Friday, July 24, 2009

Booth Seminar with Tom Noble

I have just concluded two enjoyable days at Booth College reflecting on John Wesley's Doctrine of Holiness with Dr. Tom Noble of Nazarene Theological Seminary. What follows is an attempt at a precis of what he presented. The exposition was punctuated throughout by a series of thirty-one well-chosen direct quotations from Wesley's writings which I'm not going to reproduce here, but trust me it was very well grounded in the primary sources. What exactly was Wesley's doctrine of holiness and is it coherent? There are a number of hurdles that must be overcome in order to answer these questions. The first is that Wesley's writings were occasional in nature; they were written to address particular occasions rather than being systematic statements of Christian doctrine. The largest treatment of the topic is The Plain Account of Christian Perfection which is a pastiche of materials from across his whole career, hence there is a certain lack of coherence to it. His doctrine developed over time so one must give careful consideration to when a given statement was made andin what context. A further complicating factor is that we come to a reading of Wesley with other theological sytstems in mind and it is difficult for us to lay those aside and read Wesley on his own terms. Finally there is the matter of semantics. We must define terms in order to reach understanding and Wesley uses his terms with a distinct meaning that must be identified. It's important to remember that theological definition is a kind of map of the Christian life. The map is not the journey itself.

Wesley's theologiccal heritage is a broad one. It begins with the Fathers especially the Ante-Nicene writers of the "primitive church." Clement of Alexandria speaks of two levels of perfection - every Christian is "perfect" in the sense that he or she is perfectly a Christian (one cannot be half a Christian) and yet there is a higher degree of perfection that awaits the believer. The anonymous writer "Macarius" speaks of a holy flame that purifies from sin. Augustine, [pictured at left] (not one normally associated with Wesley in a positive way) spoke of love (amor) as either concupiscentia or caritas. We either love the things of the world or we love the things of God. It is a matter of how our love is directed. "Turn the waters flowing into the drain into the garden." It was admitted that there is no direct influence of Augustine on Wesley, in the sense of a paper trail that demonstrates Wesley's close engagement with Augustine's writings. Rather, as the theologian of love par excellence, Augustine's theology profoundly influences the entire Western tradition and Wesley is a part of that tradition, especially in his emphasis on loving God with the whole heart, soul, mind and strength. Moving beyond the patristic period we may consider Bernard's four levels of perfection in love, and Thomas a Kempis' "purity of intention," the latter having a particular emphasis on Wesley's thought. Through the Moravians Wesley discovered the Lutheran emphasis on justification by grace through faith, and he draws on the Pietist and Puritan emphases within the Protestant tradition.

Next we turned to the development of Wesley's doctrine. He was first captured (well before his Aldersgate experience) by the goal of Christian perfection. Only later did he grasp justification by faith whereupon there was a shift from an emphasis on a steady obedience to God's law as the means to perfection to an emphasis on the grace that flows from Christ and his atoning work on the cross. Then he combined the two in what George Croft Cell famously referred to as "an original and unique synthesis of the Protestant ethic of grace with the Catholic ethic of holiness." Tom Noble suggests that a better way to think of it is as a synthesis of the Protestant Evangelical doctrine of justification by grace through faith and the Patristic and Medieval doctrine of holiness [this sounds like the same thing to me so I may have missed something here. During question time we also discussed the possibility that the Eastern idea of theosis has been seen by some as an important contributing factor in this synthesis].

How exactly did Wesley use the term "sanctification"? In a number of ways. Sometimes the word means "initial sanctification" or the "regeneration" that accompanies the new birth. At other times it means "gradual" sanctification and at other times "entire sanctification." To avoid confusion Wesley recommended that the qualifier "entire" should always be used if a second work of grace beyond the new birth was in view. The problem was he didn't always follow his own rule, leading to some confusion. Justification effects a relative change; sanctification (that which comes at the new birth) a real change. The word "relative" here should be understood in the sense of "relational" - a change in relationship toward God. Nineteenth-century Holiness teachers, contrary to Wesley, almost always used the word "sanctification" to refer to "entire sanctification." One is "saved" and then later "sanctified." But this has a tendency to obscure the breaking of the power of sin that takes place in the new birth (initial sanctification). [As an aside Dr. Noble expressed the view that the doctrinal expressions of our nineteenth-century forebears in the American holiness movement were more culturally conditioned than Wesley's in his own day.]

