Archive for January, 2007

It’s Got To Be Seen To Be Believed

Monday, January 29th, 2007

Things Richard Dawkins Doesn’t Like To Think About
As you know from previous Zoomtardage, I have through the course of my short career as a professional Christian had to deal often and in public with the two great media-fuelled challenges to historic Christianity. First there was the amusing but very trivial Da Vinci Code (remember all that falluhahaha?) and over the last few months there has been the slightly less amusing but slightly less trivial God Delusion published by Richard Dawkins. I even got to debate the venerable Professor but that was a damp squib if ever there was one. Someday I might get to date him, which is really something I tend to do better than debate.

In the course of reading The God Delusion I was genuinely disappointed at how repetitive the arguments posed were and even more, how Dawkins had lost all the style and aplomb of his earlier great works. It was like Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian, without the dignity that comes with being Bertrand (when he is read by a Computer Science student (see Bertrand did some pretty wow! maths in the early 20th Century before becoming a professional atheist)). It doesn’t help that he relies on AN Wilson as his reference point during his chapter on the New Testament. AN Wilson is a newspaper columnist. It would be like me writing a book on evolution and basing what I have said on Mr. Duffy who taught me general science during the Junior Cert. For all the media guff spoken about these books, people are still coming to church on Sundays. Admitedly only 3% of the population do and 2% of the population are clergy.

But shut up already, ok?

For the benefit of your brain muscles (and your soul if you think you have one), here are some thoughts that The New Atheism would have a tough time wrestling with.

Memes are Dawkins way of explaining how beliefs in God are mind viruses. Leaving aside that this has no evidential basis we must ask whether all ideas are memes or just the ideas that Dawkins disagrees with. Because what we end up with, if we think about it carefully, is the conclusion that if Christianity is a meme, then the idea that Christianity is a meme, is in fact a meme. It is a circular argument that doesn’t shed any light on the issue at hand. Do I believe in God because a mind virus has infected me or has a mind virus infected me because I believe in God?

Intellectual Heritage Of New Atheism
When I read the book the first time I heard the echoes of three great men- Ludwig Feuerbach, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. Freud (who first came up with the idea that religious belief was illusion as opposed to delusion) goes unmentioned and Dawkins briefly tips the cap to Karl and Ludwig. Feuerbach argued that humanity created gods in their own image, to symbolise and represent the deepest desires and values of their cultures. Since the Enlightenment Era, the Western societies have increasingly become convinced that God is a barrier to our liberation as people. If Feuerbach was right then the god we could expect Dawkins and the New Atheism to paint a god that didn’t exist and was an irrational obstacle to illumination. Thus, if Feuerbach can explain away Christianity, he explains away the new Atheism as well.

Is Belief An Evolutionary By-Product?
I first came across the idea of an evolutionary explanation for belief in the work of a scientist called Paul Bloom. It caused a great deal of thought in me. Then I came across the work of Justin Barrett who is a neuroscientist in Queens University in Belfast. If religious belief is only a byproduct of our naturally selected minds having produced no direct fitness benefits in our evolutionary past, so too are a host of scientific beliefs, including the belief in natural selection itself. This observation leads to an uncomfortable problem for the anti-theist. If our brains (and the thoughts they generate) have arisen only because of their ability to produce survival-related behaviors and not Truth, how can we trust them to tell us the truth about such matters as, say, natural selection?

Atheism as worldview
Dawkins defines faith as “non-thinking”. He understands faith as belief in the face of evidence but I feel that faith is belief beyond the evidence, which is a subtle but crucial difference. I have faith. I believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that utterly influences my life. Dawkins however has a belief that equally affects how he views everything and that is his belief that there is no God. Both of us, like all human beings, have a worldview; the foundational beliefs that serve as the framework through which we engage with life and crucially, all worldviews are faith-based in that they can not be substantiated purely by scientific argument. His definition of faith is thus shown to be a flawed dichotomy drawn between his “scientism” worldview and say, your “humanist agnostic” worldview.

Having read and spoken about Dawkins’ latest book at length I conclude that the most important sentence to be wrestled with is this:
The natural order imposes no ideology on you.

The Second Man In The House Is Usurping The First

For the last few weeks Neuro and I have been hosting this gentleman here, Mr. Keith Adams:

Keith Says Hello, originally uploaded by Zoomtard.

He isn’t so much a guest as a resident considering that he has donated the next six months of his life to work at the church. We are kicking him out at the end of the week however. It might sound cruel but we need to let him stand up on his own two legs. I mean, he has a degree in Physiotherapy so maybe he is a bit too old for Neuro to be combing his hair in the morning. As you can see, she does a mighty fine job of it.

Keith stayed with us for a few weeks so that he could adjust to the fast paced life of church work in Maynooth. Before this he lived in Belfast so he was lulled into a comfortable coma like all the other residents of that wretched wretched town. Whereas once he lived a life of lectures and partying and late night discussions about changing the world and early morning games of frisbee down on the beach (does Belfast even have a beach? It probably just half heartedly melds into the sea or something)…

Keith assures me that you have to go to Hollywood for a beach. That is down the posh end of Belfast.

Anyway, church life consists of much more reading, discussing big issues, late night brainstorming meetings, early morning socialising with a cool group of older guys… hey wait! My job is just like being in college. Thank you Keith Adams for reminding me of this fact.

Old Man Minister, my boss, has fled the country to go to a big wig Christian conference in America so for the week, I am Captain of Good Ship Presbyterian Church. I began my tenure yesterday morning by preaching a 74 minute long sermon on Leviticus and having an impromptu communion consisting of Big Mac meals torn into pieces and shared around. I like to think I stamped my own style on things.

The Important Knowledge For The Week
The New Testament Social Network has been mapped. Go learn, nerdlingers.

I did actually preach a killer sermon yesterday about scary things- debt, AIDS, trade, Africa and so on. I used these amazing maps to back up my point.

