Category Archives: Adventures

Adventures

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.

Adventures

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

Adventures

5 Places for Christians to Visit in Paris

I have a friend who is a brilliant travel blogger. I can’t even travel well, let alone blog real good! But sometimes when I am planning to go on a trip some place, I wonder why there isn’t more niche information out there. My best friend is an architect and when he jets off for a weekend break to Porto or Lodz or whatever city is going to be discovered by the style magazines next year, he can fairly easily find the five or ten buildings he simply must see in advance. The same would hold if your passion was food or sport or shoplifting from designer stores. Guidebooks will presumably tell you about the best restaurants and the location of the sports stadiums and the shops with lax security. But when it comes to really obscure, niche, weirdo concerns like, religion, travel literature is surprisingly silent.

(Just as an aside, while I am spouting off about stuff I know nothing about: Why are there no Gaelteacht holiday resorts aimed at families in Ireland? I bet you could make a killing by building a nice little spa resort out in Belmullet and running it like any other resort, except that there are Irish lessons in the morning for the kids and the grown-ups and that everyone agreed to only speak as Gaeilge.)

Staying in Paris over the summer, I searched for a walking tour of its Christian sites of interest but to no avail. Maybe my Google mojo had deserted me and such a thing exists but I wasn’t able to find any guidance for places to visit that weren’t basically architectural tours (the churches are pretty!) in disguise. But I walked all over the city and I stumbled into some interesting and unusual places that would be of interest to Christians (especially theologically-inclined Christians). So here is my Unusual Parisian Pilgrimage.

1. The Sorbonne
Since Paris remained Catholic, France remained Catholic. But there was a time back during the Reformation when the country was aflame with theological dispute and passion. The continued relevance of the minority population of Reformed Christians in France can be testified to by the life and work of the insanely prolific sociologist Jacques Ellul. But the first out-of-the-ordinary place to visit on your little day of pilgrimage in France is the Sorbonne.

The reason?

Because for a brief period, two of the most significant figures of the Reformation overlapped there in their study, and went on to have a dramatic role in shaping either side of the conversation. John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism was a student here at the same time as Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Presbyterianism and the Jesuits provided much of the intellectual muscle of their respective positions and it is fascinating to imagine them sharing small talk over porridge in the morning.

Sorbonne

Today, of course, the Sorbonne is the centre-piece of the acclaimed University of Paris and tours can be arranged. They probably won’t focus much on this obscure side-story however…

2. Thomas Aquinas
The most important theologian in the history of the church famously lived in Paris. The Dominican friar, Thomas Aquinas, assimilated Aristotelian philosophy with Christian theology and produced a work that has systemically shaped Christian thought and practice (for good and ill) since then. His thought continues to be studied by philosophers and political scientists, and I imagine that hidden in his extensive writings, everyone could find something that applied to their craft or field or calling. Famously, at the end of his life, he had a vision of some sort that convinced him that all his writing was for nothing. “I can write no more. All that I have written seems like straw.” Theologians since him have chosen not to take his wisdom seriously on that count.

Considering how monumental a figure Thomas is, it is amazing that there is nothing much made of him in Paris. There is a notable painting in a side-chapel in Notre Dame but that is all I could find. Except, of course, for a little parish church in his honour, located on a little square at the end of a lane, also named after him. So if you are that way inclined, you can drop in and say a prayer of thanks for the big Italian brainiac, and ask God to let you know sooner than a year before you die if it turns out everything you’ve spent your life doing is worthless…

Rue St. Thomas d'Aquin

3. Hammurabi’s Code
The Hammurabi Code is in the basement in the Louvre. The Louvre is a museum in the middle of Paris. It is 700 metres long and it is a palace and there is a glass pyramid in the middle of it and it is the most famous gallery in the world, so you will probably be visiting there anyway.

But when you visit, as you grow exhausted by the crowds of people taking selfies or even more inexplicably, just taking photos of everything, you can slip downstairs to the much less visited section on Egypt and Babylon. Standing in the middle of one room you will find a breath-taking obelisk of diorite, black as night, with intricate carvings etched into its surface. This is the Code of Hammurabi, a legal monument from the Babylonian empire first cast in stone about 3750 years ago.

No one will bother you as you pay close attention to it because practically everyone in the room is just lost, and looking for a Da Vinci to take a photo of. But if you are fond of reading the Bible, then this exhibit is worth going out of your way to examine. The Law, that Moses gave the Israelites, and that is recorded in the Pentateuch, was most certainly formed with the rulings listed on Hammurabi’s Code in mind. The Law of Israel draws on, remixes, and parodies the law of the Babylonians. This big, beautiful stone testifies to that very real, historical world of military power and kings-glorified-as-gods that we find in the opening pages of the Old Testament. And in that complex way, the Code can inspire devotion very different from the stunning stained glass of Saint Chapelle or vaulted ceilings of Notre Dame.

Hammurabi, not Harambe

4. Passage du Harve
The penultimate stop on our little pilgrimage is to a shopping centre. Paris is riddled with passages couverts, laneways that were roofed and then developed into prototype shopping malls. They are sometimes called arcades. The reason I propose wandering down through one of these unassuming but pretty temples to consumerism is not just that you might want a Starbucks, but because of the way in which these developments can help us understand how confusing is the world in which we live.

