Saturday, January 31, 2009

John Humphreys grills Rowan Williams

Just come across a fascinating BBC radio program, here, where John Humphries interrogates religious leaders and demands that they try and convert him. Only listened to the first part of the Rowan Williams interview so far. Williams says some great things and some not so great things. One thing he said which I appreciated, and which relates to the Contextual Theology thread currently running, is that it is often better to use crude physical imagery to describe God rather than abstract technical language because when we refer to God's arm, or God be like a rock, it is obvious that our language is metaphor and therefore a rather human attempt to grasp the unreachable, but when we use abstract words like omnipresent or eternal we start to think we have a handle on who/what God is.

In the first part of the interview at least, RW refers at least as much to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as he does the Bible.

Let me know what you think :)

Headlines on the persecuted church

This month from from Barnabas Fund

SRI LANKA - ANTI-CONVERSION LAW MAKES PROGRESS
PAKISTAN - CHRISTIANS ATTACKED AND CHURCH DAMAGED IN PUNJAB
KYRGYZSTAN - PRESIDENT SIGNS RESTRICTIVE NEW LAW ON RELIGION
CENTRAL AFRICA - ATTACKS BY LORD'S RESISTANCE ARMY ON CHURCHES
CHINA - PASTOR "BIKE" ZHANG DRIVEN OUT OF BEIJING
ERITREA - RENEWAL OF GOVERNMENT CAMPAIGN AGAINST CHURCHES
BANGLADESH - ANSWERED PRAYER FOR DECEMBER ELECTIONS

Does anyone know what it is about Bangladesh that the current trend towards the radicalisation of Islamic countries doesn't seem to be taking place there? (Or maybe it is but not as quick?)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

World peace in one easy step?

A notorious peace activist, Adrian James Leason, currently awaiting trial in NZ was speaking at a conference in Auckland a while back. He had come up with a foolproof plan for bringing about world peace. He said it was simple: Husbands love your wives (presumably quoting Eph 5:25 and Col 3:19?). And then give them lots of sons. Then all those mothers' sons will grow up with mothers who do not want their sons to go to war and kill other mothers' sons. And so there will be no war.

Now although I could see possible practical difficulties with the plan I thought it really demonstrated how insane war really is. As I was looking at my daughter this morning I thought to myself, how can anyone send someone else's children to war? Why would anyone let someone send their children to war?

Adrian is causing controversy again this month by including his six yearold daughter in a protest march against the atrocity in Gaza (and here). For which he has been condemned by some, but I wonder by what right we keep our children at home unprotesting, while the world that they will inherit is increasingly consumed by war, hatred and greed? Just a thought.

For more about Ploughshares movement see here or even see their own website.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ozymandias

This poem by Percy Shelley (1792-1822) was a favourite of my late Grandfather's. He could recite it from memory.

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert... Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing besides remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Interpersonal rather than propositional?

To reflect on the 1st chapter of Bevans' book I have to say the two points that really stood out and appealed to me were: 1) the shift in theological thinking from propositional to relational categories and 2) the growing awareness of how the doctrine of the Trinity reveals a God who is to be understood primarily as relational.

In many ways this amounts to the same thing: to stop trying to conceive of God in abstract terms and then feel that signing a list of statements about God is an act of faith and to realise that God is not knowable in terms of propositions but only as God is personally encountered through the scriptures, church and everyday life.

Evangelicals have long been fond of saying "it's not a religion it's a relationship" but have then proceeded to reveal a list of philosophical propositions which require your intellectual assent before you can be considered a Christian. The problem for us religious types is that when you really understand that Christ calls us into relationship rather than into a list of 'articles of faith' then it becomes very hard to work out who is in and who is out. If you can cast someone into the outer darkness for using 'infallibility' instead of 'inerrancy' to describe their view of the Bible (neither of which actually tells us anything useful) then it it easy to keep control of a religious group. But if you have to admit that the most heretical thinker might still have a closer walk with God than you do it should force you to greater humility, tolerance, and openness to other people's views. After all its not about 'being right' but about being in relationship. It's not about knowing about God but about knowing God personally.

Let me know what you think :)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

James 1:2-4

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

This letter from James is probably one of the earliest documents in the NT. The early years of the church were marked by periodic bursts of persecution (e.g. Acts 5:17-42; 7:54-8:3; 9:23-5; 12:1-5; etc) and I think it fair to assume that even without overt acts of persecution the new sect of Christians would have been treated with suspicion by both Jews and Gentiles. The 'testing of your faith' is exactly that, your faith being put on trial. Because we in the western world so seldom (if ever) are put on trial for our faith we miss out on the benefit of developing endurance/staying power. For James, to be under suspicion, to be discriminated against or persecuted because of the faith is the path to maturity in the faith.

I'm reminded of an old anecdote of uncertain provenance (might have originated in the old soviet union?), but which makes the point. A masked gun man walks into a church meeting and tells everyone who isn't ready to die for Christ to get out of the building now. After half the people leave he takes of the mask and asks to be told about Jesus. Fair enough, after all you want to know that the people sharing the Gospel with you are the genuine article and not someone who might change their mind later and tell the authorities about you.

