Category Archives: Uncategorized

Paul the Apostle of Equality

Christian social and economic ethics does not fall neatly either on the left or the right of the political spectrum (obsolete as it arguably is anyway). Here’s Paul the Apostle beating the drum of… equality – but not with the stick(s) of coercition but with the carrot(s) dug up from the soil of the Gospel. The tune being played? A gift economy.

 

11324943_1882723058619562_1266180824_n“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.” (2 Cor. 8:9-15) ‪#‎equality‬ ‪#‎fairness‬ ‪#‎politicaltheology‬ ‪#‎gifteconomy‬ #justathought

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A parable. Not a joke

Once upon a time there lived a father like no other. He was super-smart, super-good, and super-strong. In fact, he was so amazing he could fully control everything that happened under the roof of his beautiful home, including all the desires and the doings of his four children.

One day he came into the kids’ playroom and told his children not to play with matches. Then he returned to his study where he ensured that the kids do just that and set the house ablaze. As soon as he smelled the smoke he burst out of his study and into the playroom. The flames was raging. The smoke was thick and all four kids were lying as dead on the floor. He bent over, grabbed one of children and hurried him to safety just outside the house. He never returned for the other three.

The media was outside eager to interview the father: “Why didn’t you save your other three children?” one reporter asked abruptly. “Yes, thank for the question, but before I answer it let me emphasise that this tragic event was determined by myself in all of its details. In fact, it worked out exactly as I had meticulously planned. May I also remind you that I was very clear when I told my children not to play with matches. So, you see, my other three children simply got what they deserved. Sure, I felt compassion towards them, but I chose to carry out my plan so that everyone will appreciate just how clever, merciful, and just a father I am.”

Charles Simeon on the preacher’s task

I do love Charles Simeon (1759-1836). Fearless in rejecting party spirit in theology and pastorally discerning through his existential focus of the preacher’s and theologian’s task – relating truths to life!simeon-1

“In Scripture, there are Calvinistic principles to act on man’s hopes, and Arminian principles to act on his fears; both are needful, and combine to produce the right effect. Man has hopes and man has fears, and God has given us a revelation exactly suited to all the wants of our nature, and exactly adapted to all our capacities. He has mercifully adapted His revelation to our dispositions, nay, even to our vices. For the desponding and broken-hearted sinner, here is a salvation not depending on his own merits, or his own feeble efforts. For the sluggish, or confident, or easily quieted conscience, here is a salvation which we must work out, a danger of becoming a castaway even after preaching the Gospel to others, a danger that one who thinketh he standeth may nevertheless fall. Give an Arminian cup to the former class, and it is poison; give a Calvinist cup to the latter, and it is poison.”

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Who am I? Some thoughts on identity

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Tom Beardshaw – Identity

This is a mashup from a Facebook thread on the topic of identity:

<<Ultimately, I am not who others say that I am. I am not even who I say that I am. I am fundamentally who God says that I am.

So no to a social constructivist anthropology. No to subjectivism. Yes to theological anthropology.>>

I’m obviously painting with broad strokes, using subjectivism in a slightly idiosyncratic way. I’m thinking of subjectivism as making up one’s own identity – a sort of self-constructivism and self-definition.

The issue can legitimately be problematized in a hermeneutical and epistemological direction. Discovering what God says about me (what I call ‘theological identity’) is no small matter indeed, but it can be done, notwithstanding the difficulties associated with, among other things, cognitive ability, hermeneutical ‘locatedness’, ‘the inclination of one’s heart, interference from others etc.

Invoking the work of the Holy Spirit at this point feels like a fideist copout. It is not a copout. The Spirit of Christ is graciously involved in forming and disclosing our theological identity (‘in Christ’), just as it is involved in forming and disclosing other swaths of meaning in the Scriptures. This is no pedantic ‘element’ that we ‘factor in’ our deliberations. We are, in fact, speaking about the reality of God the Spirit in illuminative action. No small matter indeed! In fact, I would argue, a more significant ‘matter’ than all the problems raised by my contingencies put together!