Walter Benjamin was one of the great philosophers of the 20th Century. He lived in poverty, made some of the first radio programmes intended for children, spent all the money he had on books, and committed suicide trying to escape the NAZIs. He also, in that great theological tradition that Thomas began (and Karl Barth perfected), left his masterpiece unfinished. As a young man we wanted to write an essay about the joy of learning about a place by walking around and he used the Parisian arcades as the context. But the work swallowed him and the Arcades Project expanded and grew to a scale no one could ever finish. Benjamin had that knack that all Christian ethicists should aspire to replicate, whereby a sign in a shop window is as worthy of deep reflection as an ancient middle-eastern legal code or the achievements of a historic university.

Benjamin’s Marxism never transcended his Judaism. He is invariably despised by the kinds of intellectuals who think that belief in God is a brain disease that afflicts the morally weak. They insist his dense prose hides everything, because behind it lies nothing. But I have never understood that criticism. Maybe trained by the internet browser to appreciate hyperlinked things, Benjamin’s roving mind always provokes me to thought. As I wandered down the Parisian arcades, I thought about how it wasn’t Baron Haussmann’s vision, nor Gustave Eiffel’s ingenuity that made Paris great, but the imagined engines of commerce, that rest collectively inside our heads and make us want a juicer that we can control from our mobile phone. Our consumption consumes the world and I thought then about Benjamin and his Angel of Progress, who is driven forward with his back to the future, facing history:

There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.

It turned out Benjamin never managed to make sense of the world by walking down arcades. And we cannot make sense of history which drives us irresistibly into the future a-top the rubble-heap of our consuming love of progress, but for an out-of-the-ordinary Christian pilgrimage, I recommend wandering the passages.

Passage du Harve

5. The Tomb of Oscar Wilde
It should be of comfort, I suppose, that Ireland is better at making missionaries than theologians. I seem to remember Augustine refers to the great heretic Pelagius at one point as a porridge-eating Scotus, which suggests that old fool might have been Irish. We generated John Scotus Eriugena in the 800s but he was suspected of heresy as well and since then, we’ve gone through a bit of a fallow period. When Bono is your most prominent God-talker, and Sinéad O’Connor is in second-place, you know you’re in trouble.

But I have always thought of Oscar Wilde as a theologian. I would maintain that along with The Brothers Karamazov and Gilead and Silence, any introduction to Christian literature has to dwell for a long time with The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Wilde has understandably been adopted as an icon of the LGBT movement. It ought not need to be said but I shall say it anyway: That doesn’t mean he can’t also be a Christian from which we learn.

My suspicion, which I might get to test out properly some time, is that you can read all his work through two dynamics. Firstly: The history of the world will, in the end, turn out to be a comedy. Jesus is the Christ, and therefore, even in the sky-high rubble-heap of history that surrounds us, we can hope and we can laugh. As he writes, “Since Christ the dead world has woke up from sleep. Since him we have lived.”

Secondly, sin is a lethal seduction that traps us. This is the insight that drives The Portrait. It is always under the surface in fairy tales, where the disfigured are very often the ones who communicate grace, while the beautiful are revealed to be ugly below the skin. It is hard (impossible?) to follow this line of thought without confusing it with Wilde’s own life and with the form that the political conversation around LGBT liberation takes in today’s discourse. But Wilde could laugh because he knew there would be good news at the end. And he had to laugh because in the here and now, so little could be trusted.

So if I am right that Wilde is the rarest of things: an Irish theologian worth reading, then surely it is worth walking to his grave and paying your respects? I think the actual monument is hella ugly, made even worse by the protective perspex erected to protect it from graffiti. But the Pére Lachaise cemetery is strikingly beautiful in its gothic splendour. And a graveyard is always a good place to finish a pilgrimage, right?

Oscar Wilde Tomb

Your Correspondent, How can someone with glasses that thick be so stupid?

Adventures

Lille and What it Means to be European

When I was a child I read books. I also played computer games and imagined in my back garden what it would be like to be a footballing hero. I did lots of things when I was a child but one of the things I started doing when I was about 14 was obsessively tracking down every word written by a particular author.

My brother gave me a book for Christmas called Microserfs and I devoured it and then read it again and then used the money from my little jobs to go buy the other books this chap – Douglas Coupland – had written. Whole sentences were burned into my memory as I explored ideas that were entirely new to me through these odd novels that often didn’t even seem to have plots. Can it be coincidence that the teenage-atheist-Me read Life After God and failed to understand it one lazy summer week spent being otherwise bored in my family home in remotest Co. Leitrim and then five years later found myself Christian?

I thought of this: I thought of how every day each of us experiences a few little moments that have just a bit more resonance than other moments—we hear a word that sticks in our mind—or maybe we have a small experience that pulls us out of ourselves, if only briefly—we share a hotel elevator with a bride in her veils, say, or a stranger gives us a piece of bread to feed to the mallard ducks in the lagoon; a small child starts a conversation with us in a Dairy Queen—or we have an episode like the one I had with the M&M cars back at the Husky station.

