Wednesday, May 26, 2010

More Divinity Nostalgia Pt. 2 - Top Ten Albums from Seminary

OK, so the caption thing must be even more lame than I feel right now. Luckily, I am well into the first week of CPE, where feeling lame is a daily experience as the deepest delusions of our souls are dissected and prodded in the name and hope of making us broken ministers to the broken. I start my first shift as chaplain to the Neurology unit tomorrow. Makes me want to re-listen to Pink Floyd's song "Brain Damage..."

Which brings me to tonight's post! I apologize for having to delay several posts that have been placed on hiatus due to this week's clinical exploits. I am still digesting that last episode of LOST, and have also been contemplating a volatile conversation we had at our church last week regarding the ELCA's recent decisions on human sexuality. Fun stuff to try to hold together with strokes and spinal injuries - although the latter makes me feel strangely in communion with the immortal(ly flawed) Jack Shepherd - God rest his soul.

So, to buy some time, continuing my Divinity Nostalgia series, here are my top "ten" albums that I discovered during my seminary years. As always, glaring omissions are obvious. It has become essential in recent years to describe one's musical tastes as "eclectic" or "into a little bit of everything." My list here is mostly white people music. It reflects my environment as much as the fact that, prior to seminary, I listened mainly to hip-hop, jazz, classical, and reggae. Div School was thus a kind of remembering of the current scene, as well as a welcome intro to bands I had long neglected, like Radiohead and Wilco (thanks Ben). So Hipsters, turn off your judgemento-trons. Happy listening! (Once more listed in alphabetical order).

1) The Black Keys - Rubber Factory - Other than my neighbor and co-conspirator Toby Bonar, no one has done more for my own playing lately in helping me to realize the potential and the power of getting back to the simplicity of the dirty blues. Granted, they are white guy blues, and need to supplemented with a heavy dose of Leroy Carr and Son House, but Dan Auerbach makes it moan with every note, making a strong case for the existence of the soul, as evidenced by their latest single, "Everlasting LIght" - the best song to come out in years.

2) Johnny Cash - America VI: Ain't No Grave - The Man in Black dabbled in the apocalyptic on America IV, and fittingly, on this last album, hands us a ticket for the eschatology express. If his bold proclamation in the title track doesn't inspire you to rise at the final trumpet, then you will be haunted and exhilarated by the chilling imagery of years passing by as you stand on the platform waiting for "Redemption Day" - a song which surely deserves a Baz Luhrman music video. This album is proclamation at its most convicting - and renewed my faith and hope in the hereafter.

3) Frightened Rabbit - The Midnight Organ Fight - When I can actually understand what the heck Scott Hutchison is saying, it only enhances the tragedy and the triumph of these Scottish folk-rock ballads. From the pathos of "The Modern Leper," the drama of "Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms," and the defiance of comfortable theology in "Heads Roll Off" which ponders "Jesus is just a Spanish boy's name/how come one man got so much fame?" However you answer the question, journeying with this band towards the answers is like a sudden thunderstorm on the West Highland Trail followed by a sunset wrapped in a rainbow.

4) Andrew Peterson - Love and Thunder - For those fans of Rich Mullins and Keith Green who know that just because a singer is Christian doesn't mean his songs have to suck, here's another album to add to your anti-hipster arsenal. I could have just as easily picked his stunning Resurrection Letters Vol.2, but regardless of where you begin, Peterson's elegant songwriting, mixing midrashic storytelling with passionate personal confession, will demonstrate the potential of song as legitimate narrative theological medium, all the while immersing your imagination in the strange new world of the Bible as you've never known it before. For all of us setting out into the unknown of the future, I recommend the breathtaking "Canaan Bound" - you will never think of Abraham and Sarah the same way again.

5) Sigur Ros - Takk... - Thanks to Charlie Baber for flying me to Iceland by introducing me to this masterpiece of ambient rock majesty. Regardless of whether the song "Glosoli" means the same as "glossolalia," the sheer beauty of the music, evoking as it does the land- and sound-scapes of the Land of Ice and Fire, speaks to each of us in our own language, and makes me wonder if the spiritual gift of tongues could not also manifest itself through instrument and vocals, as well as through "Gobbildigook." Not just good for background music while paper-writing, this is worth dimming the lights, lighting some candles, and relishing for its own sake.

