Rev. Ole and Pastor Sven

 Rev. Ole was the pastor of the local Norwegian Lutheran Church, and Pastor Sven was the minister of the Swedish Covenant Church across the road. 

One day they were both standing by the road, pounding a sign into the ground, which read:

“Da End iss Near! Turn Yourself Aroundt Now Before It’s Too Late!”

As a car sped past them, the driver leaned out his window and yelled, “Leave us alone, you religious nuts!”

A few moment later, there was the sound of screeching tires and a big splash.

Rev. Ole turns to Pastor Sven and asks, 

“Do ya tink maybe da sign should yust say ‘Bridge Out’?”

How to cure a fanatic

amosoz1A friend passed on a neat little book entitled, How to Cure a Fanatic by the Jewish novelist and political activist, Amos Oz. I highly recommend it. It only takes about 30-40 minutes to read and contains two essays, originally delivered as lectures:  “Between Right and Right” and “How to Cure a Fanatic.”

In the first essay, “Between Right and Right,” he argues that both parties in the Palestinian/Israeli dispute are “right”: both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate claim to the land, and the sooner they both see each other as at least partially right, the sooner real peace might be possible. As Oz notes, both Palestinians and Israelis view the land as the only place in the world they can legitimately call their own. Indeed, Palestinians and Israelis ironically are more alike than different because both are “hysterical refugees and survivors, haunted by dreadful nightmares.” Neither party has anywhere to go because they have been already chased out of everywhere else.   Consequently, Oz argues that the solution to the Palestinian/Israeli crisis is relatively simple, but very difficult to swallow. Using the metaphor of a divorce, he says, 

[This] is going to be a very peculiar divorce, because the two divorcing parents are definitely staying in the same apartment. No one is moving out. And the apartment being very small, it will be necessary to decide who gets bedroom A and who gets bedroom B and how about the living room; and the apartment being so small, some special arrangement has to be made about the bathroom and the kitchen. Very inconvenient. But better than the kind of living hell that everyone is going through now in this beloved country. (19)

Beyond the illuminating discussion of the Palestinian/Israeli question, the most important contribution Oz makes in this essay is his terribly important insight upon the word “compromise.” As he explains,

The word ‘compromise’ has a terrible reputation in Europe. Especially among young idealists who always regard compromise as opportunism, as something dishonest, as something sneaky and shady, as a mark of a lack of integrity. Not in my vocabulary. For me the word ‘compromise’ means life. And the opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death. We need to compromise. Compromise, not capitulation. . . [and] I should tell you that this compromise will be very painful. (8)

In the 60’s, peace activists proudly declared, “Make love, not war.” Resisting the uncompromising idealism of this slogan, Oz instead offers the slogan,  “Make peace, not love.” In the context of the Middle East,  Oz is unconvinced that what Palestinians and Israelis need (as most liberal democratic idealist ‘outsiders’ think) are “greater understanding” of each other.  “A little group therapy, a touch of family counselling, and everyone will live happily ever after” (7). Thus, Oz is convinced that combatants don’t simply need to go for coffee more often until they “understand” each other, nor will any amount of “dialogue” solve the problem. On the contrary, any distant or faint hope of them “loving” one another will require them to settle the claim–as painful as it is–and partition out the apartment for the sake of a compromised peace settlement. Then, and only then, he says, might there be a chance that some might be willing to “hop over the partition for a cup of coffee together.” (20) In short, Oz argues that peace does not come about through dialogue, but dialogue only is made possible once peace has been established. And peace necessarily means compromise instead of holding fast to ideological convictions that can never be attained in the real world. (In this regard, Oz seems to sound a lot like the Christian Realism of Reinhold Niebuhr who also resisted ideological forms of pacificism in favour of concrete solutions in the here and now.)

As far as this first essay goes, I can only follow Oz half-way, even if I  follow him half-way whole-heartedly. I can only follow him half-way because I think he confuses the idea of “peace” with the important concept of “compromise” that he argues for (and which I particularly like). In this sense, I see Oz’s concept of compromise as parallel to the biblical idea of “forgiveness” (rather than peace) which means, “clearing the obstacles to peace and reconciliation.” For Oz, peace means the absence of war and conflict, though that, I believe, is only the “half-shalom/peace” of which Scripture speaks. For peace, in Scripture, means harmony and fecundity, not simply the absence of conflict. But nevertheless,  I applaud Oz’s ordering: Reconciliation (or what I would call a true biblical sense of peace/shalom) must start with compromise–with agreeing to draw the boundaries and stop the fighting so that, eventually, we might begin to see the possibility to “go for coffee” and perhaps begin to see signs of true peace and reconciliation emerge.

