Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Balthasar Blog Conference

Updated March 3, 2008.

The first annual Balthasar Blog Conference is just around the corner on March 16-25. The topic is Balthasar’s theological exegesis. We have an exciting schedule of nine plenary posts by the following participants:
We have responses planned by the following people:

Saturday, February 16, 2008

C. S. Lewis and the Remythologization of Christianity

It may be that C. S. Lewis’ greatest legacy will be his remythologization of Christianity. He is well known for his (flawed) apologetics and popular children’s literature, but it is the “baptized imagination”—instigated by the works of George MacDonald, according to Lewis—which infuses all of his works that is really the mark of his genius. I think we are now in a position to best appreciate this aspect of Lewis’ work. His apologetics have faded from view, and Hollywood has co-opted his Narnia books for huge profit. This is the perfect time to rediscover his lesser known works or to read his familiar books (such as the Chronicles of Narnia) in a new way.

Enter Dr. Michael Ward. I first met Michael during my time at Wheaton College. I was a teacher’s assistant for Wayne Martindale, one of the foremost American scholars of Lewis. My knowledge of Michael’s work was augmented by a trip during the summer of 2003 to Oxford, where we heard lectures on Lewis and visited The Kilns, among other places.

In his new book, Planet Narnia, Dr. Ward argues the following thesis: Lewis based each of the seven Narnia books on one of the seven medieval heavens. As you will recall, the medieval church accepted Ptolemy’s model of the solar system, in which the Earth was at the center. Each of the planets had spiritual significance, and each influenced life on Earth in some divinely ordained way. In this era, astronomy and astrology were indistinguishable. The mythology of the seven heavens was integral to medieval Christian faith—hence the church’s vehement rejection of the Copernican system—and Lewis harbored a secret love for this mythology over against the materialistic, scientistic conception of the heavens that now dominates the modern era. Ward brilliantly shows how each of the Narnia books corresponds with one of these heavenly bodies, and he builds his case not only on careful readings of the books, but also through analysis of Lewis’ more “academic” texts, such as The Discarded Image.

In a new article for Books & Culture, “C. S. Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem,” Ward discusses Lewis’ disdain for the disenchanted “mythology” of modernity in favor of the more Christian—even if less scientifically accurate—“mythology” of the seven heavens. His fiction, including the Ransom trilogy as well as the Narnia books, and his poetry were thoroughly interested in what Lewis himself called “the whole planetary idea as a mythology.” Ward writes:
Since the Copernician revolution, the heavenly bodies had been steadily evacuated of spiritual significance until they were regarded as no more than large aggregations of rock or gas. Readers of Narnia will remember an exchange in The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" during which Eustace is rebuked by Ramandu for claiming that "In our world a star is a huge ball of flaming gas": "Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of." Because the pre-Copernican model of the cosmos viewed the planets as more than merely material it was a model worth keeping in mind. It was, in this sense, a more Christian model than the Newtonian or Einsteinian versions which have succeeded it.

Emphatically, the pre-Copernican model of the cosmos was a Christian model not despite, but because of, its acceptance of astrological influence. Lewis valued its astrological aspect not because he considered astrology to be literally true, but because astrology represented a spiritual reading of materiality. ...

Following the Copernican paradigm-shift, astronomy and astrology became gradually distinct and the former prospered while the latter fell on hard times. Astronomy is now a respectable science. Astrology, in sharp contrast, has become the label of a subject that is generally thought to deserve no serious consideration. But to Lewis, as a scholar of the 16th century, it would have meant something very different: it meant that the heavens had spiritual significance, however that was conceived. He was not convinced that Copernicus' discovery of heliocentricity required the planets to become spiritually insignificant. He thought that disenchantment was an aspect of the "mythology that follows in the wake of science."
Lewis, as Ward explains, is less concerned about scientific accuracy than he is about seeing all reality through a “baptized” lens—one which recognizes the universe as infused with spiritual significance, though not necessarily in the same astrological way common in the ancient world. One might say Lewis’ concern throughout his fiction is to recapture the theological imagination lost through the Enlightenment captivity of Christianity. Lewis is thus the pure antithesis to Bultmann: rather than coordinating Christian faith with scientific discoveries, Lewis would rather have us coordinate reality with the Christian faith. He accomplishes this through his fiction, which is no escape from the world but a reinterpretation of it. His books are an attempt to bring back the enchantment lost through the rise of modern science. Against any demythologization, Lewis is a modern re-mythologizer of Christian faith.

