Dinky doodlings
21 February 2018 | 7:05 am

I’ve never had an original thought in my life – including the thought that I’ve never had an original thought in my life.

Do you ever feel that something is missing from your life? If you do, you are.

“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Well, Gramsci was half right.

“From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” Stardust, actually.

Lent launches an assault against disordered desire through fasting and prayer: in fasting you pray with your body, in praying you fast with your mind.

Apart from the Bible, theological reflection is propaganda, and apart from theological reflection, the Bible is propaganda.

In criminal law there is GBH, the equivalent of which in theological polemics is DBH (i.e., David Bentley Hart).

What are Charlie Craig and David Mullins doing in the Masterpiece Cakeshop Case? Speaking truth to flour.

As the recent service featuring Andy Savage at Highpoint Church confirms, there is nothing like praise music du jour as an aperitif for the junk food that follows.

I hear that the Vatican is now marketing Donald Trump tee shirts for his fan base. Emblazoned on the front is a picture of the president, encircled by a Latin translation of “Make America Great Again”: Populus Americae Vult Decipi, Ergo Decipiatur.

Imagine Trump with his circle of family and friends worked into a novel by Jane Austen. It would make all his critics’ diatribes look like encomia.

American exceptionalism: some nations may be shitholes, but they are bog-standard shitholes; only the United States is (to re-coin Madeleine Albright’s famous phrase) “the indispensable shithole”.

In an interview at Religion Dispatches, Professor Russell Jeung opines that “the white evangelical church is dead.” “Dead”? Worse than dead: undead.

What has caused the demise of the white evangelical church in the US? The classic hubristic military miscalculation of opening a second front: to their perennial asinine atonement wars, they started a series of mephitic culture wars.

Prayer is not just an inherently political activity, it is an act of resistance and protest. To pray “Thy Kingdom come” on a hassock is truly to take-the-knee.

Who are America’s greatest comic writers? “Self-Reliance” alone puts Ralph Emerson right up there.

There is a word for someone who has been argued into faith: sucker. Because (a) he doubtlessly has failed to detect some rather poor apologetic reasoning, and (b) because even if he hasn’t, whatever he has been argued into, it isn’t faith.

“If we have to use a single word here, it would have to be ‘concreteness’ – their world is vivid, intense, detailed, yet simple, precisely because it is concrete: neither complicated, diluted, nor unified, by abstraction.” That’s Oliver Sacks (in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) describing the world of the “retardate”. Of clinical interest, it is also a perfect fit for Jesus the Идио́т (Idiot) (Dostoevsky).

If you read without a dictionary to hand you insult the author; if you write without a thesaurus at hand you insult yourself. Not to mention you’re a lazy bastard.

Not talking is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being silent; in addition you need the act of humility called listening.

The worst thing about retirement is not that you are no longer necessary, it is the realisation that you never were. And the best thing about retirement? The same as the worst.

I look at my grandchildren, 5 and 2, and of course I want them to be happy, but not too happy and not only happy. I pray also for a seasoning of anger and a soupçon of anguish.

Pity the devil: the loveless bastard is scared to death.

Life makes one promise, and keeps it: Death. God also makes one promise, and keeps it: Jesus.

Pitiable is the person who approaches death saying, “I have had enough”, but blessed is the person who approaches death saying, “I want nothing more.”

Teaching idea: heaven, hell, purgatory
12 February 2018 | 2:53 am

Here’s an idea for a class I’ll be teaching next semester on Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton. What do you think of this hell-purgatory-paradise schema? I wouldn’t aim to impose this rigidly on the texts. But it could be a way of encouraging students to look for broad patterns of continuity in the way these very different authors represent the spiritual order of the universe.

 DANTE
1.     Hell
2.     Purgatory
3.     Paradise (I)
4.     Paradise (II)

SHAKESPEARE
5.     Macbeth – hell
6.     King Lear (I) – purgatory
7.     King Lear (II) – purgatory
8.     The Tempest – paradise

MILTON
9.     Samson Agonistes – purgatory
10.  Paradise Lost (I) – hell
11.  Paradise Lost (II) – paradise
12.  Paradise Lost (III) – purgatory

