Friday, January 22, 2010

A guest book review: Stafford's Shaking the System

My thanks to the kind folk at IVP for a review copy of Tim Stafford's Shaking the System: What I Learned from the Great American Reform Movements (and may I voice a special "hurray" to IVP at the moment - they must be doing something right to get this kind of criticism). I feel privileged to have Stephanie write a book review for Chrisendom as she is one of these extremely talented people - artist, writer, intellectual - yea, one of them. But try not to hold it against her too much, cos she is also a very dear friend of this Tilling household! So without further ado, let me hand over to her.

Shaking the System Review

Ordinary Activism

When writer Flannery O'Connor was asked whether she thought the Iowa Writers' Workshop discouraged young writers, she answered "Not enough of them." Tim Stafford's stance toward young would-be activists in his Shaking the System has something of the spirit of her remark, though his is a gentle voice. This book will not produce a new wave of gleaming-eyed idealists: It says too much about the realities of actual activist work, about the grind of the long haul, about failure, about glory that never happens.

I've been a gleaming-eyed idealist, and when I found that brightness and hope and Big Ideas had, roughly, zero impact on injustice, that in fact the work of changing the world is slow, often painful, slow, disheartening, and slow, my Big Ideas fizzled, and I began to dislike activism. If I couldn't make everything better now, if I couldn't, in fact, save the world, then why bother?

Stafford's answer is, because there is truth. This is where he begins: If you want to be an activist, make sure you are on the side of truth. Remember that truth often. His next chapter is on resistance: what to do when no one gives a shit about truth (he doesn't put it that way). Expect this, he says.

From there he moves to pressure tactics, which involve the ethical, responsible use of power. The term "institutional sin," he says, is confusing: "People, not institutions or systems, are sinners." And yet, there is "web that binds people to injustice. It is not enough to simply present the truth and change people's hearts, one by one. Activists must change laws, institutions, habits and customs, for these bind people's dark hearts together into a formidable fortress. Activists must shake the system." In the U. S. abolitionist movement, he goes on to argue, it was finally "only the carnage of the Civil War" that accomplished change. Triumphalism is entirely absent from this book, as is a sense of activists as Knights in Shining Armor battling the forces of darkness. Instead there is a longsuffering familiarity with sorrow and with failure, with good coming about through devastating violence.

There is also personal honesty; Stafford first won my trust when he listed his own roles as an activist, early in the book. The list includes spending four years in Africa with his wife, helping to start a magazine for young people; it also includes writing letters to Congress, and helping to preserve a green space near his home. Stafford is not Wilberforce, and this makes me trust him, because I am not Wilberforce either. But Stafford has avoided the trap into which I've often fallen, of refusing to take any action if I can't be Wilberforce. Stafford's book is Christian in arriving at truth by paradox. On one hand, he points out that activism is harder, slower, more daunting work than I'd been willing to admit; on the other, he points the way toward starting small, with the activist equivalent of loaves and fishes—of giving what I have.

Stephanie Gehring

Monday, January 11, 2010

Introducing Mark

Over recent years I have developed a friendship with someone called Mark. Since then we have discovered that we are both passionate about theology and biblical studies and have enjoyed many a lively discussion. Actually, I have learnt much from him. I thus asked him recently if he would like to 'guest post' on my blog now and then – and he gladly agreed.

By his own admission, Mark is not too computer literate, so I will post his texts as 'guest posts' – but I will always make it clear that Mark is the author. I will do this as Mark and I certainly do not always see 'eye-to-eye', yet I always enjoy interacting with his often provocative (and even hilarious), but shrewd, insights.

So knowing Mark, this post is also a disclaimer (actually, he was the one who urged me to add this bit): when posts are distinguished as Mark's 'guest posts', I am not necessarily in agreement with either the style or content of his blogging. This has to be said knowing the political nature of blogging, the importance of attribution, as well as the sometimes delicate disposition of certain readers who may strongly disagree with Mark (and may wrongly attribute his assertions with my own online persona!)

Anyway, he don't yet know if his excursion into the world of blogging will be a lasting feature, but I do hope you enjoy Mark's contributions, however many there may be.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Desire for God

I've been reading Augustine recently and have rediscovered the enormous significance and spiritual power of desire and joy in God. Of course, he famously wrote in his Confessions: 'You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you' (I.1), but he was constantly on about it. James Smith deliberately makes a similar point in his new book, Desiring the Kingdom, in relation to Victoria's Secret!

