Look & See: Wendell Berry’s Kentucky

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PBS is airing an amazing film on Wendell Berry and the Environment which just premiered on April 23rd and is available through May 7th HERE.  It is also available for those who have Netflix.

Berry, an essayist, and poet is also a farmer in rural Kentucky. The Hour-long film is well-done combining a number of stories at once within Berry’s overall life’s framework of activism, writing, raising children and farming.

Probably the most significant aspect is demonstrating the social breakdown (the fruit of industrialization and Modernization) on human souls and community that making farming and farmers simply a cog in a wheel has become. Berry gets at the spiritual and social consequences in a way that is not moralistic but is somewhat irrefutable. And it doesn’t hurt that he and his wife have been a living testaments to an enduring way of life that flies in the face of such depersonalization (her contributions to the film as fascinating as his).

Excerpts from a 1975 panel discussion show Berry unmasking the United States policies as being equal to Communist military annexations of lands – just by other means. His down-home brilliance is staggering as it has always been. The film ends with a poem of such immense beauty it will leave you in tears.

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Dear Friend

Dear Friend

Who Sees

 

Dear friend,

These days which bring such lighted promise

Within this arduous muscled battle

Witness His bright Charity

                and Wisdom wound

                and found in you.

And while you

                in His great love

                sweep toward the fray

And swords of prayer sing louder still

I am still appearing

                    spearing at windmills

                    tossed and

                    lost along the battle’s rim

Wandering on my dog-eared mule.

                                                                (yes, it is okay to laugh).

 

But you

My friend

Do not despise my youth

And all my lost and easy words

pass by your ears of wisdom

untouched

forgotten

like an untold story

in a foreign city

                                          with no                                                                                            interpreter

 

And though I now drink Hope

Where once

Was bitter gall

You have Hope yet brighter still

Which I do not yet

Understand.

 

But this we do share: We love the Wind

                And  the Wind swirls round us like Love Himself

                And  the thin windchimes tin and shimmer gently

                And the young brown birds land on the wires,

 

Singing

Only to rise on new currents

Painting an ecstatic rhythm of freedom

within the will of the Wind

 

And in my most quiet moments

I see the Universe winding down

Within God’s utter Completeness

Satisfaction

and Joy.

 

Elegy for Carl Daniels

Written during Carl Daniel’s wake
from the 100 year-old Oak which died
the same week he did.

Over the great rolling

Pacific waters came

The driven wind

Licking and skipping

Over the seminal

Pounding whitecaps

Inland

Inland

Raking roary furrows

Over rows of seeded pelicans

Kissing seasoned brays

Driven to the inlet stadium

Round Point Joe

Scaling sandstone rythyms

Higher and higher

Breaching round the birthrim

Pulling the cormorants into dervish

Driven

Driven

Into the cuts of rising cypress and oak

Running the dark-carpeted forests

Ignoring all words

Up

Up

Swirling in whirlwind

Sucking the seed of Great Oak

Into a dancing circle unbroken

Driving seed into the

Darkened

Waiting

Loam.

 

Father seed,

Mother womb

Inward

Inward

Ticklish dance

Inside virgin

California range

Raised underneath

Yet within

The shuddering pulse

Of the Pacific.

 

Dance of the New Oak

Unfolding

Unyielding

Radicles snaking

Young Fatheroots breaking

And taking the earth

Founding

Founding

A Spray of five young

Stalks begin to brood

Extending from the heart

Knowing and naming

Whatever the flinted

Barking trunk

Cannot glimpse.

 

Carved on each branch

Are the names of all

The Lovers

The Songs they sung

The sons and daughters

Whose humble fame

Framed  the surface

Of that expansive

Family name

Shuddering

Shuddering

Five heavy limbs remain

Outweighed

Stretching too far

Too far

From the heart of a trunk now dead.

 

Now Men will come.

Do not despise them.

Men must come.

They are coming

They are coming

Come to pull down the heavywood

Come to root up the tendriled histories

From a Century’s shadowed earth

Cutting a series of red-furled slabs

Still moist with November’s red rings

Still crusted with the dark brown-oak of Fatherwood

Down

Down

Three-fold cords

Bundled and

Stacked along the five family walls

 

When the cold comes

And the hollowness hearkens

Then comes the heavywood

Piece at a time

Laid upon the  hot harness

Of each hearth

Time of ashes

Time of ashes

Colors dancing above the drying centered rings

With hallowed smoke climbing

From the bellies

Of Five children.

The blackened brick, wood and fire

Form the Question:

Where do we go from here?

Where?

Now

The wind once again dances

Over a great empty space.

