Open Table on “Risk”

Friday 15 December 2017 | Open Table
RISK … celebrating incarnation

Video | I Can’t Believe He Jumped
Poem | The Nativity” (G. K. Chesterton)
Text | John 1:14 on Incarnation, and Philippians 2:5-11 on God’s self-limitation in Jesus

+++Feel free to skip below this meandering exploration of risk to the night’s details, or read on for some random thoughts that may spark a story you can share on the night+++

Christmas is a time of injury. Think free-time + new toys + instant crowd. Forget the kids. Picture that Aunty impressing the nieces on a Pogo-stick, or that dad showing his son how skateboarding was done back in his day. *Gulp*

hqdefaultAs one who loves rock-climbing, snapped his neck in a gymnastics accident, and still commutes on a motorbike most every day, I get this extreme sports high risk fixation. We want to feel alive … to free fall, and hopefully find a soft, immersive landing. Ta da! Sadly it only sometimes plays out this way. Understandably, we all have our limits. I’m comfortable weaving through traffic on two-wheels in the rain. But watching my 15 year old nephew pull a wheelie at 70km/hr on his dirtbike gives me the willies. And as for performing a ‘superman’ while launching off a ramp—I’ll leave that to motocross professionals.

So, when did you last task a RISK?

profit-loss-riskDefinitions vary, but pay attention to the valence. Risk has a negative aspect. It’s the possibility of loss or injury: peril; someone or something that creates or suggests a hazard. In other words, risk is the exposure to the likelihood of injury or loss; put simply, it’s a dangerous and chancy choice.

But, it also has a positive valence. From wiki’s fount of wisdom, risk is equally the potential of gaining something of value, whether that be physical health, social status, emotional well-being, financial wealth, or even friendship.

Think of how these elements map onto the biggest risk you’ve taken.

  • The Risk Taker: how did the risk taking impact you, mentally (fear?) and physically (fast, shallow breathing?), and how did you manage the stress?
  • Motivation and Reward: what drove you to take this risk, and what were you hoping to achieve on the other side? That is, what might you gain, and how valuable is it to you?
  • Who Is the Risk For? Is this an X-Games kinda’ risk, for personal thrill and glory? Or was this a noble Fire-Fighting kinda’ risk, for protection of the vulnerable and freedom for the oppressed?
  • Actual vs. Perceived Risk: What do you stand to lose if it goes wrong? And how probable is ‘success’? What is your knowledge of the odds? And must you trust only yourself, or others, in this faith-filled jump?

247264-Soren-Kierkegaard-Quote-Leap-of-faith-yes-but-only-afterIt’s no artificial segueway to see that this is now about that. This worldly risk is also about that greater good. As Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish Father of modern existentialism, averred, we are all limited and biased, finite and fallen fleshly creatures. Life is fraught with risk. Beyond self-interested dares in our Red Bull age, we need courage for wings to fly. We are all faced with the choice to pull back from the edge, or take a whole-hearted “leap of faith”. Perhaps this jump is into the dark, or into the light? Reflect, to be sure, but then you must launch to truly live. (Or, in other parlance, run the numbers before undertaking risky business.) It’s trust, risk, fear and hope all rolled into one, a self-involving decision to go beyond the known and often put ourselves at the mercy of the elements and an uncertain onlooking crowd.

trinity-iconTurning to the biblical story, then, we might rightly wonder if the Triune God—Father-Son-Spirit—is prone to risk-taking? Can God even take a risk, given the above definition? If you hold to the medieval philosophical framing of God being, by definition, omniscient (all knowing), omnipotent (all powerful), omnipresent (everywhere), and ultimately impassible (unchanging, and therefore unaffected by what happens in our world), then you would have to answer no. God knows the outcome of every divine and human action, has the power to ensure all gain and no loss, is spiritual/disembodied posing no risk of suffering even if things went pear shaped, and thus experiences no pain or pleasure due to the actions of others.

If you’ve actually read the biblical story, you’ll rightly wonder about whom these descriptives apply. As Blaise Pascal penned in the inside of his jacket, discovered only on his death (see here), our fiery Creator is the “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars.” God is passionate, invested; God suffers with, ultimately for his glory but in a way that wraps us into the action as agents with a genuine role to play where all win or lose together. Still, is risk possible?

BradiBarth_TrinityCreationEveTest case: Creation. The all-sufficient Risk-Taker whose essence is communion, overflowed in the perichoretic dance to creatively birth the cosmos. The motivation was love, and the reward was shalom, weaving us together through right relationship with God, neighbour, self and creation, all pointing back to its transcendent source. The risk is for everyone, not simply God in a zero-sum game; holistic flourishing, like African Ubuntu, means “I am, because we are”—one interconnected fabric. There is genuine risk, for the outcome is open. Preservation of love requires the extension of freedom; the Creator gifts agency to creation, where humans can accept or reject the overture and subsequently screw up God’s good world. ‘Sin’ results in suffering and requires intervention to fix the mess.

So far, so good. And yet, apart from some process theology overlay where the Creator is within time and unfolding with creation, it would seem that God knows the actual risk. He is both sovereign and all-seeing. Short of coercing the outcome, God still stands apart from Creation, and can perceive where it will all go. Adam and Eve’s rebellion didn’t take God by surprise. Granted, it “grieved” God that we rebelled (Genesis 6). And yet, like a parent disciplining a child saying “this will hurt me more than it hurts you”, the watery punishment of Noah’s flood physically inflicted only flesh-and-blood creatures. For God had no skin in the game.