6) Bruce Springsteen - We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions - A tough call, between this and the all-American post-9/11 epic The Rising. The Boss' gritty vocals make me forget all about Bob Dylan as he digs deep into the blood-and-oilspill-soaked soil of Americana until his spade is turned at the bedrock of what might still redeem this God-haunted land: folk music. Whether he is making me weep with nostalgia for my home state of New York with "Erie Canal," telling the tales of Jesse James and John Henry, or joining the civil rights ranks with the singers of African American spirituals like "Eyes on the Prize," Springsteen makes these standards sing a new song as he pays homage to one of America's great folk artists. Again, a white guy doing black music - but, to quote LL Cool J, doing it well.

7) Mavis Staples - We'll Never Turn Back - I first heard this album by accident while picking up a book at Borders. Thank God he makes even barren places to flower in the desert! We were blessed to see Miss Staples perform at Duke, possibly one of the best concerts I've ever been to, as she preached an object lesson of racial reconciliation. The former Civil Rights activist and member of the Staple Sisters blends the spirituals and the blues with white rock music's reinterpretations of both to weave a tapestry in which both threads are bound together to testify to the power of forgiveness, as well as to the urgency of tending to the ocean of work still to be done. While most of the songs here belong to the collective consciousness of the Movement, Mavis makes them tell the stories of the particulars, including her own, as in her reintegration of a washateria in "Down in Mississippi."

8) John Michael Talbot - Come to the Quiet - This is simplicity incarnate. Talbot, a Roman Catholic who founded his own lay religious order, takes the words of psalms, hymns and canticles from throughout the Scriptures and sings them gently over the light plucking of his classical guitar. But rather than singing Kumbaya, one is transported into the warm embrace of the God of grace whose love is closer to us than we are to ourselves. As with Peterson, Talbot's meditations testify to the power of music and songwriting to serve as mediums of Scriptural interpretation akin to the best of formal theology, while following Horace's dictum to not only instruct, but also, to those willing to follow to the quiet, to delight. Listen, and hear the still small voice, praying with groaning and sighing too deep for words.

9) Derek Webb - She Must and Shall Go Free - Talking with Brian Johnson on the ride home from CPE today, I coined the term "Hauerwas' Little Shits" to name the gadflies who denounce things like the suburbs, the rednecks, the nation and the megachurch while doing nothing about it themselves. I think Derek Webb is a Little Shit regardless - yet despite my dislike for his arrogance and contrived controversy, unlike most of us, he is actually doing something about his displeasures (to his credit, he performed with Jennifer Knapp shortly after her coming-out - kudos bro). This album is as close to an ecclesiology as you will find in music or in print, and while "Wedding Dress" has certainly stolen its share of airtime (rightly so), there have been many times when I have been saved from jumping ship on my own church as a result of hearing the lyrics "You cannot care for me/with no regard for her/if you love me you must love the Church" on the final track. Thanks Derek, from one Little Shit to another.

10) White Stripes - Icky Thump - What? Another white-guy two-piece-garage-band-blues-rock-group? Without reserve - yes. Jack White (easily another candidate for the Little Shits of St. Stanley) almost attended Roman Catholic seminary, but withdrew when he couldn't bring his music gear. Praise the Lord, and praise TA for introducing me to this blessed madness! The Johnny Depp of rock and roll made it fun again to crank the volume up to 11, forget about being in tune, and just playing my heart out on the electric guitar. Seeing White for the first time in the film "It Might Get Loud" exploded the neat categories into which music has fallen, instantly making me forget about U2 and Radiohead and reconnecting me to Miles, Trane, Monk, Carr, and Johnson. Wittgenstein talks about how sometimes a blurry photograph is more useful for discerning what a thing is than a clear one - Jack White is that blurry photograph for music. Love him or hate him, this music is Gospel truth, for those who have ears to hear and amps to blast.

11) Rockumentary Hypothesis - Midnight in Montgomery - Told you J-Dub cranked it to 11! This album saw limited printing in the US, but mysteriously made it big in South Korea and in Bahama, NC. Before rocking Dudestock with the addition of fiddle player P (Sittser), the trio of D, J and E (aka TA, Jim Morgan and yours truly) brought their big tent bluegrass revival to back porch at the Refectory with their meditations on MLK's Montgomery campaign. Along with meditations and narrations of King's sermons and conversion accounts, the album also featured rare recordings of the group's musico-narrative-theological interpretation of Scripture, such as the radio smash sensation "Strange New World" and fan favorite "As I Lay Down," in addition to rare cuts of such classics as "Untitled Advent Song (Immanuel?)" and "the Epic Flannel Stripes Indulgency."

