The takeaway message is this: no one needs churches to be nice or tasteful. If churches have a future, it’s in addressing our existential darkness: sin and death. Progressive politics is important, but it doesn’t do any deep religious work. And liberals in the church will have to rediscover this after we have won our culture wars. What other religion has such a dark image at its centre? And yet my own brand of liberal Christianity too often seeks salvation through a few gentle verses of All Things Bright and Beautiful or lots of self-important dressing up and wandering around in fancy churches. Devoted atheists are never going to be persuaded by a theology of the cross. But no one whatsoever is going to be persuaded by a theology of nice.Giles Fraser, “In Sweden, human darkness is confronted by the arts not the church” (via Eve Tushnet)
the conclusion of Emily Witt’s essay about attending the Burning Man event
No wonder people hate Burning Man, I thought, when I pictured it as a cynic might: rich people on vacation breaking rules that everyone else would be made to suffer for not obeying. Many of these people would go back to their lives and back to work on the great farces of our age. They wouldn’t argue for the decriminalisation of the drugs they had used; they wouldn’t want anyone to know about their time in the orgy dome. That they had cheered at the funeral pyre of a Facebook ‘like’ wouldn’t play well on Tuesday in the cafeteria at Facebook. The people who accumulated the surplus value of the world’s photographs, ‘life events’ and ex-boyfriend obsessions were now celebrating their freedom from the web they’d entangled all of us in, the freedom to exist without the internet. Plus all this crap – the polyester fur legwarmers and plastic water bottles and disposable batteries – this garbage made from harvested hydrocarbons that will never disappear.
To protest against these things in everyday life carried a huge social cost – one that only people like Jean were grimly willing to bear – and maybe that’s what the old burners disliked about the new ones: the new ones upheld the idea of autonomous zones. The $400 ticket price was as much about the right to leave what happened at the festival behind as it was to enter in the first place. Still, I’d been able to do things here that I’d wanted to do for a long time, that I never could have done at home. And if this place felt right, if it had expanded so much over the years because to so many people it felt like ‘home’, it had something to do with the inadequacy of the old ways that governed our lives in our real homes, where we felt lonely, isolated and unable to form the connections we wanted.
Put it this way: as every cat-person knows, each cat is a unique individual, different from every other cat. But it is unique because of what it has received from nature, from its genetic make-up and from what has happened to it during its life. When a cat dies, this unique life is no more; this is of course sad, but nature has simply taken back what it has given. I can grieve for the death of a cat, but with the death of a friend there is something much more, something of a different kind; we have an instinct that finds the death of a friend somehow unfair, outrageous, and I think we are right to trust this instinct. For my friend is a unique irreplaceable person not just because of what she has received from nature but because of what she herself has made of herself by her own free decisions, by the spontaneous love she had, by her failings, by all the things that we could praise or blame her for. Unlike the cat, my friend was in part responsible for herself; in a way she created the kind of person she was; she was not just made, she also made herself. She belonged to herself, she was not just a part of nature. And now, in the natural course of things, the lifetime of a body has come to an end; but nature, in claiming back her own, has also taken away the unique personality of that body — which nature did not give.
There are people who will pretend to see death as quite natural, as natural as birth; but I think they should look again. Human life, unlike other life, is more than a simple cycle of birth, growth, maturity, decline and death; during and within this cycle there is a story, there is the development of a person which is not a cycle but a continuing story that is arbitrarily cut off by death.
Juan Vidal, “A Shot And A Book: How To Read In Bars”
My favorite place to read is in a dark bar mid-day. Although I can read almost anywhere, we’re each allowed our preferences and mine is so. Coffee shops feel pretentious, the gym is freaking weird. Libraries are fine but there’s so much candy and I can’t handle it all calling my name. The last thing I read was The Conversations by Cesar Aira, and I devoured it in this quaint little dive up the road from my house. Aira’s stuff is super meandering and detailed and it requires all of my senses working in unison; the bar is always close to empty when I go, so it’s everything I need.
Bars, especially the ones I read in, are gifts. They’re warm and brooding, and if you go early enough, it can be just you, a bartender, and enough open space to react to plot twists without judgment. All that’s happening is the cleaning and the setting up shop for the lunch crowd. And so I’ll sit with a book. Sometimes I’ll even stand a while, which I did through part of the closing section of Wise Blood.
Scott James, “The Virtue of Unread Books”
I explained to my boy that the practice of stockpiling books we’ve already read (his main concern, judging by the inciting question) is way down on my list of library benefits. It’s definitely on the list, but it isn’t the chief end of my book hoarding. Except for the few gems that fit into the “reread as often as you can” category, a library full of previously read books can easily become a sort of in-home monument—vaguely commemorating past accomplishments, having no real present purpose.
