Great theologians of the past, present and future

This past weekend saw the last Vicar Weekend of the academic year and with it, a day of assessed presentations on great theologians for the first years. It was somewhat stressful – how do you condense a mighty mind’s work into a 30 minute presentation and 15 minute discussion? And, more importantly, how do you make it interesting?

Some groups tried food – the Kierkegaard crew brought in Danish pastries, but sadly we weren’t presenting in the same room as them. However, I think our room was even more creative. The day began with ‘Teresa of Avila, This is Your Life…’, complete with nuns, monks and excellent acting and ended with a John Wesley themed Songs of Praise, involving compulsory hymn singing.

But the highlight – without a doubt – was the group presenting Martin Luther. For a start, there was an abundance of monk outfits; then there was a particularly gross Horrible Histories video clip of Luther’s toilet habits [his fascination with poo was news to me, so I definitely learnt something]; an enthusiastic baptism of a doll; a Luther inspired rap video; a spurious rap reference that only two of us appreciated (“I’ve got 95 theses but the pope ain’t one…”); and finally, and most gloriously, a live performance of the Reformation Polka. Obviously, I had to film it:

That guy with the guitar can be seen leading worship at Soul Survivor this summer. 
I can’t guarantee he’ll perform this number though.

And what of our performance? Well, we’d been allocated Barth, possibly the trickiest of all theologians to present in half an hour – and with the college’s Barth specialist marking us. Even my father, a Barth aficionado, says that reading his work is like walking through the forests of the Bavarian mountains – every so often you find a clearing and a beautiful view, but soon afterwards you’re lost in the forest again. We went with a court room setting and put Barth on the witness stand – I’m eternally grateful that my group consisted of me and two enthusiastic, competent actors. I’m also grateful that my Dad went to a Barth symposium with the excitement of a teenage boy at a rock concert and returned home with a Barth t-shirt (and a poster for his study) meaning that I had an excellent costume for my role as ‘super-geek Barth fan’. I’m kind of disappointed that I didn’t get to dress up in a dress though…

That’s Teresa of Avila and Alex the judge watching Alex as Karl Barth…

I could also include our video interview with Karl Barth, but it’s not very exciting (apart from a brilliant papal infallibility joke), so instead I’ll close this post in the same way we closed our presentation:

Barth may have a reputation for being complicated and difficult to understand, but when stripped down to a basic ethos for doing theology, it is as simple as his summary of Church Dogmatics when visiting Princeton in 1962:  “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

And here is Barth’s Sunday School memory combined with another great 20th Century theologian, Whitney Houston… 

Are you going to Scarborough, fair?

[The emphasis in that sentence is in the comma…]

Until last weekend, I’d only been to Scarborough once. I was there 8 days, thanks to the 2008 Methodist Conference and a role looking after international representatives (including, notably, Bishop Committee and Bishop Zebedee…). At the time I blogged about it quite a lot, probably because it was a semi-traumatic experience. The sun didn’t shine very often; I spent a long time sat in a bright orange chair listening to reports that made little sense; very few people my own age were present; and I was musing the likelihood that I was about to be jobless. As I recall, I spent a lot of time traipsing along the beach in the rain as it was the only place I could get a decent phone signal. Scarborough’s only redeeming feature was discovered on my last day there – the Heavenly Chocolate fudge shop, which merited a blogpost of its own.

On Friday night I passed through Scarborough en route to the retreat weekend and was glad to be there for all of 10 minutes, while organising lifts to the retreat centre. On Sunday, we arrived at the station for a train to York, only to discover that we’d just missed one and there wasn’t another for 2 hours. Two, whole, hours. I was miffed to say the least.

However, it seems that on a sunny Sunday in spring, Scarborough is actually rather pleasant and there are plenty of ways in which you can entertain yourself. (Even when the heavenly fudge shop is deemed to be slightly out of reach.)

You could call that sunbathing, but barely any skin is visible.

For a start, there’s an extensive sandy beach, with donkeys.
The beach is at the bottom of a steep cliff (as is often the way with beaches) and can be reached by cobbled streets or a zig-zagging path through a Victorian garden. Given that we were carrying many bags, the opportunity to lie about on the sand was something of a relief. However, the thought of carrying them back up the path was rather daunting. Which leads me to another excellent Scarborian diversion – the Cliff Lift.

