Saturday, June 30, 2007

von Balthasar on God as other

God, who is for us the Wholly-Other, appears only in the place of the other, in the "sacrament of our brother". And it is only because he is Wholly-Other (in relation to the world) that he is at the same time the Non-Other, the one who, in his otherness, transcends even the inner-worldly opposition between this and that being. Only because he is over the world is he in it. But being over it does not deprive him of the right, the power, and the Word, to reveal himself to us as eternal love, to give himself to us and to make himself comprehensible even in his incomprehensibility.

- Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible
(trans. D. C. Schindler; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004 [1963]), 150.

Today is the final meeting of a reading group which has been working its way through this little book by von Balthasar, and it's given us a taste of why people get so excited by this 20thC Swiss Catholic thinker. He proposes that the unifying centre of theology (and, thus, life) is love. Not simply any old love or warm feeling of tolerance and appreciation, but the passionate love of God revealed in Christ. He is a very scriptural thinker, and yet obviously also deeply steeped in the Western (including Protestant) tradition. Obviously influenced by Barth, he attempts to relate his insights to traditional Catholic doctrines, and the results shed interesting light on both.
Speaking of shedding interesting light, twenty points to whomever can shed interesting light on this picture. What is it?

Friday, June 29, 2007

Cancer (hasn't) killed the radio star

Sorry for the title, but Jessica and I will be interviewed by Bishop Robert Forsyth on 2CH (1170 on the AM dial) at 10 pm Sunday night (after the news). We'll be talking about our experiences of sickness and hope over the last six months or so. Can't say I've ever listened to that station myself (I rarely listen to any radio), but in case you're not already sick of hearing me talk about being sick, then this is another chance.

UPDATE: For those out of Sydney, you can listen online. H/T Jason Goroncy.

Barth on free exegesis

...the Church makes a mistake about the Bible, so far as she thinks that in one way or other she can control right exposition and thereby set up a norm over the norm, ad ought to and can seize upon the proper norm for herself. Bible exegesis should rather be left open on all sides, not, as this demand was put by Liberalism, for the sake of free thinking, but for the sake of a free Bible. Self-defence against possible violence to the text must be left here as everywhere to the text itself, which in practice has so far always succeeded, as a merely spiritual-oral tradition simply cannot, in asserting its own life against encroachments by individuals or whole areas and schools in the Church, and in victoriously achieving it in ever-fresh applicatios, and so in creating recognition of itself as the norm.

-Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1
(trans. G. T. Thompson; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1936), 119.

Reminds me of the Spurgeon quip about defending the Bible is like defending a lion (which gets quoted in various forms, so I won't try a verbatim quote). There is, however, a place for certain kinds of defence (apologia); Barth is not justifying a fundamentalist fideism (which is how the Spurgeon quote is often used), but is speaking specifically about defending the freedom of exegesis, allowing God to speak afresh through the Scriptures.
Ten points for the country. Fifteen for linking to the photo I posted earlier of the building in which this armour is kept.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Dawkins done

Tonight's forum on Dawkins and the new atheism with Dr Greg Clarke went quite well. We had over 50 people in the café (it was bulging!), of whom about half were not from All Souls. Greg made some interesting points (I might post some tomorrow) and there was some lively discussion and excellent food.

Dawkins reminder

"The Dawkins Delusion?"
7.30 pm tonight
All Souls café - free
More info

Experience and tradition

Experience is itself a kind of text, and texts need interpreters. How often have we thought that we understood our experiences, only to realize later that we had only the barest understanding of our own motives and impulses? We all know how flexible memory can be, how easy it is to give an overly gentle account of our own motivations, how hard it is to step outside our lifelong cultural training and see with the eyes of another time or place. ... To take personal experience as our best and sturdiest guide seems like a good way to replicate all of our personal preferences and cultural blind spots. Scripture is weird and tangly and anything but obvious-but at least it wasn’t written by someone who shared all our desires, preferences, and cultural background. At least it wasn’t written by us. And so it’s necessary to turn at least as much skepticism on “the voice of experience” as [we turn] on the voice of Scripture. It’s necessary to look at least as hard for alternative understandings of our experience as for alternative understandings of Scripture.