The second essay, “How to Cure a Fanatic,” I think, is even better and easier to summarize. Oz observes that the “essence of fanaticism lies in the desire to force other people to change.” (57) And though he doesn’t come right out and say it in so many words, I couldn’t help but notice that fanaticism is therefore inherently paradoxical in that the very value or ideal for which the fanatic fights also becomes a tool in his or her hand to force that change upon the other. For example, “Do I know the anti-smokers who wil burn you alive for lighting a cigarette near them! Do I know the vegetarians that will eat you alive for eating meat.” And, we might add, “Do I know the pro-choice fanatics who will do everything to take away the choice of a child to live. And do I know the pro-lifers who will kill an abortionist to keep him from killing.” 

So what is the solution to fantacism? Oz refuses to dictate the solution, lest he fall into a fanatical stance himself, but he does suggest two things: 1) Humour; and 2) Reading good (though not all) literature. Why these two? In light of his suggestion that humour is a first line of defense against fanaticism, Oz says,

“I have never once in my life seen a fanatic with a sense of humor, nor have I ever seen a person with a sense of humor become a fanatic, unless he or she has lost that sense of humor. . . [but] humor is the ability to see yourself as others may see you, humor is the capacity to realize that no matter how righteous you are and how terribly wronged you have been, there is a certain side to life that is always a bit funny. The more right you are, the funnier you become.” (65)

As for the importance of reading (good) literature (and I suppose that qualifier “good” begs the question of how to sort out the “good” from the “bad”), Oz points out that literature “contains  an antidote to fanaticism by injecting imagination into its readers. . . [Though literature] cannot work miracles, it can help. Shakespeare can help a great deal. Every extremism, every uncompromising crusade, every form of fanaticism in Shakespeare ends up either in a tragedy or in a comedy. The fanatic is never happier or more satisfied in the end; either he is dead or he becomes a joke. This is good inoculation.” (62-3)

If in fact Oz is right (and I have a gut feeling that he is on to some pretty important things here), I would suggest that Christians might profit from reading their Bible as the divinely inspired “literary comedy” that it is. For after all, what is the Bible but a book that shows the lunacy of human hubris and fanaticism in the light of God’s gracious overflow of joy? (In this regard, see Psalm 2). And though I believe the Bible is more than just literature, it is certainly not less than good literature.

Paddle to the Sea

I see that the National Film Board of Canada is putting a number of its documentary, shorts, and experimental films online for free viewing. Many of them are full length with many others just having excerpts.

I remember as a grade 2 student many years ago watching a 1966 film entitled, “Paddle to the Sea.” For some reason, it was one that stuck in my mind. I don’t remember all the details, but there are definitely some scenes etched in my memory. The film is about a little hand-carved boat that a native boy makes and throws into Lake Superior. The film documents its progress through the  waterways until it eventually reaches the ocean. One scene in particular that I remember was the boat going through some sludge. That really troubled me to think that some of our water was so polluted. Unfortunately, the film isn’t available in its entirety, but you can watch a short clip here.

For a hilarious short animation, I’d recommend The Cat Came Back. If you have kids, they will love it. We could even talk about the theological ramifications of the ending if you want!

Whatever the case, there’s lots to explore on the NFB site.

collected reflections on Christmas

Here are some various online theological reflections I have stumbled over in the past while. Enjoy!

nativity

  • I’d recommend you drop on over to “…A Resch Like Me” to read the thought- provoking and challenging reflections on “A Wal-mart Christmas.” I love Dustin’s concept of the “broken witness” to Christmas.
  • On a more technical side of things, you might be interested in the article by Ross Hastings on Christianity.ca entitled, “What DNA Matter Did the Baby Jesus Have?” Hastings follows Calvin on this question over Zwingli or Barth (though I wonder whether he got Barth’s position exactly right…I’ll have to look further into this). 
  • Last year Philip Yancey provided a brief review of an ancient debate between Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas on whether Christmas would have occurred if humanity had not sinned. See his article on the Christianity Today website called Ongoing Incarnation. You can also find an article there reviewing some of the current astronomical theories about what the star of Bethelehem may have been.
  • In terms of Christmas hymns, did you know that the original lyrics and music to “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” (written by Charles Wesley in 1739) were not the same as the ones we sing? In fact, the opening verse is, 
Hark, how all the welkin rings,
“Glory to the King of kings;
peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”

 

(You can find all 10 of the original stanzas here.)

What in the world is a “welkin” you ask? Why, I’m glad you asked! It is the celestial sphere in which the astronomical objects like stars are planets were believed to reside. So for Wesley, it is not “herald angels” that are singing glory to the King, but the celestial heavens! (Apparently it was George Whitefield who changed the words to “Herald angels”!) As far as the tune, it is attributed to Felix Mendelssohn.  For more on this, see here  and the Wikipedia article  here.