For 75p you can travel up the cliff by tram (well, they call it that, it’s actually more of a funicular). Utterly genius. It takes about a minute, but is quaint, charming and run by people who are simply fascinated by a group of travellers from that there London. (We had a nice chat about London trams while waiting.) Seriously, this little jaunt made my day and kept me smiling on the 2 hour journey from York to London, where a dog had to moved from my designated seat and whose smell was constantly discernible.

Oh, and a final reference to the title. Appropriately, on our trek back to the station, we heard strains of Scarborough Fair being played on panpipes. No trip to Scarborough is complete without that.

Trivial Pursuit cannot be taken trivially

When you meet new people, it’s best not to let all aspects of your personality show immediately. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to do a slow release over a long period of time. For example, I usually don’t immediately tell people that I write this blog. Not that I’m ashamed, just that it might give people the wrong idea. Or, like the occasion when a friend introduced me to their friends as “This is Liz. Tomorrow she’s going hunting for defunct tube stations.” – I thought that was a bit much. [The friend objected to my complaints. He may have had a point, 18 months later, many of these people are very good friends of mine.]

In the case of Vicar School, it gets a bit complicated. On the one hand, you’re expected to share certain, personal details of your life immediately – like how you felt called to ordination, or the things you’re finding difficult in life at that precise moment in time. But on the other, you’re all training for an incredibly stereotyped vocation, and you really don’t want to (a) conform to stereotypes or (b) look too crazy.

Thus, I felt our third weekend residential was a suitable moment to bring my colourful slippers out into the open. This was a good plan. The comments (all positive) they garner would have felt like too much attention early on in the course. Plus, they don’t define my personality. Any earlier on and I’d simply have been ‘the girl with stripy slippers’.

Similarly, weekend away number five – the aforementioned finger painting with God retreat – seemed like an appropriate point at which to play Trivial Pursuit…

You might wonder why this should be such a watershed moment. Let me explain:

1.  I love Trivial Pursuit with a passion, possibly because of…

2.  I’m rather good at Trivial Pursuit (it involves knowledge of useless facts!)

3.  I’m very, very competitive when it comes to this particular game.

In Clutterbuck family legend, my tantrums at games lost or questions debated are well documented. “But I’m meant to win!” would be one phrase that gets regularly touted during our annual Christmas fixtures. I cope with the competitive side of things a lot better these days, but it’s still risky to play outside family circles.

On Saturday night, we found a stash of board games at the retreat centre. Two Trivial Pursuits were discovered, the later of which dated back to 1995, so it was feasible that a group of people in their 20s/30s would be able to make a decent attempt at its questions. I was very keen – possibly too keen. We were split along gender lines and an excellent game followed.

Luckily, I coped well. There were no paddies thrown (even when a question said Cuba was in the West Indies – it is in the Caribbean, it is not in the West Indies). No tears were shed and only once did I say something I truly regretted. Many will appreciate that the hardest category is ‘Sports and Hobbies’ – I can only get them right if they relate to tennis, the Olympics or the location of football World Cups. When the game being played is nearly 2 decades old, it becomes a lot harder. Freakishly getting a run of 3 orange questions correct, I uttered the words “let’s go for another orange one – if we get it right, we’ll really rub the boys’ faces in it!”. Yes Liz, that’s an excellent Christian attitude to have towards a friendly board game…

Oh, and at one point, it became strip Trivial Pursuit…

I know, it’s not very Vicar-like, and it is a very long story. Basically, a question was debated so heartily by the boys that one said to another “If it’s France, you have to play the rest of the game with your shirt off”. This was agreed to, and the answer was France. Awesome.

The boys were super-excited at the start of the game.
Our stripper was allowed to put his hoodie back on once the shirt was off.