- Eve Tushnet, Experience and Tradition.

This was an interesting article in a online journal also containing a scathing review of Hitchens' God is not great. H/T Matheson.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

More water

A while ago, I posted a brief comment on the developing water crisis in Australia. Although far from over, there have been some good falls over the last few weeks. While away on a farm on holidays recently, we heard they'd had their best rain since 2000. There is more heavy rain predicted for Victoria over the next few days. Despite the rain, the NSW government is going ahead with the controversial desalination plant amid debates about energy use. Prior to the election, the government said the plant was to be built if dam levels dropped below 30%. Sydney's dams have risen from 37% to over 50% since 7th June.

This is welcome relief, though it is important that further west farmers get seasonal rain for crop growth, not simply drought-breaking water that comes in a deluge. In a much-reported irony, the country NSW town of Goulburn, which has been on level 5 water restrictions (the most severe) for almost five years, is today facing the prospect of floods. Recent flooding of the Hunter river, north of Sydney, killed nine people. Around the world, flooding in northern England has killed three people, in India has killed almost 150 , and in Pakistan over 200.

Should we thank God for the gift of rain during a flood? (A question with (tangential) analogies to questions of overpopulation - a series I do intend to return to at some stage (once I know what I think!)) My hunch is 'yes', because it remains a good gift, necessary for life. However, in a flood this thanksgiving becomes more complex, since that which is good is now arranged in a destructive way. It is possible to have too much of a good thing. A significant aspect of the goodness of the created order is that it is ordered.These two images both illustrate recent rainfall in NSW. Ten points for the location of each.

Out of the closet meme

Started (as all good memes are these days) by Ben Myers,* this new meme should probably be called 'into the closet', since the idea is to make confessions about one's theology. Ben has collected many examples of the meme spreading if you want to get some idea of what I'm talking about.

I confess that I find the idea of blog confession more than a little odd (who will pronounce absolution?).

I confess that I think this meme is often just a chance to showcase one's theological credentials in the form of admitting embarrassing influences, or an opportunity to attack one's opponents through disclosing feelings of frustration.

I confess that I find both those activities more attractive than I should.

I confess that Augustine's Confessions is the real start of this meme.

I confess that to criticise a meme intended for a minute's amusement is probably small-minded.
*Though it was originally inspired by this post by Peter Leithart, it was Ben who turned it into a meme. I was then tagged by Rob, who is out of hospital again - excellent news!
I confess that I entered this cathedral with no intention of paying the (recently introduced and quite hefty) entrance fee, but just wanted a brief (free) sticky-beak - and so I walked in, asked the price (which I already knew), declined, snapped the shot, and walked out. I also confess I'll give twelve points to the first correct guess of which cathedral it is.

Holy water

Frank Emanuel over at Freedom Log has posted on What is Sacred?. More needs to be said, of course, but this is worth saying (and reading).

Frank has also just written a paper on the ethics of bottled water, a topic I had never much considered. I've never been a fan of bottles and this paper gives plenty of reasons (health, economic, environmental) to back up my prejudice. I feel justified in now called it a post-judice. For me, perhaps the most interesting point in his paper was a brief comment noting that the habitual consumption of bottled water dulls communal motivation to maintain quality tap water. As usual, it will be the poorest who suffer from this move. Water is not a commodity.

Finally, to complete this Frankophile post, this lovable Candian pastor has also just joined Thom Chittom as co-moderator of the large and active Jürgen Moltmann Yahoo group.
Eight points to the first non-theologically trained reader to name the psalm in which this image figures prominently.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Dawkins Delusion

This Thursday, Dr Greg Clarke (until recently, director of CASE at UNSW, now director of MCSI at Macquarie Uni) will be leading an interactive forum considering the views of biologist, author and avowed atheist Richard Dawkins. All welcome.

