Thursday, December 29, 2011

studying inside


Yesterday I was tidying up the mounds of paper from my last semester and came across a forgotten note I had scribbled over a month ago.  It was a reminder to check out an article by C.S. Lewis that one of my professors had  mentioned.  I googled the key phrase and Lewis' name, and came across a lucid piece of writing that addressed the issue I run into all the time when studying theology:  is it better to study something from the inside (which makes one prone to bias and narrow thinking) or to look at it critically from the outside (which is more objective but lacks immediacy)? 

This is an especially pertinent question for me right now because I will be teaching a course this term on Christian Spirituality.  I want to invite students to investigate the people we are studying and to become invested in their lives to some extent.  Yet I need them to engage in critical analysis and good research practices.  Lewis, in his signature accessible and analogical manner, insists that we weave both approaches together, forging a learning method that acknowledges both the inside and outside aspects, or as he calls them, "looking along" and "looking at." 

Here are a few quotes from the article:

It has been assumed without discussion that if you want the true account of religion you must go, not to religious people, but to anthropologists; that if you want the true account of sexual love you must go, not to lovers, but to psychologists; that if you want to understand some “ideology” (such as medieval chivalry or the nineteenth-century idea of a “gentleman”), you must listen not to those who lived inside it, but to sociologists.

A physiologist, for example, can study pain and find out that it “is” (whatever is means)
such and such neural events. But the word pain would have no meaning for him unless he had “been inside” by actually suffering. If he had never looked along pain he simply wouldn't know what he was looking at. The very subject for his inquiries from outside exists for him only because he has, at least once, been inside.

But it is perfectly easy to go on all your life giving explanations of religion, love, morality, honour, and the like, without having been inside any of them. And if you do that, you are simply playing with counters. You go on explaining a thing without knowing what it is. That is why a great deal of contemporary thought is, strictly speaking, thought about nothing - all the apparatus of thought busily working in a vacuum.

Lewis also addressed the fallacy that one can actually be totally subjective:  ...you can step outside one experience only by stepping inside another. Therefore, if all inside experiences are misleading, we are always misled. The cerebral physiologist may say, if he chooses, that the mathematician's thought is “only” tiny physical movements of the grey matter. But then what about the cerebral physiologist's own thought at that very moment? A second physiologist, looking at it, could pronounce it also to be only tiny physical movements in the first physiologist's skull. Where is the rot to end? The answer is that we must never allow the rot to begin. We must, on pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along. One must look both along and at everything.

Lewis' example of studying suffering is beautiful and very appropriate.  How can one really speak knowledgeably about pain unless one has been inside it?  How can we purport to be experts on any subject that we have kept our distance from?  I have always believed that I can only truly learn from or about a subject if I love it.  If there is no love, I will put up barriers between us, and that will impede my learning.  Yes, much can be learned by taking an objective look at something from an outside perspective.  But this knowledge will always be incomplete without venturing inside, even if just for a moment.  The word "incarnation" comes to mind. 

Here is the C.S. Lewis article in its entirety:  Meditation in a Toolshed     

the photo:  taken from a speeding car while driving through Manitoba one morning in December.  Colorization effect added (because it reminded me of van Gogh).

Saturday, December 24, 2011

'twas the night before...


It is the night before Christmas.
I have the jitters.
Mid-torso butterflies,
spurts of adrenaline that make my heart beat faster.
I hold my breath without meaning to.  1......2.....3......4 (exhale)

I am 10.
I have hand-picked a small brown doll with eyes that shut when she sleeps
and wrapped it carefully in newspaper for my sister.
My fingertips are still inky from the exercise -
hiding the gift in smudged paper
in order to more splendidly reveal my timid, thoughtful attempt at generosity.
Will she love it as much as I want her to?
Will I have brought her joy
not only for a few moments
but for days and weeks to come?
I wait for her to pull open the grimy paper and get a peek inside.  1......2......3......4 (exhale)

