Archive for February, 2008|Monthly archive page

New Richard Ford

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Richard Ford has a brand spankin’ new story in The New Yorker: Leaving for Kenosha.”

You can also listen to a few interviews with Richard Ford on the NPR show “The Connection.” Here he discusses his 2002 book of short stories, A Multitude of Sins, and here he discusses his indebtedness to Walker Percy, specifically his novel The Moviegoer. (unfortunately, you must have Real Player. Blechh.)

Does God Suffer?

extremehumilityicon.jpgA few days ago I finished the book The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought by Paul L. Gavrilyuk. Essentially the book is a historical study of impassibility, the doctrine that God does not suffer human emotions or feelings, in the early church fathers. While this sounds as dry as melba toast (and Gavrilyuk’s prose, though clear, is among the more wooden varieties), there are a few factors that make it really exciting. Gavrilyuk frames his whole argument as an apologetic toward the school of thought that he labels, rather cumbersomely, “The Theory of Theology’s Fall Into Hellenistic Philosophy,” which becomes his shorthand for the following:

A standard line of criticism places divine impassibility in the conceptual realm of Hellenistic philosophy, where the term allegedly meant the absence of emotions and indifference to the world, and then concludes that impassibility in this sense cannot be an attribute of the Christian God. In this regard, a popular dichotomy between Hebrew and Greek theological thinking has been elaborated specifically with reference to the issues of divine (im)passibility and (im)mutability. On this reading, the God of the prophets and apostles is the God of pathos, whereas the God of the philosophers is apathetic.

In short, the line of reasoning goes, the Bible depicts a God who suffers, Greek philosophy one who does not. With this as your starting point, which do you choose? Of course, forced into this dichotomy, any good Christian would choose the suffering God of the Bible.

This is essentially why I wanted to read this book. Gavrilyuk actually did the grunt work to show that this theory that the church fathers imposed some foreign theology onto the New Testament gospel that wasn’t unearthed until the Reformation or the advent of historical-critical exegesis actually has very little historical warrant. There was simply no consensus about these things even in Hellenistic philosophy. What the church fathers were really doing in their encounters with various forms of heresy, especially in the Sabellian, Docetic, Arian, and Nestorian controversies, was articulating a negative theology, hence the subtitle The Dialectics of Patristic Thought. In other words, they were safeguarding the inexhaustible mystery of the transcendent God. They weren’t capitulating to certain ideas dominant in their society, they were fighting to prevent certain erroneous conceptions of the person of Jesus Christ.

I encountered The Theory of Theology’s Fall Into Hellenistic Philosophy in two forms in grad school: (1) a certain New Testament exegesis prof repeatedly told his students to “be careful” reading the church fathers because they uncritically accepted theoretical and metaphysical thought forms foreign to the Bible, and (2) a certain applied theology prof sympathetic to the trinitarian thought of Jürgen Moltmann and Eberhard Jüngel (prime suspects 1 and 2 when it comes to Gavrilyuk’s Theory) appropriated their ideas in a very practical way.

So does God suffer? Well, yes and no. Literally. Cyril of Alexandria, who articulated the doctrine in its most fleshed out form, used the formula “the impassible God suffered” in Jesus Christ as his theological crux in his debates with Nestorius. Any attempt to resolve this paradox ultimately results in heresy.

The answer beyond that is complicated but fascinating. Jesus Christ suffered in his human nature, but not in his divine nature. His divine nature was involved in the sufferings of Jesus, because Jesus’ human and divine natures were, after all, inseparably joined. But in suffering, Jesus did not merely identify with human suffering but overcame it through his divinity. A God who merely identifies with human suffering isn’t capable of saving us from it. Moreover, Gavrilyuk meticulously points out that impassibility does not simply mean God is incapable of all emotions, but is rather incapable of the type of emotions that are not historically-defined as “God-befitting,” such as grieving and despair. Otherwise, again, how would he overcome them for our salvation?

It’s exciting to see a theologian worth his salt who is taking on both the assumed fall of Christian theology into some kind of dark age after the New Testament era as well as the near-consensus among modern systematic theologians that God suffers in his very being. As this book is an extremely focused and dense theological monograph, I hope these ideas catch on at a more popular level.

Missing Vancouver

During the morning, I often listen to music while I work. A few times in the last couple weeks, I have put on Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan album, and as soon as the first few chords ring out on “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid),” wham! I’ve suddenly been transported back to Vancouver on a rainy day and am completely awash in nostalgia.

Oddly, the things I miss at these moments are not my wonderful friends or great church, the spectacular views or beautiful summers, but smaller, more mundane things: the solitary moments crossing the street in a crowd at Main and Broadway, watching the shops go by through the window on the bus, cutting through Kinsgate Mall on my walk home. Every morning Jess and I would walk together to Tenth and Main, kiss goodbye, and then she would walk down Tenth the few remaining blocks to the church where she worked and I would walk down Main to Broadway to wait for the bus to take me to school. As we went our separate ways I would typically put in my earbuds and turn on some music, usually Sufjan Stevens (hence the flashbacks now). The sounds of the street would fade away, and I would observe the gray Vancouver mornings from my secluded sonic space.