7.30 pm, 28th June
All Souls Café
No charge
Supper provided
RSVP appreciated

Monday, June 25, 2007

Howard on the end justifying the means

The Hon John Howard, Australian Prime Minister, has recently announced the effective annexation of the Northern Territory by the federal government due to a crisis of widespread child abuse amongst the indigenous population. In his own words:

The level of intervention here is quite dramatic and quite sweeping. We ought not to not mince words, we are in effect supplanting the Northern Territory Government in many of the areas of responsibility.
Others have discussed the timing, motivation and political effect of this move (this is a very sudden and dramatic move on an issue that has been reported for decades), as well as the more important question of whether it will actually help to reduce abuse. These are complex questions on which I have hunches, but little expertise. However, one thing that grabbed my attention while listening to Mr Howard's defence of his actions was his appeal to the logic of the end justifying the means:
Interviewer: This appears to be a blow at any semblance of self-determination.
John Howard: Well, some may see it that way, but is that more important than fixing the problem? I mean, see, this has been the problem with so many of the approaches in the past to indigenous affairs, that doctrines and notions have been given greater prominence than outcomes and solutions.
Later he said:
I don't think you can respect power structures in these communities when clearly those structures have failed to deliver the right outcomes, and you've got to, as in always, you've got to pay on results.
Does the end ever justify the means?
All quotes can be found in this interview on ABC's Lateline.

UPDATE: Thanks to all those who have commented on this very complex issue. A number of the comments have helped clarify my original question. The issue is not so much about the ends justifying the means as the intention of certain (very worthy) ends being used to justify potentially ill-conceived, ineffective or even self-defeating means.

UPDATE #2: It is worth at least reading this summary report from the NT government inquiry. H/T CraigS.

UPDATE #3: My local federal MP, Tanya Plibersek, talks sense on the issue in today's (27th June) SMH. Again, H/T CraigS. She doesn't, however, touch on the issue of empowerment/ownership - bringing local communities on board, which also means listening to their concerns and being willing to negotiate.

Sydney Anglicans on Peak Oil

I'm mentioned the Social Issues Briefing put out by the Sydney Diocese before. Written by MTC ethics lecturer Andrew Cameron (often with assistance from others), these semi-regular little pieces offer insightful ways into a variety of contemporary issues. Here is a full list of topics, but I particularly wanted to highlight the most recent piece on peak oil, in which Dr Cameron makes some excellent points about the place of Christian community in responding to this threat. God rescues us from a self-destructive focus on mere self-protection. Running away to my hidden hideout in the bush is no solution.

Click here to sign up to receive these excellent free briefings by email.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Divorce as amputation?

A suggestion
At the risk of sounding insensitive, I wonder whether we mightn't be able to compare divorce to amputation. It is a drastic emergency procedure undertaken as a last resort when life is at stake. It is not unthinkable because it is possible for relationships to become so broken that an end is 'healthier' than leaving the relational destruction to fester and become gangrenous. But it is not a quick and easy solution to the problem. It is not easy. It is not a solution. Rather, like amputation, the aim is harm minimisation, attempting to retrieve at least the possibility of some good from a severely damaged situation. It is an option that will leave scars and require rehabilitation to regain some measure of lost abilities. It is not done for cosmetic reasons, or because you have a sore toe, or even when you have a broken leg - in fact, not even when there has been partial or total paralysis. Where there is injury, even severe injury, seek healing through repentence, forgiveness and reconciliation (of course there is much more to say here). Seek help early (wise counselling saved us in our first years of marriage). Divorce only becomes thinkable when the damage to the marriage is so severe that unless there is separation, then the 'blood loss' or 'poisoned blood' will kill you. Except in very rare emergencies, it is also not a decision to be made (or executed!) without skilled help.

I speak as one who has not been divorced, nor as one who has experienced the divorce of parents. I also do not have any significant experience of amputation. Yet I have ministered (a little) to those with struggling and broken marriages, and to some going through divorce. I would love to hear reflections and comments on this analogy. It is not intended (like any analogy) to be perfect, but is intended to fire the imagination and provide a sense of the gravity of this decision in a culture where it has been too-often abused.