One of Wesley's key texts is 1 John 3:6,9 given here in the Authorised (King James) Version, the standard translation of the day. "Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him...Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God." How can this text be reconciled with Christian experience? It is in the context of dealing with this passage that Wesley comes up with his well-known definition of sin as "voluntary transgression." The term "transgression" is used by Wesley in two ways - 1) voluntary transgression - "sin properly so called" and 2) involuntary transgression. It is only the first that is in view in 1 John 3. Real Christians do not deliberately go out and break God's commandments. Their lives are marked by obedience. But we are not free from involuntary trangressions so long as we are in this body. These are not properly speaking "sins" (in that they are not voluntary trangressions of a known law of God) yet still they fall short of absolute perfection so they must be daily confessed and they require (and receive) the continuing cleansing of the shed blood of Christ. John's declaration that the believer cannot sin (in the first and proper sense of a willful trangressionn) is a conditional impossibility. So long as he relies on Christ he cannot live in a manner that denies Christ's Lordship.

The intial sanctification that is concommitant with the new birth is followed by the "gradual work" of mortificatio (putting sin to death) and vivificatio (bringing the Christian graces to life). Different Christians are at different stages in this process. Some, in the language of John's first epistle, are "little children," others "young men", still other "fathers." The goal of the complete mortification of inbred sin is possible in this life (contra Calvin)but it is not something attained in a "holiness meeting" in which a holiness sermon is addressed to a group of lukewarm Christians with otherwise no previous interest in the pursuit of perfection. Rather it comes in the context of a lifelong pursuit of perfect love for God and neighbour to serious Christians who are availing themselves of all of the classical Christian disciplines. Mountain tops are not reached in a few easy steps but after a long and arduous ascent.

"Entire sanctification" is the act of God bringing the believer to perfection in love. It is not something to be sought for its own sake, not an end in itself but the means to the end of perfect love. Wesley's focus is on the result rather than the means, whereas the nineteenth-century holiness movement tended to focus on the means (the "moment" or "instant" of entire sanctification). Wesley never used the word "crisis" in reference to entire sanctification (that is a nineteenth-century term), though he did speak of the "instantaneousness" of the gift. Nor did he ever use "experience" as a noun, that is, he never spoke of "getting the experience" of entire sanctification. Instead he spoke of loving God more and more until God was loved perfetcly.

What then in this "perfect love"? Wesley employed three models. 1) The Psychological model - purity of intention. 2) The Christological model - "all the mind that was in Christ Jesus" and 3)The Ethical [or Love] model - the great commandment to love God with the whole heart, soul, mind and strength and the neighbour as onself. Entire sanctification is not something different in kind from the holiness received in the new birth but different in degree. The heart filled with love has no room for sin. It has experienced the "expulsive power of a new [or greater] affection." It is not the rocket propulsion that sends a spacecraft to the moon, but the moon's own gravitational pull. The spacecraft has been freed by the earth's gravitational pull and captured by the moon's until it is drawn into a safe landing. So entire sanctification frees the heart from sin's gravitational pull until it is captured by the gravitational pull of perfect love.

Whether or not this change is instantaneous is not a question Wesley answers dogmatically. He concedes [in The Plain Account of Christian Perfection] that an instantaneous change had been wrought in some believers. Others canot perceive the exact moment in which this change was made nonetheless they do now love God perfectly. "It is often difficult to perceive the instant when a man dies; yet there is an instant in which life ceases...And if even sin ceases, there must be a last moment of its existence and a first moment of our deliverance from it." Still, in the sermon "On Patience" he declares that the Scriptures are silent on this question and that every person may hold his own opinion so long as others are allowed to do the same. "Be the change instantaneous or gradual, see that you never rest till it is wrought in your soul..."

