12 September 2007

Collective Imaginary Theology

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 12:33 pm

Last fall and winter I visited quite a few evangelical blogs in an attempt to increase awareness of my alternative literal reading of Genesis 1. I didn’t even have much success introducing the topic, let alone engaging in fruitful or persuasive exchanges. Nevertheless, I became a regular visitor and commenter on a few blogs, and some of the people I encountered there remain regular contributors here at Ktismatics.

For awhile I spent quite a bit of time at Open Source Theology, a blog run by an Oxford-educated Englishman that serves as a public forum for exploring “emergent” or “post-evangelical” ideas about Christianity. Anyone who registers as a user can post, and the level of discourse is usually pretty darned good, mostly involving pastors and “amateurs” rather than theological academicians. While a fairly wide range of beliefs is represented there, they still fall within the expanding but still rather narrow constraints imposed by evangelicalism. Being a recovered evangelical myself I could usually find room to maneuver at OST without being harangued or entirely ignored. Anyway, at some point Peter, one of the regular contributors, put up a post about a trip he and his wife took to Prague, where they enjoyed a pleasant stay at Sir Toby’s Inn. For some reason I found this amusing: what the heck did this little travelogue have to do with theological discourse? So I wrote a comment asking if Sir Toby’s was actually the gathering place for a cabal of theologians who were hashing out an emerging evangelical theology. Over the next few months Peter and I were the main architects of the Sir Toby’s alternate reality (our friend Sam also contributed), a sort of post-medieval inn occupied by a strange collection of monks, bishops, nuns, flagellants, pilgrims and other strange personages. Much beer is drunk at Sir Toby’s, and under the tables dogs scuffle for food scraps dropped by the rather slovenly theologians who gather there. Either Peter or I would launch an idea for a conversation, then we would take turns adding to it until the episode reached a natural conclusion. Occasionally others (including Sam) would join in. After a few rounds of fairly whimsical discussion expressed in rather baroque verbiage, Sir Toby’s faded into the mists from which it had emerged.

The other day I got an email from Peter. He’s compiling materials about the various interesting characters who have visited OST since its inception, and he wanted to know if he could use some of the Sir Toby’s stuff I’d written. I said that was fine with me. Then I asked Peter whether he’d be interested in revisiting Sir Toby’s with the aim of possibly writing enough episodes to create a book. He thought that might be a good idea. I suggested that we do it either by email or on a dedicated blog. Peter says he finds that the OST crowd inspires him; I said that I find myself somewhat alienated there. Anyhow, this morning I wrote the beginning of another Sir Toby’s episode and posted it at OST. Readers of Ktismatics are more than welcome to go there and add to the story; however, if that’s not your cup of tea I’ll reproduce the first installment here.

I’m wondering a few things about Sir Toby’s. Can the episodes float free of the disputational polemics that usually characterizes online theological discussions? Does setting the discussion in a fictional heterotopia, with discussants adopting fictional alter-egos (Peter is the Trappist; I, the Old Man), encourage a more playful and imaginative approach that isn’t hampered by fears of being perceived as heretical? Is this sort of communal storytelling likely to generate better or worse ideas than the usual single-author approach? And if you don’t want to contribute to the string at OST, do you have any ideas for where the conversation could go next?

* * * *

Sir Toby’s: Invisibility Cloak

“With interest I have been reading the stories told of your Jesus.” The Old Man occupied his usual place by the fire, the thin trail of smoke that rose from his pipe adding to the perpetual haze which enveloped the coarse yet voluble theologians gathered at Sir Toby’s. His long and bony finger hovered above the scroll, begrimed and creased and rendered flexible by much use, that lay spread open before him on the table. “Tell me, by what good fortune did this valuable piece of correspondence from Luke to Theophilus come into your possession?”

“What?” Returning from the kitchen with yet another flagon of beer, the Ethiopian hermit glanced over the Old Man’s shoulder. “Oh yes, the letter is widely distributed among the Christians.”