And if we were to collect these small moments in a notebook and save them over a period of months we would see certain trends emerge from our collection—certain voices would emerge that have been trying to speak through us. We would realize that we have been having another life altogether; one we didn’t even know was going on inside us. And maybe this other life is more important than the one we think of as being real—this clunky day-to-day world of furniture and noise and metal. So just maybe it is these small silent moments which are the true story-making events of our lives.

I was newly online and I found an archive of all the journalism that Coupland had produced earlier in his career and I saved those articles in a text file and copied them to a floppy disk and put it in a special box with the little tab set so that no one could accidentally copy over it. I often re-read the articles, especially the ones that were about things I knew nothing about, which was most of them.

One of them was about an architect called Rem Koolhaus (one of the sentences cast in stone in my mind: “pronounced, almost unbelievably, Cool House”) and the development that he was a part of in Lille, in northern France. A copy of this article persists online. It was brimming with the optimism which was the most distinctive aspect of Coupland’s writing that I imbibed. Against the pessimists, Coupland was always seeking to remind us of the good things going on around us. We no longer died of dental abscesses and we could fly half way around the world in an afternoon. Decades later, having drunk deeply from the wells of Reformed Christianity which is anti-optimistic because it is hopeful, I would feel a need to ask my teenaged self to consider that people still do die from sore teeth and that all those airplanes were actively destroying climate stability. But I was less of a killjoy back then and when Coupland wrote about this architectural development which is a taste of “the mythology of Europe, 1992”, I wanted to go to there.

Liz Lemon

Last month I went there.

Wife-unit and I took a train from Gare du Nord which covered the 200km effortlessly in an hour and a minute and deposited us in a city very different from Paris. It was also very different from the city that Coupland visited.

Because the mythology of Europe, 2016 has taken a dark turn.

You come out of the train station and rising up all around you are the Koolhaus buildings and their siblings. There is no sentimental allusion to the past. The people who have erected the buildings of Lille have, as Koolhaus put it, been “solicited for their power to physically articulate new visions.” A depressed post-industrial city has been metamorphosed into a logistical and finance hub. People work in offices high in the sky and travel around on bicycles that are shared communally. It is immediately invigorating.

Lille 1

Back in the 90s, when the Euro was an idea in the brightest minds of Frankfurt and Nigel Farage was a middlingly-wealthy wheezebag, Coupland wrote:

Euralille looks and feels as if a lunar research station has crash-landed onto a small, respectable French market town. This is meant as a compliment.

Lille Civil Service

Coupland lists 11 trajectories that mark both the mythology of the early age of the internet and the architecture expressed in Lille.

    Transnationalism and diversity
    Vectorization
    Asynchronicity
    Deregionalization
    The obsolescence of physical space
    Rupture
    Discontinuity
    Drive thru-ness and fluidity
    Centerless cities
    De-industrialization

Lille

This excited me immensely as an adolescent because it spoke to me of the wide open future that was ahead of us all. Distance would no longer divide and history would no longer cling to us and we would tame the forces that dragged us apart from each other. Coupland, waxing lyrical about the architecture, writing:

Walls become doors; doors and walls vanish altogether; geographically distant rooms and places are afforded in-your-face visual intimacy with one another. Top becomes bottom, and vice versa. Roads and railways penetrate and flow through structures.

Lille

This is how the buildings are and they are lovely. But it turns out this is not the end of what Lille means. Coupland didn’t realise it and I definitely didn’t realise it but what he was describing was not the optimistic future of a Europe at peace with itself and making peace with others. This is not what Europe turned out to mean. The revolution he was describing was not an opening of a level field of social harmony.

He was describing neoliberalism.

Koolhaus literally described the architect as propagandist and that didn’t cause the teenaged-me to pause. For what was he propagandizing? The answer, even if he didn’t know it, is in the interview:

“Chaos simply happens. You cannot aspire to chaos; you can only be an instrument of it.”

The secret anthem of neoliberalism is that one should never let a crisis go to waste. Chaos happens, it turns out, because it is engineered. A generation after the Euralille project, the city is marked by the same racial and philosophical tensions that fracture France. It is marked by the same economic inequality that threaten the coherency of the entire society. Its homeless and its poor struggle alongside the super-fast trains. Old people queue to squander their money in sad little casinos. The mythology of Europe in 2016 is concerned more about wealth won without effort than Coupland could have dared to fear.

The month before I visited, Great Britain decided to leave Europe, a prospect unimaginable in 1992. It is still connected materially by the EU-enabled Channel Tunnel, which terminates at Lille. The audacity that dared to build a train under the sea and the confidence that tried to revitalize an entire region through architecture has drained away. Euralille is still a lovely complex. But it is little more than a shopping centre. The pavillion’s pond is dark green from uncleaned water. The square is marked by artless sprayed tags, unremoved. The concrete struts supporting the structure are visibly uncared for. The police station is clearly under-funded and is dwarfed by the fast food joints that surround it.