One of the way in which the Spirit of God will work relative to forming and disclosing my theological identity is through the ecclesial community – the church. I need Spirited others to discover my-self , to communicate and to confirm my theological (objective) identity – who I am sub specie crucis et aeternitatis (what is eternally true in light of the Cross of Christ). Put simply, with Bonhoeffer, I need brothers and sisters in Christ to help me learn and re-learn that I am a creature, and not my Creator; that I am God’s beloved in Christ, not a fraction of a speck of dust in a brutal universe; that I am a servant of God and others, not the captain of my fate and master of my destiny.

(UPDATED: 1 December 2015)

Touching on different but connected issues, Christoffer Skogholt wrote:

It appears to me that there is a tendency in protestant Christianity to think of truth as that which “God says”. In morality, this would be exemplified by voluntarism. My impression is that this perspective can figure in other areas as well. It would be a sort of theological counterpart to what you labeled subjectivism; if we remove God, then it is up “to me” to define what is morally right or what I am. The underlying idea is that reality is determined by a sort of definition, not that a definition is trying to mirror or capture a reality which precedes it. In the theological perspective it would be in virtue of the authority of God that what he says is true; not that there is a correspondence between statement and reality. A theological anthropology obviously needs to be informed by Scripture. But the reason that what God says is true, is not, in the last analysis because God says so, but because it is so. God re-veals a reality that is partly hidden, but still can be re-cognized.

This is complicated by many things, among which I would say that one of the more important is that “human nature” or “my nature” is not a static entity but has a plasticity and is in the process of becoming. When God is naming me, he is also calling me towards a goal, to realize my potential; it is in this sense a sort of legitimate self-fulfilling prophecy. Besides: How I interpret myself does affect my identity, but in a more nuanced way than just merely putting on a label. The process of understanding my self is a part of my becoming, part of achieving an identity. (*my highlight)

 

To which I replied:

My use of ‘God says’ does not presuppose let alone endorse voluntarism. I reject it and decry the fact that a lot of theology is quite voluntaristic. However, I do believe we must say that some things are indeed what they are because God wills them to be and says that they should so be: think, for example, of the ‘God said… and there was’ pattern in Genesis. God’s word is creative. God creates through the Word the reality to which our beliefs and words may correspond. I wouldn’t name this voluntarism, but there is a priority to his Word in its creative function. Some of the things that God says (no mere utterances!) about me are fixed and unchanging: that I am a creature, for example, that I am loved by him (of course I am working from a particular theology here) etc. Other things he says are in response to my development (which is never unaided by him, of course): from rebellious creature to lover of God etc.

 

 

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‘C. S. Lewis. A Life’ by Alister McGrath. A translator’s review (2)

cover1-264x380Now to turn to some comments of a more evaluative nature. The biography is well written. The style is clear and fluid, maybe
dull at times. Nevertheless, when the material is of a poetic nature, McGrath shows his capacity for lyrical description. Particularly poignant is his discussion of Lewis’s A Grief Observed, which contains some of Lewis’ most raw and uncensored reflections on pain and suffering, following Joy’s death.

Towards the end of the volume a sense of wistfulness is introduced when McGrath reveals Lewis’ letter to the Nobel Committee, nominating J. R. R. Tolkien for the 1961 Nobel Prize for Literature. The letter was discovered after January 2012, when the archives were finally opened to scholars, after a fifty-year embargo. We may note that the friendship with Tolkien is well documented.
Even if Lewis regarded Tolkien as one of his “second class” friends, McGrath’s decision to insist on this relationship is warranted considering how influential Tolkien was in shaping Lewis’ understanding of the Christian faith at the time of his conversion. But while we are on the relational front, we may note a few puzzling omissions. First, the relationship with Hugo Dyson seems to be under McGrath’s biographical radar. No clear explanations are given as to why Dyson plays such a minor part in the narrative. More significantly, however, is the near absence of George MacDonald. Given the lasting influence he is known to have had on Lewis, the omission is all the more surprising.

On the subject of omissions, Lewis scholar Jerry Root notes McGrath’s “glaring lack of appreciation for how Lewis carefully selected literary genres to suit the material he wished to present”. He is referring particularly to McGrath’s reading of Lewis’ Surprised by Joy.[1] Indeed, McGrath seems to have applied a psychoanalytical hermeneutic, speculating on Lewis’ repressed memories and psychological hang-ups, which arguably makes for a strained reading of Surprised by Joy. At various points, McGrath seems puzzled by what Lewis includes and leaves out of his autobiographical account. But, as Root observes, “his goal was not to give a comprehensive account of his life, but simply to tell the story of his conversion.” If this is true, one may need to look closer at Lewis’s account to discover a much more purposeful selection and literary technique than McGrath imagines.

Lewis_and_DavidmanMcGrath’s treatment of the Joy Davidman episode in Lewis’ life will surprise, if not shock viewers of the admittedly saccharine cinematographic rendition in the Shadowlands. The relationship with Davidman has bewildered and miffed Lewis’ closest friends and, later, his biographers. McGrath makes no exception. Up until the final period of Joy’s life, the relationship is cast almost entirely in a negative light. For a biography that seeks a critical distance from its subject matter, the moral judgments that underlie some of McGrath’s descriptions of Joy and her relationship with Lewis create a strange tension. It is worth giving an example, and a significant one at that. McGrath quotes Davidman’s younger son, Douglas Gresham, to make the point that his mother’s specific intention for going to England was “to seduce C. S. Lewis.” But as Gina Dalfonzo notes, McGrath has missed the tone of Gresham’s remark and is guilty of perpetuating an inaccuracy. The quote from Gresham reads as follows: “She was not above telling nosy friends that she was going to England to seduce C. S. Lewis.” This is quite clearly a jocular remark, not uncharacteristic of Davidman. Sadly, this is but one example that shows McGrath’s particularly negative appraisal of Davidman and her relationship with Lewis.[2]

When McGrath finally mentions the love between the two and Lewis’ searing pain at her loss, the reader cannot help feel slightly detached emotionally. Could this be traced to McGrath’s failure to convey vividly enough Lewis’s psychological and emotional development in relation to Joy Davidman? What is undeniable is that, sadly, the reader struggles to empathize when McGrath offers a description of Joy’s final moments and Lewis’ ensuing pain.

Finally, one cannot shake off the impression that the biography has been shaped to a large extent by marketing concerns arising from the ‘Lewis phenomenon’. In particularly harsh words, Arend Smilde, a Dutch translator and editor of Lewis’ works, goes so far as to say that the book is just “an extended contemporary comment on the Lewis phenomenon disguised as biography”.[3] That is clearly an overstatement, which implicitly raises the question of the nature of a biography. McGrath has clearly delineated his aims and methodology from the very beginning. Lewis is best remembered as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia and as an able Christian apologist. Therefore, the decision to devote ample space to these dimensions of Lewis is understandable. The criteria for selecting what to include, what to leave out, what to focus on, and what to simply mention in passing is legitimate. Nevertheless, one may still wish for an account that touches all the important bases. Fans of the Ransom Trilogy, for example, might be disappointed given the scant treatment it receives in McGrath’s biography. The Narnia books are clearly, and understandably, the stars.

All in all, while C. S. Lewis. A Life is by no means the definitive biography–can there be one?–it is an excellent introduction to the life and thought of C. S. Lewis, a man of penetrative intelligence and boundless imagination.

[1] Root, Jerry. “Does C. S. Lewis Have Something to Hide? Or is Alister McGrath’s biography too preoccupied with what Lewis declines to reveal?” Christianity Today, 22 November 2013. Web. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/november-web-only/does-c-s-lewis-have-something-to-hide.html. Accessed 28 October 2014.

[2] Dalfonzo, Gina. “C. S. Lewis’s Joy in Marriage. What I think Alister McGrath got wrong about Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman.” Christianity Today, 8 October 2013. Web. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/october-web-only/cs-lewis-joy-in-marriage.html?paging=off. Accessed 28 October 2014.

[3] Smilde, Arend. “Critical Notes on McGrath’s Biography of C. S. Lewis.” Lewisiana. Web. http://lewisiana.nl/mcgrathbio/. Accessed 28 October 2014.

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‘C. S. Lewis. A Life’ by Alister McGrath. A translator’s review (1)

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With the launch of my translation of Alister McGrath’s biography of C. S. Lewis fast approaching, I thought this would be a good time to roll out my review article of the book. The article first appeared in Linguaculture, the International Journal of the Iaşi Linguaculture Centre for (Inter)cultural and (Inter)lingual Research, Volume 5/2, in 2014.

Since this is a longer piece, I will publish it in 2 or 3 instalments. You will find the first one below. The more negative stuff is strategically reserved for the other instalments, after the book launch has passed. 🙂 In all seriousness now, despite some of its flaws, Alister McGrath’s biography is an excellent introduction to the life and thought of C. S. Lewis, a man of penetrative intelligence and boundless imagination.

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cover1-264x380Let us begin with a confession. The present reviewer has not read the complete works of C. S. Lewis. He has not ploughed through the secondary literature. He has not poured over the thousands of letters annotated and published in the last few years by Walter Hooper–all these being important feats of Alister E. McGrath, the author of the most recent biography of Clive Staples Lewis. Still, the reviewer is called to fair-mindedly appraise the author’s finished work. According to which criteria and based on what standards, we may ask? In virtue of which qualifications or personal merits, we may ponder?

All such questions have, of course, some satisfactory answers that can be given, pertaining either to the reviewer’s credentials or to the nature of the task of reviewing books, but questions remain. If we add to this the burden (and privilege) of being both the book’s translator into Romanian and its reviewer, the task at hand seems onerous indeed. A successful translation may result only if the translator has internalized his text. What he will deliver is at one and the same time his text and the author’s. He is both a servant of someone else’s creation, and a creator in his own right. The absorption of the text and the enfleshing of its ideas in a new idiom make fair-mindedness a quality even more difficult to display. But enough with the patting-oneself-on-the-back-lamentations.

From the outset, McGrath’s declared and daring purpose is to present a coherent narrative that integrates the many dimensions of C. S. Lewis: most famously, as author of the Chronicles of Narnia and other works of fiction (the imaginative dimension), as brother, friend, and spouse (the relational dimension), as accomplished academic (the academic dimension), and as Christian apologist (the apologetic dimension). McGrath prefers narrative coherence to a precise, but dry presentation of biographical facts. His intention is to tell the story of C. S. Lewis, focusing on some of the most important dimensions of his life and work, particularly on the development of his thought, rather than ‘documenting every aspect of Lewis’ life.’

What recommends McGrath as a biographer of the famous author, academic and apologist? McGrath highlights some points of biographical conjunction between himself and Lewis: the Irish roots, the conversion from atheism to Christianity, and the common Oxford education and career. It is not that these, in themselves, can supplant the intellectual skills and virtues necessary for writing a good biography, but they do help the reader warm to the author.

In writing his biography, McGrath has read Lewis’ complete works in chronological order, and the wealth of secondary literature on Lewis and on his intellectual climate and circle of friends. No previous biographer has boasted of what seems like a sensible, if demanding preparatory task. Readers are informed that more academic treatments of major themes in Lewis’ work and discussions of “some of the scholarly questions that emerge” have been left for a “more academic volume.”[1]

McGrath is no encomiast. His confessed admiration for and affinity with Lewis is well tempered. Not afraid to highlight the controversial elements in Lewis’ fascinating life, McGrath presents an honest, critical account. The purpose is clearly not one of offering uncritical praise, but understanding Lewis, particularly his ideas, and identifying the deep themes and structures of his personal and professional life. This is “not a work of synopsis, but of analysis,” “a critical biography,” declares McGrath in the preface of the book.

McGrath dutifully describes the main periods and events of Lewis’ life, probing their significance: the Irish childhood, the uneasy relationship with his father, the traumatic loss of his mother, the English boarding schools experience, the First World War, the enigmatic relationship with Mrs. Moore, the ups and downs in his friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien, his conversion from atheism to philosophical theism and then to Christianity, the Inklings, the fame that followed his highly successful radio talks on BBC, the academic failures and accomplishments, the marriage with Joy Davidman, and her untimely death. The focus remains on the formative influence these events have had on Lewis’ thought life.

The principal source for the biography, which gives it one of its unique selling points, is Lewis’s collected letters, over 3500 pages of text annotated and cross-referenced by Walter Hooper between 2000 and 2006. Unavailable to previous biographers, these constitute the backbone of McGrath’s narrative, also enabling this biography’s distinctive contribution: a compelling reconsideration of the date for Lewis’ conversion from atheism to Christianity. A close reading of the letters leads McGrath to conclude that Lewis’s conversion took place not during the Trinity term of 1929, as recorded by Lewis in Surprised by Joy, but roughly a year later. In establishing this conclusion, McGrath presents some excellent detective-style work and displays a commendable sensitivity to the interplay between Lewis’s “inner” and “outer” worlds.

The discussion on Lewis’ discovery of the Christian faith is rich and stimulating. We learn of Lewis’ love of myth and of his discovery of the Christian faith as ‘true myth’ and as an integrated vision of reality. This ‘big picture’ has room both for the longings and yearnings of the human heart (“arrows of Joy”) and for the operations of reason. Christianity is a capacious narrative that “makes sense of things”. McGrath shows Lewis discovering the way in which the Christian vision of reality reconciles reason and imagination. The two are indispensable and intertwined means of connecting with reality. McGrath also clarifies some of Lewis’ important distinctions, between “imaginary” and “imaginative” worlds, between “allegory” and “supposal”.

(to be continued)

[1] McGrath, Alister, The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.

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A thought on Theistic Evolution

Just to put this out there, I think Theistic Evolution boils down to a form of functional deism that rests on a problematic hermeneutic and exegesis of the Creation texts. Their allergy to ‘interventionism’ is unwarranted as they are just as ‘interventionistic’ when it comes to the imago Dei. The only difference is that they delay ‘divine intervention’, whereas ID unashamedly acknowledges it as present at key junctures in the creation, both on scientific and theological grounds.

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‘God is dead’. What Nietzsche meant.

It’s true. Nietzsche did say ‘God is dead’, but contrary to the way he is too often quoted (even by popular apologists!) Nietzsche was NOT referring to a being called God who had experienced death. He believed no such thing, and therefore was not making a theological statement. Rather, more subtly, he was observing that “the belief in the Christian god has become unbelievable”. Here’s the full quote: “‘‘The greagod_is_deadtest recent event – that ‘God is dead,’ that the belief in the Christian god has become unbelievable – is already beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe. For the few at least, – the suspicion in whose eyes is strong and subtle enough for this spectacle — some sun seems to have set and some ancient and profound trust has been turned into doubt.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann <New York: Random House, 1974>, p. 297) This is clearly something of a sociological statement which aptly describes the birth of modern atheism.

The problem with bite-size theology. A thought on Tim Keller

Some time ago I posted a more critical comment about Tim Keller, whom in many respects I appreciate and admire. I argued that he is known to come up with very neat schemes and symmetries to organise his thought. This is clearly one of the things which makes him a great speaker and writer. However, I fear(ed) that sometimes his neat categories and schemes mask false alternatives, forced points, reductionistic treatments of more complex themes, and an excessive dependence on a particular and particularly narrow soteriological system. I finally found the perfect illustration. 

”Jesus lost the sonship that he deserved so we could get the sonship that we don’t deserve,” says Keller. The symmetry is perfect. The theology, questionable. First, I’d be curious to know how Keller arrived, exegetically, at the idea that Jesus “lost his sonship”. Secondly, if Jesus lost his sonship at the Cross, then it seems to me that the Gospel itself breaks down. For if Jesus didn’t die as the Son, and remain the Son through his redemptive death, even as he cried his cry of dereliction, he simply didn’t achieve salvation. I’m convinced that is not something that Keller wants to say, but his penchant for this sort of geometric stylistics gets him in trouble.

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How (Not) To Be Secular. A short review

Let me begin on a positive note. This is a very good introduction to Charles Taylor’s seminal ideas in A Secular Age. For those scared of Taylor’s ideatic behemoth, this will be a very easy path to walk into Taylor’s thought-world. Smith presents the main ideas and eye-opening categories in Taylor’s book with clarity and rhetorical panache.

As far as the negatives go, I wish he had more (pop) cultural references inserted throughout the book. The first few pages are somewhat deceptive, in that the personal address to preachers and pastors doing ministry in ‘a secular age’ fades, ultimately into nothingness, as the book progresses. It feels like Smith himself gets bogged down in Taylor’s intricate thought-world and forgets to resurface in order to reconnect with his practitioner-readers. Also, the book ends rather abruptly. Smith does not feel the need to offer broad conclusions, assessing Taylor’s contribution.

It would have been a useful feat to indicate and demonstrate practical ways of exegeting specific cultural practices, trends and artifacts using Taylor’s enlightening interpretive framework. 
Having said all of this, if no further merits can be tallied, the simple fact of introducing us to Taylor and making him more accessible is the book’s greatest strength and Smith’s merit, eclipsing any and all shortcomings. For this, James J. A. Smith deserves our gratitude.