UPDATE: I did not mean to imply that the ex-spouse is to be compared directly to the lost limb.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Ten things Meredith thinks about the environment

As I've mentioned before, Meredith over at Faith and Place has been (slowly) posting an excellent series called "Ten things I think about the environment". She's now finished and has posted links to all the posts. I've already ripped off some of her work in my series Would Jesus vote Green?, but make sure you read the original. Her final post is a particular highlight.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

June points table

Yes, we're back, so the furious race for points is now over. I ended up awarding 96 in the comments to the previous post. As well as updating the overall leaderboard, I thought I'd take up a suggestion from Pete a while back and have a monthly points competition to give a chance to those who feel they are joining late. So in future I'll try to create a monthly points table near the start of the month and update it as the month progresses, announcing the winner at the end of the month (perhaps with some bonus points in the overall table). June's scores are currently ended like this:

41: Rachel
27: Anthony
18: Ali
15: Mike, Peter J
12: JRS
11: Drew
4: Christopher, Matt Moffitt
2: Andrew Paterson; Joanna; Mandy; Persephone
1: Lachlan B; One Salient Oversight
I'll say more about our break, as well as posting some book and film reviews in the coming days.
Twenty points for the name of this river that we spent some of our holiday near (I'll be really impressed if anyone gets it...). Fifteen if you can guess the poet whose work was in Jessica's backpack (we read some of his delightful works as a reward during breaks on our many walks).

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Non-ratings period (again)

Sorry for the huge length of that last post. I was going to split the review up into multiple shorter posts and have it as a whole series, but I figure that those who are interested (probably only be a few) might prefer to get it all at once.

From tomorrow, the next week or so will be a(nother) non-ratings period during which I won't have access to email or blogs. Please refrain from posting anything too interesting. Jessica and I will be off having a break up the mountains: reading, walking, playing Tigris and Euphrates and getting lots of sleep. This time off was a lovely surprise given to us at the recent thanksgiving service from our sisters and brothers at All Souls and is much appreciated!

While you're waiting for regular posting to return, you might like to explore the sidebar for highlights and series you might have missed. Or not. Instead, you might like to switch off the internet, stretch your legs and enjoy the world around you. You never know, you might like it...
Fifteen points for the last person to have left a comment on this post when I return. Five points for the country in the picture above.

The play's the thing: Vanhoozer's Divine Comedy

The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005)
What is the place of doctrine in following Jesus? Is it a human construction that distorts the Bible? Or a luxury of decadent, introspective Christianity substituting for practical action? Neither, claims Vanhoozer in The Drama of Doctrine; doctrine is precisely what relates the Scriptures to our individual and corporate obedience. In doing so, he aims to reclaim doctrine as energetic, energising and ecumenical in an age that sees it as dull, distracting and divisive.


Taking his cue from the world of theatre, he proceeds at some length to develop the metaphor of drama in four directions: drama, script, dramaturge and performance.

First, adopting and adapting von Balthasar's Theo-drama, Vanhoozer recasts salvation history as a divine comedy, a ‘theo-drama’ in which God is protagonist and Jesus the pivotal climax. Of course, like all good plays, this one has five acts: Creation, Israel, Jesus, Church, and Eschaton (which came first, the metaphor or the biblical theology, remains unspecified).*
*Indeed, it is difficult to either prove or disprove the effect of the theatrical allegory in providing an unacknowledged (even unconscious) ‘confirmation’ of certain details of his approach.

The triune hero performs a fully rounded part; the destructive dichotomy between divine actions and words is healed with the help of speech-act theory. God’s mighty actions communicate, and his words get things done.