Honorable Mention: Israel Houghton - Power of One; Nas&Damian Marley - Distant Relatives; U2 - No Line on the Horizon; Radiohead - In Rainbows; Wilco - Yankee Foxtrot Hotel; LeRoy Carr - Greatest Hits; Stile Antico - Song of Songs; La Roux - La Roux; Patty Griffith - Downtown Church; Indelible Grace - any album; Brad Paisley - Play; Zac Brown Band - The Foundation; Toby Bonar - Deep Roots; Regina Spektor - Far; Glee - any album; Steven Delopoulos - Straightjacket; Dead Weather - Horehound; Raconteurs - Consolers of the Lonely

Sunday, May 23, 2010

"Keep Awake".. (Intro to Theological Exegesis Caption Contest)

In the spirit of short blog posts, I am pleased to announce During the World's Theological Exegesis Caption Contest (TEC for now)! After viewing the following video, post your best stab at a short caption which offers your best stab at viewing this clip theologically - or, for you non-believers out there, how you think theologians should view it. Best caption will receive, I don't know, 10 TEC points, and I'll figure out a way to keep a running tab. Kind of like ESPN's Web Gems, except, you know, nerdier.

Regardless, say a prayer for these poor people in between your gasps of horrors or convulsions of laughter. With CPE starting tomorrow, maybe I will learn what to say to them when they end up in the ER:

Friday, May 21, 2010

Children, Language, and Dinosaurs - An Augustinian-Wittgensteinian-Sit-Commian Excursus

Everything you need to know about theology, you can learn from little kids. Jesus seemed to think so, anyway, and William Blake, C.S.Lewis, Ludwig Wittgenstein all seem to agree, to varying degrees. If you scoff at such a claim, wait until your first offspring approaches the golden age of one. Its the new two, trust me. One is a wonderful time full of first steps, first adventures, and first words - and also a heartbreaking time of first good-byes, first tantrums, and first rebellions. All of it is worth it a thousand times over, of course. Its just that not every "new-ness" is as terribly fun as the next.

In such strenuous times, it is tempting to find myself in agreement with St. Augustine's infamous exegesis of his own infancy. In opening book of his Confessions the bishop of Hippo infamously recalls how he would manipulate his mother into breastfeeding him, concluding:

"We root out these faults and discard them as we grow up, and this is proof enough that they are faults, because I have never seen a man purposefully throw out the good when he clears away the bad. It can hardly be right for a child, even at that age, to cry for everything, including things that would harm him..." - AMEN - "to work himself into a tantrum against people older than himself and not required to obey him;" - PREACH IT - "and to try to strike others who know better than he does, including his own parents, when they do not give in to him and refuse to pander to his whims which would only do him harm." -COME ON NOW!- "This shows that, if babies are innocent, it is not for lack of will to do harm, but for lack of strength." (Conf. I.7, trans. Pine-Coffin, talk back mine)

To all those who are horrified by these remarks, you either do not have children, or persist in the mistaken belief that your child is somehow the center of the universe (which is impossible - MINE is). But I suspect those who have spent time in the trenches of high chair warfare, guerilla diaper attacks, and kitchen cabinet sabotage are at least willing to give the great pessimistic saint a further hearing.

While Augustine certainly accuses Original Sin as the party responsible for his concupiscent ways, he also fingers his frustrations with language as a party to the crime. Prior to this passage, he notes that

"Little by little I began to realize where I was and to want to make my wishes known to others, who might satisfy them. But this I could not do, because my wishes were inside me, while other people were outside, and they had no faculty which could penetrate my mind. So I would toss my arms and legs about and make noises hoping that such few signs as I could make would show my meaning...and if my wishes were not carried out, either because they had not been understood, or because what I wanted would have harmed me, I would get cross with my elders...and I would take revenge by bursting into tears..." (I.6)

While I agree with Wittgenstein that language acquisition is about more than simply learning the corresponding signs, here Augustine's theory is empirically correct, as he himself asserts. Frustrated at their inability to communicate and so fulfill their needs and desires, babies strike back with ruthless vengeance. Granted, its not always as dire as he describes. Just last night, during Abigail's bath, I was using a rubber fish-toy that squirts water out if its mouth to try and teach her the word "fish." Brilliant, center-of-the-universe that she is, she began to pick up on it, and began trying to form the syllables with her tiny lips. However, given that her repertoire lacks the "fff" sound, she gleefully pointed and said, "shhhhhiiiii-t." I could not resist asking her several hundred more times to say fish, until Abigail was an expert at her new word, and until Leah heard it from the hallway and wondered how many times Daddy had used the word for fish when he slammed his finger in the door. To which Abigail smiled and said, "shhhhhit." My baby girl!

