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.

Brennan Manning RIP

I am saddened this morning to hear of the passing of Brennan Manning. His life and work were an inspiration to many, and he will be sorely missed.

“We see our darkness as a prized possession because it drives us into the heart of God. Without mercy our darkness would plunge us into despair – for some, self-destruction. Time alone with God reveals the unfathomable depths of the poverty of the spirit. We are so poor that even our poverty is not our own: It belongs to the mysterium tremendum of a loving God.” – Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. Amen.


Walter Kasper on Demythologization

Bultmannians and anti-Bultmannians alike, take note!

“Whatever detailed criticism may have to be made of these attempts to demythologize faith in Christ, we must always remember that demythologization is not unjustifiable in its critical or in its positive aspects. There is a time and a place for demythologization. It is undeniable that in generally current ideas of Christianity, Jesus Christ is often thought of more or less as a god descending to earth whose humanity is basically only a kind of clothing behind which God himself speaks and acts. Extreme notions of that kind see God dressed as a Father Christmas, or slipping into human nature like someone putting on dungarees in order to repair the world after a breakdown. The biblical and church doctrine that Jesus was a true and complete man with a human intellect and human freedom, does not seem to prevail in the average Christian head. Therefore demythologization is not only permissible but necessary; precisely in order to disclose the authentic meaning of belief in Christ”

From Walter Kasper’s Jesus the Christ (New York: Paulist, 1976), 46.

A Confession (or, “Picking on Leviticus”)

Where I’m from (the Bible belt), having read the Bible “cover to cover” is a point of pride. Persons who have done so flaunt it like a merit badge. But I have a confession to make: I’ve never read the Bible cover to cover.

For those that would take this confession as a question of my ability to study or teach the Bible, let me say that I’m fairly certain I’ve read (or at least heard) every word of it, whether through articles, books, the liturgy, sermons, etc. That is, I can’t remember the last time I read something that “surprised” me in the sense that I didn’t recall having encountered it previously. But I have never started at the beginning and made it to the end.

I have tried to do so three times: once when I was in high school; once in college; and once this morning. That’s right, this morning I started to read the Bible from the beginning.

But why this morning? First of all, I turned in another chapter of the dissertation yesterday, and  I decided that today I needed a break from editing and writing (I realize that I’m writing this in a blog post). Second, I’m slated to teach an Introduction to Theology course this summer and an Introduction to the New Testament course in the fall, and I figured I would dive in and start putting together some reading assignments (tentatively, of course). In doing so, what I realized is that Leviticus is typically the point at which my eyes start glossing over the pages. When I got to the second genealogy in Numbers, I took two Excedrin and called it quits. “Never again,” I said. This time, I think I mean it.

Is this to say that I find the Old Testament boring? Not exactly. I find certain portions of it (like Leviticus) to be quite tedious, but for the most part it is comprised of engaging and even entertaining (at points) narratives.

The experience lead me to think about the expectations we have of those we teach. In the tentative outline I had prepared for my summer class, I had as an assignment, “read Leviticus.” That has now changed to “skim Leviticus.” If I, as one who is passionate about this material, cannot bring myself to read Leviticus all the way through without my eyes glazing over, then how can I expect my students (many of whom will be taking my class against their will) to do otherwise? Maybe things would be different if I were teaching a course on Leviticus (which will never happen) or the Pentateuch (which may happen), but for Introduction to Theology, I think this approach will suffice.

Or, perhaps I’m just justifying my own laziness and encouraging my future students to do likewise? We will see.

Search Strings in 2012

As this year draws to a close, I thought it might be fun to see how and why people make their way to this blog. Below are the top ten search strings from the past year, followed by what are arguably some of the more unusual.

  1. “ron swanson pyramid of greatness” — without a doubt, the single most popular post on this blog is (almost) entirely non-theological. Nearly a quarter of all visitors arrive seeking the path that will lead them “from boys to men, from men to gladiators, and from gladiators in Swansons.” Namaste.
  2. “easter cartoons” — A collection of delightful images.
  3. “roller coaster” — I once compared dissertation-writing to the riding of roller coasters…not sure if this is what you were seeking.
  4. “shadow of the galilean summary” — This search string seems to be popular right around mid-term time. I can’t help but think that desperate undergraduates are in search of Cliff’s Notes for this fantastic book.
  5. “how to write a paper proposal” — I’m glad to see that this post is still getting some mileage.
  6. “petaus” — A post that (surprisingly!) became a small section in the dissertation! Win!
  7. “enchiridion biblicum” — A fantastic collection of works related to study of the Bible from a Catholic perspective.
  8. “the shadow of the galilean” — Yep, on here twice.
  9. “harold camping” — A throwback to a meme that has thankfully died out.
  10. “noah’s ark” — Apparently the Dutch recreation of the Ark has in fact sailed?

And now, for the humorous and the downright strange:

  1. “nuhun gemisi” — “Noah’s Ark” in Turkish. See 10, above.
  2. “my family has left me” — I’m terribly sorry. Let me know if I can help.
  3. “bogojavljenje” — “Epiphany” in Serbian, in search of this (I think?).
  4. “creepy moustache meme” — No idea.
  5. “naked gardening” — Probably a reference to this post, although I’m not entirely sure they were searching for this.
  6. “cosmic jewish zombie” — Looking for Jesus? Aren’t we all.

Thanks to everyone who reads, and have a blessed 2013.

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.