We tend to quote this verse ('count it all as joy') when we get a parking ticket or have a unpleasant colleague at work but these things are not a result of our faith but just part of everyday life. At the risk of over translating, 'mature and complete' (τέλειοι καὶ ὁλόκληροι) could be rendered 'having reached the purpose and goal of your existence and being a completely integrated and complete person.' So are we disqualified from reaching that maturity and completeness without persecution? Well James allows us a way in by refering not just to 'trials' but 'trials of any kind.' Parking tickets and grumpy work colleagues are not in themselves trials of our faith, but they can become so if we use them as oportunities for our faith to come into action: To test how much better it is to confess your sins - rather than try to wriggle out of the ticket, or to love our enemies - rather than bad-mouth them to the boss. The greatest tests for us perhaps come when we encounter death, illness, failure, or dissapointment in our own lives. Those times when we need God the most are also those times when it is most possible to decide that God can't exist if God allows such things to happen to us or those we love. And yet James says to us that these are the times to grow, these are the times when our faith will be strengthened, these are the times when our faith has the most potential to change us into who we are meant to be. These are times to prove that we are God's and God is ours. These are times of joy.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

For those deep thinkers among you

An interview with Paul Moser a Christian philosopher who has just published an enormous book.

Specious Reasoning Disgusting

Israel has repeatedly insisted all of its weapons used were in line with international law and has blamed Hamas for the high number of civilian casualties...
"They (Hamas) were committing war crimes by putting the civilians in the frontline," she said. "If Hamas chooses to locate training camps, command centres... in the middle of the (civilian population)... look how populated it is... naturally they are endangering the lives of civilians. Hamas is accountable for the loss of the civilians."

[Source: Yahoo news]

What a load of horseshit.

Hamas is responsible for the 13 people it killed, giving the Israelis provocation, and destabilising the Palestinian government.

Israel is responsible for the 1300 people it killed, destroying $2 Billion of property, and creating the conditions where a group like Hamas would gain considerable popular support.

Israel's response to Hamas rockets was totally out of proportion and deliberately devastating to civilians. If they (and USA) spent half the money on development and aid that they spent on ordinance the middle east would be the most peaceful place on the planet. Instead this unjust escalation will create bitterness and hatred against Israel that will last and have further consequences. Violence can only be defeated by reconciliation. That this 'war' (atrocity) has come to an end in time to spare Obama any political embarrassment exposes it as a cynical move to unleash indiscriminate amounts of ordinance on Gaza before the political weather changed. Let us just pray that Obama can read his Bible better than Bush.

However I guess for Israel the precedent (of escalation) had been set by Bush declaring war on two countries in response to one terrorist attack, because that has really worked to make the world safer and create peace... hasn't it?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

How the World's Family Values are Changing

Due to the spread of western culture, the development of centralized forms of government, large scale migration from rural to urban areas, and changing employment patterns, most developing countries are seeing far reaching changes to traditional patterns of family life (whatever they may be in that particular context). Anthony Giddens provides the follow list:
  1. Clans and other kin groups are declining in their influence.
  2. There is a general trend towards the free selection of a spouse.
  3. The rights of women are becoming more widely recognised, in respect to both the initiation of marriage and decision-making within the family.
  4. Arranged marriages are becoming less common.
  5. Higher levels of sexual freedom, for men and women, are developing in societies that were very restrictive.
  6. There is a general trend towards the extension of children's rights.
  7. There is an increased acceptance of same sex partnership.

[Source: Giddens, Sociology (5th ed), 2006, 211-2]

Now obviously there are reactions and counter movements to these trends, not least the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the issue of Sharia law among migrant communities in western countries. But as long as western culture and industry continue to spread, which seems somewhat inevitable (or is it?), these trends can only be expected to grow. Can we evaluate these trends to decide if, in terms of the family, this spread of western culture is a good thing?

No.1 seems a negative as so many poverty and exploitation issues arise due to poor social networks and family support creating vulnerability.

No.2 and 4 seem good to a western mindset, because we think choice is everything, but if you talk to people from arranged marriage cultures you might be surprsied to think that it is not necessarily the source of oppression we often think it to be.

No.3 and 6 are absolutely good things (unless someone disagrees?) but can the rights of women and children only be advanced at the expense of strong extended family networks?

No.5 is definately a bad thing. Despite everything our sex obsessed media tells us, promiscuous people are manifestly unhappy, vulnerable to STDs, and create endless problems for society by raising children in unstable homes.

No.7 is tricky, perhaps 40% of Christians would see this as a considerable negative, with the rest either not caring or seeing it as a positive. Perhaps the first question is: does this fit in with 3 and 6 as a 'rights' issue, or number 5 as a 'sexual freedom' issue? Or is sexual freedom a right in itself?

So what do you think, is the spread of western culture good or bad for 'the family'?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Steve Riley on Human Dignity

[Steve who was interviewed earlier here gives his pub/BBQ answer to the question: What gives a human dignity? Please comment, with questions, requests for clarification, and even rebuttals, he wont mind. I'm hoping this will turn into a good discussion as human rights are something we all talk about but seldom think critically about.]

Contemporary (ethical and legal) usage of ‘dignity’ is still informed (albeit opaquely) by a Christian view of dignity which insists that Man is Imago Dei and, as such, elevated above the rest of Creation. That notion of being our qualitatively different to the other bits of Creation (and even higher animals) seems to me correct and doesn’t necessarily need God or any messy metaphysics. Because of things like sophisticated cultural practices, the meaning that we invest in the world, distinctive forms of consciousness, a distinctive susceptibility to mental and not just physical suffering, means that we are different to other animals. How these facts translate into values is a very different and difficult question.

Christian (particularly Catholic) thought has, via dignity, emphasised the sanctity of humans and all human ‘matter’ (regardless of its capabilities, capacities or potential) generating largely conservative ethical consequences (especially opposition to any ‘intervention’ which treats human matter as material on a par with non-human matter). It seems to me that these conservative consequences probably do flow from Imago Dei, but not necessarily from the ‘qualitative differences’ I identified (culture, consciousness, mental suffering etc.). In fact, I’m not quite sure how we derive values from facts full stop.