I first started to get the idea that I developed yesterday from this website which ranks you by your salary in terms of a global rich list. Its harder to gripe about my salary after visiting this site. Or wandering around my mansion.

You may not be learned enough to know that IQ tests tell you nothing more than how well you do on IQ tests but they can still be fun. This one is definitely fun. Smart or Stoopid.

I don’t know much about tennis but I do know that David Foster Wallace is a superb writer. He has this great article about Roger Federer, the tennis player and how watching him can be like a religious experience. All I knew about Federer was that his photo is printed on my racket cover and that he was from the same town as Karl Barth. That says alot about me, probably.

I know you didn’t imagine you would grow up to be the kind of person who would spend Monday mornings browsing maths websites. But then again, if you are a little bit older than me you didn’t grow up thinking about the web at all since it didn’t have any porn on it back then and no one knew what it was except for a few mathematicians. But the Tupper Self Referential formula is pretty impressive. You graph it and it produces the formula itself.

Some words are allegedly inherently funny. Sadly, my favourite, loghorrea is not included.

The Man tells me that it is impossible to sneeze with open eyes. Maybe this is the same Man who told me that scientifically speaking, 8 sneezes in a row was equivalent to the muscular spasming of an orgasm. I once sneezed 15 times in a row one hayfeverish morning. I didn’t fall asleep immediately though.

I have a strange feeling that my wife will be the one who finds the idea of going babytarian most amusing. Give up beef. Eat baby!

Your Correspondent, God’s Little Punchline

Explaining War For Stigmund and Jimlad

Sunday, January 28th, 2007

My last post was even too annoyingly retardedly ill-focus for me. Stigmund and Jimlad started a chorus of people claiming that I was losing them. I don’t want to lose you. It isn’t that the stuff is hard, it is just that I am a bad writer, you see? Also, it is boring for most people.

I have to admit that I have spent the last 2 hours trying to get an ascii art diagram of a plane dropping a bomb to format right in WordPress. Stupid WordPress looks at the text and says, “that isn’t a word. I’m going to fix that up” and then the ascii art is ruined. So instead you have to be happy with a Flickr image.

ASCII Iraq, originally uploaded by Zoomtard.

No need to point out that I was too stupid to make my ASCII art point about how stupid Jimlad and Stigmund were work. I can see that well enough, even through my pathetic sobbing.

Your Correspondent, Nature’s Rubix Cube

Everyone In Cork Is A Clown

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

Wright And Whether He Is Right
So remember when I waxed lyrical about the Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright’s ideas on how the Bible can be authoritative? No? You do. Here and here. Jaybercrow also had a go at explaining it to you. Well now Bob, the Corkonian Clown has gotten in on the act, which is terrifically cool because it almost seems as if we’re having a theological conversation. A bunch of young Irish guys (we may need to convince Jayber of that the Nordie Prod) are talking about big heavyweight things. And I’m allowed in the gang. How cool is that? I thought I should respond. That is what web-bloggers do, or so I read in the Churchman’s Guide To Modern Technology: From Blogs to Flying Butresses In 700 Pages Of Densely Packed, Scripture Annotated Text.

Right off the bat, Bob makes a mistake. Jaybercrow may read theology while D, his wife sleeps soundly by his side. Bob may be the same (well, not with D but you get the idea). But I have never fallen asleep after my wife. I am usually asleep before I reach upstairs, nevermind reading in bed. Maybe that is because of my gigantic cardboard mansion which takes five minutes to walk from the kitchen to the bedroom but the fact remains, I read theology in the morning or I laminate all the pages and read it in the shower but I could never do that brainy reading at night. Once sun sets I can really only last for forty five minutes before the Sandman takes me.

So now that my sleeping habits have been clarified, let’s do some discussion. I would agree with his diagnosis of Wright’s complaints in the paper but I would disagree when he says Wright doesn’t role-model or elaborate practical steps for applying his model to the actual text of the Bible. I would argue that Wright’s career has been marked by book after book after freaking book until there are now almost 50 in print where he interprets Scripture against the backdrop of the model he proposes. The widespread acceptance that has met his major works (like the Jesus And The Victory Of God that I finished yesterday) stem in part from the cohesion provided his arguments by the framework of authority that he interprets inside. But all of this is way outside my field of knowledge and it isn’t really Bob’s main point. Here is his main point:

My chances of challenging Jayber’s “improvisation” are no better than my chances of challenging his assertion of a “timeless truth” he has culled from scripture. They depend entirely on his (that is, Jayber’s) character — it seems to me my chances of entering into dialogue with Jayber are equal in each case.

Of course this is true in a sense. But I know Jaybercrow and he is really lovely and he would be very nice if you challenged him on something. Ok? Argument over? Good.

Wait. I didn’t understand the point Bob was making. Now I do.

The thing about Wright’s model is that it shifts the grip we use to hold on to Scripture from being one of Truth with a capital T and all the power claims that go with that to being one of Creativity and Faithfulness with all the openess that has to be absorbed by such a position. If I were debating one of Jayber’s former students in Norn Iron, they would undoubtedly come at me with a Platonic interpretation of Scripture as a set of timeless truths. If I was to challenge that I would be challenging the very core of their life. If you have Truth with a Capital T, there can be no space for diversity. If I cause the temple of Truth to shudder, I am killing the faith. He or she must wipe my interpretation off the court since that is logically demanded by the tight grip they hold on the Bible.

But the Wright model is a lot more engaged in the text as a conversation, as a journey with a mentor, as the guiding hand of a shepherd. The text (technically, the author of the text) may well know all that there is to know but it would not be possible to impart that to me. Instead, it guides me where I am. I live immersed in it, I swim in its waters and try to map my life on to its map- its preoccupation with redemption and reconciliation, justice and peace. I may go one way and you may go another but a challenge to my 5th Act performance is to be expected and welcomed. A critical appraisal is a crucial part of the theatre groups’ ongoing vitality. If you critique my position (say, that babies in Christian families should be baptised), you are not denying all that I stand for. You are asking why I think that this is a faithful interpretation of what has gone before.