It is also important to establish what entire sanctification is not. It is not final salvation, legal perfection, or freedom from "involuntary transgressions." It is not a holiness independent of Christ for even the most fully sanctified must rely daily on Christ's shed blood. It is not "static," not a permanent state from which it impossible to lapse. Nor is it a proud or self-sufficient holiness, for none know their "imperfections" so well as the "perfect." It is not the first reception of the Spirit for the Spirit is received at the new birth.

Wesley's doctrine of holiness is not a straightjacket for determining theological orthodoxy. It is a map, a guide, and like all theological language it is analogical, built on metaphors not exact correspondence. Even so it is an approach which is coherent, challenging and richly satisfying.

Above: Some participants at the Tom Noble Seminar (l to r): Sing-Chee Tan, Tom Noble, Steve Wright, Glen O'Brien (photo courtesy of Heather Wright's Facebook page.)

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Preacher Special Edition

I don't really get the point of so-called "Mature Age" comics like this. Fair enough, a parent needs to be warned against giving something with this kind of filthy content to little Johnny to read. 80% of comic readers are adults anyway and we don't need to read the F word in every panel to enjoy a comic's dialogue with an adult level of sophistication. Look, it's not that I'm prudish. I can cope with strong language on the screen and in literature without getting offended. What does offend me is when Garth Ennis thinks I will be impressed if he throws in a bunch of really disgusting dialogue and that this will make me think, "Ooh a comic for my age group. How impressive." Well, no, I don't think that and no, I'm not impressed. Look I love the folks at the DC Nation; they give me a lot of reading pleasure but really, Mr. Didio, what is this "Special Edition" branding but a big cash-in on the Watchmen movie? "After Watchmen...What's Next?" Well it certainly isn't The Preacher that's for sure. Alan Moore's Watchmen is a genuine masterpiece of its type. The Preacher is not. What's the connect here? I can only assume anticipated sales. I picked this up because it was cheap ($1.95 AU with a $1.00 US cover price). DC hopes people will read this and the others in the series and then go off and buy the more expensive graphic novels in trade paperback. Well, here's one customer who won't be doing that.

So what's the story all about? The Rev. Jesse Custer is the pastor of a small Texas congregation who one day begins to act very out of character, using dirty words and such . Apparently he has been possessed by some cross-bred Angel/Demon creature called Genesis who has escaped from heaven (heaven is somewhere you want to escape?) after pulling an angel's head off. Now it's coming to earth and wants to wreak a bit of havoc down here too. So the angels call up from the dead some kind of vigilante called "the Saint of Killers" (a bit unimaginative Garth) to sort the whole thing out. I wish these guys who want to follow biblical themes (commendable) would read a bit of actual theology. It's so much more interesting than the pea soup of ideas based around the old threadbare heaven and hell/angels and demons dichotomy offered up here. This is a critically acclaimed series (first published in 1995 in DC's Vertigo inmprint), so maybe it got better as it went along, but this first issue doesn't impress I'm afraid. As for Steve Dillon's art it looks like something from the portfolio of an ambituous young artist that DC would send back with a kindly word to "keep developing your style son..." Again maybe it improved in subsequent issues but I don't think I'll be bothering to find out. Two stars from me.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

