Hauerwas Goes to the Movies (Week 1)

This semester I am teaching a class on religion in film. It’s my first time, and as I admitted to my students during our first session, I was initially unsure about the direction I wanted to take.

I knew that I didn’t want to show a bunch of overtly religious or “spiritual” films, mostly because I assumed (rightly, as it turns out) that these were the types of films that students would be expecting to see. But I was also concerned that these types of films wouldn’t encourage the type of critical reflection that I want to encourage. Colleagues of mine who have taught similar classes, for example, have recounted to me the experience of screening a visually powerful film like The Passion of the Christ and then witnessing a certain blindness to its serious theological issues because of the emotional response that it engenders in its viewers. 

After I moved away from the overtly religious / spiritual I found myself gravitating toward films that emphasize the importance of narrative in the formation of their characters: stories about stories.

As a more theological supplement to this emphasis on narrative, I thought something by Stanley Hauerwas might be fitting. I surveyed a few options, and ultimately I settled on A Community of Character because of its clear and consistent emphasis on the power and function of narrative in identity formation, specifically as it relates to the concept of Christian identity. “The church,” Hauerwas maintains, “does not exist to provide an ethos for democracy or any other form of social organization, but stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ.”

As anyone familiar with his work can attest, reading and understanding Hauerwas well is no small task, and I am confident that this book is going to be a challenging one for my class. My students are currently working through the introduction and the first chapter.

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of blog posts on the experience of teaching a class on religion in film in this way. Each week I will plan on posting the film that we watched that week, the reading assignment from Hauerwas, and a summary of student reactions to both.

Stay tuned if you are interested!

The Unforgivable Sin

I recently acquired a volume of Northrop Frye’s collected works (vol. 5 of the “Late Notebooks”: Architecture of the Spiritual World). Random, I know.

One of the entries addresses Mark 3:29 (“whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”). Here is what Frye has to say:

[441] I regret very much that the gospel reports Christ as saying that the sin against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable … The sin against the Holy Spirit is original sin itself. Perhaps it can’t be “forgiven,” but it must be annihilated, or the whole Christian structure, which depends on a love that forgives everything, is a lot of balls. That’s what I think now, anyway. An unpardonable sin means a stinker God, and I will never accept such a creature in the Christian set-up.

More to follow, I’m sure.

What Child is This?


What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping,
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word Made Flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!

So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
Come, peasant, king, to own Him!
The King of Kings salvation brings;
Let loving hearts enthrone Him!
Raise, raise the song on high!
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy! joy! for Christ is born,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Nestled at the center of this hymn are several lines that are routinely excised from hymnals (check yours next time you’re in church): “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the Cross be borne for me, for you.” The image of an executed person, it would seem, is simply too much for us to bear at Christmas. We prefer the cleaner image of the sleeping baby.

The inclusion of the cross at the nativity is not unique to this hymn. Neither is it novel. One could argue, as Michael Goulder does, that Luke’s image of Mary wrapping her baby in strips of cloth prefigures her preparation of his body for burial. We might also note Simeon’s words to Mary as she presents the infant Jesus in the temple: “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed … and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35). From the moment of his birth, this Messiah is destined to suffer.

Today, as the Church celebrates God’s entrance into human history, let us remember that God did not arrive as a warlord, but as an infant, peaceful and innocent. As we contemplate the profundity of this image, let us also bear in mind that God did not take on human flesh out of boredom or curiosity; God took on human flesh in order to redeem it. Moreover, let us not forget that God does not redeem humanity by violence, but by becoming a victim.

In a world that continues to fall prey to the allure of violence, be it in the form of assault rifles, concealed handguns, racism, or apathy, let us remember that today God enters into our midst in order to offer and make possible a more excellent way: peace.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m a sucker for church art projects (especially those created by children). This past weekend, beloved spouse and I were speaking at a church in Whitewater, WI. Before our talk, we were hanging around in the hallway, and I spotted a series of paper crosses. They were decorated with post-it notes containing what appear to be maxims on how to live better, more faithful lives.

Many of the maxims appear to be written in some dialect of Middle English.

A few of my favorites, with translations (pictures below):

  1. tele the shroth (tell the truth?)
  2. de Helfoe (be helpful)
  3. de kine (be kind)
  4. de nise de gade (be nice to God)
  5. pray to Jesus evrebe (pray to Jesus everyday)
  6. dont swar (don’t swear)

photo 3

photo 2

photo 1


Twilight at Marquette?

Over the past six years, Russell R. Reno of Creighton University has on occasion ventured to rank various (American) graduate programs in theology. The first of these rankings appeared in 2006, followed by another in 2009, and another in 2010. The 2012 rankings appeared on the First Things website just this morning. You can access them here.

