Tuesday, January 08, 2013

2013 - The year of reading Bonhoeffer

Last year I read volumes 4 (Discipleship) and 5 (Life together and The prayerbook of the Bible) of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English (DBWE) series.

These have left a lasting impression on me, and I plan to come back to them soon. But even more impressive than his writing is the life of this man. So this year, I plan to read the entire and newly complete series, starting (of course) with DBWE1 – Sanctorum Communio: a theological study of the sociology of the church, which was Bonhoeffer's doctoral thesis and quite possibly the best work of Protestant ecclesiology.

If all goes well – and it should show on my blog if it does – perhaps next year may be the year of reading Balthasar or even Barth.

Monday, January 07, 2013

New eyes

Proust said that: "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes."

So, tonight instead of dreaming of doing adventurous things in far away places with exotic friends and strangers, Anita and I accepted a kind invitation and went with some new friends from my work to the 20-twenty cricket match. Definitely something my eyes had not seen before.

Living the everyday, the quotidien, with wide-eyed wonder is certainly much harder than being open to new places, people and experiences on holidays. Nonetheless, the real value of the latter is in enabling the former.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Friendship - both gift and task

I keep returning to the motif of 'gift and task' (or, more accurately, as the Germans would: giftask) as a way to understand vocation and discipleship generally, and my own particular calling as a chaplain. 

But lately I've been putting a real effort into keeping in contact with my friends and realise that friendship, too, is both gift and task. Arguably, the friendships one develops are as formative as one's development of a sense of vocation, and contribute just as much to one's sense of identity. Electronic tools like Facebook, email and this blog (if any of my friends are reading – hello!) make this easier, but that ease also keeps friendship superficial and inhibits the cultivation of deeper ties. There is little, if any shared experience; it's much harder to have 'our thing' with 900 friends and in such a public forum. 

So, as I think I've mentioned before, I've been handwriting letters – the theme of a spate of recent books. I also threw an open party at a local pub (Facebook invites only, but anyone was free to attend or not without RSVP), set up a Skype date and am deliberately inviting more people to meet up or visit, and also just ensuring I make time for friends travelling from out of town. I've got to say, it's not been easy. It took me literally months to write the letter, weeks to get myself organised for the Skype chat (even then I was late), and days simply to write emails that are worthy responses to the ones I've received  But, of course, it's been worth it. Friendship takes effort: it is not an automatic entitlement, which is why it is so valuable. But more than that, friendship is a gift: it can only be given and not taken, and despite any effort put into the cultivation of a friendship, it cannot be earned. 

Because there is a certain gratuity – even graciousness – to friendship it is worth more rather than less, and I dare not waste it. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The accusation of time

It's now been over two years since my trip: since my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and my stay in Taizé. I had hoped to have returned to Europe by now, but more than that I had hoped to be more... different by now.

Those experiences changed me; changed my way of being in this world. And for quite some time I found it difficult to readjust to 'normal' life. For a while I had hopes of setting a new normal, but now it's almost like some parts of me had never been where I went, seen what I did, or did what I have done. I thought it took resilience to walk 980kms, but it seems that some default settings – in my life, in our culture – are more resilient still.

So now, as I contemplate (if you can call such desperate hope contemplation) returning to Europe, it's both as a pilgrim and not. When I first went, I wanted to be changed and was open, it was my first visit to that continent and I knew (almost) no one; this time round I want to be changed and am very fixed on what I think I need, I long to see my friends both from Australia and the ones I made in Europe.

As I walked the camino, I saw people who seemed to be addicted to it, unable to return 'home' or settle anywhere. Perhaps this is how such pathology starts? Yes, some are called to be holy vagrants with – just as was true for Jesus – no place to lay their head. But the real challenge (for me at least) is not in escaping into the pilgrim life, but rather in subverting our anti-pilgrim culture by colonising it with the pilgrim mindset. I often despair that such a thing is even possible, but even with such great cost, I cannot simply give up trying.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The inconsistency of ANZAC Day

I had the privilege of leading two ANZAC Day commemoration services this year, at a large Australian Tax Office event in Brisbane and also at my regiment.

The language of ANZAC Day is well established, and except in the military environment, feels close to becoming clichéd. In our society it's easy to despair that talk of sacrifice, camaraderie, duty and putting the country before one's self-interest is just that -- all talk and nothing more. This was most apparent to me in conducting the commemoration service at the ATO, not because of that organization itself and certainly not because of the individual members of the ATO that I had contact with. Rather it's because of the role that that organization plays in our national life and economy.