Now as it turns out, I would talk about circumcision and covenant and all the adult baptists like Jaybercrow would have to say, “Damn that is a pretty convincing continuation of the major themes. Let us all quit our sillyness and start baptising babies” and then one of the worst things in the world, the Baptist Churches would be destroyed and God’s Kingdom would come.

What I am trying to jokingly get across is that the model we utilise affects how we respond to things. A totalising system like many unreconstructed evangelical authority systems demand that we go and wipe out the divergence. With Wright, we can let the divergence exist, even celebrate it, while having reasoned and gracious discussion about differences. The conversation is likely to be totally different because we aren’t hellbent on wiping the other out.

The other great thing about Wright’s framework is that Scripture does not come to us as propositional truth. Even where it does, for example in the Pauline letters, it is set within the ongoing story of the missionary journeys. An advantage for Wright is that his model does bear a closer resembelance to what Scripture actually is, which is what we’d expect from a good, decent, honest, sane Critical Realist like he is.

I don’t know if this gets to the heart of Bob’s hesitations. Neuro and I have discussed this topic at length. She was not convinced by this framework at all but is slowly coming around as she sees the very real way it can be applied to life and as she realises that the nature of disagreement would be categorically different if our dispute was based in aesthethics instead of dogma. It was always an arrogant conceit to think that a body of doctrine could be advanced as the universally complete interpretation of God’s action in our world. The model that Wright advances has another crucial attractive quality to it- it encourages us to turn our critical reflection inwards on our own theatre group’s interpretation in pursuit of faithful innovation and better delivery. It turns on its head, I suspect, the divisive and critical tone that has been our corner of Christianity’s most dogged and persistent contribution to Church.

Your Correspondent, He enjoys things he remembers

Let No Man Pull It Asunder

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007

So I had a delightful day of reading and thinking and mulling and brainstorming and all the other things I’d like to have on my job description instead of what is currently there. “Manipulation”, “Guilting”, “Proselytising”, “Coercing”, “Boring” and then towards the bottom in capitals repeated sixteen times, “RANTING”. My wife-unit has gone out to some big important life changing event. The intern who lives with us is off talking to an old friend with a comedy name. Now I have pizza and beer and good music and a dimly lit room in which to go head to head with you, the reader, and stun you with my verbal gymnastics.

An example of said gymstunningness? Print that first paragraph out, put it up against a mirror and it will read as the first four verses of John’s Gospel. In Danish.

Male And Female
Although I have to admit that I know more than one key figure featured in the book, I would have read Revleations Of A Single Woman even if it hadn’t been written by my good friend’s sister. Neuro really liked it and it is very rare for her to be able to deal with a Christian book without wanting to stomp on it, chew it to pieces and chuck it out the window. It deals with an issue that is a big deal for Christians, especially women. On a very base level, it is hard to stay celibate. Or so people tell me. Its not like I was a titan of success in that area. But on a profound (but still related to the celibacy issue) level, Christians believe we were made for communion with God and other people and a central cog in this is marriage to someone. The Christian enters into a covenant with another and commits to love them come hell or non-stop re-runs of celebrities-trapped-in-houses shows. This covenant is not based on whether they deserve it or not. It is not affected by difficulty. It is a covenant, not a contract. And this mirrors how God treats us and in the process, Christians believe, you can come to really understand God’s struggle and desire for you and create a space to learn about yourself by learning about the other. Oh! And kids too. They get raised well when the two parents are doing the whole Christian marriage deal well.

One interesting question we are asking is whether or not singleness is an issue for non-Christians in any similar way. As Neuro put it, non-Christians don’t have to deal with the celibacy thing. Without going into details and freaking you out at your desk at work while you eat your morning pastry, before I was married I managed to trample over pretty much every sex thingy you could name. (See how I subtly communicated that common lie that sex-shambles don’t happen in marriage? I am devious.) I don’t think it is religious psychosis that leaves me working through that mess. So I I have my reasons for feeling that sex outside of marriage leaves more debris clogging up our lives than we are really permitted or capable of speaking about.

But even if I am way off base there, there is still no language to talk about any sense of longing that might possibly come with what Gilliam calls “unexpected singleness”. If a woman who was not a Christian felt a desire for marriage that couldn’t be met by all the un-marriable men who came her way, her worldview has no way to express that angst. As I write, Sinéad O’Connor is singing at me about being a “strong independent pagan woman”. The woman who can have everything and doesn’t need a man has no way to vocalise it if she suddenly at 28, or 34, or 41, develops an aching need for a husband.

Maybe that is all balderdash and Gilliam is only speaking to Christians. But if she is, she does a superb job of it. The book has been marketed widely in America, outside of standard Christianville but she makes no fuss about declaring herself a Christian. She does however discuss the painful journey that has brought her to where she is without annoying you with her Christianity. Christianity is not something she is hiding but it is not some tool she is using either. I would love to be able to write as fortrightly about how God influences my life without it ending up sounding like a televangelist with a laptop.

She also passes the test of being able to write about relationships while being fortright and upfront about the reality that sexuality plays in that. You would be amazed at how shy Christians are to actually discuss this. Gilliam deals with masturbation and lesbianism and infidelity and random hook ups the way they should be dealt with- as real things that happen every day and that need to be addressed. Darn her for getting to publish before Neuro gets around to writing her Big Book Of Facts where she explains how the independent woman should respond in every way.

