a centralised, unified, solitary approach to unity anytime soon. I recognise that that appears ludicrous on the surface. We have designed it so that we can have no structural unity on the question of unity! There is no Presby-Lutheran council who can approve a particular approach to ending/healing/completing [delete where appropriate] the Reformation. But there is a beautiful theological commitment hidden in that stubborn stance. Unity will come about, maybe faster than we dare to believe. And when it does happen, we won’t be able to claim any credit for it.
Your Correspondent, It’s like words are his second language
For me, today was a good day. But my president is an old poet who has spent his life as a public servant. I sent a contract off in the post, the last formal step I needed to take before starting an amazing new job with these good people after I finish my PhD. I edited some journal articles on disability and religion. I drank whisky with my friends, many of them American, as their leaders gathered in their capital to appoint their new Commander in Chief.
It wasn’t a good day for many of my friends who are Americans. But one of them, DL Mayfield, has it right when she took herself off to pray. With that in mind, let me share with you a very good prayer written by Walter Bruggemann:
The promises roll off your lips
and into our ears:
I will be with you;
I will love you faithfully;
I will be your God;
My covenant is forever.
We count on your words that flow from our ears
to our hearts, and we are glad.
But even while we listen,
we live much of our lives underneath the table.
We read these old stories, and
we know about intrigue and fear and
anxiety and near violence
We mostly do not act out our violence
but we imagine and ponder and scheme;
and then we, too, must cover up
and the cover-up ferments;
our lives become complex and burdened.
We keep inventing ourselves and our underneath selves turn out
to be less than adequate
and we wish we were other than we are.
We juggle your good purposes and
our hidden yearnings and
try to serve two masters,
try to live two narratives,
try to live two dreams,
and we are weary.
Because we know our hearts of anxiety so well,
we seem fated to disease.
But because we know your heart of fidelity so well,
we know you will defeat our demons
and make us new.
We know about your abiding fidelity in
Jesus of Nazareth.
Give us patience and steadfastness as we
process the ragged edges of our lives.
Your Correspondent, Deep down he longs for a cold-hearted Republican to lower taxes, brutalize criminals, and rule him like a king.
Inspired by Declan Kelly’s hilarious run-down of the films he saw in the year (here, here, and here), I thought I would try to do the same.
But I didn’t have the energy.
2016 did that to a lot of people, I think.
It was a year too full of things, from my perspective. I don’t just mean the tragedies of Brexit and Trump and Harambe, but I did a lot of work.
I also cycled around a Scottish island drinking whisky with my best friends, so I can’t complain too much.
And I spent the peak of the summer learning French and writing about Karl Barth in the library of the Institut Catholique, so on reflection, that was good.
I spoke at a few places. The faculty in Aberdeen invited me to respond to Kathryn Tanner when she came to talk about God and money and economy for the Gifford Lectures. I went home to Dublin and gave a paper which summarised my thesis and an old lady I am almost sure wasn’t an actor paid by my parents to boost my self esteem practically embraced me at the end in gratitude. Best of all, I delivered a paper at a big congress in York where I fulfilled a life ambition and embedded Football Manager in the heart of a theological argument. That was a creative landmark.
Friends had babies and friends got doctorates. I drove the babies home from the hospital or visited them hours after they were born, and I took my newly in-doctor-nated friends out to the pub right after vivas. Here’s Dr. Taido Chino, looking relieved:
I went glamping and I went to Manchester and I went home to Dublin for various family parties which were full of joy and relief and contentment. Scotland looks good when you go glamping on the north coast with your friends:
Wife-unit took me to see actual real, live pandas, which was fitting because it was a few weeks after they were officially declared no longer desperately endangered. Three cheers for China, lads, for providing one of the few unalloyed good news stories of the year.
But when I look back on the last year, I will remember very hard times. There were deep sadnesses and fundamental worries that made all the tabloid noise fade away into the background. I am glad to see the back of the year. The consolation is that the work and the toil has some tangible outcome. I have a draft of my thesis and coming to a store near you soon is my first book, which in an act of absurd good fortune, I got to put together with my theological heroes and teachers.
I read a lot more than any year of my life but most of it was the Church Dogmatics, so telling you to pay particular attention to §64 is unlikely to help you as you think about what to check out in 2017. I was so busy reading and writing that I paid very little attention to the movies, tv shows and books I read for fun. So this is all very vague.
