Sunday, June 30, 2013

Doing steampunk theology

"Doing theology is like building a comically circuitous Rube Goldberg machine: you spend your time tinkering together an unnecessarily complicated, impractical, and ingenious apparatus for doing things that are, in themselves, simple. But there is a kind of joy in theology's gratuity, there is a pleasure in its comedic machination, and ultimately-if the balloon pops, the hamster spins, the chain pulls, the bucket empties, the pulley lifts, and (voila!) the book's page is turned-some measurable kind of work is accomplished. But this work is a byproduct. The beauty of the machine, like all beauty, is for its own sake. Theology, maybe especially steampunk theology, requires this kind of modesty. The Church neither needs nor endorses our Rube Goldbergian flights. The comic aspect of the arrows we wing at cloudy skies must be kept firmly in mind. The comedy of it both saves us from theology and commends us to it. Engaged in this work, theology has only one definitive strength: it can make simple things difficult. Good theology forces detours that divert us from our stated goals and prompt us to visit places and include people that would otherwise be left aside. The measure of this strength is charity. Theological detours are worth only as much charity as they are able to show. They are worth only as many waylaid lives and lost objects as they are able to embrace. Rube Goldberg machines, models of inelegance, are willing to loop anything into the circuit-tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, Democrats, whatever. In charity, the grace of a disinterested concern for others and the gratuity of an unnecessary complication coincide. Steampunk theology helps us to find religion by helping us to lose it. Theology makes the familiar strange. It ratchets uncomfortable questions into complementary shapes and helps recover the trouble that is charity's substance."

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Doctor Who-ther?

Farringham, England
November, 1911

To the Magus,

I have recently received a photograph that you may find of great - and quite possibly utterly disturbing -  interest.  I write to you having come across the sea post-haste by airship in person to verify its authenticity.  What I am about to tell you I have seen with my own eyes and touched with my hands, as the Eagle once wrote to the Ephesians in his first epistle.    

A former classmate and colleague of mine, Professor Rachel Manke, formerly of Malden, Massachusetts but now at the University of Tennantshire in Eccleston in the countryside of Britain, is the sender.  She has been conducting an investigation into the history of the relationship between our dear Doctor Luther and those sympathetic to his cause in Henry VIII's England.

Following the suggestion of her colleague, the renowned Professor Thomas Baker, Dr. Manke made a visit to the preparatory school in Farringham, where, she was told, a teacher by the name of John Smith resided.  His reputation on matters of history was almost fantastical, and it was rumored he was privy to certain dimensions of the past which others found inaccessible or unbelievable.  

Upon hearing the name Luther, Mr. Smith became excited, and leafing through a well-worn leather journal, he produced the following photograph.  I have supplied a daguerreotype with this letter so you can witness for yourself:

As you can see, it is quite clearly a Cranach.  And, as you can also clearly see, the good Doctor is portrayed in the most outlandish manner.  I know it may sound fantastic, but I do believe the strange box behind him resembles a telegraph box, the kind of which are only beginning to spring up like trees across our cities.  Mark those details: a telegraph the year 1529.  Almost four centuries ago. 

Further cryptic details abound.  In particular, the inscriptions across the top, which appear in English to us.  "In silentio fortitudo" - on of Luther's favorite phrases, pointing to the profound revelations that appear when silence falls.  But the other: "malus lupus."  You will of course remember from grammar school that this is Latin for "Bad Wolf."  But perhaps it will escape your attention that the initials are M.L. - the same as the Doctor.  

And let us not forget the scarf, an absurd bricolage hardly keeping with any 16th century styles, especially not of German origin.  Not even the French Bohemians of today's Montemarte would be so ostentatious.  

Something is clearly afoot.  A scraved Doctor standing before an anachronistic box bearing inscriptions about the silence and a bad wolf?  And here is the rub: by all estimates and a number of chemical texts, the photograph is authentic.  Let me repeat: the photograph is authentic.  A photograph of Doctor Luther from 1529!

Now, you will probably suppose that I've been reading too many Jules Verne novels again.  For all the wonders our age has witnessed, and all the blessings yet to be bestowed upon us by the steam and the geist, we have yet to even fathom the possibility of time travel.  And yet, here we are presented with a most unusual paradox.  

You can see why now that I made such haste to come to Farringham to speak with this John Smith myself.  Smith could not seem to remember where exactly the photograph had come from.  But he was eager to share with me the contents of his journal, which he called a book of "impossible things."  Such an imagination has this man - mechanical humanoids, strange creatures, angelic beings, and all other manner of invention and fantasy.  There is more to this Smith than his mild manner lets on.  He is himself, I think, a kind of magus to rival even your brilliance.

A few pages from this journal struck my eye in particular.  For one: notice the implement that the Doctor is holding in the picture.  The same implement appears throughout the journal, including here:

Strange indeed.  And then, I found a page with a self-portrait of Smith himself, along with nine other men, many of whom bore characteristics or resemblances to Doctor Luther, especially the fourth one, with curly hair and a similarly gaudy scarf.

Could it be that our own Luther belonged to the lineage of this strange progression?  That this one who, for all intents and purposes, was used by God to save humanity from itself by reminding them of the true light of the Gospel of Freedom and the importance of thinking and believing for oneself, rather than in corrupt and self-intereted religious authorities?  Was he a part of some order beyond the Augustinians or the Evangelicals? 

Or, dare I imagine: the one that so many seem to believe dropped down from heaven with the Bible open in his hands - might he actually have dropped out of heaven?  Come, in that telegraph box, from another place...or another time?  

And if this is the case, is this picture really of Doctor Luther?  And if not of Doctor Luther...then Doctor...Who?  

As I said, most disturbing.  John Smith claims the pictures in his journal come from vivid dreams that he has most nights, dreams of strange travels across the temporal spectrum and beyond this sphere.  If it were not for the authentic 400 year old photograph, I would simply deduce that all this was the work of a Verne-like imagination.  But perhaps...just perhaps...a kind of anamnesis is taking place. insane as it is even to think...our Doctor Luther has more to do with this John Smith and his drawings than we can even imagine.

I leave this before you, good Magus, as you seem possessed of skills of inquiry and discernment far exceeding my own humble clerical senses.  Let me know what you think, and if you so desire, come with all haste to Farringham.  

Yours in bafflement,

The Alpinist