Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Gutenberg in Melbourne: Inventing the Bible

From the Manchester Gutenberg Bible: the beginning of
Paul's Letter to the Romans
The rare and valuable character of the Gutenberg Bible, an example of which is about to be exhibited at the University of Melbourne's Baillieu Library (on loan from the John Rylands Library of the University of Manchester), belies its real significance.

What is most remarkable about this first book printed with movable type is that it heralded an era of plentiful and cheap books. For all its passing resemblance to the beautiful illuminated manuscripts of its own time, the spiritual offspring of Gutenberg's project are the aesthetically modest Bibles of modern hotel-room drawers, and indeed mass-produced paperbacks in general.

Before Gutenberg or what Gutenberg and his Bible represent, much of what is now taken for granted about books, secular and sacred alike, was impossible. The new technology, based on a flexible and reusable type whose expense could be recouped not just in multiple copies of a single work, but in an infinite number of works, ushered in new possibilities beyond Gutenberg's intention or imagination.

Prior to the invention of movable type, books in the West were of course rare and expensive. This meant not only that they were largely in the hands of wealthy individuals and powerful institutions, but also that the purposes of books were largely focussed on the public liturgy and private devotions of Christianity.

The contents of those older scriptural books conformed only rarely to the modern idea of a "Bible". Gospel books, epistolaries, psalters, lectionaries, and other collections and selections from a biblical library, were the tools of trade of those who led liturgy, and the media through which most heard scripture read. But they were not "Bibles".

Johannes Gutenberg's project was not intended to change this social and religious reality, so much as profit from it; his market was still an elite section of society, as the impressive "rubrication" (supplementary decoration and adornment) of the Gutenberg Bible makes clear enough. After all, relatively few had the level of education that allowed them to read. And while Gutenberg's Bible heralded a new level of access to the biblical text, his own publication was still the traditional Vulgate, the canonical Latin scriptural text of the Roman Catholic Church. The new printed Bible preceded the German Reformation by the best part of a century.

It is hyperbolic to say that Gutenberg "invented" the Bible; but without him the Bible as it is now understood in many places - as a single and particular book synonymous in content with the canon of Christian scripture -  simply could not have come about. Christian scripture, of course, is very much older, but these sacra biblia ("holy books") hitherto constituted not a single book but an inspired library, which most heard communally rather than read individually. As already noted, the conjunction and collection of different scriptural works in one binding was determined mostly by liturgical use. When the whole of scripture could readily be encompassed in a single volume (or two, as most Gutenberg Bibles were bound), a new possibility emerged; the library of scripture now became a single book, and canon itself, rather than devotional and communal use, determined its internal architecture.

The disruptive character of the new technology, and its potential significantly to increase access to scriptural and other texts, thus did not appear overnight, and required other social and intellectual developments to catalyse it. The emergence of a bourgeoisie whose interests, material and spiritual, did not sit easily with the traditional alliance of Church and old aristocracy, was crucial. As a larger group of educated and increasingly powerful merchants and professionals found themselves able to ponder scripture, as well as the classics and other sources encouraging critical reasoning, they were ripe also for the ideas of such as Luther. The new printing technology then allowed the very writings that fomented reform to circulate rapidly, too.

While it is impossible to imagine Protestantism, or the place of the Bible in it, without these complementary social and technological developments, there were further changes before distinctive modern forms of western Christianity, with their assumptions about faith and spirituality based on personal Bible reading, could emerge. Gutenberg's movable type did not yet create mass literacy, or make Bibles cheap enough for typical households. Yet it had allowed the idea of a "Bible" in a hitherto almost impossible sense.

While this technological revolution in printing was a necessary condition of democratising literacy in general and the Bible in particular, the same developments were at best a two-edged sword for the centrality of the Bible, and for the place of Christianity in western culture. For the infinite variability of moveable type heralded a new and open-ended set of textual possibilities; if the Bible were indeed a "book", it would now have many other books alongside it, and form part of an increasingly complex  and competitive library of meaning.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

A Top Ten List for Theological Students (Sermon for Friday after Ascension for Trinity College Theological School)

The Matthaean Ascension story depicts Jesus instructing the eleven to make disciples and baptise, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”. This “everything” did not seem to all ancient readers simply to refer back to the Gospel itself; many Christians assumed that whatever they did in Church had been prescribed among such commands, and some documents like Church Orders explicitly placed liturgical and ecclesial instructions into this narrative context, giving their own practices apostolic or even dominical origins.

Being myself about to leave and scheduled to preach in Ascensiontide, I have my own opportunity for parting advice, but thought it sufficiently important to de-emphasise the relative importance of my own by putting them into a genre that implies a little self-satire. So, bearing in mind also that my next long-term destination is the USA, I offer you on departure a quintessentially American discourse, the “top ten” list à la David Letterman, for the theological student and future minister.