Outward

Outward

Miles away

Orphans drop

Their inevitable fruit

driven

driven

On the Wind which comes

When new seed is sown.

The wind has shifted

New lives will be formed

Their names will be spoken

Tommorow.

__________________

© 2018 Christopher MacDonald

The Story to End all Stories?

MacZilla3*

When I arrived at the Seminary I was told that among many theologies, unless I adopted a “Postmodern” one I would be viewed by professors and students alike as a “Theological Dinosaur” – a virtual “Bacdonasuarus” I suppose.

I surveyed the playing field at the time and noted several things:

  1. The listed epistemologies were simply the latest in a long line of “lenses” which came and went in popularity over the 40 years I had been studying. The only thing each had going for them was they were “new.” They would be gone, or severely modified in 3-10 years.
  2. The institution I had just joined had 200 students enrolled in it when I first attended in the early 90s and featured world-class scholar Joel Green. Now their building was empty and they had an enrollment under 50. The GTU itself was selling off property. I wondered whose long heavy tail was sinking in La Brea?
  3. I knew enough about Postnodernism to understand that it was largely a reaction that has yet to provide any world-view (or so I thought). I certainly had nothing to fear from any view that debunked Big Grand Ideologies that enslaved millions.  Bring it.

What I did not realize was this was really just a bad attempt by the Seminary to appear “hip” or intellectually viable in the current mileau – which is always a mistake. Being en vogue theologically is like worrying about fashion while working for NASA in deep space.  better to be concerned about rips and tears.

As I have argued elsewhere – trying to be too hip is how you end up – decades later – trying to explain photos of yourself with that really bad hair and moustache you sported in the 70s. The polyester leisure suit? Plead drugs or long stints of drunken-ness. That is your best bet.

So it will be with those so enamored with Postmodernism as anything but the sort of sorbet they serve to cleanse the pallet before you get back to a meal.

Sure – it is helpful. Oh..and it is likely to kill a lot less people than Modernity (that is helpful too).

That (see above) is what Postmodernism proposes to be. As such, it will always fail. At best it can only debunk and then draw no conclusions at all. It can defuse bombs, but not construct any true meaning. To put it another way, when I hear people talk about “deconstructing” I can see the value in it. It is when they immediately go right back to world-building (“we need to then reconstruct…”- anything can follow) that they have lost it.

My primary objection (until I ran across a much better mind in David Bentley Hart) concerning biblical studies was the simple question “Why would you allow what is essentially a literary  theory to be the primary lens for ordering your approach to the biblical texts?”

I mean why not view the texts primarily through Mason jars so long as we are just trying new things? (I’m not very sophisticated).

But leave it to David Bentley Hart to more accurately place his blast points on the problem:

this rigorous soupcon or critical incredulity becomes yet another attempt to extract thought from the quagmires of narrative; it becomes a meta-metanarrative, metanarrative, the story of no more stories, so told as to determine definitively how much may or may not be said intelligibly by others who have stories to tell; it completes not only the critical but the metanarrative projects of modernity (which prove to be indistinguishable). This is where the temper of the postmodern often proves wanting in courage and consistency. The truth of no truths becomes, inevitably, truth: a way of naming being, language, and culture that guards the boundaries of thought against claims it has not validated. (David Bentley Hart. The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Kindle Locations 156-159). Kindle Edition.)

Postmoderns are often just attempting to propose a “the story of no more stories.” As such, it will always fail. At best it can only debunk and then draw no conclusions at all. It can defuse bombs, but not construct any true meaning. To put it another way, when I hear people talk about “deconstructing” I can see the value in it. It is when they immediately go right back to world-building (“we need to then reconstruct…”- anything can follow) that they have lost it.

I think a Postmodern lens can be helpful as one lens among many. In particular it is a good lens by which to perceive the nakedness of “Kingdoms.’ When the metanarratives of men are laid low the God who invades time and space bodily with His own stories – then lives and dies to rescue us- that may be a story one can enter into now – with one’s own personal narrative joining God’s.
_____________

*This is all in fun (the graphic). The “You Wanna Piece of Me?” hails back to an incident where a guy tried to run me over with a ’69 Camaro after a James Bond film – well, maybe not run me over – just scare me by “clipping me” with his car at a good speed. That brought out the phrase in a yell and some chest-thumping – all the while the Wademan laughing hysterically because he knew the actual context and I didn’t. Thanks.

A Translation to be Excited About

Another meaningless argument in the Church-at-Large the last little bit (when one is avoiding serving the Poor, dealing with oppression, supporting the Powers-that-Be and the Dominant metanarrative of success) Is PREDESTINATION.

