A friend informed me last week that John Webster had died suddenly the day before, on the 25th May, at the untimely age of 60. The next day, Friday, some other friends came round for a meal, but first wanted to share with us their own recent heavy news of the death from leukaemia at the age of ten of Thea, the daughter of friends of theirs, on 22nd May. Three days later, I discovered on the Fulcrum web-site that Ken Bailey had died two days before John Webster, on 23rd May, at 85.
Death never loses its power to shock and stun, to bring a life to an often juddering and jagged end; it is a daily alien reality that is built into life. But if we refuse to recognise the reality of its destructive potential, or deny its place in our lives and in society, we flee into dangerous denial.
It would not be difficult to write a lamentation of limitless length about the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Syria’s civil war in recent years; of those killed by Anders Breivik in Utøya; of the earlier victims of 9/11 or of 7/7, and of the hundreds of migrants who still drown in the Mediterranean. Death and grief stalk the globe.
Increasingly, too, in the world at large, we are confronted by death’s ever-inventive and invasive technologies via Hellfire and Brimstone air-to-surface missiles, Predator unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and Reaper and Gremlin drones, to destabilise, disrupt and destroy lives. But this is nothing new. This year, notably, is the centenary of the first apocalyptically mechanised warfare of history - the slaughter of the Battle of the Somme, and then of hundreds of thousands of soldiers at Verdun; and last year we remembered Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The problem is that, with so many deaths, we become numb, turn in on ourselves in fear and helpless aporia, and switch off callously because it is all too much to cope with. We may say, with John Donne, and often do at funerals, ‘Death, thou shalt die!’; but the future hope and past Triumph are only a partial present reality.
For it is most often in particular deaths, deaths of friends we respect and love deeply, friends we learn from and with, whose lives have changed ours, even if we did not know them personally (like Neda, Aylan - and Thea) that our emotions suddenly erupt or seep out. We recall that ‘we are but dust’ and ‘like a passing shadow’ (Psalms 103:14 & 144:4). Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary catches well this sense of dark transience with awesome weight, with trumpets and drums, setting the dread words of the service for The Burial of the Dead in the Book of Common Prayer:
Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.
For many, today, in a ‘progressive society’, these words exaggerate the darkness and transience of life. But that, too, is denial, for those are simply the depths we cannot face. It is (is it?) ironic that in the most advanced societies, there can be the greatest inability to confront death; indeed, medical science, government propaganda and Health Insurance companies spend their billions to convince us that our future is secure. We are fed illusions and live by delusions.
More seriously, when the language of ‘Funerals’ has been virtually abandoned, and when brief hole-in-a-corner private ‘Thanksgiving’ services at a Crematorium are followed later by a public ‘Celebration’, I sense that many Christians have shunted belief in death out of their lives, and can only think of a happy ending. Death is shoved over the edge, while we fantasise more and more about fripperies. But if we cannot even confront death ourselves, how dare we proclaim the death of Jesus, the Son of God, who confronted and was devoured by it, but then brought through the whole hellish complex of Hades, Gehenna, and the Nothingness of das Nichtige ‘for our sake’, and raised to life by the power of God the Creator?
One of the most serious problems concerning deaths is their often seemingly random nature. Our own son Nicholas has long struggled with this issue through his own experiences of the death of contemporaries, not least that of a college friend - a real ‘force of nature’, who fell off a cliff to his death in Tangier. For him, randominity has perplexed him, above all, as offence. But, without denying that element, it is also now clear, in terms of modern Quantum Physics, that randominity is itself - structurally speaking - a fundamental element in the universe: that of contrariness, unpredictability, uncontrollability, unavoidability. 1I am grateful to Will Howard for sending through a copy of the booklet of abstracts for the ‘Randomness in Quantum Physics and Beyond Conference’ held last year (2015) in Barcelona, and in particular the details of a paper by Yaoyun Shi on ‘Randomness: Between Faith and Reality’, which fascinatingly explores not only the thesis that ‘randomness is a faith’, but that randomness is ‘also indispensable in reality’. See http://web.eecs.umich.edu/~shiyy/random/QRandom.pdf; and http://qrandom.icfo.eu/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/book-of-abstracts.pdf. (accessed on June 1st, 2016) Just as we were born without choosing and without giving our permission, so we find ourselves caught up in a universe we cannot control.
