Evolution of a Project

When I left for Oxford, I more or less had a plan. I was going to study the way that religious experience is represented in the fictions of Ursula K. Le Guin and Terry Pratchett. As non-Christian representatives of the fantasy genre who nonetheless dealt outstandingly well with what I would call the spiritual and even religious, I set out to examine how they did so and why it might matter for the public’s conversation about religion, culture, and popular media.

As it turns out, however, do a PhD entails more than just pursuing the idea of a prject that you cooked up in your living room in the hopes of being admitted to a program, no matter how interesting you think that project might be on its face. Here at the end of my first academic year at Oxford, I have found my project ot have evolved considerably. Le Guin and Pratchett are still wandering about through my thought, but as I have transformed a mostly literary project  with a theological edge into a theological project with a literary flavor, the questions I am asking and the means by which I am seeking to answer them have changed.

This is from Discworld Emporium

In the theological world, we sometimes use words in different ways to their typical meanings. For instance, most people who know the word “anthropology” take it to have something to do with remote tribes and museums and maybe something to do with culture. Anthropology as it is taught in universities is mostly just that: cultural anthropology, or the study of human cultures and their internal rationales. 

Theological anthropology is something different. In theology, “anthropology” doesn’t refer to “the study of people” in the way cultural anthropologists mean it, but rather to “what it is that we mean when we say ‘person’ at all”. Theological anthropology is that branch of theology concerned with the human being considered as such. Like all aspects of theology, this one dimension impinges on all the others, and it is in these overlaps that much of the interest in systematic theology is to be found. My supervisor, Graham Ward, likes to say that doing systematic theology is like tugging on a spiderweb: pull on this point and then see how evertyhing else changes as a result. For example, saying something about what it is to be human immediately has implications for a Christian on what is meant by the Incarnation. And any doctrine of the Incarnation requires answers to questions about the Trinity and Creation and questions of how God reveals herself to her creation. Pull here and see how everything else responds.

It became clear from an early stage in my research that as I was interested religion and literature, with stories and how stories work on the people who read them, hear them, live them out, that I was going to be at the very least brushing up against the idea of myth and mythology: religion an dstories and rituals and ethics. As I began reading about myth and mythology and philosophers’ approaches to langauge and narrative, it soon became clear that the question of myth and myth-making is very much a question of human nature: what is it about people that we are so preoccupied with stories: their making and their telling and their refashioning again? In theological terms, this is a question of anthropology.

In keeping with the spiderweb principle just outlined, it soon also became clear that any question of storytelling is also a question of creativity, and from a Christian theological perspective, any question of human creativity or inventiveness immediately demands situating in proximity to or in relationship with divine creativity. Is human creativity a reflection of divine creativity? Is it a manifestation of or continuation of divine creativity?  And if it is any of these things, who cares? What difference would it make?

It is now the gist of my project to explore these questions, with the many and varied personalities of Earthsea and the Discworld as my guides and inspiration, interlocutors and travleing companions. In very different ways, both sets of fictions seem to me to say true things about the human condition that are in now way at odds with the human experience of God that is described in Scripture and the tradition of the faithful. On eway or another, exploring these questions is where I am off to next.

In the Bleak Midwinter: en Route to a DPhil

There was a moment, a brief, foolish moment, when it seemed like Spring was about to arrive. And then, at the very end of February, Winter returned to England and as I sit here typing in the Radcliffe Camera, the lawn outside is once again blanketed with snow. There is something wonderfully concentrating about being inside while snow or rain fall outside. I would be lying, however, if I said I would not prefer the rains of Springtime to the snows of a second Winter.

However. As the snows do fall, I have now found myself working on a 5000 word essay which I will present to the Theology Faculty as part of the next step in my DPhil process.

In comparison with the five or seven or nine years it can take to get a PhD in the US, and the extensive coursework and hoop-jumping that the US process entails, getting a doctorate in the UK is relatively straightforward and self-driven. There are no classes. There are no grades. Instead, it’s just me and my supervisor and an increasingly large pile of read, unread, half-read, and optimistically-skimmed books. However, there are a handful of way stations on the way, if everything goes according to plan. The essay I am presently carving out of the rather middling-quality stone blocks of my reading so far is part of the first milestone: the Transfer of Status.

Upon entering Oxford on the DPhil course, I was not immediately given the status of a DPhil student. Rather, we all begin with the rather delightful title of “Probationer Research Student.” I think that makes my supervisor my probation officer. Given that all postgraduate students must live within 25 miles of Carfax tower at the center of the city, the parallels grow more uncanny.

In order to progress from PRS to DPhil status, I have to present the faculty with two pieces of writing: 1) a 500 word abstract of my research giving my project a title, summarizing the project’s goals, and outlining how I am going to get from here to there and 2) a 5000 word writing sample, on the topic of the project, perhaps constituting a draft of a chapter. Finally, after submitting the writing to the faculty, it will be read by two of its members who will then interview me on my research to make sure I really do have some sense of what I’m doing here.

