Wednesday, April 30, 2008

GetTogether for reconciliation

Last night Jessica and I hosted a GetUp GetTogether for reconciliation in our flat. Thirteen people from the local community (only two of whom we'd met before) came along to hear each other's experiences and think about reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, especially as it relates to our local area. This gathering was one of around 350 across the country (see image for locations) organised by GetUp under the theme "From little things, big things grow".*

Quite apart from the content of the discussion (which was surprisingly high quality, given that most of us didn't know each other), I found the evening a fascinating exercise in community building. Again, I was struck by how hospitality is a key part of planting trust. I think it is rare for Sydneysiders (not sure whether this is true of urban Westerners more generally) to have strangers into their home. Sharing our spaces is part of sharing our lives.

Speaking of which, one of the Indigenous Australians who came along invited us all to a follow up event to be held at his local art gallery.

New single released
*From little things, big things grow is also the title of a new single released last week by GetUp in partnership with Paul Kelly, Missy Higgins and many more (and featuring Kevin Rudd). It debuted last week at #4 and you can spend $1.69 to buy it and help it get to #1. You might be able to guess that the idea was partially inspired by "Yes we can". All the lyrics come from Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations and responses made on the day by Indigenous Australians (plus a little at the end from Paul Keating's famous 1992 Redfern speech).
Before someone tries to score points for saying there are only twelve people in the photo, one member of the group had to leave early.

Monday, April 28, 2008

I support McCain least on how silly ethanol subsidies are. However, unlike McCain, I think the whole industry makes little sense. Turning food into fuel seems crazy, not least because almost as much oil-energy is used in the production of ethanol as is gained from the result. And so, by using one-quarter of its corn crop for biofuel last year, the US cut oil consumption by 1%. At the same time, they helped push up global food prices and delay investment in more rational forms of alternative energy.

Perhaps this is one of the biggest differences between Obama (who supports subsidies) and Santos (who didn't).* Oh, apart from the fact that Santos was a fictional character.

Since my (non)-vote in the US presidential election is going to be crucial to the outcome, I thought it was important to share that.
H/T Rev Sam for the image.

*UPDATE: Oops, my memory of West Wing series 6, episode 13: "King corn" was inverted. All three candidates knew how crazy ethanol subsidies are. Santos, the charismatic Democrat from a racial minority (his character was based on Obama years before Obama was a presidential nominee), caves in to pressure to pander to the Iowa corn lobby. Only Vinick, the spry Republican contender, actually makes a stand against it, despite the advice of his staff that it will be politically suicidal.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Why bother? What difference can one person make?

This NY Times article is one of the best pieces I've read in the popular media on the social psychology of sustainable living.

"...what would be the point [of changing my lifestyle to reduce my environmental impact] when I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelgänger in Shanghai or Chongqing who has just bought his first car [...], is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who’s positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I’m struggling no longer to emit. So what exactly would I have to show for all my trouble?"
If you've ever asked, or been asked, the "why bother?" question, this well-written piece from an expert in the field (Michael Pollan) is worth the five minutes it will take to get through it. Make sure you read all four pages; some of the best stuff, about the kinds of actions that make a difference and why, is near the end.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Gospel from Outer Space

Kurt Vonnegut's classic 1969 novel Slaughterhouse 5 is a humorously bleak look at, amongst other things, the firebombing of Dresden and alien abduction. Both are experienced by the text's mentally and temporally unstable protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, and both are equally shocking and inexplicable. The novel's title refers to the building in which Billy, an American POW in Nazi Germany, survived the Allied bombing raid in February 1945 that killed tens of thousands of civilians. Vonnegut was also a US POW who survived the Dresden firestorm in Schlachthaus fünf, though he is not Billy Pilgrim.