DLtsUq7VYAEaQY_Pay it no mind. Really. If asked, the shortcut is “I am predestined to not believe in it.” Which is – at least more true.

But why?

With this new translation by David Bently Hart of the New Testament which gives us as much  a pre-theologized text as possible. One such test case is Romans 8:29-30 where his gives a more accurate rendition, avoided the much (down the English language line) loaded word “predestined,” which, since Augustine had co-opted this Greek word and added an entire agenda to it which is not native to its essential meaning and which was utterly foreign to Paul’s intent.” As Hart says:

The next word is the verb προορίζειν (proörizein), which has traditionally—as a result of the Vulgate Latin translation—been rendered as “to predestine.” This is simply incorrect (though some inferior lexica over the years, taking their lead from traditional theological usage in the West, have incorporated it in their definitions of the verb). The word ὁρίζειν (horizein) (whence our word “horizon”), means “to demarcate,” “delineate,” “to mark out as a boundary,” “to distinguish,” “to sort,” “to define,” “to assign,” “to plan out,” “to make determinate,” or “to appoint”; and pro-horizein is simply to do this in advance. It certainly possesses none of the grim, ghastly magnificence of the late Augustinian concept of “predestination”: an entirely irresistible predetermining causal force, not based on divine foreknowledge but rather logically prior to everything it ordains, by which God infallibly destines only a very few to salvation and thereby infallibly consigns the vast majority of humanity to unending torment. Thus, in two of the six instances of the verb’s use in the New Testament (Romans 8:29–30), Paul—blissfully innocent of later theological developments and anxieties—explicitly treats this divine “pre-demarcation” as consequent upon divine foreknowledge, and does so without any qualification or noticeable pangs of theological conscience.

The New Testament: A Translation (Kindle Locations 12157-12169). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

So, a more literal (less filtered) translation is:

those he knew in advance he then  marked out in advance as being in conformityy to the image of his Son, so that he might be firstborn among many brothers;z 30And those he marked out in advance, these he then called; those he called, these he then proved righteous;aa and those he proved righteous, these he then glorified. 31What then shall we say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?

The New Testament: A Translation (Kindle Locations 6934-6940). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

It says nothing at all about God’s choosing or not choosing people – only His kind intentions towards those He knows are going to choose Him.

As with much “biblical controversy” it wanes and dissipates when you do actual study.

Which is just one of the many superb reasons why we study.

The point is not Calvinism. It could be any one of 100 “isms” like “Dispensationalism,” or “Arminianism,” or “Monasticism, or “Pietism.” Some “isms” are pretty good – but the more they try to over-arching theological grds for all of biblical Truth they always fail, discolor and distort.

I imagine my younger readers have less “isms” hanging around them. Good. For those older? Divesting yourself of as many of them as possible to get back to the naked text is a good idea – or at the very ;east, keep them on a leash.*

This new translation by Hart is a jewel and at just the right time. We need a translation that ignores all the theologies others are trying to sell or tack-on however subtly. We need the Word as pure and unmixed as possible and to be studying it together in community so we can grow our theology in a healthy way.

There is not need for an over-arching system when one has an over-arching loving God who has provided His word for “Every scripture is divinely inspired, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness,  So that the man of God may be fitted completely, having been fitted out for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16 – The New Testament: A Translation (Kindle Locations 9672-9675).

These are simple practical goals. I have to wonder what would happen if we could just – en mass – achieve this as the Church universal?  What does that say for your theology?

The amazing opportunity open to this generation is that as one which has largely not been brought up under the heavy and unhealthy umbrella of systematic theology of Church Tradition you have the freedom to start with a relatively clear slate. Only the gods of culture are there to distract and while they may offer significant words against the gods of Power which we can align with – they have no real inherent Good News.

j-r-r-tolkien-c-s-lewis-140807What you will find in mining the pages of scripture is a joyful adventure of discovery to could never have imagined existed. Better than Tolkien; better than Lewis – because both men derived their ideas from the Word itself and the fact is this is the myth that is true  the only Myth that is True.

The Religionists and Systematic Theologians would give you a system and tell you to put away your explorer’s gear. But they have always been wrong. Augustine – for all his genius in other areas was wrong in this – and it was costly. That some Protestants have taken up in like mind? Well look at the fruit is all I say.

Lewis and Tolkien knew well that men and women had free will. Their amazing books of fiction are gripping so often because nothing is predestined to happen as while some prophetic elements of a grand nature may come into play in the living story all is far from a foregone conclusion is things are lived out.