What is true is that dignity remains a meaningful part of our moral vocabulary, particularly in terms of articulating violation or inhumanity. To that extent it is something best ‘observed in the breach’: difficult to say what it is, but we can see when it’s diminished or destroyed. More positively, it generally functions as a way of opposing the utility of utilitarianism: talking about human dignity is a way of saying ‘there’s more to human life than what’s useful’ and ‘regardless of the will and needs of the majority, each individual is valuable’.

[So let us know what you think :-)]

Friday, January 16, 2009

1 Samuel 1-4: Biblical family values?

One of the great ironies of the present day is the use of the phrase 'Biblical family values' to champion the cause of Western (American?) style nuclear families with authoritarian patriarchal leadership and neat polite children. I don't know what Bible those 'values' are found in, but it's not a translation I've ever come across. Incest, polygamy, wife swapping, rape, prostitution and rebellion seem to be some of the 'family values' protrayed in the Bible. But I'll get to most of those another time. here's 1 Samuel chapter 1-4 in brief.

Chapter 1
A man has two wives, one is fertile (Peninnah) one is barren (Hannah).Hannah promises God that if God gives her a boy she will dedicate the boy to God (no alchohol and no hair cuts).God gives Hannah a boy, Hannah gives the boy (Samuel) to the high priest (Eli) the moment he is weaned, and leaves Samuel at the temple as a servant.

Chapter 2
Eli (the hight priest) raises Samuel (who gets to see his mum and dad once a year). Eli also has two sons (Hophni and Phinehas). They abuse their position as priests and exploit those who comes to worship.Eli makes a half hearted attempt to discipline his sons, it fails because God has already decided they have to die.A prophet turns up and tells Eli that because he honoured his sons more than God that he and his sons are going to die.

Chapter 3
Samuel, while still a boy, hears God's voice and becomes a prophet. Samuels first message is to Eli: 'you and your sons are going to die.'

Chapter 4
Hophni and Phinehas take the Ark of the Covenant into battle and die, losing the Ark. Eli gets the news and falls off his chair and dies.

Now is it just me but, does the boy who only sees his parents once a year and never gets a haircut not turn out better than the ones who take on the family business and get spoilt rotten by their indulgent dad?

You have to look hard to find the 'family values' there but I think these chapters do have a subtle (and subversive) message about parenthood. Children are a gift from God (as God grants Hannah's prayer) but are not to be allowed to compete with God for our devotion (as Eli compromises his duties towards God for Hophni and Phinehas).

Western evangelicalism is often in danger of idolising 'the family'. This is seen in some of our organisations (see focus on the family, family first, etc) our politics (can I take that as read?) and in day to day church life (e.g. only going to a church with a good 'childrens ministry', or taking kids out of Bible study groups so they can concentrate on school work). But nowhere in the Bible is the nuclear family modeled, let alone advocated, and we need to ask ourselves how much are our 'family values' truly Christian/Biblical and how much is mere western middle class respectability?

Let me know what you think :)

God's will and human freedom in Jeremiah 18

A historic and still current issue of debate in Christian theology is the relation of God's sovereignty to Humanity's free will. In Protestant understanding this is often worked out as the Calvinist verses Arminian debate. A passage which I think encapsulates well the general teaching of scripture on this point is Jeremiah 18:1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: "Come go down to the potters house, and there I will let you hear my words." So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.Then The word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do this with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? Says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so you are in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if
it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind
about the good that I had intended to do it. Now therefore say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.


So here we are presented with a picture of God as completely in control of what happens, in the sense that God's will WILL be done. But that God reserves the right to CHANGE GOD'S MIND if human behaviour changes. This affirms that human free will is not just an illusion of choice while God the puppet master does whatever God wants, but a real choice with real consequences, even consequences for what God ultimately wills. Both God and Humanity are presented as being free in regard to what will eventually happen in the future. (which might just take us out of Arminianism and into Open Theism... ooops :-))

P.S. Look up Calvinism, Arminianism and Open Theism on Wikipedia cos I dont have time to discuss them now, i'm in an internet cafe in Mangawhai!!

Models of Contextual Theology 1: CT as a Theological Imperative.

In the first chapter of the Models of Contextual Theology, Steven Bevans lays out why it is imperative to do Theology contextually (i.e. it must be done). Because all theology is contextual (e.g. patristic, reformation, feminist, black, etc) Christian faith cannot be understood apart from which ever particular context it is found in.

For Bevans:

Contextual theology (hereafter CT) is NEW because theology was traditionally thought of as an 'objective science of faith' (p3) whereas CT approaches faith as something 'unabashedly subjective' not meaning 'relative or private' but reality that is 'mediated by meaning.' This meaning is given 'in the context of our culture and our historical period, interpreted from our own particular horizon and in our own particular thouht forms' (p4)

But CT is also traditional/OLD in that 'every authentic theology has been very much rooted in a particular context in some implicit or real way.' (p5)

CT needs to be done for the following external factors:

  1. 'A general dissatisfaction in both the First and Third worlds, with classical approaches to theology.' (p9) Especially the use of classical philosophy as the base for theology. So theologians are now turning to other philosophies (process, existentialist, personalist, linguistic, evolutionary, emergence) or other approaches all together (e.g. narrative, biography, and the social sciences). As well as responding to unique philosophical and cultural conditions in particular contexts.
  2. The 'oppresive nature of older approaches' to theology is resulting in those groups who have been oppressed (e.g. Black, Latin American, African, Women, etc) developing theologies that are sensitive to their issues (p10).
  3. The development of CTs are also a sign of the success of the missionary activity of the last century as local churches in nations far from Europe develope their own identities and sense of self worth (p10-11).
  4. Finally the social sciences have defined culture 'as a set of meanings and values that informs a way of life.' Moving culture from something 'out there' (and where only the elite could become 'cultured') to 'something that everyone particpates in already' (p11).