Within the novel is a minor character called Kilgore Trout, an undiscovered science-fiction writer, whose ideas are usually better than his prose. Brief plot outlines of his works are scattered throughout Slaughterhouse 5, providing ironic commentary on the characters:

     So Rosewater told [Billy Pilgrim what he was reading]. It was The Gospel from Outer Space, by Kilgore Trout. It was about a visitor from outer space, shaped very much like a Tralfamadorian, by the way [the alien species who abduct Billy once he has returned from the war]. The visitor from outer space made a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel. He concluded that at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of the Gospels, was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low.
     But the Gospels actually taught this:
     Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well connected. So it goes.

The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn't look like much, was actually the Son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought, and Rosewater read out loud again:
     Oh boy – they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!
     And that thought had a brother: 'There are right people to lynch.' Who? People not well connected. So it goes.

The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had. He still got to say all the lovely and puzzling things he said in the other Gospels.
     So the people amused themselves one day by nailing him to a cross and planting the cross in the ground. There couldn't possibly be any repercussions, the lynchers thought. The reader would have to think that, too, since the new Gospel hammered home again and again what a nobody Jesus was.
     And then, just before the nobody died, the heavens opened up, and there was thunder and lightning. The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of The Son of the the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity. God said this: From this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!

If Jesus had a blog and other links

If Jesus had a blog. H/T Kyle.

MPJ on why we don't need to tell teenagers they suck.

Kim on management theory (or why Jesus needs a blog).

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The use and limits of the law

"It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important."

- Martin Luther King

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Marriage and surnames

Whether a wife takes her husband's surname or keeps the one she grew up with is a cause of some stress in more than a few relationships, particularly where one party assumes the answer is obvious. Every option seems to have problems. The traditional move (wife taking the husband's surname) systematically distances wives from their parents. To reverse the precedence (husband takes wife's surname) merely inverts the direction of the sexism (though this is probably to be preferred, all things considered). The modern tendency (both spouses keep their original surname) can imply that the birth family is more important than the new marriage, and runs into further problems if and when children are born. Double-barreled surnames seem like a good solution, but my hunch is that this just postpones the issue for a generation; what happens when two people who already have double-barreled surnames marry? Taking an entirely new surname is possible, though loses the connection to both families of origin and has overtones of voluntarism (I create my own identity in an act of will). Merging two surnames to generate a new one will only work very occasionally.

So here is my solution. During the wedding service, perhaps just after signing the register and before the new couple are presented to the congregation and walk out, the minister or celebrant performs a ceremonial coin toss. No best of three. No appeals to a third umpire. No one knows beforehand who they will walk out as. It gets decided once and for all by the coin and the couple and both families live with it. Neither family is unfairly discriminated against. Any children can have the same surname as both parents. A perfect solution?
I don't usually include photos of people without getting their permission first. This time I didn't and I apologise to M&J in advance if this is a problem.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Virtual spaces: loving our neighbour in web discussion

A guest post by Michael Paget
I've been reading a lot of blogs recently. I'm not a blogger. I don't have the confidence of my opinions, or the brevity of expression, to put my thoughts in the public space. Of course, there are benefits to being a passive observer, with all that entails about 20-20 (in/hind)sight. Recently, I've been passively observing some online disagreements about creation science, on a variety of blogs and discussion forums. And it's left me wondering: what is the shape of love for the weaker brother or sister in online debate? I'm going to argue that it has more to do with more than just how we debate, but also whether we should debate at all.

In the 1960s, Edward Hall developed a spatial theory of relationships, culture and communication. He proposed 4 spaces which we use to develop personality, culture and communication. Public (12 ft +), social (4-12 ft), personal (18" - 4 ft) and intimate (0 - 18").

Some kinds of communication are better suited to one space than another. The space described by web forums is a kind of public space which is de-personalised by the absence of face-to-face contact. When we dialogue online, we express ourselves not only publicly, but also without the benefit of being confronted with each other's humanity. The stakes are heightened, because our discussion is exposed, rather than intimate. But the normal factors of interpersonal contact which provide restraint, especially in the intensity of a theological discussion, are absent.

At the same time, some people are more competent in one space than another. I have a friend whose writing is just marvellous. He is warm, witty and conversational. Yet in person, he is awkward, uncomfortable, almost fractious. I have no idea how he relates intimately. A great many people find it extremely hard to function well in the public, unrestrained, de-personalised and semi-anonymous context of the web. The internet is in many ways a great blessing; however, it is also a highly unusual environment, which places new and unfamiliar strains on relational behaviour.