In contrast, the array of books in our home is intended for ongoing, well-rounded usefulness. They’re there to show us what’s possible, not venerate what’s already been. Even the history books, which are expressly about what has already been, are there to light an inquisitive fuse and point us forward into new exploits.
So my library has a diverse lot of books and, more importantly, an open invitation to the kids: Come; stoke your interest in all kinds of incredible things! Curious about those wall paintings you saw in the pyramids on TV? Let’s look through this book of hieroglyphs and learn how to write our names. Wondering what I’m talking about when I say your runny nose is caused by a virus? Well check out this picture of one of the little menaces right here in my old virology book (and yes, it is freaky that this guy is attacking your nose right now). Not following what we’re talking about in family worship? Look at this, the Bible atlas shows exactly where it happened so you can picture the scene better.
So it goes, on and on.
Rowan Williams, “The physicality of prayer”
So the day begins with a physically concrete and specific reminder that your own individual existence is breathed through by a life that isn’t your possession; and at moments of tension or anxiety during the day, deliberately breathing in and out a few times with the words of the prayer in mind connects you with this life that isn’t yours, immersing the anxiety and dispersing the tension – even if it doesn’t simply take away pain or doubt, solve problems or create some kind of spiritual bliss. The point is just to be connected again.
The mature practitioner (not me) will discover a steady clarity in the vision of self and world, and, in “advanced” states, an awareness of unbroken inner light, with the strong sense of an action going on within that is quite independent of your individual will – the prayer “praying itself”, not just human words but a connection between God transcendent and God present and within. Ritual anchors, ritual aligns, harmonises, relates. And what happens in the “Jesus Prayer” is just the way an individual can make real what is constantly going on in the larger-scale worship of the sacraments. The pity is that a lot of western Christianity these days finds all this increasingly alien. But I don’t think any one of us can begin to discover again what religion might mean unless we are prepared to expose ourselves to new ways of being in our bodies. But that’s a long story.
Chris Mitchell speaking in a chapel service at Biola University, November 20, 2013.
What you see here is what he was like in person. Totally transparent, this man was.
Peter Saunders, “Why Lord Carey is desperately wrong about legalising assisted suicide”
But what I find most astounding about Carey’s article is the almost complete lack of any theological framework for his argument. There is a vague reference to Christian principles of ‘open-hearted benevolence’ and ‘compassion’ and one mention (above) of Jesus.
But there is no discernible Christian world view underpinning what he says. Nothing of the fact that God made us and owns us; nothing of biblical morality or the sixth commandment; no doctrine of the Fall; little insight into the depths of human depravity and the need for strong laws to deter exploitation and abuse of vulnerable people; nothing of the cross or the resurrection; no hope beyond death; nothing of courage and perseverance in the face of suffering; no recognition of the need to make one’s peace with God and others before death; no real drive to make things better for dying patients and no real empathy with the feelings of vulnerable disabled and elderly people who fear a law like Falconer’s and will be campaigning in force outside parliament next Friday.
Carey has instead produced a piece that is high on emotion but weak on argument that capitulates to the spirit of the age; that enthrones personal autonomy above public safety; that sees no meaning or purpose in suffering; that appears profoundly naïve about the abuse of elderly and disabled people; that looks forward to no future beyond the grave and that could have been written by a member of the national secular society, British humanist association or voluntary euthanasia society.
There are communities and groups in the past whose voices were undoubtedly suppressed by an anxious and often unscrupulous [Church] hierarchy — women, Gnostics, Celts, if you will; but that they were suppressed does not mean that they were suppressed for believing what we believe. Simply because we have varying levels of unease about what the ‘mainstream’ Church has concluded does not entitle us to think that all those who disagreed with them agree with us. Gnostics attacked episcopal hierarchy and biblical literalism; various groups of them also argued for inflexible predestined divisions between classes of humans, or for the evil of the flesh and the female. Whatever we may want to say about them, we need to be cautious about regarding them as forerunners of a liberal and enlightened faith fitted for the contemporary market. Celtic Christians disagreed with aspects of centralised Church authority — but not as regards ethics or doctrine or even vernacular liturgy; and a glance at the Irish penitentials should disabuse anyone of the notion that Celtic Christians were instinctively hostile to legalism. Pelagius opposed the theology of original sin, but argued in consequence an unmitigated duty to obey the moral law by our efforts and the most stringent sanctions for disobedience. If we are to learn from any such suppressed or disadvantaged voices, we must first let them be themselves; they are at least as strange as any ‘orthodox’ voices from the past.Rowan Williams
This is my commonplace book and sometime-journal.
I blog at SpiritualFriendship.org.
My book is here: Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.
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