Mariama McCarthy_Beautiful JesusLike I said, though, Christmas is a time of injury.
It’s the time we remember the ultimate risk of incarnation.

As Eugene Peterson renders John 1:14,

The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.

dbeb4-img_9546The unlimited, all knowing, all powerful Creator, tied himself to matter and was confined to a crib in a baby’s body. God hurt. And forget those romanticised Christmas carols: “meek and mild, no crying he makes”. No, this was first century Palestine, no more peaceful than today (cf. here). If I was God, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t choose this time and place to be born. Forget the bright star and warm stable; this was a vulnerable adolescent mother out of wedlock bearing a child, heading to an outback census under threat of angry authorities wanting to keep their power. This was more like the war-torn grab in the stunning movie, Children of Men—a world ripped apart by violence over scarcity of resources and infertility, but gripped by the hope found in a new-born babe. Cease Fire! Would you risk incarnation if modern day Syria was the landing point?

As we read in Philippians 2:5-11, the uncontainable God “gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being [w]hen he appeared in human form ….” That’s kenosis. Theological minds boggle: in what sense and what way can God be limited and still, in identity, remain ‘God’? And yet, the point is clear. God, while sovereign, gave up his right to control the game. He was at the mercy of the onlooking crowd. This was the ultimate risk. No soft landing and immersive embrace on planet Earth.

2f53a-s0444002It’s captured well in the iconic Greek Orthodox painting “Slaughter of the Innocents”. Granted, the statistics suffer symbolic inflation over this feast honouring the “14,000 slaughtered children”. In reality, King Herod’s blood-lust cost around 40 baby boys their lives (cf. Matthew 2). The Christ was spared, thrust like a modern day political refugee to the relative “safety” of Egypt. And yet, the number represents the countless lives torn apart and destroyed by despots hell-bent on asserting their preeminence, especially standing against the Lord’s anointed (Psalm 2).

256035.pThe risk of incarnation led inexorably to the crucifixion, the final relinquishment of divine power, not for personal gain, but that all may be set free from the ultimate demonic despot, finding life in renewed relationship with God, neighbour, planet and self. Literally, this risk offered a sign, a fore-taste, of “peace on earth”. Kings in palaces were oblivious. But shepherds, simpletons, and wise magi prepared to travel got front row on the spectacle and angelic Hallelujah chorus (beautifully depicted in St. Paul’s Arts and Media’s 2010 “Christmas Story”).

This paradoxical risk and revelation is poignantly captured in G. K. Chesterton’s poem, The Nativity. He riffs off Isaiah 9:6-7, juxtaposing a helpless child with just and powerful rule.

1a2d94f9ba1e689ef24bf3e64fe225e8Transposed into the modern world, where facing today’s Herods requires the combined courage of Mary and the Messiah, Chesterton composed this poem:

The thatch on the roof was as golden,
Though dusty the straw was and old,
The wind had a peal as of trumpets,
Though blowing and barren and cold,
The mother’s hair was a glory
Though loosened and torn,
For under the eaves in the gloaming
A child was born.

Have a myriad children been quickened,
Have a myriad children grown old,
Grown gross and unloved and embittered,
Grown cunning and savage and cold?
God abides in a terrible patience,
Unangered, unworn,
And again for the child that was squandered
A child is born.

What know we of aeons behind us,
Dim dynasties lost long ago,
Huge empires, like dreams unremembered,
Huge cities for ages laid low?
This at least—that with blight and with blessing,
With flower and with thorn,
Love was there, and his cry was among them,
“A child is born.”

Though the darkness be noisy with systems,
Dark fancies that fret and disprove,
Still the plumes stir around us, above us
The wings of the shadow of love:
Oh! Princes and priests, have ye seen it
Grow pale through your scorn;
Huge dawns sleep before us, deep changes,
A child is born.

And the rafters of toil still are gilded
With the dawn of the stars of the heart,
And the wise men draw near in the twilight,
Who are weary of learning and art,
And the face of the tyrant is darkened,
His spirit is torn,
For a new king is enthroned; yea, the sternest,
A child is born.

r1303218_17851361And the mother still joys for the whispered
First stir of unspeakable things,
Still feels that high moment unfurling
Red glory of Gabriel’s wings.
Still the babe of an hour is a master
Whom angels adorn,
Emmanuel, prophet, anointed,
A child is born.

And thou, that art still in thy cradle,
The sun being crown for thy brow,
Make answer, our flesh, make an answer,
Say, whence art thou come—who art thou?
Art thou come back on earth for our teaching
To train or to warn—?
Hush—how may we know? —knowing only
A child is born.

manger-incarnation-nativityReturning, then, to our key theme, and inspired by Parker Palmer’s reflection below (cf. here): What dynamics underlay your greatest risk? How did it impact you, and who was it for? What values stood to be gained, or goods did you risk to lose? What motivated your leap of faith, and how well could you predict the outcome? … Taking it even deeper in this Christmas season, let’s put skin on it. What are you are willing to risk to embody your deepest values? Where do you find the courage to take on the risk of incarnation, embodiment, and sacrifice for the life of the world?