“Ah, of course, a copy.” His finger traced a line of text. “In this particular story Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. Though I am not yet familiar with his particular wisdom, apparently it provoked no small controversy among his contemporaries.” Leaning back from the table the Old Man squinted at the scroll. “After reading from his holy book Jesus offers a brief observation about the text. His listeners marvel at the words that proceed from his mouth. Then, immediately after this success, he recounts an incident from the days of Elishah the prophet – apparently the incident was well-known among the people, for Jesus calls attention only to certain very specific features of what must have been a far longer account. Now those who but a moment before praised Jesus are enraged by him. Luke writes that they dragged Jesus from the synagogue to a precipice at the margins of the village, their intent being to cast him down, to his death perhaps.”

“You must understand the historical context,” pronounced the Alexandrian scholar, his words strongly accented but precise. “Though the Book of Kings is not specific about the duration of the drought, the three years and six months specified here by Jesus and later by James assume a well-known oral tradition that…”

“Excellent, well said,” the Old Man interjected loudly; the Alexandrian, stunned, held his tongue for a change. “Now look here,” the Old Man said, jabbing the text with the long nail of his index finger. “Jesus survives this assault. Does the mob relent? Do other voices rise up in support of Jesus? Does Jesus himself elaborate on the words that had provoked his listeners to such drastic measures? No indeed. I quote: ‘But passing through the midst of them he went away.’

With surprising agility the Old Man sprang to his feet. “Passing through the midst of them! Powerful magic indeed. Of course there are distractions and subterfuges available to even the least gifted of wizards. But the more powerful means of enchantment, the spells, the cloaks… well it’s unusual, isn’t it? To have performed this feat in such trying conditions, witnessed by so many people… And he seems to have used neither words nor devices to achieve the effect. Remarkable. Tell me: did Jesus ever reveal this secret magic by which he rendered himself invisible? Perhaps he passed this knowledge on to his apprentices?” Still standing, the Old Man leaned with both hands on the table and swept his expectant gaze around the inn.



  1. John, I don’t remember doing much to contribute to the Sir Toby threads, but they were really fun to read and the images have stayed with me as has that delicious feeling of mystery-inconclusiveness mixed with the tantalising possibility that perhaps the quest is not dead and that there may indeed be a holy grail worth seeking still out there somewhere.

    I’m glad to hear that you and Peter are thinking of doing something with it!


    Comment by samlcarr — 12 September 2007 @ 11:05 pm

  2. Truth be told, I’m quite dubious about the project. After reviewing the initial Sir Toby’s posts it seemed that The Trappist, Peter’s character, repeatedly shifted the conversation back to the Son of Man prophecy in Daniel, which is perhaps the keystone in Andrew’s theology. Peter is also a rather orthodox Christian, perceiving himself as a sort of anchor to Andrew’s more heterodox interpretation of the Gospel. And Peter also acknowledges being drawn by polemics and argumentation. In short, for Peter Sir Toby’s is a side room within Open Space Theology, the mission of which is to hash out an emerging post-evangelical theology. For me Sir Toby’s was a heterotopia that offers “tantalizing possibility” only if it veers into its own fragile realm between serious theology and the play of the imagination. More a place for conducting thought experiments exploring alternate theological realities, a place of divergence rather than convergence. I’m afraid it’s likely to be crushed by what Wallace Stevens called “the pressure of reality.” So, for example, this post about Jesus’s ability to render himself invisible is certainly not a mainstream topic in emerging evangelical thinking, so it’s likely to be subjected to orthodox correction — it’s not magic, Jesus had not apprentices who received secret knowledge, etc. Even more likely is that it will be ignored — as if by magic it had been rendered invisible…


    Comment by ktismatics — 13 September 2007 @ 5:33 am

  3. But now I see that the Trappist has crept undetected into Sir Toby’s…


    Comment by ktismatics — 13 September 2007 @ 7:56 am

  4. With a dash of Eastern spice thrown in just for fun…


    Comment by samlcarr — 13 September 2007 @ 8:09 am

  5. Exquisitely parleyed, my good Monk! Discomfited, is he, the Old Man? Or is he an adept at dissimulation, a past master of the inner concealment? An eternity may collapse into an instant, but there are some few connoisseurs of heterochronicity who remain undetected until an interval opens around them.