I suspect that the social context - in particular, the unavoidably human and personal presence of the Other - in which we, as humans, are designed to operate, is particularly important for some people. Some of our brothers and sisters - some of us - simply do not function well in the online space. And I suspect that the proportion of us who are affected adversely by this environment is much higher than we will readily admit. Apart from the regulative pressure of true sociality, we present as far less socially capable, generous or gentle than we are in our more frequented 'spaces'.

A new application of care for weaker brethren may be called for. We need to recognise that 'weakness' is spatially dependent. Perhaps, then, we would do well to consider when and how we introduce certain issues, or engage with certain people, online. More discussion boards would be password-accessible only. Fewer blogs would allow anonymous commenting. In effect, we would only be doing to discussion what we already do to films and TV - restrict it to those able to process and engage healthily.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The non-Barthian Barth

There is – amid the complete dissimilarity of divine and non-divine - a similarity between the eternal Word of God and the world created by this Word, but also and still more a similarity between the eternal, natural, only-begotten Son and those who are through Him God's adopted sons, who by grace are His children. In this similarity between Him and us we recognise the possibility of the revelation of God.

- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, 34.

It seems here as though Barth concedes the main point of contention between himself and Emil Brunner in their debate over natural theology. Of course, Barth has just spent the last twenty or so pages arguing that it is only possible to "see" this possibility based on the prior reality of God's gracious initiative.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Individualism as a herd mentality

Why should we in Australia reduce our emissions when China and India are so much bigger? Why should I avoid littering/speeding/wasteful consumption when everyone else does it and I can nearly always get away with it? Why should I be honest on my tax return when much bigger incomes are dishonest? What can one person do?

Individualism as a way of life inculcates a stunted imagination. I lose the capacity to see myself as one of many, as a member of a body. By limiting my sphere of influence and responsibility to myself, social issues become insurmountable, or at least endlessly deferrable as "someone else's problem". But where everyone lives for him or herself, everyone loses.

The church as the body of Christ, the household of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit is a real taste of salvation from the echo-chamber of a life lived curved in upon itself. I discover how much more spacious life is when I stretch out in loving openness to my neighbour. I find in them the image of God, the Breath of life, a brother or sister for whom Christ died. I no longer live and die for myself.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Loving meat: why I am a vegetarian (almost)

"Better a meal of vegetables where there is love
    than a fattened calf with hatred."         - Proverbs 15.17
A vegetarian friend used to quote this proverb in support of her practice. I would then gleefully point out that the proverb assumes the superiority of meat to vegetables in order to make its point, namely, that the superiority of love over hatred is even greater. Nonetheless, over the last year or so, and particularly in the last few months, this proverb lies at the heart of why I have become an (almost) vegetarian (technically, a semi-vegetarian or flexitarian).

Our planet produces an abundance of food, enough to feed over ten billion people, according to some estimates. Yet we are in the middle of a food crisis, with wheat prices more than doubling in the last twelve months and other grain prices not far behind, leading to riots and political unrest amongst many poorer nations. If we are growing so much (and last year broke all records for maximum production), where does the food go? Increasingly, much of it is turned into biofuels so that first-world drivers (and governments) can feel less guilty about our energy-intense lifestyles. The corn used to generate one large petrol tank of ethanol-based fuel would feed a person for a year. Nonetheless, biofuels, although growing rapidly, still take only about 5% of the world's grain production.

So why are we short of food? One major reason is because we eat so much meat. To produce one kilogram of beef, it takes around eight kilograms of grain.* Chickens have a better ratio, but whatever your fancy, it still takes more energy to produce meat than other kinds of food. This article summarises a number of the key statistics and links them to current food prices (H/T Nicole), as does this one and this one and this one. The bottom line is that the western meat-based diet (and its increasing emulation by China and India) is helping push those on the edge of poverty into malnutrition. There is indeed plenty to go around, but our opulent lifestyle consumes so much that others cannot afford even the basics.
*This is also an issue of water management. To produce a kilo of wheat takes between 1-2,000 litres of water; a kilo of beef takes between 10,000-13,000 litres.