BK Lille

I trekked to Lille to honour my younger self and his strange passions. I found the buildings as stunning as I hoped. But I found I had lost the optimism of my earlier years. Who would have thought that concepts like “rupture” and “discontinuity” and “transnationalism” and “centre-less cities” would have a downside?! You can dress up a shopping mall and call it urban regeneration and you can dress up neoliberal economics and call it European integration but eventually the chaos you are creating will begin to show. It’s what we do when the crisis breaks out that decides whether we are right to be optimistic or have any reason to be hopeful.

That’s not the mythology of Europe, 1992. It’s the imminent reality of Europe, 2016.

Your Correspondent, The human equivalent of petrol-station sushi

Adventures, Trashpile

Les Misérables, Me and the Radio

Quite honestly, one of the nicest things that ever happened to me was this one time I finished speaking at an event and while small-talking with a woman I had never met before, she volunteered that my delivery was reminiscent of Ira Glass. This woman was unlikely to be in the pay of my father or Wife-unit or someone else inclined to bribe people to boost my self-esteem. But if someone were paid by someone who loves me to say something that would put a spring in my step, that is what they would say.

I have the uncommon ailment of early-onset middle-age disease. No need to offer me your herbal remedies, I am quite happy to have it. One of the symptoms is a growing love of radio programmes. Since I was born in the 1980s, I find it hard to locate an actual radio. I don’t let that stop me. Through secondary school in the early 60s my dad earned pocket money by selling home-made crystal radio sets to the other boys in his class. My radio-itch is scratched by considerably fancier means. I find myself listening to BBC Radio 6 and sometimes even BBC Radio 4 on my telly. I use my mp3 player to listen to Radiolab and a podcast by some geezers from a magazine I have never read or even seen called Books and Culture. So to be compared to the king of nerdy radio hosts, Ira Glass, even if it was by a woman who had alcohol in her hand, was a crowning moment of perfection.

In the last few years, I have started to go on the radio to talk about things, mostly God. I was in a debate with Richard Dawkins and he didn’t win. Neither did I. The listener did. And by listener I mean listeners. It was local radio and I think 17 people tuned in to hear me gush about how good the Blind Watchmaker is and waffle about how Dawkins fails the test Feuerbach presented us in the 1850s. If you fail the test that the granddaddy of atheism sets out, then your atheism might not be very good. Prof. Dawkins was unimpressed by that argument. Which is a pity. If only he had listened to me he would have saved himself a lot of bother and the chance to earn gazillions of euros and be adored by angry internet-men in auditoriums around the world.

By the way: “IF ONLY HE/SHE/THEY/IT HAD LISTENED TO ME!” is pretty much my most commonly used phrase. The only competition is “It’s This American Life, I’m Ira Glass. Each week on our show, we bring you a theme, and then present variations on that theme. This week…” which is what I say in the mirror about five times a day.

Last Autumn I made a radio programme for RTE Radio 1, which is the national radio station. However, it was a religious broadcast, sent out on Sunday morning and it may have been on an obscure digital version of the radio station. I probably doubled my debut listenership and got about 34 people to tune in. I am almost certain of that because I was wise enough to rope in my big sister to read things like the Bible and poetry and that meant that she got her friends to tune in. She was really good. She doesn’t have a lisp and she is a woman of serious dignity and that can’t help but leak out into the microphone, then out into the airwaves and then down your eartubes.

I enjoyed making that programme, in a large part because I got to deliver a lengthy, unedited sermon on air about the Bible’s best genocidal hero, Samson, that referenced Eminem, zombies and the poetry of R.S. Thomas.

A few weeks ago, the local radio station for the Carlow and Kilkenny region got in touch with me because they heard I knew things about theology and I knew things about movies. They wanted me to talk about Les Miserables on air. Patrick Mitchel told them to call me, allegedly. I just think Patrick was disinclined to watch any musical that wasn’t about Bob Dylan. Anyway, I went and watched the movie and then I spoke for a quarter of an hour about what I thought of it.

I mostly thought it was amazing. I mean, as a FILM it had many flaws, most of them serious and involving the worst crime possible which is sentimentality. But as a MOVIE it was great fun and I got caught up in all the singing! And the striding! And the little boy fighting the Revolution by crawling under things! As a result, and because I was keeping my crusty old curmudgeon personality behind a sound-proofed metal door, I suspect I come across as a lisping teenage girl with something, like, seriously important to say about things, like, you know what I mean?

I’d say I trebled my biggest audience with this one because if I know anything about taxi drivers in rural Ireland, I know they are always listening to the local radio station. Even if there is some idiot on talking about Hugh Jackman in terms that aren’t murderous.

So if it interests you, here it is, in poor quality mp3, just for you.

Your Correspondent, Has a helpful video that will evade all your questions.

Adventures, theology

Durham and Stanley Hauerwas

A few weeks ago I got to spend the day with a few theology postgrad students and Stanley Hauerwas, which was nice. It was also an opportunity to spend the night in Durham, one of those (in my experience, rare) places that makes England seem lovely. Getting the bus out from Newcastle, it seemed everyone around me was talking about football. That was nice.