Assuming this goes well, I will be given full DPhil status, and the next way station is the Confirmation of Status viva (that is, an in-person interview/examination), whose purpose seems primarily to be to confirm that I am indeed still alive and still working.

Finally, at some future date, a year or two from the Confirmation viva, is THE Viva. Having submitted my thesis (here it’s a doctoral thesis not dissertation), I will dress in my sub fusc and defend my work in a one or two hour to two members of the faculty who aren’t my supervisor. Then, if my experience conforms to that of my friends, I will go drink lots of whisky.

Given the degree of freedom afforded DPhil students in the Oxford system, it seems both a long way to the Viva, and a terrifying short journey. The prospect, however, of milestones between here and there makes it feel a little bit less like I am lost in a blizzard like the one blowing outside my library window.

Living on the Cowley Road

When I found out I would be moving to Oxford, my mine immediately filled with images not unlike what you may be imagining when I say the words “moving to Oxford.” You know, things like this:

www.chch.ox.ac.uk

or maybe like this:

or, then again, maybe like this:

I knew intellectually that Oxford, like the rest of England, has (at least to a certain extent) left the nineteenth century behind, but there was nonetheless a part of my imagination that still assumed that Oxford would be filled mostly with posh white people and maybe some horses.

But this is, of course, most certainly not the case. Without a doubt, there is no shortage of posh white people, and though I haven’t seen them, the existence of a riding club suggests there are horses at least in the vicinity. The truth of Oxford in 2017, however, is far more excellent than the images offered my imagination by a lifetime of nostalgic media and romanticism.

As chronicled in a previous post, bringing the cats from California curtailed my housing options more than a little bit, and as a result, I have ended up living far from the yellow stone fortresses of dark wood-panelled learning that comprises the entirety of most American’s understanding of this city. The neighborhood I find myself in is named after the road that takes you out of Oxford and into nearby Cowley. Cowley Road is in East Oxford, and is by far the most interesting part of the city I have yet discovered.

Not only is it one of the most ethnically and economically diverse parts of Oxford, it is densely packed with a wide variety of markets, shops, places of worship (at least two churches and three mosques), venues, theaters, restaurants, and pubs. It’s amazing.

One one walk from my house into the city center, I counted the markets along the way. Not including a Tesco, a Sainsbury’s, and a tiny Co-Op market, Cowley road is home to at least two halal markets:

a self-identifying Oriental Food Store:

two Polish markets, a Lebanese market, a Moroccan market, a Korean and Japanese market, an Italian market and deli, an Indian and Pakistani grocery, and an English butcher’s shop:

I will clearly be cooking All the Food.

This is not the Oxford that people like me come to visit, and it’s a part of the city that many tourists probably never see. Which is a shame. Coming from the San Francisco Bay Area, I have found myself more at home in Cowley Road, where I routinely overhear conversations in Arabic or Farsi or Mandarin than I often do in the city center where I have occasionally struggled to follow a conversation with someone from Manchester.

Cowley Road also shows up some of the reality of Oxford behind the curated beauty of the old colleges. It is an expensive and unequal city with tensions between town and gown and virtues that have nothing to do with the scholarship and research that go on in the labs and libraries. I have a lot to learn about the city in general and my neighborhood in particular, but I am currently grateful that my unthankful and always hungry cats brought me into a part of the city that I might not otherwise have had much call to visit.

Though I spend most of my time here dodging buses on my way up the Cowley Road to the library or my college, I look forward over the next three or four years to learning more about the life of a place that is not the Oxford I had imagined, but is the Oxford that I have found and have found to be at least as wonderful as the Hogwartsian splendor of Christ Church College’s Tom Tower and long-tabled dining hall and certainly tastier.

 

 

How to win friends and influence people (with cats)

It has been almost a month since I arrived in England.

There is much to say about how I got here and how things have gone since I did, but it’s more than one post can reasonably contain. So for now I will constrain myself to the part that seems most important, at least to the majority of people I meet: the cats.

Sometimes a cat is a burrito

When I decided to embark on a doctoral degree abroad, it seemed unthinkable from the beginning that Sam and Merry should stay in the US. And so, from the beginning of my planning, I have done my best to figure out how to bring them along.

Thankfully, the UK has a reasonably open policy to bringing pets into the country, at least when one is bringing them from the US. However, there are so many moving parts that impinge on the process, it seems useful to lay out the process in the way that I *ought* to have gone about it, rather than as I actually did. My method ended with the cats in England, but some weeks after me and at the end of a harrowing 24 hours of travel and weeks of long-distance negotiations and management with my long-suffering friend Ben who looked after them in the interim.