More than that, the anger and pain that hollows us out, the shock that petrifies us, and the howls of ‘Noooooo!’ that emerge from our tortured throats all speak of our inability to locate death. Our world collapses and contracts when dear friends die, and we cannot cancel that reduction, whether it is John Hughes, a brilliant Dean of Jesus College, Cambridge, killed in a car crash at 35, Mark Ashton, the brilliant pastor of St Andrew the Great in Cambridge, who died at 62, Maryam (Nasim) Naghash Zargaran, a courageous young Christian witness in Iran, close to death in Evin prison at the age of 35 for ‘propagating against the Islamic regime and plotting to undermine national security’, or the twenty-one Coptic martyrs beheaded on the shores of Libya.
Perhaps, unconsciously, we still inhabit a closed, bounded, ‘steady-state’, deterministic world-view, instead of in a world that is in constant flux. We have not yet caught up with Quantum Physics, let alone with Heisenberg’s Indeterminacy or Uncertainty Principle; perhaps we need to take on board the language of randomness, in the same way that we have to confront the reality of evil. Even as Christians, we do not really believe that the world is in flux, or that ‘God makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous’ (Matthew 5:46). What we do know, though, is that these are not meaningless vicious twists on life, because the Father of Jesus tells us that ‘even the hairs of our head are numbered’ (Matthew 10:30 // Luke 12:7); our lives, their beginnings and their endings are not empty of meaning: randomness is only meaningless when it is assumed to be part of a meaningless universe. Besides, ‘random’, ‘accidental’ meetings are precisely occasions when love can erupt and draw people together in marriage…
The same friend who told me of the death of John Webster was the one who introduced me to his work a few years back, specifically his Holy Scripture. A Dogmatic Sketch. I never knew or met him, but realised that Karl Barth and Eberhart Jüngel were his inspiration. I loved his implied humour (visible in recent photos) in the delightful juxtaposition of ‘Dogmatic’ and ‘Sketch’. But, of course, it is precisely the genius of a brilliant mind to condense great movements of thought, faith and theology in parvo, in small space. Some have written impressively on the history of biblical interpretation (Robert Morgan, William Baird, Ben Meyers, Stephen Neill), and Tom Wright most creatively and authoritatively in his 1992 The New Testament and the People of God, 2 N T Wright, The New Testament and the People of God. Volume One of Christian Origins and the Question of God, London: SPCK, 1992; more recently, Paul and His Recent Interpreters, London: SPCK, 2015. but John Webster’s huge philosophical grasp enabled him to expose in the mere 140 pages of this book a whole host of cul-de-sacs and false defences that is beautifully revealing and mind-stretching. 3 This is not the place for a formal theological assessment of John Webster’s work, but Steve Holmes’ brief and moving note on the Fulcrum web-site suggests many elements of his patient, human greatness. https://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/articles/in-memoriam-john-webster/
Crucially, he sets the entire ‘historical-critical’ enterprise in a larger theological context, enabling him to speak of a true ‘ontology of Scripture’, which he then also locates within the larger context of God’s self-revelation: ‘Holy Scripture is dogmatically explicated in terms of its role in God’s self-communication’ (p. 8). He exposes the ‘basic historical naturalism’ of the ‘scholarly’ process, ‘the complex legacy of dualism and nominalism in Western Christian theology’(p. 19), and the essential reductionism of too much scholarly work (p. 40). 4 cf. N T Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, previously referred to ‘damaging dualism’ on p. 25, and on p. 33 to the fact that ‘The much-discussed contemporary phenomenon of cultural and theological relativism is itself … simply the dark side of positivism’. Chapter 1 concludes almost overwhelmingly with these words: ‘what we encounter in Scripture is the terrifying mercy of God’s address’ (p. 41).