As far as giving my paper goes, I think its fair to say that having to sprint across the city to make it to the location on time is a sub-optimal preparation plan. I sweated through whatever words I had cobbled together. Thankfully, I know how stressful it is to speak in public because I have to do that often so I had a fresh tshirt ready to make myself as fresh as a daisy once the shock of sprinting and speaking had worn off. That was useful cos I had to spend the whole day in close quarters with strangers, including theologians I had read with the highest regard and there is nothing worse than being the smelly boy in class.

Not that I’d know from experience or anything.

That evening Hauerwas gave a public address to a packed auditorium. His presentation was called “Church Matters”. He began by saying that Christian theologians have stripped Christianity of its content so completely as to leave atheists nothing left to believe in. He continued in such winsome fashion throughout. I thought I’d share the sketch of the talk that I noted down. It might be incoherent to you but the nuggets might also be very provocative.

He argued that civil religion exists not for the good of religion but for the formation of a citizen. For Hauerwas, it is a remarkable achievement of the modern nation state to manage to make Christianity civil!

He made some very typically Hauerwasian comments, including the claim that war becomes the act of sacrifice that sustains the State by fuelling the belief that although we die (soldiers especially), the State will continue forever. Also: that the church matters is the reason that he refuses to use the word “belief” to describe what makes a Christian a Christian. Also: he found space to critique Reinhold Niebuhr by arguing that he gave American Christians theological justifications to join the left wing of the Democratic Party. The only problem was of course, that there is no left wing of the Democratic party.

For Hauerwas, the most decisive challenge to Christianity is not the New Atheists and their trumpeting of scientific method. It is the belief that Christianity is a lifestyle choice. It is no longer a question of truth. The Christian life is all too often a life of desperate but unacknowledged unbelief.

In response to this challenge, Hauerwas’ stance remains firmly Barthian. What we mean when we say “God” is that God is God.

And it flows from that that what God calls the church to be is to be witnesses to the treasures of the Gospel. That is it. After all, we can never forget Barth’s warning that if you make a start with “God and…”, “you open the door to every demon.”

Barth is more than just an important thinker. The witness that is the life and work of Karl Barth stands in support of the fact that Christians must continue to tell about the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of the church. Barth, taken seriously, for Hauerwas, shows us that God is the God who lived in Mary’s womb. This increasingly explicit pro-life position of Hauerwas is of course very relevant to how I think about the Savita-crisis in Irish politics and maybe this week I’ll be brave enough to blog about it?

As ever, he was at his best when fielding questions from the audience. Although one person asked him about austerity and Hauerwas showed that he lived in a very different political culture by answering about how frugality must be rediscovered as a Christian virtue in the context of the decreasing resources we will have in the future. It was an awkward moment as he realised he had mis-spoken but didn’t know how and everyone in the hall knew how but no one could quite explain!

The host from Durham theology department opened the Q&A session by asking about Christian attitudes to political power. He asked Hauerwas a question based around the kind of Christians who go around saying Jesus is Lord.

Hauerwas did exactly what you would expect by responding rapidly: “I think Jesus is Lord!” He went on to claim that he is a theocrat. In a certain sense, he must be because saying “Jesus is Lord” can never be simply a personal opinion. For Hauerwas, “Jesus is Lord” is a more determinative political claim than anything else we can say. But theocracy doesn’t mean that we end up doing the things or being the people that a liberal narrative of theocracy would predict.

Hauerwas is happy to embrace Nietzsche’s accusation that Christian morality is a slave morality since such a morality is the matter that is the church. By this he means that at the heart of Christian conviction is the assertion that God is human. Hence, the church embodies a slave morality that celebrates the humanity of the autistic boy and the Down’s Syndrome girl as brother and sister. This is a morality that cannot be made “civil” to the ceaseless momentum of the markets.

The Q&A session also allowed him to talk in more detail about non-violence, Christendom and accusations that his virtue-ecclesiology is sectarian. On the question of non-violence he made a point that I think is increasingly vital when he said that it is by no means clear why the killing that is called war is distinguishable from mass murder. As he unpacked that he argued that the problem with Just War Theory is not actually whether a particular instance is just or not; the problem we get to now is whether it is war at all.

One of the great lines from the Q&A was that the one appropriate response to the end of Christendom is, “By God! Let’s make the most of it!”

And in response to the accusation that his theology is an invitation to the church to withdraw from wider society he declared that he isn’t against withdrawl, but you can’t withdraw if you’re surrounded!

If any virtue possess modern Christianity, he argued, it is tolerance. And if you think that is a good thing, Hauerwas would like you to ask yourself if you yourself would want to be “tolerated”?

Big ecumenical fool that he is, he was asked about inter-religious dialogue and he said that you do it like porcupines screw: very carefully!

And then towards the end he got positively pastoral. We got to see the Hauerwas that his knee-jerk critics never engage with – a senior saint who wants to see people be as surprised by the Gospel as he was. He warned us about the difficulty of rejecting consumerism since “capitalist logic makes acquisition a necessary form of charity.” If we stop spending, people lose their jobs. This shows us how tricky a foe we face. But in the face of that complexity we can’t lose track of the fact that love is not a scarce resource.

