Wednesday, June 29, 2016


A year ago today Alison and I were jumping on a plane bound for Europe. It was long hoped for but unexpected - it was only thanks to the wedding of a friend and the generosity of our family that we were able to go. We had three delightful weeks taking in culture and seeing friends in London, Oxford, Paris, Rome, and Florence. We even had our own hashtag: #MoffittGrandTour. For me especially, on my first European trip, and as a long time Anglophile, there was something special about being in England - gazing at St Paul's Cathedral (this hope for the resurrection which rises out of the midst of the city); drinking cider in the evening in Kensington Gardens as the fading summer light ran through the long grass; wandering through Christ Church Meadow, glistening green after a downpour. The smell of the roses, the taste of the raspberries, the 35° summer heat had never felt so good. Nor had the rabbits, the foxes, or the deer felt more in their place. - there was an allure about being in the home of my ancestors. 

It felt almost decadent to be experiencing so much beauty.

That is the allure of travel. Travel provides us with stories to tell, and experiences to gather. And yet, isn't it more than that? Are our overseas trips really just about curating the perfect Instagram collection? 

The Romantic in me makes me want to say that travel is part of our search for something more. We travel around finding the extraordinary in the most ordinary of things, and beauty in the sublime. It is this quest, this syndrome of Romanticism, which underwrites our devouring of travel. The contemporary British author Ali Smith, reflecting on a period of many overseas journeys, speaks about this search like this:
Also, the gallery had a very lovely café/restaurant; there was leek soup the day I went, very nice, and even its toilets are works of art, with little plaques outside them like paintings have next to them for their title/artist information.
But pretty much the whole time I was there, I was still trying to get elsewhere.
Amidst all the beauty and wonder that Smith saw in places like Naples and Rotterdam, she was still searching for this place - this place she calls 'elsewhere'. Even when standing there in one place, she was looking for another place of perfect beauty and transcendence. She goes on to describe 'elsewhere':
Elsewhere there are no mobile phones.  Elsewhere sleep is deep and the mornings are wonderful.  Elsewhere art is endless, exhibitions are free and galleries are open twenty-four hours.  Elsewhere alcohol is a joke that everybody finds funny.  Elsewhere everybody is as welcoming as they’d be if you’d come home after a very long time away and they’d really missed you.  Elsewhere nobody stops you in the street and says, Are you a Catholic or a Protestant, and when you say neither, I’m a Muslim, then says yeah but are you a Catholic Muslim or a Protestant Muslim?  Elsewhere there are no religions.  Elsewhere there are no borders.  Elsewhere nobody is a refugee or an asylum seeker whose worth can be decided about by a government.  Elsewhere nobody is something to be decided about by anybody.  Elsewhere there are no preconceptions.  Elsewhere all wrongs are righted.  Elsewhere the supermarkets don’t own us.  Elsewhere we use our hands for cups and the rivers are clean and drinkable.  Elsewhere the words of the politicians are nourishing to the heart.  Elsewhere charlatans are known for their wisdom.  Elsewhere history has been kind.  Elsewhere nobody would ever say the words bring back the death penalty.  Elsewhere the graves of the dead are empty and their spirits fly above the cities in instinctual, shapeshifting formations that astound the eye.  Elsewhere poems cancel imprisonment.  Elsewhere we do time differently.Every time I travel, I head for it.  Every time I come home, I look for it.- Ali Smith, The Art of Elsewhere
It's ideal. It's transcendent. It's never discovered. It's never arrived at.

Smith is searching for a place where we can be at home - we are yearning for it. If Smith is correct, then our journeys overseas, our fascination with art, our love of things which point beyond mere immanence, are fueled by our innate desire for something more. 

The syndrome Smith diagnoses experientially has been recognized theologically for some time. One of the books which we appreciated the most on our travels last year was The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis. We engaged with so much beauty as we traveled, and Lewis helped us respond to this cultural wealth as worshipers, rather than consumers. He writes that:
"...our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.
And this brings me to the other sense of glory—glory as brightness, splendour, luminosity. We are to shine as the sun, we are to be given the Morning Star. I think I begin to see what it means. In one way, of course, God has given us the Morning Star already: you can go and enjoy the gift on many fine mornings if you get up early enough. What more, you may ask, do we want? Ah, but we want so much more— something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—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. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves—that, though we cannot, yet these projections can, enjoy in themselves that beauty grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that “beauty born of murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet. For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in."
Lewis captured for us the tragedy of fleetingly taking in the beauty of this building or that artwork or this landscape: we were viewing it for a moment, before moving on to leave it all behind. To witness such things and to be parted from them immediately was melancholic. But Lewis gave us the language to process this.  Our desires weren't wrong, but were designed to direct our hearts towards the God for whom they were made, and the future he has prepared for us in Christ when we shall be united to him, and the Holy Spirit has perfected the creation. 
I read Lewis as an answer to Smith. Her 'elsewhere' is real. We live in a world which is simultaneously a world made for us and a world which we feel estranged from. We are not at home in this world. But one day we shall be, when elsewhere is brought home, and the creation overflows with the abundance of God's perfect peace. We look, as the Creed puts it, for the life of the world to come, a life that is secured by righteousness himself making his home with us. This end of the world and the beginning of another enables us to live well now, as it gives us back our present. For we know that 'elsewhere' will not be found by ourselves, but only in Jesus Christ. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