In this context, I should also mention Wayne Martindale’s book, Beyond the Shadowlands: C. S. Lewis on Heaven and Hell. Martindale shows how Lewis both demythologizes and remythologizes heaven and hell through his books.

Also, if you would like to engage Michael Ward’s new book online, see his blog.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

“Lookin’ Good for Jesus”?

According to the BBC, A new line of cosmetic products has appeared in Singapore with the title: “Lookin’ Good for Jesus.” The product line has caused Christians to rise up in indignation. I was struck by the following section of the article:
The products included a "Virtuous vanilla" lip balm and a "Get Tight with Christ" hand and body cream, featuring a picture of Christ flanked by two adoring women. "Why would anyone use religious figures to promote vanity products? It's very disrespectful and distasteful," the Straits Times newspaper quoted accountant Grace Ong, 24, as saying.
The amazing product titles aside, I find the condemnation of irreverence rather myopic. Sure, using Jesus to sell a vanity product is distasteful, but is it really any worse than using Jesus to sell pop music, to win a presidential campaign, or get on the New York Times bestseller list?

Paul among the Evangelicals, §4: Barth on Rom. 5 (4.1.1)

4.1.1. The faithfulness of God

Barth shifts the center of gravity in justification from individual, subjective faith to the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ. This is a shift from a direct vision or apprehension of revelation to an indirect vision: “in Jesus revelation is a paradox, however objective and universal it may be.”[39] Regardless of its universal dimension, revelation (as reconciliation) is always a dialectical event that occurs in the “critical ‘Moment’”[40]; it never becomes a “thing” that one may possess (“I have the promise of salvation”) or a predicate that can be attached to a name (“John is justified”), without involving its dialectical opposite. Barth shifts faith from a direct relation to God to an indirect relation, from a direct and unqualified notion of salvation to an indirect and paradoxical salvation. He is motivated in this by the concern of undermining any grounds for spiritual pride. That we are “saved” is a notion that opens the door to religious self-justification; it becomes the basis for the most insidious form of sin: the sin of believing one to be in the right with God while others are in the wrong. Barth does not deny that reconciliation has occurred in Jesus Christ; he merely argues that this “is not, and never will be, a self-evident truth . . . because it is a matter neither of historical nor of psychological experience, and because it is neither a cosmic happening within the natural order, nor even the most supreme event of our imaginings.”[41]

The effect of Barth’s radical move is that evangelicals are wrong insofar as they insist on turning faith into a subjective reality, something that humans do in order to procure divine justification. Barth argues that this is simply a pious form of self-justification. Faith is indeed “the radically new disposition” of the human person “naked before God,” but Barth is keen to add: “Faith is the faithfulness of God.”[42] Consequently, “faith is not a foundation upon which men can emplace themselves”; it is not a solid basis upon which humans can move beyond the crisis of their condemnation and into the safety of religion.[43] By defining faith as a divine reality, Barth has denied faith as a possibility latent within humanity as such. Faith is, instead, “the absolute Miracle,” because “it is defined by God” alone.[44] On this point, as a Reformed theologian, Barth stands resolutely against certain strands of contemporary evangelicalism which share more with Schleiermacher in terms of the efficacy and centrality of human faith in Christ.

For the outline of the complete series, click here.

39. Barth, Romans, 97-98.
40. Ibid., 165.
41. Ibid., 98.
42. Ibid.
43. Ibid., 110.
44. Ibid., 145.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Best Albums of 2007

Granted, this is a belated post. I have an obsessive need to make sure that I have properly surveyed the best albums of the year. But it’s also good timing: last night was the Grammys award show. Of all the awards shows, the Grammys are the worst by far. The really great albums are all ignored because they are independent. The entire show is simply a marketing scheme. Granted, Herbie Hancock is a better artist than Rihanna or Amy Winehouse, but best album of the year? Not even close. Here, over a month late, is my list of the best albums of 2007. I welcome your comments.

1. The National, Boxer

The National have been quietly working in the background of the indie music scene for the past several years. 2007 was their year to dominate, and they came out with one of the most stunningly beautiful albums in recent memory. Boxer has none of the pretension and overwrought production that plagues so many groups today. Instead, with simplicity and grace, the National have created an album that gently creeps into your subconscious and establishes a home there. It’s not the kind of album that explodes when you first listen to it only to fade quickly with time; instead, Boxer is an album that grows and matures with age. It is one of those records whose genius I believe will only be further confirmed with the passing of time.

2. LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver

James Murphy is a musical genius, capable of crafting beautiful, catchy music that works as well on the dance floor as it does in your headphones. His first self-titled album was a stunning debut, and Sound of Silver amazingly improves on the success of his first effort. The songs in this album are more refined, more carefully composed, more textured. Murphy shows greater musical maturity in Sound of Silver, and for that reason, this album is equally worthy of the #1 spot.

3. The Arcade Fire, Neon Bible

People complained that Neon Bible was not as brilliant or creative as Funeral, the 2004 masterpiece by the Arcade Fire. But while true, Funeral’s near-perfection is virtually impossible to replicate by any artist, and Neon Bible is about as good as one could possibly expect. If this were the debut album by the Arcade Fire, there would be little about which to complain. That said, the album loses points for not ending with “No Cars Go,” which is the perfect ending to this album. The final track, while musically in keeping with the rest of Neon Bible, is a bit of an anti-climax. Also, the lyrics, while certainly more profound and thoughtful than just about anything else from 2007, are at times a bit forced and lack some of the subtle depth that characterized Funeral. Even so, there are moments of transcendent beauty and lyrical brilliance here that will long outlive an already amazing career for this talented group.

4. Okkervil River, The Stage Names

Okkervil River demonstrated great promise with 2005’s Black Sheep Boy. In their 2007 album, The Stage Names, Okkervil River delivered on that promise. The album begins with one of the best two-song openers of any album this year, second perhaps only to Radiohead. The second half of the album is not as compelling as the first, but the album overall remains a remarkable product deserving of wide acclaim.

5. Justice,

Without question, this is the most “fun” album of the year. In a year of excellent electronic and dance albums, Justice stands out above the rest. The hit single “D.A.N.C.E.” is not the only song worthy of hit single status. The entire album is a musical carnival, with genres thrown together into a dance-pop blender to create an infectious heir to the Daft Punk throne.

6. Animal Collective, Strawberry Jam

Animal Collective are accused of being weird for weird’s sake, but this is entirely unfair. They have consistently made excellent albums year after year, and Strawberry Jam is their best to date. The opener, “Peacebone,” is one of the very best songs of the year, but whereas Panda Bear’s also excellent album feels a bit too monolithic, Strawberry Jam is much more diverse and exciting in its experimentation.

7. The New Pornographers, Challengers

When Twin Cinema came out, it marked the coming-of-age for the Canadian “supergroup” (though the title is somewhat misleading). With Challengers, the New Pornographers mellowed their sound, lengthened their songs, included more ballads, and came up with a refreshing new take on their consistently upbeat catchy indie pop. While this album frustrated fans of their earlier albums, Challengers represents a band moving beyond adolescence into adulthood.

8. Of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?

Of Montreal don’t know how to make non-catchy music. The songs on Hissing Fauna are contagious; they represent indie pop perfection. Moreover, their live shows are legendary. Glam rock + power pop + cross dressing stage shows = exactly what we need to get through another winter (and another lame Grammy awards show).

9. Radiohead, In Rainbows

Certainly the most anticipated album of the year, In Rainbows is probably Radiohead’s most beautiful and pleasing album. While not wholly successful—after the first two-song punch, the album settles into a calm rut that makes some of these songs rather forgettable—the album is still a wonderful addition to their already accomplished oeuvre. While In Rainbows often sounds like the B-sides for Kid A, it is nevertheless still the work of arguably the greatest band making music today.

10. Rock Plaza Central, Are We Not Horses

Granted, this album came out in 2006, but it wasn’t released internationally until April 17, 2007. Besides, I did not give it any recognition last year, and it would be inexcusable not to mention it here. Despite glowing reviews, Rock Plaza Central flew way under the radar with their concept album, Are We Not Horses. The album is aptly compared to Neutral Milk Hotel’s masterpiece, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, particularly on the album’s musical high-point, “My Children, Be Joyful.” While perhaps belonging on last year’s list—though Doug Freeman of the Austin Chronicle placed it on his 2007 best-of list—it’s an album that deserves to be heard again and again, year after year.