The one thing said all day that resonated with me most deeply was his warning that anytime that the Gospel is shaped by a coercive description so as to convince you, you have a sense that the joy that makes the Gospel the Gospel has been betrayed. This condemns so much of what passes for evangelism in the church. It was a profound moment of realisation for me. He continued by saying that desperateness is always a kind of violence that is incompatible with the grammar of Christian belief. We must be patient, all the way down into the core of practices.

His closing thought was that the Gospel is only the Gospel when it is received in such a way that we realise that we don’t have to do this to get God to be God. We get to do this because God is God and all we have to do is rejoice.

And to that I can say that for teachers like Stanley Hauerwas, I rejoice.

Your Correspondent, He sees you’ve played knifey spooney before.

Adventures, Dead Letter Office

The Things I’ve Lost

I am usually pretty good at keeping things. I can keep a secret. I keep my cinema tickets. I kept my virginity until I was 28 and only lost it because of an unfortunate riding accident.

I have however lost quite a few parts of my body. Tonsils. Adenoids. And now, just a while ago, my appendix.

There are three things I learned that are of such deep, profound and spiritual value that I feel compelled to pass them on to you.

Appendicitis

First of all, human beings evolved. I am sure you think that I mean that the persistent existence of the appendix is pretty clear evidence of natural selection. But as science nerds are very happy to tell you, as I know from experience, the appendix is actually a repository of useful juices that allows the gut to restock all its acid goodness.

No, my experience proves evolution conclusively, regardless of what you think the Bible says because of the excruciating pain I endured after the procedure. When they do keyhole surgery they pump a load of air into your belly so that your organs separate and they can tell the intestine from the appendix or indeed the liver, which I explicitly asked for them to leave alone.

The air presses up against the diaphragm but the brain doesn’t know what to make of it. Our primate predecessors never needed to develop a response to a massive influx of air through the bellybutton. So for some stupid Darwin reason, it expresses itself as pain in the shoulder. As a result, I woke up at 2am with this mania-inducing agony in my shoulder. None of the massages that were offered to me by burly Bulgarian orderlies could ever have relieved the pain. Neither did the Deep Heat I decided to inject into my shoulder. The only thing that reduced the anguish was walking around (and time, that great healer). The air had to seep out.

And no you couldn’t fart it out, I tried that too. But the air wasn’t in the digestive system. Even armpit farts did nothing.

So there you go, evolution is true, my shoulder is better, your granddad was probably an ape or something.

Secondly, I realised how twisted the medical system actually is. The whole system is obviously structured in a hierarchical fashion centring around the convenience of doctors. Nurses were once again, both humanly and to my untrained eyes, technically more competent but they seemed to have to wait around for permission to sneeze from some doctor wearing too much jewellery for me to be completely convinced of their integrity. (When I am on a lot of drugs, I get very judgey about people’s appearances.)

The reason doctors get to have the whole system pirouette around them is because they earn so much money. We have to get the most value out of them that we can. And the reason they earn so much money is because the whole system relies on their say-so for anything to happen. Makes sense, see?

My question is why does excellence have to be rewarded? Is it not sufficient that we simply create the context (education and opportunity) for doctors to excel? If that holds, then we can stop paying them a quarter of a million yo-yos a year and we can start sharing out those opportunities for excellence to the people on the ward who actually seem capable of respecting other human beings, the nurses.

Thirdly, being majorly unwell in a minor sort of a way is a whole lot harder than being a little bit unwell in a major sort of way. Let me explain: when I broke both my arms I was not that unwell. I had surgery to put my right arm back together and it involved anaesthetic that made me queasy and painkilling drugs that really knocked me out. But after the first few days I was alright. Apart from being unable to wipe my bum or dress myself. So while I was just a little bit unwell, it was a major inconvenience and I was able to slot happily into my role as patient and be good-natured about it.

This time around I had a condition that was fairly close to getting serious. The appendicitis was atypical and it was about to explode its toxic bile-sap all over my innards. But because of the sci-fi-futuristic efficiency of laparoscopic surgery I was better once the shoulder pain went away. So I was quite unwell but in a very tiny way. And I found it very frustrating. I was very grumpy. Wife-unit deserves a medal, a holiday and a pat on the back for having to deal with my tantrums about everything from music being played in the background at the wrong time to where the scissors I cut my nosehair was hiding.

Its a funny thing, the self. I really don’t know mine. Even when I think I’m very spiritually sophisticated and emotionally mature and refined in the virtues, the moment something bodily is a little out of whack in a way that is out of whack, my self goes missing and gets replaced by a Mr. Hyde inspired ogre who wants to simultaneously cycle away from all of humanity, drink all the wine in Europe and punch a cat in the face because that is the only thing that could ever hope to realign reality with what I want.

So I lost my appendix, a good chunk of whatever remaining respect I had for medics and my temper.

Your Correspondent, Like an invisible appendix-less James Bond super-villan criminal mastermind

Adventures

Till Death Us Do Part

 

A Marriage by R.S. Thomas

We met

under a shower

of bird-notes.

Fifty years passed,

love’s moment

in a world in

servitude to time.

She was young;

I kissed with my eyes

closed and opened

them on her wrinkles.

‘Come,’ said death,

choosing her as his

partner for

the last dance. And she,

who in life

had done everything

with a bird’s grace,

opened her bill now

for the shedding

of one sigh no

heavier than a feather.

