Friday, April 26, 2013


So clear is the memory of my first sighting of the phrase 'chronological snobbery' that it took me just 14 seconds to find it again - 25 years later. It comes up in JI Packer's final chapter in the book edited by Carson & Woodbridge, Scripture and Truth. The phrase originates with CS Lewis and Packer describes it like this:
'... the supposition that what is most recent will always be wisest and best, and that the latest word is nearer to being the last word than any that went before; those under the influence of this assumption do not seriously consult work done prior to our own time and that is very much to our loss' (Packer, in Scripture and Truth, 353).

Wikipedia even lists a 'chronological snobbery fallacy'! It goes like this:
1. It is argued that A.
2. A is an old argument, dating back to the times when people also believed B.
3. B is clearly false.
4. Therefore, A is false.

Chronological snobbery is a snobbery of time. But I wonder if there is also a snobbery of space, a kind of geographical snobbery. Maybe it goes something like this?
'... the supposition that what is most familiar will always be wisest and best, and that the distant word is less likely to be the last word than any word from nearby; those under the influence of this assumption do not seriously consult work foreign to their own culture and that is very much to our loss'.

Wikipedia doesn't list a geographical snobbery fallacy (well, not yet anyway?!). When it does it might go something like this:
1. It is argued that A.
2. A is a foreign argument, from a culture where people also believe B.
3. B is clearly false.
4. Therefore, A is false.

Chronological snobs forget the enduring worship imperative that calls us 'to remember'. Geographical snobs forget that 'from one man God made all the peoples of the world' (Acts 17.26) and the inherent value and equality that this ascribes to people unlike me. Chronological snobs tend either to ignore history, or to revise it to fit with our own image. Geographical snobs tend to ignore whoever might provoke us into 'seeing ourselves as others see us' (Robbie Burns) - be it the missionary on home leave, or the immigrant learning to live among us.

nice chatting


Thursday, April 11, 2013

ruby sparks

It has been awhile since a movie has grabbed my theological imagination quite like Ruby Sparks. A sleepy midnight viewing on an airplane was quickly followed by a visit to United Video and a more engaged viewing on terra firma.

One synopsis of the movie goes like this: "Calvin is a genius novelist who begins to type a new novel on his manual typewriter about Ruby, his dream girl. He can't believe his eyes, because the next day, Ruby becomes a real person, and they begin to have a beautiful relationship together. If the relationship isn't perfect, all Calvin has to do is simply type the words on the page and Ruby's actions change to what he needs."

Now let me try and ruin the movie for you (!) by noting the ways in which I have enjoyed engaging with it theologically.
[NB: in doing so, I do not want to offend the sensibilities of those who will find aspects of the film offensive - allow my apologies to be over-realised in good eschatological fashion].

Firstly, take the image on the cover. The main character, the novelist, is lifting a person out of the written text. Or, as the line near the end of the movie expresses it, we have 'a human being created out of ink, paper and imagination'. In a world today where the word is being 'humiliated' (Ellul) and in a church where God thinks more highly of words than we do, I revelled in a movie which played with the power of words. Afterall God's creation of human beings was also by using words - and before that happened, 'in the beginning' (John 1.1), there was Jesus as Word.

Movies provide the opportunity to explore points of continuity and discontinuity with the gospel. For example, identify the Christ-figure in a movie and then ask how is the person like and unlike Jesus. These are the moments in our contemporary culture which provide us with 'Paul at Athens' evangelistic opportunities. And so, secondly, Ruby Sparks opens the way for a discussion on the relationship between creator and creation. The theology of God. The theology of humanity. While Calvin eschews the label 'genius' that people ascribe to him, he lives in a world of fame and glory that gives him a God-like status in the film. And in the early stages of the movie, his creation (Ruby) fills his heart with joy and love.

More specifically, this relationship invites a discussion on the way in which divine sovereignty and human responsibility relate to each other. When things sour in their relationship, Calvin is faced with the moral dilemma ('Is it moral?', his brother asks) of whether to use his sovereignty to fix what he finds wrong in Ruby. He does so - and it backfires badly. This is reminiscent of the desire which many have to see God fix all the suffering in our world. I suspect that if he did so, it might also backfire badly and create bigger problems than it solves. Calvin's abuse of his sovereignty provide the most intense moments in the film - making Ruby snap her fingers, crawl like a dog, strip and sing, and speak French. 'I am not writing about you, I am writing you' (into existence). Caught between controlling her and liberating her, Calvin is anguished and grieved by the decision to be made. He resolves this by offering Ruby a brand of free will. She leaves the house, 'no longer Calvin's creation, she was free'. It seems a long, long way from the hymn-writer: 'make me a captive, Lord - and then I shall be free'.