Like my thesis.
Books of the Year
Obviously I read some magnificent theology this year. I would like to highlight the as-yet under-recognised Plundering Egypt by Gregory Wagenfuhr. It is the sort of theology that I love the best; it actually believes that God might be real and that could have some significance for our lives. It is sprawling in its conceptual ambition, even if it comes in under 200 pages. There are lots of precise, carefully calibrated scholarly tomes and the other blogs will cite them. But this book will annoy you in its insistence that there are values Christians should prize above the ones we currently do.
In terms of non-academic Christian writing, I am obviously biased and want you all to read my friend D.L. Mayfield’s book, which should win prizes both for best cover and for oddest missionary memoir. I review it here.
The best novel I read was Anatomy of a Solider. It is a searing examination of how war turns human beings into instruments of death. Novels are rarely so elegant, especially novels about such a sinewy topic.
In terms of non-fiction, I loved The Goddess Pose, because I really got into pilates this year and the history of yoga’s popularity in the West was entirely news to me.
The second series of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt disappointed me and the Simpsons continues to be awful and people are always on about this televisual revolution but it is so often grim-by-numbers that I struggle to care too much about the latest Scandinavian hard-bitten detective drama or the just-now-streaming French/Vietnamese family drama that you are all immersed in. I loved Stranger Things as much as the rest of you and I was delighted by Ireland and Northern Ireland’s performances at Euro 2016.
But there were two things that happened on television that stick in my mind. Remember though, I am exhausted and I can’t recall if I had breakfast this morning. They are Fleabag and Horace and Pete. Fleabag is amazing. You must watch it this instant. It is 6 hard episodes that are funny and very sad and at times shocking. Being a human is hard and being a young female human is among the hardest ways to be human and this show is about that and a whole lot more.
Horace and Pete is slow. It is paced like a theatre show and shot like one too. It exhibits all the humanism that you have come to expect from Louis C.K., but it is embedded among performances from Alan Alda and Steve Buscemi, Eddie Falco, Jessica Lange and even Paul Simon that make the show compelling. And the ending. That ending. It still gets me.
Hail Caesar was funny Coen Brothers being funny, which is always welcome. Midnight Special was special. The Nice Guys was entertaining and Sing Street was charming and 10 Cloverfield Lane was exhilirating and Don’t Breathe was terrifying and relentless. Train to Busan was fecking brilliant.
But the best films I saw this year were Room, Spotlight, and Arrival. Brie Larson’s performance in Room is unparalleled. Apart from her performance in Short Term 12 of course. She is an astonishing actress and the adaptation of what was a superb, compact novel is an example of where the film improves on the book. It is as dark as the novel and yet, it is not a depressing film.
Spotlight is a paint-by-numbers re-telling of a newspaper following a lead with courage and patience. But it is a story that everyone needs to reflect on. And in many ways, it takes more skill to tell the story straight in this fashion.
Arrival is a marvel. It could be read as more pro-life than Juno and more Presbyterian than any film ever made but I suspect those who made it did not mean for it to be read that way. The story is so full that it can give rise to so many readings. I have met people who felt it was simplistic and over-drawn but I was captivated from the first scene to the last. Don’t let my fanciful interpretations put you off.
Things that go in your ears
I live in a cultural wasteland so the only live music I saw was Ben Folds with an orchestra, which was good. It was better than the album by Ben Folds with that orchestra. But music was mere sonic background for writing for much of this year, which meant a lot of Girl Talk, my music of choice when I have writer’s block. I loved very little this year, deep down in my heart. I was disappointed by A Tribe Called Quest and The Avett Brothers and surprised by Paul Simon. Mitski’s two albums became ear-worms for me, Radiohead was great and Sandra McCracken’s adaptations of the Psalms was constantly in my ears as I walked around Paris. My favourite song remains Kate Tempest’s War Song:
Podcast-wise, I think the Guardian Football Podcast is smart and funny and consistently brilliant, if you like soccer, that is. Otherwise it would be very boring. Adam Buxton is reliably charming and never boring. Finally, the Irish Jesuits have a brilliant little podcast, if you like that sort of thing.
Which you should.