So can we, out of love for our neighbour, reduce our consumption of meat? I think it both possible and desirable, and now try to avoid buying or consuming it wherever possible. This is not to say that eating meat per se is wrong (though certainly there is much mistreatment of animals in our current system - another genuine moral issue, though a discussion for another time). On the contrary, I give thanks for meat as a good gift of God, but I am trying to regard it as an occasional luxury rather than a staple. There used to be a slogan "Live simply so that others can simply live"; I think we can also say "Eat simply so that others can simply eat". Better a meal of vegetables for everyone than a fattened calf for some while others go hungry.

PS This article puts some of the concerns well.

PPS I note there is also a Wikipedia article summarising some of the concerns.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A prayer of Luther

"May Christ our dear God and the Bishop of our souls, which he has bought with his own precious blood, sustain his little flock by the might of his own word, that it may increase and grow in grace and knowledge and faith in him. May he comfort and strengthen it, that it may be firm and steadfast against all the crafts and assaults of Satan and this wicked world, and may he hear its hearty groaning and anxious waiting and longing for the joyful day of his glorious and blessed coming and appearing. May there be an end of this murderous pricking and biting of the heel, of horrible poisonous serpents. And may there come finally the revelation of the glorious liberty and blessedness of the children of God, for which they wait and hope in patience. To which all those who love the appearing of Christ our life will say from the heart, Amen, Amen."

- Martin Luther, W.A. 474f. (cited in Barth, CD I/2, xi).

Thursday, April 10, 2008

"In my Father's house": further reflections on John 14

A few weeks ago, I said I would post some thoughts on the following teaching of Jesus:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.                      - John 14.1-4
Having discussed Wright's reading of this famous passage in my introductory remarks, I'd like to tentatively offer a suggestion of my own. Where does God dwell? Heaven? The Temple? In Christ? The new heavens and earth? Yes, these are all true (in different senses), yet just a few verses later, another "location" is discussed.
Jesus replied, "Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them."

- John 14.23

Jesus speaks of coming with the Father to those who love and obey him and making their home with them. "My Father's house" might therefore be a reference to the indwelling divine presence amongst the loving and obedient community of disciples. How is this achieved? Through the sending of the Spirit of truth – the Paraclete ("Advocate", or perhaps "Helper"): 
"If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him because he abides with you, and he will be in [or "amongst"] you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you."

- John 14.15-18

Thus, before we get to verse 23, if we were to ask where the Father "dwells" (what is his "house"), while the Jews might have said "the Temple", Jesus would have said "in me!" (14.10; cf. 2.19-21). The Father dwells in Jesus, and Jesus in the Father. In verse 23 we get a new movement: by the Spirit, both Father and Son dwell in the disciples (14.23), and so this community is also the home of God. Of course, the whole sequence can also be reversed: the disciples dwell in Jesus (by keeping his new commandment of love), and Jesus dwells in the Father.

Thus, could it be that the preparatory departure of which Jesus speaks in verses 2-3 is his death (and/or ascension), and that the return mentioned in verse 3 is not what is usually called "the second coming" (cf. John 21.22?) but is the arrival of the Spirit? If Jesus "goes" to the Father (verses 5-6), he (along with the Father) "returns" to his disciples through the presence of the Spirit. In the light of 14.23, if we ask where the post-Easter Jesus is, it seems he (and the Father) are with those who love him. Therefore, there are "many rooms" to his Father's "house" because there are many who do and will love Jesus. This is meant to be reassuring to the disciples: there is plenty of "room" in the church, always more space in the community of those who love and obey Jesus.

