Dissing Like Martin Luther

Martin Luther was fond of a seriously harsh insult every now and again. I would like to imagine I would be Luther’s buddy, but the reality is that my ongoing effort to be as winsome as possible would have enraged a man who was impatient with one of the great idols of our age: balance. In the course of his polemical career, Luther faced up to one of the great heresy hunters of the 16th Century Catholic church, Jacobus Latomus. Latomus was a vicious opponent, but courteous in all his engagements. Hence, Luther had this to say:

You moderate enforcer and eulogizer of moderation. You are one of those bloody and deceitful people who affect modesty in words and appearance, but who meanwhile breathe out threats and blood.

– From Against Latomus, pg. 142 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 32, found here.

It’s a great bit of Luther writing, but it struck close to the bone. I seek to cultivate gentleness but all too often, I find myself doing nothing but affecting modesty.

Your Correspondent, He pretty much just does whatever Oprah tells him to

He Has A New Word

I think I stumbled across a new verb yesterday that badly needs to be integrated into the English language: to robell.

It describes the process whereby young evangelical Christians cast off the shackles of what is perceived to be a dogmatic church authority soon after discovering that there are deeper books than Jesus Calling and deeper thinkers than Mark Driscoll.

Soon everything is up for grabs. They fall into a vast crevasse of theological ambiguity as they wrestle with the contemporary theological questions that somehow seem to have evaded Karl Barth, Thomas Aquinas or Maximus the Confessor. These questions can include whether Christians can play a game of poker once a month with some buddies or not? Is Keynote a theologically more appropriate slide show presenting software than Powerpoint? Or even “Which is better: Grand Theft Auto VI or Anselmian formulations of penal substitionary atonement (the grand total of your understanding of which stems from a twenty minute sermon you downloaded off the web)?”

The robell is surely the most terrifying threat to Christian integrity in the world today. Not greed, nor violence. The scourge of robellion probably needs to be headed off with some angry paperback books describing how to become conversant with the robellious, how to win them back to sanity and failing that, how to kick them out of your community in such a way as they’ll never trouble you again. If in your haste to get those books to the presses, you engage in some light plagiarism (or better yet, “citation errors”), then fret not. The Kingdom of God is at stake! You must clarify without hesitation that if Jesus lived in Iowa in the 20-teens, he would definitely prefer The Wire to Mad Men and he would be gluten free out of solidarity with the wheat intolerant.

In other news, here is Stanley Hauerwas speaking Christian. Curiously, that is a standard that many of the words uttered by Christians somehow fails to meet.

Your Correspondent, A new word he gives you

A Letter That Reminds Me That God Is Faithful

Wife-unit and I are emptying out our house at the moment ahead of our move to Scotland. We keep finding fascinating things. There was a book that my friends compiled for me ahead of my 21st birthday, which was at the end of November 2002. Wife-unit just found it. It is full of notes and photos and stories that represented who I was to them at that point in my life.

This was back when Wife-unit was just “Spacebaby”. It was years until she settled and I became her husband. But the last entry is a newspaper clipping, carefully cut out by some anonymous person and pasted on one page, while on the facing side of the book is a letter written in response.

I submit it as a weird demonstration of something like the sovereignty of God. I had forgotten entirely about this article, how it impacted me and how I was moved to respond to it. It can’t have been written later than December 2002. (It turns out it was written the week before my birthday.) It might have been 2001. In my memory, my Christian faith was barely visible at that point. I was a closeted Christian in most parts of my life. But here I was writing this curious little letter. I can’t quite imagine that I ever voluntarily read the Sunday Independent. Today, I’d want to change bits and pieces here and there; it needs more nuance. But here’s the proof:

Letter Kevin wrote

The thing that struck me is that today, my wife is a prison chaplain who has spent the last two years ministering in the prison that serves as the Irish centre for the rehabilitation of sex offenders. This is the prison Ivan Payne was released from in 2002, after serving a sentence of only four and a half years. Seeds blossom, even after a very long time in the dark. In 2002 I didn’t know anything. I was still a computer programmer in training. At that point, I had never even participated publicly in worship, through prayers or an odd children’s address. It was years until I would even preach.