    Comment by ktismatics — 13 September 2007 @ 8:24 am

  6. We await developments with bated breath, at the otherwise dull Sir Toby’s, for the makings of a fine, action-packed, thriller appear to be at hand.


    Comment by samlcarr — 13 September 2007 @ 10:16 am

  7. maybe we should just nuke iran. it would be so much less hassle.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 13 September 2007 @ 10:32 am

  8. Ah, so you’ve discovered the current events feature at the top left of the blog — I wondered what someone might do if they had a comment. Sometimes I think the bomb-Iran strategy is completely preposterous, but I thought the same thing about the Iraq-attack too. Clinton and Obama are already on record for having voted against continued war funding the last time around, while the rest of the Democrats made sure the funding got approved so they wouldn’t get blamed for the inevitable failure. Now Bush wants to cut back to pre-surge levels, but all the Republican candidates are saying that the surge is working, though on what basis they assert it I can’t tell, other than pure rhetoric. So I don’t quite get it — maybe no Iran attack, but the Repub candidates are going to assert that Bush was too much of a wuss to see the thing through.

    Meanwhile, Sam I’ll go back to the Sir Toby’s post probably late this afternoon.


    Comment by ktismatics — 13 September 2007 @ 11:06 am

  9. meaning that the republican candidate is going to be that former military tough guy whose name escapes me at the moment.

    and i’ve been keeping up with that current events thing. sometimes had comments, but didn’t know where to place them.

    you know, it would be funny/ironic on a number of levels if we nuked iran. those rule-breakers!


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 13 September 2007 @ 12:18 pm

  10. You mean McCain I guess. One of my side comments was that far more Americans trust the military to handle the situation in Iraq than they trust either Bush or Congress. So would it be funny/ironic if somebody assassinated McCain?


    Comment by ktismatics — 13 September 2007 @ 1:24 pm

  11. yeah mcCain is who i was thinking of. if someone assasinated mcCain…yeah i guess that would be a bit ironic.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 13 September 2007 @ 3:18 pm

  12. If I make bold the statement Bush is a moron, will more people listen?

    Testing, testing…



    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 13 September 2007 @ 6:01 pm

  13. Well, the discussion at Sir Toby’s seems to be progressing apace, with three fictional theologians participating in the discussion of disappearance and invisibility.

    Oh, and Jason, nice html skills, dude!


    Comment by ktismatics — 14 September 2007 @ 8:29 am

  14. Thanks Funny. Melody taught me. Either that or the internet fairies. I think when you taught me before, either I stupidly missed it or you forgot to tell me to put the / before the second one to end it. Or…I dunno…weird…

    Which “xhtml” command links to a website? Is that the one that says “cite”? Most of those I see here listed on wordpress…I don’t see what they would do or how they would all be distinguished from each other. I’d have to do some testing, I guess.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 14 September 2007 @ 9:29 am

  15. I’ll conduct the tutorial via email, then you can practice your developing skills in the comment box here.


    Comment by ktismatics — 14 September 2007 @ 9:43 am

  16. Sweet…I just realized that some of the “q” commands probably leave wider margins or something for quotes…I look expectantly foward to your email…



    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 14 September 2007 @ 10:16 am

  17. I would be very supportive of such a publication. It is always fascinating to have religious discourse set into a narrative….uh, perhaps I could offer a bit of my own for consideration….from my own recent experiences with the old man….

    The young man struggled for breath, his life ebbing away like the last few moments of the sun as it slips off beyond the horizon signaling the coming of darkness and the beginnings of night. But the young man struggled in vain. The fingers of the crazed old man were long and closed around his neck with a death grip that was much stronger than one would think for a man of his age.

    “Ha!” exclaimed the old man as he released the expired body from his clutches.
    “A duel to the death!” he continued, his voice short, triumphant.
    “Here is thine glory, you poor young fool!”
    And yet as soon as the old man finished his victorious pronouncement he was stabbed with pain. What had he done? It was his friend who lay before him. Brash, yes. Defiant, ’tis true. But he was loved by the old man. And now he was no more.
    The old man began to tremble and his body shook. Tears came to his eyes as he held the young man in his arms. What a brazen young man! And yet that was why he had loved him.

    They found the old man with a dagger in his heart, lying next to his victim. The dagger had been new and was wrapped in gift paper. It was meant to be a gift for the young man, some suggest.


    Comment by Erdman — 18 September 2007 @ 11:18 am

  18. Dude, that’s so Goth. I am seriously considering its literary, theological and psychological merits — will get back to you.


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 September 2007 @ 12:41 pm

  19. Don’t forget the symbolic, metaphoric, and allegorical merits…..and if you think it has a certain Emo Kid appeal you can bring your daughter in to provide further analysis.


    Comment by Erdman — 18 September 2007 @ 1:23 pm

  20. I believe I’ve abandoned Sir Toby’s once and for all. This most recent round has alternated between backdoor theologizing and penny-opera espionage. Diverence rather than emergence seems to characterize the interactions among the writers. Perhaps after sufficient preliminaries some more consistent theme and style will show itself, like the seemingly haphazard beginning of Beethoven’s Seventh eventually resolves into firm strokes. If so, I suspect it will be another intramural affair among the professed Christians, and I wish them well. However, I need a day off to process.


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 September 2007 @ 5:19 am

  21. John, I should have dropped out a bit earlier, tho the Trappist seems finally to be attempting to take on some PoMo ballast. I’m just winding up for one final salvo myself, tho it struck me that two threads going in different directions but that keep interacting with one another may be interesting in its own right!


    Comment by samlcarr — 19 September 2007 @ 6:19 am

  22. Sam, by all means carry on. The Trappist is in fact slinging around a lot of names. On the other hand, he dismissed the whole “fort-da” discourse of the Austrian alienist as a trivial distraction. Interestingly, the fort-da speech was almost a word-for-word ripoff from Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle. I’m thinking about returning as a commentator on the Sir Toby’s texts — sort of like a Biblical commentator. That might be fun too for us.


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 September 2007 @ 6:49 am

  23. Diverence rather than emergence seems to characterize the interactions among the writers. Perhaps after sufficient preliminaries some more consistent theme and style will show itself, like the seemingly haphazard beginning of Beethoven’s Seventh eventually resolves into firm strokes.

    Who are you? And what have you done with my postmodern friend, John Doyle, who is always the first to appreciate divergence and difference – and to explore the loose strands that hang out in the outskirts of the normal?!?!

    The John Doyle I know does not live his life looking for resolution!


    Comment by Erdman — 19 September 2007 @ 8:32 am

  24. The John Doyle I know proposed the idea of a collective book-writing activity, taking place not on an explicitly Christian emergent website but on its own heterotopic space. The John Doyle I know thought that reprising the Sir Toby’s idea as a fictionalized theological conversation between an English evangelical and an American agnostic might be a way of exploring emergence in a way that isn’t already held captive by the historic Christian discourse. The John Doyle I know needs to make a buck, and thought that a thin volume of Sir Toby’s discussions might capture the imagination of that sector of the reading public that finds The Screwtape Letters appealing, though with a “real devil” taking the place of C.S. Lewis’s straw man in the exchanges. The John Doyle I know laid all this out to his erstwhile English evangelical writing partner, who said he found inspiration from the OST emerging Christian website. The John Doyle I know said he’d give it a shot, though as perhaps the only professing non-Christian at OST he was unlikely to find much inspiration there. The John Doyle I know put up a topic for discussion, voiced by his alter-ego the Old Man: when Jesus “passed through the midst” of the angry mob in Luke 4 did he control the magic of rendering himself invisible? Immediately the Englishman’s Trappist alter-ego diverted the topic to some kind of cloak-and-dagger intrigue having no connection with the question as posed. Repeatedly the Old Man and assorted other imagined Old Toby’s theologians returned to more substantive matters, only to have them repeatedly side-tracked, until finally the Trappist caused the key players to abandon Sir Toby’s, and the post on OST, in order to launch a parallel post built around a so-called Manifesto cribbed from prior writings by OST’s guiding light, who is another English evangelical. This Manifesto owes its theology to Karl Barth and Hans Frei — Christianity isn’t a totalizing discourse or metanarrative but rather the mythic story of a particular people; it doesn’t matter whether the founding myth is historically true as long as the people live inside the myth. This sort of Manifesto I would say automatically excludes people like me who aren’t members of the tribe. It also excludes somebody like the Old Man, who has consistently presented himself as an outsider to the specifically Christian debates that ramble around Sir Toby’s — and so he excused himself and left.