Bevans also sees internal (to Christianity) factors driving the need for CT:

  1. Firstly the Incarnation (God manifesting himself in the particular, as a human being in 1st century Judea) demonstrates that God doesn't 'shout his message from the heavens' but becomes present as a human within a particular time, space and culture. We can then only know the gospel (the good news about Jesus) as something that is within culture (p12).
  2. The 'sacramental nature of reality' (a lovely Roman Catholic doctrine) points us to the fact that 'God is revealed not primarily in ideas but rather in concrete reality' (p12). 'The whole movement of the Bible is one of interpreting the ordinary, the secular, in terms of religious symbolism.' (p13) And 'encounters with God continue to take place in our world through concrete things' e.g. through other humans, creation, and the symbols of baptism and communion (p12).
  3. The last century has also seen a shift from thinking about divine revelation as 'propositional truth' and faith then being 'intellectual assent to those truths.' More recently a '"newer" understanding- always present in theology but seldom explicitly and systematically appropriated' sees divine revelation as an interpersonal action of God giving of God's self where faith is then a personal response to God's self giving (p13).
  4. 'The all-embracing, all-inclusive, all-accepting nature of the Christian community' (that is its 'catholicity') means the church 'champions and preserves the local, the particular' even as it seeks to 'live and flourish in every part of the world' (p14). and so the church cannot truly be the church unless every cultural group within it 'is included in its particularity' (p15).
  5. Finally the 'renewal and revitalisation' of trinitarian thought over the last century means that the idea of God 'as a dynamic, relational, community of persons, whose very nature it is to be present and active in the world' has [rightly] returned to the heart of theological thought. God is no longer conceived as some abstract entity in heaven but is understood to be present and active in every human context (p15).

And that, argues Bevans, is why CT needs to be done. et me know what you think :)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Idols or something else?

Jeremiah 10:5:

Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they
have to be carried for they cannot walk.Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot
do evil, nor is it in them to do you good.

The language of idolatry is very popular still (and I'm not just thinking of 'pop idol' TV shows). In fact half the google searches that have picked up this blog have been to do with idolatry, which is interesting given that I dont believe I have dedicated much space to the idea. Now in my observation we (Christians) usually interpret idolatry as anything which we worship (give our 'worth' to) in place of God (the only one who truly has a right to our worship). This often then stands for career, or wealth, status, possesions or relationships that we put up as 'idols' in our own lives in place of God, e.g. instead of seeking to do God's will with our lives we seek what will bring us the most wealth.


But as I have been reading through the prophets I have noticed most of the polemic (attack in argument) against idolatry in scripture has been on the basis of the idols impotence to do anything at all (e.g. Isaiah 46:6-7), whereas career, wealth, status, possesions or relationships are all powerful tools for doing either harm or good.

  • Does that mean they are not 'idols' in the Biblical sense?
  • If not, then what are they?
  • And what are modern day idols?
  • Or don't we have any?

Let me know what you think :)

James 1:1

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes
in the diaspora: Greetings.
  • James is held in church tradition to be the (half) brother of Jesus (Matt 13:55; Mark 6:3; Gal 1:9), who became the leader of the early church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:13-19; Gal 2:9-12) despite his unbelief in Jesus prior to the crucifiction/resurection.
  • Even if this is a different James writing here the only credential the writer sees fit to give is one of servanthood towards both God and Jesus.
  • This is an unashamedly Christian document and yet by refering to the recipients of the letter as 'the twleve tribes' James is showing both how he understands the Christian community to be a continuation of Israel but also the fulfillment/restoration of Israel (which had been reduced to only two tribes by the time of the Roman occupation). He also demonstrates this sense of continuity in the letter by drawing heavily (and directly) on the Old Testament.
  • This fulfillment/restoration though is only partial however, not least because the 'twelve tribes' are a disapora, a dispersion, a scattered people. The book of James is often refered to as a catholic (all embracing) epistle (letter) because it is not addressed to a specific situation or set of circumstances (e.g. Paul addresses infighting amoung particular factions in 1 Corinthians 3) but is a more general letter aimed at a wider audience, although still within a certain historical and cultural context.

Why All Theology is Contextual and Why It Matters

For the last forty years there has been an increasing shift in the academic study of theology towards an understanding of theology as contextual. This is both a good thing and a scary thing and its something everybody needs to get a handle on and understand. I am currently reading a book called Models of Contextual Theology by Stephen Bevans (Orbis, 2005) which I found for a bargain price on Trademe (the NZ version of EBay). I thought I would share my reading/thinking with you on the blog and I would appreciate your thoughts, whether you can see the relevance and importance of thinking contextually, and how the insights of thinking about faith contextually affects your own thinking. What follows here is not so much from the book as a prelude to the book from me. After this I intend to deal with the book chapter by chapter...

What is contextual theology?

Contextual theology is an insight coming from the post-modern era that essentially recognises that depending on who, where, and when you are things can look very different than if you were someone, somewhere, sometime else. This obvious when we apply it to something like fashion. In the 80's fluro socks and 'power ties' were the height of fashion. Wearing clothes like that now would be a shortcut to ridicule. Old music videos that were once the height of cool are now the epitome of kitch. Now that is fine for something obviously changeable and subjective like styles of clothing or dance moves but surely that cannot apply to issues of truth? Surely if God is real then theology should be like maths. 2+2=4, how can who, where, when you are change that? Well Theology, like maths, is language dependant, the language you use enables you to express concepts but also limits you in the concepts which you can express. Not only that, but your language is embedded in your culture which creates further potential but also limits the concepts you can express. Now I expect that 2+2=4 in any language, but once you try and explain concepts like 'pi' or the 'square root of the hypotenuse' then you are relying on concepts and language that has been especially created around those concepts. If you do not know those concepts then maths is meaningless. For theology the situation is more extreme because all theological language is analogy.