Now we are packing up the house we have lived in for seven years, while I served as an evangelist and trained as a minister. In that time, amongst other things, Wife-unit became a chaplain and a spiritual director. We’re moving to Aberdeen so that I can complete something that now feels like the most remarkably natural thing in the world, which is a PhD in theology. We’re saying goodbye to friends knowing that it will be at least six years until we move back to Dublin. After Aberdeen, there will be three years in Belfast, doing more training for ministry, probably for both of us.

The world we occupied in 2002 and the lives we led are figments to us now. By the time we get back to the city that we love so much, the lives we now lead will be even vaguer figments. There will, in all likelihood, be children and concerns that we cannot even imagine. When I wrote this letter I was in my early twenties and terrified of what would happen if people found out I was a Christian. When I open the box that this book has just been sealed in, I will be in my late thirties and well-established on a life patterned by the desire to tell people about Jesus.

And at the beginning, there was this seed for seeing Christian faith as the action of God that allows us to love enemies. Here in the middle, that seed has blossomed in the testimony of my wife. And here, from the middle, I can look forward to an end where this hint of a suspicion that we’re building our lives on will be vindicated.

God was directing my desire before I knew it. By the end, I’ll know that I don’t even begin to know the ways he is working now and will work in the future.

Your Correspondent, Has to go back to packing things away

On How Not To Do Christian Graffiti

A while ago, I wrote about why graffiti should be a medium Christian artists are drawn to. I had a convoluted argument about early anti-Christian graffiti having a remarkable influence but you all knew it was just because I prefer my art to not hang in museums, where the coffee is often burnt. Better to be out on the street, where the coffee that can be found is often excellent.

Anyway, Wife-unit was on the bus home from work and she found evidence that my readers had taken up the challenge. I would like to suggest that you can do better than these efforts, scrawled on the back of the seats of a 66 bus to Maynooth.

Bus Graffiti 1

Bus graffiti 2

Your Correspondent, Earning his PhD in Truthology from Christian Tech.

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.

The Creideamh Guide To Romance

On Twitter, my friends ask me to write about what it means for Christians to think they are leaders and over coffee my friends ask me to write about all the kinds of things Christians should never say on the radio but what I really want to talk about is romance and nobody ever asks me to write about that!

Sometime later this week it is Valentine’s Day. I don’t actually know what day Valentine’s is because I think in decimals and yet the week stubbornly insists on being septenary. I don’t worry too much about what to get Wife-unit when it comes to Valentine’s Day. As an expert on many things (how to burn milk, how to wear a hat so that I look like am hiding smuggled counterfeit cigarettes under them, the novels of Douglas Coupland), I know that it is always wise to trust experts. My go-to expert on what women want used to be Mel Gibson but it turns out that I am fairly sure that conspiracy theory-laden, paranoiac, anti-Semitism is a fairly niche interest with the ladies and now my trusted go-to experts are supermarkets. They have fancy algorithms and extensive market research and a sterling profit motive and from my hapless wandering around supermarkets I have discerned that the modern woman wants stuffed toys, chocolates in love-heart shaped boxes and One Direction themed stationery.

Sometimes I push the boat out and do something special for the foolish woman who has to live with me. I might try and remind her of how splendid I think she is. They are showing Amelie and Brief Encounter in Meeting House Square in Temple Bar so I might surprise her with an outdoors picnic. Or perhaps I’ll surprise her at work, take her across the road to the Science Museum where they’re doing something about the neuroscience of love. Of course all of those ideas are things that Wife-unit just read out to me and we have no intention of going to any of them. After all, Dublin in mid-February is no place to have a picnic, nevermind nocturnally. And while the Science Museum serves nice coffee, I probably don’t need to be told that love happens in my brain cos my brain already knows that.

