Finding the Words

If it brings me to my knees// It’s a bad religion – Frank Ocean[1]

I’m a deadbeat cousin, I hate family reunions//Fuck the church up by drinkin after communion// Spillin’ free wine, now my tux is ruined – Kanye West[2]

Here it is not the creativity of the fatwa that matters, but rather its capacity to enable a self to stay and advance upon an already defined path toward an ideal Muslim self. And that capacity is found not in reforming them to fit modern times, but in the skill of using them discerningly to “say the right words at the right time” for the person who seeks guidance… – Hussein Agrama[3]


I’m not terribly pious these days. And it is for that reason, that I have a growing respect for the Catholics who only cross themselves when the bulls are down by three and there are only seven left on the clock. This strikes me as an honest way of living, because it proceeds from within the practices at hand without attempting to supersede their fictional character. It’s all in the act. But there are two ways things can go: Are we working with the material or is it working on us and moulding us? Or perhaps there is a third way (no theobro), could it be the case that it is both? No, it is not both. And I’m not going to elaborate on that.

It turns out that the taxi driver knows very little about unrequited love, and the kinds of ‘bad religion’ that try to redeem it, and sometimes the communion wine is not enough to drown out debt or police sirens. Can I have a bottle to myself, please? And yes, I will drink from a chalice and I would like to see you try and stop me. With that said, it is still the case that we are just trying to discern how to say the right things at the right time. It would be nice if there were mufti’s who cared for all of us, but the wilderness is pretty remote and sometimes it is hard to stay in touch.

On his latest album The Life of Pablo, it seems like Kanye is exploring the hard work of discernment and guidance. This is a gospel album, but in what sense? Where exactly is the good news of this album? It is in no particular place. It makes its appearance on no particular song. If you are looking for some kind of ‘event’ (truth or otherwise) you will not find it here. Instead, you will find the sounds and textures of the extended present, and if you listen carefully you can hear some good news. The good news is that there is still news to be told. The rights words to say, have not been discerned, but thankfully there are still words to be said. And thankfully, there is still a Kanye West to say things amidst the ongoing failures at saying the right things at the right time. The scattered nature of Kanye’s latest runs against the grain of other artists attempts to retrieve ‘purpose’ and reach a state of stability. The gospel of Purpose vs. The gospel of ongoing discernment and making of life. Bieber has found a gospel or a “purpose” that acts upon him. Kanye has found nothing, and is trying to slog through the material at hand, and occasionally say a prayer or two.

The Life of Pablo is not that far from ‘no church in the wild’. There really is no church in the wild, but all is not lost. There is still the sounds of our attempts to organize, to say the right things at the right time. This might not be church in the wild, but I think it works for now. Like Buzzer-beater prayers, it is a fiction that I can live with.



[1] Frank Ocean “Bad Religion” Channel Orange (Def Jam, 2012).

[2] Kanye West “Real Friends” The Life of Pablo (GOOD music, 2016).

[3] Agrama, Hussein Ali. Questioning Secularism, P.182


MyLife: A meditation on Knxwledge (and scattered thoughts)

Think of the statement “Get a Life. What this statement usually implies is that your life is being wasted. There is an absence. You need to stop doing things that aren’t worth doing. What if I don’t want ‘a life’? After all, I’m already living. What is the difference between ‘a life’ and the already-lived?

Get a life. We can reasonable assume this is a call to something that I don’t already have. ‘A life’ is something I need. What is ‘a life’? In this context it is a call towards transcendence. It is something that I don’t already have, it is something that I need. It is something that the already-lived must achieve.  Continue reading

On Woolf Works: Ballet and the Nature of the Self

Woolf Works ROH 2015 - Used with the permisison of photographer Alice Pennefather and the Royal Operah House.

Woolf Works ROH 2015 – Used with the permisison of photographer Alice Pennefather and the Royal Operah House.

“Something always has to be done next. Tuesday follows Monday; Wednesday Tuesday. Each spreads the same ripple of wellbeing, repeats the same curve of rhythm; covers fresh sand with a chill or ebbs a little slackly without. So the being grows rings; identity becomes robust. What was fiery and furtive like a fling of grain cast into the air and blown hither and thither by wild gusts of life from every quarter is now methodical and orderly and flung with a purpose – so it seems.” Virginia Woolf, The Waves.

Here is the link to a piece that I wrote for The Curator on Wayne McGregor’s new ballet, Woolf Works, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – a ballet based on three novels by Virginia Woolf: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. I make some reflections on the performance as a way of getting at what ballet might contribute to philosophical and theological conversations regarding the nature of the self.

Interpreting Prince Myshkin Through Williams and Bonhoeffer

The perennial question of the relationship between Christian theology and culture has one of its magnifying points in the supposed Christ-figures that pepper our popular and not-so-popular cultural artefacts. Debates inevitably emerge regarding the degree to which various products of the imagination, particularly literary characters, do or do not reflect Christ, and whether it is even possible for any product of the imagination to represent Christ.

