Barçelona’s Church Dogmatics
The first time I read Karl Barth in seminary was in first year and, as expected of a very green but very excited young missionary-to-be, I dismissed him as overrated and unorthodox. Maybe it was the prior warnings of concerned pastors, maybe it was the difficulty of reading an excerpt out of context, maybe it was the 10 point type on the Xeroxed page: regardless, I shrugged off this man and his writings for another two years, trying to not concern myself with his meandering, confrontational writing that made complicated something that should be very simple. Couldn’t he just be like Berkhof and be a bit concise?
Two years later I found myself in an elective course called “The Theology of Karl Barth.” Three months of reading nothing but the guy who wrote a book 6 million words long.
Church Dogmatics, Barth intricately weaves his way through the faith of the Christian Church as one who is simultaneously a herald, an explorer, and a lover. You get no sense whatsoever that the things of which he writes make no difference to his life, nor that he does not want you to walk along side him as he travels the network of paths of dogmatics from Volume I/1 to IV/4.
Could he have said it all in two volumes? Yes and no. The content might have been covered in two books, but the sense of wonder and the sense of every point’s interrelation and necessity to the whole—the architecture of the thing—would be lost. It is precisely seeing that architecture, that spider web, little by little, then seeing its entirety that brings so much joy to the process of theology with Barth.
Despite the latter’s more orthodox theology, walking through Church Dogmatics is on a different emotional plane than the suburban street that is Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology.
I happily count Karl Barth as one of my heroes, a vivid example of the passion and joy that a Christian theologian should have and should spread as he goes about his task.
My experience of the World’s Greatest Football Club has followed a very similar path. Even though I first discovered European soccer around 1997 in my college (and chose Liverpool as my side according to some very ridiculous standards that will remain unsaid; let’s just say I was reading a lot of Joyce in those days), I failed to see the beauty that many folks associated with Barcelona. Even circa 2004, against my more knowledgable friend in Albuquerque, I rooted against them in favor of Real Madrid and others. Like Karl Barth, their style and success simply did not affect me.
But now. Now, in 2011, I have eyes to see. Barcelona, especially under Pep Guardiola, have been writing their own Church Dogmatics for the past three seasons. Barca’s acheivement is beautiful not mainly because of their tiki-taka style of play, but because their mastery and joy and skill in their play is evident and winsome. The Grudems and the cold-Wednesday-nights-at-Stoke of the world have their place, and even their certain pragmatic beauty. The ways in which Chelsea and Real Madrid play have their attractions and even advantages over Barcelona’s way, just as Piper’s corpus has its distinct advantages over Barth’s magnum opus. Yet the long gestation of Barca’s current form, what Jonathan Wilson has called “habit football,” has given their game a feeling of finality and comprehensiveness that the others lack. They have played so long with one another that their sense of space and movement of all the other players on the pitch is near to ESP, just as Barth is so saturated with Scripture and the Christian tradition that even his brief asides are profound.
Like the Dogmatics, many view Barca’s passing as so much boredom-inducing indulgence from the artist: it is not knowing when to shut up. How many different ways do we need to say, “God reveals Himself”? It is the repetition, the slight variation, that drives home and affects the spirit, not just the mind, of the reader. Barcelona have averaged 747 passses per match in their league matches this season, 200 more than any other side in Europe. They cover the same ground with those passes over and over again, networking the whole together, saying the same thing again and again. Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi may repeat themselves hundreds of times over a season, but those repetitions give rise to truly breathtaking and innovative moves that we are all better for witnessing.
Others have written far more eloquently of what makes Barcelona so successful, so fun to watch. For me, watching not just a single match, but an entire season like this one has given so much pleasure in the midst of a personally very difficult year. It is the intricate coherence of the whole, not just a singular run by Messi through five Real Madrid defenders, that creates the sense of awe, yes, but mainly a desire to be a part of that great story. The idea that a 33-year-old desk jockey could be a participant in something as incredible as the 5–0 carving of Real in November’s Clasico—the near-perfect partnership of me and ten other men to create something like that—is, of course, preposterous. But that is exactly the point.
I will never write a Church Dogmatics. I don’t agree with everything in the 13 volumes. Barth had his failures, his errors, his curmudgeonliness with opponents (especially with “evangelicals” like Cornelius Van Til). But nothing has made me want to do a great thing in constructive theology as Barth’s Dogmatics has.
And so it is with Barcelona. I loathe their play-acting, Busquets’ nasty mouth, their hounding of officials to almost no end. Yet, no side, indeed no sports team at all, has made me want to deeply enjoy and attempt to emulate their play as much as Barca. No one soccer team or theologian will or should affect every person in the same way, but I am grateful and happy to have found these two and the deep joy that comes along with them.