By contrast with the suffocating narcissism of the words with which (it is said) Nero died - Qualis artifex pereo: ‘what an artist the world is losing in me!’, John Webster’s death has filled me with sadness, even though I never knew him. It is as if a great bell has tolled and been silenced at the same time, but in such a way that we are ‘never to send for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee’. But it is - he is - also an instance of the gift of a mind dedicated to and harnessed by Jesus Christ:
‘Christian theology is biblical reasoning. It is an activity of the created intellect, judged, reconciled, redeemed and sanctified through the works of the Son and the Spirit.’
‘Christian theology is a work of regenerate intelligence, awakened and illuminated by divine instruction …’
‘God is not summoned into the presence of reason; reason is summoned before the presence of God.’
A magisterial mind is a great gift in a culture of pygmies, prejudice and bigotry, and all the more poignant because so painfully reminiscent of Colin Gunton’s early death some thirteen years ago. Such sudden removals from the battle-field of Christian thought we can - from our side - ill afford to lose. And how is it possible that virtually no one in the larger world, hardly anyone in the media, and relatively few in the church knew of these scholars, or of little Thea? How strange to live in a world ignorant of such greatness and beauty, where what counts is transient celebrity…
A day later, friends with whom we were having dinner told us of the death from aggressive leukaemia of Thea - ‘gift of God’ - Anderson, the ten-year-old daughter of A Rocha friends of theirs in Canada. 5 A Rocha promotes Christian awareness of and care for the creation. cf. http://www.arocha.org/en/ The photo on the web-site (‘Day 539’) is heart-breaking. By way of preparing for our friends’ visit, I had just put on Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and on hearing this desolatingly distressing news without finding any words or feelings, I suddenly thought, ‘This is the only way to respond to such grief: play Bach’s Kyrie and Gloria’. Our friend and I fell into one another’s arms in tears. 6Special gratitude to Peter & Miranda Harris for sharing their grief with us, and allowing us to enter theirs.
Again, I did not know Thea. Her A Rocha parents and family had lived with her illness for 539 days, suffering, loving, supporting, spending time with her, praying, praying that she would not die, praying that she might be revived or resurrected. But death and silence have overtaken her, and them. Death’s destructive stalking-horse barged into their home and lives. Thea has died. But she has died in Christ, been taken up in Christ, and drawn into the promise of the resurrection and ‘the life of the world to come’. But she is not ‘there’ or ‘here’, physically, any more. Where there was a ‘funny and poignant’ 7These and other descriptions of Thea I have taken from her parents’ ‘Obituary for Thea’, kindly passed on by Peter Harris. little girl, now there is a gap; where there was a presence, now there is an absence. This is a grief that Thea’s family will bear with them to the end of their lives.
Why should it matter? Why should she matter? Because she is - not just ‘was’ - deeply loved. Because to be is to be loved. Because every created thing is a part of God’s creation, because all human beings are created for the glory of God, and because, if ‘not a sparrow falls to the ground without your Father’ (Matthew 10:29), then how much more is God present in the death of a child. Maybe we feel the sadness not only because this ‘sweet and strong’ little life was - as we say - ‘cut short’ so young, but because so many other lives seem so ‘wasted’. But how do we judge ‘waste’? The Father sees things differently, with a compassion and a pain we cannot conceive of.
How could you ever determine a life’s worth in terms of its length? That would be a terrible and purely quantitative judgement, based on achievements, contributions, friends, fame. It would be an estimation of value based on aggregation, addition, multiplication. By contrast, Kazoh Kitamori’s post-WWII Theology of the Pain of God, struggling with the defeat of Japan from within a tiny Christian minority, investigates the nature of God in terms of a unique fusion of ‘love’ and ‘pain’, which is also deeply embedded in us by virtue of being created in the image of God.