Of course, more diabolical situations arise. Babies are always watching, and as Leah often reminds me, are picking up far more than we realize. Take this little clip right here, which shows the chaos that follows once Baby begins to master the sign-usage paradigm (skip about a minute in past the intro if desired):

Sigh. Makes me hope all my friends who believe that God just put the fossils there to give us the gift of wonder are wrong on this exegetical point. As you've guessed, this is NOT my baby...yet. But notice the ways the little guy carefully observes his mommy giving the command for food to the fridge mammals, and later makes use of the same command in order to indulge in the sin of gluttony. They grow up so fast. Augustine, how did you know so much about dinosaurs? Dinosaurs, how, after 65 million years and a decade of not being on TV, do you still manage to know so much about us?

Incidentally, for those of you keeping philosophical score at home, both Abigail's and Sinclair's use of language could just as easily support the Wittgensteinian criqiue of Augustine. In the former case, while Abby clearly saw me using a certain word to refer to the fish-toy, she might very well believe that "shhh-it" is used to make the fish squirt as it is to name or describe the fish - just as she may think it refers to cooking, as when she heard me exclaim it while burning my finger on the frying pan. For an excellent treatment of this, see Chapter VII of Cavell's The Claim of Reason. There, observing his own daughter's association of the word "kitty" with the softness of a fur coat, Cavell reaches the beautiful conclusion that

"Neither Wittgenstein nor I said it was WRONG to say that the child was 'learning the names of things..." we begin more clearly to see the 'sense' in which they are meant. You AND the child know that you are really playing - which does not mean that what you are doing isn't serious...what is wrong is to say what a child is doing as though the child were an adult, and not recognize that she is still a child playing, above all growing..." (p176)

I by no means wish to deny the doctrine of Original Sin (sorry to disappoint). However, I think Cavell via Wittgenstein offers a remedy to those of us who, in our lesser parenting moments, are tempted to write the little devil off as damned before she begins. Perhaps this is because, as Cavell asserts, we wish to avoid the fact that "children learn language FROM US." (p177) Whether it is the word for fishhhhhit, or how to scream at one another, or how to touch one's face so tenderly that the you feel the whole world turning a tad bit more slowly. As Cavell continues,

"In learning language you learn not merely what names of things are, but what a name is; not merely the forms of expressing a wish, but what expressing a wish is; not merely what the word for "father" is, but what a father is; not merely what the word for "love" is, but what love is. In learning language, you do not merely learn the pronunciation of sounds, and their grammatical orders, but the "forms of life" which make those sounds the words they are...Instead of saying either that we TELL beginners what words mean or that we TEACH them what objects are, I will say: we initiate them, into the relevant forms of life held in language and gathered around the objects and persons of our world. For that to be possible, we must make ourselves exemplary and take responsibility for that assumption of requires a new look at oneself..." (p177-9)

She will know not just the word "father" or "love," but what father and love are by the ways my life, our family life, are in the world. Her words and her world will grow as she grows into that world. This is a terrible responsibility to become aware of as a parent - as a pastor as well, incidentally - but I do no good to avoid the truthfulness of its implications. Abby learned to say and giggle at fishhhhhit because she has, I hope, learned to giggle and play from watching her parents do the same. She has learned to be angry because she has seen us in our lesser moments. I suspect part of our inclination to agree with Augustine comes from our projection of our own struggles onto our children - which ultimately shapes them into the molds we have cast by our refusal to acknowledge our own shortcomings. Treating her not like a playful child but as an adult as deranged as the self we seek to avoid can only end as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Playing along side her, discovering through her, growing with her will on the other hand enable us to see the mystery of new creation springing to life in a world suddenly larger than our sin - and greater than ourselves.

I pray Abigail will learn to be family, be parent, be human, be disciple, be loved and to love, because she has been treated as greater than the sum of her sin, and has seen these identities both modeled and applied to her. And this requires, as Cavell rightly says, a new look at ourselves, our commitments, and our love. She may see what Sin looks like through us - but she will also, by grace, witness what sanctification, sainthood, community, grace and new creation look like. And in the end, there is a force greater than Sin, and greater than us, shaping her destiny. So when real Sin does rear its awful head, I pray that she will also know that grace has empowered her in spite of herself to be the same playful, innocent, loving child she was in the beginning, is now, and will always be, in the Holy Spirit. Or, at the very least, she'll remember her word for fish.