Step 1: Don’t fly on Sundays

By the wisdom of the Algorithms that determine arifares and rewards flight availabilities, it was determined that I should fly on the 27th of August. As it happens, the 27th was a Sunday. For a variety of reasons, I was not flying straight form the Bay Area (where I had lived for the past four years) to England, but rather travelling about the country for a month saying goodbye to friends and family and attending GenCon, an outstanding tabletop gaming convention in Indianapolis. The plan had been to leave the cats with my parents in San Diego before picking them up en route to San Francsico to take the decreed rewards flight to London Heathrow on the 27th.

A number of difficulties ensued. First, Sam is a big boy. A big, big boy. Unable to fly underseat on Southwest from SFO to San Diego by virtue of both his considerable height and girth (is 18 pounds too much cat?), the cats were left stranded in the Bay Area. The generosity of my friends Ben and Emily meant that the kitties could lodge with them for the month I was travelling, and then they could meet me at SFO in time to be bundled off to the animal cargo services to accompany me and my brother Louis to England.

All was set, and I was arranging matters with British Airways’ cargo service IAG, when the cargo representative mentioned in an offhand fashion that SFO doesn’t handle pets on Sundays.

What???

This information is posted nowhere on the internet that I could determine, whether on official pages or in forums for curious or disgruntled travelers. Known only to shipping agents like IAG, certain airports do not handle pets on Sundays for reasons known only to themselves and (perhaps) their most trusted and beloved family members.

This put a wrinkle in things, but not a disfiguring crease, as far as I could then tell. My flight being locked in by the Mysterious Oracles of the Algorithm, I prevailed upon Ben and Emily to look after the cats for a couple of more days before sending them on, on their own, to be collected by me a couple of days after arriving in Oxford.

Step 2: Don’t travel for a month, leaving your cats, before flying without them.

One of the conditions of the UK government’s scheme to ease the entry of pets into the country is to require that they receive a full checkup and vaccination check no more than ten (10) days before flying.

The incredibly generous Ben agreed to take the cats to the vet on my behalf, since I would be in Indianapolis and then San Diego during that vital span of days.

As it happens, the UK also requires a certified “pet passport” that, in the US case, involves having the vet’s report certified by an office of the US Department of Agriculture. And, depending on who you ask, this must be done no more than 48 hours before the poor beasties fly. When this new knowledge became clear, Ben once again agreed to ferry the documents to their requisite offices.

Step 3: Don’t let your cats’ vaccinations get out of date

When the appointed day arrived, ten days before flight, it was revealed that the cats’ rabies vaccine was out of date. Given that the island to which I was moving is more or less rabies-free, this was a rather glaring lapse and meant that their vaccine would need to be renewed, and more than that, that they would have to stay, rabies-free, in the US for a full 21 days after getting jabbed before entering the UK.

And so it was, nearly eight weeks after leaving them baffled and somewhat terrified in a congenial and loving house in Oakland, that I collected the poor blighters from Heathrow, almost three weeks after setting foot in-country myself.

Step 4: Don’t expect to live anywhere you like

UK landlords hate pets.

This is my only conclusion after searching the rental ads for weeks and weeks and finding, in the end, only one place within a reasonable distance of my college and department that would allow me to bring the cats.

There appears to be a widespread fear that pets will scratch, pee, and chew any rented property into an indistiguishable pulp if allopwed inside, and so the vast majority of landlords will not hear of it.

The only acceptable property I was able to find was not available for anothe rthree weeks after I had arranged for AirBnB interim housing, but thankfully it seems homey and meets most of my needs.

Step 5: Tell people about how cute your cats are

It may well turn out that their company might make not only my life, but that of many of my friends and classmates a sight better for all the trouble.

With the exception of one person who huffily asserted that pets are oppression, everyone I have met whom I have told about the cats has rather embarassedly inquired as to when and how they might come visit.

One dimension of the scarcity of pet-friendly rentals is the hunger of so many for the pets they have left behind somewhere in their past before coming to the pet-free zone that is Oxford.

In a city filled with bright people studying interesting things, I had not expected that two furry pains in my behind would prove to be the most interesting thing about me. Worth it, though.

Rainfall

Inside, listening to heavy rain fall.
 
Though I have no doubt this sound will become more and more familiar the longer I live in England, it will always remind me of those few, precious, rainy days we had when I was in elementary school.
 
In third and fourth grades, my classrooms were in thin-roofed temporary buildings, and on those rare days in winter and springtime when the much-needed rains would come, it was like sitting inside a drum.
 
s meant hope and life. I know that for some rain has been destructive beyond imagining in the wake of two powerful hurricanes. In the very different climate of the dry southwest, rain was always something different. Because water is so precious in California, a fact of which I was aware even then as we toiled through a nearly decade-long drought, that pounding sound on thin rooftops and splashing against windows evokes a sense of safety and comfort.
 
