Doug Chaplin (4/08)

Blogger of the Month for April 2008

Brandon Wason Interviews Doug Chaplin

Editorial Note: Doug Chaplin authors the MetaCatholic blog at

BW: Thanks for participating, Doug!

DC: My privilege, your pain. Probably nobody’s pleasure.

BW: Tell us about yourself. How did you become interested in theology and biblical studies?

DC: I guess it goes back quite some way. I’d done the somewhat common teenage kicking over the traces of my parents’ faith and childhood upbringing, and saw university as the perfect place to shake the last remnants of holy dust off my feet. (I didn’t share the view of one student, who told the Master that he’d chosen Emmanuel because it was one of the few colleges in Cambridge that didn’t have a religious name!) It didn’t work out as I thought. My partner for tutorials in the first year was a very evangelistically minded Catholic, and I had a very keen evangelical neighbour on the same staircase who saw it as his duty to claim my scalp.

To cut a long story short, when I did come back to faith as an adult, I had to consider the sheer attractiveness of the Catholic chaplaincy (and my friendship), and the dogged determination of the Christian Union (the main evangelical student grouping, associated with IVF) to make me “one of them”. The situation was further complicated by the fact that Emmanuel’s Dean was notorious as the only openly atheist priest (he was a non-realist) in the Church of England. (Mind you, as he was a college fellow, the Church of England could do virtually nothing about him.) So from the word go really, I had to work out what I thought, and never had the luxury of assuming that what I believed was what “normal Christians” believed.

One comparatively early influence at university was Tom Wright, who was then chaplain of Downing College. In particular, I remember both a brilliant series of expositions on the Lucan Passion narrative, and a couple of very helpful individual conversations on knotty problems of scripture and faith. I may, nowadays, find myself disagreeing with him in a number of areas, but I’ll always feel indebted to him not only for his kindness, but for giving me a real excitement and enthusiasm for critical study of Scripture.

BW: On your sidebar, it states that you are a part-time student. Where are you going to school and what are you studying?

DC: Technically I probably ought to change that: it’s not quite as accurate as it was or as I expected it to be by now. A few years ago I started some doctoral research at Birmingham under Mark Goodacre, but had reached the point of needing to thoroughly regroup, having decided that I was trying something far too ambitious and wide-ranging. Then my source of funding dried up, my workload in the parish increased, and Mark ran off to Duke, all in the same year! I suspended my registration, but am planning to resume it this autumn, and think I’ve identified where I ought to put the focus, and it will still be in Paul. I think I’d probably have benefitted if we had more PhD programmes in the UK which had a taught component. It’s coming in, but I think the pure research degree is still the norm for the humanities. Even my Masters (in the 90s) was a pure research degree, although taught masters have now become much more common.

BW: How would you describe your religious journey?

DC: Complicated. I’ve answered a fair bit of this question already, but let me take up a bit more of the story. I found the benefit of staying an Anglican was the amount I could be catholic liberal and evangelical all at the same time, although the exact emphases have varied over the course of time. Despite the fact that my doctrine was more catholic than not, I chose to go to an evangelical Anglican seminary — St John’s, Nottingham, which as the largest at that time in the UK, also had specialists in every subject. (UK seminaries are all very small, so St John’s as the largest still only had 130 students — that made specialist teaching more of a rarity.) It seemed like one NT tutor, Steve Travis, was there to calm the frightened evangelical horses, and the other one there to put burrs under their saddles, Andrew Lincoln.

One of the problems that has continued to dog my spiritual life is that while intellectually I have no problems integrating critical study of the Bible with a doctrinal view of it as scripture, in practice I do find I’m much more likely to wander off on a critical question than actually try to hear what God might have to say. Though it’s surprising how often God can be there in the answering of a critical question, waiting to ambush you. But I’ve stayed passionate about insisting that mind and heart ought not to be divorced.

In a related way, one of the perils of being a priest is that it can sometimes be really hard to worship when someone else is leading. All you note are the things you’d do differently! Unfortunately it can be really hard also to worship when you are leading, since you’re thinking of a hundred and one other things to make sure everything runs smoothly. Then again, we do get ourselves trapped too much by the idea of worship as an emotional experience about how we feel, and maybe being there, giving my time, my gifts, whatever is worship whether it feels like it or not. Yes there are moments when you can find space with God in the midst of everything else, but maybe we’re all too influenced by the Romantics still. Learning to be more in the present moment is a real issue for me, both in prayer and study, and life generally, what Jean Pierre de Caussade called the “sacrament of the present moment” — I’m sure I should spend more time there.