And what does it mean for the disciples to receive the Spirit of truth? On the one hand, it means a continuation of their love for Jesus by obeying his new commandment to love one another (John 13.34-35). On the other hand, it means that Jesus and the Father are not absent from the community. The disciples are not left as "orphans" because Jesus' Father becomes their Father (cf. 20.17), and neither Jesus nor his Father are absent from a community guided by the Spirit of truth into the love shared between the Son and Father. This will be how Jesus reveals himself to the disciples (though not to the world: v.22): through the very "ordinary" (though actually totally divine) experience of love. If they love one another, then this experience of community is itself the proof and the taste of being included in the divine life of self-giving love. They have been welcomed into the Father's house when they welcome one another in love. They know that Father, Son and Spirit are with and in them when they are with and in one another. And this, unsurprisingly, is where Jesus then goes in chapter 15.

In sum, I am convinced that John 14 doesn't teach the common Christian misconception of going-to-heaven-when-you-die in any straightforward sense (for more on this, see my earlier series). Jesus is reassuring his disciples that the impending violence, betrayal, confusion and bereavement of the next few hours will not leave them at a loss. Though Jesus is going, the Spirit is coming, and with him the common life of love with Jesus experienced by the disciples will continue.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Stealing sermons?

Immature poets immitate. Mature poets steal.

- T. S. Eliot, "The Sacred Wood"

Every artist is a cannibal.
Every poet is a thief.
All kill their inspiration,
Then sing about their grief.

- Bono, The Fly

Do you think there is anything wrong with preaching a sermon that someone else wrote? What about preaching a famous historical sermon (perhaps giving a little context where necessary)? In both cases, I am assuming the preacher gives due credit.*
*Though even this concession makes me wonder how much preaching is about building a reputation.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Theology from a human point of view

"...[I]n practice, both secular and religious attempts to speak of a moral universe commonly work as strategies for responding consistently and intelligibly to the world's complexity rather than as exhaustive interpretations; which suggests that we can read the religious account as claiming that it is in learning to respond to our ultimate origins and 'calling' that we learn to respond truthfully or adequately to the world. To say that a religious discourse is 'about' the whole moral universe may be simply to say that it offers a sufficient imaginative resource for confronting the entire range of human complexity without evasion or untruthfulness; only when divorced from this context of a kind of imaginative skill does religious discourse fall into the trap of pretending to be a comprehensive system for plotting, connecting, 'fixing' and exhaustively accounting for the range of human behaviour. In other words, religious and theological integrity is possible as and when discourse about God declines the attempt to take God's point of view (i.e. a 'total perspective')."

- Rowan Williams, "Theological Integrity" in On Christian Theology, 6.

What do you think Williams has in his sights here? Who is guilty of giving up on theology as "a kind of imaginative skill" and moving into trying to establish "a comprehensive system"?

Our knowledge of ourselves, our world and God can only be from a human, creaturely perspective. The temptation to be "like God" in our knowledge of the universe arises from a fundamental mistake about what it means to be us. Even where God reveals himself in Christ, we are still given human-shaped knowledge of God. This is not to say that we have inadequate knowledge, or only a rough sketch. Jesus said "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father" (John 14.9). A faithful human response to the call of God is not merely a second-best option, all that is left to us lesser beings. On the contrary, the humility and responsiveness required of us is a reflection of the humility and responsiveness found in the heart of God manifest in Christ.

Monday, April 07, 2008

April points table

March's points table was dominated by a huge 219 point run from Moffitt the Prophet, all achieved in the first half of the month, smashing the previous record (at least since I've been keeping count each month). The second half of March saw something of a comeback from long-time leader Anthony, who responded once he saw his formidable lead being whittled away. Overall, March managed to squeeze past July 2007 for the highest points scored in a single month with a total of 329. As usual, the top four get some bonus points: ten to Moffitt, five to Anthony, three to Peter J and one to H. Goldsmith. There are still around 534 points on offer.

April points table

34: H. Goldsmith
11: Jonathan
5: Moffitt the Prophet
1: Anthony
Ten points for the first to correctly guess what this is. Fifteen for the location. No one individual is to answer both.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Environmentalism will ruin our economy

I agree with Colin Power. All this talk of renewable energy is a disgrace when there is so much coal left to burn.