World Without End? A Theological Playlist

Last year I spent a lot of time sitting with 2 Peter, particularity 3.5-13. I translated and re-translated the Greek. I analysed every textual variant in the passage. I slowly exegeted the text. I read every commentary and journal article I could find on 2 Peter 3. I tried to understand Peter's eschatology as a whole. I worked my way through the theological and ethical implications of the passage. The result was a 15,000 Moore College Project: World Without End? Continuity and Discontinuity in 2 Peter 3:5-13.

I spent a lot of time digesting 2 Peter 3. It is a difficult passage, which has sparked several debates in over the last two centuries over the substance of the world to come. Yet in spite of these controversies, 2 Peter 3 has a simple message: Jesus Christ will return to judge the whole earth. Using vivid language, Peter depicts the lid being ripped off human affairs so that every human activity is evaluated and scrutinized from God's perspective; and every human eye sees how God intends life to be lived.

It is, quite frankly, a fairly positive image of evil removed and a transformed created order. In a world where justice is not always done, and then not always seen to be done, 2 Peter 3 describes a world set to rights, a world where justice makes its home. With this future in view, Peter fuels our imagination for life now, since 'holiness and godliness' are the apparent obvious responses to a world set free from sin and malfunction desires; they are the habits befitting creation perfected.

Whilst the piles of books felt never-ending, one of the things that sustained my writing was the 2 Peter 3 playlist I curated throughout last year. In the spirit of my fourth year project, I gravitated towards songs of dissonant eschatologies and apocalyptic themes, the playlist becoming an extension of the conversations that were happening around me. In recognition of this, here are a few notable mentions:

Sufjan Stevens - The Transfiguration
It was inevitable that Sufjan was going to feature on this playlist; but at the start of 2015 I did not realize the significance of this song. Central to my argument is that 2 Peter 3's description of the Parousia is a theophany, the paradigm for which Peter had previously established in his own account of the transfiguration 1.16-18. 

The eerie beauty of this song easily captured something of the confusion and wonder of that moment when Jesus was manifested in full magnificence. Hearing this each time on the playlist was always a distracting moment, but a welcome one as it reminded me each time that the true object of my task last year was not knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but worship.

Bon Iver - Bon Iver
Yes, I decided to include the whole album on my playlist. When I was re-listening to the playlist at Easter, Alison asked me why I had included Bon Iver, since it doesn't seem particularly apocalyptic. The reason was quite simple: the whole album is about place and space, people and time. Given that each of these four elements are significant features of creation, it felt quite fitting to include the whole. It was a constant reminder to me that what I was writing about eschatology needed to connect somehow with a doctrine of creation.

With 2 Peter 3 serving as the locus classicus for those who want to argue for the total destruction of the world and a second creatio ex nihilo, the epic scale of songs like Perth and Minnesota, WI stopped that from conversation from being just theoretical, but for me at least kept my thinking focused on actual places.

Paul Kelly - Meet Me In the Middle of the Air
Like 2 Peter 3, 1 Thessalonians 4 is passage which is used in curious ways to explain various eschatological schema. What is often missed is Paul's employment of a Roman custom to comfort the Thessalonians with the hope of resurrection and the glory awaiting the living and the dead. I'm not sure if Paul Kelly is Christian, but his song perfectly brings together 1 Thessalonians 4 with Psalm 23. There's an amazing Christology involved in this, which provides a picture of his provision and care as our good shepherd.

Talking Heads - Heaven
This is one of the songs which originally featured on a playlist Alison created about clashing eschatologies. Talking Head sing 'Heaven is a place/A place where nothing/Nothing ever happens', and a little later 'It's hard to imagine that/Nothing at all/Could be so exciting/Could be this much fun'. Heaven is beautiful but tedious - perhaps purposefully so. Which stands in such contrast to the picture of the new heavens and new earth described by 2 Peter. The future envisioned by Peter, which Christians begin to inhabit at least behaviorally now, is far different from the bland nothingness of Heaven. It is instead one of beauty and justice, one which inspires the imagination and praxis of people today.