Let the conversation begin! … Bring food and a story to share, and join us as together we explore RISK taking as one of life’s great phenomenon.

+++

Open Table on “The Beautiful”

Friday 6 October 2017 | Open Table
on the theme of the third transcendental, THE BEAUTIFUL

Bring a main dish to share, and come with a story to tell in response to the stimulus below, at Nik and Dave Benson’s place, 152 Tanderra Way, Karana Downs, at 7:30pm. Any questions? Call/txt Dave on 0491138487.

Leunig_CellBeautyUniverse.jpeg

Art | Michael Leunig, Glorious Gravel [My title! Image above]
Text | Exodus 28: 1-5, 31-41 “Clothing for the Priests”
Extra | Plotinus (3rd Century BCE, Greek Philosopher) Enneads I.6 “On Beauty” (4 minute video grab or full text here, especially §3-4,6) OR Hans Urs von Balthasar excerpt on Beauty here.

What does beauty mean to you? And when’s the last time you used the word “beautiful”? As an adjective, it seems capable of qualifying almost anything. A beautiful … sunset, dress, speech, meal, painting, putt, mind, person. The list goes on.

Related imageIn delving into this theme, I discovered a Spotify playlist with 1.5 million followers entitled “The Most Beautiful Songs in the World.” And I stumbled upon “Euler’s Identity”, voted by physicists as “the most beautiful equation”. If you failed senior maths, this will strike you as bizarre. And yet, this formula is arguably beautiful as it travels together with truth—spirituality and science strangely coinhering—and it takes an exceptionally trained mind to see and appreciate a dance of complexity and elegance representing “some of the most profound rules that govern the Universe and everything in it.” This appreciation often travels together with cultivating a poetic or musical ear to discern acoustic order. For those lacking ears to hear or eyes to see, however, it’s almost impossible to define what makes it a thing of beauty, and ultimately—philosophically and theologically—what beauty means.

Simplistically defined, beautiful means “pleasing the senses or mind aesthetically”. Anything or anyone that can elicit this perceptual experience of satisfaction in another is labelled “beautiful”. Sounds like it’s more about the spectator, rather than a quality in the object itself, held to some higher standard. You know, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

Image result for beautySearch “beauty” on google images, and you’re bombarded with breezy pictures of young women, often plastered with make-up and typically caucasian. No wonder singers like Christina Aguilera (“You Are Beautiful”) and Marilyn Manson (“The Beautiful People”) deconstruct the stereotypes which have shut our eyes to the diffuse beauty of a thousand flowers blooming in all shapes and sizes—rarely confined to what the market conditions us to consume.

Besides which, as we learn from stories as disparate as Shallow Hal, Beauty and the Beast, Shrek, and The Picture of Dorion Gray, physical and moral beauty in a broken world rarely travel together. The recently deceased Hugh Hefner may have surrounded himself with stunning Playboy Bunnies, but no one dedicates his eulogy to a beautiful life well lived among paragons of pulchritude. Bottom line: we must be cautious before reducing “beauty” to any one look.

Image result for beauty is not in the eye of the beholderAnd yet, these caveats fail to dismiss beauty as merely subjective. As Alain de Botton observes in his School of Life video, our language, photography and travel plans reveal amazing overlap in what images and destinations we find attractive; on the grounds of democracy alone, there seems to be something objective to beauty, which we ignore to the detriment of all. Which city needs another ugly concrete skyscraper? Beauty is intended to draw us onward and upward. In Dwayne Huebner’s words, it’s the “lure of the transcendent”.

Now, you could argue that this allure is simply explained by survival. Humans are like Bower Birds, seeking out beautiful blue objects to adorn our nests, even bodies, drawing a partner to propagate our species. And yet, the sheer excess—even superfluity—and diversity of beauty in our universe overflows such reductionism. Instead, it appears to point beyond itself to something that perhaps truly is “beautiful” in essence … an ideal, or form of sorts—even as I have some theological qualms with neo-Platonism as a Greek philosophy distorting Christianity’s affirmation of the material world as “very good” apart from disembodied ideas.

Image result for leunig starDespite our post-modern penchant for inverting age-old symbols, Michael Leunig suggests that the best “art … is not entirely of this world. … Perhaps it is a flight into beauty and eternity.” Rightly oriented, it is capable of directing our gaze heavenward, passing through and beyond our mundane material existence.

In the words of C. S. Lewis,

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Image result for leunig sun tvIn this same stunning essay, The Weight of Glory (1942), Lewis notes that beauty and “glory”, biblically framed, do travel together. (Or, in Jonathan Edwards’ theology, like flares from the Sun, we perceive beauty as an emanation from a radiant Triune source.) Far from trite conceptions of becoming “a kind of living electric light bulb”, our human longing for glory makes sense like our human fascination with watching the sunrise. Granted, it’s an imperfect sign. But it’s a faithful pointer to something more. Glory is “brightness, splendour, luminosity.” More than perceiving beauty, stimulating our senses, in a very real way we want “to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” And this process quite often passes through pain, being remade, reconstituted even by a reality beyond our control. Collateral Beauty may thus sneak up on us, shining through our darkest times of suffering.

Related imagePerhaps this is why we find truly “beautiful souls”—especially those who have emerged through struggle with battle-scars and yet a soft heart—so attractive? They graciously wear the virtues in which we long to be clothed. Thus the Bible persistently refers to putting on “the beauty of holiness” (e.g., Psalms 29:2; 96:9; cf. here), reflecting The Beautiful, being Godself. It takes a radiant character like Beatrice to draw damned Dante out of the Inferno and into Paradise. Similarly, our artwork, our creativity, even our fashion may in a real sense be drawing us to mimic and experience—albeit imperfectly like young girls smearing bright red lipstick on their face, yearning to be like their model mums—a beauty of character that is more than skin deep. We increasingly transform into the likeness of what we admire, imitating what we magnify and that upon which we meditate. In short, we become what we worship.

Maybe this is why God went to the trouble of prescribing Aaron’s outfit, as Israel’s High Priest, holy and whole in “glorious and beautiful” attire (Exodus 28)? Dressed in holiness we can see God; lacking the gracious covering of divine beauty, we risk being consumed in the encounter.

And thus we loop back to our original observation. Beauty can qualify most anything. But, like the 14th Century Italian employment of Botticelli to depict Fortitude, Beauty comes into its own when it illuminates virtue and aligns with the way God intended the world to be, “danc[ing] as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another” (von Balthasar).

Gifts Glittering and PoisonedNot all that glitters is gold, this is true. In the history of empire, circuses and spectacle have been used to deceive and poison the masses, obscuring the really real. “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting …” (Proverbs 31:30). And yet, gold does have a glitter meaningful in and of itself, pointing beyond to Beauty, perhaps even a transcendent source of unfading glory we call “God”. As the editors of the Kalos (Greek for Beautiful) book series aver,

[the beautiful] is the call of the good; that which arouses interest, desire: “I am here.” Beauty brings the appetite to rest at the same time as it wakens the mind from its daily slumber, calling us to look afresh at that which is before our very eyes. It makes virgins of us all, and of everything—there, before us, lies something that we never noticed before. Beauty consists in integritas sive perfectio [integrity and perfection] and claritas [brightness/clarity]. It is the reason why we rise and why we sleep—that great night of dependence, one that reveals the borrowed existence of all things …. Here lies the ground of all science, of philosophy, and of all theology, indeed of our each and every day.

photo-montage-1514221_1280.jpgBringing this wide-ranging provocation to a close, what story, person, experience or object from your life comes to mind when you think of beauty? When do you typically employ the qualifier, beautiful? And is there any sense in which you believe—or, better yet, have tasted—that your subjective encounter with beauty points to The Beautiful, as the third transcendental, travelling with her sisters, The True and the Good?

Let the conversation begin!

Open Table on “The Good”

Friday 1 September 2017 | Open Table
on the theme of the second transcendental, GOODNESS

Leunig Venerable Blessed Saintly CreaturesVincent_Willem_van_Gogh_022Art | Michael Leunig, “Venerable, Blessed & Saintly Creatures“; Vincent Van Gogh, “Good Samaritan
Text | Luke 10:25-37, “The Good Samaritan”

Good job! Good luck. Good night. All good. 

Looking good! Good pizza. Good wife. A good life. 

good thumbs upWhen a word can mean everything, it ceases to mean anything. So, what do we mean by “good”? In modern parlance, it’s highly malleable. For ancients, however, it was the second transcendental, alongside truth and beauty. It was the perennial quest for quality.

aristotleAnd yet, how do we measure excellence? Surely good implies its counterpart bad, and draws on some objective standard by which we judge? Good thus draws us deeper into questions of identity, essence, purpose, destiny/telos … some larger story heading either here or there, in which the part–whether a pizza or a person–rightly relates to the whole.

zen

Perhaps some quotes will sharpen the focus.

Let’s start with Robert Pirsig in his classic philosophical travelogue,  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Valuesexploring the nature of quality (goodness), of both machine/motorcycle, and person:

You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy.
Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally.

How about Uncle Jack (C. S. Lewis) … what wisdom can he offer? Especially given that he thinks good and bad, right and wrong, are a “clue to the meaning of the Universe” (watch his Doodle video here).

Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled. …
No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. …
There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him.

Finally, let’s get mystical with the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing:

Genuine goodness is a matter of habitually acting
and responding appropriately in each situation, as it arises,
moved always by the desire to please God.

Image result for quotes goodness

So, this Open Table is dedicated to sharing stories sparked by this theme of “the good” … call it goodnesscharacterquality, the fullest expression of our essence and identity, a realisation of our telos … whatever you call it, come with food to share and a story to tell.

Who or what embodies this quality we call “good”, in a way that fixes your focus and calls you onward and upward? Join us and explore together one of life’s greatest themes.