So it is on our times. We may rest assured that all things will wrap up in the Great Wedding Feast of the Lamb and that Christ is victorious – but many a battle still wages on in the City of Man and we have an active part in all that takes place. We can use our freedom to “love and good deeds” or spend our time selfishly on ourself and our enjoyments. One thing is certain – if you wish to help, you must train; and spend tome with others who are training too,

American Theology: Taking Stock

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The main building of the Pacific School of Religion, established in Berkeley in 1901, it is the oldest Protestant seminary West of the Mississippi which is now seeking to sell its property after years of decline.

Entering my third and final year of seminary education at the Graduate Theological Union it is a fair question to ask about my theology. I mean if I has gone to Berkeley for an M.A, in Anthropology you might well as what sort of Anthropologist I was becoming – and perhaps doubly so if I had been studying anthropology and working “digs” on my own all my life.

On the one hand it is an easy question to answer from a personal standpoint; from a professional one it is not easy at all.

Let me say first (on the latter) that I am relieved of the burden of pastoral ministry. I did not seek a Masters of Divinity leading to a pastoral position quite on purpose. That ship has long since sailed, and I leave it to better men and women than myself to do it.

No, I am a theologian – which means that I study God and God’s actions in the world most acutely – and then I try to make sense of this anthropologically. Unlike many a theologian today, I place my horse (God) firmly in from of the cart (humanity) and not the other way around. If your God is simply a projection of your own plight, wishes or agendas then you  will end up hopelessly lost in those very same horizontal waters. God is really not required at all. And if you know this you can actually test it with many people’s theology by removing God from the equation, and noting that really nothing much changes at all. Gid was just window dressing to spiritualize things.

Such is the state of much of much of American Theology – from the “Sublime to the Ridiculous” as they say. We will start with the Sublime.

DSCF9022The Sublime

It is exciting upon starting seminary to think of the theologians you will tackle, the in-depth exegesis of biblical texts you will do and the major issues you will get to discuss with in a long line of theologians.

None of this will actually happen. If you are clever (after you hit enough walls at fairly high speed) you will find ways to do some of this work via other classes. I found that Art and Literature-related classes gave me daylight to run and do some real work (so long as I also did art and  dealt with the literature at hand). Comparative religious studies also enabled me to read in areas like Christology), But my dreams of doing in-depth work on Paul’s Great Christological Hymn in Colossians chapter 1, had absolutely no takers and my papers doing more Middle Eastern unpackings  of Jesus’ parables were met with terse reviews and reluctantly high grades.

I think the worse thing I can say is that I really haven’t learned a damned thing. No new skills or tools. If anything I have consistently asked questions that have been left unanswered and ignored.

As for the Academy itself? It is largely dying – the result as I see it of over-specialization and accommodation to political winds. It would be as if I was that Anthropologist who, while studying in Graduate School, found his program constantly de-railed by theological concerns taking center-stage over anthropological ones: teachers coming to class to skew all there anthropological concerns according to religious moorings and doctrinal ideas like original sin, predestination or the Second Coming and biblical prophecy. If something like that were to so dominate the field of Anthropology you might think it utter madness; yet when immediate anthropological or geopolitical concerns immediate cul-de-sac the study of  theology no one seems to pay it the slightest mind.

Which is actually fine because the result is a dead lifeless theology of no concern: scholars writing to other scholars in a language which can best be described as “turgid.”

So the great Protestant seminaries of America fade into obscurity having forgotten their true subject, and making the mistake of thinking that endowment money will last forever.

The Ridiculous

Meanwhile one would love to say that in such a vacuum men and women of vision have taken up the mantle of vibrant theology and decided to go grassroots. I mean why not? We live in an affluent society and many a Megachurch alone could support and truly advanced learning/explorative new for of biblical/theological study.

Naw. That would interfere with their commercialization process or Christianity Lite.

Clean out those bookstores of all their theology, biblical studies – everything but Bibles (put them in the back so folk have to walk past all our wares) and pack the store with Osteeen, Hagee, LaHaye, Warren, Chapman, Dobson, Piper etc…

Elsewhere I have likened it to the mass production of Fast Food when what we need is healthy organic food. The veering off into politics and joining of “Good News” of freedom, faith and hope to the “Bad News” of moralising power politics has led to the all too accurate accusation of hypocrisy, lack of love and wholesale greed.

And o truly healthy theology can be taught alongside such nonsense.

People Are Hungry: Theology Survives

In times of famine people get inventive or they look to the past to what has worked. There are signs this may be taking place now. On the “Top Ten Christian bestseller list”we are used to see the ever-present C.S. Lewis book (one of our last great explorative 0s). theologians who, with Thomas Merton, died in 196o.

