Author interview: Anthony Bartlett, Pascale’s Wager

A few days ago, I published an interview with theologian and author Anthony Bartlett about his book Virtually ChristianIf you want to get an idea of where he’s coming from theologically, it would be best to go back and read that interview before you move onto the rest of today’s post. That will also save me repeating my mini-biography of the author. Go on, read it: I’ll wait for you.

Today’s post is a follow-up interview based on another book of Tony’s, titled Pascale’s Wager: Homelands of Heaven. This book is a very different animal from Virtually Christian, the most obvious difference being that it’s a novel. Perhaps the easiest way for me to give you an idea what to expect is to quote the synopsis found on the book’s back cover:

Cal and Poll belong to a world of brutal cold, relentless routine, and hi-tech religion. They live in the frozen Homeland, the artificially engineered last-stand of humanity on an earth wrecked by storm and flood. While cal tries to block out her world, Poll continually questions it. He is drawn instinctively to the remote young woman, believing she alone has the abilities to help him get answers. Very soon the two of them are pitted against the old order, demanding to know the truth even if it turns their whole existence upside down. Step by step their journey of discovery brings them to a dramatically different place, beyond anything they could have imagined…

Pascale’s Wager is a bold and unusual book, for at least a couple of reasons. First, while there is no shortage of post-apocalyptic fiction, this book is set in a future world that is both dystopian and utopian. Second, it’s written by a theologian, and so works on two levels: the narrative itself, which is quite self-contained, and the deeper meanings that are illustrated and explicated through that narrative. It is at this second, deeper level that Pascale’s Wager gives the reader much to ponder; I found it to be in some sense a social, theological, anthropological and spiritual commentary on the world and its future trajectory. If you like futuristic science fiction with a difference, I’d encourage you to give it a try.

Anyway, enough from me. Let’s get to the interview.

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PW coverRob Grayson: Thanks for being willing to answer some more questions, this time about Pascale’s Wager. First, I’m interested in how you found the writing process. Having previously written theological non-fiction, what gave you the idea of writing a novel?

Anthony Bartlett: The thing about Pascale’s Wager is that it says more than I can think, or think logically, if you see what I mean. A story works on many levels, and some of them may not make complete sense in a standard sort of universe. But that’s okay because you go with them for the sake of the larger picture they make possible. As Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth”. It is this larger picture I was interested in (and still am), and at this level the picture exceeds what you can express in strict propositions. For me PW has the excitement and thrill of opening a space you hardly know exists and yet in some way you do know otherwise you would not write it. Writing in this way is completely different from writing formal theology. But, at the same time, it is deeply related to theology. Theology is about something you cannot see directly with your eyes, although you see evidence of it in many different ways. A story like PW can suggest to the mind’s eye a theological truth that reason and even rhetoric would struggle to present. So, having done some of that other kind of writing I decided to turn to fiction as a way of communicating. I thought, “If you let your imagination almost out of control, or just this side of the impossible, then something new can become visible”. At the same time the story has to stand up, it has to work. In fact it is only in writing a successful story, one that draws you in and fills your senses, that the opening up of a new space becomes possible. Continue reading

Author interview: Anthony Bartlett, Virtually Christian

VC BartlettI apologise for my long media silence. I was away on holiday (“vacation”, for you North American readers) for a week or two, after which it’s taken a while for my thoughts to return to anything so mundane as regular blogging.

Anyway… today I’d like to introduce you to an author who is probably new to most readers. However, rather than post a straightforward book review, I asked the author in question if he’d be prepared to answer some interview questions. He was happy to do so, and his answers will hopefully give you more insight into his work than I alone would be able to provide.

This is the first of two book reviews, so make sure you come back in a few days for the follow-up to this post.

Before we get into the interview proper, let me introduce our author. Tony Bartlett emigrated with his family from Britain to the US in 1994. He has a PhD from Syracuse University’s Department of Religion and has taught theology in seminaries and local church programmes. Born in 1946, he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in his mid-20s, resigning the clerical ministry in 1984. He currently resides in Syracuse, New York, and leads a small study and prayer fellowship with his wife. In addition to Virtually Christian, he has also written Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement and a futuristic novel, Pascale’s Wager: Homelands of Heaven.