Perhaps we can go to the little church off Aungier Street that claims to have a relic of the real and actual Valentine. What could be sexier, after all, than going to a sacred space maintained by nuns to observe a bad statue that hides a vial of blood that claims to be from the body of one of potentially three men who were martyred a few centuries after Jesus?

The answer that I can confidently assert after 31 years of wooing ladies is nothing.

Complaints about Valentine’s Day are so commonplace that I wouldn’t be surprised if card companies published a line that read “Valentine’s Day is a scheme created by Hallmark to dupe us out of money but here is a token to suggest you mean something to me.” I have never celebrated Valentine’s Day with my wife but I do take the opportunity on February 14th to do something stupid for her, in the hope that she will mistake it for charming.

The Book of Proverbs, which is in the Bible, says that he who finds a good wife finds what is good. Gratitude for the good things we can enjoy is pretty much the most basic and primary step a human being can take towards being well and healthy and happy. So as someone who has never celebrated Valentine’s Day, let me counsel the most unfashionable and sincere of advice: use the excuse to express your gratitude. We may be right when we suspect that we are being duped if we fall for the pink-hued commercialism of Valentine’s Day as retail-initiative. But let us not be blinded. The most authentic thing we can do is use whatever thimble of creativity at our disposal to express the sheer gushing delight that other people bring out in us. If you don’t have a spouse or a boyfriend or a girlfriend or a significant other or a partner or whatever else it is we are meant to call people we kiss, then use the excuse to be creative in telling someone you would quite like to kiss them or better again, use the day to tell your friends you have no intention of kissing that they are more important to you than you can ever know.

As I get older and approach baldness and middle-age and all the crankiness that surrounds it, I am more struck than ever with the fact that the Gospel makes sense of our desire. It redirects it and restructures it and renews it. But the longing we have for God does not lessen the longing we have for others. It does not render romance or passion or the erotic mute. It brings them into right proportion.

Your Correspondent, Calls a lawyer everytime someone watches a YouTube video of animals doing it

2012: A Year In Review

As I come to the end of 2012, I feel a lot like this guy:
Falling bear

But here are the best things I listened to, read and watched.

Music
For the last number of Christmases my friends have operated a minor little tradition where we each compile an album of the best music we’ve discovered in the previous year and share them around:

    1. The music can be from any era, but it has to be new to you this year.
    2. The collection of songs can’t be longer than 80 minutes.
    3. The collection of songs can’t take up more than 150mb of data.
    4. There are four rules.

As I put my best of album together each year, I listen to the old ones. Each of them is definitively stamped with a certain family resemblance. My albums are never brief – they always push up against the 80th minute. My albums are full of new music, typically single songs representative of highly rated albums with one or two stand out records honoured by a double appearance. They tend to start loud and finish upbeat. They tend to mix genres almost as if I just threw a load of songs into winamp and randomised the order (which is indeed what I typically did).

If you knew me only by my best of you’d start getting worried after hearing the effort I put together at the end of 2012.

The songs come overwhelmingly from four artists – Craig Finn, Mumblin’ Deaf Ro, Rodriguez and Brother Ali. And listening through, the songs are either all unbearably sad or their context is tragic. So there are songs about a father dying of cancer, a man depressed to the verge of suicide by failed relationships and a happy lovesong best known for serving as the backdrop to a sob-inducing film (You and Me from Blue Valentine).

Nobody ever taught me how to grow up and grow old and I have learned little by osmosis. I am years and years into training to be a pastor and still I am astonished by how poorly I know myself, nevermind others. Human beings are complicated. I know this from personal experience.

Listening to the music that has most lingered with me this year, I am tempted to say something has broken inside me. But maybe it is a delusion which has been shattered? Perhaps the real delusion is to think that one’s patterns of consumption add up to anything at all, for in the world we live in, even music is a product marketed at us by minds more canny than ours. But nonetheless, this year where I was 30 and then turned 31 has been a bruiser. And it follows on from a couple of years marked by too many visits to hospitals and graves and dark places of doubt and rootlessness and loneliness.

