3 Minute Theologian

Words about God and Life for the Attention Deficit Generation

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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

John Donne has a bad day

Letter to Sir Henry Goodere

…but mine needed an occupation, and a course which I thought I entered well into, when I submitted myself to such a service, as I thought might employed those poor advantages, which I had. And there I stumbled too, yet I would try again: for to this hour I am nothing, or so little, that I am scarce subject and argument good enough for one of mine own letters: yet I fear, that doth not ever proceed from a good root, that I am  am so well content to be less, that is dead.

From Letters to severall persons of honour written by John Donne, LONDON, Printed by J. Flesher, for Richard Marriot, and are to be sold at his shop in St Dunstans Church-yard under the Dyall. 1651.

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.

A Socio-Economic Theory of Justice (and good leather boots)

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socio-economic unfairness.

Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms, Discworld 15 (London: Corgi, 1993).

On Returning to England

Let me sing of thee, my Lionheart,
O England, of my dreams
Where sodium lights from oil-slicked roads
On factory walls doth gleam.

Where mardy proles speak scabrous prose
In snugs and pub saloons;
Cathedral towns selling tea-towel views
On shuttered afternoons.

Shared spaces and clipped public hedges,
On bus, tube, morning train
Friday evening home for DIY
And washing in the rain.

Thermos flasks, twisted salt, boiled egg,
Picnics in the car park
Union flags salute from lamp-post jacks
Football’s national mark.

What know ye now of England’s story
If only England knows?
Less than half a sixpenny paper,
Less than the sickly rows

Of suburban villas clutched on cliffs,
Double-glazed, aerialled trance,
Corry and Talent, TOWIE, Bake Off,
Lost now in Strictly’s dance.

England’s Dreaming—Kipling, Blake and Rotten,
Modest indifference.
Our Empire’s wealth and expectations,
Understate arrogance.

The ribbons of the Empire poured out
Darlo’s mills, Redcar’s forge,
Rich, black money washed from Rhondda’s vales
To the big house disgorged.

We used to build the world from this place,
Coppered, tinned and steeled votives,
The prayers of navvies, squaddies, joiners,
Firebox locomotives.

The foundry is a shopping outlet,
The pit a flattened park,
Garden centres in the railway works,
Naval-yard a landmark.

England’s Dreaming—Shakespeare, Caedmon, Bede
In moorland, wood and dale,
We buy the postcards of scenic views,
Rustic pubs sell bitter ale.

England! England! Blue remembered hills!
Home of my parents’ choice.
Allow my return to your faithless breast—
Homecoming now rejoice.

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.

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