Second, having oriented us to the (theo-)drama, we meet the authoritative script: the Bible. In constant dialogue with Lindbeck’s influential The Nature of Doctrine, Vanhoozer agrees with Lindbeck’s desire to move beyond a narrow pre-critical cognitive theology of fundamentalism and an equally reductionist liberal experiential-expressivism. For Lindbeck, the cultural-linguistic turn in twentieth century western thought means that biblical hermeneutics (and thus theology) must be grounded in the practices of the ecclesial interpretive community. Yet there is a dangerous circularity in which the Bible read through the lens of contemporary church life can only affirm that very life; the church becomes unreformable and the externality, the potentially critical otherness of God’s voice in Scripture, is silenced. Therefore, while loath to lose the hermeneutical insight linking reading to community praxis, Vanhoozer argues for authorised canonical practices that guide our reading and help avoid the solipsism of fundamentalism.* Thus, he retrieves the possibility and actuality of error in and by the church (p. 233), yet without thereby cutting loose hermeneutics from tradition. And so, instead of Lindbeck’s postliberal cultural-linguistic theology, Vanhoozer introduces a postconservative canonical-linguistic one.
*Two examples of such canonical, even dominical, practices are figurative readings of Scripture (pp. 220-24) and prayer to the Father (pp. 224-26).

Third: enter playwright, stage left. Just as in the larger theo-drama, the climactic third act of the book sees the author join the action. Unlike the primary performance, however, this is no divine hero-saviour come to set all things right, but merely a theologian. The function of the theologian is instead that of the little-known dramaturge, mediator between script and director.* The theologian as dramaturge is a resource for the company, helping the director in ensuring the script is understood and applied with creative faithfulness, neither parroting nor forgetting previous acts and scenes of the theo-drama.** Performing this task requires both scientia (to read the script with disciplined understanding) and sapientia (to relate it practically to the mundane dramas of quotidian experience); each scores a full chapter.
*The director (or at least assistant director to the Holy Spirit) is the local pastor, mediating the script(ures) to his company of players.
**Faithfulness is thus dramatic fittingness: both to the primary theo-dramatic performance and to the contemporary context of a local production (pp. 256-63).

One example of theology’s sciential function is seeing the doctrine of Trinity as a dramatis personae, a crucial abbreviated guide for an understanding of the canonical script, yet itself arising authentically from a careful scriptural reading.

A key sapiential concept is ‘improvisation’, which, when undertaken by serious actors, is no arbitrary ad-libbing of lines for quick laughs, but a discipline of focussed memory and creative attention that seeks what new thing must be said or done in order to drive forward the action while remaining consistent with the drama thus far. Understood in this way, even God is an improviser: ‘The theo-drama itself develops largely through divine improvisation on a covenant theme…. God overaccepts even human blocking by incorporating it into the broader covenantal comedy.’ (pp. 340-41)

Fourth, the contemporary performance itself takes the spotlight. Again, he shares Lindbeck’s concern for the regulative function of doctrine but wants to based this primarily on canon, not church. More than a collection of true statements about God, doctrine orients performers towards apt action. Here, his ubiquitous (and by this stage more than slightly stretched) metaphor comes into its own in foregrounding the instrumental rather than intrinsic value of the Bible and theology. The goal of both script and direction is to serve the drama: ‘script and performance are equally necessary, though not equally authoritative. Biblical script without ecclesial performance is empty; ecclesial performance without biblical script is blind’ (p. 362). The authority lies with script (Bible); the teleology with performance (praxis); the mediation with direction (theology). Indeed, in yet another self-reflexive moment, Vanhoozer’s theological metaphor-making is at this point executing precisely the task of theology in his allegory: helping us see how the Bible can and must be lived out with creative faithfulness. To illustrate theology in service of praxis, he stages some scenes with the motifs of martyrdom and forgiveness under the direction of atonement.

For an encore, he places creeds, confessions and pastors as, respectively, masterpiece and regional theatre, and assistant directors (under the Holy Spirit): pp. 445-58.


Vanhoozer admits at the outset that the relationship between theologian and thespian has long been frosty, and many readers may feel uneasy about the trapdoors hidden in the floorboards of his metaphor. Before walking out too quickly, however, it’s worth taking a seat and perusing the benefits of admission.

All but the most unreformed modernists recognise the great explanatory power (and canonical basis) of narrative in theological reflection. Drama is a species of narrative, and so retains all its conceptual benefits (e.g. sequence, configuration, characterisation), while adding fruitful modifications, such as a synergy with speech-act theory and a greater potential to get ‘caught up in the action’ through a more permeable barrier between ‘text’ and responder (pp.48-49).