As refreshing as it is to read her deal with themes of an adult nature, it is even better that she speaks honestly about being a woman without subscribing to the frankly preposterous gender stereotypes advanced by Christians. If you are not one of the God-bothering readers you will have to forgive me but there are crazy ideas about male and female floating around the church. The Catholics are the royalty of crazy with their male priesthood but us evangelical/reformed/whatever groups are no better. Women may be equal, but according to the vogue in Churchland, they are so different as to be practically a different species from men. Thus we have Eldredge and Eldredge telling us men should go run naked around the forests and kill deer and drink their blood and women should set the table and await their return, occupying their time with child rearing and some cross-stitch. I may be parodying a little but Mark Driscoll actually went so far as to equate the belief that men and women were equally gifted and capable with a “gay Jesus”. Indeed. Top mark point for argumentation there.

Gilliam skips all this silly “crisis in masculinity” talk but she is honest about how as a woman, she does view the world differently from most men. Different doesn’t mean Venus and Mars or any other such crap. It doesn’t mean there are jobs she can’t do or tasks she should leave to men. It just means different.

Different means touchy-feely. I’m cool with that. Ann-Dee and I were out last Friday night (without my wife) and he was helping me brush up on my cruising skills. The key today seems to be the same as when I first met Neuro. Walk up to the girl. Politely interrupt her. Then early on in the conversation let her know that there is nothing in the world you like more than changing yourself and talking about your feelings.

Your Correspondent, La la la la la! Holy Crap! Here comes Jesus!

Friends? No Need For Them When You’re A Genius

Monday, January 22nd, 2007

On Friday I went to the Sugar Club (which would make a mighty fine church on a Sunday morning) with my possé to see some popular music. Well, hear. It was a Liam McDermott gig and it was only tangentially attractive that Michael Knight were playing support. As careful readers of the stars know, I just go to Liam gigs to see his dad in the crowd. There is something ubelievably cool about how excited his dad gets. This time, Stig was also singing. All the scientists who study these things agree that there were only two things Liam needed before making it “BIGTIME!” and that was a Vodafone ad and some more foxiness. Stig provides the foxy.

We’ll leave Michael Knight aside because I think they rock but they did not rock that night. Your hearts didn’t seem in it lads. In fairness, at the end of the day, you made me look bad in front of Babette who had never heard you before but had heard me gush. But when you started to suck a little I think Ann-dee distracted her with witty repartee and so my blushes are spared. Yours too.

But Liam and the Light Refreshments were superb. I haven’t listened to the new CD much yet because Tori Amos is holding my little brother captive and demanding that I only listen to her for the weekend or she’ll kill him. There is not a lot I can do about that. However, I can tell you that the live version of “You’re Still A Boy” is a mighty fine improvement of what was already the best song. It was tight. Or at least that is what Ann-Dee said and he knows things.

Links For Your Distraction
Tom Price is a very clever philosopher who used to work in the same worldwide underground movement. When I first met him, he had driven a motorcycle across Europe to reach the ancient ruins of Ephesus. He is now off doing a Master in Apologetics in the US. I discovered his blog, I suspect it is very good.

Time Square broke and it wasn’t because of terrorists. Although I knew some nerdy guys in college who though Microsoft were terrorists.

Second Life is the kind of strange phenomenon that Teragram has to admit she would be intruiged by. Its a whole world where you can live and interact and make money and type things out as if you having sex with people and its truly taking off. If that interests you, can I first implore that you visit First Life.

Not that I ever (voraciously) read celebrity or womens’ magazines that I find in my parents house/friends’ living room/left on the train/poking out of a bin but I did enjoy The Morning News satire of “fiction” that is often published there. By the way, do you sense how this post is lagging?

Your Correspondent, Sometimes the deepest and darkest hole turns out to be a well

Me, Richard Dawkins and the Transistor Radio

Saturday, January 20th, 2007

I know y’all have the crazy idea that being a leader of a small church plant in the suburbs of Dublin is just one booze-fuelled excorcism followed by a bare-knuckles fight with Muslim Imams rounded off by helping a woman give birth in a stalled elevator and then baptising the baby as she looks away but the reality is really quite mundane. A lot of my week, at least at this early stage in the job (which, all going well, is a five year stint) consists of me sitting in an office emailing and phoning people to make sure they know this or that is happening, drinking coffee with my boss as we brainstorm possible cures for our culture stripped of Grace and well, photocopying things.

It was for this reason that I thought the major task I would have to deal with on Thursday was writing an easy-to-read manual for our volunteers for our photocopier. Here it is:

Any suggestions for nicknames?, originally uploaded by Zoomtard.

Instead I ended up debating with Richard Dawkins live on the radio.

The Boss and I were sitting around talking about something very important like whether or not toast always falls on to its buttered side and what theological inferences we could draw from this when a local Masters program in Media Production rang him up and invited him to participate in a show that night made by the students where he would debate The High Priest Of Atheism. He immediately laughed and said “No but I know someone I’ll send in my place”. The Boss knows you think he is such a high-minded, decent mentor for giving me, a bright young upstart this opportunity. I know The Boss better than you though and he just wanted to go home and have an evening in with his wife. The baxtard is the kind of guy who prefers a quiet meal and a good conversation with his bride than a chance to be gouged live on air by one of the world’s top 3 public intellectuals (as Dawkins book puts it!). We call that wisdom in my line of business. I don’t know where to get any.

So before you go all teenaged girl on me and start jumping up and down and screeching and waving your arms and shouting “We have elbows!” remember that there is no more insignificant radio station than the week long licence that Kairos Campus Radio has. I didn’t know it existed. The Boss lives less than 600 metres from the studio but he couldn’t tune it in. Still, I sat in that studio and Richard came on the phone and I have to admit, I shook like a leaf.

I’m not the kind of guy who tries to pretend he doesn’t get nerves. Every night before I preach is a torment. I’m having some friends around to play computer games later today and I have butterflies over it. Everytime I pull up my fly I get fluttery in case there might be an accident. So let us remember this as the tale continues. I am not a cool mofo. I am a wuss.