‘It has been our sincere desire to see deeply into the heart of God, by following the example of Jeremiah [in 31:20]. This desire has been fulfilled by seeing the pain of God, as did Jeremiah. We were astonished to find the inner heart of God as pain’. 8Kazoh Kitamori, Theology of the Pain of God, Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1965, p. 144.
So it is true: the harmonic music of the spheres in Bach’s unique choral music, all the music of Scripture in all its keys and colours, combined with and including the dissonances of what Walter Brueggemann calls the ‘counter-testimonies’ of Scripture - all of these are inextricably intertwined, even - especially - in the dear life of ‘a little child’ with an ‘infectious …wonder of the created world’, who Isaiah tells us ‘will lead us’ (Isaiah 11:6). I am so grateful to have been invited to be included in grieving with our friends for lovely Thea, whose life now - literally - knows no end.
And then, three days later, I read that Ken Bailey had died at 85, after ‘a short illness involving some weeks of hospitalisation and a brief period of palliative care’. Triple whammy.
Ken Bailey’s lectures at Selly Oak in the early 90s revolutionised (and re-affirmed) my reading of Scripture, and confirmed many of my suspicions of the false textual and exegetical assumptions of many 19th-century biblical scholars and their later disciples. When we invited him to lead a week’s studies on ‘The Gospels and Christian Mission’ in the Selly Oak Colleges, I shared the unique experience of a lecture-room that began with perhaps 30 students and finished with over 100. His reputation spread like wild-fire, especially among international students, who loved and identified with his direct ‘talking to camera’ style, speaking without notes, but with erudition and animation. They recognised a kindred spirit. He magnetised us all with his love of the Gospels and Jesus’ parables (NB: not illustrations, but confrontations), and drew us into into The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium). Technically, he introduced us to concentric ring structure with the punch in the middle, to chiasm of both smaller sections and whole books, and to the way in which Jesus inserted himself into his parables; he introduced us to a living Jesus, to Jesus’ vivid, vital mind, calling Jesus (not Paul) the greatest theologian in the New Testament (rather than the feeble story-teller of so many people’s diminished imagination), full of Scripture and the Father.
His was a quite different kind of humble ‘simple greatness’, based on ground-level research, and shaped entirely by 40 years’ experience of life in the Middle East, which few still bother to take into account. He did not just historically and linguistically ‘excavate the Middle East’ (as if it were some quaint dead animal), but lived in it, imbibing customs, thoughts and forms of speech from the whole of the Levant, and opening my eyes and many others’ to aspects of New Testament study that none of us had thought about before. His Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes and Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes are a revelation, unpeeling layers of his unique expertise, not only in biblical languages, but also in Arabic and Syriac, and giving him a privileged entrée to worlds closed to most people. 9 Among other works, Kenneth E Bailey, Jesus Through Mediterranean Eyes. Cultural Studies in the Gospels and Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes. Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians, both London: SPCK, 2008 & 2011; preceded by Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes. A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke, both Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976 & 1980.
Later that morning, after reading of Ken Bailey’s death, and as we drove into town for a lecture, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius was playing, and I choked up with emotion. It struck me that, although the religious colouring of Cardinal Newman was far removed from Ken Bailey’s American Presbyterianism, the proclamation of surrender and submission to God in life and in death is simple, central, profound and mutual. This is what was being played:
Proficiscere, anima christiana, de hoc mundo, in nomine Dei Patris omnipotentis, qui te creavit: in nomine Iesu Christi, Filii Dei vivi, qui pro te passus est: in nomine Spiritus Sancti, qui in te effusus est…
Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul!
Go from this world! Go, in the Name of God
The Omnipotent Father, Who created thee!
Go, in the Name of Jesus Christ, our Lord,
Son of the Living God, Who bled for thee!