A third way in which the movie engaged me is the irony of Calvin, the God-figure, being surrounded by people speaking wisdom and/or reassurance into his life. A therapist. A dog. A teddy bear. A brother. A mother, a fan, a former girlfriend, Ruby herself etc.The God-figure becomes very human and requires hefty doses of Spirit-like activity. Ironic. On the opening page of her book, Hear and Be Wise, Alyce McKenzie writes of how our culture craves sages. The 1960s told us to be prophets. The 1970s focused on being therapists. The 1980s spawned church growth consultants. The 1990s celebrated coaches and CEOs. 'I am convinced that this is the era of the sage' (1). She is onto something. Calvin craves wisdom in this film. We must welcome the sage alongside the shepherd, the servant and the steward as integral to our theology of leadership.

One final fascination is the way the plotline echoes the biblical storyline. The plot of the Bible can be most easily expressed as being drawn from the good (Genesis 1 & 2), through the bad and the new, and on to the perfect (Revelation 21 & 22). I reckon there is an involuntary longing inside every human heart to indwell a story like this. And if it isn't this one, it will be a substitute one - like Ruby Sparks.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

genius born of anguish

It is hard not to like Henri Nouwen, particularly as he expresses himself in words. My favourite books are In the Name of Jesus (which is compulsory reading with anyone I mentor) and The Return of the Prodigal Son with his exquisite exegesis of Rembrandt's painting of the most famous of parables. 

So imagine my delight when my friend Charles Hewlett put me onto a series of three radio programmes out of Canada broadcast in January, entitled Genius Born of Anguish. The series is based on a book by the same title, while the radio programmes can be located here. I've listened to the series twice. Allow me to engage with these talks from the perspective of four images associated with Nouwen in them.

the grand canyon (talk #1 from the 32.50min mark)
The Grand Canyon is a wound in the earth and yet as you enter into that wound, a beauty is experienced and a healing force comes from its depths. Likewise there can be 'a deep incision in the surface of our existence which becomes an inexhaustible source of beauty and understanding'. It is from here that Nouwen's ideas on the 'wounded healer' originate. Confess our struggles. Embrace the loneliness. Let them surface and watch how this helps us enter into the struggles of others with greater empathy.

the flashlight (talk #2 from the 22.00min mark)
Nouwen had time as a professor at both Yale and Harvard, the ambition of many before and since. And yet he was dreadfully unhappy in both institutions. He discovered 'an unremitting need for affirmation and affection' which the competitive, celebritous academic world could not requite. 'My whole being seems to be invaded by fear'. He survived by escaping to the Genesee Monastery in upstate New York. His reflections there revealed 'a radical self-knowledge and honesty (that) shines a flashlight into his own soul and lays bare what was there, including its complexity'. Much of his uniqueness as a writer on spirituality lay in his willingness to expose the inner complexity. 'He could be deeply personal without being exhibitionist'. It is as if people began to see their own darkness by the light of his own flashlight exposing his own soul.

the brick wall (talk #2 from the 38.20min mark)
There came a point where it was clear that Nouwen was heading for a breakdown. Fueling this all the time was his own sexuality. He was a gay celibate priest who never 'came out' because the priestly vocation was too precious to him. But the thorn in the flesh remained ... and intensified. His wounds grew deeper. 'God and love seemed further away than ever'. As the founder of L'Arche, Jean Vanier, expresses it, 'Henri was lonely - but also lost'. He hit the brick wall and had a breakdown. At this time (1985) Vanier invited him to the first L'Arche community in France. Nouwen remained in these communities until his death ten years later.

the trapeze artist (talk #3 from the 27.00min mark)
He found a 'new exuberance' within L'Arche, comprising people like the 'gift' of his new friend Adam - who could not speak, could not walk, could not eat by himself, or bathe by himself. It was within this community that Nouwen 'found a home for his restless heart'. He recalls the story of going to the circus as a young lad. On seeing the trapeze artists, he exclaimed to his father, "Now I know what my vocation is, Dad". He spent a summer travelling with the circus, admiring the one on the trapeze who jumps and takes flight. But then he recognises that the real hero is the one who catches. Not the risk-taker, but the one who grabs you. "Into your hands I commit my spirit". He is to take the risk - but he can trust God to catch him. This is how life is lived fully. Risk. Trust.

nice chatting