Why is all theological language analogy?

If I say "there is a rock" and point somewhere, and you know what the word rock means, then you can look at what I am pointing at and see if there is a rock there or not. But what happens when we say something like "God is a/my/our rock"? When I say that you do not think of the same thing that you think of when I say "there is a rock." Instead you think analogically: perhaps that God is big, unmovable, reliable. That is certainly what I tend to think of when I read such language in the Bible. But what if I come from a tribe in a rain forest where the only rocks are small and good for throwing at monkeys? To say "God is my rock" has a very different meaning, the analogy does not work. Now suppose I am from a culture that has lots of big dependable rocks but no concept of a supreme being called God. If you say "God is my rock" I merely think you have a rock, whose name is "God." The difference between talking about rocks and talking about God is that you can take someone who has never seen a rock to a rock and say "there is a rock." But when you are talking about God you are always reliant on comparing God to something else because you cannot actually point to God. Now while those example were a little extreme to make the point what happens everytime Christianity is brought to a new culture and/or language the analogies we use potentially take on a different meaning. So theology must be done in a way that is aware of the way culture/language changes things.
Here is a more likely example: I am used to talking about God as 'Father,' because I came from a stable and happy family home this is a positive image for me. But what is my context was different? what if I had had an abusive father? Would that still be an apropriate analogy if the word 'father' only meant hurt and betrayal and abuse? It surely wouldn't. Either the word would need to be filled with a new meaning or a new analogy found. But regardless of positive or negative experiences of 'father' how does a 21st century western experience of 'father' differ from a 1st cetury middle eastern one? Are the analogies the same or are there subtle differences? How do we decide if those differences are important or not? And how do you decide if the analogy needs to be replaced or if you can just modify it a little?

Why is Islam like Maths?

Now Islam gets around this problem the same way that Maths does. Rather than try to translate concepts from one culture to another, if you want to comprehend those concepts you simply need to learn the language. So to become Muslim you really need to become, at least in part, Arab. The scripture must be learnt in Arabic. The prayers must be said in Arabic. and your lifestyle and world view must become, in part at least, Arabic. (This is of course a broad generalisation) If you want to learn Maths you simply cannot avoid learning the language of Maths. But Christianity is different because it carries in its very DNA the drive to jump culture and context rather than transplant the same culture/language everywhere. In the Bible the same God is worshipped, encountered, and described in various Hebrew (tribal, monarchial, and exilic) and Greek (Judean, missionary, persecution) Contexts. To do theology you do not have to be a Hebrew or a Greek, you only have to be yourself. But to do it well you do need to be aware how who, when and where you are can affect what you read and think and know. And when you do that you are doing contextual theology, theology that is aware of its own context.

Let me know what you think :)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Communion: Symbolic Meal or Love Feast?

Almost any church you go to in the western world observes a ritual meal in which token amounts of bread and wine/juice are consumed as a way of remembering Jesus' sacrifice on the cross. Depending on which tradition you belong to the method and explanation of this ritual will vary. but whether brethren or catholic it is still essentially the same idea (at least from the point of view of the meal). Now the first question is how did we get from the early christian practice of a full community meal to this token meal that we now share? Darrell Pursiful writes about this historical movement from full meal to a token symbolic meal here and here. Essentially, for a number of reasons located in particular social, philosophical and political conditions this change took place over the first few centuries of Christianity. But my question for you is, should we change the way we do it now? Would it be a more meaningful act of fellowship to return to sharing a full meal together, rather than just a morsel of bread and a mouthful of juice? Darrell describes one ancient pattern of early christian worship like this:
  • Beginning Prayer (all standing)
  • Meal
  • Hand-washing and lamp-lighting
  • Hymnody (including “table talk” and/or charismatic expressions?)
  • Concluding Prayer
Obviously this was an evening rather than a morning activity (hence the full meal and lighting of lamps). Personally I like the idea of a church meeting where everyone is not thinking about what they will have for lunch afterwards... (or is that just me?) But the real question for me is, as an expression of unity and of Jesus presence with us isn't a full meal both more meaningful and more respectful than the symbolic ritual we currently perform?
  • We would enjoy and savour fellowship rather than just acknowledge it.
  • We could demonstrate concern and hospitality to each other rather than just remind ourselves of our obligation.
  • Praise, teaching and the exercise of gifts would then take place in an atmosphere of family around the table instead of one where only those 'up-front' feel able to contribute.
  • Our remembrance of Christ's death, resurrection, and coming return would not be over and done with in 5 minutes before moving on to more important matters but be the main event.
  • Fellowship with Jesus and each other would be the most signifcant part of the meeting and singing and teaching (wonderful as they are) auxillary to that.
Let me know what you think :)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Regarding Gaza

By Rev. Alex Awad, Dean of Students, Bethlehem Bible College
December 31, 2008

One hundred tons of bombs are Israel’s way of saying to the captive citizens of Gaza, Merry Christmas, Happy Eid (feast) and Happy New Year. These “gifts” that were showered from US-made F-16 fighter jets demolished government buildings, mosques, a university, hundreds of homes and snuffed out many lives – among them scores of children. Like many in this part of the world and around the globe my heart aches when I read and see pictures of the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip and likewise when I see Israelis killed or injured by Qassam rockets. However, I have a special love for Gaza and its people. Before the strict closure of Gaza, Bethlehem Bible College used to have an extension there. I went to Gaza once every Thursday to teach our students and often I stayed the night there. Interacting with Gazans in class, in church and in the community, I learned much about the kindness and the hospitality of the people of Gaza, both Muslims and Christians. The majority of the people of Gaza are not Hamas militants. They are people like you and I who long to live in peace day in and day out. Regretfully, everyone in the Gaza Strip--men, women, children, civilians and fighters alike—is now feeling the horrible impact and devastation caused by the newest and deadliest Israeli incursion over the Strip in many years.