After the fact edit: Best scene of the year
During half-time of the awful Man City -v- Liverpool game, I remembered I wanted to tell you about the single best scene I saw this year. If it could compete against best song or best chapter without it being a case of apples against oranges, I would set that fight up. It was powerful in a breath-stealing way. It is, of course, the already and rightfully legendary food-bank scene in I, Daniel Blake. It is a strange age we live in, where we have no words that seem to accurately capture the shift in the cultural values and the political vision we share. Maybe I’ll resume blogging more regularly in an effort to explain how the banal protestation of Christians in the public square over the last few decades was a major contributor to that collective impoverishment. But that is neither here, nor there. In an age when technology guarantees our harvests, in economies so wealthy they would make Midas gasp, people go hungry. They rely on charity to be able to consume enough calories to not expire. This is not reflected upon. Instead we are distracted by the threat of the ghoulish foreigner or the menace of the possible Fascist. We fight over a new fad issue each month, directed by the cover of National Geographic or the tweets of a pop-star to agitate for this irrelevancy or that one. But in our towns and cities people queue for food. Ken Loach didn’t merely shoot a fine scene, he captured an ethical reality more precisely than we have words to articulate. I sobbed and lamented and repented. In 2017, I hope I encounter more art like that and that I spend my time living in ways that make such art decreasingly relevant.
I have spent the last two months in various levels of discomfort due to a shoulder injury, which I fear will never get better. I miss home. The society I live in seems to be getting hard in a way that no one can stop. I worry about even worse things happening in 2017. But I have a big stash of purple snack bars, I should have my thesis submitted by St. Patrick’s Day and this time next year, I may live in Ireland again. There is reason to hope.
I am a Christian who is committed to non-violence. This is not unusual, historically speaking. After all, the first few centuries of Christians were notable for their staunch refusal to kill people, even for the best possible reasons.
I am also a Christian who is training to be a church leader in a context where my denomination is almost entirely committed to supporting the military. What I mean by that is that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland appoints military chaplains to both front-line and reserve forces and it wholeheartedly endorses the martial acts of remembrance that are conducted in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland every November. Here’s the current cover of our denomination’s magazine:
Now as these things go, this is pretty reserved. It’s not pinning a poppy on a freaking puppet. But I could draw on countless sources to show, conclusively, that uncritical engagements with military imagery contributes towards willingness to engage in military conflict. Examples: Here and here and failing everything else, if that is too academic, consider the films we watch and the games we play and the books we read.
If and when any church decides to call me to be their minister, if they want to acknowledge the tragic and horrendous loss of life involved in war, I will suggest a repentance service is more appropriate than a remembrance service. But I will also suggest that we agree that I go on holiday on the 2nd weekend of November. That’s what I currently do, living in Britain. Tomorrow morning my wife and I will eat breakfast and drink coffee and instead of going to church to sing God Save the Queen and uncritically allow Mars into the community of the Prince of Peace, we will read Isaiah 11 and pray that Barack Obama, Donald Drumpf, Vladimir Putin or Theresa May never decide to kill anyone (else again).
I can’t partake in Remembrance. Not because I don’t value the lives of the young men that died in Britain’s wars, but because I do. I cannot reconcile the uncritical embrace of our ability to end life with the voices of the men who died in the trenches. They warned us of the hollow hell that hides behind noble words. Dulce et decorum est and all that. More than that, the engagement in sombre remembrance choreographed by the state that sent those men to die for no good reason stops us from seriously considering how the recent wars were fought for no good reason. The sepia tinted nostalgia for the Somme and the heroic stand against fascism in the 2nd World War obscures how Britain has recently engaged in two horrendous, unlawful, unnecessary, utterly pointless wars and that they are currently supporting a secret war in Yemen. Presbyterians don’t gamble, but I would make a killing if I could bet that Yemen won’t be mentioned in any Presbyterian church on the island of Ireland tomorrow.
So I hope that my commitments to non-violence – which means I preach unambiguously against abortion and the death penalty, against direct provision and against torture, but also against all collusion with the martial power of the nation state – will not hinder a church from calling me as a minister in the future. After all, if I can cite Tertullian and Ireneaus, Hippolytus and Cyprian, Menno and George Fox, Dorothy Day and Jacques Ellul as my allies, surely I can still be considered a safe, orthodox pair of hands? Yet I fear that the time is coming where my refusal to do Remembrance services would mean that congregations would refuse me as their minister. It is becoming part of the Gospel.