Go, in the Name of the Holy Spirit,
Who hath been poured out on thee!…
Which deaths matter more? An outstanding 60-yr. old dogmatic theologian? An impressively informed Arabist and New Testament Scholar who lived to 85? Or a ten-year old girl who dies before her life, in many ways, has even begun? There is no calculus for such a question, no algorithms to evaluate a life; a life’s worth is given only by God. Precious, precious lives, all, that have given so much to so many. And, yes, death does destroy lives, communities, cultures all the time. And yet - God’s ability to hold everything and to redeem everything - everything - in the work of the Beloved Son and the Holy Spirit is the key and the clue with which the New Testament fills ours lives.
Death supervenes, interrupts, puts an end to everything we might have hoped for (Webster’s proposed 5-Volume Dogmatics, for instance), in an era in which so much Christian thought seems to be turning into soup, profound theology is reduced to naïve banalities and single-word slogans (‘love’, ‘justice’, ‘hope’, or ‘peace’), and worship is reduced to repetition and ‘noisy gongs’ (1 Corinthians 13:1). The great gift of a competent theologian - whether a philosophical theologian or a New Testament scholar - or a beloved ten-year old child is to raise the stakes, to expand our minimising horizons, to enrich our thinking, to raise our vision - and to keep us humble and grateful.
But none of them want us to grieve without consolation; for now they are consoled.
'The last enemy to be destroyed is death.’
‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness never overcomes it.’
Love, actually, also never loses its power to shock and stop and renew us in our tracks, to amaze us and to fill us with disbelief and gratitude. The same Love that can cover a multitude of sins is the same Love that raised our Lord Jesus from the dead, swallowing death up in victory.
Perhaps these deaths have touched me because of my own small heart-attack last September that so shocked the members of our own family who were sitting in the room. Perhaps it is because some of us have personally been very sensitive to loss from early childhood, or have recapitulated such losses in our later lives. It is not difficult to recall that at Lazarus’s grave ‘Jesus wept’ so much that people said ‘See how he loved him’ (John 11:36). From the simple Greek edakrusen we should really read, ‘Jesus burst into tears’, or ‘broke down in tears’. This is no Socrates who calmly tells Crito to ‘offer a cock to Asclepius’, but one who ‘[became] like his brothers and sisters in every respect, ‘was tested in every way like us’ and ‘offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death’ (Hebrews 2:17, 4:15 and 5:7).
The final movement of Stravinsky’s 1930 Symphony of Psalms, with its generally peaceful and measured pace, is a setting of Psalm 150 - with which this article will conclude similarly. Here, I note two juxtaposed elements: the theological and the musical. I have only just discovered one example of the former, in this ravishing work, namely, an allegro section that, Stravinsky writes, ‘was inspired by a vision of Elijah's chariot climbing the Heavens; never before had I written anything quite so literal as the triplets for horns and piano to suggest the horses and chariot’. 10 Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Dialogues and a Diary, New York: Doubleday, 1963, p. 78. Reprinted London: Faber, 1968. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_of_Psalms, accessed 1 June, 2016.
Secondly, in terms of the musical style, Jin Myung Kang fascinatingly points to the bitonality and polytonality of Stravinsky’s writing (e.g. C major & E flat, C minor/ F major, C/ C#, Ab and F# as ‘surprise elements’ of C major), the use of Octatonic and Wholetone scales, lack of clear resolution of forward chord progression, frequent augmentation, the independent motion of the bass-line - as if one should be surprised at any of that material when dealing with Stravinsky! 11Jin Myung Kang, M.M., An Analysis of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms Focusing on Tonality and Harmony …, Ohio State University, 2007. https://etd.ohiolink.edu/rws_etd/document/get/osu1196113148/inline. Accessed 1 June, 2016.
