Over and out

It’s some months since I posted here, and probably about time I admitted that this blog is now on (probably permanent) hiatus. My active blogging is now at Curlew River.

It was a great 7½ years blogging under the Confessing Evangelical banner, but I felt the time had come for a fresh start. I’ve no plans to delete this site, though.

Thanks to all of you who’ve contributed in the comments, linked to posts and otherwise made blogging here so enjoyable for all this time.

Posted in Blogging about Blogging, TIWIARN | 2 Comments

Guest post: A biblical theology of clothing

Alastair Roberts left a great comment on a blog post by Richard Beck the other day, outlining a “theology of clothing”. Alastair has now expanded this into a longer essay (PDF), which is highly recommended. As a taster, Alastair has kindly agreed to let me re-post his original comment (with a couple of very minor tweaks) as a guest post.

There are rich scriptural resources for a biblical theology of clothing, which is why it is regrettable that the subject receives far less attention than it merits.

It seems to me that many theological approaches to the concept of clothing focus too much upon its connection with the covering up of shame. This is a part of the role of clothing, but clothing is also for glory and beauty, as one sees in the clothing of the High Priest.

Nakedness is not always shameful. A significant portion of our population can go around naked without feeling any shame whatsoever. Nakedness is characteristic of infancy. Clothing is a sign of maturity and a place of our own within society. Clothing is also a badge of office, which is why we speak of ‘investiture’.

The tunics that God fashions for Adam and Eve in the creation narrative are garments of office and status, comparable to the tunic of Joseph, David’s daughters and counsellors, etc. Their own garments of leaves are insufficient for exercising the authority that comes with the knowledge of good and evil (observe the positive use of the knowledge of good and evil in the context of kingly rule, e.g. 2 Samuel 14:17).

The greatest resources for a biblical theology of clothing comes from reflection on the clothing of the High Priest. The High Priest wears holy clothes for covering nakedness, but also clothes for ‘glory and beauty’. The descriptions of the manner in which such clothes are constructed, first worn, divested and reworn, etc. is immensely detailed. For instance, the clothing instructions on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16) are significant here. Simple linen garments are worn for the atonement (or ‘covering’) ceremony and then divested, for the glorious garments of office to be put on again when all is done. The investiture with the garments of office also presumes the offering of sacrifices and washing of the person.

In this connection we should pay attention to the description of Christ’s clothes in the context of the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension: his seamless undergarment, the linen clothes left after the resurrection, the glorious garments of the ascended Christ, etc.

The clothes of the High Priest are a means by which he wears the natural creation and the nation upon himself. The bottom and most basic layer of holy clothes to cover nakedness are vegetable – linen – garments. The outer layers of the priestly garments include animal fabrics (woollen yarns) and then precious metals and minerals (precious stones and gold).

Bound up in a theology of clothing is a theology of God’s relationship with the world. God wears the creation like a garment and later discards of it when it is old to replace it with a more glorious one. The world is the veil that both hides and enables proximity to God’s presence. In Christ, God assumes the garment of the creation most fully, clothing himself in flesh, filling that garment with his glory. In the Church Christ is fashioning us into a perfect and spotless garment.

A theology of clothing also teaches us about man’s relationship with the world. Implicit in our understanding of clothing is an ecology. The High Priest’s glorious clothes are a ‘world-wearing’ akin to God’s world-wearing. Peculiarly among the animals, human beings are nude – we are the naked apes. We do not have the coverings of fur, feathers, and scales that other creatures enjoy, nor do we have the glorious raiment of the lilies. Man, alone upon the animals, is called to fashion the creation to himself, tailoring the world around himself in a manner that glorifies both him and the creation, just as God’s wearing of the creation both declares his glory, and glorifies the creation.

Clothing must also reflect a sense of occasion (e.g. wedding garments for the wedding feast). Clothing expresses the differentiation that God has built into the creation (e.g. Paul’s teaching on sexually differentiating clothing in 1 Corinthians 11). There are clothes for work, for festivity, for mourning. Clothing can also be a mark of service. The simple clothes of the priest speak of this.

Clothes are a form of gift. In our clothes we ‘present’ ourselves to each other. We use our clothes to honour the ‘presence’ of others. The gift of garments is bound up with the gift of status. Clothes make the man or woman, and we form each other by giving clothes for new office.