In a strange way, as I sit in this small backyard guest house in an Oxford suburb, listening to the rain come down, I feel more at home in England than I yet have, bringing to mind memories of a blessedly happy childhood.
 
Rain bringing life and signifying hope for things to come.

The books in my head(er image) 4: I Shall Wear Midnight

This is the fourth in my series of posts on the books that are stacked in the header image of this site. Each of them has contributed to my decision to embark on a DPhil studying faith and imagination. The first is on Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf, and the second is on Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, and the third addresses Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice.

I came to the Discworld late and slowly, but between getting handed a copy of The Color of Magic in college by a friend and then discovering the masterful narration skills first of Nigel Planer and then Stephen Briggs in the audio productions of the other two score novels, it was not long before I discovered that Pratchett and the Discworld were more than the snarky satirical fantasy that the first handful of books promise.

For those unfortunates who have not read any of the Discworld books, the Discworld is just what it says on the tin: a flat, circular world. It glides through the cosmos on the back of four elephants who themselves ride on the back of Great A’tuin, a sea turtle of truly enormous proportions. The Disc is, as is often noted in the opening pages of the novels, “a world and mirror of worlds”. Gradually shifting over the course of the novels from a typical medieval fantasy-type world in the best (worst?) traditions of mid-twentieth-century pulp fantasy into a kind of pastiche of the Middle Ages, Victorian England, and the industrializing west. As “mirror of worlds” it picks up stray ideas that speed through the multiverse and makes them its own, throwing up fantastic manifestations of film, rock music, print media, the telegraph, advanced medicine, and the list goes on. In all respects Pratchett couples faithful representation of the (near)human condition with a mode of social critique that employs and subverts stereotypes, usually to great comic effect.

And this is important. The books are funny. Often deeply so. And in the way that we are seeing late-night comedians drive public discourse around the travesties of the Trump administration, Pratchett was able to take contemporary issues such as economic inequality and racial injustice and through the distorting lens of fantasy and the disarming power of humor and render them compelling and palatable to a wide readership.

For instance, while the Discworld does not have the discourse around disability and access, the ways that society changes or fails to change around the issues of “dead rights” for zombies (who are prone to losing body parts at inopportune moments) and the struggles of reformed vampires (apt to disintegrate into dust in the presence of strong light) open narrative space not unlike contemporary real-world conversations.

Likewise, it is a lot easier to talk about religion when the gods in question are Offler the Crocodile God whose favorite offering is grilled sausages, The Great God Om (who spends much of one novel in the form of a tortoise trying not to be eaten by eagles and hungry humans), and Anoia, goddess of things that get stuck in drawers and whose most cherished prayer is “How can it close on the damned thing but not open with it? Who bought this? Do we ever use it?” While religion, ostensibly, has a major role in the Discworld itself, it rarely takes center stage. However, questions of religious tolerance and controversies over piety abound. As is often asserted throughout the later novels, Dwarves have no religion, at leas inasmuch as they don’t spend much time at worship to a named personal deity. However, the legal disputes and conflict over what constitutes “true dwarfishness” as determined by the legal experts called grags, sure starts looking like religion more broadly construed. The freedom of the setting and the genre allow Pratchett to explore religion without stepping not he toes of any particular real-world faith.

Which brings us, more or less, to Tiffany Aching. I Shall Wear Midnight is the forty-fourth of forty-seven novels, books, and short stories set in the strange world of the Disc, and it represents the final complete* story of the adventures of Tiffany Aching, witch from the Chalk country that strongly resembles Pratchett’s own childhood countryside.

There is not much religion on the Chalk, and when it arrives in the form of traveling preachers or private devotees, it is usually met with a lack of interest or a silent disdain. However, and this is what I find compelling about the Tiffany Aching books especially, is that in the place of priests and churches, the Chalk has witches.

Reading The Wee Free MenA Hat Full of SkyWintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight, and observing the way that witches function in Chalk society led me into the avenues of thought which eventually led me to the doctoral work I am set to begin in October. Though not religious in themselves or in the least, Tiffany and her fellow-witches (among them the estimable Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg) nonetheless fill the roles of clergy in many ways. The attend to the dying and even sometimes officiate weddings. They mediate transcendence to the people in the form of magic. They teach and offer pastoral care. In this they are not unlike the wizards of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle. After writing a comparison of the two cultures of magic in a paper for the American Comparative Literature Association in 2015, I began to think I might be on to something.

Not only do the witches and wizards occupy roles not unlike clergy, the nature of a fantasy world lends magic yet more religious character. The blurred lines between myth and practical reality in fantasy worlds gives all of life a mythic quality. In a world where the gods really do live on a mountain over there and the creator can be encountered in the flesh, the transcendent and meaning-laden character of the mythologies which only achieve reality by being enacted in ritual and ethical practice in our world have a concrete reality in fantasy worlds that lights everything with the transcendent.

