Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Pastors: Making it up as you go along

Last year I read through Eugene Peterson's book The Pastor in about two days. It was a really good read and I read it too fast. But as I went I took notes of places I would revisit. Which I intend to do over a series of blog posts this year. It is a very worthwhile book, especially for pastors, but probably for others as well. The only complaint is that Peterson is an extraordinarily talented individual and I think some of the more outrageous things he did very successfully are probably beyond the reach of many of us mere mortals. Sometimes you think, that is fine for your Eugene, but I am not Eugene Peterson and my congregation/body/family/brain would not let me get away with that!

The first quote that really struck me was this


The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans. Any kind of continuity with pastors in times past is virtually non-existent. We are a generation that feels as if it is having to start out from scratch to figure out a way to represent and nurture this richly nuanced sand all-involving life of Christ in a country that "knew not Joseph." (p4)
Peterson struck the nail on the head for me. In modern pastoral life there is no blueprint, only a fairly desperate making it up as you go along. This is my observation of others and my own experience. He quotes William Faulkner's bon mot in describing the experience of writing a book as being equally applicable to being a pastor:
It's like building a chicken coop in a high wind. You grab any board or shingle flying by or loose on the ground and you nail it down fast. (p6)
This I think is one reason why this job feels so difficult. I have worked in construction, manufacturing, education, music and catering and never wondered in those jobs if I was doing the right thing. Sometimes I didn't do it right but there was never any doubt because there really is only one way to serve a salad, build a house or solder a circuit board. But as a pastor there are a million ways to spend your time and often it is deeply subjective. In any other context you have either a boss or a client to please and if they are happy then you have done it right. In the church you have a congregation full of people with differing ideas about what it means for your to be "their" pastor and all the while you know you are supposed to be working only for God but he is often not very vocal while these other voices are very insistent on being heard!

And this making things up as you go is hard for other leaders (lay leaders for want of a better expression) in the church to get their heads around. When I raise things that need to change the most common question is "what do other churches do" as if there is a right way to do it and we just need to copy it. But as Peterson writes "it is a most context specific way of life" (p5), what another church does no matter how successfully will not translate in the same way to another church with a different congregation, a different neighbourhood and a different pastor.


What do you think?

Concluding that Paul is Sarcastic

Mystic or Sarcastic? Visions and Revelations in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. Part 7

Having made the switch, and admitted that if he boasted in visions he would do so truthfully (implying that the SA were not being truthful) he then describes the thorn in his flesh necessitated by the visions he has not shared and a subsequent revelation of Christ’s power and grace. It is this revelation of Christ's power made perfect in Paul's own bodily weakness that resonates well with the somatic emphasis of the earlier letter to the Corinthians. It is in Paul's body that Christ is glorified and experienced, even and especially in bodily weakness, and it is in suffering for the gospel that Paul's apostolic credentials are asserted. This final spiritual insight contrasts dramatically with the meaningless and vague vision of vs1-4, here is a message of grace that Paul can share, and has in fact been providing inspiration to Christians for the last 2000 year or so.

Summary of suggested reading of 2 Cor 12:1-10

• V1: introduction to theme of visions
• V2-4: parody of super-apostle vision
• V5-6: switch from “a man” to Paul
• V7-10: contrast of revelations so great they required a thorn in the flesh to prevent elation/conceit, and an actual communicable revelation of Christ’s power and grace

What we have in 2 Cor 12:1-10 is not one vision leading to a thorn leading to a revelation of God’s grace, but two contrasting accounts of spiritual experience, the first of which Paul mocks, the second of which he owns and celebrates.

Benefits of this view.

  1. Exchange a deceitful and incoherently mystic Paul, for a sarcastic and amusing one
  2. No longer required to make sense of numerous exegetical issues with vision in v2-4 as it is not supposed to make sense!
  3. Eliminate 2 Cor 12:2-4 as data for Pauline mysticism, cosmology and anthropology, where it may have been functioning as a red herring for some time.
  4. Problems with text of 2 cor 12:1-4 solved as idiosyncrasies of a parody of a super apostles

Let me know what you think!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

2 Cor 12:5-7: The Switch

Mystic or Sarcastic? Visions and Revelations in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. Part 6

The sticking point for many scholars with the idea that 12:1-4 is not Paul's own vision, including the ones I have run this idea past, has been vs5-7 where Paul is clearly talking about himself. However, as we've already noted, attributing the previous vision to Paul is not without its problems because Paul once again distances himself from the vision account, which he had already done so by his unusual (unique in extant literature) use of the third person.






vs 5a "on behalf of such a man I will boast" i.e. I will ‘boast’ about a man like that [and I just have]
 v5b "but on my own behalf I will not boast except of my own weaknesses" - once again denying that he would boast about himself in such a way, is this deception, sarcasm or the truth? Instead he asserts that he will  only boast about his own weaknesses.
Then in vs6 he admits he could boast about himself because he has had "exceptional revelations", but if he did boast about them he would at least be speaking the truth and not being a fool, implying that the visions of the super-apostles are false and foolish.