Of great note are books on Dietrich Bonhoeffer like Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxes. A.W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of God and J.I. packer’s Knowing God.

But all of this underscores the reality that no new real theology is, or has been done in three to four decades.

Personal Theology

I said the current public situation was complicated (and this overview has been a simplistic one – you really don;lt even wanna know how messed up it is in all its intricacies.

But personal theology is not dependent of human institutions or social situations. Every since Athanasius fled tot the desert to seek refuge with St. Antony it became clear that your fidelity to God is never contingent on other people.

I love God, which is the first and most important quality for any real theologian to possess. People are critical of this but they are not really thinking it through. Who is the better veterinarian – the woman who loves animals or the one who dislikes them and thinks of them as just “things?”

All the more so with God Who, as you study Him is also your Creator and Redeemer via grace and love. if you have no awe them you have misunderstood your subject; if you have no love then you have not fully opened yourself in every way of understanding.

And if it is true (and it most assuredly is) that God gives God’s own Spirit to those who believe in Him in order to better understand Him then the more open and heart-felt and devoted your mind and heart is to Him the more illumined the Spirit can emblazon your  mind.

You will have the courage to entertain new notions and explore aspects of God;s nature and love others would shut down for fear’s sake. Far from using scripture to limit God; it would invite new “aha” experiences yet to be had.

I mean the same Spirit who inspired the Word of God inhabits your being. This does not releave you of the burden of training to study or the hard work of it – but it can leave you open to new discoveries.

 

 

 

 

 

Colonial Malware

It’s the last four days of my N.T, Gospels class an we are still hopeless mired in Post-Colonialism – a point which can be made in five minutes; the implications probably exhausted to some pragmatic degree with a 30 minute discussion. 

Yet it goes on…

We could have stopped and started to study the native texts in their indigenous Middle Eastern context – but no. 

mac2016We could have discussed whether Post-Colonialism is even “Post” at all? But no. 

So we are asked (bludgeoned) with the question of how we will find our discussions of Post-Colonialism relevant in the future (can you see me looking at you sideways?)

My response:


When my PC gets malware or a bad virus I am in serious danger of losing not only my work, but often my entire computer if the virus is not eradicated. I suppose I could endless fight each incidence of the virus as it cropped up. but they tend to multiply and soon all of my attention would be on that alone and not my work. Instead, I have the option of going back to a previous system save point that existed prior to the infection and having th system rebuild from there. To be sure, I will lose some additions I may have added, but they too may now be infected. Best to go back to a time prior to the corruption when my machine took a bad turn or pretty much all will be lost.

You can see where this is headed easily enough. We can fight the resulting symptoms of Christendom’s unfortunate marriage to power with Constantine and how that eventually led to it’s championing Colonialism as its divine sanctioner; but this will never get us back to a healthy place. It simply keeps us in the disease. Worse – currently (in my view) it has given us the false sense that we are past it (which we are decidedly not). Colonialism is simply dressed in different clothing and framed in new language. But it is still Western Colonialism with its need to dominate and acquire. Show me the article or evidence that refutes this. Oh I saw Modernity fall with the Berlin Wall (but raise half its philosophic head in Post-Modernism – which was a neat trick – like “subjectivism”) but I have not seen Colonialism fall at all.

So as far as I am concerned much of this talk is premature in way. In the meantime, we can certainly, pragmatically, reset the operating system back to pre-Western times – before the virus of power was introduced. Back to indigenous Middle Eastern soil with its rich olive-skinned people and totally other context – say focusing on the first 300 years – just to be on the safe side for awhile.

ST. PERPETUA AND FELICITY-5X4It wouldn’t hurt us to spend some time studying the Martyrs of North Africa to reintroduce us to serious faith in action, nor to the Desert Fathers for contemplation and the concept of being “holy” or “set apart.” Of course we will seem like juvenile delinquents by comparison. Tough. And the role of women? One of my favorite heroes of faith in all of Christendom is Perpetua who, along with Felecity was martyred for her faith, but not before giving one of the most eloquent renouncements of faith on record. She was so brave.

Given such a clear and clean view, we are the punks, the new kids on their first day at the real school. We don’t know scabula about what is important and we need people to explain the simplest ideas from the Bible because we just do not get it.  But who will do this if all we are doing is addressing every little mutation of the virus and not the health of the original organism?  To linger on Post-Colonialism is to obsess on a pathology, not do fresh work in exploring the texts themselves. It’s to allow the disease to define the dialogue and agenda, and that is a mistake. The point about its danger is made in five minutes, and I for one, am simply tired of hearing about it and want to get to some real work. It’s not a difficult point.