There is no doubt that the Qassam rockets launched against the western Negev and Ashkelon by Islamic militants linked to Hamas cause great pain and anxiety for many Israelis. Most people agree that Israel, like any other country, has the right to defend itself from outside attacks. However in this unequal conflict between Israel and Hamas, Israel, as usual, has overdone it. When it comes to dealing with its enemies, Israel has a pattern of being extreme. “An eye for an eye” does not satisfy. It has to be more like one hundred eyes for one eye and one hundred teeth for one tooth. When the Israelis attacked Lebanon in June 2006, they sprayed the country with millions of cluster bombs (which are internationally banned) and these bombs continue to kill innocent people even today. What troubles me most in this current war is that most of the victims of this Israeli incursion on Gaza are average people-men, women and children--who are struggling to just to survive under the extreme and harsh conditions that the Israeli siege has created. For 40 years the Gaza Strip has been under Israeli occupation and during the last few years, although the Israelis redeployed their troops from Gaza, they never withdrew the symbols of their dominance and occupation. They continue to control the borders, which mean controlling food, medicine, fuel and goods going in and out of the Strip. In essence, they have turned Gaza into the largest open-air prison in the world.

If the Israeli leaders assume that they can assure the security of their citizens by the might and the power of their superior army and air force, they are mistaken. The outrage caused among the peoples in the Arab and Islamic world by these horrible attacks will most likely blow dark clouds over the skies of Israel or elsewhere in the world.

Israel should learn to negotiate with its neighbors in good faith. Negotiating in good faith means implementing UN resolutions, ending the occupation of the West Bank, opening the borders of the Gaza Strip to the rest of the world and stopping military incursions into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The rise of Hamas and militancy in Gaza is directly related to a vacuum that Israel and the United States have created by dragging their feet in never-ending and fruitless peace negotiations with moderate Palestinians. As long as Israel continues to place obstacles on the path of the peace process and as long as the US continues to allow it to do so, we can expect new outbursts of violence in the Middle East that will cause more horrors and waste more lives on both sides of the political divide.

The Israelis have the right to live in peace and security and so do the people of Gaza. I call on you, friends, to pray for the civilians on both sides who are caught in this nightmare. In addition to praying, let us protest these lethal bombs with a barrage of our own letters to our elected leaders calling for an end to this human tragedy.

Guest Interview: Stephen Riley

Well I am pleased to be bringing you the first guest interview for Xenos, from an old and good friend of mine Steve. Enjoy, and let us know what you think.

[My questions are in italics]

Hi Steve, how you doing?
Just fine and dandy JR. Happy New Year.

How do you know Jonathan?
We were in a student band together in Lancaster. Called Glass Half Full, we were a pretty funky outfit with some great songs and C-razy instrumental workouts. Not quite as tight as the Berlin Philharmonic, not quite as cool and the Jimi Hendrix, we always guaranteed a good time and positive vibes.

How would you describe the essence of your existence in less than ten words?
All being is becoming, unfortunately without a goal or purpose.

What do you do for a living?
I’m a Senior Lecturer in Law. I lecture and write on legal philosophy.

How would you describe your religious/spiritual/political/worldview convictions?
Contradictory.

On the one hand, I try to keep utopia in mind. There are many reasons why we don’t have a perfect world, some necessary (death) some contingent (scarcity / disorganization). Nonetheless utopia is the only real yardstick for measuring politics and history and the best stick for beating people with when they dismiss greed and inertia as ‘human nature’.

On the other hand, I’m reluctant to think that there is anything ‘necessary’ or ‘obvious’ in ethics and morality. In other words, in many cases you can’t and won’t argue people into acting in a more ethical way, they have to learn to ‘see it’ themselves, which has very little to do with philosophical arguments.

Make of that what you will!

What are the most significant ways in which your studies have changed the way you view the world?
My studies have made me confident to trust my own thinking and judgement. Admittedly, I generally trust my thinking and judgement to tell me what’s wrong with things rather than what’s right with them, but I’m resigned to the fact that that’s as close to Enlightenment as I’m going to get.

If there was one book you could get everyone to read what would it be?
Plato’s Republic. Every conclusion is wrong: justice is not internal harmony / the perfect state is not one run by mathematician-philosophers / art is not so dangerous that it has to be controlled by the state. Nonetheless it is simultaneously a beautiful utopian vision and the most ambitious attempt ever to unify knowledge, ethics and psychology. One for megalomaniacs I think.

If there was one piece of music you could get everyone to sit down and listen to what would it be?
This is possibly the most difficult question of the lot.

I can and do make people listen to the opening of Mozart’s Requiem (and ruin it for them) by pointing out why it is so good, i.e. because the music (particularly the dynamics, when they’re done right) is heart wrenching in itself but, at the same time, it’s also a dialogue between Man and God.

However, I think when push comes to shove the soul of this man can be found in the Fugue from JS Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E Minor (BWV 548). I like extreme music and this is it: it’s actually so intense that the only way to describe it is hardcore. Listen to it unzip from one note to full frontal attack. Obscenely good.