Currently it's anathema to call for anyone (but especially those most able to) to make economic sacrifices and carry a larger portion of the tax burden than anyone else. To suggest that the rich have a duty to support the poor is scoffed at as class warfare, even as we honour those who because of their moral courage saw that they had a duty to defend those who didn't have the same physical strength as them. It's unquestioned orthodoxy that competition brings more benefits to groups and individuals than camaraderie and cooperation.

Increasingly it seems that ANZAC Day is tokenistic- a facile attempt for one day to balance out 364 driven by the insatiable appetite for economic growth and the greedy individualism that fuels it.

Monday, April 23, 2012

On reading the Bible as story – perspective counts

As my church spends most of the year looking at the Old Testament – through sermons, in home groups and in individual readings – I've been reminded many times of the benefits of the approach of more liturgical churches. It's like for this time we have a year-long scripture-shaped liturgy that follows the shape of the Christian canon and looks not just at individual parts. Of course we can't be entirely comprehensive, so there's always picking and choosing – that's inevitable – and the issue for me isn't avoiding such selectivity, but being still remaining consistent while also trying to be balanced. Scot McKnight covers this issue wonderfully in his delightful book, The Blue Parakeet and has also blogged about it.

So yesterday when the sermon was on the huge topic of the exodus, I wasn't surprised when significant parts of the story didn't get mentioned: all of the familiar threads were woven together to fashion a  redemption story that had parallels to the gospel.

But here's what I was left wondering about: in both the exodus and the gospel, the salvation story realises both hope for the oppressed and judgement for the oppressor. If we only ever spiritualise the exodus (reducing it to a prologue for the gospel), we will always only ever identify with the oppression of the Israelites (because that stands for our universal oppression under sin). But for many people, as for the Israelites, oppression isn't an abstract spiritual concept but rather a concrete economic reality. In our picking and choosing we have maintained consistency with (part of) the gospel, but have forfeited balance by only ever reading the scripture from one perspective.

For those of us who live privileged and prosperous lives in the West (i.e. most of those with the technology, resources and liesure time to blog and read blogs - me included) it's not enough to read the story of the exodus and find hope in the ways that we are like Israel. No, it's also necessary to realise that our perspective shares much in common with the Egyptian oppressors. The text of the scripture hints at a contemptuous disregard for the sanctity of creation culminating in a blasphemous disregard for the sacredness of humanity as bearers of the image of God. It explicitly condemns the Egyptians for their economic exploitation of foreign workers. In our globalised economy we must pause to examine whether our own consumer choices, and indeed our system of economics also oppresses foreign workers and despoils creation, placing us under the same damning judgement. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Counter-culture v. gospel culture

In the introduction to his Western Culture in Gospel Context, David J. Kettle surveys a variety of models for Christian witness:

  1. The witness of traditional religious conformity, which at its best seeks for all aspects of culture to resonate with a Christian worldview, and at its worst leads to nominalism or (worse -) Christian imperialism. 
  2. The witness of traditional religious symbolism and art, which though it can often preserve a sense of the transcendent and sacred can also become opaque and tokenistic. 
  3. The witness of an appeal to cultural identity, which takes seriously the influence Christianity has had on Western cultures but can all too easily lead to a tribalism which excludes non-Western Christians and non-Christian people and influences in the West.
  4. The witness of a parallel Christian culture, that avoids many of the pitfalls of closing the gap between church and culture by seeking to maintain this distinction, but can tend towards a kind of gnosticism that in attempting to keep the world out of the church (perhaps inadvertently) keeps the church out of the world.
  5. The witness of consumer religion, which has uncritically adopted the dominant spiritual paradigms (business shamanism, individualist consumerism) of Western culture and adapted Christianity and the church to reflect it.
While this typology is new (and I'd suggest, provisional and not exhaustive), none of the particular models is. I've heard many faithful and thoughtful Christians advocate the best (and some of the worst) of each of these models at some point, but the third seems to be increasingly popular in conservative Christianity in the simplistic formulation "Australia is (or was founded as) a Christian country," usually implying that other Christians are more Australian and should have more power than people of other faiths or none. 

However, it was how Kettle presented the fourth model that especially caught my attention. He says that those whose agenda it is to oppose or resist culture (that is, be counter-cultural) are no less captivated by culture; it remains the host culture and not the gospel that determines how Christians witness. This is seen most clearly in the peculiarly modern form of fundamentalism that arose as a response to modern liberalism. The fundamentalists thought they had avoided the cultural compromises of liberalism, but were no less shaped by their modern context. But the same possibility awaits me: as I seek to engage the individualism and consumerism of Western culture my priority needs to be not responding to greed and selfishness in its current cultural manifestations, but rather the generosity and hospitality of God in the gospel.