Richard Beck’s comment in reply was “You need to start work on a book on this”. Sadly, Alastair demurred (“And be the guy who wrote the work on theological dress sense?”), but you can (and indeed should) at least read his essay (PDF).

(Oh, and I should add that this post, and the essay, are © Alastair Roberts, and the usual creative commons licensing for my blog does not apply to them.)

Posted in Guest Posts, Theology | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

“Material blessings”?

From today’s prayers at our church:

O God, help us to remember that all good things come from you. Keep us from turning the many material blessings that you have given us into curses by relying on them instead of on you. Grant that our material blessings bring glory to you and to the good of others.

“Gratitude for material blessings” is a common theme in prayers, and of course it is perfectly proper that we should be grateful for the good things we have. However, there are two things that trouble me about prayers like this.

First, it assumes that the “default setting” for members of the congregation is that they do have “many material blessings”. So a prayer like this can reinforce the church’s status as a largely middle-class institution.

Second, to use the phrase “material blessings” rather than “wealth” or “possessions” is to make a very particular statement about our belongings: namely, that the only moral question which attaches to our wealth is what we do with it, not how we got it or whether we should have it in the first place. Under the guise of giving thanks to God, what we are actually doing is reassuring ourselves that we deserve our wealth and possessions: they are “blessings from God”, so to question whether we should have them is to question God’s wisdom and generosity in giving them to us.

To help us see this, a little thought experiment: imagine one Sunday that the intercessions include this prayer:

Keep us from turning the many sexual blessings that you have given us into curses by relying on them instead of on you. Grant that our sexual blessings bring glory to you and to the good of others.

Immediately we start to protest: “What about all the people in the congregation who don’t experience ‘many sexual blessings': those who are widowed, or unhappily single, or in difficult or loveless marriages? And what about those whose so-called ‘sexual blessings’ are obtained in ways we find objectionable – such as committing adultery?”

In short, while we are acutely aware of the moral complexities involved in sexuality, we often seem blithely unaware of any similar complexities in relation to our wealth and possessions. Perhaps a start point would be actually to call them “wealth and possessions” rather than using loaded, self-exculpatory phrases such as “material blessings”.

Edit: Alastair Roberts made the following observation on Twitter in response to this post:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/zugzwanged/status/107794001289150464″%5D

ExACTly.

Posted in Theology | Tagged , | 6 Comments

For I will consider Christopher Smart

You may have come across the poem by Christopher Smart (1722-1771), “For I will consider my cat Jeoffry”, which begins:

For I will consider my cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the living God.
Duly and daily serving him.

I hadn’t realised until now that this comes from a larger work, Jubilate Agno, written between 1758 and 1763 while Smart was confined to Bedlam for his supposed “religious mania”, and existing today as a number of fragments.

Benjamin Britten (who I’ve been listening to lots recently) set part of Jubilate Agno to music in his choral work Rejoice in the Lamb, and the following stanza lies at the heart of the piece. It also supports the view that Smart was more a visionary than simply a spinner of “Jeoffry”-ish whimsy (in this he reminds me a little of Blake):

For I am under the same accusation
With my Saviour,
For they said,
He is besides himself.
For the officers of the peace
Are at variance with me,
And the watchman smites me
With his staff.
For the silly fellow, silly fellow,
Is against me,
And belongeth neither to me
Nor to my family.
For I am in twelve hardships,
But he that was born of a virgin
Shall deliver me out of all,
Shall deliver me out of all.

If you have Spotify, Britten’s setting of this poem can be heard here.

Posted in Culture | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

“Here is kept the ancient promise…”

I love this translation of Tantum Ergo, by Fr James Quinn SJ. It’s the version used in The Daily Office SSF‘s liturgy for thanksgiving for holy communion:

Come adore this wondrous presence,
Bow to Christ the source of grace.
Here is kept the ancient promise
Of God’s earthly dwelling place.
Sight is blind before God’s glory,
Faith alone may see his face.

For the full version, see here.

I especially loved the two highlighted lines: the Lord’s Supper as a fulfilment of God’s promise, made repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, to dwell among his people. See, for example, Ezekiel 37:26-27:

I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them for evermore. My dwelling-place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Posted in Theology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The age of the image and the number

Interesting post by Lance Strate on Jacques Ellul, Propaganda, and the Technological Society.