The concept of ‘speech-acts’ helps to disentangle knotty disputes about the relationship of Scripture and tradition through the distinction between locutions (the words used) and illocutions (the actions performed by those words: promising, warning, inviting, asserting). Merely replicating canonical locutions can (and in shifting cultural-linguistic contexts will) result in distorting God’s scriptural illocutions (pp. 126-28). It is the illocutions that tradition seeks to preserve and translate, though it is only these locutions that are authoritative guides to the illocutions (p. 74). The concept of illocution also reveals the limitations of locating our doctrine of Scripture simply under the heading of ‘revelation’, since God does more through it than merely reveal himself (pp. 45, 277).*
*While appreciating the intellectual yield of speech-act theory, some basic narratology would have sharpened his claim that the illocutions of Scripture are God’s (p. 67) by specifying which illocutions are the relevant ones (viz. those of the implied author, though not necessarily of the narrator or every character). Similarly, infelicitous claims about the addressees of Scripture (p. 67) could have also been avoided.

These dramatic (in both senses) benefits notwithstanding, apprehension remains concerning his almost allegorical application of a single metaphor to explain a whole company of concepts. Has theatre become the master key to all theology? He vigorously criticises directors who use a ‘production concept’ to usurp the communicative intent of the authorial script (p. 250); is he, to invoke the Bard, ‘hoist with his own petar[d]’?

Before we jeer this show with cries of ‘hypocrisy’, it is important to note four mitigating factors: (a) the frequency of non-theatrical metaphors and the pivotal roles they play in his cast of images;* (b) the acknowledgement of the necessity of other voices in the theological dialogue (p. 275); (c) the recognisably orthodox account of doctrinal touchstones it yields; and (d) his en route corrections and criticisms of the limitations of his selected metaphor. This final one is worth further comment. Sometimes he corrects one piece of the analogy with another: using ‘improvisation’ to supplement and correct potentially misleading aspects of treating Bible as script. At other times, he debunks commonly misunderstood theatrical realities: improvisation as arbitrary ad-libbing (pp.340-41). Occasionally, he even simply abandons implications of the metaphor: ‘Like other analogies, this one can be pressed too far. To insist that everything in drama must have a theological counterpart runs the risk of turning a simple analogy into a complex allegory.’ (p. 243)
*To spotlight a few: trial (pp. 21-24), epic/lyric (pp. 84-93), fittingness (pp. 108-10), ‘transposition’ (pp. 254), map (pp. 294-99), habits (pp. 374-77), and dieting to be spiritually ‘fit’ (pp. 374-80).

Perhaps it is pressing too far to criticise the implicit activism of the church, whose raison d’être as company of performers is construed in instrumental fashion to the detriment of its intrinsic value as redeemed community (p. 71). Perhaps not.

There is nonetheless a certain messiness to the metaphor as it is pushed and expanded in multiple directions. Like a Shakespearean company with more roles than players, the same faces appear in different guises. God is the playwright, the executive director, and the protagonist (pp. 64, 243). While a robust Trinitarian theology may take this in its three-legged stride, the Bible also (somewhat disconcertingly) makes three appearances: as the authorised memory of the original theo-drama, as an actor in the ongoing performance (p. 35, 48), and as script for that performance (p. 115-241). Christians are alternatively audience then actors, mirroring God’s move from actor to audience (p. 37). Part of the confusion is comprehensible when one keeps in mind there are two performances: the primary theo-drama in five Acts, and a multiplicity of secondary local shows that comprise Act Four (p. 252).