It probably didn’t start well when the host told me that she was introducing me as a “Presbyterian Youth Counsellor”. “But that is not what I do,” I said, reasonably. “Well you do work with students, right?” “Yeah but in our world, you stop being ‘youth’ when you turn 18. As such I not only have never worked with youth, but I was never a youth”. I suspected she wasn’t listening to me because she didn’t take me up on that. I worried about the actual youth pastor in my church being offended that I had taken her role but then I remembered she would be out working instead of listening to the radio. I proposed that she could call me the Chief Agent For The Public Understanding Of Christianity since Richard Dawkins gets to be called the Professor For Public Understanding Of Christianity. I asked her if she could just say that I was a member of staff with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. But no. She went ahead with the Youth Counsellor thing. That is a role that doesn’t exist in the PCI. I know I want to be an agent of reform but I would like for the first role I create to be the poet-in-residence at Church House, not a “Youth Counsellor”.

What would that look like? “I am sorry you are young. Soon you will be old. You’ll be sorry then”. There isn’t really enough to justify a salary.

I sat in the studio with Fr. Vincent Twomey who wrote a superb book a few years ago. I am sure you all read it. The End of Irish Catholicism [Question Mark], my old friend Dr. Peter Van Der Burgt and a student called Joe Molloy and Richard hung on the line. He was waiting for me to hang him out to dry.

He is still waiting.

Richard Dawkins is the ever so slightly comic figure that he is because he is so filled with rage and indignation that you can’t really see a very big difference between him and a Creation Scientist like Kent Hovind. Both are making dodgy metaphysical claims and both are so worked up about something that doesn’t touch on most day-to-day life that we end up being a little skeptical of them. As a friend pointed out to me, it is like how Fascists and Communists end up looking the same. I’ve always consoled myself that Dawkins won’t be more than a well publicised anti-thesis to the God-thesis until he pays heed to the philosophy he must surely have read and until he calms down a little.

He was so calm on Thursday night. In fact, I am proud to say that Richard Dawkins was a gentleman. It is cool when your adolescent heroes are brilliant in real life as well as on the pages of their books or in their music videos. He still did that frustrating thing where he half mentions seven issues in response to a question he singularly fails to answer but I realise that experts call that debating. That is how you win on radio or tv. But he was a lovely guy who treated everyone with more respect than we deserved. It would be a much more potent opponent to face than the ferocious bulldog of atheistic fundamentalism. If he learns the real secret us Christians have and ends up being winsome, I think he will probably be made King Of The World within about six weeks.

I have never been on radio like this before (well I won the Just-A-Minute quiz once) and I don’t think you have to wait for the host to invite you in but I did and so I only really went toe to toe with Richard once. I took him up, you guessed it, on his interpretation of theology. Or his lack of interpretation. We ended up aggreeing that my point was valid but we couldn’t really discuss it. It would take too long for me to show him that when Paul says, “slaves obey your masters” what he means is “masters, free your slaves”.

But seriously folks, that is what he means. I’ll explain it some other time.

Then Richard left and we talked about Christianity and the church and Ireland for about 30 minutes. I was struck by how mono-themed the discussion was. I know that I was in a radio show hosted by a Catholic in a college course run by the media wing of the Catholic church but they were all about mass and sacraments and whether women should be ordained. I felt like shouting “Folks, women are ordained everywhere except here! There are other ways to worship together beside the mass! There are other ways of being Christian!” Instead I was as winsome as I could be (that meant I only threatened Dr. van der Burgt while making jabbing motions with my pen once) and tried to advance my crazy idea that the Christian churches need to be:

    striving for unity
    intellectually engaged
    worshipfully experimental
    honestly grappling
    and based around authentic witnessing local communities against any hierarchical models

I think I won their respect. I think they were jealous of me because I’ll have organised a nice big mansion for myself in heaven while they are still processing through purgatory. My parents consisted of 62% of the audience (media students don’t handle maths well) and they were really proud. It was a good day’s work. The photocopier must wait until next week. If anyone taped it I’ll stick it up here as soon as I can.

Your Correspondent, Your Favourite Hooker Of The Whole Bunch

So This Book Of God’s Was Written By Men?

Wednesday, January 17th, 2007

I had an interesting email from one of my best friends tonight. They asked a pretty crucial question for anyone considering discounting Christianity or encountering Christianity. It goes like this:

Who decided what books to put in the bible, who complied it. If all scripture is God breathed, a human being still had to decided what
manuscripts went in and which ones didn’t? How did he know what was God breathed? why are the other books written at that time less important than the bible.

There is only one thing you can do when something so huge is introduced to the evening. It helps if it is introduced as you are busy cleaning. The nature of the question compels you to open a beer, stick on some Ben Folds and fire out some thoughts on canon.

Canon is the key word in any answer to this question. You could summarise the question as who compiled the canon and what do we think this has to do with God. First things first: Canon does not suggest a weapon with which one stream of Christianity destroyed all the other equally valid forms of Christianity. Canon comes from a greek word that means a reed used as a measuring rod, a fixed point. What I am going to try to briefly answer is:

    – Why was a canon formed? (Alister McGrath defines canon as “a limited and defined group of writings which are accepted as authoritative within the Christian church”).
    – Who got to form it?
    – What methods would they have applied?
    – What the hell does this have to do with God?

Why Canon?
If you go into any bookshop in Ireland and wander down to the basement and into the furthest corner, more hidden than the erotica will be the religious book and you will find very few books that would sit on my shelves and instead a whole bunch of lurid paperbacks claiming to reveal the “shocking truth” or “unravel the conspiracy” or “detox your body while revealing the secret history” of Christianity. The range available indicates there are people buying these books when all you need to buy is Philip Jenkins‘ superb Hidden Gospels which is a serious, but readable account of the competing “gospels”.