Anticipation.
The knowledge that something is about to happen.
Something exciting
and definitely good
but unpredictable and maybe a teensy bit messy
because somehow it will change my world
in ways I can't quite imagine.
To become better than it was before, yes always better
but more complicated, too.
I am waiting for something to appear. 1......2......3......4 (exhale)

I was 10.
I remember knowing more about wholehearted giving than I do now:
more about anticipating without fear
more about receiving with joy and wonder
I remember unwavering belief that givers were good and dependable.
I remember caring for my gifts with tenderness:
eating with them
carrying them in my pockets
sleeping with them
dressing them in makeshift clothes
kissing them
because they belonged to me.
They were mine.
And I loved them.
I think even before I opened a single box or unwrapped a single present
I already loved them.
I was just waiting for them to appear.  1......2.......3......4 (exhale)

Jesus.
Humble Jesus.
In inky, smudgy, wrapping paper.
Waiting to appear.
Waiting to be recognised.
Will I love him as much as he wants me to?

the photo:  a box of my favourite tea wrapped in newspaper.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

things I want to learn...


In the past few weeks, a few situations have arisen that have caused me to feel frustrated, to be annoyed, to be torn about which way to go.  What this signals to me is that I have something to learn in these areas and the lessons are starting NOW!  The wonderful part of all these hard lessons is that in the middle of them, some understanding, some teaching, and some helpful insights always come along.  Kind of serendipitous how that always seems to happen when you need it.  In case you are taking the same life lessons that I am in the middle of, let me share some of them with you.

1.  WHEN TO SPEAK OR WRITE:  I thought I knew how to write a paper, but I found myself in a bit of a rush with the last paper I had due this past term and made one big error:  I started to write having only finished half of my research.  The result was a messy conglomeration of 10 pages that wandered here and there, saying a bit of this and a bit of that, but not really saying anything coherently.  Ugh.  I realised that I needed to stop writing and took a day to go over all the sources I had not yet looked at, a day that I thought I really could not afford to take. But I did, and after that I was able to write much  more quickly.  I had a clear idea of what I wanted to say, and was able to cut, paste, and edit the mess into a good introduction and first point.  The Lesson:  always take time to listen, read, be informed, get the whole story before speaking or writing.  There is never NOT enough time to be thorough.

2.  IN TIME:  I get annoyed at people who are late.  Not that I am never late myself, but I try to always be where I said I would be at the time I said I would be there.  Walking in late, to me, is disrespectful and an indication that I believe my agenda is more important than anyone else's.  Being late is asking other people to be inconvenienced so that I need not be.  Faithfulness is a really big deal to me, and that's a good thing, but this annoyance is ungracious when it surfaces, and is an indication that there is something I need to learn here.  In general, I believe there is something that we as followers of Jesus don't get regarding time.  For the most part, we simply adopt the values and attitudes of the culture around us and never think what it means to view time according to God.  While I was thinking about how we can go about aligning our times to God's times, one of my profs sent me the info for a new book coming out:  Crafting a Rule of Life: An Invitation to Well-Ordered Way by Stephen Macchia.

Here is a paragraph describing the book:  "All of us have an unwritten personal rule of life. We wake at certain times, get ready for our days in particular ways, use our free time for assorted purposes and practice rhythms of work, hobbies, and worship. There is already a rule in place that you are following. Isn’t it time to give up your unwritten rule and prayerfully write one that more closely matches the heartbeat of God?"  Yes, please.  I will be ordering this book.  The Lesson:  there IS a way to line our times up with the times and seasons of God.  Teach me, O Lord.