Strate begins with Ellul’s argument that literacy and education make people more vulnerable to propaganda, rather than less:

[L]iterate, well-educated people tend to think they’re immune to propaganda, that it only affects the “ignorant” masses, and he wants us literate elites to know that the reverse is true. Ellul argues that for propaganda to work, the messages have to reach their target, and in the modern world that largely requires literacy.

For Ellul, this all comes down to his fundamental concept of “la technique”, of “the supremacy of efficiency” to which every institution is now in thrall:

For Ellul, it’s modern communication and information technologies that are the key to propaganda, and as the digerati have succeeded the literati, it’s the folks who are online all the time, keeping up with blogs and tweets and the like, who are the most open to propaganda.

As Strate puts it, “the supposedly well-informed news junkie is the most propagandized individual of all” – because we are the ones who expose ourselves most thoroughly to the most technically efficient means of propaganda.

Strate also makes some observations on Ellul’s view of religion in a technological society which I’d love to see unpacked more thoroughly, in particular the way in which, on the one hand, religious institutions are “turned into vehicles for propaganda, along with all other cultural institutions”, while on the other hand local congregations can (or should) function as “the main site of resistance to ‘la technique'”, as “a counterenvironment where we might try to find a way to hold on to or reclaim our humanity in a technological age”.

Finally, Strate discusses the influence of Ellul on Neil Postman (who I really, really must get round to reading one day). Postman was concerned at how “the image culture associated with television has supplanted the language-centered culture of the typographic era”, thus “upsetting the balance” that had been achieved between word and image since the invention of printing: “leading to what Ellul referred to as the humiliation of the word.”

Strate adds to this a very important point: that the triumph of la technique, of efficiency, is a victory of numbers. He concludes from this that:

the postmodern condition is one in which the word, in both its oral and literate forms, is under assault from two different directions, two extremes, the hyperreality of the image, and the hyperrationalism of the number.

I think that’s a hugely important observation. It’s perhaps demonstrated most vividly by the growth in popularity of visualisations and infographics. As it happens, I often find both of these useful, having in many ways quite a “visual” mind – but I’m also very aware of how they reflect the imperative of la technique towards efficiency, to the “one best way” of achieving a desired outcome. And “propaganda” is precisely the efficient deployment of information in order to achieve a particular outcome.

But the supreme expression of this assault on the word from “the hyperreality of the image and the hyperrationalism of the number” is found in the ubiquity of the spreadsheet. When people look back on this era, I suspect the spreadsheet will be seen as one of the most significant and influential developments: a tool which has allowed the “hyperrationalism of numbers” (backed up, at the click of an “insert chart” button”, by the hyperreality of the image) to supplant intuition and the word (and thus personal interrelationship) in ever more areas of human activity.

Posted in Culture | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Done to death?

The death penalty is back in the news in Britain, as it becomes likely the House of Commons will debate the issue following a high-profile e-petition.

Most of the discussion I’ve seen so far polarises between “liberal” distaste for the very idea that the death penalty could even be considered (sample comment: “what a horribly regressive step into savagery that would be”) and “conservative” enthusiasm for the return of the rope.

Now I’ll admit I’m rather closer to the former than the latter. However, I think I’m closest of all to the Roman Catholic position set out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church – where the question is not a simplistic “capital punishment is barbaric” vs “capital punishment is just desserts for murder”, but instead: What best serves the common good? As the Catechism puts it:

Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” (CCC, para 2267)

This summarises my own view: I wouldn’t absolutely rule out the death penalty in all circumstances, but in modern, peacetime conditions it is hard to see any circumstances in which it is the right thing to do – in which, that is, it best serves the common good.

The last quotation in that passage from the Catechism comes from Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, in which JPII compares the growth in opposition to the death penalty with the “spread … of a new sensitivity ever more opposed to war”:

Among the signs of hope we should also count the spread, at many levels of public opinion, of a new sensitivity ever more opposed to war as an instrument for the resolution of conflicts between peoples, and increasingly oriented to finding effective but “non-violent” means to counter the armed aggressor. In the same perspective there is evidence of a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of “legitimate defence” on the part of society.

Posted in Politics, Theology | Tagged , , , , , | 16 Comments