 

(Post) Truth @ Open Table

manifesto for post truth artFriday 9 June 2017 | Open Table
on the theme of the first transcendental, TRUTH

 

In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries named “Post-Truth” (video here and here) their Word of the Year. Post-Truth:
adj. “
relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief.” In short, emotion beats truth.
posttruthSure, it’s associated with politics in this Trump-esque age of “truthful hyperbole” and rule by Tweet. And yet, it seems to be a “general characteristic of our age”. Art becomes propaganda, and we’re trapped in an infinite echo-chamber.

colbert truthinessStephen Colbert calls it “truthiness“: a claim grounded on nothing more than a feeling deep in our gut of its actual “truth”. (For Colbert, “post-truth” and “Trumpiness” is simply a contemporary rip-off of “truthiness” [5 mins on]), defined as “The belief in what you feel to be true rather than what the facts will support”. Social media opinions have swallowed verifiable propositions (see here, here and here), leaving us simultaneously sceptical of any truth claims and–without any recognised authorities nor clear criteria and character to search out what’s right–defenseless against unchecked spin. Who, then, to trust?

honestyOf course, this isn’t a new issue. Back in 1978, Billy Joel was already lamenting the loss of “Honesty” (lyrics here): “If you look for truthfulness, you might just as well be blind; it always seems to be so hard to give. … Honesty is such a lonely word. Everyone is so untrue. Honesty is hardly ever heard. And mostly what I need from you.”

At the philosophical level, then, we wonder: what is truth? Can it be discerned, and what are the criteria? Does intuition and gut instinct (a la Michael Polanyi’s “tacit and personal knowledge”) have a role to play? Is there even such a thing as “truth”, and “facts”, or is all we say simply subjective and language-bound? But in this Open Table night of sharing, we’re getting personal. With Billy Joel, we’re coming clean that “All I want is someone to believe.”

Ecce_homo_by_Antonio_Ciseri_(1)Who, if anyone, can you trust? What does it mean for a person to be “true”, even “The Truth” (cf. Jn 14:6)? Why extend this faith? On what basis can we have confidence that our deepest beliefs, or what another tells us, is actually “true” and worth believing, beyond the spin? And if we fail to trust anyone in our post-truth society, what is the personal and cultural fall out?

PostTruthPortrait_DoronNoyman2017Check out the stimulus below, and come with a personal story to share that embodies this quest for “truth” and someone to believe.

Art: Doron Noyman’s “Post-Truth Portrait” (2017) + Antonio Ciseri’s “Ecce Homo” (1871; the title means “Behold, The Man,” from the Latin Vulgate John 19:5, Pilate to Jesus]). You might also find stimulating Leunig’s cartoon “The Big Picture” (from his DVD, Melancholy)

Poetry/Song: Billy Joel’s “Honesty” (1978; video clip + lyrics)

Scripture: John 18:28-19:16 (esp. 18:33-38), as Pilate questions Jesus: “What Is Truth?” (Jn 18:38)

(And if you’re really wanting to delve deep into this topic, check out John Stackhouse’s 2014 book, Need to Know: Vocation As the Heart of Christian Epistemology, and Esther Lightcap Meek’s 2011, Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology)

Open Table on LOVE

banksy-girl-and-balloon-london-2002

Friday 10 March 2017 | Open Table
on the theme of the third theological virtue, LOVE

Art: Leunig’s animated cartoon “Heart on a String” (from his DVD, Whimsy)
Also Banksy’s “Girl and Balloon“, from his 2002 East London stencil. (We’ll also bounce off his 2014 reworking, “Syrian Balloon Girl“, as part of the “Stand with Syria” campaign: video here.)

Image result for smith "you are what you love"Scripture: John 15:9-17, as Jesus drops the “Great Commandment” on his disciples, bracing them for persecution and passionate mission after he departs

(And if you’re really wanting to delve deep into this topic, check out Jamie Smith’s 2016 book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit.)

Friday June 9 2017 | Open Table, on the theme of the first transcendental, TRUTH.

Since 2016, we’ve been hosting semi-regular Open Table gatherings. So far we’ve explored HOSPITALITY, before getting into the theological virtues of FAITH, HOPE & LOVE. From there, we’ll launch into the transcendentals, TRUTH, GOODNESS & BEAUTY. Paul’s advice has led the way:

Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philippians 4:8).

All welcome from 6:30pm onwards, but officially we’ll kick off at 7pm, and be done around 9pm. It’s pretty informal, but coming on time helps the group hang together.

XP is obviously Christian! That said, it’s not “religious” in the sense that you can only come if you’re a churchy kind of person.
This night in particular is a community event.

Everyone has a story. And God’s story interweaves with our own, often in ways we can’t even see.
It takes a face-to-face encounter with those who are different from us to draw it out.

So, this night is open to everyone. Bring a friend.

There is no r.s.v.p. That said, it’s a massive help if you bring something small to contribute to the meal.  Bring something for a main dish that you would enjoy eating, and if you’re feeling lavish, bring a bottle too! We’ll provide dessert and some extra drinks. And if you forget to grab something, don’t let that stop you. Come anyway!

Sgreenso, what exactly is OPEN TABLE?

Imagine communion as a true meal, sharing stories around a central theme, and seeing how our stories tie into God’s story of mission to redeem (and reconnect) a broken world.

The themes are as deep and varied as life itself: love, hate, work, pain, hope, reconciliation, creativity, evil, wisdom, healing, purpose, violence, confusion, destiny …

Whatever the theme for that week sparks in you is fair game. You can even bring along a song, a piece of art, a movie clip, a photo, an artifact … bring whatever helps you tell a scene from your personal story.

We will typically post one passage from the Bible alongside that theme. No preaching, but picture an open dialogue about how this story resonates with your own. Perhaps together we’ll see how in God we really do live, move, and have our being.