Here would be a great place for an excursus on Baptismal vows and community-formation and all that wonderful theological stuff, but I've been making it a horrible habit of writing long blog posts. I shall strive to still the seas of language in the future; in the meantime, in honor of playing games, father-child love, and remaining children ourselves, I leave you with this - undoubtedly indicative of what awaits me on Abby's first birthday, which is only a few weeks away! The hazards and hilarity of learning to play...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

More Divinity Nostalgia - Top "Ten" Seminary Reads

Before baccalaureate on Saturday, a few of us gathered at the 'Dillo and found ourselves discussing, among other things, the "top ten" books each of us read while at Duke. As I continue to work on some other posts, I thought I'd post my own favorites, listed here alphabetically by author's last name.

I have only listed books directly related to classes taken, omitting novels and other side-reads, which may be the subject of a future post. Also surprising to me was the fact that, despite being at Duke for three years, I actually did not read any Hauerwas, MacIntyre, Yoder, or Wendell Berry. Even so, I hope this list proves helpful to those searching for summer reading selections - I know its a blessing for me to have the opportunity to recall the ways God has spoken to me through those He has called to the ministry of working with words. Oh, and I couldn't resist, so my ten is actually eleven.

1) Hans Urs Von Balthasar - Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? - In laying bare the fact that the New Testament contains evidence both for God's desire for universal salvation as well as for the infernal consequences of unreprentance, sin, and possibly election, Balthasar places a missional burden upon the church to live in the kind of hope which, because it shares God's desires, is willing to engage and enter into places of damnation for the sake of making God's dream a reality. In the process, he taught me that, confronted with seemingly irresolvable paradoxes in Scripture and experience, the answer is to be found in wrestling with God while making one's life in response one's answer.

2) Karl Barth - Homiletics - While Church Dogmatics IV.1 is also a candidate, in this short work, Barth reminds theologians that their craft exists solely for the sake of informing proclamation of the Gospel. Along with humbling the academics, Barth challenges me to refuse, as long as possible, any point-of-contact in preaching, eschewing gimmicks and illustrations, in order to embody one's faith that the Word of God is sufficient and relevant in every age.

3) Brian Brock - Singing the Ethos of God - Brian's powerful critique of communitarian and narrative projects in Scriptural ethics awakened me from my dogmatic Duke slumber. Using Augustine's and Luther's exegesis of the Psalms as his model, Brock risks claiming that the way to allow Scripture to shape ethics is by actually reading, singing, submitting oneself to, and being transformed by continual engagement with and to the living Word of God. He forced me to smash the idols of a priori hermeneutical or methodological theorizing, removing any hedge or excuse I might have not to read the Scriptures - or be spoken to by them. There is no going back after this book by the Texan from Aberdeen. Read at your own risk.

4) Stanley Cavell - Must We Mean What We Say? - In this collection of essays, Cavell not only gives excellent introductions to the significance of Austin and Wittgenstein, but also stakes out the place of aesthetics in philosophizing, putting the "literary" back in the "linguistic turn." Along with amazing essays on Shakespeare and Kierkegaard, Cavell also introduces his notion of "acknowledgement and avoidance," whereby he undercuts the modern obsession with epistemology by arguing that the acknowledgement of another person goes beyond knowledge, requiring a response to that person. For those frozen by the icy stare of skepticism, Cavell's challenging writing provides a warm flame to thaw out the beating heart of humanity. Not an easy read - but as Rilke reminds us, nothing worthwhile ever is.

5) Roberto Goizueta - Caminemos Con Jesus: Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment - Displaying the power of theological aesthetics in action, Goizueta exposes the hypocrisy in Western academic thought by laying bare the condescending imperialistic assumptions of its epistemology. If we are to say that the belief in the Lady of Guadalupe is true "for Mexicans," we must accept that what happened on Tepeyac is in fact true for all. Such truth-bearing realities like the Stations of the Cross at a Hispanic congregation in San Antonio and popular Hispanic/Latino religious practices challenge the notion that theology only happens where method can be spelled out flawlessly. Instead, Goizueta argues that we are companions on the journey, and must learn to incorporate one another's discoveries of beauty into the greater tapestry, as equals to those we subconsciously still deem with our academic practices to be less rational- or risk becoming less rational ourselves.

6) Abraham Heschel - The Sabbath - Heschel's beautiful, personal meditation on the seventh day raises the question: if God made this day objectively holy, if it is a shrine through which we all pass during the pilgrimage of time we make each week, then when did it stop being thus sanctified? My attempted answer was to try living my response. This book taught me, in Wittgenstein's parlance, how to be able to "stop doing theology," and thus to discover the joy of simply receiving the love and wisdom of God, rather than continuously seeking to make it for myself. And probably also saved our marriage in the process. Leah have refused to do any school-related work on Saturdays, and have never regretted a moment. Thank God for the gift and witness of the Jews.

