This is part of a series of interviews with Christian bloggers. In the hot seat today we have...
GD: G'day and welcome, Ben. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
BM: I’m an Aussie, 29 years old, brought up on the sunny coast of North Queensland. I’m married to the girl who lived next door when I was a boy (I was 7 years old when I first fell in love with her), and we’ve got two little daughters, aged 5 and 2. About a month from now, we’re expecting our third baby to arrive — so my home office has been turned into a baby’s room, and the pictures of Barth and Bultmann on the wall have been replaced with bright butterflies and elephants (a big improvement). On weekends I worship in an Anglican church, and on weekdays I work as a research fellow in a delightful university. And in my spare time, I like to drink coffee, read novels, eat Italian food, and watch episodes of The West Wing, Murphy’s Law and The Chaser’s War on Everything
GD: Your blog is called "Faith & Theology". What made you start blogging?
BM: Well, my good friend Mike Bird started a New Testament blog, and he suggested that I should start one for theology. At the time, I’d never even heard of a “blog” — but I started reading Mike’s, and I noticed that there were hardly any theology blogs around. So I thought I’d start one up and run it for just a few months — but it was so much fun that I never quite got around to quitting!
GD: What have you found most enjoyable about blogging?
BM: The most enjoyable thing has been the remarkable group of friends and scholars whom I’ve gotten to know. It’s great to be in touch with so many theologians, pastors and doctoral students from around the world. I especially love talking with doctoral students about their research — it’s a great way of getting a sense of where the field is heading in the future. Above all, though, I’d say the biggest highlight has been getting to know Kim Fabricius. Over the past couple of years, Kim has become a valued friend and conversation-partner — even though he’s on the other side of the globe.
GD: What are some of the dangers of blogging?
BM: Well, there can be a danger that we forget, in our discussions, that we’re talking to real people — it’s amazing how nasty some people can be online, even though they’d be polite and friendly if you met them face-to-face. So I guess the important thing is to remember that an online conversation is still a conversation — it’s a discussion between friends. I’m really grateful that Faith & Theology (usually!) attracts this kind of friendly discussion. Perhaps another danger for me personally is that I could start to take my own opinions too seriously, just because I happen to have a few hundred people reading my blog. Fortunately, one of my wife’s hobbies is disagreeing with me about theology, art, politics, and other things — so that helps me (sometimes) not to take my opinions too seriously!
GD: There's no danger of you being taken too seriously here, mate. Right, tell us how you became interested in theology.
BM: When I was growing up, I always dreamed of becoming a novelist. When I got to university, I realised I wasn’t good enough to be a novelist, so I decided (like all failed artists) to become an academic instead. And I never really decided to get into theology. It just sort of grabbed me — I found it irresistibly charming and fascinating.
GD: Faith & Theology is probably the biggest theology blog in terms of hits. Have you any idea why?
BM: Nope, no idea. Perhaps I’ve tricked people into thinking that I know what I’m talking about. On the other hand, the blog started getting a lot more visitors when Kim Fabricius started writing for me. So he’s probably the main reason!
GD: The world of theoblogs seems to be dominated by Aussies. In my opinion the Welsh should be top blogs. Any hints for Welsh wannabe's?
BM: To start with, you should learn to say “G’day” with a thick Aussie accent. You should also eat toast with Vegemite for breakfast, and you should say “crikey” and “strewth” more often. Whenever possible, you should also complain about the weather, the government, and the price of real estate. Soon enough, people will think you’re a true-blue Aussie — and everything else will follow!
GD: So, our only hope is to become hats-with-corks-on wearing, Fosters swilling, croc wresting, Aussie stereotypes? That's too high a price to pay for theoblogger domination. I guess that we'll just have to learn to be content with a hit rate of 3.5 page views a month. Ah well. Next question: You said that you felt a bit lazy because other bloggers have published reviews of Kevin Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine and you hadn't. To make up for it, you posted Byron Smith's review on your blog. And like, that's not lazy?
BM: What can I say? I’ve always been fairly lazy, so I guess it’s too late to start apologising now.... The only thing I can say in my defence is that at least I wasn’t too lazy to read the book!