Feel free to post your ideas for themes and passages also

… we’re keen for this to become an authentic/real community.

Looking forward to hosting you in our house, as strangers become friends.

Open Book on Endō’s SILENCE

3b68cd92e1547d20e2cb8a84580d9daeOver the last four books, we’ve explored the importance of our bodies and imagination in forming kingdom habits (Desiring the Kingdom), ways of integrating our faith and everyday work (Kingdom Calling), the importance of community in growing up in Christ and reaching out in mission (Community & Growth), and how we should live our kingdom story as ‘true’ in an age of conflicting empires (Colossians Remixed). Each fortnightly gathering we’ve shared in the combination of rich liturgy (Taize songs, Northumbrian prayers, creative Bible reading), open discussion, reflection on art, and the designing of rich practices and habits to reinforce our identity and calling in Christ.

In our first cycle for 2017 (starting Thursday 2nd February), and making a long awaited switch from argumentative essays to a sweeping narrative, we turn to explore the struggle for faith in a world marked by suffering and God’s silence:

How can we imitate Christ as witnesses
in a culture rejecting Christianity?

silence-high-quality-book-cover

Order the Picador 2016 edition online here.

Our conversation partner is Shūsaku Endō (1923-1996), arguably the greatest Japanese novelist of his time, and author of one of the twentieth Century’s most renowned books, Silence. The impact of this book reverberates into the present, challenging, inspiring, infuriating and humbling countless modern writers (see here for nearly 50 such reflections).

fumie2Endō, a Japanese Catholic, was no stranger to occupying the place of the Other: too foreign, too Oriental, to be understood by the West, and too Christian, too iconoclastic–not to mention insufficiently Buddhist–to be accepted at home. His work of historical fiction is set in 1635 as Portuguese missionaries seek to proselytise the Japanese during a time of extreme persecution. Following rumours of their leader (Ferreira) abandoning his faith, two younger Jesuits (Fr. Rodrigues and his companion Fr. Francisco Garrpe) head to Japan to uncover the truth and shore up the struggling converts. How will this collision between cultures resolve, as each grapples with the other? Will Rodrigues and Garrpe, too, betray their Lord, trampling his crudely formed icon (fumie) underfoot and committing the sin of apostasy?

For Dave’s thoughts on why Silence is so timely to read in Open Book 2017, read on.
For the key details and dates, skipping the essay, scroll down below the second +++!

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This book is timely for two reasons.

japanese-martyrs2First, our times increasingly resemble the novel’s setting, thus posing questions that we must answer in our own missional context. This is not to play the victim and suggest that Aussie Christians experience persecution akin to Japanese Christians during the Edo Period (1603-1868). This was a time when Japan turned inward to forge a unified national identity set over and against the colonising other, especially its religious symbols which challenged ultimate allegiance to the Land of the Rising Sun. To be sure, most Aussie Christians barely feel a twinge of persecution, largely disconnected from the pain in the global body of Christ as it faces widespread “Christianophobia“.

Nonetheless, this anti-Christian sentiment has settled into the western church’s heartland. Our once familiar home is turning “hostile“, with anti-Christian bias increasingly prevalent. Many followers of Jesus are lost for how to respond to their faith coming under attack. The “Christian Century” of peacefully coexisting with and playing chaplain to the elites, appealing to the cultured despisers, is long gone. Instead, leading thinkers call the church to “prepare” for persecution–to follow Jesus outside the gates of institutional power, and to embrace the ignominy of being the misunderstood Other who yet speaks truth to power and leads with sacrificial love (Heb 13:12-16). Facing political protectionism and resurgent nationalism (think Brexit, Trump, One Nation) and a supposedly unified “secular” identity that marginalises faith as the populace “loses [its] religion” (even amidst unprecedented plurality), the “disappearing church” of contemporary Australia must change goals, “from cultural relevance to gospel resilience”.

Nothing in this would surprise Endō or other such wise students of mission’s history. Fr. Francis Xavier, Jesuit missionary extraordinaire, ushered in what looked like an Oriental Christian Century, with his inquisitive welcome by Japan’s elites in 1549. And yet, within fifty years, under feudal warlord and Shogun strong man Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Christianity–with its foreign religious icons carried on “black ships” of commerce, backed by military force–was anathema, understood as a threat to fledgling national identity. Missionaries now risked ridicule, even torture and martyrdom, and indigenous believers retreated as “hidden Christians”. Should they just give up on Japan? Does the gospel simply not grow in this soil? And yet, the incarnation and way of Jesus models that God can take on flesh in every time and place, embracing its particularities–contextualisation without compromise (Mt 28:18-20). “If Christianity cannot be true in every culture, then it cannot be true at all.” How Portuguese and Japanese believers responded was a test of Christianity’s integrity as a whole.

silence-endoWe must, however, count the cost. Incarnation always leads to the cross.

As Alissa Wilkinson writes in her powerful review of Silence, “For Endō, there are no easy routes to salvation; a person’s body—its ethnicity, its weaknesses, its susceptibility to pain and desire—is as much his link to the life and sufferings of Christ as a person’s soul.”

