3 Minute Theologian

Words about God and Life for the Attention Deficit Generation

Category: 3MT (page 2 of 14)

How to preach, how not to tell the truth

The Independent Press Standards Organisation has had to make a judgment against that scholar, statesman and all-round paragon of civic virtue, Boris Johnson. In a column for the Daily Telegraph (for which he receives £275,000 a year) Johnson referred to polling which indicated that a no-deal Brexit was increasingly and overwhelmingly becoming the favoured option of the British public. A statistician from Reading, obviously someone wholly and embarrassingly caught up in old-fashioned “reality-based” models of discourse, complained, saying that there was no evidence of such polling or shift in the public’s opinion at all.

Benjamin Disraeli, who knew something about the nature of statistics,
and Boris Johnson, who doesn’t care

The newspaper defended their columnist, completely justifiably, saying that:

…the article was clearly an opinion piece, and readers would understand that the statement was not invoking specific polling – no specific dates or polls were referenced. …the writer was entitled to make sweeping generalisations based on his opinions… it was clearly comically polemical, and could not be reasonably read as a serious, empirical, in-depth analysis of hard factual matters.

https://www.ipso.co.uk/rulings-and-resolution-statements/ruling/?id=00154-19

Michael Stirling, the statistician, unreasonably told The Guardian: “a potential prime minister shouldn’t be able to make things up in a weekly column”.

You see, that’s where Mr Stirling is wrong. A potential prime minister should be able to make things up in a weekly column, in fact the British public expect him to make things up in a weekly column, and I have here numerous opinion polls which, satisfyingly, concur with my opinion. Opinion becomes fact, through the magical medium of wishful thinking.

Which makes me think about preaching. How often does preaching manifest itself as an opinion piece, with no connection to specific learning, chock full of sweeping generalisations based on sincerely but wishfully held opinions, and in no way confusable with “a serious, empirical, in-depth analysis of hard factual matters”? All we can hope for, infrequently, is that it might be “clearly comically polemical”, and by that I don’t mean a weak jokey story at the beginning, three paragraphs all beginning with the same letter in the middle, and a pun at the end.

How many times do we preach, as if our sermons have absolutely nothing to do with the truth?

(an unfashionable idea, I know, and certainly one that will never catch on).

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and “polemical opinion pieces.”

Preaching the Christian Gospel must never fall into any one of those categories.

How to be a pilgrim, part ii

Don’t confuse escaping with deserting:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers of Escape are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the Führer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery. In the same way these critics, to make confusion worse, and so to bring into contempt their opponents, stick their label of scorn not only on to Desertion, but on to real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the ‘quisling’ to the resistance of the patriot. To such thinking you have only to say ‘the land you loved is doomed’ to excuse any treachery, indeed to glorify it.

J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, in The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays, New ed. (London: HarperCollins, 2006), 109–61.

How to be a pilgrim, part i

Travel lightly, and lighter than you think is necessary

It is often the case that travellers take more than they think they need. If you are moving yourself from places that are familiar to places unfamiliar, isn’t it reasonable to accompany yourself with familiar objects. Thus, in the words of Neil and Tim Finn, “everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you.”

When I was a teenager I was invited to take part in a youth service expedition to Lesotho, in southern Africa. We were to help build a water supply for a youth centre in the highland village of Thaba-Tseka.1 It was my first time in Africa, and I didn’t know what to expect, or how to furnish myself for being away from England for three weeks. I borrowed a suitcase from my parents, one of those 1950s heavy-duty suitcases, designed for three-week ocean transportation to the Far East, with a frame constructed from teak, good English oak, and the dreams of Empire. It must’ve weighed 50 kg empty. So, to fill its cavernous and weighty spaces, I took a box set of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books: because, you know, when you’re travelling to Africa for the first time as a 17 year old, you will want and have time to read seven allegories of the Christian life…

Ironically, C. S. Lewis himself had already addressed this tendency. In the spring of 1927 Jack Lewis went on a short walking holiday with three friends, Owen Barfield, Cecil Harwood, and Walter ‘Wof’ Field. As Jack relates, in a letter to his brother, one of them had over-prepared for the occasion:

Now for my own adventures. I was joined [on 19 April 1927] at Oxford station by two others and we proceeded together to Goring. One of them was new to the game and turned up carrying a Tommies pack filled square like a tommy’s pack, for inspection. On the way we extracted from it a large overcoat, a sponge, four shirts, a heavy tin mug holding about a pint, two strong metal cigarette cases of pudaita proportions, and a number of those insane engines which some people associate with holidays. You know— the adaptable clasp knife which secrets a fork at one end and a spoon at the other, but in such a way that you could never really use the fork and the spoon together — and all those sort of things. Having recovered from our delighted laughter and explained that we were going to walk in an English county and not in Alaska, we made up the condemned articles into a parcel wh. we compelled him to Post home from Goring. It weighed about seven pounds.

C. S. Lewis, Letter to His Brother, 26 April 1927, in Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. W. H. Lewis and Walter Hooper, Revised and enlarged edition (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017), pp289-290

We need to learn to travel lightly.