Name your three biggest heroes and a sentence why.
Socrates: the importance of Socrates lies in the fact that there is something valuable in having a completely negative philosophy. We need people who make it their business to lay into accepted ideas and received notions. It doesn’t matter if they don’t have an all-encompassing, many-coloured theory, to replace them with.

Wittgenstein: for the same reasons as Socrates.

Frank Zappa: for similar reasons again. He wasn’t afraid of taking the piss out of anyone or anything. He also combined biting satire with being the second best electric guitarist to have walked the planet. That’s quite a combination.

Thanks for your time :)
No Johann Sebastian Robinson: thank you.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Thesis Proposal Translated

Having been rightly rebuked for posting unintelligible academic-ese by putting my thesis proposal on the blog I will now provide a translation into more accessible language. Am I forgiven?

Paul's Theology of the Church as Body : The background, function and effect of ‘The Body of Christ’ as a metaphor for the Church

'The body' is an important idea in Paul's theology generally, and ‘the body of Christ’ is perhaps even more so in Paul's theology of the church. However there is no agreement among Biblical scholars as to how the phrase should be understood. As a Jew and a Roman Citizen the apostle Paul could have potentially drawn upon Hebrew anthropology, Greek anthropology and Greek political philosophy to construct ‘the body of Christ’ as a metaphor for the Church. This thesis will examine Paul’s use of this metaphor in the four places where it appears in his writings, i.e. Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians and Colossians.

The principle way in which I am going to do this is to look at the language and the historical situation of the different texts that use 'the body of Christ' and see how the metaphor is used in the arguments that Paul is making in the circumstances to which Paul is writing. But I might use some other techniques later if I think they'll help. Hopefully, by carefully reading the texts in their historical context I will be able to tell what Paul has in mind when he writes 'the body of Christ.' Once I have done this for each text individually I will then look for differences in the way Paul uses the metaphor between different texts, although there might not be any. The last thing I hope to do is list how my findings can help people who are trying to understand Paul's theology in general and Paul's theology of the church in particular. Hopefully the finished thesis will be useful for both academic and practical discussions about the church.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Christian Mission as Social Development

An interesting and impassioned article in the Times here. It is written by an atheist who acknowledges the importance of conversion to Christianity in African development. It links nicely into the previous post and how how one's world-view, in particular our view of what it means to be human (philosophical anthropology) can have a significant effect on our lives. Let me know what you think :)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Hebrew versus Greek Anthropology

So one of the central questions I will will be researching for my thesis is whether Paul is thinking like a Greek or a Hebrew when he talks about the church as being the 'Body of Christ.' Although Paul was a Hebrew and educated as a Rabbi he also grew up in a Greek city and seems to have been educated in Greek rhetoric, so either is possible. Anthropology is the study and philosophy of what it means to be human. Here are some differences:

  • Greeks opposed form and matter, body and flesh. Hebrews did not, their word for body/flesh, basar, describes the whole life physical life substance of a human.
  • Greeks contrast one and many, whole and parts, a body and its members. Hebrews had no word for the whole body, but almost any part could be used to represent the whole.
  • Greeks had a body and a soul, the soul was the essential ego which would eventually be liberated from the material body. The Hebrews were an animated body. The Hebrew person did nothave a body, they were a body. (So dead Greeks were souls, while dead Hebrews were merely shadows)
  • Greeks describe a body in terms of its boundaries. Being a body is a principle of individuation. Hebrews saw being a body as binding them to their neighbour, kin, and all creation. Individuality only came through being responsible to God, not as a product of a body's boundaries.
  • Greeks could conceive of a human body distinct from creation, family and God. Hebrews simply did not think about the body for its own sake, but only in terms of its relation to something else.
So you are probably thinking that the Hebrew point of view doesn't make much sense. And if it doesn't it's probably because you are a Greek! (everyone raised in the western intellectual tradition is to some extent) But hopefully you can see how much difference it makes whether Paul was thinking in Greek or Hebrew categories. The respective world views and theological/philosophical implications are huge, not least for the way we read these words in the Bible.

(source: John A.T Robinson, The Body: A study in Pauline Theology.)

Thesis Proposal

For those who might be interested, what follows is the research proposal which I will be pursuing half time for the next two years. 40,000 words later and I will have my masters degree! I have just started reading towards this today and will be sharing questions and insights from my research with you as things go on, so here it is. Let me know what you think :)

[edit: in response to comments about the accessibility of this post a translation is provided here]

Paul's Somatic Ecclesiology: The background, function and effect
of ‘τὸ σῶμα τοῦ Χριστοῦ’ as a metaphor for the Church

Σῶμα is a significant concept in Pauline theology, and ‘τὸ σῶμα τοῦ Χριστοῦ’ is perhaps even more so in Pauline ecclesiology. However there is no consensus as to how the phrase should be understood. As a Hellenised Jew the apostle Paul could have potentially drawn upon Hebrew anthropology, Greek anthropology and Greek political philosophy to construct ‘the body of Christ’ as a metaphor for the Church. This thesis will examine Paul’s use of this metaphor in the four principal scriptural loci in which it is found, i.e. Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians and Colossians.

The primary methodology of research will be detailed grammatico-historical exegesis of the texts and consideration of the rhetorical intention of the letters in the respective situations to which they were written. However, where theological or sociological insights are informative they will be employed. It is expected that the exegesis will illuminate which anthropological or philosophical source or sources Paul is drawing on to construct the metaphor. Once a reading of the individual texts has been completed they will be compared in order to examine how the function of ‘the body of Christ’ differs in each respective rhetorical context, if at all. Finally the contributions of the findings for Pauline theology will be explicated, with particular focus on ecclesiology. The thesis will hence be significant for reflection on contemporary ecclesiology and church praxis and for engagement with a number of interpretive conversations currently centred on these texts.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Who are the Nations in Matthew 25:32?