Also oddly, riding the bus was one of the parts about living in the city I grew to despise the most. I hated standing up when the bus was full; I hated that it took an hour to get to school when I could make the drive in twenty minutes; I hated when tired UBC students would slump against me as they fell asleep or, worse, when they wouldn’t stop chattering inanely. But now I just ache to ride around the city on a rainy day, watching all the different people and shops and restaurants as rain spatters on the windows.

I’m not unaware of my idealization of this experience. I remember how boring it was. I remember how wet I got standing under the (nonfunctional) awning. I remember how frustrated I’d be when the third bus would pass me by without even slowing down, chalk full of students from Burnaby and Coquitlam. I’m also not unaware of the irony that all of the melancholy songs Sufjan was singing were about the place in which I now live. I can’t help it. Nostalgia’s got me by throat. Worse, its venom seems to be working: I don’t want it to let go.

Below is the 99 (B-Line) at Broadway and Granville. I got this picture online, and it looks like the bus has been photoshopped in. Oh well. It evokes what I miss so much. You can see the purple neon lights of the Cactus Club Cafe all the way on the right. Down the street to the left (off-picture) is Chapters Bookstore. This picture was probably taken just in front of Tanglewood Books. There were at least three coffe shops on this block alone.

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The inside of the 99 (the best spot was the one just behind the accordion-looking hinge, all the way to the right, next to the window, so you could look out but also stretch your legs):

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Sigh.

Happy Birthday, Old Master

Today is W. H. Auden’s 101st birthday.

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Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

1940

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Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Be Kind Rewind

I just stumbled across a new movie coming out this weekend called “Be Kind Rewind,” starring Jack Black and Mos Def. It’s a comedy about two guys who, after Jack Black’s character mistakenly erases every VHS tape in Mos Def’s character’s store, reshoot all of the films with their own equipment and (lack of) expertise. The film looks pretty clever, and I’m excited to see it. It’s directed by Michel Gondry, who also directed “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” – a film he cowrote with Charlie Kaufman, who also wrote “Being John Malkovich.” So, if you’re familiar with these movies, it’s a pretty safe assumption that “Be Kind Rewind” will playfully tinker around with the nature of storytelling and raise all sorts of fascinating questions. Probing the themes while at the same time destabilizing them. One could almost call it metacinema. And that’s exactly what Be Kind Rewind is. It’s a movie about making movies of movies. As with these other movies, it’s almost like looking down a hall of mirrors, like when John Malkovich goes into John Malkovich’s head, all the people are John Malkovich, and all they say is “Malkovich.”

But it gets better. When I first watched the trailer (which you can find here), I was, I think mistakenly but one can never be sure with these things, directed to this video on YouTube, which is – at first glance – a ramshackle, homemade-looking attempt at a movie trailer made by a some French guy. At first I thought the whole thing might just be a joke, then I found the movie’s official site and watched the real trailer. The first one I had watched was actually a crappy frame-by-frame remake of the official trailer (at which point I decided that the French guy who made it is very clever). The more I thought about it, though, the cleverer I thought it was to do a remake of the trailer in the style of the remakes in the movie. Then I realized that the French fellow in the trailer was in fact the film’s director, Michel Gondry, himself! I was falling even farther down his hall of mirrors without even realizing it.

Except the further down the hall of mirrors you go, the more bizarre the images become. In the remakes that Jack Black and Mos Def do in the movie, they substitute male actors in wigs for female actors and use sub-par special effects that imitate the movie effects. In the crappy trailer, however, the males-substituted-for-females are substituted with male mannequins in wigs, and the crappy cars that Jack Black and Mos Def substituted for the fancy ones in movies are little toy cars. It’s like making a copy of a copy of a copy. Where does the charade end? What are the boundaries between art and reality? How distorted is the image we have of ourselves?

I’m not expecting all these questions to be raised or explored in the movie (though some of them definitely will), and it’s kind of beside the point anyway, because it’s interesting food for thought. Incidentally, these are actually themes explored in two great novels: The Moviegoer by Walker Percy and In the Beauty of the Lilies by John Updike. This is definitely a movie I’ll be seeing sooner rather than later.

More Zany Mishaps in the Reimer Family

This morning Jess had to leave for work before I did. On these colder days I usually watch from the window as she goes through the entire rigmarole of depositing her lunch into the passenger seat, starting the car, plopping Charlie into his carseat, buckling him in, and scraping the windows – all of which activities are fair game on any given day. Evidently there are times in the past when Jess has been yelling for assistance while I’m already in the shower. This is why I watch, not just for amusement. So this morning as I observed Jess from the window this is what I saw (mind you it’s seven degrees Fahrenheit, snowing, and thirty-mph gusts of wind).