Like Stravinsky’s music, our lives are not played only in one key, or even two keys, chromatic harmony or even neat polychromatic progressions. These three deaths reveal an indivisible, multi-formed, complex inter-relationship of keys, inter-connecting chords, unresolved moments and (!) some clear progressions. Yes, ‘one equal music’, but not just one boring note. Love involves pain. But Stravinsky concludes, as he begins, with hushed and awed repetition: ‘Alleluia. Laudate, laudate, laudate Dominum.’ - For John Webster, Thea Anderson and Ken Bailey, ‘Thanks be to God!’ There may be lots to say before that, but hardly any need to say anything afterwards …
Perhaps it is fitting to conclude with the opening words of a recent article by John Webster, to point to the centrality of the Resurrection, and also to the dignity and compass of his thinking.
The Christian confession of the resurrection encompasses two great matters: first, that Jesus Christ is the living one who died and is alive for evermore (Rev. 1.18), and, second, that together with him 'God made us alive' (Eph. 2.5). These two elements of the confession - its Christology and its soteriology - belong together, but stand in a strict and irreversible sequence. It is only because God raised Christ from the dead that we also have newness of life; what we experience and confess of our own resurrection is wholly derivative from the principal reality: 'Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father' (Rom. 6.4). Yet we would not know Christ's resurrection in its full range if we did not also consider its extension into the realm of creatures, its generative power and effect. 12Thanks to Andrew Goddard, who sent through this article, so joyful in its clarity, depth and attack. http://www.reformation21.org/articles/rise-heart-thy-lord-is-risen.php
|↑1||I am grateful to Will Howard for sending through a copy of the booklet of abstracts for the ‘Randomness in Quantum Physics and Beyond Conference’ held last year (2015) in Barcelona, and in particular the details of a paper by Yaoyun Shi on ‘Randomness: Between Faith and Reality’, which fascinatingly explores not only the thesis that ‘randomness is a faith’, but that randomness is ‘also indispensable in reality’. See http://web.eecs.umich.edu/~shiyy/random/QRandom.pdf; and http://qrandom.icfo.eu/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/book-of-abstracts.pdf. (accessed on June 1st, 2016)|
|↑2||N T Wright, The New Testament and the People of God. Volume One of Christian Origins and the Question of God, London: SPCK, 1992; more recently, Paul and His Recent Interpreters, London: SPCK, 2015.|
|↑3||This is not the place for a formal theological assessment of John Webster’s work, but Steve Holmes’ brief and moving note on the Fulcrum web-site suggests many elements of his patient, human greatness. https://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/articles/in-memoriam-john-webster/|
|↑4||cf. N T Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, previously referred to ‘damaging dualism’ on p. 25, and on p. 33 to the fact that ‘The much-discussed contemporary phenomenon of cultural and theological relativism is itself … simply the dark side of positivism’.|
|↑5||A Rocha promotes Christian awareness of and care for the creation. cf. http://www.arocha.org/en/|
|↑6||Special gratitude to Peter & Miranda Harris for sharing their grief with us, and allowing us to enter theirs.|
|↑7||These and other descriptions of Thea I have taken from her parents’ ‘Obituary for Thea’, kindly passed on by Peter Harris.|
|↑8||Kazoh Kitamori, Theology of the Pain of God, Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1965, p. 144.|
|↑9||Among other works, Kenneth E Bailey, Jesus Through Mediterranean Eyes. Cultural Studies in the Gospels and Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes. Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians, both London: SPCK, 2008 & 2011; preceded by Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes. A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke, both Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976 & 1980.|
|↑10||Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Dialogues and a Diary, New York: Doubleday, 1963, p. 78. Reprinted London: Faber, 1968. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_of_Psalms, accessed 1 June, 2016.|
|↑11||Jin Myung Kang, M.M., An Analysis of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms Focusing on Tonality and Harmony …, Ohio State University, 2007. https://etd.ohiolink.edu/rws_etd/document/get/osu1196113148/inline. Accessed 1 June, 2016.|
|↑12||Thanks to Andrew Goddard, who sent through this article, so joyful in its clarity, depth and attack. http://www.reformation21.org/articles/rise-heart-thy-lord-is-risen.php|