11. Studio, Yearbook 1
12. Liars, Liars
13. Battles, Mirrored
14. Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
15. Panda Bear, Person Pitch
16. Earlimart, Mentor Tormentor
17. Muscles, Guns Babes Lemonade
18. Burial, Untrue
19. Sally Shapiro, Disco Romance
20. Dirty Projectors, Rise Above
21. Jens Lekman, Night Falls Over Kortedala
22. The Tough Alliance, New Chance
23. Iron and Wine, Shepherd’s Dog
24. Kanye West, Graduation
25. Blonde Redhead, 23

Honorable Mention: Once (Music from the Motion Picture)

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Is Obama a Mac and Clinton a PC?

This is a brilliant observation by the New York Times, judging based on the candidate’s respective websites—hillaryclinton.com and barackobama.com.

But what if we take Umberto Eco’s famous 1994 observation into account?
“The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach -- if not the kingdom of Heaven -- the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

You may object that, with the passage to Windows, the DOS universe has come to resemble more closely the counter-reformist tolerance of the Macintosh. It's true: Windows represents an Anglican-style schism, big ceremonies in the cathedral, but there is always the possibility of a return to DOS to change things in accordance with bizarre decisions: When it comes down to it, you can decide to ordain women and gays if you want to.”
Granted, Eco’s essay is outdated—and that, perhaps, makes all the difference. But if we take his observations at face value, I would have to say that Obama is a PC and Clinton a Mac—that is, Obama is Protestant and Clinton is Catholic, figuratively speaking. Obama’s campaign is focused more on personal change and voluntary cooperation. Clinton is more rigid and programmatic.

But I would say Eco’s observation no longer applies to the Mac/PC distinction: today it is Microsoft which is programmatic and rigid, and Apple is youthful, dynamic, and personalistic. With that in mind, we can make the following observation: Obama is a Mac and Protestant, while Clinton is a PC and Catholic. Also, just as Catholics and Protestants are both Christians, so too both Obama and Clinton could serve well in the White House.

One final important observation: If we follow the Mac/PC analogy, then we are led to suggest that in the same way the new Intel Macs are capable of running the Windows OS and thus uniting the computing world, so too Obama is capable of uniting the American political world. Just as there is no need to buy a PC anymore, because a Mac can do it all and more, so too there is no need to vote for Clinton anymore, because Obama can do it all and more. Don’t get upset at me. I’m just following the logic.

Monday, February 04, 2008

2008 Beliefnet Film Awards

Every year, Beliefnet holds its own “Oscars”—the Beliefnet Film Awards—to recognize the “the highest-quality films that deal with spirituality, faith, and meaning.” There are only three categories: best spiritual film, best spiritual performance, and best spiritual documentary.

Before I discuss the nominees, a quick gripe: Enough with the cultural infatuation with “spirituality.” I was appalled recently when Jim Wallis was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Wallis said that the younger generation is fed up with old-time conservative religion (true) and so they are embracing a new spirituality. He said this approvingly to Stewart as a mark of how younger people are getting it right where their parents got it wrong. Nein! Whether or not Wallis is right that “spirituality” is the proper nomenclature for contemporary evangelicalism is beside the point. But by no means should it be spoken of in approving terms. The infatuation with “spirituality” is precisely what is wrong with religion in the West today: it is individualistic, pietistic, quasi-mystical, anti-theological, and most importantly, anti-confessional. Beliefnet, sadly, epitomizes this new religious consciousness.

That said, here are the nominees for the 2008 Beliefnet Film Awards:

Best Spiritual Film:
Amazing Grace
Away From Her
The Kite Runner

Best Spiritual Performance:
Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild)
Angelina Jolie (A Mighty Heart)
Ellen Page (Juno)
Julie Christie (Away From Her)
Will Smith (I Am Legend)

Best Spiritual Documentary:
Into Great Silence
For the Bible Tells Me So
What Would Jesus Buy?

Apart from the documentaries, this list smacks of something that the editors put together based on what films they had personally seen this past year. I will grant that Amazing Grace and The Kite Runner probably belong on the list of “best spiritual films.” But Juno? Like most Americans, I enjoyed the film. It was charming, sweet, and meaningful—but spiritual? I realize the message of family and relationships is strong, but for all its sweetness, Juno is still rather shallow. And the writing is mixed—strong at times and quite weak at others. For a film that deals with some of the same themes but, I think, more profoundly, I would submit Ratatouille.

Next, Atonement? This is certainly a good movie (and a much better novel), but simply using a theologically loaded word as a title does not make a film qualify as “spiritual.” Again, there are important themes in this film that deserve to be recognized, but not at the expense of more deserving films.