So I would assert that there are two spiritual experiences being presented in vs1-7
in verses 1-4 a false, foolish and boastful one attributed to a man Paul (vaguely) knows, and a genuine, exceptional and private one that Paul owns but refuses to go into out of humility "so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard in me." Thus Paul switches in verse 5 from ironic boasting about the first category of spiritual experience to earnest description of his experience of God's power in weakness.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Google Reader Dies and the Little Fishes Cry

I know I am late to the party on the one. I am not the most faithful blogger these days as three kids and a more than full-time job mean i just can't take the time I used to to follow and write blogs. But that is OK because Google Reader reads all the blogs for me So imagine my surprise when for the first time in ages i log into reader only to find out it is being taken away from me. Now it is hardly the end of the world, there are other blog reading sites and life will go on, but it is a shock and as I do a quick trawl to see what other people are saying about it two things stick out

1. I use a lot of google stuff, but if they can retire something anytime they want whether or not I am still using it, do I still want to. Google drive, mail and blogger are all an essential part of my internet life but can I rely on them to not get unplugged sometime regardless of the convenience to myself. After all, I do not pay for these things, Google provides all the coding and storage space for free. We get so used to this state of affairs that I recently met someone who genuinely thought things could be stored in an internet cloud - i.e. had no physical place where they were stored and so no-one actually had to provide a place for them to be stored. Which brings me to the second point. 

2. Most people who now use the internet are computer illiterate, they do not know how they work, they could not code even the most basic of web pages. Back in the day the web was a playground for computer geeks, it was a small pond as only those interested and able could play. Those who had blogs or websites were little fishes in a small ocean and they were very happy. Now social media is easy to use, even if you think the internet just lives in heaven with baby Jesus and the angels, but it is not in heaven it is hosted by some leviathan like google who holds your data and your information and your contacts in the palm of its scaly hands in a shed somewhere in america and it is not benevolent, it is commercial. Which is kind of the same as my first point. WE CANNOT TRUST THEM NOT TO TAKE OUR STUFF!

But I'm lazy so I will probably just be sticking with google stuff till they boot me off, but there is no way I am jumping on board that hopeless turkey google+.

you should read these bloggers take on the subject too if you want.

a-lament-for-google-reader

thoughts on the demis of Google Reader

the-sad-end-of-google-reader-and-what-it-says-about the music industry

has-google-screwed-the-pooch-by-retiring-reader?

Theology Essay Title Generator

This little beauty is doing the rounds on facebook at the moment, unattributed but possible by someone called Rich Wyld? Either way, sure to save some students a lot of time and brain racking!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Theology in the Context of World Christianity: A Book Review

Theology in the Context of World Christianity: 
how the global church is influencing the way we think about and discuss theology
Timothy C. Tennent
Zondervan 2007
 
 

Best quote so far:

Why do theological students in the west continue to spend countless hours learning about the writings of a few well-known, now deceased, German theologians whose global devotees are actually quite small, yet completely ignore over one billion living, breathing Muslims who represent one of the most formidable challenges to the Christian gospel today?
This is an excellent book. I say that only being 3 chapters in, but each chapter is so interesting I intend to give them a blog post each. Mainly because I need space to disagree. It is rare to find a book that though I frequently disagree with the conclusions because the method and question posing is so good and the subject so interesting I enjoy it all the same. It is written as a text book, but does not take liberties with the captive audience that textbooks presume. It reads well in pithy chapters and sections and while full of interesting a pertinent data does not get bogged down, but gets to the point. Each chapter both stands on its own and adds to the central thesis which is not so much how the global church is influencing the way we think about and discuss theology but why it darn well should be. While many of his chapter conclusions I will be pushing back against, this central thesis is proven beyond doubt by his case studies.

Tennent has held simultaneous teaching positions in seminaries in the US and India for much of his working life and so has an excellent vantage point from which to discuss his topic. he is clearly well versed in Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism and is also not shy about his evangelical credentials or his scorn for the two extreme poles of American Christianity, liberalism and consumerist individualist evangelicalism.

He constantly bemoans that fact that most of our theology in the west ignores both the church in the majority world and the other religions that the church in the majority world have to contend with and that are now becoming part of the fabric of western society. He has a high, but not blindly so, opinion of majority world christians, identifying 5 trends they exhibit and of which he approves.

  1. High regard for scripture, conservative, orthodox and traditionalist
  2. Morally and ethically conservative
  3. Sensitive to issues of poverty and injustice
  4. Experienced at articulating gospel in the midst of religious pluralism
  5. More likely to grasp corporate dimensions of NT teaching (against western individualistic tendency)
This really is the book that I was hoping L. Pietersen's Reading the Bible after Christendom would be but wasn't (review to follow) in that this makes a genuine contribution to the way we do theology (which in Tennants evangelicalism is the same as read the bible) in the context of pluralism, in the context of powerlessness and in the context of a culture that is no longer predominantly Christian. As a pastor in a multicultural urban setting I also think this will be invaluable for thinking about mission to the Muslims, Hindus and other faiths and cultures that have moved into the neighbourhood. I don't have to go to India to do theology in the context of world Christianity, I only have to go next door (on my right are Indian Hindus on my left Lapsed Romanian Orthodox).