This last question, however, seems to me to be somewhat misguided. For surely didactic doctrines regarding Christ are just as much products of the imagination such that the question should not be whether “more imaginative” depictions of Christ can be faithful to the person of Jesus, but what it is that literature can contribute to our imaginative engagement with Christ in general.

It is from this perspective that I here want to consider Rowan Williams’ reading of Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot.  Prince Myshkin is portrayed at the beginning of the novel as a person of simplicity and naivety who nevertheless radiates such goodness that others cannot help but be drawn to him despite his strangeness. Williams argues that Dostoevsky does in fact intend to set up a sort of messianic expectation regarding Myshkin, suggested for example by the association of his appearance with popular Russian depictions of Christ at the time, and more pointedly by Dostoevsky’s own letters at the time of writing The Idiot. However, while some (Dallas Willard is one example who comes to mind) argue that Myshkin is a straightforward representation of Christ, Williams points out that things are more complicated than this.

Williams argues that Dostoevsky frustrates the messianic hopes that we have of Myshkin as we find that rather than bringing peace or redemption, his lack of self-awareness has disastrous consequences both for himself and for those around him. Thus, while Dostoevsky may have set out to create a Christ-figure, he found that he could not or that Christ was better shown by that which is not Christ-like.

This interpretation turns particularly around Williams’ “hard” reading of the exchange of the crosses. In Dostoevsky’s novels, the exchange of crucifixes represents the taking on of the burdens of the other. It is a making one’s self responsible for the other, a Christ-like, self-sacrificial act. Thus, while the exchange of crucifixes between Myshkin and Rogozhin, a dangerous and tormented character, ought to have been the climax of Myshkin’s messianic activity, it in fact becomes a dark parody in which Myshkin has become bound to Rogozhin but unable to save him. The two drag each other down into the abyss. He says “…it is as though he has indeed taken on Rogozhin’s burden, but cannot bear it in a way that changes things or that makes responsibility possible.” (Williams, Dostoevsky,156). For Williams, this is demonstrated particularly by the fact that directly after the exchange of the crosses Myshkin breaks his word and goes to visit Nastasya (which he told Rogozhin he would not do) provoking Rogozhin to an attempted murder.

I had the opportunity to ask Williams about this recently. Because it seems to me that the fact that the exchange of the crucifixes, that the taking on of the burden of the other, does not “work”, does not save anyone, is important. It is not a formula. There are no guarantees. This in itself is a Christological truth – that Christ’s incarnation and the death to which it led were not a magic formula for salvation. Jesus was vulnerable in a real way. The incarnation involved real risk. It could have failed. So Dostoevsky is showing us something about Christ. Williams agreed.

However, I want to push it further: Myshkin, precisely in his failure, here reveals Christ. Certainly, this is not the kind of revelation-of-correspondence in which we enumerate the qualities of Christ and match them to a literary character. Instead, it is a realization about a certain dimension of Christ that happens through an (imagined) event. Gavin Hopps argues that this is precisely how “Christ-figures” are supposed to work, not simply by their correspondence, but through their difference. The image presents Christ and simultaneously recognizes its own inadequacy. So, I think it is possible to read the events after the exchange of the crosses in a different way, a more Bonheoffer-ian sort of way, perhaps. If Myshkin took on responsibility for Rogozhin by exchanging crucifixes with him, then this was an act in which he has taken on Rhogozin’s sin, literally. He becomes culpable for Rogozhin’s sin. The possibility that it is crushing to Myshkin is real. I think that Bonhoeffer would say that, while Myshkin is not a Christ-figure, not a messiah, this is nevertheless where Christ happens. If we simply look at the effects of Myshkin’s taking responsibility for Rogozhin and conclude that Christ is not in this event of taking responsibility, we inevitably end up looking for the flaws in Myshkin that lead to this failure. This is a dangerous path because every human taking on of responsibility, every human happening of Christ, will include such flaws. We cannot judge one taking on of responsibility against another by comparing flaws, and we cannot simply judge the happening of Christ by the outcome.

All of this changes the question from whether or not Prince Myshkin is a Christ-figure to how it is that we make sense of Christ happening where taking responsibility for the other doesn’t “work.”

The Impossible possibility of Belief: Advent and the question of (dis)belief outside the limits of whiteness alone

I believe you when you say that you’ve lost all faith/but you must believe in Something.

In a matter of hours Advent will come to an end and Christmastide will begin. Advent is supposed to be a season of waiting , anticipation and hope. At this point in time , I’m lacking in all three areas; after a year like 2014 I feel as though there is little to hope for and nothing good to anticipate.  Continue reading