Pratchett was not a religious person. Though he grew up in the Anglican milieu of twentieth-century England, he did not end his life a person of faith. Likewise, though deeply engaged with spirituality, Le Guin is most certainly not religious in the way the word is commonly understood today. And so the degree to which both the Discworld stories and the Earthsea stories seem to be doing something religious, seem to be saying something about who God is and what mythic thinking can look like in everyday life. Or, put in the terms of the witches stories in Discworld, stories are real and they have power: we get to choose the stories we live by and we have the power to resist and participate in the “narrative causality” that takes the Discworld place of fate, and even Divine Providence.

I keep returning to the Discworld, and to the stories of Tiffany Aching especially because they seem to be saying something interesting about what counts as transcendence and how stories shape our lives. Or, as I like to call it: religion.

Sermon: Burned in the fire

Delivered at Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco on the seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 11A • Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

A few months ago, Larisa and I were vested, getting ready for the 8:30 service, when it started to rain.

We both stood at the front doors of the church and just stared out at it, a little be stupefied.

Larisa turned to me and said that it’s easy to spot native Californians by their response to the rain.

As some of you know, I am going to be starting a PhD in England this Fall studying theology and the imagination, and the most frequent comment I get when I tell people where I’m moving is, “Ohh, but what about all the rain??” and the question is ususally accompanied by a worried expression, or a sad face, as though if I live there long enough I’m either going to be drowned by all the water or I’m going to become so depressed by the wet weather that I’ll give up and come home.

But what the people asking this question never realize is that having grown up in San Diego, where it is always dry and it only rains ten or fifteen days out of the year if we’re lucky, I always experience rain as a kind of stupefying miracle. “Wait?? This water is just falling out of the sky??”

When I was a boy growing up in the countryside north of San Diego, I remember standing outside behind our house late in the summer, looking out across the valley and seeing towers of smoke rising from the other side of the hills. On the underside of the clouds, I could see a red glare from the flames of the brushfire that was burning away all of the grass that had grown during the spring rains. Occasionally, even though the fire had not yet reached the top of the hills, I could see a red tongue of flame reach up above the crest of ridge, the flames were so tall.

This is the fire that I see in my imagination whenever I hear Jesus speak about fire, and when I hear him speak of wailing, I hear the sirens of the fire engines.

I don’t remember being afraid that the fire would reach our house, but I do remember being impressed by the power of the flames and how hot they burn.

I think a lot of us get uncomfortable when we hear Jesus talking about fire.

Jesus parables of Judgment have been used for too long to draw lines between “us” and “them”, between those who are saved and those who aren’t, and I don’t doubt that many of us here this morning have run up against one of those lines at some point in our lives, and as many of us have, at one point or another, drawn a line, or tried to find one, so that we could know where was the right place to be, and where was the wrong place.

• •

Another of my earliest memories, even before the fire on the hills, is of my mom and myself in the kitchen, listening to the radio report about fighting somewhere in the world. Hardly understanding what I was hearing, I was able to gather enough to know that at least two sides were fighting, and I remember asking my mom who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. I think I was in kindergarten at this point.

Wise woman that she is, I remember my mom telling me that there aren’t really such things as good guys and bad guys. And then she then did her best to explain civil war in Nicaragua at the 5-year-old level.

And she is right, of course, even though it is usually hard to admit it.

It’s just so comforting getting to know who is a stalk of wheat *points at self confidently* and who is a weed… It’s so comforting to know that the people I despise and who despise me are eventually going to receive the punishment they so dearly deserve.

What else is going to church for, right?

Only we don’t actually get it that easy. Not that it’s really easy. Because however these parables of Judgment, that end with wailing agrinding of teeth and being cast into the ourter darkenss, however these parables have been used over the centuries, they have been co-opted into our perennial desire to be right and to be pure, and we have forgotten or refused to remember the much harder teachings: that the one who is speaking spent his days with sinners and tax collectors, and he ate with them.

Jesus, our teacher, our brother, our God, went out into the field and found us each both wheat and weeds.

When we hear Jesus speak of fire and we see in our imaginations the angels of the Lord throwing with weeds to be burned, generations of interpretation have taught us to hear Jesus speaking of punishment and retribution from God.

And for years I was uncomfortable about these stories for just that reason: this is not the God I had come to know.

Until a friend pointed out to me that fire means one thing to our imaginations, and something quite else to people raised in the imagination of the Torah and the Prophets. Because throughout the Hebrew Bible, fire is almost never associated with punishment: it is almost always a sign of God’s presence and when fire is painful, it is not the pain of annihilation but the pain of purification: the pain of letting go of that which is not needed: the pain of becoming fully ourselves, free from the lies sown in our hearts and in our bodies by the enemy.