So, onto today’s interview-cum-review. Virtually Christian was published in 2011, and claims on the back cover to sketch a picture of “a God deeply implicated in the human story and labouring with us for a transformed earth”. Having read it a few months ago, I can tell you that this book is a radical and searching re-examination of the meaning of the gospel and its significance and impact in the modern world.

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Rob Grayson: If you had to write a two or three sentence summary of Virtually Christian, what would it be?

Anthony Bartlett: Like the tiny coral which over time produces a massive reef, the Christian Gospel has uniquely refashioned the human landscape. The nonviolence and forgiveness of the Crucified One has seeped into the deep structure of human affairs, throwing into relief the victims of human violence, and, at the same time, evoking life-giving responses of compassion, forgiveness and nonviolence. In this sense our world can rightly be called “virtually Christian.” Continue reading

Book review: A More Christlike God by Brad Jersak

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Today I have the honour of reviewing Brad Jersak’s soon-to-be-released new book A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel.

“God is like Jesus.”

There has been an increasing chorus of voices making this proclamation in recent times. In my opinion, it’s been a very welcome chorus, because it’s a most necessary message.

But… for all its increasing popularity, if this message is not to become a mere soundbite, it needs to be explained, nuanced, understood in all its myriad implications, and generally shown to be the premier way of understanding what God is like.

Enter Brad Jersak.

I hold Brad in high esteem for two reasons. First, it was listening to him speak about the atonement that spurred me on to the earth-shattering realisation that God did not in any way, shape or form kill Jesus – a seminal moment in my theological journey. And second, I had the privilege of meeting him last year. The opportunity to put a name and a story to a face is worth more than many printed words on pages.

Brad is a Canadian author and teacher based in Abbotsford, British Columbia. His active, ongoing experience in the evangelical and charismatic streams and his interest in the Orthodox Church, in which he is a confirmed Reader, give him a unique perspective on what it means to live out an ancient faith in a modern, fast-changing world. Brad has solid theological credentials and is currently part of the core faculty of Westminster Theological Centre (UK).

One of Brad’s gifts is to take profound and complex theological truths and translate them into language that the rest of us can understand.

So… what are the implications of the statement “God is like Jesus”? Brad basically spends three hundred pages answering this question. Continue reading

Musings on sin

SinI recently got into a long Facebook conversation that basically revolved around the nature of sin and our response to it. I’ve written about this a few times before (do a search), but perhaps it’s worth sharing some of my recent thoughts on the matter.

Essentially, the conversation to which I refer centred around the idea of sin as anything that falls outside “God’s divine order”. I suppose this goes right back to the Ten Commandments: define sin as a list of proscribed behaviours, attach God’s sanction to said list, and you can then safely judge those who engage in such behaviour.

The problem with such a view, it seems to me, is that we all think we know what constitutes acceptable versus unacceptable behaviour… But who is right?

You might say that the Ten Commandments represent a definitive and immutable definition of unacceptable behaviour. But if that’s the case, how come most Christians today are quite happy to turn a blind eye to adultery, which is specifically outlawed by the Decalogue, while denouncing, say, same-sex relationships, which don’t get a mention?

It seems to me that whenever we are drawn into defining sin as a list of rights and wrongs, we are simply continuing to try to live off what Genesis 3 calls the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We take upon ourselves the authority to name good and evil, and we boost our own self-identity and security by identifying those on the evil side of the line and congratulating ourselves for being on the good side. Continue reading

Repost: A new day

This post was first published in April 2014. It follows on from previous posts here and here.

New dayIt is another morning, this time far from the hustle and bustle of the city. Uncertain of what the future held, we had gravitated back to the comfortable familiarity of Galilee. Once here, not knowing what else to do, it had not been long before we were back in our boats.