65 Revisited

This film is a bonus disc of outtakes from D.A. Pennebaker's classic film Don't Look Back. I have had two different editions of the film for a couple of years (including the deluxe set pictured below) but have only just gotten around to watching this bonus disc. It is very similar in style to Don't Look Back with its black and white cinema verite style. The camera can actually be heard whirring and clicking through much of this footage. This is a great little slice of life recording Dylan's 1965 tour of England just before the 1966 world tour that saw him shock the folk purists by plugging in and rocking out with the Hawks. It is more than a collection of disconnected outtakes but a film in its own right. Think of it as another witnesses version of the same events. It was actually released in cinemas in 2007. Bob is charmingly friendly to his fans which is in stark contrast to his withering contempt and merciless sending up of journalists. In one scene he is standing around with a few spotty teenagers who are clearly overawed to be with their idol. After a little small talk, a long awkward pause is broken by an embarrased fan blurting out, "I dunno wot to say." Bob replies in all sincerity, "Neither do I." If you have never imagjned Bob Dylan in a suit and tie you need to see the scene in this film where he buys himself a new suit coat and gets very enthusiastic about the pink tie he chooses to go with it. (How can Dylan still be the coolest man on the planet 44 years later?)

There are some great musical moments. Unlike Don't Look Back, here you will get full length concert performances of classic songs such as It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) and To Ramona. There are also plenty of interesting moments tinkering around back stage including a piano-based It takes a Lot to Laugh (It Takes a Train to Cry). In one odd moment Bob can only remember the tune to Let Me Die in My Footsteps and cannot for the life of him remember the words, or even the title. It's hard to believe that he recorded this great song only about two years earlier and now it's only a vague memory. I guess it's a testament to just how prolific he was at the time and to his strangely cavalier attitude toward his own material, an attitude that has remaiend within him throughout his career. The film ends with an alternative version of the famous cue cards film clip of Subterranean Homesick Blues, on a rooftop instead of an alley, and with his record producer Tom Wilson standing in for Alan Ginsberg. This is a classic rock documentary not to be missed, but make sure you see Don't Look Back first.

Here's Bob buying that pink tie:

If you liked this entry you might also enjoy some of my other Dylan posts. Dylan in Melbourne 1966, Don't Look Back, Dylan in Melbourne (2007)

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Australia by A.D. Hope

A nation of trees, drab green and desolate grey
in the field uniform of modern wars,
darkens her hills: those endless outstretched paws
of sphinx demolished or stone lion worn away.

They call her a young country but they lie
she is the last of lands, the emptiest,
a woman beyond her change of life, a breast
still tender, but within the womb is dry.

She has no gods, no songs, no history:
the emotions and superstitions of younger lands,
her rivers of water drown among inland seas;
only the river of her stupidity

floods her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.
In them at last those ultimate men arrive
who will not boast “we live” but “we survive”:
a type that will inhabit the dying earth.

And her five cities, like five teeming sores
each drains her: a vast parasite robber state
where second-hand Europeans pullulate
timidly on the edge of alien shores.

Yet there are some like me turn gladly home
from the lush jungle of modern thought, to find
the Arabian desert of the human mind;
hoping, if still from the deserts prophets come,

such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare
springs in this waste, some spirit which escapes
the learned doubt, the chatter of cultured apes
which is called civilization over there.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Hulk 282 (April 1983) "Again, Arsenal!"

The story opens with The Leader sitting at his computer aboard Omnivac, his orbiting space station plotting ways to conquer the world now that he believes the newly intelligent Hulk, finally under the control of Bruce Banner, is no longer a threat. Back at the Empire Hotel, Tony Stark is informed by the management that Bruce Banner and his friends can no longer stay at the hotel after it was trashed in last issue's battle with the Leader. They relocate to Avengers' Mansion to avoid more civil destruction. There, Bruce Banner helps Iron Man search for Ommivac, the Leader's orbiting space station using Stark's Omnifunctional Detection Device. Banner's Krylorian lover Bereet requests permission to film scenes for a documentary she is making on the Hulk. Iron Man refuses because there is no security clearance for cameras in Avengers Mansion. Bereet storms out in a huff and meets Jennifer Walters aka the She-Hulk in the hallway. Jen tries to be friendly but Bereet gives her the brush off. Meanwhile in the Bahamas, Betty Ross is sunbaking on the beach in a bikini trying to forget Bruce Banner. Her father General Thunderbolt Ross, on the beach in full military uniform, tells her that Banner remains a monster and should be forgotten once and for all. He embraces his daughter and they both shed a tear. Meanwhile back at Avengers Mansion Bruce and his cousin the She-Hulk are in deep conversation. Bruce aske Jen for forgiveness for turning her into a monster, but she tells him that she does not consider herself a monster and likes being the She-Hulk, as she is no longer the victim she once was. Her origin is retold. A former lawyer, Jennifer Walters was gunned down and lay close to death until a gamma-radiated blood transfusion from Bruce saved her but also transformed her into the savage She-Hulk. She considers herself now "an aggressive, positive force for good"; she likes being green and fighting supervillains and only has gratitude for what Bruce did. She tells Bruce that she does not consider herself or Bruce to be monsters and reassures him of her support. Suddenly, Jarvis is heard crying out in pain. Bruce, now with the power to transform into the Hulk at will, morphs into the Hulk and heads off to see what is happening,just as Stark's Omnifunctional Detection Device locates Omnivac. Arsenal the Living Weapon has emerged from the deepest sublevels of Avengers Mansion (Arsenal was created by Howard Stark, Tony Stark's father, in the closing days of WWII, and was controlled by a computer code-named "Mistress" with the voice of Maria Stark, Howard Stark's wife. It made its first appearance in Avengers Annual #4). The She-Hulk is attacked by the Living Arsenal and she wonders whether Bruce still has the rage that the Hulk had formerly now that he has control over his transformation. That question is answered in the affirmative as Banner gets angry and fights the living Arsenal with full Hulk power, until he destroys him. Banner discovers that the fight has been set up by the She-Hulk and her fellow Avengers, who suddenly appear, to prove to him that if he fights with Hulk's heart instead of Banner's head he can still be unstoppable. Iron Man informs the Hulk that the Leader has been located and the Hulk calls the Avengers to join him and go after the mad genius. "Next Month: Follow the Leader!"

The best thing about this comic is the art. Sal Buscema and Joe Sinnott are two of Marvel's greats. After reading a comic I like to just flip through the pages revisiting some of the interestig panels. Usually there are one or two worth considering again. This issue has whole pages full of great panels. The Leader never looked quite so egg-headed and malevolent as he does here. Tony Stark's eyes behind Iron Man's helmet speak volumes and the She-Hulk just leaps off the page. Bill Mantlo writes some pretty good dialogue too. Here's a sample of Sal Buscema's Hulk art, this one from three issues later - Hulk #285. Of course, it looks better in colour but this will give you an idea of his dynamism! "Get out of my way, insect!"

My rating 3 and and half stars. You can see the page I built at the Marvel database here.

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Movies A-Z: Across the Pacific

I'm watching my DVD collection from A-Z and have decided to post my reviews here at The Batcave for your reading pleasure. Across the Pacific is a good little espionage movie with witty dialogue and Bogart in fine form as the weary cynic who is more than he appears. Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet, who also costarred with Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (also directed skillfully by John Huston) are good here. Astor takes a more comedic turn in this than the ingratiating manipulator she plays in The Maltese Falcon. The racial stereotyping of the Japanese (seen clearly in the trailer below) is what one might expect from a propaganda film of this sort. No doubt it was films like this that fed into the sentiment that saw many even second and third generation Japanese-Americans interred in prison camps for the duration of the war. The "Warner at the Movies" special features make their usual appearance and gaurantee a great immersion experience, of going to the movies in the 40s with a trailer for a film on the Royal Canadian Airforce starring Jimmy Cagney, a wartime newsreel, a half-hour long American military propaganda film on pilots, interesting because it's in colour and a war-themed Loony Tunes cartoon. Rating: 3 and a half stars.


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