Some other random observations about the three authors:
  • The use of light and darkness to depict spiritual realities – very important in Shakespeare too (cf. the use of darkness throughout Macbeth).  
  • The relation between visible and invisible realities. This is made doubly interesting in Milton, who draws attention to his own blindness even as he explores the boundary between the visible and the invisible.
  • The feminine principle in depictions of paradise. In Dante and Shakespeare, the love of a woman (Dante’s Beatrice; Cordelia’s love for her father in Lear; the marriage of Miranda to Ferdinand in The Tempest) is the point at which the whole cosmic order is revealed and redeemed. Only in Milton is the redemptive principle purely masculine: woman is not a revelation of cosmic order but more like an obstacle that has to be overcome. (That is an overstatement about Milton, but I think the contrast to Dante and Shakespeare is a real one.)
  • For students looking for an extra challenge, an interesting essay topic would be to compare Blake's illustrations of these three authors. Maybe I'll do a bit of this in class as well. Dante and Milton are especially well suited to Blake's style of illustrating, which is to depict the spiritual sense of the text. Paradoxically, he often finds the spiritual sense by representing words with a scrupulous literalism – a technique that produces some amazing effects in his illustrations of Shakespeare. His painting Pity (pictured above) evokes spiritual reality through a literalistic depiction of a dense cluster of metaphors in Macbeth: "And pity, like a naked new-born babe, / Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubim, horsed / Upon the sightless couriers of the air." 
  • Actually I think I need a whole additional class on Blake's illustrations.

Dingo doodlings
29 December 2017 | 10:00 pm

“What is the chief end of man? To glorify Gold and enjoy it whatever.” (Westchester Shorter Catechism)

So the Pope nods off while praying? No, the Pope prays while nodding off.

Title for a sermon on Galatians 3:27: “The Man Who Took His Christ for a Hat”.

“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” Poor Monsieur Pascal: he had a tin ear for star song and galactic symphonies.

Before I ask a minister whom I don’t know what theologians he reads, I ask him what novels he has read. If he reads novels, I go on to poetry. If he doesn’t read novels, I lose interest in the conversation. Then, for my nightly devotions, I pray for those who listen to his sermons and experience his pastoral care.

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Stevens, the English butler, speaks of “that balance between attentiveness and the illusion of absence that is the essence of good waiting.” Ergo good praying too.

A famous paradigm of the pastor is the “wounded healer”. Shouldn’t that be “healing wounder”? Only truth and love can heal, but both begin with the recoil of hurt and pain.

My dear pastor, ask not how many people you have fixed, rather pray that the number you have broken is few.

The progressive will eventually become an embarrassment, but the reactionary will always be an asshole.

Great bumper sticker: “America First? Matthew 20:16!”

“Patriotic” Americans will make any sacrifice except sacrifice itself.

I feel for those for whom “thoughts and prayers” has become either a mindless mantra or a euphemism for “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition”. But don’t despair. Turn to the Psalms. There you will find the integrity of lament, outrage, and imprecation, the perfect obsecrations for the NRA and its lackey politicians.

Good news for American misogynists: it’s now legal to carry a concealed weapon across state lines – in addition, that is, to the one they’re born with.

The problem with all moral arguments for torture is that they are utilitarian. If they were deontological I would have more respect for them. As O’Brien frankly states in 1984, “The object of torture is torture.”

Ah, if only the roads of social and cultural nostalgia led to Eden. They don’t. They converge on a new Nuremburg.

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. What was cool yesterday is uncool today, and what is uncool today will be cool tomorrow. Likes, Followers, Trending – puffs of smoke! But suggest that I close my Twitter and Facebook accounts – go chase the wind!

Both the fulsome panegyrics for and fulminating diatribes against the Reformation commit the same just-so story fallacy, treating it as the inception rather than the invention of modernity.

When a snake sheds its skin it does not become a post-snake. So too modernity does not become post-modernity when it modernises, it is simply shedding its skin. Modernity is modernising. In its deep grammar, “modernity” is a gerundive.

On November 8th, 2016, they thought they were walking into a voting booth when actually they were marching to the guillotine. The election of Trump has been the decapitation of White American Evangelicalism, with all the squawking, frenzy, and gore you’d expect from a headless fowl.

With a lifetime of trying, I have never found the truth. Occasionally, however, it has bumped into me – and once He ran me over.

God bumps into us when we’re least expecting it, so why on earth should people go to church anticipating an encounter with God? I always go to church with no expectations whatsoever, and I am usually not disappointed. But then ubi et quando Deo visum est – thunder from a clear blue sky.

Psychology (it seems to me) is a sort of meteorology of the self. Epiphanies or traumas – they’re climate change.

If you think it’s hard to be yourself, try not being yourself.

The older I get, the more I am interested in antiquities. Why is that?

I can just about cope with the aches and indignities of aging. It’s the well-meaning concern of others for them that I can’t handle.


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