3.  HEY MATTE, CAN YOU????  I get frequent requests to help others out in various ways: it could be listening to someone tell me their problems, connecting with friends new and old, hosting house-guests, providing food or gifts or skills, or participating in a project.  For the most part, I am happy to assist.  But lately, the requests have come thicker and my time and energy is thinner.  Just when I was beginning to feel conflicted about not spending enough time with the people who come across my path, or being a good hostess, I came across this post by a fellow introvert.  It helped me put things in perspective and realise that the small, hidden, private, pondering, silent things I do have a lot of value and should not necessarily be shuffled aside for the larger, more public demands.  Here is the link to: 10 Myths About Introverts.   The one quote I really like is this:  "A world without Introverts would be a world with few scientists, musicians, artists, poets, filmmakers, doctors, mathematicians, writers, and philosophers."  The Lesson:  nourish my gifts/skills and take the time to develop them.  Invite people into my life as God directs me, and do not neglect the gift which God has placed in me.  Through it, I can love and serve him and others best!

the photo:  my new office where most of my research, pondering, and writing happens.  Thanks to Dean for helping me set it up. I love it!
     

Thursday, December 15, 2011

done!


I finished writing the last of my essays for the term this afternoon at 1:30 pm.  Somehow, it all got done.  Yes, there were quite a few 12+ hour days of writing and research in the last week, days when my eyes were so tired that they stung.  Perhaps I was forgetting to blink.  Whatever the case, I am "off" for a few weeks.  "Off" means that I read fiction instead of theology (except for 2 books I need to get a head start on for my next reading course), annoy Dean by hanging out with him ALL the time instead of hardly at all, go to some movies (I don't remember the last one we saw??), and stare out the window just because I can.

In case you are interested (but mostly because they are still really fresh in my mind), the two papers I just finished were called:  "The Task of Theology after Modernity: John D. Caputo on Reclaiming the Madness" and "A Perspective on Narrative Theology: Its Purpose, Particularity, and Centrality."  I know!  Very exciting!  Here are some quotes.  Unless cited, the words are my own.

The Madness Essay:

Regarding the madness of excess as found in the gospel of JesusWhat is mad about this type of excess is its sheer disregard for sustainability.  Excess as a diversion is something that we are all familiar with, but as a way of life we identify it with foolishness and irresponsibility, bound to end in disaster.  Worldly-wise people know the pitfalls associated with excessive behaviour.  The assumption of sustainability is that we are working with limited resources, but when it comes to the kingdom of God, concepts such as limited resources and probable outcomes must be put aside to accommodate occasions of lavish generosity and possible impossibilities.  If we look at excess as a way of interrupting the closed economics of a self-sufficient world, it becomes a descriptor of redemption and an invitation to hope and anticipation.

On deconstruction in theology:  One of the prime purposes of deconstruction, according to Caputo, is to prepare the way for constructive rebuilding.  This process, he proposes, begins with honesty: “If we could admit how bad things are, that would be the beginning of something good, of a kind of radical honesty with ourselves. … To confess the wounded, fractured condition of our lives – that is who we are!  And that would be the beginning of wisdom in deconstruction, of something good.” (John D. Caputo, After the Death of God, 128)  It is interesting to note that Caputo is very taken with this notion of “good.”  According to him, the declaration of the creator God in Genesis that “it is good” carries a promise, issues a verdict, and contains a contract (John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God, see specifically chapter 3, “The Beautiful Risk of Creation.”) Goodness is what this world is called to.  This goodness, this pursuit of wholeness, is what the madness of Christianity must never forget.  And perhaps the first step in responding to God’s call to be “good” is to humbly and honestly admit that things are not good.

The conclusion:  Lowe puts his finger on the issue when he identifies the madness as not only a distinguishing mark, but a wound.  A brand, if you will.  Something that cannot be removed.  A constant, perhaps even painful reminder that theology is not its own.  If Christianity, and by association, theology, is not marked by this madness that is characteristic of the kingdom, then I would suggest that we have to some extent lost our way.  As Lowe states, theology then “ceases to be a calling, becoming mere adornment.” (Walter Lowe, "Modern Theology," 618)

The Narrative Essay:

On whether narratives are universal or particular (is there one overarching story or many smaller stories?):  In the matter of universality versus particularity, I would position the universal story firmly in the mind of God.  By doing so, I am also placing it outside the realm of human understanding.  My reasoning is that from our standpoint as temporal and limited human beings, we are not capable of comprehending a universal story.  Nevertheless, I concede (as an act of faith) that one does exist.  I also acknowledge that we as human beings continue to search for coherence in our existence, which is in essence grasping for a metanarrative. However, I believe that longing for a metanarrative should not be confused with fabricating one.  We can only know in part.  The task of narrative theology, then, is to tell the particular stories that are part of the big story, and to do so with careful attention and compassion.

Regarding the complexity of Scripture:  "One virtue of Scripture in all its complexity is its ability to convey both confidence in the meaning of the history into which we find ourselves thrown, and a humility that does not cut short the search for knowledge or lead to passive resignation in the face of the challenges we face, but nourishes both exigencies to know and to act more fully and authentically, despite all that we cannot know as long as we see through a mirror dimly."  (Ashley, "Reading the Universe Story," 901)

On the openness of narrative: "Poetic metaphor and narrative rejoices in ambiguity and the opening up of multiple meaning; doctrine will always seek to reduce to concepts the images and stories upon which it draws including those within its own Scripture.  Literature emphasizes the playful freedom of imagination, while doctrine aims to create a consistent and coherent system of thought, putting into concepts the wholeness of reality that imagination is feeling after."  (Paul Fiddes, "Concept, Image and Story in Systematic Theology," 8-9)

The conclusion:  Part of the beauty of narrative is its ability to absorb all types of characters into a deeper meaning.  Though I firmly believe that the grand story can be fully appreciated and identified only by the divine author, the authenticity of distinct narratives can be verified through common human experience and critical methods of interpretation.  In this way, our particular, fragmented stories become part of a larger whole, carrying hope and wholeness even while they are broken and incomplete in many ways.  Narrative and metaphorical language are at the heart of how we interpret our human experience.  Stories are how we first learn to understand ourselves and our world as children.  However, story does not stand alone in the realm of meaning.  It engages in active and vibrant dialogue with other forms of knowledge and interpretation, always open and unfinished.  Narrative theology done well will not capture the story of God, but it should serve to draw us into God.

I love the largeness of thinking about God!  Maybe I should teach a course on imaginative theology!  Or just take a break for a few days.  Enjoy!

the photo:  taken on a trip back to Manitoba in 2006, played with the saturation of the blues today.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

the little


It is nearing the end of the term and I have finally finished all my classes and completed all my teaching assistant obligations.  Phew!  However, I still have two major papers to hand in and due to early vacation dates this year, I only have 9 days left to complete them.  At this point, one of them is about half done and the other one is still in the embryo stage.  These are 20-page research papers that need to reflect a doctoral level of knowledge of and engagement with the topics I have chosen.  I am not a fast writer in the first place (it usually takes me at least an hour to write one of these blogs because the initial ideas are rough and require thoughtful editing and expansion), but the extra care with which I am writing these essays means that an already slow process is even slower.  And around this time there are a lot of activities going on (parties), meetings that I have to plan and attend, not to mention Christmas preparations, and - oh yes - random house guests that contact me at the last minute and want to spend a few nights! 

If I do the calculations, based on my current writing speed, it seems obvious that I will run out of days before I get all the words on paper.  What do I do?  Skip all the Christmas parties?  Neglect friends and family and Christmas preparations?  Work late into the night every night?  Start drinking Red Bull?  Panic? 

This morning I was understandably feeling a bit overwhelmed about the amount of work to be completed in the next week and a half.  The reading today was from 2 Kings 4.  It is the story of a widow in debt.  In such a great debt that they are threatening to come and take her children from her to sell them as slaves.  She called Elisha the prophet of God to help her.  He asks her, "What do you have?"  She replies, "Nothing.  I have nothing."  Small pause.  "Well, I have a little oil."  So Elisha tells her to gather all the jars she can from friends and neighbours and start pouring.  She does what he tells her to do and the oil just keeps coming until every last jar is full and then it stops.  The money from selling all the oil was enough to pay her debts and support her family for the foreseeable future.

So the question is, "What do I have?"  Well, I have a little bit of time.  I have a little idea of what I want to say.  I have a little research done.  I have a little bit written.  Lots of "littles."  But that seems to be enough in God's economy. I will take what little I have and starting pouring it into my essays and not stop until the last page is done. 

the photo: a little bit of olive oil I have in my cupboard.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

book review: The Silent Years


The Silent Years: Jesus from Birth to Beatitude by Alan Green.  154 pages.  ebook version.

This book is advertised as a "progressive Christmas novel" and heralded by some learned readers (academics) as an "imaginative reconstruction" of the first thirty years of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  The author has concocted a tale told by Yeshua's uncle, Benaiah, by incorporating knowledge of the historical Mediterranean world (Green has a Ph.D. in History) and fusing this with loose interpretations of biblical passages.

I wanted to like the book.  I really did.  Having read Anne Rice's inspiring, fictionalized accounts of the early life of Jesus (Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt and Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana), I was expecting more of the same:  meticulous research, historical authenticity, believable narratives, insightful portrayal of biblical characters, and an invitation to lose oneself in a cohesive world imaginatively created by the author.  It was not to be. 

Just as a well-made garment does not draw attention to its seams, so a well-written book does not let its mechanics (whether they are brilliant or awkward) upstage the tale. While reading, I noticed a few typos, several grammatical errors, some inconsistent spelling of names (Maryam at times becomes Miryam), and some lack of consistency in the storyline.  One example of this inconsistency is in regard to Yeshua's Nazirite vow which does not allow him to come in contact with the dead.  Yeshua helps bury some unfortunate crucified protestors without much comment from the author.  However, Green writes in a huge outcry from the family when Yeshua wants to help prepare his recently deceased father for burial.  Did I miss something?  When I see small errors such as these, it alerts me that all might not be well. 

While some might appreciate the "progressive" nature of recasting Jesus as a revolutionary, underground quasi-political leader who organized the first fishermen's collective in order to better distribute food and wealth, it fell flat for me.  So much of the biblical narrative has been reworked that, in my opinion, it comes off as somewhat of a messy patchwork with no clear purpose.  Timelines are adjusted, entire scenarios omitted, characters reinvented, events rewritten, and a lot of stories mashed together to form a reinterpreted motivation for Yeshua's life.  I have no problem with Green doing all of this, but for what purpose?

Perhaps the most significant omission is the presence of divinity in the character of Yeshua.  He is human like everyone else, has faults like his followers, and admits to thinking murderous thoughts.  He undergoes a mystical experience with a mysterious Light which becomes his own point of  transformation and serves as a model for others to imitate. In fact, he becomes the model human for others to emulate.

The question I kept asking myself as I read was this: "Why is Green writing this story?"  My best guess is that he is trying to tell a first century story that will appeal to a 21st century audience.  In contrast to Rice's books which immerse the reader in a carefully crafted world of another time and place, Green's book seems to snap back and forth between his version of the New Testament world and modern sensibilities.  Mary Magdalene undergoes what appears to be a modern psychotherapy session of self-discovery.  Yeshua institutes a centre which fights for women's rights and in one scene, he serves as a mediator in a counseling session between two disciples who don't get along. The language leans toward 21st century spirituality with the Light, the Music, and the inner voice becoming driving forces for his ministry.   

Troublesome also are the extended monologues by Yeshua (41 pages) and Mary (21 pages) which prove to be cumbersome writing tools no doubt meant to deliver a lot of information to the reader in a short amount of time.  They pretty much defeat the first person voice the book began with.  Yeshua poses a question to his uncle in the middle of one of these lengthy speeches: "I've been going on for such a long time!  Are you tired?" (92).  I found myself replying Yes. Yes, I am.

Well, this review has turned out more negative than I meant it to be, so let me close with this.  Some of the historical settings and backgrounds are interesting and informative.  Thanks for those, Alan Green. 

the photo:  paper clips in my office, only a few feet away from where I read the book on my computer.