10. Listen
Emerging from theological college with degree, and from cathedral with holy orders, it is tempting for the newly-ordained to begin inflicting themselves on the Church; insights and passions are likely to be spilling from your full cups. Stop. Listen. God has been doing things in your new place of ministry before; more indeed probably than you will get to do. Things are as they are for a reason. Pay attention not just to individual pastoral need, but to community understandings and concerns. You will be effective leaders only if you start where the people are, and then move together.

9. Take Initiatives
The central structures of the dioceses are important, but different from (rather than more important than) parishes and other communities and networks. In our time the most important initiatives are likely to come from the latter. Bishops often have their work cut out just managing what emerges from the local scene; don’t wait for them to take action. We need you to be entrepreneurs and initiators, engaging with new ways to offer people the Gospel and the sacraments. Sometimes you will have to seek forgiveness rather than permission.

8. Keep studying
We can’t possibly teach you everything you need to know here in theological college. In fact the realities of the Church today are that you probably didn’t even know all the things the curriculum still assumes you do before you got here. That’s not your fault; your fault would consist of not remedying that, and that process can’t end here. If your personal standard for theological education is just meeting degree or diocesan requirements, you’re aiming too low. Come back for your Master’s in a few years, when you know more about your needs and gaps, or take the steps to seek the further education that will help you and the kind of learner you are.

7. Get mentored
Given that the curacy system is less extensive than it was, some of you will find yourselves ministering without the support and supervision formerly taken for granted. There are structures intended to compensate but these cannot do all you need. Neither, for that matter, can a traditional curacy, truth be told. So get it yourselves. Ask those you trust for advice about senior colleagues (in experience, whether or not age) who might help. Don’t stick to friends; don’t be afraid to learn from people who are different.

Now a few that relate to your roles of liturgical leadership and prayer: 

6. Prepare
Liturgy can be as easy as opening the book and turning the pages; but that is rarely good liturgy. If you believe that word and sacraments are worth dedicating your life to, prepare for both. A well-designed pew sheet is not a substitute for a well-rehearsed liturgy either. If you would typically throw a large party with no preparation, by all means try the same for the liturgy; you will see in time how many people come back to either. 

5. Preach
Preaching of a high standard is not the most common experience in our Churches today, and one of the results of that is that some of you may not have heard many preachers who actually made you want to preach like them. But the vocation of the priest and deacon in public worship is as much or more to preach than merely to intone prayers or perform sacramental acts.  The rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer indicate that a sermon is a normal part of the liturgy; do not despise the privilege this offers to proclaim the Gospel and to teach.

4. Read the Bible
The Daily Office allows Anglicans to hear or read virtually the whole of Scripture every year. This gives us an almost uniquely biblical spirituality, if we fulfil it. For various reasons the framework for this discipline is less effective than it was; don’t let this prevent you from reading and learning about scripture as best you can, day in and day out. Of course you’ve studied the Bible here in sophisticated ways, but method is not an alternative to content. It’s forgivable if not edifying when a lay person scheduled to read on Sunday can’t find their place; the same doesn’t apply to a cleric. If you really don't know the names of the books of the Bible in order, go learn them. Knowledge of and facility with scripture is a gift to you personally, but also an indispensable tool for teaching and for debate in the issues we will face as Anglicans in the years ahead. Do not dare self yourself short by thinking that others may take a stand on scripture, while you can work from some other set of authorities.  

3. Pray
This work relies on our being called to serve a reality which lies not just deep within but beyond ourselves; it is not our own work, but God’s. Prayer is the means by which we engage and acknowledge that reality. Prayer is not just asking; prayer is listening. Your survival in ministry and your effectiveness depend on that acknowledgement and connection, practiced in a disciplined form. The Daily Office is again the most evident gift that the Church offers you; use it, and whatever else you need, to pray alone and with others.

And two broader ones about the self and vocation:

2. It’s not about you
While we all believe you are here because God has called you to be, what God has called you here for is the Church, not yourself. God doesn't need theological colleges and ordination processes to work in the world, but the Church does. We trust that your deepest self will in fact be nurtured and expressed in however your own calling turns out to be fulfilled, but that is not the same thing as the fulfilment of your own dreams and yearnings as they now are. Resist the temptations that ministry offers to use liturgies, vestments, and whatever else primarily as expressions of your own personal theology and spirituality; put the best of who you are in the service of the whole community.

1. God will cope
After the above list and its accumulation of things you ought or ought not to do or be, let me offer a word of assurance. When you fail to meet these or other expectations that you or others set, God will cope. This is not your excuse for indiscipline or incompetence; rather it is the reminder that we dependent on grace. God has called you to this work and will do through you what God will; engage in this work with passion, and trust in the end that it is not up to you.

So much for lists. Over on NBC (and here in Australia, on ABC 2) Jimmy Fallon has a different sort of signature “list”, in the form of “thank-you" notes. My “thank-yous”, then: to my colleagues for their efforts and support here over these eleven years; to you, for daring to come and see what God might do with you and through you, as well as to you; and last but not least, thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Nagging Question of God: Farewell Sermon at Trinity College

From one point of view, this College is named Trinity for the sentimental attachments that certain of our founders had with similarly-named institutions in Cambridge and Dublin. From another perspective however, the name Trinity reflects the nagging question of God, and specifically the Christian response to that answer.