7) Claudia Koonz - The Nazi Conscience - Willie Jennings assigned this powerful work as part of our Barth course, and reading it during in the aftermath of the frenzy of the 2008 presidential elections made it all the more haunting. Koonz shows how a nation of brilliantly educated, deeply pious, fervently nationalistic, and rigidly moral people could be convinced not only to passively allow but to actively embrace the systematic destruction of its own citizenry when confronted with the threat of economic depression and historical insignificance. It often feels trite to draw connections to our own age, or to lay the blame solely on theological liberalism - until you read this book.

8) Henri de Lubac - The Splendor of the Church - In an age of criticism, nihilism and deconstruction, Lubac weaves together the fragments of a forgotten past as an argument for the primacy of positivity and beauty in proclaiming truth. For Lubac, the best way to convince others of the truth of Jesus, and concommitantly, of the Catholic Church, is to show it at its best, such that it will win converts by the coherence of its splendor. Out of this arises the important check on all of us would-be Catholics of the actual claims one would have to embrace to take Lubac and the Church seriously - as well as the hopeful reminder that in the end, the Church is a calling before it is a choice.

9) Ulrich Luz - Studies in Matthew - I would have listed the Gospel of Matthew, but having read it many times before seminary, thought that Luz is the next best thing. These essays show display the wedding of the best of historical-critical and theological-canonical readings of the Gospels. Luz argues that the Gospel of Matthew applies literally to the church of today - especially in its call to evangelical poverty, charismatic miracle working, and the embracing of suffering. Even if you disagree, Luz makes Scripture speak in ways that cannot be easily ignored.

10) Stephen Pfurtner - Luther and Aquinas on Salvation - In this lovely little book, a Dominican theologian takes the time to actually read Luther, and charitably at that! Not only does he unearth considerable harmony between Luther's understanding of faith and Aquinas' teachings on hope, but in the process, shows how much farther a hermeneutics of charity can carry a conversation than outright suspicion and polemic. While, contra-Huetter, its not certain that, had Luther read Aquinas, he would have been far less Reformational, Pfurtner lays the groundwork for understanding the seeds of Wittenberg as planted in the soil of Rome, and watered by the rivers of the Tiber, leaving open the tempting possibility of sumptuous ecumenical fruits in the future.

11) Ludwig Wittgenstein - Philosophical Investigations - The recent trendiness of this pick does not in any way diminish the power of the Wittgensteinian perspective. Regardless of how one takes his claims on the nature of language, one cannot put a price on learning to relinquish one's obsession with the slippery ice of idealistic claims in order to embrace the kind of learning - and living - that can only occur once one has come "back to the rough ground!" Grab a bottle of Duck-Rabbit and read this book - over and over again. Curiosity, imagination, and wonder await!

Honorable Mention: Jacques Lacan Ecrits; Gerard Loughlin Alien Sex; William Harmless Augustine and The Catechumenate; Jeffrey Stout Democracy and Tradition; William Kavanaugh Torture and the Eucharist; Stanley Hauerwas Hannah's Child; Samuel Freedman Letters to a Young Journalist; Eric Gregory The Priority of Love; Joel Marcus Anchor Bible Commentary on Mark; David Hart Atheist Delusions; Kavin Rowe World Upside Down; John Milbank The Future of Love; Gillian Rose Mourning Becomes the Law; Stanley Crouch Considering Genius: Essays on Jazz

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Confessions of a Hauerwasian

Like so many others at Duke Divinity, I chose this place for my ministerial formation largely because of Stanley Hauerwas. I still remember reading the Peaceable Kingdom for the first time in my undergraduate Christian ethics class and being amazed that, given my overexposure to reactionary campus evangelicalism at an unapologetically secular university, theologians were capable of making me believe that going into ministry mattered for the world. I still remember naively visiting Dr. Hauerwas' office during my first visit to Duke and being told that I needed to read John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus because it was, and I quote, a "God-damn mindf**k." I am still thankful that, when the admissions office lost one of my letters of recommendation for my MTS application, Dr. Hauerwas went to bat for me with the dean, setting me on the path to pursuing an M.Div, leading me to where I am today, preparing to enter the parish, leaving the academy behind. And I am thankful for his last piece of timely advice to me when, faltering on that path and struggling to leave the academy behind, in response to my sharing that my bishop was encouraging me to be ordained, he said, "well then, you had better take that seriously."

While I came to Duke with hopes of somehow being apprenticed to Dr. Hauerwas, I think it fitting that my personal interactions with him here have been scant, mostly related to paper topics or a question raised in seminar. In many ways, I think I learned all that God intended me to learn from Dr. Hauerwas by taking his words seriously and putting them into practice. At the end of his Gifford Lectures, Dr. Hauerwas recommends that to discover what a true argument for God's existence looks like, we need to attend to lives like those of Yoder, Pope John Paul II, and Dorothy Day. Given that the Hauerwasian project seemed to get Christians to live what they claim to believe, I thought this hermeneutical principle ought to apply to the Hauerwasian project as well, and so my future wife Leah and I moved to Denver where we got involved with the Catholic Worker there. That was two years before I finally matriculated at Duke. There is a part of me that remains deeply sad that I never became friends with a theologian for whom friendship is so important a concept. Yet Leah and I live where we live, do what we do, believe what we believe, and cuss like we cuss largely because, despite not being his apprentice, he remains my teacher and theological master.

Even so, there are times when I think Dr. Hauerwas is, frankly, a huge asshole - and he wouldn't mind me saying so (many before me have thought and said it). I still get pissed off when I recall an exchange from our philosophical theology seminar. Reading Hilary Putnam on Deweyan democracy, I commented that I thought such an account challenged me to remember that, despite the academic pretensions with which we were being inculcated at Duke ("you are here to save the church"), I should be open to the truths and perspectives that non-theologically-educated Christians had to offer - that often, lay people were the ones who educate the educated, and that their voices needed to be valued and made audible. To which Stanley replied, "do you really want Nascar-rednecks telling you how to read the Bible?" Chortle chortle. Everyone laughs. So he didn't hear me say, "actually, by Dorothy Day's account, yes." What an asshole.

(I have often wondered how someone so proud of his brick-laying Texan roots could make such a statement. Its probably because he was a brick-laying Texan. While its easy to criticize the redneck who moved to yuppie bohemia, its a pretty empty criticism coming from the yuppie bohemian trying to become a redneck. In the end, we are all assholes - see 1 John 1:8-9.)

I suspect that the reason so many of us have at Duke have at one time or the other jumped on the anti-Stanley bandwagon is the same as the reason many fixate on such memorable Hauerwas moments as his declaration "f**k meaning," and the same reason while we all, at times, indulge in a nasally-voiced bout of good cussing and America bashing. I think it is because we want so much out of our heroes, want so badly to be inspired and told that what we are doing is important, radical, cutting edge, weighty, heroic, sacrificial. In both seminars I took with Dr. Hauerwas, I responded violently to his pithy exhortations that "you already have ruined your lives - you're in divinity school!" on Hauerwasian grounds because if we are honest with ourselves, we are here precisely to keep our lives from feeling ruined or ordinary. Dr. Hauerwas serves as both messiah to our aspirations, and scapegoat for our disillusions. I am thankful for the friends I have, like my wife Leah, who are busier showing me what it means to live by the Gospel to which the teacher is pointing. We do wrong by the master to make of him a rock star - in many ways, the aforementioned slogan on meaning reeks of the irony of a theological "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

I am thankful that on the morning of my graduation from Duke, I am awake before dawn reading Dr. Hauerwas' Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir, and that his words can thus serve as bookends to my theological education. Despite the disillusions I have undergone while at seminary as the legends written in the throes of hero-worship have been deconstructed by the disappointments and sanctifying dissatisfactions of life together (or, in this case, its absence), I can only express gratitude for the legends that remain etched in the realities of the mundaneness, the tragedy, and the comedic everyday-ness of ordinary lives. Admittedly, I cannot help but feel mildly voyeuristic looking through the window of the text at such intimacies. I am reminded, however, by Stanley's own words, of why good theology must always begin with confession (a Lutheran way of putting it he would surely disdain!):

"Recognition of truthful speech begins when readers identify the words they encounter as an honest expression of life's complexities. The theological trick is to show that speaking honestly of the complexities of life requires words that speak of God. Theologians betray their calling when they fear using such words and begin to think that they are not neccessary."

Dr. Hauerwas, for all we make of him, for all I know I have wanted him to be for me, is as f**ked up as any of us can hope to be. And that is why, in giving life and form to the words of God that give life and form the chaos that is his life, Dr. Hauerwas witnesses to us the truth of Christian faith - that we are all in need of such re-creation if the language of our living is to be doxological instead of demonically narcissistic. In my temptations to idealize, I am thankful for Wittgenstein's cry, "back to the rough ground!" I pray that, freed from foolish idealism, I may one day yet be friends with Dr. Hauerwas. In the meantime, I am thankful that his words have helped me become better friends with Jesus, and with His church.