His criteria (stated in the context of this year’s rankings) are as follows:

  1. Orthodoxy and support for graduate students who want to think with the church
  2. Intellectual rigor
  3. Commitment to students
  4. Financial Aid

While these criteria are certainly good, I wonder how they actually play out in Reno’s rankings. I would note, as a case in point, Marquette’s program, which apparently exists as a sort of problem child on the playground of graduate programs in theology.

In 2006, Reno mentions Marquette, but he does not rank it. He contends that it (with Boston College, Fordham, and St. Louis University) has suffered damage from the “liberal-revisionist agenda” of the Jesuits: “some excellent faculty teach at these places: Ralph Del Colle, Michel Barnes, and Susan Wood, for example, are at Marquette. But because it is a Jesuit program, the 1970s is still going strong.”

In 2009, something changed. With regard to Jesuit colleges, Reno writes: “last time I ranked programs, I plugged Boston College. They have lots of money, but I think I was mistaken about the quality of the program. Like so many Jesuit theology departments, Boston College has drifted from the excitement of the post-Vatican II era to the banality of contextual theology … I’m afraid the same is true of Fordham and St. Louis U.” What is REALLY different in 2009 is Reno’s attitude toward Marquette: “The one Jesuit exception is Marquette, which I put in the fifth slot. Michel Barnes, Alexander Golitzin, and Mickey Mattox are superb historical theologians. Susan Wood, Ralph Del Colle, and Stephen Long provide a great deal in systematic theology. Overall, Marquette seems to have avoided the narrow parochialism of the now old and often narrowly liberal Catholic theology. As a result, the Jesuit tradition of adventuresome intellectual fidelity fits nicely with a graduate program that is interested in the riches of the theological tradition.”

A brief recap: Marquette in 2006 suffers from the “liberal-revisionist agenda” of the Jesuits, but in 2009 it has “avoided the narrow parochialism of the now old and often narrowly liberal Catholic theology.” In 2006, it is not quite cut out for the top ten, but in 2009 it is number five in the country. Onward.

Fast forward a bit to 2010, where Marquette drops from fifth to sixth: “alone among Jesuit doctoral programs, the theology department at Marquette has as its greatest strength the fact that it is not hobbled by the increasingly superannuated agenda of liberal Catholic theology. The faculty in historical theology and systematic theology don’t necessarily jell into a corporate personality, but professors such as Ralph Del Colle and Susan Wood are pushing forward, trying to discern the possibilities for Catholic theology in North America after the collapse of the short-lived but once ruthlessly dominant Rahnerian consensus. Some of the avatars of the declining Rahnerian approach still teach at Marquette, but the theologies of Hans Urs von Balthasar and St. Thomas are also well represented … Marquette’s biggest liability is Marquette. It’s a fine institution, but it lacks the overall atmosphere of academic excellence that one finds at most elite universities, and this invariably holds back the theology department as well.” While I take issue with the final comment, that Marquette “lacks the overall atmosphere of academic excellence that one finds at most elite universities” (we do just fine, thank you), not much has changed between 2009 and 2010.

Fast forward two more years, to 2012, and it would appear that we (Marquette) have barely made Reno’s cut. We place ninth overall, just before the University of Dayton: “in the past I’ve given Marquette University good marks. Lately staffing has changed. Ralph Del Colle passed away earlier in the year, and Alexander Golitzen left to become an Orthodox bishop. This tilts the program in the direction of dead-end liberal Catholicism. There are still good folks there (Mickey Mattox, Stephen Long), but it’s less congenial than it once was.”

As one who has been a student at Marquette since 2007 (two years in the MA program, almost four in the PhD), just one year after Reno began his periodic rankings, I would like to close by commenting on our apparent rise to and fall from greatness, especially in light of Reno’s four criteria.

  1. The orthodoxy criterion, it would seem, is paramount in Reno’s ranking system, yet I remain unclear on what the standard for orthodoxy actually is. In the past year, Marquette has indeed undergone some shifts in faculty: the passing of Dr. Del Colle was and is a great loss to the department, as was Fr. Golitzen’s appointment as bishop (and subsequent departure from Marquette). I am not convinced, however, that Dr. Del Colle was the sole bastion of orthodoxy in our department, and I am unsure how the absence of a (non-Catholic) Orthodox professor “tilts the program in the direction of dead-end liberal Catholicism.” Moreover, Reno’s first criterion is in effect two separate criteria: orthodoxy is not the same as “support for graduate students who want to think with the church.” One of Marquette’s strongest selling points is the confessional diversity of its student body. Graduate students are encouraged strongly by faculty to “think with” their respective traditions, regardless of what those traditions might be. I have several Catholic colleagues in the department whose research locates them squarely within the boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy. In fact, I think it is safe to say that the majority of Catholic students in the Department desire for their own research to be in keeping with the Catholic faith.
  2. Intellectual rigor is a goal toward which every graduate program (theological or otherwise) should strive. I often remark to fellow students and faculty that Marquette’s program seems more rigorous to me every semester. To be sure, part of this is likely due to my own progression from the MA to the doctoral program, as well as my penchant for taking on side projects. As is certainly the case in other graduate programs, there are students at Marquette for whom intellectual rigor is not a concern (because I am tactful, I will not name them here), but I have yet to encounter a faculty member at Marquette who does not value and emphasize scholarly excellence.
  3. I cannot imagine a graduate program with a greater commitment to students than that of Marquette. MA and PhD students alike are treated by (most) faculty as colleagues rather than serfs, and graduate students frequently appear on panels alongside faculty. Also, the majority of graduate seminars are structured so that students have the opportunity to teach each other. The members of our faculty, while obviously busy with the numerous tasks of scholarship, never lose sight of their responsibility to mentor the next generation of theologians.
  4. Financial aid is, regrettably, the one point at which Marquette falls short. Unlike other programs (Duke, Notre Dame, Emory, etc.), we are unable to fully fund every doctoral student that we admit. I myself spent my first year of doctoral study working at the reference desk in the library (one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, FYI). This is certainly not due to misappropriation of funds, but rather to the fact that we simply don’t have as much money as other programs. While the tides seem to have shifted in recent years, we still have much work to do in this regard.