The fire of God is the fire of love. It is the fire of love telling us the truth about ourselves and saying you are beloved: now be all of yourself.

• •

It’s hard to think about fires and Judgment without thinking about Dante. So much of our imagination has been filled with half-remembered or rumored images of all kinds of creative suffering in the Inferno.

But I don’t think that Dante is shown amopng the dancing saints because he had such vivid things to say about how he imagined the afterlife or what he believed happens to us when we die.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is mostly about what happens to us when we are alive. It begins midway through Dante’s life and it traces the route that he must take as he seeks after a life unburdened by the lies that he has come to believe about himself and about the world and about God and about love.

As Dante understood, before we can get to the freedom and celebration of Paradise, we have to go through the hard work and painful burning away of what we thought must be true about oursleves: Dante himself is transformed by his journey through the Inferno as he gives up his need to see vengeance on his enemies and as he lets go of his ambition and pride and need to be right, and as he comes more and more to see the world clearly through the eyes of God’s love.

• •

However much we would like it to be, the parable of the wheat and the weeds just doesn’t let us divide the world into the good ones and the bad.

Because what Jesus leaves unspoken, what he seems desperately to hope that we have gathered or will one day come to understand, is that when he speaks of the righteous and the unrighteous, he always speaking of each of us. And when he points us to judgment it is not toward vengeance or punishment but toward how drawing ever closer to God always means having burned away what we don’t need, so that we are left free to love and to create beauty and to serve the world as his hands and his feet and eyes and his voice raised in song.

The fire burns away the brush and the dry grass. And then the rains come, and something new and beautiful and long-desired is made able to grow.

• • •

Sermon: The Feast of the Strangeness of God

Trinity Sunday, Year A • Preached at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco • 11 June 2017

Genesis 1:1-2:4a • 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 • Matthew 28:16-20

Make disciples of all nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you.

Love is strange.

It is beautiful and it is painful and it is glorious and it is dangerous.

If you have ever been in love, you will know why so many songs and poems and novels and movies and works of art have been made in the hope of expressing some small fraction of the experience of love.

If you have ever loved a parent or a child or a friend, you will know how powerful and demanding and rewarding and exhausting and necessary love can be.

Love is strange.

It is all these things at once, and it is unforgiving in this insistance on being unwilling to be reduced and unwilling to be understood in the conventional way that we understand.

This is Trinity Sunday, or as we might call it: the Feast of the Strangeness of God.

From Advent through Christmas and the season of Epiphany, we experienced the birth of Jesus, our friend and God taking on a human life. Through Lent and Easter, we walked with Jesus through his life, death and glorious Resurrection.

This is the story of God drawing close to our life. It is the story of God becoming known to us in ways as familiar as speaking and eating and drinking and laying his hands on our heads.

Last week at Pentecost, we returned with Jesus’ first followers to the day on which we received God’s Holy Spirit, as close to us as our breath, when God’s own self filled us with her fire and her power.

For five seasons of our year we remember and rehearse God’s drawing near to us, and then today, after it seems as though the story is finished, we are reminded that though God is with us always, she is never just as we imagine.

On this day of the year, the week after Pentecost, we sit in wonder as we contemplate the mystery of God’s revealing herself to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: three in one and one in three.

If this does not make sense to you, then I would like to congratualte you on your skills of observation and your unwillingness just to believe what you’re told.

Because whatever else we learn as we contemplate the Trinity, we learn that God is strange. God does not fit neatly into our understanding or our categories.

The passage we just heard comes at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel. It is the last thing Matthew wants us to know about the story of God’s revelation of herself in Jesus. Mark’s gospel leaves us wondering what it means that the disciples find the tomb embpty. Luke leaves us wondering what it could mean that Jesus has ascended into heaven. But Matthew leaves us with this: everything I have told you about Jesus is true, and yet there is more.

Jesus’ final instruction to his disciples is to continue his work and to go out into the world not only proclaiming the good news of his life, death, and resurrection, but to do it in the name of the Trinity, to enact that good news in the name of of God revealed not as a solitary self, but as a relationship.

This would have been especially strange to Matthew’s community. The community for whom Matthew was writing were predominantly Jewish in outlook: he spends the most time of any of the four Gospel-writers relating Jesus to the prophecies and expectations of the Hebrew Bible. And so as the Jewish imagination more than any other culture of the ancient world was focused on the singular one-ness of God, it is remarkable that Matthew of all writers would be the first draw our gaze to the relationships within God’s single identity.

In the light of the Trinity, God is not a remote figure locked in his unknowable singularity.

In the light of the Trinity, God is in his very identity a relationship. And like all relationships built on love, it is a relationship of vulnerability and sharing. It is a relationship that has the ability to surprise and always, always the promise of new depths.