This is the paradox of faith: to save your life, you must first lose it (Mt 16:25). How, then, can fallen Christians imitate the incarnation, and witness to a culture rejecting Christianity? Can we do so without suffering? Will our efforts end better than Peter, or Judas?  And how will we be sustained for this impossible mission when the God who sends us apparently stands by, watching in silence?

Endō will not allow us to see this as a “culture war”, a battle between them and us. Surely, there is much that the story’s antagonists and inquisitors, especially former Christians like Kichijirō and Inoue, rightly reject in Christianity as a religion and colonial power–as Japanese Pastor Marre Ishii explores in his review of Silence? It is difficult to distinguish to what degree they would have us wrongly trample underfoot Christ himself as rebels idolatrously set against the Lord of All (Ps 2; Mt 5:10-12; Lk 10:16; Jn 15:18-25), and rightly destroy our crude images of Christ reified in broken institutional religion that is prone to hypocrisy, “cross[ing] land and sea to make one convert, and then turn[ing] that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are” (Mt 23:13-15). Like Jesus himself, Endō is calling the church to “cleanse the temple” (Mt 21:12-17) by evicting what truly is not of God. Only in humility can we witness to a post-Christian culture.

silence-978144729985101Recapping this first point, then, our times increasingly resemble the novel’s setting. Christianity, once popular and even powerful, is on the outer, and a nation “come of age” is prone–with some good reason–to marginalise and even persecute the Church as a threat to the common (read “secular”) good. As missiologist Lesslie Newbigin argues powerfully (see Truth to TellFoolishness to the Greeks, and The Gospel in a Pluralist Society), however, most Christians have not yet recognised that we are the other, the foreigner, in our own home. We, the increasingly “hidden Christians”, are missionaries to a post-Christendom culture. And, as such, the novel Silence is a poignant conversation partner, raising questions of witness, power and colonialism, suffering and doubt, persecution and apostasy. Given that Christ’s Pieces is called to explore what it means to faithfully follow Christ at this cultural cross-road, this book is ripe for our reading together.

Image result for silence movieMercifully shorter than my first rationale, a second reason this book is timely to discuss is that the much anticipated movie rendering of Silence by Martin Scorsese has come! Thirty years in gestation since first reading, this master director describes its production as his own “pilgrimage”. It’s set to be released in Brisbane on February 16, 2017. God willing, we’ll watch it together on Thursday March 2. Obviously watching the movie, mid cycle in Open Book, comes with a complete “spoiler alert”! That said, his adaptation is receiving critical acclaim by the religious and secular alike, and will stimulate great discussion as these tortured characters lift off the page, at once enfleshing and challenging the images in our mind’s eye.

With this movie release (synopsis here; trailer here) has come great interest and a flurry of responses. There have been occasional detractors, such as Roy Peachey from First Things. He questioned both Scorsese and Endō’s telling as rationalising an escape from the suffering of the cross in the name of contextualisation and protection of fellow believers. Most reviewers, however, have praised their constraint, avoiding preaching and instead raising pivotal issues for our at once secular and religious age. As Stephanie Zacharek from Time commented, this story “maps the space between faith and doubt …. Silence makes no clear value judgment between belief and doubt. It’s a movie in the shape of a question mark, which may be the truest sign of the cross.” Personally, this story of cross-shaped witness in a post-Christian context reminded me of Brendan Gleeson’s 2014 characterisation of Irish Priest, Fr. James, in the similarly celebrated and poignant movie, Calvary (Trailer here).

If you’re wanting to delve deeper, these are the best reviews of Silence I’ve read:

  • Alissa Wilkinson on Vox: “Silence is beautiful, unsettling, and one of the finest religious movies ever made. Martin Scorsese’s film keenly understands Shūsaku Endō’s novel and challenges believer and nonbeliever alike.”
  • Simon Smart (from Australia’s Centre for Public Christianity [CPX], on ABC: “How the pain of Scorsese’s Silence mirrors the ‘hard and bitter agony’ of Christmas.”
  • Brett McCracken on Christianity Today: “Scorsese’s Silence asks what it really costs to follow Jesus.”

The particular version of the novel we’ll use is the 2016 edition by Picador (available on Amazon.com here), translated by William Johnston, with a foreword by movie director Martin Scorsese. Their discussion guide is most helpful, posing piercing literary and theological questions with which we will grapple. The companion reflections from nearly 50 authors, responding to Silence, are likewise profound.

We will also draw from a companion book that closely follows Endō’s novel, written by the wonderful Japanese artist and theologian, Makoto Fujimura, with a foreword by Philip Yancey, entitled Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering. Fujimura’s companion website has interviews, art-work, and his own discussion guide. For Yancey’s chapter on Shūsaku Endō (“A Place for Traitors,” in his Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church [London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2007], 261-279), see here. Yancey shares how Endō’s attention to the suffering image of Christ–“the Jesus of reversal” (268)–restored Yancey’s faith, after rejecting the unreality of Christian triumphalism from his fundamentalist youth.

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Over 9 fortnightly Thursday sessions (Feb 2 – May 25) we will dialogue with Endō and each other, learning how to realistically imitate Christ’s incarnation as his witnesses, in our post-Christendom (post-Christian?) Australian culture.

Check out the calendar below for key dates, and pdf links to carry you through until you get your own copy of the book (purchase asap on Amazon.com or via Picador).