 

Your Correspondent, Once met a female woman of the girlular variety

Adventures, theology

The Story I Remember About Stories

At Greenbelt I went along to the Ikon worship event.

Ikon is a collective of Christians in Belfast quite unlike any other.

They performed a worship event called “Based on a True Story”. All the various pieces are now available on their blog. The most jarring part of it for me was when Pádraig O’Tuama was interrupted while reading the opening poem by someone telling him it was a load of shite or words to that effect before putting the poem in a shredder. I know that Ikon were hopefully looking for a more iconoclastic shock based around doctrine and faith and doubt but I was enjoying the poem! “Finish the poem!” I wanted to shout. Also, stop swearing at Pádraig!

The performance wound itself out around reflections on memory and on truth. God was presented as story. Every story is made up. The proposition that bubbled to the top was whether or not instead of asking if your story is true, would the better question not be to ask if it is true enough?

Jon Hatch delivered a very moving and powerful examination of memory and story as he contrasted the stories of Ann Travers and Mary McArdle and then the intepretations of those stories told by politicians like Jennifer McCann and Jeffrey Donaldson.

The performance ended with a liturgy that asked us to hold the gaze of a stranger and reach out to them. I went along with this but I am such a useless Christian that I don’t even remember the name of the woman standing behind me. As we left the tent, we were given little cards with tweets of people’s stories of God.

I tweeted in the middle of the show:

At ikon, the most cutting edge of christianity these islands have to offer & still john piper is a major influence! #greenbelt

I only realised afterwards that the tweet might seem like a mean jibe. But that wouldn’t be how I meant it. When FF read out:

For our chief end, perhaps, is to storify God and enjoy each other forever.

she was surely aware that John Piper began the noble tradition of remixing the Westminster catechism back in 1986 when in Desiring God he argued that:

The chief end of man is to glorify God
by enjoying Him forever.

John Piper is like the King of a certain branch of the American church, one that arguably comes across as obsessed with Truth with a capital T and they locate that Truth in the writings of Cauvin and his early followers. He’s easy to caricature and hard enough to like. But he is a scholar, a tremendous preacher and a man of real, gracious integrity. Plus, he writes a lot of soppy love poetry to his wife so the guy has to get some cred for being utterly uninterested in accumulating any cred.

I suppose my point with Piper is that even the fellows who are stubbornly clinging to a very propositional and systematic Christian faith sometimes effortlessly embrace and encapsulate the kind of story Ikon were telling. I am not sure the mirror effect applies to Ikon: how great it would be if in the midst of their fascinating creativity they effortlessly weaved in the grand old story of Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin and Barth.

I may have read Ikon’s Greenbelt performance wrong. They seem to suggest there is a tension in the Christian life. On one hand there is the grand objective Truth. On the other hand there is the fallibility of our inherently narrative-constrained subjective story that we all assemble for ourselves. Ikon would like us to consider how hard it is for these two stances to reach out to each other. I suspect however that it is not the Gordian knot they propose it to be.

When Christ declares “I am the way”, he explodes the fatuous tension between objectivity and subjectivity that we only got around to inventing 1700 years later. In Jesus, God is revealed so absolutely that even as he becomes a relative subject, he remains utterly absolute. Tom Wright calls this an “epistemology of love”. Jonathan Edwards might call it “religious affection”. I have tasted it repeatedly in what I call conversion experiences. What it means it that there is no tension in Christianity between the head and the heart, the absolute and the relative, the objective and the subjective.

Or at least there is no tension if God is not simply a story we tell ourselves.

If God is the author and not the character, then he is the one who holds all the narratives together. My friend Cian is not a Christian but he is reading Miroslav Volf books. He was around in our house last night and he commented on how satisfying a proposition Volf makes in The End Of Memory: that our identity is located in God. This is something conversional- this is a twist in the tale that, if true, reorientates the whole narrative. CS Lewis was getting at this when he wrote:

Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn every agony into a glory.

When we propose that our competing narratives, formed by our narrow subjective views, are incommensurable, I fear we are a people without hope. Ironically, Ikon, who pride themselves on their apocolyptic sensitivity, lacked an eschatological dimension at Greenbelt. God doesn’t relate to us as a man in the attic relates to the people living below him. He relates to us the way Brian Friel relates to his characters. Ikon are spot on when they suggest that the concept of story is inextricably linked to the God of the Bible. But he, not us, is in control of the story. We’re caught up in the drama just like Gar in Philadelphia Here I Come! Unlike Gar, we can trust that there is a resolution more satisfying than we dare to hope for in store for us.

The Ikon performance was true enough, but it didn’t manage to share the whole story.

Weaving that most truthful aspect of the story of God, that he is trustworthy even when our vision is so limited it seems foolish to trust in anything, would have been truly radical.

Your Correspondent, His track record is longer than a DC-20 aircraft

Adventures, theology

What Kevin Thought Of Greenbelt

I went to Greenbelt, which is a gathering of about 15000 people who like the idea of God. It’s like the Electric Picnic of God-botherers. They live out of tents in the middle of a field that has been famously set aside for galloping horses. There is music and theatre and dance and comedy and good food. There are also talks about theology and politics and technology and that is considerably less interesting to most people but however much I try to steel myself against it, these are the things that get my blood pumping. I am a boring man.