Within God’s one-ness we find many-ness, and within God’s many-ness there is always one-ness.

This is only the beginning of the strangeness of God.

My students at Stanford ask me about the Trinity a lot. Bright as they are, they want to *understand* this central claim of Christianity.

And in the end, after I have pointed them to the controversies of the third and fourth centuries in which our beloved Gregory was an active participant, in the end all I can tell them is that whatever else the Trinity is, it is a revelation of love.

Whever else was going on in the incarnation, it was a revelation of God’s love for her creation. Whatever else it is that we mean by the Holy Spirit, it is a manifestation of God’s love for her people and the power of the Father’s love for the Son.

When Jesus tell his disciples, there at the end, that they are to baptise the world in the name of the Trinity and that those who are baptized are to observe the commands that he gave, it is easy for us, who love our egalitarian ideals and resist hierarchy on principle, to bristle at this call to obedience.

But then we remember that Jesus’ really only gave one command: love on another.

To be his disciple is to learn how to love the world. To be a follower of Jesus is to learn how to love one another and to love what we have been told is unlovable.

This is the obedience to which we are called.

The strangeness of God points us toward a love that is unburdened by any sense of deserving or merit: the love of God revealed in the Trinity is unearned and always flowing.

And we who would be Christ’s followers are invited into nothing less than that strange, dancing love so that we might share it and be it everywhere.

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The books in my head(er image) 3: Poetic Justice

This is the third in my series of posts on the books that are stacked in the header image of this site. Each of them has contributed to my decision to embark on a DPhil studying faith and imagination. The first is on Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf, and the second is on Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique.

Since I arrived at Dartmouth for my undergraduate degree in what turned out to be English literature, I had assumed I would go on to do doctoral work. Beside the fact that I have always enjoyed school, and so more school seemed like something to be desired on its own merits, I have also always enjoyed teaching. As I learned more about research and the work of the academic, the PhD life grew in attraction. However, as mentioned in my post on The Limit’s of Critique, when the time came, I didn’t find the preoccupations of my chosen field to be very congenial to the questions that occupied my imagination, and so for that and other good reasons, I didn’t pursue what had been, more or less, a lifelong desire, despite being consumed with curiosity about questions like “how do stories work on people?” and “how do stories help us think about God?”

By the time I had begun entertaining the possibility of returning to school for doctoral studies, “because it would be fun” no longer seemed to be sufficient reason to put myself through the famously grueling work of getting a PhD. The intensely personal work of being a priest, as well as observing the material good being done by friends and loved ones had opened my eyes and my heart to questions of the value of the work we do. “Because I find this question fascinating” and even “because I can’t take my mind of this field of knowledge” were no longer sufficient grounds for dedicating year of my life to the work. Surely there is more good I could be doing, right?

My quandary was close cousin to the broader question being asked in the academy and beyond, namely “What good are the humanities?” Living and working in a part of the world that is enchanted and consumed by the potential for technology to solve many (all?) of the world’s problems, the value of such “soft” fields as literature, theology, and cultural studies are easy to dismiss as unnecessary luxuries. Less necessary, indeed, than Tesla sports-cars or wearable computers. (Are my prejudices showing?)

And so, despite feeling a deep desire to pursue the questions and interests that occupied my mind, I found myself needing to be able to say why my doctoral work would be of value beyond my own gratification. Martha Nussbaum helped me find the words.

A philosopher of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, Nussbaum also has an abiding interest in the power of art and literature to serve the cause of ethical formation. In Poetic Justice, she argues that the very act of reading invites the reader to see the world from the perspective of someone unlike themselves. This is the very act of empathy. Literature, then, can serve as a practice arena for developing our empathic faculties, and it can offer a point of concrete reflection on questions of difference and interpersonal conflict.

Literature, of course, can be used in the service of any kind of agenda, engendering empathy only with certain populations and promoting negative or even sentiments against others. However, Nussbaum argues, its capacity for promoting and fostering needed skills of empathy and fellow-feeling is likely unrivaled by other art forms. Narrative’s capacity to capture the temporal experience of human life and the interior experience of a variety of characters is certainly peculiarly strong. By learning to read deeply and critically, we are able to build out and learn the kind of value for difference on which a democracy depends for maintaining the sense of a common life.

What does any of this have to do with theology? Well, not necessarily much directly, except inasmuch as ethics and theology are always bound together. However, her steadfast and well-reasoned argument for the practical value of the study of stories and narrative art inspired me. Here was the framework I had been seeking to put words around the value of studying cultural artifacts and reflecting on them in ethical or indeed theological terms. For much of my ministry, I have considered it the role of the priest to help their people learn better how to read the world theologically, to discern in the shape of their own story how God is moving and how to join in that movement. Nussbaum’s articulation of the moral value of literature and the practical value in teaching people to read literature and the world more deeply has been vital in helping me to articulate why it is worth it to pursue this work: worth it to me, worth it to the church, worth it to the world.

The books in my head(er image) 2: The Limits of Critique

This is the second in a series of posts about the books that have helped to get me to where I am today, namely starting a DPhil in theology. The first covered J. R. R. Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf, an unusual book by the writer who has had perhaps the most influence on my imagination of anyone. Other books, less well-rooted in my heart, indeed encountered by chance and bought on a whim, have nonetheless had a profound effect on my thinking.

Critique proves to be a remarkably efficient and smooth-running machine for registering the limits and insufficiencies of texts… It is conspicuously silent, however, on the many other reasons why we are drawn to works of art: aesthetic pleasure, increased self-understanding, moral reflection, perceptual reinvigoration, ecstatic self-loss, emotional consolation, or heightened sensation — to name just a few. (The Limits of Critique, p.188)

The Limits of Critique, by Rita Felski

If there is one book that is directly responsible for getting me on the road back to graduate school it is The Limits of Critique. At the end of my undergraduate degree in English, I found myself disappointed by the literary conversation in academia. I had settled on an English major because of a lifelong fascination (OK, obsession) with stories: how they work, why some take root in the public imagination and others don’t, how they move us, how they show us parts of ourselves that we didn’t know about before. By the end of my four years at Dartmouth, however, I had discovered that for the most part, these questions were not being asked in English departments.  Instead, literary studies had expanded into cultural studies, using literature as the medium of investigation, and the methods employed were what Felski and others have called “symptomatic reading.”

The concern in this mode of literary analysis is to demonstrate how the text manifests symptoms of a variety of cultural and societal distresses our dysfunctions.  Symptomatic readings are engaged to show how a text undercuts itself and undermines, legitimates, or otherwise manifests a particular set of concerns. Such concerns include the economic (championed by Marxist readings), gendered (pioneered by feminist readings), and specifically oppressive (addressed by schools such as queer and postcolonial studies). Being made to study these modes of analysis in my undergraduate courses went lightyears towards breaking me out of the white, upper-middle class, bourgeois life that had led me to those very classrooms. I continue to be challenged by scholars in all of these traditions.

These discourses are vital to the welfare of society and offer a needed corrective to generations of straight, white men dictating the terms of literary discourse. They continue to form and inform my work. But they did not go very far in helping me to answer the questions that continued to burn in my imagination: how do stories work? Why do people read some books and not others? What makes a book great? Disheartened, I gave up on literary studies and followed my other passion into seminary. At the very least, theologians seemed to be taking stories seriously on their own terms because many theologians are interested in how stories work on readers and participants in the narratives certain stories describe. Thank goodness I did, or I wouldn’t be here now. Indeed in the great web of serendipity, coming to seminary in Berkeley introduced me to one of the country’s finest bookstores. Years after turning my back on a dream of doctoral work in literature, I found myself browsing the shelves of City Lights Books in San Francisco, and I happened upon The Limits of Critique and my heart was strangely warmed.

In this short book, Felski aims directly at the state of literary studies in the academy. In the end, The Limits of Critique is a plea for sanity in the study of literature and an argument in the vital battle to advance the value of the study of the humanities.

Most pointedly, Felski aims her analysis at symptomatic reading. A published feminist literary critic and professor of English at the University of Virginia, Felski had begun to find herself dissatisfied with the state of literary studies and offers The Limits of Critique as the beginning of a conversation about what is keeping the study of literature so bound up in its own internal conversation and why such privilege has been conferred on a style of reading that seems to treat the work under consideration with such disdain. The concern of symptomatic reading is always to get “under” or “behind” or “beyond” a text in order to see what it is “really up to.” Borrowing from another of my favorite thinkers on language and meaning, Paul Ricoeur, Felski begins to experiment with leaving behind the “hermeneutics of suspicion” that characterizes symptomatic reading, and adopting a “hermeneutic of generosity” that is interested in what the text is trying to do and concerns itself with the dynamics of the text itself and the text’s relationship to its history, context, and readership.

That anyone in the world of literary studies was taking these ideas seriously struck me as profoundly exciting: serious scholars are asking questions not unlike my own! It was around this time that I began to have some sense that there might be a place for me in the academic study of literature, meaning, imagination, and narrative. It is no secret that the academy has its own trends and fashions. Perhaps The Limits of Critique heralds a shift in fashion, back toward narrative and the power of fiction on its own terms.

Felski concludes Limits with a gesture towards the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) of Bruno Latour which attempts to situate art (among other things) within a series or web of relationships. I am looking forward to learning more about Latour’s thought as it might help me understand how imagination and works of fiction relate to people of faith and help them to interpret their experience and make sense of the world and their faith.