As he showed me with the Peaceable Kingdom many years ago, "I write because I have something to say. That I have something to say is not a personal achievement. I have something to say because I am a Christian." As divinity school draws to a close, I pray this is something none of us assholes will forget.

Friday, May 14, 2010

During the World Pt. 1 - Greetings

Greetings from Durham, NC! (I would use my customary greeting, "grace and peace," but apparently, Dr. Marcus thinks it's annoying, so in honor of my erstwhile mentor and self-declared judge of all things literarily appropriate, I'll save it to use as my closing instead). For several months, I have wrestled with the desire to enter the wonderful, narcissistic land of the blogosphere, only to find myself turned back, again and again by various reservations. The requisite concerns are there: narcissism, self-indulgence, the question of whether I am or my experience is interesting enough to merit real estate on the web, whether I have the time between watching two infant girls, attending Divinity School, remaining a good husband and pastor, etc etc. And of course, the Cerberus that has always guarded the gates of words and hence has made the heaven of writing into a hell: how and where to begin.

Thankfully, as he has many times in our friendship, my good friend TA has inspired me in both word and deed by taking the risk of sharing himself in his blog ( And so, as the legend that is the Rockumentary Hypothesis has grown out of a past collaborative effort of epic bluegrass proportions (we are huge in S. Korea and the UAE - learn Korean or Arabic and you can read more...), I hope that something more modest might emerge from simply starting here, in medias res, in the midst of things, where I am at, narcissism, writer's block, imperfections, aspirations, and all, as I make my way as a fellow pilgrim in this time we exist, during the world.

Beginning "in the midst of things," where we as finite human beings and creatures of and characters in the drama of the God is among other things Poet always find ourselves living and wondering is the ethos I hope to explore and also articulate via the title of this blog, "During the World." I have borrowed this wonderful phrase from theologian Charles Mathewes in his book A Theology of Public Life. I hope to unpack it more in a future post - for now, however, I introduce it merely to indicate the character of this blog. In part, I want to use this space to practice the discipline of public writing. At the same time, I pray that this space may also become a kind of scrap-book or photoalbum of the various places and ways in which I have been surprised or ambushed by God's Word speaking in the midst of the adventure that is life in the world.

As someone who enjoys getting lost in the enchanted woodlands of theology, literature, music and culture, I anticipate many posts taking place in these settings. However, as a disciple, husband, father, son, friend, neighbor, seminarian, music pastor, runner, and hospital chaplain, I also hope that more academic engagements will be embedded within the greater ecology of my life striving to learn what it means to follow Jesus in this time between His life and His coming again, this time "during the world" when the drama and adventure of faith happens in all of its tragedy, comedy, pathos, beauty, and grace. Above all, I hope that in sharing my experiences of being, in CS Lewis' magical phrase, "surprised by joy," that anyone who happens to read will in turn be inspired to discover, share, and give thanks for the ways that grace is happening in their own experience.

In his wonderful book Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, one of my favorite philosophers, Stanley Cavell writes that "without this trust in one's experience, expressed as a willingness to find words for it, without thus taking an interest in it, one is without authority in one's own experience." While Cavell writes from an Emersonian individualist perspective that is not without its problems and temptations, I think his exhortation here provides a fitting justification for blogging. As believers in God's continued creative presence "during the world," as someone committed to the Catholic truth that "all truth is God's truth," we show our faith and our commitment to that truth by taking the risk of giving words to our experience of grace in our lives. I think we discover not so much a personal authority as much as declare the AUTHOR-ity of the Author of Creation when in faith we seek to witness to God's deeds, mighty and subtle, in the midst of this New Creation begun by the terrible pen-stroke of the cross of Jesus. The psalmist expresses such a conviction of faith when she proclaims, "Come let us sing to Hashem,,,let us come before Hashem with thanksgiving and extol Him with music and if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts..." Like Cavell, the psalmist calls us to give voice to our experiences; however, going beyond Cavell, she encourages us to transform subjectivity into doxology, into confession, praise, and worship.

If this blog serves this purpose, then I believe that in spite of ego, pride, narcissism, and indulgence, and perhaps, through them as well, it will not be a wasted effort. Thank you for joining me "during the world" - I hope my words will serve you in reading as much as they serve me to write. Grace and peace, and happy travels!