Without question, the best film on their list is Away From Her. This movie belongs among the very best films of this decade, and I am glad to see it recognized here. But there is one conspicuous omission from this list which is simply inexcusable—namely, There Will Be Blood. There is no better film of 2007, both in general and in this particular category of “spiritual” film. Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest masterpiece is a deeply “spiritual” exploration of greed, pride, family, capitalism, and American religion. A more deserving film has perhaps never been made. I expect to see a lot of attention given to this film by the growing field of “theology and film” scholars. To leave it off this BFA list makes the whole thing a sham. Better luck next year, hopefully.

Iron & Wine playing at Wheaton College?

My alma mater, being the evangelical stronghold that it is, has tended to host your usual CCM concerts—groups like Caedmon’s Call and Delirious. So it came as a huge, but pleasant, surprise when I saw on Pitchfork this weekend that Iron & Wine will be playing at Wheaton College’s Erdman Chapel on February 15. According to the press releases, the show begins at 7:30 pm (doors at 7:00). Tickets are $10 for students, $20 for non-students ($12 and $23, respectively, at the door).

BUT ... my excitement has been muted through a little exploration on Wheaton College’s website. I soon realized that the notices about the concert have all been taken down from the college server, and the ones I found online were only available through Google’s “cached” search. This leaves me with questions. Has the concert been canceled? Or are there problems with the Wheaton College server and/or the school’s online calendar, and thus Pitchfork is still correct?

My hunch is to go with the latter, but it is a bit suspicious.

Friday, February 01, 2008

2008 Balthasar Blog Conference: Update

Scripture ... is God speaking to man. It means a word that is not past but present, because eternal, a word spoken to me personally and not simply to others. Just as the eucharist is not merely a memorial of a past event but makes eternal and ever-present the single, living body and sacrifice of the Lord, so scripture is not mere history but the form and vehicle of God’s word addressing us here and now.

—Hans Urs von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology I: The Word Made Flesh (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1989), 24.

I am pleased to announce the first annual Balthasar Blog Conference, scheduled for March 16 to March 25, 2008. (This is a change from the original dates of March 9-16. I have moved it back a week to give more time to the presenters.) The theme for this blog conference will be “Von Balthasar’s Theological Interpretation of Scripture.” We should have ten “plenary” posts from the following theo-bloggers:
  • John L. Drury (Drulogion) on Balthasar’s reading of the resurrection texts in Mysterium Paschale and elsewhere;
  • Halden Doerge (Inhabitatio Dei) on Balthasar’s use of the Old Testament in his theological aesthetics;
  • Cynthia Nielsen (Per Caritatem) on Balthasar’s approach to biblical hermeneutics;
  • Andrew Guffey (Seeing the Form) on Balthasar’s use of the Apocalypse;
  • Joshua Ralston (Treasures Old and New) on Balthasar’s interpretation of the passages relating to the office of Peter and structure of the church;
  • Heather Reichgott (Holy Vignettes) on Balthasar’s approach to “contradictory” material in the Gospel narratives;
  • Daniel W. McClain (The Land of Unlikeness) on aesthetics, tradition, and Scripture in Balthasar’s theology;
  • Francesca Murphy on Scripture, Church, and Mariology;
  • Lois M. Miles on the influence of Adrienne von Speyr’s contemplative reading of Scripture on von Balthasar’s interpretation of the biblical text; and
  • yours truly on Balthasar’s interpretation of the biblical texts relating to hell and apokatastasis in Dare We Hope?
The following people have also agreed to writes responses to the plenary posts:
In addition to these participants, the conference is open to anyone else who might like to participate by writing responses. While the essay-posts will be between 1500-2000 words, a response should be between 300-750 words and raise some critical questions in relation to one of the posts. If you are interested in writing a response, let me know which post you would like to interact with, and I will send it to you when it is available. For those presenting at the conference, please be aware of the following: All posts should be submitted by Saturday, March 1 in order to allow enough time for people to write responses. You can email all inquiries, posts, responses to dwcongdon-at-gmail.com (there is also an email link in my profile).

If you are a theo-blogger, please feel free to pass the word along. I look forward to an exciting blog conference in March, and hopefully the first of many!

Update: Fred Kaffenberger has had to drop out from the conference due to prior commitments. I have also added Lois M. Miles to the list. I mistakenly left her out of the original post.