She opened the driver’s door and put her lunch in the car. Then she put the keys in the ignition and started the car. Then she closed the door to put Charlie in his carseat. She tried the back driver side door and it wouldn’t open. Through the window I heard the handle click, but the door wouldn’t open. So she opened the front driver’s side door and hit the unlock button and closed it. Same click, no open. I heard Jess give a groan of frustration (through the glass door, above the howling wind, from the third floor of our apartment building). Jess opened up the front driver side door again and hit the unlock button, carefully left it cracked open, and walked around to the back passenger side door. Click. No open. Then I watched her walk back around to the front driver side door, put Charlie down in the driver seat, and lean over the seatback to open the back driver side door. As she was doing this, the foot she had the most weight on slipped on some ice and her shin cracked down on the door frame. At this point Charlie started screaming. After watching Jess’s contorted body flail around for a few more moments, I saw the back door creak open. I also heard the ice and snow reluctantly pry away from the weather stripping. Jess picked up the screaming boy and began the process of buckling him into his carseat. A minute or two later they drove out of the parking lot, and I, feeling a little bad but also a little amused, went to take a shower.

Fast forward a little while to me walking down to my car to go to work. My front driver side door never opens from the outside, so getting into my car in the morning is always a little bit of an adventure. Usually I open the back driver side door, reach over the seat, and pop open the door from the inside. This is what I proceeded to do, but when I went to open the back driver side door, it was stuck from the cold and ice. When this happens (and it happens often) I just walk around the back of the car and slide in across the bench seat from the passenger side. Well, as I was doing this my foot slipped on a glassy smooth patch of ice concealed by the dusting of snow we received this morning. I planted my other foot to catch myself, but it also slipped and wham! I was flat on my back before I knew it. I came through with no injuries, thankfully, so I was able to get up and brush the snow off my clothes with little ado. I walked over to the passenger side front door and grabbed the handle to pull it open. When I did, my finger slipped off the cold metal, bent my fingernail back, and left the tip of my fingers stinging from the cold and the shock, like when you hit a baseball but you don’t really connect and your hands hurt real bad. Ouch! When I was finally able to open the door, get in, and start the car, I noticed that I had actually cracked the back driver side door open when I was trying to open it from the outside. I reached over the seat to slam it shut and noticed that the seat was, one, wet from all the rain we got yesterday and, two, covered with snow from the flurries this morning. (My back window is stuck about an inch down from the top and I can’t roll it back up, which makes for cold rides to work. The other side is the same but has a scarf stuffed into the opening.) Well, I managed to get the door open, but when I slammed it it wouldn’t shut. So I slammed it again. And again. And again. I slammed the door about two dozen times, but it just kept bouncing back open. So I got out and slammed it from the outside about a dozen more times (I hoped our neighbors who live below us with the stupid yappy dog were trying to sleep while I was doing this). I was just about to give up, when for some inexplicable reason the latch caught. The door was closed! Then I realized that I had closed my driver side door. You know, the one that doesn’t open from the outside. I was ready for the the deadly-slick patch of ice and the finger-bruising door handle, and they didn’t cause me any more bodily harm as I walked back around the car to trundle back over the passenger seat and into the driver position.

Don’t you wish you lived in Chicago in February?

The Joys of Parenthood

Last night at about 2:00 a.m. I awoke in a groggy stupor to hear Jess saying, “here, let me get your nose,” while leaning over me and wiping my nose with a kleenex. I was still half-asleep and didn’t quite comprehend the situation I found myself in. By the time I was fully awake, Jess was already sheepishly walking to the bathroom. When she came back I said, “were you just wiping my nose?” She laughed out loud and then told me that she had been dreaming she was taking care of Charlie. In her sleep she had grabbed a kleenex out of the box and had begun wiping my nose with it. Then she woke up mid-wipe, realized what she was doing, quickly put the kleenex back on the bedside stand, and got up to go to the bathroom. Meanwhile I had been unwittingly playing the part of my own son in her little somnambulant drama. I guess parenthood is something that eventually oozes into your subconscious and becomes an integrated part of your psyche whether you intend it to or not!

Would someone talk some sense please?

Jamie Smith makes some much-needed sense of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ (admittedly confusing, to me) comments on the inclusion of certain aspects of Muslim sharia law into the British legal system.

Transforming Unhappiness Into Beauty

From an interview with Jorge Luis Borges:

STUDENT: You said that in your life that you’ve been thankful for happiness, just as you’ve been thankful for pain, and you justified the inclusion of blindness. Why are you thankful for pain and blindness?

Borges: Because for an artist, and I try to be one, everything that happens is material for your work; sometimes it’s very difficult. Happiness doesn’t require anything more; it’s an end in itself. Unhappiness has to be transformed into something else; it has to be elevated to beauty. For an artist everything that happens to him has to be clay for his mold, and he must try to feel things this way, even if these gifts might be atrocities.

-from here via here

Rowan Williams on St. Antony

antony.jpgAntony, the founding father of the monastic movement, is alleged to have said: “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when thy see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.'” As a statement of the intractable oddity of monasticism, that cannot be improved upon. The world and the church are mad when they circumscribe human possibilities of serving God; it is left for the ironic sanity of the monk or nun to demonstrate – at some personal cost – that God’s call is a far stranger thing than any human social definitions might allow.

-from “Acrobats and Jugglers,” in The Wound of Knowledge, p. 103