Once we’d won (of course, the girls won), we spent nearly an hour simply being asked the questions. That, my friends, is my idea of heaven. I just need to acquire my own set, and then I’ll be all set for some Trivial Pursuit parties, to which you’re all welcome – just know that I’ll be upset if I don’t win… 

Me, God and boobs…

In addition to our Vicar School weekends, once a year we head off on a weekend retreat. We have some choice in which group or location we end up in. Some did icons in East Sussex; others stayed silent with Benedictines in Leicestershire; I ended up doing finger painting for God in Yorkshire. I jest – it was a Creative Arts retreat.

I’m a big fan of creativity, especially when paint – specifically metallic paint – is added into the mix. It was also a great group of people combined with a beautiful location. Good times.

Inevitably I’ve returned home with a folder of works that would make my mother’s fridge proud, whose quality varies considerably. By far, my favourite is my first piece (the only one that came close to fulfilling the optional directions of the session), which I chose to tweet on Saturday during a rare moment of 3G reception.

While working on it, a couple of guys commented on that gold/bronze circle in the centre, likening it to a part of female anatomy. Immediately after tweeting it, I got this response from my sister:
“Are you aware that you ‘created’ a massive boob?”

Thanks. Way to go ruining a piece of spiritual reflection! Little did I know that down in East Sussex, a small group of trainee vicars saw the tweet and immediately made the boob connection – so amused were they that this morning at Vicar School I was greeted with “I liked your boob!”. Tres amusant. In my defence, this was never my intention.

In case you think all we did was create crass art, check out this masterpiece:

Needless to say, that’s not my work. Turns out one of number did a degree in contextual art in a past life – he kept that quiet…

The ontological argument for the existence of Twitter

One of the joys of Vicar School is the fact that many of the vicars-in-training are on Twitter, to the extent that we now have #VicarSchool and #VicarWeekend as regular hashtags. (Unless it’s something a bit more serious/for the rest of the world and then you might use #stmellitus.) People debate whether it’s appropriate to use Twitter during lectures, but I find it helps focus one’s attention if you’re trying to identify nuggets of information to share with your followers.

For example, during the last weekend residential, we studied five notable theologians over five lectures – Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin. Via Twitter, I shared a gem about each (or retweeted a classmate’s), which went something like this:
  1. St Augustine wasn’t just a naughty boy; he was a very naughty boy. [Actually, knew this already, but heartening to hear those words from a lecturer’s mouth.] 
  2. Many early theologians look a lot like characters from Harry Potter. Exhibit A: Pelagius…
  3. Anselm is the ‘grande fromage’ of theology.
  4. Aquinas was ‘just a fat man trying to get to heaven’.
  5. Luther was hot – if you base your knowledge of his appearance upon Joseph Fiennes’ representation of him in Luther. Calvin definitely wasn’t.
Sometimes, Twitter helps to clarify and take forward the lecture’s subject matter. Leaving aside a debate on predestination and universalism that ended in one wannabe vicar telling another that they would burn in hell [jokingly], it’s actually very useful.

Lecture number three was 75 minutes on Anselm, he of ‘faith seeking understanding’ fame, and deviser of the ontological argument for the existence of God. This is essentially idea that because God is that which no greater can be thought – God is perfection – therefore God exists. You simply cannot think of anything more perfect. It’s a bit of a mind bender and therefore provoked some good discussion.

For example, one classmate said “but I can think of a flying horse – that doesn’t mean that it exists”. Good point, but a horse isn’t perfect in the first place. This led nicely on to Gaunilo’s ‘Beautiful Island’ objection: I can think of the most beautiful island ever, but that doesn’t mean it exists. Anselm countered this with the argument that you can always make the island more beautiful (add another palm tree or an extra hummingbird), but nothing greater than God can exist. It simply can’t be done with omniscience.
But the class twitterers took hold of the flying horse/beautiful island objection, with fabulous results: 

At this point, I’d also like to give a shout-out to Immanuel Kant, whose objection to the ontological argument can basically be described as a very sophisticated bit of grammatical pedantry. I think he and I would have got on… Apparently, Anselm’s argument doesn’t work because existence is not a predicate and a predicate modifies the subject of a sentence. (That would be a piece of grammatical information that few people educated in Britain during the 1980s will understand. We didn’t do grammar.)

However, the important thing to remember about the ontological argument is that you cannot imagine anything greater than God – except a God horse with chocolate sprinkles.