Twin colloquia in 2011, held only days apart, gave birth to twin books, only weeks apart in 2013. My task at the launch last night was to bridge between the two. The model of a small, sociable gathering of scholars at various stages of their careers around a focused topic which leads (after a period of editing and polishing) to the publication of a book has been very productive for Laidlaw and Carey with several such works appearing over the last few years.
We live in a society that has chosen only to see what is desirable. The sick and disabled are hidden away from public sight in hospitals. Poverty, famine and epidemic are kept at bay and viewed through glass on screens of our choosing or through the windows of the vehicles in which we travel. Lament is privatised, locked away behind closed doors, or in hearts that are carefully cloistered from the view of others. Except on rare occasions when lament briefly invades the public sphere and the pain or loss are experienced (perhaps vicariously) by many in the public tragedies that Elizabeth Boase, Steve Taylor and Stephen Garner explored in the book Spiritual Complaint. Several contributors to this volume considered what has been called the “loss of lament”. For this privatising of lament happens even in church, and it is a loss.
In a similar way our society, that worships success and consumption, cannot deal well with lament’s sibling, complaint. To complain is seen as enmity. In church, ideologies which reduce the maker of heaven and earth to a convenient charm pulled out and stroked when help is needed, like a superior sort of rabbit’s foot, and theologies which urge us to “name it and claim it”, while “marching into the land”, reduce the Mysterium Tremendum to a glorified 24/7 Santa Claus. Yet other, more “liberal”, theologies reduce God to an impotent watcher. Each of these, in their own way, reject complaint – the godlings that we invent must be praised, and their pride might be hurt by complaint.
So, in our world, and in our churches, lament and complaint are hidden away or stifled. What this means is that we have no room also for confession in either of its guises. For if we cannot lament the wrong, and complain – appealing for redress – then neither can we acknowledge (confess) our part in ruining the world. If we cannot bring, before its creator, the pain and suffering endured by creatures, nor complain at the sovereign’s inactivity, how can we truly acknowledge (confess) God’s nature and power?
So the first colloquium was titled Spiritual Complaint. For the movement from recognising wrongness (lament), to demanding that something be done (complaint), till – at the end – we can also acknowledge our part in the wrong, and celebrate the God who is beyond the wrongness (confession), is deeply and fundamentally spiritual.
The second book Isaiah and Imperial Context has a tighter academic focus. Unlike the first it did not blend biblical scholars, pastors, liturgists and practical theologians but gathered only scholars working on the prophetic books of the Old Testament.
This book also however seeks to open a window on the sad and suffering world we inhabit. As we learn to recognise and perhaps heal the wounds of past empires, we are also learning to recognise, and must seek to heal, the wounds caused by present-day imperialism. If those glass panels keep lament safely at bay, they also give us a view of the otherwise distant bombs, drones and rioting crowds that are the signs of empire.
The book of Isaiah with its so distinct and different imperial contexts, as the book Isaiah and Imperial Context seeks to reveal, offers resources for life and spirituality in a post-colonial and yet at the same time newly imperial world.