GD: How do we know that if you won't publish a review? Right, I'm not a great fan of Karl Barth, in fact I once unleashed my attack monkey to give him a good mauling. But he is such an influential figure at Faith & Theology, that I'd better ask you some Barth-related questions. Karl Barth seems to be the man of the moment for many theobloggers. Why do you think that his theology is so influential right now?
BM: Well, I think one of the most appealing things about Barth is that he can teach us how to think theologically for ourselves. It’s no coincidence that so many leading theologians have started out as students writing dissertations on Barth: just think of Hans Küng, Robert Jenson, Colin Gunton, Gerhard Sauter, G. C. Berkouwer, James Cone, David Ford, Hans Frei. Or think of others who devoted some of their earliest scholarly efforts to engaging with Barth: Eberhard Jüngel, T. F. Torrance, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Donald Bloesch, John Howard Yoder. It’s not as if all these people went on to become “Barthians” — boring disciples who merely repeat the master’s teaching. On the contrary, they went on to become theologians! Through engagement with Barth, they gained resources that enabled them to think theologically in their own contexts. I think this illustrates why Barth remains attractive to so many students and younger scholars — by reading Barth and by learning to think with him and through him, we can also learn what it means to practise theology here and now in our own situations. In other words, the important thing about Barth isn’t that he tells you what to think, but that he shows you how to think.
GD: Have you really read all of Church Dogmatics in every available translation?
BM: Ah, if only I were clever enough, and if only life were long enough.... Speaking of translations, though, the most impressive one I’ve seen is the Italian edition: it’s beautifully bound and lavishly illustrated (rather like one of those big Catholic Bibles), and, best of all, the translators have added regular sub-headings to make the text more accessible. Anyone who has read the Church Dogmatics will understand the value of those additional sub-headings — Barth used very few headings, and it’s sometimes hard to follow his argument when the next heading is 400 pages away!
GD: Pages and pages without a heading! That's cruelty to readers. But I'm surprised that you haven't read CD in all the available translations. I thought that you were supposed to be the expert. Now, in your opinion, what is the single most important aspect of Barth's theology?
BM: Without a doubt, it’s his doctrine of election. Barth’s whole massive theological project crystallises at that one point. His doctrine of election is absolutely revolutionary. It revolutionises the whole doctrine of God. It revolutionises all christology. It revolutionises the doctrine of creation, and the whole way of thinking about God’s relationship to humanity. I reckon very few theologians have really grasped the momentous power of Barth’s doctrine of election — and for good reason, since grasping this doctrine is like trying to grasp a cyclone! Personally, I have a suspicion that theologians will still be struggling to come to terms with this doctrine a hundred years from now.
GD: Well, I'm certainly struggling. I appreciate the Christocentricity of Barth's doctrine of election. The Reformed tradition has not always given due recognition to the fact that we are chosen in Christ (see here). But to me, the universalistic overtones of Barth's teaching are problematic. I found Paul Helm's recent discussion of Barth's doctrine of election in relation to the teaching of Calvin very helpful (here). Now, what was Barth's biggest theological mistake?
BM: Well, I think Barth tended to be too strict about policing the boundary between theology and other disciplines. This can give the impression that theology is sealed off from disciplines (e.g. biblical studies, philosophy, hermeneutics, and the natural sciences). I think that was a significant mistake — and theologians have been trying ever since to re-open those disciplinary boundaries. But perhaps Barth’s biggest mistake was that he so often found it necessary to express his own ideas by sharply distancing himself from others. I feel sad when I think of the very personal way that he denounced his close friend Emil Brunner, or the abrupt way he dismissed younger scholars like Ebeling and Pannenberg, or the way he persistently ridiculed Bultmann instead of really listening to him. I guess if you want to be understood, you’ll always have to distance yourself from other people to some extent — but what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his friends?
GD: Quite! Who was the most influential figure in your theological development?
BM: Pete Townshend of The Who was once asked to describe how Bob Dylan had influenced him. He replied with amazement: “That’s like asking how I was influenced by being born!” I feel exactly the same way about Karl Barth!