'I suggest that, on one level, Victoria's Secret is right just where the church has been wrong. More specifically, I think we should first recognize and admit that the marketing industry – which promises an erotically charged transcendence through media that connects to our heart and imagination – is operating with a better, more creational, more incarnational, more holistic anthropology than much of the (evangelical) church ... Christians will tend to say, "Ah, but that's not love – that's eros, not agape!" But romantic theology refuses the distinction because it recognizes that we are erotic creatures – that agape is rightly ordered eros' (77, 79)

I'm not yet sure how this insight might look in practice, but I love the point he is making!

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Magnus phenomenon gathers attention

"Vladimir Kramnik, former world chess champion and current No. 4, is playing in the first round of the London Chess Classic, the most competitive chess tournament to be played in the U.K. capital in 25 years. Tall, handsome and expressionless, he looks exactly as a man who has mastered a game of nearly infinite variation should: like a high-end assassin. Today, however, he is getting methodically and mercilessly crushed. His opponent is a teenager who seems to be having difficulty staying awake. Magnus Carlsen ..."

And I saw it with my own eyes. Though to be honest, Magnus seemed pretty awake to me!

Read more:,9171,1950683,00.html

Monday, January 04, 2010

What to do with a 100 pounds Amazon voucher?

Gratefully received from my parents-in-law, but what should I spend it on?! A nice question, if ever there was one!

Some presently in my basket:

  • The Story of Christianity - David Bentley Hart
  • In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments - David Bentley Hart
  • Martin Heidegger - George Steiner
  • The Politics of Discipleship: Becoming Postmaterial Citizens (Church and Postmodern Culture) - Graham Ward
  • Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature - Richard Rorty
  • GloboChrist: The Great Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn (Church and Postmodern Culture) - Carl A. Raschke
  • Philo of Alexandria: An Exegete for His Time (Novum Testamentum Supplements) - Peder Borgen
  • A Brief Guide to Philo - Kenneth Schenck
  • Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics - Terry Eagleton
  • Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia - John Gray
  • The Last Word - Thomas Nagel
  • Blue Parakeet - Scot Mcknight
  • Reading Hegel's Phenomenology (Studies in Continental Thought) - John Edward Russon
  • Science: Key Concepts in Philosophy - Steven French
  • Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge Contemporary Introductions to Philosophy S.) - Alex Rosenberg
  • Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke - C. Kavin Rowe
  • Eccentric Existence - D. Kelsey
  • After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency - Quentin Meillassoux
  • Badiou's "Being and Event": A Reader's Guide (Reader's Guides) (Reader's Guides (Continuum Paperback)) - Christopher Norris
  • After Theory - Terry Eagleton
  • A few Badiou books
  • Joan Stambaugh's translation of Heidegger's Being and Time
  • Christ in Evolution - Ilia Delio

Any thoughts, protests, additional recommendations?

Happy New Year

... and a belated Happy Christmas!

Among my gifts (which, ok, I selected myself – but Anja at least wrapped!):

  • Hammann's biography of Rudolf Bultmann (Yeeeesssssssss!). Anja and I picked my copy up direct from Mohr in Tübingen while visiting her family for Christmas J. For a hardback Mohr Siebeck book, €49 is a good price.
  • Charles Freeman's A New History of Early Christianity (a deeper skim of which has actually not yet inspired me: too much loose reasoning. But we shall see.)
  • Hans Küng, Disputed Truth. Memoirs II. This one looks even more entertaining than his first volume. He is a genuinely warm person, he encourages fresh research and when he puts 'pen to paper' I always sit up and listen. He is a rare genius and thus always worth engaging with (yes, even by those who would ultimately reject aspects of his 'correlationist' programme)
  • A little book, a conversation with Eberhard Jüngel: Die Leidenschaft, Gott zu denken: Ein Gespräch über Denk- und Lebenserfahrungen. This was fun to read but at €14.80 for only 84 pages, this was too expensive. Couldn't help myself, though. In one memorable moment, he explained his difference to Pannenberg: 'what was of course in no way my thing - that was the apologetic basic position of Pannenberg. And that distinguishes me still from him' (54, my dodgy translation). It seems to me that an apologetic Grundhaltung remains particularly inappropriate for biblical scholars, and Tom Wright has rightly been critiqued (by e.g. Dale Allison and James Crossley) for his apologetically motivated remarks concerning Matthew 27:52-53 ('The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many'). Of course, it is quite silly to dismiss Wright's otherwise brilliant proposals on the basis of this example – something some are also prone to do!

Of course, I think it a real pity that my friend Jim West has decided to stop blogging. But I hope that he will return to it after a break.