  • In lieu of me personally coming up with anything new on the topic, you might also be interested in some “Xmas reflections” I had and which were published online for  a couple of years ago. Let me know what you think of my “In defence of ‘Xmas.'” 
  • Last, my collection of Christmas reflections would be incomplete without at least one Christmas joke. 

A Rabbi and a Catholic priest had spent hours debating the theological legitimacy of Christmas. Not surprisingly, neither was won to the other side. However, as Christmas Day approached, the priest was surprised one day when he received a Christmas Card in the mail from none other than the Rabbi. When he opened it up, he read:
Roses are red
Violets are bluish
When the real Messiah comes
You’ll wish you were Jewish!

If you have any further interesting Christmas links (whether serious or not so serious), let us know!

Some Karl Barth humor

Yesterday, I commemorated the 40th anniversary of Barth’s death. Yet Christians know that death is not the end; we anticipate the joyful day of the resurrection of the body. Karl Barth, I think, anticipated that the kingdom of God will be a place filled with joy and laughter!

Humor and joy aren’t precisely the same thing, but as Prof. Migliore has argued (in his excellent little article entitled, “Karl Barth: Theologian with a Sense of Humor,“),  humor arises out of the partial presence of the Kingdom as we recognize that things still aren’t entirely as they should be. As Migliore puts it, “Joy will find its fulfillment in God’s new heaven and new earth; humor belongs to a world between the times.”  (See also Prof. Hunsinger’s article on Barth’s wit and wisdom)].

I especially liked Migliore’s insightful description of the nature of humor: 

Humor often arises from the experienced discrepancy between reality and appearance, from the distance between what we pretend we are and what others know us to be, or between what others imagine us to be and what we know of ourselves.

In the spirit of humor so described above, I attach below a couple of “Karl Barth photo mash-ups” which I offer as examples of the “experienced discrepancy between reality [the historical context of the original photos themselves] and appearance [how they could be mistakenly understood in humorous ways].”

Or maybe you can suggest some better captions??? Enjoy! 

Barth in America, 1962
Barth in America, 1962
Barth and M. L. King, Jr., 1962
Barth and M. L. King, Jr., 1962

“Crazy Talk”: A Serious Review of a Zany Book

I mentioned yesterday about my strange relationship with dictionaries–having read them as a kid, having been recruited to co-write one, and now actually recommending that others read one–cover to cover!–for themselves. Crazy Talk: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Theological Terms isn’t like any other theological dictionary I’ve (or likely you’ve) seen. It is humourous, sometimes sarcastic, and often manifests flashes of profundity. It takes its inspiration from the creative writer/theologian Frederich Buechner (it’s pronounced “Beek-ner”—-even that’s funny, isn’t it?) who wrote a book entitled, Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized. As one of the blurbs on the back of the book put it, “Crazy Talk reads like Frederick Buechner on steroids…” 

In 183 pages, the authors define about 100 theological terms ranging from “absolution” to “dogma” to “means of grace” to “YHWH” (apparently they couldn’t think of any “Z” terms). Each term is given a “one-liner” (think of a stand up comic’s punch line) definition, some of which are quite insightful, others of which are less so, others of which are actually quite cynical, and still others which are just plain zany. Each one-liner is usually followed by a couple of paragraphs in which the significance of the term is fleshed out, often with the help of a fictional character named “Duh” who dialogues “duh-like” with God, or with references to popular culture. While some of the explanations come off sounding like they were spoken with the straight-face of a theological lecturer, others reach out and slap you in the face with a mixture of sarcasm, slapstick, and some serious dry wit.

The six-author team wear their Lutheranism on their sleeve and the book is edited by a Lutheran Old Testament scholar. Their Lutheranism comes out especially with the overarching emphasis on the forgiveness of sin (it seems to be mentioned in about every third entry) and shows up plainly in entries like “sacraments,” “two kingdoms,” and of course “simultaneously saint and sinner.” 

Now whatever you might think about mixing theology and humour, I have to admit that I couldn’t put the book down. In fact I was reading it walking home yesterday and  (as humour columnist Dave Barry is apt to say, “I’m not making this up!!”) I nearly bumped into a stop sign. Needless to say, I snorted out loud more than a few times–but oddly enough,  I also found myself often thinking,  “Hmmmm….I’d never thought of it that way before!” 

So, yeah, there were times I howled while reading it. Like when I read the one-liner on “ecclesiology“: “The ultimate form of spiritual group navel gazing.”