Over eleven years I have had the privilege of speaking here to congregations diverse in age, faith, and otherwise about the Bible, the problem of evil, social justice, sustainability, about the very possibility of religion, and about that nagging question of God. And this last question is my topic this evening, not merely because it seems apt for a theologian to name it on a significant occasion like a farewell, but because it has something to do with why we are all here, sceptics and believers alike, and with why those other questions matter too.

The God issue has not become an easier one to handle over those eleven years. Popular discourse about God and religion is often characterised by superficiality and sound-bite-ism, whether the case is being made for or against. Religion’s popular despisers rarely seem to have read any actual theology, but are often able to identify faith with fundamentalism, partly because faith has too few intellectually and indeed morally credible champions.

Let it be admitted - or indeed proclaimed - that what often passes for God in popular discourse does not really deserve to be believed in. “God” merely as a sort of being larger than other beings, whose existence can be invoked to explain that shrinking pool of phenomena not otherwise yet explained, is not a necessary or impressive proposal. What might be more surprising is that this was not the God of classical theology in any case; theologians worth reading always affirm that the word “God” is a convention that points to a mystery, not a sign with an obvious or easy referent.

The real religious question that will not stop nagging us is not whether there is such a large being or anything left to explain, but whether there is a mystery to encounter at the heart of life, which has little to do with explanation and evidence, but much to do with awe and wonder. If you can answer no to that question I will grant your status as officially irreligious without argument. But if there is indeed a mystery at the heart of being and the universe, it is that, and not anyone’s imaginary friend or hypothetical intelligent designer, that we people of faith call “God”. For all the complex edifices of story and ritual built on it, religion and spirituality have that awe as their foundation, and build on it because this is what human beings do; we create art and music, reflection and argument, in hope of catching and conveying glimpses thereby of truths that lie beyond and beneath.

This is of course not quite enough to get us as far as speaking of God as a Trinity, even though that doctrine is famously referred to as a mystery too. But the language of Trinity does stem from a very different and specific set of affirmations about God, which are again very different from those of contemporary fundamentalism.

Christianity does indeed claim some more specific and potentially implausible things about the character of the universal mystery, most particularly and audaciously that the life of Jesus of Nazareth sheds light on it in a definitive way. The essence of this claim is not that his teaching or miracle stories identify him as that large being aforesaid, and hence that we had better follow him or watch out. It is that the character of his life, and above all the willingness of this man to die for his friends, tells us something about the mystery of our lives;
not that God is to be sought after and served because powerful or even just plausible, but that God has sought after and served us, and that our hope centres not in some divine manipulation of events in our favour but in the willingness of the divine to be subject to the vicissitudes of human life. This is why the most fundamental affirmation Christians make about the reality of God is not to do with power, but love.

The necessity of speaking of a Trinity emerges from early Christian reflection on this same story. God, the followers of Jesus believed, was simultaneously the transcendent mystery beyond thought or knowledge, but also encountered in the man Jesus, and also immediately present as the Holy Spirit. Unwilling to jettison any of these affirmations while affirming traditional Jewish monotheism, they confessed God as Trinity. 

More than that, they saw the relation between these three aspects of divinity as social; just as the relationship between God and the world was characterised as love, so too the inner reality of the Trinity was one of love, between a parent, a child, and Spirit. Thus in turn human relatedness, and the reality of love as the character of human community, is not merely an accident of our being or a defensible moral choice, but lies at the heart of our existence, and our experiences of love constitute a window onto the mystery that sustains all.

When our founders chose this name they were referencing those ancient reflections. We still teach them here in our Theological School, we celebrate them in this Chapel, and some of you might also be surprised by how many of our Foundation Studies students affirm them. 

All this has at least two consequences for all of us, diverse as our positions on the God question may be:

First, by calling this place Trinity, the founders affirmed then and we do now that the character of human community is itself not merely historical accident or pragmatic necessity; community is something we honour and celebrate, something that reveals what is at the heart of our lives. This means that here we work and study and play and dine, believing that these things are inherently good; and for some of us they even come close to what Christian theological language calls “sacraments” because they reveal or allude to deeper mysteries even than themselves. It also means - as that somewhat opaque collegiate motto pro ecclesia, pro patria suggests - that we do this work together as a small community with a sense of the wider implications for the whole of human society. We seek to be compassionate and just, because now as much as ever Australia and other nations need compassionate and just societies.

Second, and more fundamentally if perhaps also more problematically, “Trinity” amounts to a statement not just about who we are, but about what the world is, and what it is for. For almost one hundred years, members of the College have come to this Chapel to encounter, through a veil, a truth and a love deeper and older than any number of centuries. It is as mysterious as time and the universe, or more so; but it is as immediate as you and I are to each other as community, as friends. May this place continue to provide its members, and the wider world, with glimpses of this mystery for which it is named.