  1. Curiously enough, this was right at the end of the period in which James Ferguson studied the work of the Tabha-Tseka development project, and criticised it as The Anti-Politics Machine . Unwittingly, I was part of post-colonial economic imperialism, a project that continues to this day – just look at the argument developing between Italy and France over the latter’s economic “assistance” program for Africa. []

One of my colleagues is a leading scholar of the work of an English poet on whom he has written some major studies. Partly as a result of a chance personal connection, in recent years he helped choose the exhibits, write the captions, and make other contributions for a display at a small museum devoted to this writer’s life and work. I spent no small amount of time in 2011 and 2012 chivvying the poor staff at this museum. Could they supply visitor numbers? Sorry, could they please document those numbers in a publicly verifiable form? Did they have evidence of what visitors to the exhibition made of the experience? Did they ask them to fill in questionnaires, did they have a comments book? Sorry, could they provide extracts in a duly authenticated form? What was the evidence of the benefit the visitors derived from their visit? Sorry, I mean evidence of what the exercise calls ‘change in their behaviours’? And so on.

…But in reality these kinds of effects, even if desirable in themselves, as no doubt many of them are, do not testify to the quality of the research at all. My colleague’s scholarship on this poet would still have been of the same high quality whether or not he had happened to be involved with this museum, let alone whether we could demonstrate beyond doubt that a thirteen-year-old visiting with a school party had written in the comments book that the exhibits were ‘ace’.

Stefan Collini, Speaking of Universities (London; New York: Verso, 2017), pp 50-51

Fromm on the Art of Conformity

Most people are not even aware of their need to conform. They live under the illusion that they follow their own ideas and inclinations, that they are individualists, that they have arrived at their opinions as the result of their own thinking and that it just happens that their ideas are the same as those of the majority. The consensus of all serves as a proof for the correctness of ‘their’ ideas. Since there is still a need to feel some individuality, such need is satisfied with regard to minor differences; the initials on the handbag or the sweater, the name plate of the bank teller, the belonging to the Democratic as against the Republican party, to the Elks instead of to the Shriners become the expression of individual differences. The advertising slogan of ‘it is different’ shows up this pathetic need for difference, when in reality there is hardly any left.

Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (1957; repr., London: Thorsons, 1995), p.11

The Alphabetised Memoir

Wow… Just, wow…

(HT @MooseAllain @robertrea)

3MT redux

The blog was behaving erratically for the last couple of days, due to a severe shortage of strong and stable leadership. My apologies for the coalition of chaos and my thanks to @banbury_bill for the unpaid and unnecessary maintenance work he has undertaken.

Without silence there is no theology; with silence there is no popularity

James Alison on why silence is unpopular:

Here I  fear that I  will have to say something rather unpopular, for we are inclined to become tireless parrots of chatty theological verborrhea. But this process of letting go of being the bearers of group values and desires so as to become a theologian, is a process bathed in silence, the silence of one who does not know how to speak. The silence of those who have been caught out in an act of false witness, and who know that their only way out is to go back over their story so as to learn to articulate the non- official version, the inconvenient one in which the wrinkles haven’t been ironed out, nor the shortcuts painted over. And for this I need a good chunk of time in which I don’t say anything, and in which I pray hard to receive the light of the truth concerning what was really going on in my life. Where I have to learn to prefer the truth that comes from the Other to every lure from a more comfortable truth.

The problem is this:  No one rewards silence. Rapid response is prized; the one with sure-footed opinions or ready answers in a stormy situation is respected. There is no reward for the months and years of silence necessary for us to give up lying and make headway in telling the truth. However, that silence, and the non-reactive capacity to tell the truth with no concern for convenience, is worth much, much more than what any of us could earn by saying a lot with very little background silence. And this means that an essential part of the shape of how we receive a theologian’s vocation is learning to survive without immediate recognition. In other words, without a capacity for deferred recognition, there is no theology. And that means that without the poverty that goes along with being someone who doesn’t have anything immediately useful to offer, there is no theology.

James Alison, ‘Oracles, Prophets, and Dwellers in Silence’, in The Practice of the Presence of God?: Theology As a Way of Life, ed. Martin S. Laird and Sheelah Treflé Hidden (New York: Routledge, 2016), 1–7.

Bullets and Dancing

This is lovely.

Clive James, the poet, critic, novelist, was diagnosed with terminal cancer (leukaemia) in 2010. In 2015 he published what was advertised as his final book, a collection of poems called Sentenced to Life. It was very well received.

Unaccountably, he is still alive, and it has just been announced that he will publish another book of poems in May. In an interview with The Guardian today he said, about the slow progress of his cancer:

“I felt like I’d dodged a bullet, and when you’re dodging a bullet the best thing you can do is turn it into a dance.”

Isn’t that great?

Best ever reason for not writing

Who would’ve thought that John of the Cross could’ve turned neglect in communication into a spiritual lesson?

To the Discalced Carmelite Nuns of Beas, from Granada, November 22, 1587

…My failure to write to you was not due to any unwillingness, for indeed I desire your great good, but to my belief that enough has already been said and written for doing that which is important; and that what is wanting, if anything is wanting, is not writing or speaking—rather these usually superabound—but silence and work. Furthermore, speaking distracts one, while silence and work recollects and strengthens the spirit. Once a person knows what has been told him for his benefit, he no longer needs to hear or speak, but to put it into practice, silently and carefully and in humility and charity and contempt of self. He must not then go in search of new things that serve only to satisfy the appetite outwardly—although they are not able to satisfy it—and leave the spirit weak and empty without interior virtue.

My silence was so that you might learn wisdom (<= my new Twitter strapline!)

Letter 7, Saint John of the Cross, Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, ed. Kieran Kavanaugh, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1973), pp. 688-689

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