Or the definition for “creed“:  “Not to be confused with the boxer who pummelled Rocky Balboa, a personal statement of belief, written by someone else, for use in pummeling heretics.” 

Did you know that inclusive language is “the arrangement of the grammatical furniture in such a way that no one sits comfortably?” 

And one of my favourites: “Council“: “A huddle of the entire church’s bishops for the sake of clarifying some puzzle that was probably caused by one or more bishops.”

At other times, I was actually startled by the simple but profund way that a term was defined. Thus, Crazy Talk defines “kingdom of God” as “A time that hasn’t happened yet but already has begun; a place that doesn’t exist yet but where you already live.” Does that not simply but profoundly capture the dialectic of the “already/not yet”, or what? And what else is”theodicy” but “the attempt to explain why the one who created everything and saved everyone doesn’t live up to our expectations.” Yes, I know these definitions don’t capture nearly everything that needs to be said about these important concepts; if you think they should, well, you just don’t get it. But in certain respects, these are just some samples of some of  the best short and thought provoking definitions I’ve ever heard.

At other times, it seems like Crazy Talk is even trying to provoke an argument or take a shot at giving a virtual bloody nose. Take their definition of “atheism”: “The personal choice to be at the whim of earthly powers because you can’t handle being at the whim of God.” Now them’s fightin’ words! Oh, and if you are a committed dispensationalist with a temper, you probably should skip the page where they define “rapture.” (Of course I’m not going to tell you what they say about the rapture—-find out for yourself!) 

So why did I like the book so much? Well, it’s certainly not because the book is a definitive piece of theological insight and information. Sure, it presents itself as a dictionary, but I wouldn’t suggest using it as an authoritative source in a research paper–necessarily. But in a sermon–without a doubt, go for it! 

But what appeals to me is that this is such a good example of how it is actually possible to enjoy the study of theology. Karl Barth often said that theology, more than any other discipline, should be a “happy science.” Now for those who have actually talked with a professional theologian, or participated in conferences where the room was full of professional theologians, you might think Barth’s idea of theology as a happy science might sound—-crazy. That’s because professional theologians have a tendency to take absolutely everything they talk about as if it were a matter of life and death, and in such situations, humour appears to have taken a permanent vacation. (And you can see why this is so because in reality, theology IS about life and death and serious theologians are proof that they actually believe it!) This isn’t to say that the authors of Crazy Talk don’t think theology is serious business. On the contrary, they take theology seriously precisely by not taking themselves too seriously. Theology is, after all, a task undertaken by fallen, often foolish, humans who are trying to say something meaningful about God and the world. And, well, when you think about it…what are mere humans that they think they can do this? That’s just crazy!

But paradoxically, when we remember that theology is the happy science (with the help of an important reminder from a book like Crazy Talk), we can joyfully enjoy the experience of thinking deeply–and happily and even with a good laugh from the gut–about the God who shows up in a feeding trough in first century Palestine. Now that’s crazy! Now read the book–and enjoy!

The Ultimate Theology Comprehensive Exam

Something a bit lighter for Friday afternoon…may you not face these questions if you are facing comprehensive exams or ordination. Have a great weekend! 🙂

——–

The Ultimate Comprehensive Exam in Theology (may also be used as a General Ordination Exam)

1. Summarize Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae in three succinct sentences. You may use your Bible.

2. Irenaeus, Pope Clement VII and Martin Luther King, Jr. were not contemporaries. Had they known each other, how might the history of the Reformation have turned out differently?

3. Devise an ethical system that would satisfy Anabaptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Fundamentalists, and the entire population of Ancient Rome, ca. 3rd century BC.

4. Memorize the Greek NT according to the NA27 and the Textus Receptus texts, recite both, and provide an apologetic for the superiority of one version over the other.

5. Imagine you have the stigmata. Would it affect your productivity in sermon preparation?  Would you still be admitted into fine restaurants? Would it be covered by your medical insurance, or should it constitute a pre-existent condition?

6. What would it mean to be eternal, co-eternal, and non-existent all at once?

7. St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine of Hippo decide to rob a bank. The note to the teller is 1,200 pages long, not counting footnotes, complete with a promise of damnation if the teller does not accept immediate Baptism.  In the middle of the heist, they engage in an extended debate as to whether or not the money really exists.  Are they committing a mortal or a venial sin?

8. Speculate on what the current status of salvation history might have been if Abraham had just stayed in Ur.  You have 2 pages.

9. Define God. Use examples if necessary.

10. Provide a compelling resolution to the infralapsarian/supralapsarian debate. You may use your Bible, but not Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

Bonus question

11. Hymns or choruses? Provide an answer that will persuade all parties and all generations.