Greenbelt 2011

Or rather, I am a middle aged man trapped in the body of a 29 year old. Given a choice between wonderful hipster music and a quiet discussion over coffee (or preferably whiskey) about tax policy or the competing faith influences at work in the two major British political parties, I’ll take the banter.

My feelings about Greenbelt were complex. What would you expect? I am an extreme introvert and I spent four days in the company of people. Also, I am a Presbyterian minister in training and a fulltime evangelist. Old skool orthodoxy is not what Greenbelt is famous for. It has the reputation of being a place where the envelope of orthodoxy is pushed. Or, I don’t know, burned ritually as an act of performance art. I can admit though, that us paleo-orthodox Christians would organise a shitty festival. There’d be more metrical psalms and less Billy Bragg. There ought to be more laughter with the evangelicals, but that laughter would in fact be the howl of the inside joke at some Other’s expense, not the surprised guffaw that the Gospel brings. In that straightforward observation alone there is probably a lifetime’s work of preaching and theology.

Our beer might be better. I was disappointed that I could find nothing wheaty in the famous “Jesus Arms” pub.

My feelings were complex but on reflection I can say that my Greenbelt weekend was awesome.

I can also say that the awesomeness is almost entirely down to the people I got to hang out with. I went with the man behind Soapbox Rants, and three other friends who wisely don’t have blogs. This blog, which I had intended to be about the events I attended at Greenbelt, has since, without my permission, become an ode to Mark and Olivia and Sam and Keith. Keith is the greatest tent-mate I have never had sex with. Mark and Olivia are the kind of complexly, robustly wonderful folk most people only get to meet a few times in their lives. Sam is an old friend and an older brother in Christ.

Keith and I were the parents of the group. His organisational tendencies were so extreme that he had print-outs of the train stations we would stop in along the way. Of course we, stewards that we are, took the carbon friendly option of travelling by boat and rail. Mark and Olivia are the members of our group with real, important jobs. They aren’t fulltime Christians like me and Sam. They don’t take old men with brain injuries to the cinema like Keith. Yet they were so disorganised that they didn’t even bother to print out tickets. It is a good thing when a travelling group has complementary philosophies. I haven’t read de Botton’s book on travel but I am sure he deals with the precarious job of journeying with friends. Keith and I marshalled the group, which made us feel secure. The others were marshalled. They didn’t give a crap who or why or how they were marshalled. Once we got to Cheltenham, everyone was all action. Delegation happened without fuss. Essential supplies were acquisitioned.

Don’t tell any Greenbelters that we got them from Tesco. Tshirts were being sold that had the Tesco logo with “FIASCO” written across the top. Witty, but still, hardly something you’d wear!

My friends even had the grace to compliment me in my preparation rather than mock me. I was not quite a camping virgin but I have spent more nights in 5-star hotels than in tents. I met some Maynoothians in the pub on the way to my Greenbelt train and they joked that I looked like I was packed to live a year in the desert. That was a fair cop since I literally googled for the most effective way to tie boots to my rucksack. However, my travel companions were impressed rather than disdainful. Or at least they had the grace to reassure me in my newbie-status rather than question the wisdom of hauling a sodastream to a campsite in case we needed some on the spot tonic water if cocktail hour required some Redneck Blitzkreigs.

I didn’t realise that a young lad from MCC would be there but so he was and it was a delight to introduce Phil to my friends. We bumped into an old friend named Glenn through whom I made a new friend named Dave. They talked to me about how hard it would be to have their Protestant children join a GAA club in Norn Iron and that alone gave me a lot to think about. My tent was set up next to the tent of a couple, Rachel and Ian, who I had once kind of worked with when I was employed by IFES Ireland. John Stott used to say that you can only judge the IFES movement based on the future lives of the college students involved in it. If that is the case, since IFES can claim a tiny small part of the lives that are Rachel and Ian’s, they can be proud. I made a date with one of the grandest instigators of thought I know, Pádraig, and through him met Sarah in the flesh.

All in all, this little misanthrope ended up having a great weekend because of the glorious people he met.

I don’t think I will return to Greenbelt. I can just throw a party in the Cardboard Mansion and if I give enough notice, all the folks I love so much can come and dance. Joanna Collicutt and Luke Bretherton won’t be able to make it and Miriam Jones will probably have a better gig on offer. It can still rock.

My friends would be there, after all. Greenbelt served that purpose: to spend time with friends. Hauerwas puts it well, if you change ‘Americans’ for ‘Westerners’:

I think that’s why God gave us Christ, to make us friends with God, and friends with each other, so that our relationships are nourishing and not so alone in this world. Loneliness is the besetting pathology for Americans. It’s a part of the human condition, but Americans are worse because we don’t want to have to depend upon anyone. Learning to be vulnerable again is crucial.

So I continue to praise God for the people who claim me as a friend. That’s what the church makes possible.

Your Correspondent, Was once arrested for walking in someone else’s sleep