2012 isn’t a year I’ll remember for amazing journeys to distant shores or pulsating parties that then languidly slide into the next day. It is the year my wife and I made a baby and then it died. It is the year I finished my work and found that not having a job (even when it is replaced by the absurd luxury of being a fulltime student) is immensely hard. It is yet another year littered with the little lonelinesses that come as a result of this strange vocation – to be a church pastor in an age when churches are meant to go quietly into the good night of yesteryear.

And in the fraught tension that has marked too many of my nights this year, the stand out album has undoubtedly been Dictionary Crimes by Mumblin’ Deaf Ro. You probably have never heard of Ronan Hession, who writes songs as Mumblin’ Deaf Ro. But his three albums are treasures that have guided me through the last ten years. His first album was the soundtrack to me finishing my degree in computer science. His second album was in the background as I learned the ropes working in the church. And with Dictionary Crimes there are ten songs that mark the currents of grown up life: mortality and family and disappointment and hope. It is perfect. I heartily recommend it.

Words
It is a basic conviction of mine that life is hard. In the last year, the books I have most enjoyed have spoken of this. Aidan Mathews, the Irish Catholic poet, novelist, playwright and broadcaster I have enjoyed so deeply this year put it well for me when he wrote:

We are ordained by our troubles and our tragedies, not by college diplomas.

Daniel Bell in his breathtaking work “Liberation Theology After The End of History” and William Cavanaugh’s heartbreaking work “Torture and Eucharist” told different sides of a story that I maintain is the story of all reality – life is hard in a large part because our lives are held captive by forces that aren’t human. The only path to liberation is the sacrificial love of God. For Bell, God makes it possible for us to forgive and forgiveness is a currency that renders those forces bankrupt. And for Cavanaugh, Christian worship makes it possible for us to commune with God which is the only way we can have communion with each other.

Whatever else I can say at the end of 2012, the prospect of being able to follow in the paths that men like this have tread before me is one that brings me hope. Whatever else has come my way, the conviction that the unnoticed guerrilla activity of preaching remains among the most important and noble things humans get to do is unchanged. Having absorbed Torture and Eucharist, I want more fiercely than ever for my life to embody the battle between Mammon and the Word.

Among oh-so-many, my favourite blogs of the year remain Declan Kelly’s Charismata, Invisible Foreigner, Vinoth Ramachandra’s musings from Sri Lanka and Jason Goroncy’s peerless Per Crucem Ad Lucem.

It has few words, but the blog Everyday I’m Pastoring is a new entry in my “Unmissable” folder in Google Reader, as did DL Mayfield. Wife-unit wrote some fabulous stuff too, and shared tasty food. The random funniness of Julia Segal and the occasional hilarity of the Worst Things For Sale also deserve a mention, as does the consistently touching Slaughterhouse 90210.

Films & TV
My computer is slowly dying. And in one of the crashes I lost my records of all the movies I have seen in the last six years. That is annoying.

So I work purely from memory when I say that the film I most enjoyed was Argo. It was deadly. A great yarn, told well, that reflects out on the world. Even the boring final ten minutes didn’t bruise the delight I felt at the running gag of “Argo fuck yourself!”, a joke crafted by God to be especially hilarious to a Dublin accent.

Wife-unit and I like to watch old movies and one that stuck with me, even through the crashing computer and lost notes is Who’s Afraid Of Viriginia Woolf? That is a gem of a film.

Since we’re fragile types, we haven’t got around to watching The Wire or Breaking Bad yet and we fall asleep every time we watch Downton Abbey so the best telly we watched is the entire 7-Up series, which followed a dozen children from the 1960s through until today. It was bleddin’ wonderful. The quirks and witticisms of the seven year olds back in black and white have become slogans and catchphrases in our own home. Neil Hughes and Tony Walker and the rest of the gang featured over half a century were the absolute highlight of our televisual year.

That and the mad one from Fair City.

Your Correspondent, Waiting for your supportive eye-rolls