    Have you read these posts? I invite you to do so, then come back and let me know if you can see my point. Participate in one or both threads if you like: they are here and here. You’ll observe that Sam also joined in on the first thread, exploring the experimental possibilities of a broader-based collective writing project. Sam’s character the Monk introduced the Hindu idea of “maya” as a possible explanation for Jesus’s dematerialization, which I thought was an excellent sort of divergence within the thread. You’ll observe, however, that the Monk then suddenly became a secret agent in the intrigue introduced by the Trappist, thereby demonstrating that you can’t have a conspiracy without someone else trying to uncover it. Alas, the maya concept has been lost through the trapdoor. I almost introduced your Young Man into the thread, then I was going to cut and paste your murder-suicide story as the end of the Old Man. But I think introducing a commentary into the threads might be another way of disrupting this relentless and obsessive Christian conspiracy that has taken Sir Toby’s captive.


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 September 2007 @ 9:03 am

  25. Sam, I see you’re stirring things up with considerable verve at OST. Comments on the True Myth post with links to the Erdmanian’s post today on Genesis 1:1 — what next?


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 September 2007 @ 5:14 pm

  26. Actually it was the Erdman that reminded me of the languishing “True Myth” post. I looked it up and behold more than 5k reads! I thought, we just can’t let something as popular as this just fade away, so why not give it another shot?


    Comment by samlcarr — 19 September 2007 @ 5:37 pm

  27. Now it almost appears that the Monk is a double agent working also on behalf of the Old Man. And now the Trappist seems about ready to dismantle Wright’s (and Perriman’s) critical realism. Today I too shall intervene… muahaha!


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 September 2007 @ 6:18 am

  28. Okay, I’ve begun. I had hoped to insert this latest round of comments at appropriate places in the middle of the thread, but I only seem to be able to append them at the end. Hopefully this interruption won’t distract the Monk and the Cardinal from their intrigues.


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 September 2007 @ 10:15 am

  29. Well, I’ve done it now, Sam. Will anyone other than you, Peter or I ever comment or participate in one of the Sir Toby’s posts? I see Paul Hartigan just put up a comment, so the Antipodean is around. And of course so is the Westerner.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 September 2007 @ 6:08 pm

  30. Sam, I see Andrew has enabled a new “member bio” feature at OST. Do you my self-absorbed whining in the commentary and metacommentary at Sir Toby’s had anything to do with it?


    Comment by ktismatics — 24 September 2007 @ 9:26 am

  31. I was going to say just that to you when I saw that you had noticed. It certainly was set off by your commentary! Have you accepted the invitation yet?

    The invisibility cloak post has taken on new life too!


    Comment by ponnvandu — 24 September 2007 @ 2:26 pm

  32. Thanks!,


    Comment by Gzqgxcgc — 13 December 2008 @ 10:36 am

  33. Discourse requires subjectivity acknowledging itself as such, rather than as something more. I recommend the following post: http://deligentia.wordpress.com/2009/11/03/objective-vs-subjective-a-matter-of-biblical-hyperbole/


    Comment by hypocritical4u — 3 November 2009 @ 1:25 pm

  34. Recently I tried again to engage in some speculative theology in the Sir Toby’s context, but the conversation got wrestled in a different direction. It seems among many evangelicals that there’s theology and there’s fantasy but there’s no such thing as theological fantasy. Too heretical perhaps, not “objective” enough as you say h4u.


    Comment by john doyle — 3 November 2009 @ 1:54 pm

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