We spent the whole of last night trawling the lake, and came up with nothing to show for it. And then, just as we were drawing in the nets and preparing to come in, he called out from the shore and told us to try the other side of the boat. Now, the bulging net lies on the ground beside the boat, and we have just finished a hearty breakfast of fish and bread. A breakfast cooked and served to us by him.

Having got up to begin cleaning away the remains of breakfast, I find myself alone with him, a few yards away from the others. This is the third time I’ve seen him since he rose, but the first time we’ve been face to face. Although I am close enough that I could reach out my hand and touch him, something holds me back – there is a distance between us that cannot be bridged by mere touch. There is no doubt in my mind that this Jesus who stands before me now is the very same man I saw die a criminal’s death; God has raised him to new life, just as he said would happen. Which means I cannot escape the conclusion that everything he said about himself is true, that he really is the Messiah, the chosen one, the Son of Man who is Son of God. This – though it defies all logic and human experience – this I can accept, for there are no alternatives that remotely explain the facts. Continue reading

Everything has changed: an Easter Sunday meditation

This post was first published on Easter Sunday 2013. It follows on from my Holy Saturday meditation here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo much has happened in the past week. It seems like only yesterday that we walked triumphantly into Jerusalem on a carpet of palm leaves, our emotions high as the crowd chanted “Hosanna!” None of us could have predicted what would unfold only a few hours later. And yet, looking back, it all seems so clear, and I wonder how I could have failed to see everything he so carefully explained and warned us about. I suppose there are some things you have to experience before you can really understand them. I tried so hard to understand – I wanted to be the one who understood better than anyone – but, as so often, it was in my head that I tried to work it all out and put it all together; it took the furnace of experience to shatter my delusions and finally allow my stubborn, wavering heart to see what had been in front of me all along.

*  *  *  *  *

Never has a sabbath night been so long and so bleak. After he finally let go of life – from the set of his jaw and the look in his eyes, it was almost as though he and he alone decided exactly when it should end – I could not bring myself to stay and watch the morbid proceedings that would inevitably follow. I left that hill in a daze, not knowing who or where I was any more, and not even thinking about where I was going. I stumbled in the darkness of my thoughts even as the sky blackened and the heavens opened; it was as if heaven itself was appalled at the events of that day, and the great drops that fell to the baked earth were the very tears of God. Continue reading

The morning after – A Holy Saturday meditation

(This post was first published on Holy Saturday 2014.)

Dead JesusDeath.

Death hangs heavy in the air. I can smell it, I can feel its oppressive weight, I can taste its cloying, bitter taste in my throat. At this moment, I can see and feel little else; death is everything and everywhere.

The night has seemed to last forever, the agony of regret my only companion. Now, from the shadowy corner where I sit, my knees drawn up to my chest and my head down, I hear stirrings of life as people begin to wake and prepare to go about a new day. The city cares nothing for yesterday or for my sorrow; it presses ahead, resolute and impassive. Life goes on, but not for me. Death is the place I now inhabit.

Yesterday…

No. I try to keep my mind wrapped in the relative safety of today, where all is dark and numb. Yet at the same time some awful compulsion drives me to relive those terrible hours, the way that a high, exposed cliff dares you to peer over the edge, knowing you could plunge to your doom but unable to resist the magnetic draw of the yawning chasm beneath.

How could so much come to pass in one day? And how could so much – so many hopes, dreams and expectations – be undone in a few short hours? My mind screams that it can’t be true, there must be some mistake, you need to wake up and maybe then this nightmare will end. And yet, in some dark corner of my consciousness, another voice taunts, You should have known this was coming. It was clear enough for those who had eyes to see and ears to hear. But I only saw and heard what I wanted to; even when the inevitable truth was staring me in the face, I would not, could not let myself see it. And now… now everything lies in ruins, every flicker of hope and light snuffed out by the cold hand of Death. I can almost hear him cackling faintly, somewhere off in the gloom beyond the edge of sight, amused that anyone could think this might end any other way, that anyone could forget that he always has the final say. Continue reading