Reno’s 2012 ranking closes with a useful comment, the first part of which serves as the impetus for this post: “There’s no substitute for talking to current graduate students. They have the goods on the professors. And don’t forget that studying theology, the queen of the sciences, is almost always intrinsically gratifying and worthwhile.”


Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today is the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary or, as it is known in the East, The Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos [God-Bearer] into the Temple.

The earliest attestation of this tradition is in the Proto-Gospel of James (Protevangelium Jacobi):

When the child turned three, Joachim said, ‘Let us call the undefiled daughters of the Hebrews. Let each of them take a lamp, and let each stand burning so that the child might not turn back and her heart be captivated by things outside the temple of the Lord.’ This is what they did until they came up to the temple of the Lord. And the priest welcomed her, kissed her, blessed her, and said, ‘The Lord God has magnified your name among all generations. In you the Lord will manifest his redemption to the sons of Israel in the last days.’ He placed her on the third step of the altar, and God showered her with grace. She danced with her feet, and the entire house of Israel loved her (PJ 7:4-10).

From the Festal Menaion:

Having received the fruit of the promise come from the Lord, today in the temple Joachim and Ann offered the Mother of God as an acceptable sacrifice; and Zacharias the great High Priest received her with his blessing.

Into the holy places the Holy of Holies is fittingly brought to dwell, as a sacrifice acceptable to God. The virgins adorned by virtues go before her carrying torches, and offer her to God as a most sacred Vessel.

Let the gate of the temple wherein God dwells be opened: for Joachim brings within today in glory the Temple and Throne of the King of all, and he consecrates as an offering to God her whom the Lord has chosen to be his Mother.


*the image at the start of this post is a fresco from the Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel in Padua, painted by Giotto.

Faith Like a Child

A few weeks back, I found myself in the basement of my wife’s church before the Easter vigil. I wandered into a classroom, and on the walls were some images that intrigued me. They were clearly drawn by children, but I cannot speculate as to the nature of the project. There were about 15 total, and I photographed two of the best to share with you. Without further delay, here they are, accompanied by some commentary (click images to enlarge):

Image 1: A fascinating combination of theology and science! In case you can’t make out the captions, let me assist. The rocket ship is God, and the fuel tank and “extra” rockets are “other religions.” The robotic arm of the rocket is Jesus, and the satellite it grasps is none other than the Catholic Church. Now, the captions also stipulate that the rockets on the ship (In addition to the “extra” rockets? I’m not sure.) are the Holy Spirit. The astronauts, of course, are believers. In this case, there is only one astronaut: Spongebob Squarepants. Curious, mad, brilliant. Some questions, of course, arise. First, if Spongebob is a believer, then why is he floating around outside of both the rocket ship and the satellite, both of which would be proper locations for a person of faith (assuming that the satellite is actually a space station). Second, if the rockets are both other religions and the Holy Spirit, then what is the fire? Third, don’t satellites generally detach from the arms that launch them? Or, does this image depict the drawing in of the satellite to God?












Image 2: A theological interpretation of America’s favorite sport. Like the image of the rocket, there are captions. The scene is set in “Catholic Church Stadium.” The Christians are in the home dugout pitted against “other,” situated in the away dugout. Jesus is, quite obviously, the pitcher, and the Holy Spirit is the catcher. Spongebob makes another appearance here, as an outfielder. As was the case with the last image, in this one he is also a believer. More questions, of course. First, what precisely is Jesus throwing to the Holy Spirit? Second, who’s on third? Seriously, I can’t tell. Third, who’s up to bat first?











In case you’re wondering, these were not the only two images in which Spongebob made an appearance, although my fascination with him would certainly imply as much. He was actually in almost all of them, strangely.