If I was forced, I would be able to preach on Remembrance Sunday. I would do it in the following way. I would set my text as Romans 13, which is the definitive text in the New Testament that argues that we must respect the state. But I would focus on verse 8:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
And then I would describe the Predator UAV. Each one costs just over $4 million. It is a remote controlled drone. It can fly 400 miles to a target and then hang in the air for 14 hours. It carries 2 hellfire missiles. It is almost 50 feet wide, but its camera is precise enough to identify human faces.
I would emphasise: this is how we fight war today. We see without being seen. We fire missiles from hundreds of miles away or we send flying robots to kill. Let us remember this. We say the men who died on the Somme died to make our freedom possible? This is what we do with our freedom. The Americans use the Predator. The Brits use Reapers. The names reveal much. But the particular models don’t matter. What we do is what matters. We are in debt, because we cause death. We are in debt because we have not loved one another.
Then I would step out of the pulpit and pray that come Monday, I’d still have a job.
That such a concern is increasingly real reveals the Babylonian captivity of the church to the age in which we live.
I am not bolshy. I am convinced that our failure to stand at a distance from our culture on issues like the poppy and Remembrance is directly connected to the failure of Christian witness on these islands. “Gay cakes” aren’t the obstacle hindering the Gospel. Hollow Christian religiosity is. The church has been deaf to the threat posed by neoliberal capitalism’s unending desire, it has been blind to the God-denying rape of the created world and it has ignored the refugee. But at least it doesn’t give over a Sunday every year to celebrate the 1 percent “job creators”, or to thank God for fracking, or to engage in xenophobic harassment. Yet in an age when we literally hand a nuclear arsenal capable of wiping out all life on earth to a reality tv celebrity, we gather on Sundays and bow our head and let Mars pretend to be YHWH.
I have a friend we will call H. H hated reading growing up but is now almost at the end of a PhD in the sciences. And she told me during the week that I needed to read Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath because it was so heart-warming and illuminating. I take H seriously in everything she says and so I read the book yesterday. The book is classic Gladwell. A lot of important nuance gets brushed over by his wonderful, easy prose. But it closes with the story of the Presbyterian village of Le Chambon, where hundreds of Jewish people found refuge during the NAZI occupation of France. This is an amazing story, with increasingly terrifying relevance, considering the decisions that electorates are making across the Western world. Gladwell tells the story of how the teenagers of the village, summonsed to a Vichy event where a French version of Hitler Youth would be established, instead delivered a letter that began, “We have learned of the frightening scenes which took place three weeks ago in Paris, where the French police, on orders of the occupying power, arrested in their homes all the Jewish families in Paris,” and then continued to build to a conclusion that you should learn off by heart:
We have Jews.
You’re not getting them.
But there is a little detail, much less dramatic and heroic, in the story that explains why I think you should refuse to participate in Remembrance services. At one point, the Vichy government issued an edict that required all French churches should ring their bells on August 1st to mark the one-year anniversary of the NAZI arrival. The Presbyterian minister, André Trocmé, did not need to deliberate. He informed the church caretaker, a woman called Amélie, to ignore the rule. Two people summering in the village noticed the little disobedience and complained. Amélie knew how to respond:
The bell does not belong to the marshal, but to God. It is rung for God – otherwise it is not rung.
The ringing of the bell is not a hill to die on, surely. The townspeople were running a high-stakes game, offering sanctuary to Jews before shepherding them over the mountains to Switzerland. The less attention they attracted, the better. Strategically, this ringing refusal was an awful choice.
But they weren’t being strategic. They were being faithful. It is not always clear that those two domains overlap.
The disciplined, uncompromising witness of the Christians of Le Chambon did not fall like Manna. It was cultivated by regular, small acts of obedience to God which took the form of disobedience to common sense, to common decency, to common respectability.
I am not being needlessly bolshy. Our church is not discipled. Our church does not know how to worship its Lord. We are compromised by our love of technique and relevance. We are seduced by Mammon. We are intimidated by Mars. The poppy might, in a parallel universe, be an innocuous symbol of cultural heritage, but that is not where we live. There may be a world where it is just a good charity initiative, but that is not where we live. Where we live, in this, the real world, Remembrance Sunday is a missed opportunity for the church to recall its first love.
Ring your bells for God, otherwise ring them not at all.