Thanks to Sarah, David and Jane, and Fiona, for contributing to the discussion here on how we should read Mathew 25. This is something of a response to Sarah's argument, not because I think Sarah must agree with me, or that I even have a hard and fast opinion on the subject, but because there are some problems with her argument which need fixing if it is to be convincing.

Firstly, I like Sarah's summary of the message of the first two parables in Matt 25, of the Ten Virgins: "the kingdom of Heaven is an imminent event that is coming but will take a bit longer than expected!" and of the parable of the Talents: "we need to do the best with what we have and keep on working untill the master returns." I don't know that anyone would disagree with that. But it is fair to say that the climactic and sudden event that the parables describe is usually thought of by Christians as describing the end of history when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead and to renew the creation. So why does Sarah instead read them as relating to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the end of the Jewish system of temple sacrifice? The substantial part of Sarah's argument relies on identifying the "nations" (ethnos) in Mathew 25:32 as the Jewish diaspora. This is distinctly unlikely for the following reasons:
  1. Just because a word is used one way by one author in Acts that does not control its meaning when used by a different author in Matthew.
  2. But, in this instance Acts 2:5 is referring to Jews who have come FROM every nation. The word "nation" does not describe the Jews but merely where they have been living. So for there to be consistency (although there does not have to be) between the passages, ethnos would not refer to the Jews at all but the nations in which the diaspora was found.
  3. Most importantly the words here rendered "nations" (ethnos) is a word used 14 times in Matthews gospel and every time it is used it refers to foreign pagan nations not the Jewish people living among those nations.* This reason alone is enough to render Sarah's argument as it stands untenable. For the writer of Matthew's gospel to have used the word consistently, as he has given every indication of doing, it simply must refer to foreign nations.
  4. When the word ethnos appears in the plural and with the definite article as it does in this passage my Greek NT dictionary tells me it can be translated: "non-Jews, gentiles, pagans, heathen, unbelievers." I cannot find any reason to understand this word to refer to a diaspora.
Now there are other issues but that is the big one. I think if the argument is to have any merit it needs to concentrate more on the immediate context. Most people (in my experience) agree that Matt 24 refers (at least in part) to the AD 70 fall of Jerusalem. As Matt 25 is part of the same monologue as 24 this needs some explaining.

Let me know what you think :)

* In the NIV Matt 4:15, 10:5, 10:18, 20:19, 20:25, rendered "Gentiles"; Matt 6:32, rendered "pagans"; Matt 12:18, 12:21, 24:7, 24:9, 24:14, 25:32, 28:19 rendered "nation/s" (not the Jewish nation); Matt 21:43 rendered "a people" (not the Jews);

Bible Reading Plan for the New year

If you are anything like me then your new year often starts with a few resolutions, which you will invariably fail at. This year I want to get more exercise and read more poetry. The exercise is going well, but then I used to do so regularly until the sleepless nights of being a parent set in. Now the kiddies are sleeping through the night. The poetry is trickier, I am not good at reading poetry because I read too fast. So I am trying to just read a couple of poems at a time and return to them. Reading fast is good for novels and text books when the aim is to process events and information. But when it comes to poetry if you dont slow down and savour the words it's rather like gobbling down a delicately seasoned meal, you will miss the whole point - which is to savour and dwell upon the artful creation. One of the reasons it is good to read the Bible in its original languages is because it forces you to read slower, to notice each word. I have just started to learn Hebrew and although I can only read a few verses I am already being struck by the poetry of the original, where a few verses can be savoured and dwelt upon and enjoyed again and again. Which brings me round rather awkwardly to the subject of the post. After many years of struggling, I have finally found (or rather written) a Bible reading plan that works for me. It works for me because I get to read big chunks at a time instead of four or five little bits each day. And it works for me because if I miss days or even whole weeks I can catch up without to much difficulty. There is lots of space in it, but yet it gets me through the whole Bible in a year. The aim of it is not so much devotional (although there is no reason not to use it as such) but to gain familiarity and a holistic knowledge of the text, instead of just dwelling on my favourite bits.

Here's how it goes, you need to read Psalm every other day (or every day to do Psalms twice in the year. Then there is a OT history book and a minor prophet each month and a gospel each quarter. All the other books are fitted in around them so as to be reasonably evenly distributed.

1 Genesis, Hosea, Lamentations, John
2 Exodis, Joel, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Romans, Jude
3 Leviticus, Amos, Ezra, Neemiah, 1+2 Thessalonians, 1+2 Peter
4 Numbers, Obadiah, Daniel, Mathew, 1+2 Timothy and Titus
5 Deuteronomy, Jonah, Song of Songs, 1+2 Corinthians
6 Joshua, Micah, Proverbs, Luke
7 Judges, Nahum, Job, Acts
8 Ruth, Habakuk, Isaiah, Galatians, 1, 2+3 John
9 1st Samuel, Zephaniah, Ezekiel, Ephesians, James
10 2nd Samuel, Haggai, Jeremiah, Mark
11 1st + 2nd Kings, Zechariah, Philippians, Revelation
12 1st +2nd Chronicles, Malachi, Colossians, Philemon, Hebrews

If you go through that list at three chapters a day (plus a Psalm) you will easily read the whole Bible in a year. If you find yourself getting behind just add a few more chapters a day till you catch up. If I finish a months reading with time to spare then I can use that time to get ahead, reread something which had grabbed me, or whatever. Reading the whole Bible each year is a great discipline, there is always something new to discover. If you find yourself getting jaded, try a different translation, or better yet a different language :)!

Have a look at this for heaps of links to other Bible Reading plans.