We have a soft-start from 6:30pm–feel free to rock up early and eat your dinner or share a cup of tea. At 7pm sharp we get into the night, finishing each night by 9pm with supper together and an unrushed chat over coffee. OPEN BOOK includes some basic spiritual practices and prayer, before unpacking the pre-reading scheduled for that night.

For each week, it helps to think through how the reading provokes you in 4 ways:

1) Questions: what didn’t make sense?

2) Challenges: what did you think was wrong?

3) Implications: if this is true, what does it mean for being the church today?

4) Applications: what does it look like for you to live out of this vision as part of the community of God?

OPEN BOOK, THURSDAYS 7PM | Shūsaku Endō’s SILENCE (S)

Feb 2 | Silence Part 1, pp. vii-10 (27pp): Scorsese’s Foreword (vii-ix), Translator’s Preface (xi-xxiv), Endō’s Prologue (1-10)

[Yancey’s chapter on Shūsaku Endō, “A Place for Traitors,” pp261-279 in his Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2007), is also great introduction.]

Feb 16 | S Part 2, pp. 11-47 (37pp): Ch 1 (11-21), Ch 2 (22-29), & Ch 3 (30-47)

*Wednesday* Mar 1 | Silence Movie

Open Table dinner on Friday March 10 … Theme of LOVE

Mar 16 | S Part 3, pp. 48-83 (36pp): Ch 4 (48-83)

Mar 30 | S Part 4, pp. 84-107 (24pp): Ch 5 (84-107) [cancelled due to Debbie’s Cyclone 😦 ]

Apr 13 | S Part 5, pp. 108-128 (21pp): Ch 6 (108-128) + revisit pp. 84-107 (Ch 5)

Apr 27 | S Part 6, pp. 129-164 (36pp): Ch 7 (129-164)

May 11 | S Part 7, pp. 165-189 (25pp): Ch 8 (165-183), & Ch 9 (184-189)

May 25 | S Part 8, pp. 190-212 (23pp): Dinner celebration/remembering of all practices (ppnt/pdf recap) and consolidation of our response to the central question of the series: “How can we imitate Christ as witnesses in a culture rejecting Christianity?” (Ch 10 (190-204), & Appendix (205-212). We’ll provide soup & bread (7pm sharp); bring dessert if able.

Open Table dinner on Friday June 9 … Theme of TRUTH (7 for 7:30pm start)

July 27 | Restart semester 2 with The Benedict Option on the question, “What practices preserve our witness [& identity] in a post-Christian context?”

Hope to see you there!fumie

Open Table on FAITH

hqdefaultincredulity-of-saint-thomas-1602_caravaggioFriday 28 October 2016 | Open Table
on the theme of FAITH

Art: Leunig’s animated cartoon “Cardboard Box” (from his DVD, Whimsy)

Also Caravaggio’s 1603 painting,
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

Poem/Song: Lauren Daigle “I Will Trust in You” (lyrics here) in response to a prophet’s impassioned prayer while awaiting his city’s destruction, in Habakkuk 3:1-2, 16-19.

Scripture: John 20:24-29, as Thomas–the patron saint for skeptics–is confronted by the call to put his faith in the crucified Christ.

Friday January 2017 (date tba) | Open Table, on the theme of the third theological virtue, LOVE.

Since 2016, we’ve been hosting semi-regular Open Table gatherings. So far we’ve explored HOSPITALITY, before getting into the theological virtues of FAITH, HOPE & LOVE. From there, we’ll launch into the transcendentals, TRUTH, GOODNESS & BEAUTY. Paul’s advice has led the way:

Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philippians 4:8).

All welcome from 6:30pm onwards, but officially we’ll kick off at 7pm, and be done around 9pm. It’s pretty informal, but coming on time helps the group hang together.

XP is obviously Christian! That said, it’s not “religious” in the sense that you can only come if you’re a churchy kind of person.
This night in particular is a community event.

Everyone has a story. And God’s story interweaves with our own, often in ways we can’t even see.
It takes a face-to-face encounter with those who are different from us to draw it out.

So, this night is open to everyone. Bring a friend.

There is no r.s.v.p. That said, it’s a massive help if you bring something small to contribute to the meal.  Bring something for a main dish that you would enjoy eating, and if you’re feeling lavish, bring a bottle too! We’ll provide dessert and some extra drinks. And if you forget to grab something, don’t let that stop you. Come anyway!

Sgreenso, what exactly is OPEN TABLE?

Imagine communion as a true meal, sharing stories around a central theme, and seeing how our stories tie into God’s story of mission to redeem (and reconnect) a broken world.

The themes are as deep and varied as life itself: love, hate, work, pain, hope, reconciliation, creativity, evil, wisdom, healing, purpose, violence, confusion, destiny …

Whatever the theme for that week sparks in you is fair game. You can even bring along a song, a piece of art, a movie clip, a photo, an artifact … bring whatever helps you tell a scene from your personal story.

We will typically post one passage from the Bible alongside that theme. No preaching, but picture an open dialogue about how this story resonates with your own. Perhaps together we’ll see how in God we really do live, move, and have our being.

Feel free to post your ideas for themes and passages also

… we’re keen for this to become an authentic/real community.

Looking forward to hosting you in our house, as strangers become friends.