Those are just a couple of things that emerge as themes of my journey — at least the ones I’m prepared to go public on.

BW: Do you consider yourself to be a conservative, liberal, or somewhere in between?

DC: I’m increasingly uncertain about these labels. Most people seem to me to be conservative about some things and liberal with others. Go to any church that has almost abandoned tradition in worship, and you’ll find a desperately conservative theology. Go to any church which is liberal on theology and ethics and you’ll find a seriously traditional liturgy. I think I’m fairly conservative on the synoptic gospels and the historical Jesus, and fairly liberal on John, which I see as a deeply sectarian work with docetic tendencies. The labels are lazy in the end, and most thinking people aren’t one-size fits all. I’ll settle for being called Anglican, which covers a multitude of sins

BW: What theologians and biblical scholars would you say are your favorite? Why?

DC: Let’s start with biblical scholars. I’ve noted my debt to Tom Wright, and he remains a great stimulus. Sanders and Dunn have also been incredibly strong influences on my thinking. (You’re probably seeing a pattern here!) Among past scholars I really admired F.F. Bruce and C.H. Dodd, and their cautious approach seems to have given them more staying power than more faddish thinkers. I’ve always found Gerd Theissen stimulating, although I think that some of his heirs in social-scientific criticism have started treating their models like Procrustean beds for their data.

Among theologians past, I would have to say Aquinas — I love the clarity of his thinking (though I keep reminding myself I need to read more of him). Among theologians present, I love Moltmann: even at his most infuriatingly inconsistent, he’s always stimulating.

BW: When and how did you start blogging?

DC: Well, this blog is now eleven months old. Before that I’d tried a handful of times on Blogger and never got going. I think Mark Goodacre was the stimulus, and he’s been a good encourager, and certainly helped people discover my blog. I think what made the difference this time was that I decided to give myself a clear central focus by blogging on the Bible and related issues, while at the same time giving myself permission to blog about anything I felt like. Anyway it seems to be working.

BW: What is the significance of your blog title (MetaCatholic)?

DC: Well, everyone was being so post-thingy, and lots of people had stared talking about post-evangelicals, so I decided in a fit of etymological purity to call myself meta-catholic, with much the same lack of clarity of meaning that all these modish post-words have.

BW: What do you like about blogging? What do you dislike?

DC: I like the interaction, which provides helpful stimulus — when you’re trying to keep up with what’s going on in, and outside your own field — well, it’s relatively easy on a campus, but a lot harder off one. I think I dislike the tendency it has to make us all over-react to each other. Blogs are not very good at conveying the tone, so people who think they’re being funny can come over as real idiots.

BW: Which blogs do you enjoy reading the most? Whom would you like to see begin a blog?

DC: Hmm. Mark Goodacre gets a third mention in this interview. Of the others Mike Bird’s Euangelion and Chris Tilling’s Chrisendom are always good value — often for very different reasons. I’ve also learnt a lot from April DeConick, although I’m hoping she’ll get back to bit more discussion as well as her interesting series of “apocryphotes“. Outside the biblical field I always read the Times (that’s London Times to many of you) Comment Central blog for a political and media junkie fix. But you can get a better sense of the many I like from my blogroll. As for who I’d like to see begin a blog, I think I’d just like to see more scholars seeing it as a worthwhile thing to do, and getting out of this mentality that keeps their thoughts locked up until they’re ready to read or publish a paper. That is so last century.

BW: Last year you did an extensive series on the 39 Articles of Religion. What were your experiences with this project, and do you have any other plans for similar series?

DC: My main experience was wishing I’d never started! On the other hand I ended up learning a lot, and thinking about things that I’d never really considered before (and may never think of again). I guess it’s a bit like writing a commentary: you have to say something about all the boring bits as well as the good stuff. I have no immediate plans for a similar series, although I think I could one day see myself trying out a blog commentary as a form of disciplined study.

BW: Tell us about your hobbies and what you like to do in your spare time?

DC: Spare time??? I enjoy a night out at the cinema or in a pub with friends. I quite like playing with photos and design stuff. I read crime fiction, with a smattering of thrillers, sci-fi and fantasy. I quite enjoy cycling. (A couple of years back I took this to new heights cycling round Northern Israel for charity — Mt Tabor is bigger than it looks, let me tell you.) I watch very little television, but never miss Doctor Who.

BW: What one thing about yourself would you like readers to know?

DC: That would be a much more interesting question if it was what I didn’t want readers to know! So … hmm … I find it very hard to give a brief answer to a question?

BW: Doug, thanks again for taking part in this interview. Your blog is always very interesting and insightful!

DC: Thanks, Brandon, for letting me witter on.


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