The reason a canon was formed was far less shocking than the Dan Brown School would have us believe. Christianity had the largest social impact of any movement in history. It was a bigger deal than Communism, Fascism, Feminism, Scientism and Jimladism wrapped up. As it spread and subverted everything it touched, splinter movements and parasitic cults attached themselves to the main body of believers; as happens with every big movement. The Canon was the naturally evolving reaction of the believing Christians as a kind of Darwinian selection took place amongst the pool of rival voices clamouring to represent Jesus. The books that individual congregations valued were maintained, copied, read, learnt and quoted. They survived. Others didn’t.

The existence of rival voices is no secret, as Brown and co would claim today. In fact, it is openly stated in the book that we are preaching through at church. Paul, an apostle, is writing to the churches in the cosmopolitan city of Corinth trying to combat gnostic teachers who are infiltrating the church. He is quite open about the fact that their message is different from the Apostles’ message. The whole book 1 John is pretty much a challenge to gnostic teachers.

Who Canonised?
Christians selected the books they believed in and discarded the books that didn’t represent the Apostolic teacher of Jesus’ first followers. As a result a canon naturally emerged. More about that emergence later.

There were councils in the 400s and 500s where all the church leaders got together and as a tangent off the main work they were doing they sometimes made statements about the Canon. No council was ever called to actually discuss the Canon, per sé, because it was formed very organically by the reading habits of the small cell churches that had populated all the known world. In fact, the great early church leader Eusebius wrote out a list of the books his church read in the 200s that has all the books we have in our New Testament today. The Gospels are pretty much uniform in any of these lists that get mentioned in letters from about 120AD onwards. There is some dispute recorded over books like Hebrews which was written for converted Jewish communities in the major Roman cities. Congregations mostly made up of non-Jewish people didn’t see a huge relevance in that text whereas congregations in Ethiopia or the Middle East were less likely to cite Revelations which is laden with anti-Empire rhetoric. I can understand this diversity of opinion because I sometimes catch myself treating a book like CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity as if it is Scripture. If I had my way, it would be at the back of every Bible! But by the time Athanasius wrote his list in the 300s, the organic formation of the Canon had been completed. There was practically unanimous appeal to the same 27 books we now read.

This happened not through the top-down manipulation of church leaders but the bottom up enthusiasm of church members. The Catholic Church is usually blamed as the bad guy in the conspiracy theories yet it didn’t even really exist at this point. You have to understand the nature of church life in the first three centuries. Persecution against Christians was widespread and often ferocious. Individual congregations in one city were quite remote from churches in other cities. Huge effort was still made to keep contact with other Christians as can be seen from the ecumenical councils between leaders and clues like Paul asking the churches in Colossae to share the letter to the Colossians with the churches in Laodicea.

Under persecution, therefore, the worldwide church was like a submarine in trouble. One compartment of the ship was seperated from the others. Each city’s churches were in a state of effective lockdown. Then in the 300s, the persecution lifted. Christianity was legalised. The submarine rose to the surface. The crisis was over. All the compartments opened up to each other and they found that largely independent of each other, they had all come to the same conclusion about which books were inspired by God. It is only at this stage that the big Councils like Nicea took place where proclamations could be made about what was in the “Bible” (although it still didn’t really properly exist) and what wasn’t.

How Canon?
The Canon emerged to distinguish apostolic Christianity from gnostic religions that were trading on the hugely powerful symbols and stories of Christianity and it was formed by the lifestyle of churches across the world over a span of a couple of centuries. The selection process, however, had two major factors. The first was “who wrote it?” and the second was “what did it say?”. The first Gospel (which are the biographies of Jesus) was Mark, written, we believe by John Mark, a missionary with Paul and almost certainly an eye-witness of Jesus’ ministry. Matthew, the Apostle, we have reason to believe, is the author of the 2nd Gospel. The third Gospel was written by the Gentile Luke, a doctor who also traveled with Paul. He also wrote the 5th book of the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles (it should be the Acts of Jesus Christ!). The final Gospel, is traditionally said to have been written by the “beloved Apostle” John, who also wrote 3 letters and the book of Revelation. Peter, traditionally “the rock” upon which Christ built his church, wrote 2 letters and the rest are Paul’s work except for Hebrews. The joker who put that masterpiece together never mentions his name and so he is forgotten by history. All of the New Testament books are in what is called the Apostolic succession. They are either written by Apostles or their students. The earliest churches were founded by the students of these Apostles (Apostles by the way, are people who were taught by the resurrected Jesus) and the line of teaching went unbroken from Jesus to the Apostles to the early church leaders. Who wrote the book mattered a lot.

The second factor was what the book contained. The so called Gospel of Thomas is not really a Gospel but a series of aphorisms (this makes it technically suspect but that is a discussion for another day). It was written early, relative to lots of the “hidden Gospels” but its message diverges from mainstream Christianity in an alarming way. Read Aphorism 114, the final message of Thomas:

Simon Peter said to them : “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said : “Look, I will guide her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit like You males. For every female who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

It is obvious that this is a different message to John 4 or Luke 8 to even the untrained eye. Most of the contested gospels that you read about in these paperbacks were never even considered because they are so late. They didn’t exist when the Canon was emerging. For example, the latest controversy surrounds the “Gospel of Judas” which was written 300 years after Jesus. Most all of the Gnostic Gospels are written centuries after Jesus and unlike the bios we now call the Gospels, they were never intended to be read historically.

The God Canon?
So what has all this got to do with God? When we say that the Bible is God’s Word we do not mean that God handed Paul a photocopy of something he scribbled on a napkin, Paul tidied it up, put his name on the top and posted it off to some churches. We do not mean that Paul went into a trance one day and whal-lah, fifteen minutes later we had Galatians. Christianity is not Islam. The Bible is not the Koran. We do not believe that the Bible is the transcribed word of God. Our words couldn’t fit the thoughts of God even if that is how he worked! Neither do we believe that the Bible is the only book that God inspired. I pray the Spirit of God is inspiring what I write here to guide my friend through doubt.