The National - Fake Empire
Whilst 2 Peter 3.10 is about every thought and deed of humanity being disclosed, Fake Empire is about 'where you can't deal with the reality of what's really going on, so let's just pretend that the world's full of bluebirds and ice skating.' It speaks of a generation disillusioned and apathetic. The soaring but simple poly-rhythm of the song inspired the Obama campaign in 2008 to use an instrumental version of the song - ironic given that the song decries modern America.

Dvorak - New World Symphony 
There's nothing like a late-romantic European symphony combined with the optimism and passion of America. Whilst Dvorak drew on several influences (such as Native-American and African-American) for his ninth symphony, it's the possibilities of the dawning age of America that he seems to capture. From the wide open planes to rising industrial might, the opening brings it all together.

It's hard not to listen to this symphony and not be caught up in the idealism, the Hegelian romanticism. Surely the Christian gospel has the resources to respond to this appeal of our imagination and desires? Herein lies the significance of articulating not just the right kind of eschatology, but also teleology, which longs indeed for a new world, but one from freed from the sin and corruption we see around us.

Michael Nyman - MGV: Musique à grande vitesse
To be honest, I only discovered this piece this year after the Australian Ballet's performance of DGV©: Danse à grande vitesse. But I like to imagine that it would have made the list last year. In many ways MGV is not too dissimilar to Dvorak's New World Symphony. Commissioned for the opening of the TGV Paris-Lille train line in the early 1990's it's hard not to get swept up in the ambition, the movement, the progress of Nyman's creation, And having traveled on a TGV last year, this is music that's as irresistible in its energy, speed, and sheer noise, as any journey by TGV.

I like to think that with a century between, MGV is perhaps more chastened in it's optimism than New World Symphony. Nonetheless MGV is still hopeful, and that hope is inextricably tied via the TGV to the advancement of society through technology. I found myself appropriating the composition though; as the music captures journeying through landscapes I imagine myself not progressing towards modernity, but travelling through a world made new. It's the challenge of interacting with the narrative modernity - of maintaining hope without equating that hope with the story of progress. To do so we need to not lost sight of the apocalyptic, that God will intervene in history to establish his new heavens and new earth.

My Brightest Diamond - In the Beginning
I think that it is fair to say that there was a particular flavour to the posts on this blog in 2015: holding together God's work in creation and redemption as two distinct but united realities (i.e. here, here, here, and here). Shara Worden manages to achieve that in this song. She begins with slow, but majestic recounting of Genesis' account, which calls to mind the poetic insights of Tolkien and Lewis in their own creation accounts in The Silmarillion and The Magicians Nephew. 

But before long the song moves to 'This glorious day the earth is shaking hallelujah/And I will join the unending hymn hallelujah'. Bringing creation and eschaton together is brilliantly insightful, for the Christian doctrine has more to say than the opening chapters of Genesis. It has a distinct eschatological shape which is determined at the center by Christology. For it was for Jesus that all things were created, and through him by God's power and sovereignty the creation in bound for resurrection glory. As Calvin wrote in his commentary on Romans 8: '‘No part of the universe is untouched by the longing with which everything in this world aspires to the hope of resurrection.'

The Decemberists - 12/17/12
This song takes it's name from President Obama's national address in December 2012 after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I'm writing this in the wake of the latest gun tragedy in Orlando. The final lines of the song lend their name to the album: 'And O my god, what a world you have made here. What a terrible world, what a beautiful world. What a world you have made here'.

The Decemberists manage to capture the fragility of life in the fragility of 12/17/12. And the background to the song adds to the emotion of the piece - perhaps all the more so as we continue to see such tragedies in America. The challenge for me coming out of this song is not to rest satisfied with shallow answers about suffering and evil. 2 Peter 3 envisions the total removal of evil from the created order; God does not sit idly by in the face of such wickedness and tragedy, and his patience should not be mistaken as such. Instead, the terribleness of this world we be held to account when it is overwhelmed with Christ's righteousness.

Five Iron Frenzy - World Without End
Five Iron are more Alison's band than mine. But having listened to them on countless car trips over the last decade, they have grown on me. And with the phrase World Without End appearing in my project title, this song was always guaranteed to be on this list. A translation of Ephesians 3.21, and based on the Latin phrase in saecula saeculorum, world without end as it was used in English liturgy was connected to the idea of eternity - forever and ever. Connected with God's creation, human or not, the phrase speaks not of our immortality, but God's election to be our God forever, not only God with us, but God for us. It was this conviction which lead the church over 1800 years to read 2 Peter 3.10 in light of other passages such as Romans 8, and hope that this travailing world would be transformed and renewed rather than annihilated and destroyed.
In the soundless awe and wonder,
Words fall short to hope again.
How beautiful,
How vast Your love is,
New forever,
World without an end.

Other honourable mentions: