Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Islam, a big bully?

When you see clips like this (HT JMG), with the brilliant Colbert lampooning the absurd and irrational claims of Islamic clerics, it is hard to believe that Islam could at the same time be forcing western media to self censorship.

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But this is exactly what is happening as revealed in this excellent NYT article (HT JH).  In it Ross Douthat writes,
Our culture has few taboos that can’t be violated, and our establishment has largely given up on setting standards in the first place.
Except where Islam is concerned. There, the standards are established under threat of violence, and accepted out of a mix of self-preservation and self-loathing.
This is what decadence looks like: a frantic coarseness that “bravely” trashes its own values and traditions, and then knuckles under swiftly to totalitarianism and brute force. 
The whole article is chilling as he details how both academic institutions and the entertainment industry have bowed to the pressure to censor disrespectful mentions of Muhammed.  The funny thing is I have always been annoyed at the way the media thinks blasphemy is somehow les offensive that sex or violence, and I would never ever condone the deliberate slandering of a religious figure who is revered by millions.  All religious discussion should be done in a way that respects and humanises the other parties.  And yet I am really annoyed that comedy central censored South Park's depictions of Muhammed, not because I want Muhammed to be profaned but because the threat of violence has garned special treatment for Islam, which is most surely a reward for bad behaviour if ever there was one.

The fact is that when the "Christian" West is seen to be disrespectful to Islam it is those Christians in the east who suffer the most, the minority groups that make an easy target for the rage against the blasphemies of the "Christian" West.  This was seen most clearly with the whole Rensburg lecture debacle, where a citation made in an academic context by a western celebrity was able to inspire violence against Christian minority groups across the Muslim world. As such we cannot advocate that we should live in a world where Mohammed is insulted and mocked, not because we are worried about violence against ourselves, but because those who are most likely to suffer for such are those who live in countries a long way from the benefit of our police forces and justice systems that protect our "right" to free speech.

Monday, April 26, 2010

McGrath, The Only True God: A Book Review

James F. McGrath, The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context

[With thanks to the author for a review copy]

McGrath’s book has an argument that for many would seem counterintuitive, that the early Christians did not diverge from Jewish monotheism, even despite their veneration of Jesus. For McGrath this is simply because the modern conceptions of monotheism are not how 1st Century Jews would have defined their monotheism.  The book’s thesis is that while Christians, post Nicaea, are used to thinking about monotheism in terms of ontology, 1st Century Jews defined their devotion to the one God in terms of worship.  While Christians did worship Christ in some respects, McGrath argues that only sacrificial worship to Christ would have made Christ equal to God in a way that would constitute a breach of 1st Century Jewish monotheism.

The book itself has the rare virtue of being blessedly short, a mere 104 pages of text (not including notes, bibliography and index).  That being the case, what McGrath achieves within those pages is all the more impressive.  The book is intended to be accessible to those without a detailed knowledge of the field.  Thus the first chapter takes pains to explain clearly the important concepts and relevant methods.  This is done in a thorough but economical style.  In the second chapter McGrath turns to the question of how Jews in the Greco-Roman era would have understood their own monotheism in the context of a world where the worship of many gods was commonplace.  Given the book’s intention to be accessible to the non-expert it is a shame that some of the more obscure source passages referenced, e.g. Hecataeus of Abdera, do not appear in translation, instead the reader is reliant on McGrath’s précis of the relevant points.  Having established a working definition of 1st Century Jewish monotheism McGrath moves on to examine the writings of Paul (chp 3), the Gospel of John (chp 4), and Revelation (chp 5), against this definition.  In each chapter McGrath continues to develop his thesis and in each case finds the Christian elevation of Christ to be within the bounds of his definition of 1st Century Jewish monotheism.

The sixth chapter moves on from the Biblical material to discuss the “two powers heresy” within rabbinic literature.  McGrath argues that after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple Jewish monotheism was forced to redefine itself.  One result of this process was the rabbinic response to the two powers heresy which while probably originally targeted at the Gnostics came to encompass the Christians also.  McGrath concludes that certain ideas that were condemned in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries need not have been controversial in the 1st century.  Thus the schism between Christianity and Judaism over their respective understandings of monotheism is re-dated from the 1st to the 3rd century and, surprisingly, is a result of a change in the boundaries of Jewish monotheism rather than a developing Trinitarianism.  The final chapter briefly summarises the book’s findings and then offers some thoughts on their historical and theological implications.

McGrath’s book is excellently written, the only hindrance to the reader’s enjoyment being the use of endnotes instead of footnotes.  It consistently progresses through his argument with nuance but without wasting space on peripheral issues.  It engages with other scholarship in a respectful but efficient manner and represents a significant contribution to the field.  McGrath’s concluding thoughts are balanced and show a concern for further discussion and for the appropriation of the work by theologians.  I would suggest it is essential reading for anyone interested in NT background, Christology, or the historical development of Trinitarian theology.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Habets, The Anointed son: Book Review Part 3

[Following on from Part 1 and Part 2.]

The final three chapters of the book get stuck into the theological ramifications of the Spirit Christology that Habets has exposed in the NT and argued is essential for contemporary theology.

E100 Podcast

If you haven't already found it Tim Bulkleys excellent 5 minute Bible podcast is doing a special series on the essential 100 Bible readings challenge that many NZ churches are working through at the moment as part of an initiative by the Scripture Union, Bible Society and Wycliffe Translators in NZ.

Well worth a listen and sharing with people.  Tim's podcats are short, pithy, and aimed at ordinary (read non academic) types and do a great job of dealing with interesting and thorny issues in a surprisingly pleasing manner.  Enjoy :-)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Carson on the dangers of Biblical Scholarship

A peculiar form of pride may be located in our sheer enjoyment of discovery as we work through texts, write essays or books, and prepare sermons and lectures. Those who work in other disciplines may enjoy their work and discoveries just as much as we enjoy ours. The difference, of course, is that microbiologists and  Shakespeare scholars are unlikely to think they are entitled to a high place in the spiritual sphere because they have unravelled an arcane point within their disciplines. They may be exhilarated by their discoveries, but they are unlikely to think that because of these discoveries they are spiritually superior. But that is the kind of temptation we face. We exult in mastery of certain texts, but because those texts are the texts of Scripture, we think our mastery confers on us a more profound knowledge of God. We do not always recognize that the mark of true growth in the study of Scripture is not so much that we become masters of the text as that we are mastered by the text.
[From here p11-12, HT Mike Bird]

To be or not to be in your mother tongue?

What the biblioblogosphere gives with the left hand, it takes away with the right.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Turkish bath for the soul

The most chilling and disturbing thing today:

God have mercy on America and its legacy of hatred.  (HT RB)

The most heart warming thing today (even though it is from the future)
A retiring Pastors final meditation (HT JH)
God bless America for producing saints like that.

And the net result is . . . an increase in both hope and trepidation for the human race.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Are there really no imperfect people in heaven?

OK, quick rant here, in the last couple of months I have come across two different evangelistic messages (and it's not like I read a lot of them, being already converted and all!) which have as a central premise in their description of the human problem of sin the fact that we cannot get into Heaven because we are sinners and only perfect souls/people can get in.  There are huge problems with this for all sorts of reasons but the most glaring one is that such an idea contradicts the Bible even upon the most cursory and literalistic reading.

[The Ascension of Enoch, from here]
Three people are recorded in scripture as bodily going to Heaven to be with God.  Enoch (Gen 5:24), Elijah (2 Kigs 2:11), and Jesus (Acts 1:11).  How many of them were perfect, or were perfected before they were "taken up"?  I count one, the other two were presumably as flawed as the rest of us.  This fundamental tenent of some evangelistic tracts is thus fundamentally wrong.  Not being able to "get into Heaven" for one reason or another is not a part of the human problem.  If God wants you there, God is more than capable of getting you in!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Metaphor in Paul

[This was written ages ago for my thesis, but hasn't made the cut, but didn't want to lose it, so now you get the benefit. :-)  Let me know what you think.]

Paul’s writings are crammed full of metaphorical language. The difficulty with interpreting any analogy is determining which aspects of the analogical image hold to the referent and which do not. This process of interpretation frequently takes place on the subconscious level in all levels of communication. Whether it is the advertising tag line, “Red Bull: it gives you wings,” or the Church congregation praying to “Father God,” interpretation is instant and subconscious. We know without being told that we will not be able to fly as result of the caffeine drink and that God is not our biological progenitor. By necessity metaphors involve the recipient in an act of interpretation that comes naturally but is fraught with potential danger.[1] From the point of view of classical theology ‘metaphors are conceptually unclean’[2] because they are generally open to multiple and conflicting interpretations.

Susan Eastman provides a useful typology for approaches to the abundance of metaphor in Paul.[3] Firstly, one may focus on one metaphor and ‘collapse’ the ‘distinction between the subject and the image’. This literalizing of one metaphor inevitably takes place at the expense of other imagery which becomes subservient. Eastman, discussing metaphorical perceptions of God, considers this collapse a work of idolatry.[4] In Paul's ecclesiology (for example) such a collapse simply obscures the author’s intention in providing us with many images and not one.

Secondly, one may translate metaphors into ‘a different linguistic medium,’ that is into more conceptually precise language, with the goal of allowing contemporary understanding. Eastman takes issue with the approach of both Engberg-Pedersen and Bultmann who respectively translate or demythologize the language of religious experience into ethics. Eastman rightly objects that religious experience cannot be simply equated to ethics and that as descriptions of religious experience they provide the most substantial and relevant link between the historical Paul and his contemporary readers.[5] I would add to this that flattening out of metaphors into precise propositional concepts inevitably results in a loss of significant information, especially at the illocutionary and perlocutionary levels.

Thirdly, one may acknowledge the metaphor’s ability to evoke a wide and deep reaction in receiver of the text. For Eastman, Paul’s metaphor’s functions not as a barrier to communication but ‘rather as a vehicle that connects the text with the contemporary reader on a multitude of levels.’[6] It is this approach which potentially yields the most fruit in the study of Paul's metaphors, assuming that: 1) Paul would not have used many metaphors if he only intended one, 2) if Paul had intended to communicate precise concepts he would have used appropriate language. The understanding that for Paul metaphors are evocations of religious experience rather than clumsy methods of asserting propositions (ethical, theological or otherwise) is enourmously significant for the task of both the historian-exegete and the modern interpreter.

[1] Richard D. Patterson, “Metaphors of Marriage as Expressions of Divine-Human Relations,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 51, no. 4 (December 2008): 689.
[2] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in this Text (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 133.
[3] Susan Eastman, Recovering Paul's mother tongue : language and theology in Galatians (Grand Rapids Mich: Eerdmans, 2007), 189-93.
[4] Ibid., 189-90.
[5] Ibid., 190-1.
[6] Ibid., 192-3.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Waihopai 3 nearly home and dry

Solicitor-General David Collins yesterday ruled out appealing their acquittal 
Phew!
but he may try to sue them for $1.1 million for the damage done to government property.
Oh dear.
Full story here.

What if God was one of us?


I am one of those people who always likes to read the prefaces and ackowledgements of a book just to get a bit of insight into the personality of the author.  Correspondingly, I also like the "about" pages on peoples blogs, although those are often dissapointing lists of abstract interests rather than any real self revelation as such.  Clayboy, AKA Doug Chaplin has a great "about" page, which reads pretty much as a short and pithy manifesto for theology.  (My own blog manifesto is here)  I've actually found Doug's worth returning to just for its own sake.  One phrase has been giving me thought recently:
as the Scriptures suggest, if you’re going to anthropomorphise the eternal reality who dwells in unapproachable light you might as well do it outrageously.
Which nicely pins down the absurdity of the revelation of God in the Bible, of our attempts to talk about such a being, and most of all of the absurdity of the incarnation itself.   We have permission to to anthropomorphise God, the one who is so supremely other, because God does so in God's own self revelation.

But there is a danger in this. It may be done outrageously, but it must also be done critically and rigourously.  I recently formatted the proofs for a forthcoming book on evangelical views on God and gender (review to follow once it actually gets published).  As well as the fare I expected, regarding gender equality in home and church (or lack of it), I was surprised by the number of chapters that used the topic to actually talk about God.  (perhaps I shouldn't have been, but I was.)  I realised that in the last few years God had been getting increasingly distant and abstract for me, mainly as a resuly of the particular areas I was studying in.  That book reminded me that God reveals himself to us anthopomorphised, sometimes as male and sometimes female.  God, he/she/it, is someone we can relate to.  The danger comes when we take this extraordinary gift of God and confuse which direction the morphing actually operates in.  God may anthropomorphise God's self in revelation, we may need to use anthropomorphic analogy to describe God (e.g. God is "love"), but we absolutely must not reverse this and deify or theomorphise our own selves, especially not our gender. 

So the answer to Joan's question, posed so well in the song above, is that God was one of us, God is one of us, and yet just because I am a slob, doesn't mean God is. :-)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Masculinity and Leisure

Richard Beck, while reflecting on Mark Driscoll's appeal, makes the interesting thesis that education feminises men (HT Steve).  As many pastors tend to be well educated this means that male pastors have a tendency to be femininised, to the potential detriment of their ability to connect with blue collar "manly" males.  What is interesting is that Beck's criteria for the femininity of educated men are actually not to do with physical appearance or language (which you might consider primary in terms of interpersonal relationships) but are based on leisure.  Hence if a man chooses to take up knitting he is behaving in a feminine way, but if he prefers to hunt he is being more masculine.  So feminity here, while correlated to education, is actualy a function of leisure. 

This gave me some food for thought.  What is it about education that should cause men to change their leisure habits?  I am reasonably educated but I also love hunting, fishing, mountain biking, motorbikes and power tools.  But I don't get to do much of any of them because they are just not a priority for me. Instead most of my leisure time (and I don't get much due to having small children at home) gets spent doing things like reading, playing music, and soduku - I'm a girl!  It's not that I don't like doing manly things, I just don't have enough drive to do those things regularly.

Here's my stab at some pop-psychology:

Men who have acheived educationally tend to get jobs where they are affirmed in their competencies, respected, and given decision making power.  Thus while their jobs may not look especially "manly" they feel affirmed as men through their work and are free in their leisure time to do whatever they want, having expressed their masculinity satisfactorily through their work. 

On the other hand, blue collar workers, though doing man-ual labour, are often at the bottom of the tree in their working environments, undermined and with little power or authority when it comes to making decisions (and yes I have worked in both construction and manufacturing).  Hence they have a greater drive to use their leisure time for the purpose of reinforcing their masculinity.  These manly leisure activities generally involve asserting control over the environment (MTB or DIY!), machines (cars, bikes, computers) or over other creatures (hunting, fishing, coaching sports) and thus are designed to make up for what is lacking in the work place. 

Nietzsche might see that as a product of the will to power, but perhaps a Christian could see it as God's gift of dominion to humanity (Gen 1:26) trying to assert itself in frustrated men.  Let me know what you think :-)

Easter Blogging

Well I took a blogging holiday over Easter, not because I was being especially pious, far from it in fact.  I had a few ideas for posts but didn't want to take time away from family to do them.  However, no harm done to the world at large as there was plenty of quality Easter fare this year:

Good Friday sermons from Kim Fabricus, M&M while Doug Chaplin ponders "the cup" as does Glenn Peoples, but Richard Beck ponders the Passion from a Christus Victor angle.

James McGrath points out the importance of Saturday, which is something I wrote about (albeit from a totally different angle) in an old essay.

Easter Sunday Sermons from Kim Fabricus and Bruce Hamil meditates on materialism and the resurrection as does Jason Goroncy and Doug while others just wonder if we can prove it or not?  For Richard Beck Easter demands a decision from us but don't tell the bunnies.

Habets, The Anointed Son: Book Review Part 2

[Following on from Part 1.]

Habets' next two chapters deal with both the NT scholarship and Habets' own appropriation of NT Testament theology respectively.

4 Interpreting the Evidence: Christology in New Testament Scholarship

The fourth chapter begins with a brief summary of approaches to NT Christology, especially regarding how the different Christology of the NT corpus are to be reconciled (or not) to each other.  From the beginning Habets suggests that one of the reasons scholarship has struggled with this question, to the extent it has, is that it has presupposed a Christology from above and then tried to read that back into the NT accounts instead of seeing "how and why the earliest communities of faith came to a belief in the deity of Jesus Christ in the first place" (p89).  Habets claims that Spirit Christology can provide the "integrative framework" that can be used to hold together all the "NT Teaching on the identity of Jesus" (p102).

The rest of the chapter is then spent arguing for and outlining a "retroactive hermeneutic" and the role of the Spirit in the interpretations of the present (p103).  For Habets "The canonical authors are consciously writing to and for Spirit-inspired readers" (p105).  He argues that just as the Gospels are examples of reinterpretation of the life of Jesus from the perspective of the believing community so we must read them retroactively, conscious of Christ's presence with us now by the Spirit (p116).  As arguing for this hermeneutic is really the function and bulk of the chapter, its title is somewhat misleading.  Notwithstanding, the chapter makes a number of important and provoking assertions regarding the role of the Spirit in interpreting and appropriating scripture today, exposing essential issues for anyone who comes to the scriptures from a perspective of faith.

5 Explaining Jesus: The Testimony of the New Testament Writers

This chapter again suffers from something of a title confusion.  At 70 pages it is the longest chapter in the book, yet 66 pages are devoted to the Gospels and Acts, 3 to Paul and the rest of the NT barely gets a look in, although Hebrews does receive some mentions.  After exposing the diversity of NT Christology in the previous chapter it was a shame not to have it play a fuller part in this one.

The great strength of this chapter is the amount of ground it covers and the depth of the references to secondary literature.  Each section of the chapter would function well as a starting point for research into a particular facet of Jesus' life and work.  This gives the book its potential to function admirably as a text book for students looking for research topics.  Due to the amount of ground covered Habets has to deal quickly with a number of contentious points which he does not have space to argue thoroughly.  This leaves plenty of room for debate and exploration on some finer points, especially around the role of the Spirit in the death and resurrection of Christ.  However the overall thesis of the chapter, that the NT conceives of Jesus Christ's identity in pneumatological terms, is not undermined.

The chapter takes the reader on a tour of the Gospels from the point of view of the Spirit and provides some fascinating insights.  For example, in discussing Jesus' temptations in the wilderness Habets concludes, "The temptations were not levelled at his human weakness but rather aimed at his relationship to God," (p141) and Habets demonstrates the integral connection between Christ and the Spirit using a discussion of the unpardonable sin (p160).

The final instalment of the book review to come soon! Watch this space.