GD: Name your top three songs or pieces of music. No Dylan because he can't sing.
BM: Well, my wife would agree with you about Dylan — but you’re both wrong, of course! Really, the list should be all Dylan, since he’s the only person who can really sing.... Still, if I try really hard to come up with a list that’s not exclusively Dylan, I guess I’d have to choose: Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 21; Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up in Blue”; and Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row.”
GD: Oi, that's cheating. I said NO Dylan, not two out of three Dylan! But I'll let you off. Anyway, some idiot started a rumour that you and Kim Fabricius are one and the same person. Care to comment?
BM: Hey, I’ll be the last person to dispel that rumour. Nothing could be more flattering than to be mistaken for Kim Fabricius! Seriously, though, if you want definite proof that we’re different people, just ask me any question about baseball....
GD: But you don't emphatically deny that Kim Fabricius is really a figment of your imagination (who just happens to like baseball). What do you find most attractive and engaging about the historic evangelical faith?
BM: Well, I don’t really engage much with conservative North American forms of evangelicalism. But for me, being “evangelical” means being committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I think the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection should be the guide and basis of all our faith, life, and theology. For me, then, the most attractive thing about “evangelical” faith is that it’s liberating — the gospel empowers us to live and believe and think with joyful freedom. So an “evangelical” theology shouldn’t encroach on our humanness or impose restrictions on our scholarship. On the contrary, the gospel sets us free to engage fruitfully and constructively with our world — and that means (in my view) that “evangelical” theology has nothing to fear from things like historical criticism, natural science, contemporary philosophy, progressive politics, and so on. Or to put it another way, I suspect the gospel itself is a good deal more “liberal” than some evangelicals would like to admit!
GD: If by that you mean that evangelicals should not invariably align themselves with "right-wing" politics, I agree. We seem to have forgotten that Wilberforce and Shaftesbury, who championed the poor and the enslaved were evangelicals. Now, what is the most helpful work of theology that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because....
BM: The best new theological work I’ve read recently is Paul DeHart’s The Trial of the Witnesses (Blackwell, 2006) — a brilliant study of postliberal theology, and a very creative proposal for integrating the theological approaches of Barth and Schleiermacher. But if you’ll also allow me to include older books that I’ve read only recently, then I’d have to say that the best thing I’ve read in the past year is Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics (4 vols.; Baker, 2003-2006). The fourth volume hasn’t been published yet — but I’ve been slowly working my way through each volume as the translations appear. It’s really a magnificent work. Although it was written a century ago, it’s still fresh and vital and challenging. The first volume in particular (on scripture, revelation and theological method), is simply stunning. Bavinck really represents the classical Reformed tradition at its best.
GD: Lastly, which blogs do you enjoy reading most and why?
BM: Well, I subscribe to about 40 blogs via Google Reader. But depending on how busy I am, I’m not always able to follow them very closely. Lately, though, I’ve especially been enjoying The Fire and the Rose (for energetic theological reflection and brilliant film reviews), Nothing New under the Sun (for insights on eschatology and the environment), Euangelion (for info about current New Testament scholarship), Chrisendom (always outrageous, delightful and clever), Aaron Ghiloni (for excellent stuff on practical theology), Insight Scoop (for an intelligent conservative Catholic perspective), and Andygoodliff (for insight into British systematic theology); as well as Levellers and The Blogging Parson (for very different ethical perspectives). But I’d have to say my favourite blogs at the moment are Inhabitatio Dei (which has just kicked off an excellent new series on trinitarianism) and the new Swords to Plowshares (what could be better than a blogger who likes Barth, J. H. Yoder and Rowan Williams?) I also have a great deal of respect for all Welsh tea-drinking monkey-bloggers like David Sky, although there aren’t as many of these around as there used to be....
GD: Mr Sky recently returned to the blogosphere for one last post. But the fewer people who know about that the better. Well, fair dinkum mate. It's been bonza talking to you. (Wow, I just talked Aussie. The Welsh will soon be top blogs!)Next up will be one of my Welsh Bible-blog mates. Stay tuned for some more stuff....