Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall, and Philip Seymour Hoffman – who would have noticed that we also lost Robert Farrar Capon recently? I have deeply profited from his gift with language and with theology, and it was a sad day for me when he passed on.
I was thinking about Father Capon as I thought about how to introduce a talk I will give in Capetown on “place.” Capon had a rich sensitivity to context and to place, and you can see that love reflected in nearly all his work, but in particular in An Offering of Uncles and The Supper of the Lamb. Like God, Capon loved the particulars.
In one of his very first books, he offered some thoughts on creation. Here is Capon —
Let me tell you why God made the world.
One afternoon, before anything was made, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit sat around in the unity of their Godhead discussing one of the Father’s fixations.
From all eternity, it seems, he had had this thing about being. He would keep thinking up all kinds of unnecessary things — new ways of being and new kinds of beings to be.
And as they talked, God the Son suddenly said, “Really, this is absolutely great stuff. Why don’t I go out and mix us up a batch?” And God the Holy Spirit said, “Terrific! I’ll help you.”
So they all pitched in, and after supper that night, the Son and the Holy Spirit put on this tremendous show of being for the Father. It was full of water and light and frogs; pine cones kept dropping all over the place, and crazy fish swam around in the wineglasses.
There were mushrooms and mastodons, grapes and geese, tornadoes and tigers — and men and women everywhere to taste them, to juggle them, to join them, and to love them.
And God the Father looked at the whole wild party and said, “Wonderful! Just what I had in mind! Tov! Tov! Tov!” And all God the Son and God the Holy Spirit could think of to say was the same thing: “Tov! Tov! Tov!” So they shouted together “Tov meod!” and they laughed for ages and ages, saying things like how great it was for beings to be, and how clever of the Father to think of the idea, and how kind of the Son to go to all that trouble putting it together, and how considerate of the Spirit to spend so much time directing and choreographing.
And for ever and ever they told old jokes, and the Father and the Son drank their wine in unitate Spiritus Sancti, and they all threw ripe olives and pickled mushrooms at each other per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.
It is, I grant you, a crass analogy; but crass analogies are the safest. Everybody knows that God is not three old men throwing olives at each other. Not everyone, I’m afraid, is equally clear that God is not a cosmic force or a principle of being or any other dish of celestial blancmange we might choose to call him. Accordingly, I give you the central truth that creation is the result of a trinitarian bash, and leave the details of the analogy to sort themselves out as best they can.
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The reason I recall this analogy this morning is that I recently received “Local Knowledge” by Clemens Sedmak (2002). Sedmak closes chapter one with this section heading: “A Guiding Image: The Local Theologian as Village Cook.” Clemens argues that doing local theology is like cooking with local ingredients. He chooses this image because it offers a nuance and a “feeling” that a definition cannot convey (it also offers texture and taste!). He builds in the image to remind us that Jesus feeds us, was often at dinner parties, and was himself the bread of life!
The theologian is not free to cook anything he or she likes, but is part of a community that provides ingredients and shares the food.
“Kosuke Koyama talks about the Thai theological kitchen and the Aristotelian pepper and the Buddhist salt used there. He talks about the implicit theologies that can be smelled from the kitchen while you are sitting in the living room… there are many nuances and ‘inside aspects’ that are hardly accessible to an outsider (have you ever been in the company of a conniousseur who talks about the many different kinds of wine?).
“Food is, next to language, THE local cultural product par excellence…” (19)
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Around 2005 another book was released that appears nearly forgotten now, in part because it was never released in North America. But Simon Carey Holt’s “God Next Door: Spirituality and Mission in the Neighbourhood” was written by a theologian who is also a cook! You might not know this from his book, but baking, like walking, gives Holt a certain sensitivity to place that is missing in similar work.
And then of course, there is my own book, No Home Like Place (2014). The final chapter is titled, “Re-placing the World Through the Arts.” But there are two parts to this chapter, and the second part is headed, “Re-placing the World through Gardens and Baking.” Ah – see how I snuck that in there! If I revise the book the 2nd edition would divide this chapter into two, to elevate that closing chapter to a new status.
After introducing this section in my book, here is how I proceed.