But instead Christians hold to a concept of inspiration which is much more organic. Paul was charged by God with a task, as was Peter or Luke or any of the other writers. They dispatched their duties to the best of their abilities. We believe that through their faithful efforts and God’s graciousness, the intentions of God are captured in some of their writings. We don’t think Paul had a magic God-inspiration gift so that his shopping list would be sacred. In fact, we think we lost the first and last letters to the Corinthian churches (we can’t be sure because, well, they are lost, aren’t they!).

Over the centuries it became clear that while John was a smart man who dedicated his life to reflecting theologically and poetically on Jesus, his Gospel is charged with something different. Christian communities around the world found that they did not read it to get information or to know something. They read it and it knew them. They found a sacred experience in the sharing of this short scroll that changed them. The same can be said in my life for Galatians and for Romans and for many other books. The concept of authority and the idea that God charged the writings of these books did not arise from the theological ponderings of a monk in a hut somewhere and then put into practice. Instead it arose as Christians put their faith into practice around the world and they found certain books profoundly impacted them in a unique way. They kept reading these books. They went to the huge cost of copying them. They quoted and cited and sang and prayed these books. They used them. And slowly a consensus emerged that something very sacred had happened with these words.

The concept of inspiration is thus, not meant to be some huge construct that you intellectually adhere to. The Bible is not a book we should be paying homage to reverently (I think I actually mean what I say here). Instead inspiration is something we are called to experience and the Bible is a book we should eat. We should get intimate with its cadences and its verse. We should learn to love the styles of the writers. It is a book we should live with and love by instead of plainly studying. Get into the book and you find that the book gets into you. This amazing power is what makes us think it is inspired.

Your Correspondent, You better watch out because I’m gonna say “Fuck!”

Now I Am Choosing My Own Adventure

Tuesday, January 16th, 2007

You’ll just have to trust me when I tell you I have a load of deadly Zoomtards lined up. You go through phases, don’t you, when you just don’t want to write anything down. I think I am coming out of one of those now and I want to write everything down. Drinking coffee and listening to good music in my office (the public one, since I am so important I have two!) this morning I read Jaybercrow’s latest post. I know I am biased with Jaybercrow since he is a legend I happen to be friends with but I love his blog and this post of his perfectly demonstrates why. Its deep, its concise and its loving.

What he is talking about is the thorny issue of Biblical authority. Y’all know that Christians claim to hold the Bible “in authority”. Some of you might have an idea that there is a distinction between the Catholics and the Protestants. Or maybe you’ve heard right-wing loons make claims for evil, bigoted things on the telly by citing Scripture as their “authority”. Its a pretty obvious conundrum for Christians to resolve in their lives since it is a collection of books written over the span of 1500 years based on oral records that were at the start, already about 2500 years old. I have dreams at night where you (yes, you- I dream about you. Now just move on) stand before me and plead repeatedly “What relevance can they have? How can they have authority? Cut the crap Christianboy and tell us what you mean!”

Well I can’t do that. But Jaybercrow can.

…imagine that someone discovers a lost Shakespeare play, but that the fifth and final act has been lost. Rather than have someone write a fifth act, the existing parts are given to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who are asked to immerse themselves in the story, and then work out a fifth act for themselves… [quoting NT Wright:]”The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted ‘authority’ for the task in hand. That is, anyone could properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that some character was now behaving inconsistently, or that some sub-plot or theme… had not reached its proper conclusion. This authority of the first four acts would not consist – could not consist! – in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier parts of the play over and over again. It would consist in the fact of an as yet unfinished drama, containing its own impetus and forward movement, which demanded to be concluded in an appropriate manner. It would require of the actors a free and responsible entering into the story“…

Jaybercrow goes on to work out a few of the improvements in the clarity and consistency of the lives we would live if we took this view on board and you can go read him or just try to suss them out for yourselves. I dealt with the same issue back in the Autumn but I took 3 times as long as Jaybercrow to deal with it, typically. Even my response to his initial post is likely to be longer than his post.

One of his commentators had an issue with the way Jayber insisted that this framework still claimed authority over our lives. This hesitancy is so easily understood because “the word [authority] has been damaged by bad experiences of forms of Christianity with an ugly and harsh view of God”. Often, authority has meant, “our interpretation” and instead of it being used as a measuring rod against which to moderate our own community, it has been used as a weapon to beat up other communities.

But for anyone who has this problem with the word “authority” and the connotations that it comes with, I would suggest that instead of reading the word to mean something like ‘domination’, consider the meaning ‘warrant’. There are too many cases through history when the first 4 acts of Scripture were used as the basis for humans to play out their 5th act with such little artistic credibility, aesthetic sense or moral courage (which is another way of saying aesthetic sense for Calvin, the first pomo Xian!) that we need to, as a diverse community, encourage faithful readings of our master’s work that inspire us to fulfill it to its utmost.

So what does the Biblical text warrant? What are legitimate responses? We know they will be pluriform. We know they will shift and change as time demands. But there must be, at the forefront of our minds, the ability to say to the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa in the 60s or the Free Presbyterian Church in North East Ireland today that you are reading it wrong. The text doesn’t warrant what you are doing with it. The effects of your readings are not just a bad night of theatre, but the destruction of people’s lives.

Did you ever watch The Streets Of San Francisco growing up? I used to go visit my crazy nanny every Tuesday night and she’d give me a big kiss and hug and a chocolate bar. We’d go sit in her stifling hot living room with her open fire, sitting under the gentle gaze of Pope John Paul II, ensconced in a gold-leaf frame and we’d watch Michael Douglas bounce his big huge cars around the hills of SF. At the end of every show, when the mystery had been resolved and the streets were safe again, there would be an “Epilogue”. It would be a 90 second scene where Douglas might go and visit the victim in hospital and jokingly reassure them that life was good again or maybe the distraught couple at the centre of the huge fraud that had been untangled would welcome the detectives into their home and enjoy a drink together. I propose that there will be a sixth act to our God’s story. Except the Epilogue we await is not just a tack on happy ending. It will dwarf all the previous acts in its beauty, its Gospel irony, its catharsis.

I know that ruins the Shakespearian allusions to the Wright-model of authority. Well, I didn’t know that but I am sure Neuro told me. But I do think it is important to remember that this story is more like a Charlie Kaufman (more like, not like!) screenplay than a Shakespeare play. When the ending came, one Friday, it was just the beginning. When the story finished one Sunday morning, it was just the beginning. When we hand our completed 5th Acts back to the Master, he will thank us, knit it into everything else and stun us with the twists he has in store.

Your Correspondent, He’s got his arm around every man’s dream

Repacking Van Peebles Land

Wednesday, January 10th, 2007

Well this is what the future looks like. The scientists lied to us. It is 2007 and still we have no hoverboards, only cockbags used the “video” function on their phone and there is still a lot of paper in my office. Also, I am not wearing one-piece clothing. Instead Zoomtard is still repackaging links he finds from around the web and rehashing arguments he reads in books or overhears on the Theologians’ Train (they have our own secret public transport system and they let me use it) under incomprehensible titles. At least in this time of change some things stay the same even if change is moving so fast that even change is changing and it changes us and short-changes us leaving us with less change in our pockets to buy a copy of the Big Issue if we are stupid and a nice Lion bar if we aren’t.

Peebles over there in Brittannia linked me to these two fascinating articles. The first is an op-ed in the Guardian by Tobias Jones, who wrote a very interesting book about the post-war history of Italy. He is discussing something I think about a lot- how at least in Britain, secular fundamentalism is legislating for itself in a brand new way. The advocates of this anti-belief belief claim to be acting out of tolerance but not only are they showing a tremendous epistemological arrogance which will bite them royally in the ass, they are pissing on the very democratic legacy they claim to uphold. Jones puts it better than I could when he says:

It was an assertion that after centuries of the naked public square (denuded of religion referents) the public now too had to go naked…. Until a few years ago religion was similar to soft drugs: a blind eye was turned to private use but woe betide you if you were caught dealing. Only recently have believers realised that religion is certainly personal, but it can never be private.

The most regal of the new totaltarians is Richard Dawkins. He is the Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Cambridge. Interestingly, he is also the Professor for the Public Mis-Understanding of Philosophy at Letterkenny Institute of Technology. Even more interestingly, I would love to one day hold a position where I could claim to be the Professor for the Public Understanding of Christianity. I would write that everywhere. Even when signing up to a milk-delivery service. Anyway, as perceptive readers who don’t use Internet Explorer will know, I have been trying to read the God Delusion, for a month now. This is the professor’s new tirade against faith where he advances his faith in a peculiar scientism that could be called the Neo-Darwinian Individualised Memetic Scientism to show how his faith is crucially different from other forms of evolutionism and indeed, scientism. (Scientism by the way, is the belief that science explains all there is as oppossed to science which is a method to discover how many things happen, read the same for evolutionism).

I hammered through 150 pages the first day because I had to give a talk on Dawkins but since then it is with dread that I pick up the book. There have been many fine books distracting me but still, the cause of the tedium is the argument. I once eagerly got Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian out of the college library. I was a Christian for about 7 months and at that point I would have quite liked to no longer be convinced by it all. But the arguments the great mathematician advanced were as irrelevant or as culturally bound as the one’s Dawkins advances. Since then I have become quite the fan of anti-Jesus books and my favourite is the ingenius Essence Of Christianity by Feuerbach. (I don’t think Marx was anti-Jesus, just anti-religion). But while Dawkins doesn’t cite Feuerbach much or at all, his arguments tend to be cheap knock offs. That is poor form. It is also worse than poor form to rewrite Stephen Jay Gould’s position after his death for him and…. stop me. I am a Christian and someone who is convinced by the theory of evolution so I just get riled up by the sleights of hand that Dawkins pulls off in place of an argument. Marilynne Robinson can explain what is wrong with the God Delusion better that me, Jaybercrow and Teragram put together. So go read it before you think these atheists have a strong old case. (Their case is super-strong elsewhere but they can’t reach it from the Enlightenment era, maybe I’ll Zoomtard that someday…)

Her article is long and thorough. Saying that I know very few of you will have the time and inclination to link to it but if you are at work, print it out and read it on the bus home or something. Read it though. It is beautifully written and so packed complete of ideas to fuel a month of wandering thoughts. Here is a sample:

A reader might find it instructive to start with his last chapter, in which he does acknowledge the fact of quantum theory and certain of its implications. This chapter is an interesting lens through which to consider the primary argument of the book, especially his use of physicality and materiality as standards for determining the real and objective existence of anything, along with his use of commonplace experience as the standard of reasonableness and — a favorite word — probability. He does this despite his awareness that the physical and the material are artifacts of the scale at which reality is perceived.

Peebles chose Robinson’s Gilead as his book of the year in 2006. Excepting Tom Wright, I would agree. I have a cool job and on Sunday I get to propose Gilead as the book of the month for my church. Ha! I get to share God and literature. If only there was some way to hand out chocolate truffles I would be sharing the complete primary pleasures as my work!

Finally, thanks to Dave Barrett for his work on the new Zoomtard banner. It is a very pretty piece of work and delightfully subversive too. He took photos of fundamentalists protesting at the funerals of homosexual victims of AIDS and turned them into poster-boys for my self-satisfied arrogance. There is something profound hidden in there something. Hidden deep inside, don’t bother looking. Just look at the pretty website instead. I am leaving it up for February too because it rocks so much.

Your Correspondent, Would settle for the Government pretending to act