On Remembrance Day 2017

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

May 2017: 4 Things

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.

Here’s a more detailed report I wrote.

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.

March 2017: 4 Things

1. I moved home to Ireland.

Enda 30

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

Concentration and Concentrated Prayer

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

February 2017: 4 Things

1. I submitted my PhD thesis.

Kevin online

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.

2. I discovered an amazing new tv show called Lady Dynamite

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

January 2017: 4 Things

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.

Aberdeen stinks

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!

What’s Unity Got To Do With It?

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.

Approved

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