“It may seem odd that I am about to close a book on place with a discussion of gardens, baking and hospitality. Yet these are three of the most spiritual practices we can muster at this late date in the dying gasp of Modernity. For the preachers among you, I offer this alliterative alternative: Flora, Fauna, Food and Fellowship. Not quite? How about Cultivation, Cuisine, and Community?
“Let’s begin with the simple version: gardens, baking and hospitality. These practices slow us down, help us to locate ourselves, and open space for others. Wendell Berry writes,
“A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but he is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.” (What Are People For?)
“Gardens: the Bible is full of them, and its pages open and close – in Genesis and Revelations — with stories placed in gardens. How fitting that the first great title for God is given to us not in terms of a distant transcendence but in terms of his intimate role in creation: “And God planted a garden in the East” (Gen. 2:8). And then Mary’s first sight at the open tomb echoes a world renewed: she sees Jesus as the gardener (John 20:15). Loren Wilkinson writes,
Then the planet will spin in a Sabbath dance
(And the dancing place will be the heart).
Fruit will burgeon from scattered seeds
And garden and town be clean as a fleece
Early in the morning, on the first day of the week. Imago Mundi
We who are created in God’s image can do no less than imitate his work.
All theology is local. It’s just that it’s taken us a while to admit it. But of course that’s just a starting point, and it drives us toward the need for an actual practice of the interpretive community.
Have you read any of these books? How did they differ? Which was the most helpful? Where did they (it) take you? I had Geertz in my hand a couple of years ago and have misplaced that volume, but Sedmak arrived on my desk last week and so far it’s a great book. As a writer/thinker he has a Continental feel, but his dialogue partners seem to be mostly Latin American. That’s helpful in thinking about doing theology, because most theology is now being done elsewhere than in the white, European West. The wider our dialogue partners go, the better our theology will be.
Furthermore, Sedmak is highly sensitive to post-colonial issues. And while his book is systematic, it remains engaging and almost poetic. And where else are you going to engage a discussion like this which also crosses into rich spirituality? Geertz writes in the introduction that “theology is about mindfulness.” He notes that,
“Theology wants to bring people closer to God. Doing theology is a way of listening to God. God’s voice is often a whisper. God’s presence is hidden. Theology asks for an attitude of attentiveness, awareness, mindfulness. Doing theology is a spiritual act. Theology reads the book of the world, looking “in between the lines.” Theology is not talking about God but talking to people about God, or talking about God in the light of God’s presence in the world.” (6)
The book proceeds chapter by chapter by walking through fifty thesis statements. See the attached zip file for all fifty statements.
Doing Local Theology: A Guide for Artisans of a New Humanity. New York: Orbis Books, 2002. 182 pages.
Download ZIP file
“Whenever someone attempts to introduce a radically different insight to people whose minds have been formed by an old and well-worked-out way of thinking, he is up against an obstacle. Their taste, as Jesus said, for the old wine is so well established that they invariably prefer it to the new. More than that, the new wine, still fermenting, seems to them so obviously and dangerously full of power that they will not even consider putting it into their old and fragile wineskins.
“But try to see the point of the biblical imagery of wine-making a little more abstractly. The new insight is always at odds with the old way of looking at things. Even if the teacher’s audience were to try earnestly to take it in, the only intellectual devices they have to pick it up with are the categories of the old system with which it conflicts. Hence the teacher’s problem: if he leaves in his teaching a single significant scrap of the old system, their minds, by their very effort to understand, will go to that scrap rather than to the point he is making and, having done that, will understand the new only insofar as it can be made to agree with the old — which is not at all.”
Robert Farrar Capon, “Between Noon and Three” pp. 140-142
From PATHEOS “leadership re-imagined”
“Three gospels end up shaping leadership theory: the gospel of the left turns leaders into social activists, the gospel of the right into revivalists, and the gospel of churchmanship turns into an institutional manager.”
The gospel of churchmanship — or of technique, or pragmatism, or positivism — all fundamental to modernity.
The gospel of the right — if not revivalists, certainly moralists, but probably both.
Everybody knows the deal is rotten,
Old black Joe’s still pickin cotton
For your ribbons and bows..
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long stem rose
Everybody knows ..