Even so, the characterisation of the Bible remains somewhat unresolved. The Bible as ‘script’ works well in discussions of authority in Part Two, yet becomes cumbersome and is virtually denied by the idea of ‘improvisation’ in Part Three (pp. 307, 335). The ‘script’ doesn’t have all the lines for Act Four (the life of the church) and so its authority is of a particular kind: setting the dramatis personae, plot line, and ultimate resolution in Act Five,* as well as exemplifying previous faithful improvisations (p. 344). The Bible as actor also seems to be a category error (p. 48), unless it is always understood as a shorthand for God’s agency through Scripture as instrument.
*Indeed, much more could have been made of eschatology’s role in bringing a dead performance to life. The weight of the volume was retrospective.
**On this point, N. T. Wright is both Vanhoozer’s source and is clearer: “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?”, Vox Evangelica 21 (1991): 7-32.

The slight ambiguity raised by the frequent personification of Scripture as agentive is compounded by some undifferentiated linguistic parallelism between Christ and the Bible (p. 31, 35, 295). Of course, Scripture as a fourth hypostasis is denied (p. 227),* but John Webster’s careful account of Scripture as a sanctified divine servant is less prone to confusion on this matter (p. 293).
*Does anyone own up to that?

Although it may seem masochistic to accuse such a voluminous volume of sins of omission, the treatment of Scripture’s relationship to Christ also lacked much recognition of the theo-dramatically relative role of Scripture: ‘The only Christ we have is the Christ of the Scriptures.’ (p. 46, emphasis added) Although it is true that even the apostles had ‘the Christ of the [OT] Scriptures’, they also had the Christ of the flesh.* Vanhoozer’s reluctance to get his hands too dirty in the history of canonical formation (pp. 142-43) is echoed in the lack of a detailed theo-dramatic account of how God communicated prior to the completion of the canon.
*And what of the Christ of the pre-(proto?)-scriptural oral traditions?

Those criticisms aside, his theological treatment of Scripture remains a highlight of his approach. Central to his project in Part Two is the claim that sola scriptura is not so much principle as practice (pp. 115, 141, 153). Crucially, this Reformation battle cry was not answering ‘How many sources should one use in doing theology?’ but ‘where can we find the supreme norm by which to measure Christian deeds and Christian doctrine?’ (p. 232). The sufficiency of Scripture is material, rather than formal (p. 156). Vanhoozer’s rich and nuanced account is thus able to acknowledge that tradition and church are valuable, even indispensable aids in the interpretive process, without compromising the irreplaceable and unaugmentable centrality of the Bible in our knowledge of and obedience towards God. The ‘logic of justification’ needn’t follow the ‘logic of discovery’ (p. 165).

Similarly, his recognition of the dangers of generic reductionism is refreshing (pp. 139, 215. 285). Each genre has its own voice (p. 270), its own factual precisions, ways of life and higher order illocutions (pp. 283-87), its own irreducible input to the diverse unity of God’s scriptural communicative act. The canon has ‘an eschatological completeness, differentiated wholeness and plural unity’ (p. 275). As with canon, so with theology: what no single genre can assert (a unique and exclusive possession of the entire truth), no tradition can demand; what each genre can enjoy (a unique and necessary contribution to the apprehension of God’s being and acts), each truly Christian tradition must be granted (p. 275, 422).

This insight promotes his vision of a catholic-evangelical orthodoxy: keeping a definite theo-dramatic centre without denying the genuine and legitimate catholic diversity of contemporary and historic performance (p. 30). In this vision, doctrine divides the right things, rather than Christ’s body, and this, not because theological truth isn’t important, but precisely because it is (pp. 421-26).

Of course, Vanhoozer is not the first theorist to earn an intellectual living making a spectacle of this metaphor in our mise en scène. Even theologians, traditionally slowest off the mark in realising the backdrop has changed, have started rehearsing their lines in preparation for this ‘brave new world that has such people in’t’. Vanhoozer’s novelty lies in attiring the task of doctrine in this fashionable analogy. And not only dramatologists, but also a number of influential voices in contemporary thought make significant cameos: Bakhtin, Derrida, Gadamer, Nussbaum, Wittgenstein. Divers alarums: has he sold out to philosophical trends? Has his great learning driven his orthodoxy mad? This very dynamic is (in line with postmodern orthopraxis) reflected upon in the text. His response is that plundering this particular Egyptian trinket is justified as part of theology’s task of translation, or transposition, of the canonical melody into a contextual key. And of course, as one voice in a dialogue, his contribution suffers critical appreciation and correction.