Some time ago I was listening to CBC radio and a discussion with an architect on “ecology and desire.” This past week I heard part of a conversation on our ability to embrace diversity.
What was interesting to me about the latter conversation was that it was rooted in BC, the province that has been my home for most of forty years. The journalist described his experience of Canada and of British Columbia, noting the separation of BC from the rest of Canada by the geographic boundary of the Rocky Mountains. He argued that the mountains have always been a dis-orienting reality, and that disorientation has allowed BC to experience something unique in the Canadian social landscape. Read the rest of this entry »
“I have a recurrent fantasy. The characters in it sometimes change, but the metaphysical substance is the same. It began a few years ago when my wife looked up from her mending to remark that, for a man in my profession, it would be more seemly if something other than the seat of my pants wore out first… I gave her a short disquisition on the sedentary age we live in, and I ended with the comment that she did ill to complain – that in all probability everyone in America was engaged in a ceaseless and noble struggle to close the wounds that civilization was inflicting upon our trousers.
“It was the thought of that concert of trouser seats being worn away that led to the metaphysical dimension. From the attrition of the pants it was only a step to the attrition of the persons inside the pants. I would look at people I knew with the strange feeling that, through the seat of their pants, they themselves were being worn away – a little bit every year – so that it was a race with death to see if there would be anything left of them to bury. I would wonder what could be done… [perhaps we could] give up sitting in the interest of self-preservation. But then I saw that .. the wearing was being caused not by the places people sat in but by the fact that they were not sitting in places at all: they were set on top of a slowing grinding placelessness. Do you see what I mean? If the seats they sat in were places, they would only destroy cloth; but because they are noplace, they wear out people.”
Robert Farrar Capon, “An Offering of Uncles,” 39
Reviewed here: Englewood Review
“In this thoughtful and interesting work, Leonard explores the importance of place, locality and presence to the Christian faith. In an age when we see the rise of the network to the demise of geographic location contemporary expressions of the neighborhood can feel like co-habilitating strangers. This book creatively explores the place of Christianity to be counter-cultural, to recover the importance of the sacred in the local.”
Ian Mobsby, Writer, teacher and Anglican Minister and leader of the Moot Community, a New Monastic Community in Central London UK.
No Home Like Place is a walk through dense woods, theologically and poetically, guiding the reader into contemplation and reflection. And it’s a thin place, offering a spacious venue for astonishment and encounter. To find someone rebuilding place after the great postmodern deconstruction is beautiful. This book offers itself as a worthy companion for miles to come.
Brad Jersak, PhD. Author: Her Gates Will Never Be Shut. Westminster Theological College
There are many of us in places far and wide, practitioners seeking to live God’s call to the neighbourhood. We are committed to the most local expressions of discipleship because we have a gut sense that place matters to God and to the nature of Christian mission. What Len provides in this book a wonderful resource to those of us committed to the neighbourhood, a cogent, carefully researched and sensitively written theology of place that will sustain and strengthen our commitments.
Simon Carey Holt, Author: God Next Door: Spirituality and Mission in the Neighbourhood
In a society in which families are spread out across the continent, and suburban shopping malls from Vancouver to Halifax to Phoenix all seek to sell us the same goods from the same chain stores, Len invites us to think deeply about “place”: about being located and rooted. Hjalmarson draws an extraordinary range of sources into conversation, which in turn provides the reader with a marvelous array of writers and poets to explore. His closing chapter, “Re-placing the World through the Arts,” does not so much end as invite us into the terrain of imagination and possibility.”
Jamie Howison, Priest and pastor, St. Benedict’s Table.
Author, God’s Mind in That Music
“Deep down, all humans are homesick for a place they have never been. It’s the post-Eden trauma: Man searching for the one place that God hangs out. But that particular search can only be found where heaven colonizes Earth. That’s the big idea of Jesus: the Kingdom as God’s uncontested rule comes to a place near you. I call these places Kingdom Colonies, Gardens of God that will increasingly emerge as people stop ‘doing the church thing’ and start to model what the whole world has been waiting for far too long…”
Wolfgang Simson, Coach and Innovator. Author, The Starfish Manifesto, and Houses That Change the World.
No Home Like Place is now available with The Urban Loft Publishers.
Download a sample Theology of Place – Introduction2014