His eclectic and multi-disciplinary interlocutors enrich his contribution to each of the many academic conversations he joins. However, as already noted, this breadth can occasionally leave him looking sloppy or naïve. In his epistemological discussion (pp. 265-305), he mistakenly assumes foundationalism entails infallibilism (pp. 292, 295), misapprehends the purpose of the web metaphor and so commits a category error in comparing it to his map metaphor (p. 297).* Similarly, his brief reference to photography shows little awareness that the ‘objective’ reputation of photos is as ripe for deconstruction as that of maps (p. 296). His discussion of ‘propositionalism’, presumes an atomistic semantics (pp. 266-78).
*These two metaphors illustrate answers to different questions. The map is an attempt to say something about how knowledge relates to ‘reality’; the web is a picture of how different parts of a worldview relate to each other. Thus, web should be contrasted to foundation, while map should be pitted against the early Wittgenstein’s (indeed Aristotle’s) idea of language ‘picturing’ reality.

Unfortunately, even his specifically theological epistemology confuses the effects of sin with (good) creaturely limitations on our knowledge, and in doing so, obscures the hermeneutics of suspicion behind the hermeneutics of finitude. Human fallenness does not lead to fallibilism as he claims (p. 303),* but to a healthy suspicion of our ability to hide selfish motives, even from our own consciousness.**
*Fallibilism is instead another epistemic implication of being created in embodied socio-cultural particularity. See James K. A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic (Downers Grove, Il.: IVP, 2000).
**For an excellent discussion of this theme, see Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism (New York: Fordham, 1998).


When all’s said and done, Vanhoozer’s (over)long performance is sometimes sloppy, often inspiring, always stimulating. The stars that shine most brightly are the indispensability of canonical authority (or rather Christ's authority through the canon), the urgency of contemporary obedience, the responsibility of conceptual creativity and the possibility of dogmatic relevancy. Four stars.

Free Docos

Some free documentaries. I can't guarantee the quality of all of them, but highly recommend The Corporation and The End of Suburbia (cf. here). H/T Lis.


Yes, I've succumbed. It's all downhill from here.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Before and after

Here are some before and after shots of my tumour for those who might be interested. I suddenly realised I'd never put these up.

Real atheism requires Jesus

From this point [the incarnation] on, true, deliberate atheism becomes possible for the very first time, since, prior to this, without a genuine concept of God, there could be no true atheism.

- Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible, 92.

Atheism is always relative to the god(s) it denies. Christianity is the purest atheism - or almost so. Atheism but for one. And so the truest, most deliberate atheism is only possible once the name of Father, Son, Spirit is revealed in Christ.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Ever feel like this?

I myself was exceedingly astonished as I anxiously reflected how long a time had elapsed since the nineteenth year of my life, when I began to burn with a zeal for wisdom, planning that when I had found it I would abandon all the empty hopes and lying follies of hollow ambitions. And here I was already thirty, and still mucking about in the same mire in a state of indecision, avid to enjoy present fugitive delights which were dispersing my concentration, while I was saying: 'Tomorrow I shall find it; see, it will become perfectly clear, and I shall have no more doubts.'

- Augustine, Confessions VI.xi.18.

Peace in our time

Vision of Humanity have created a Global Peace Index that ranks 121 countries according to their level of 'peacefulness', using a variety of internet and external factors. The full list is here, but the top ten most peaceful countries in the world are:

1. Norway
2. New Zealand
3. Denmark
4. Ireland
5. Japan
6. Finland
7. Sweden
8. Canada
9. Portugal
10. Austria
Australia comes in at #25 and if you're looked for the US, scan down to #96 - between Yemen and Iran. New Zealand would have been #1 but for the orcs.
H/T Alastair for the link, though Matheson was talking about this a couple of days ago.

A parable

NT scholar Ben Witherington has an excellent blog (though I've never got into his self-published novel), and I found this parable quite provocative. I'd love to hear what you think.