Watch this space for my grappling with the chapters . . .  :-) Let me know what you think.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Should Christians be Vegetarians?





Many of you may never have considered this topic but for others it is a source of sleep deprivation. Here is a quick sketch of the issues.



1. Meat eating starts in the Biblical story in Genesis 9:3 as part of the Noahic Covenant. So while all descendants of Noah (that probably includes you) have been given birds, land animals and fish to eat by God we are also aware that in our prelapsarian state and even some time after humanity was vegetarian.

2. Moving from a theology from above to one from below we would never suggest that lions or eagles or sharks are wrong to eat their prey and we surely as creatures just fit into that food chain as well as apex predators (which would make mosquitoes super-apex predators!)



3. Fundamental to the new covenant is the removal of restrictions on foods that previously served as boundaries of ethno-religious communities and the replacement with the sanctifying action of thankgiving or "saying grace" (1 Tim 4:4). So we must be very hesitant to generate new legal food eating codes that define Christian edibles.

4. However, it being right to eat meat does not make it right to be cruel to animals. Kindness to animals is hardly a central biblical theme, but it is there (e.g. Deut 22:4, 25:4, Exod 21:33) and how we treat animal is  related in the New Testament to the way we treat humans (and bible teachers!) (e.g Luke 14:1-6, 1 Cor 9:7-12). A number of significant Christian thinkers and leaders over history have advocated for compassion towards our fellow creatures and it would seem a logical correlate to our creation mandated stewardship of the earth (Gen 1:26) and of the new creation based on the royal law of love (Jam 2:8). So permission to eat does not equal permission to mistreat.



4. So given that in general it is right and proper to eat meat with thanksgiving is it right in particular to do so? I would suggest two considerations that should be taken into account for the Christians contemplating vegetarianism. The first, already mentioned, is cruelty. I only buy free range eggs because I consider cage and barn farming of chickens to be cruel. However, I cannot afford to buy free range meat and I am conscious that my diet is not cruelty free. The ideal is to buy half a free range cow or sheep from a friend or relative who farms their own animal, and from time to time I've been able to do this, but not everyone can and freezer space is a big issue. If we are to eat meat from industrialised farming then thought does need to be given to how we mitigate the cruelty that we participate in and benefit from.  (It has been argued that vegetarianism with it's consumption of dairy products is crueller than meat eating)

5. The second issue is economics. The reality is that there is not enough quality arable land for us all to be vegetarian and we do need meat to feed the human race. While our current meat heavy consumption is unsustainable all converting to vegetarianism is not the answer either. However those who refrain from meat mitigate to some extent those who over indulge so maybe it is still worth doing if that is your bag.

Conclusion
Certainly a Christian can be vegetarian, especially based on issues of cruelty and economics. However, they should not take a legalistic stance on the matter and must try not to judge those who can't stop shovelling bacon into their fat faces.

Let me know what you think :-)

Recommended resource for further thought and recipe ideas Repentant Carnivores Blog

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Would Paul Mock?

Mystic or Sarcastic? Visions and Revelations in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. Part 5

So is it really possible that Paul, as I have argued, is mocking an opponent rather than recounting his own vision? Even scholars who consider this to be Paul's own vision recognise there is some humour at work here. e.g. “By his faintly humorous tone he is ridiculing his opponents’ attempts to achieve acceptance in Corinth by claims to paranormal experience” (Barnett, NICNT, p562).

But would such mockery be understood by Paul's audience? “For every poet who sought to entertain audiences with sober and earnest perspectives on the world, it seems that there was always another just as happy to ridicule or ironize traditional pieties, or to test the limits of decorum, all in the service of drawing laughter from an audience. Such poets acheived their comic gaols through a variety of methods . . . but one of the most pervasive an enduring practices . . . was to compose poetry that mocked, abused, or otherwise satirised other people."  (Ralph Rosen, Making Mockery: The poetics of Ancient Satire. OUP 2007, p3)


While my particular suggestion is novel, minority reports in the literature show it's constituent parts have been considered before. In 1972 Hans Dieter Betz wrote: “In this wild and brilliant self parody, [Paul] demolishes presumptions of his adversaries. He restores his credibility by discrediting theirs through the use of the entire arsenal of irony, sarcasm and parody.” So Betz recognises here the presence of parody and mockery, but mistakes the target as Paul. Whereas both L Hermann, (“Apollos,” RSR 50 [1976] 330–36), and M Goulder, (NovT 36, 1994, 47-57) have argued that Paul is describing someone else (Apollos or another Christian) but without detecting the presence of mockery. 

Thus my claim that Paul is parodying the super apostles is not completely without support in the literature, and it is my assertion that most scholars have been too easily dismissive of Betz's thesis regarding parody, perhaps failing to account for the popularity of mockery as a rhetorical device in Greco-Roman society. Obviously I would need to do more work on these areas of argument to put this thesis on firmer standing, but life doesn't presently allow for that. If anyone has any insight into this I'd be very grateful for your thoughts in the comments!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Paul's Vision?

Mystic or Sarcastic? Visions and Revelations in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. Part 4
We arrive now at Paul's recounting of the vision, which is accomplished in a few short verses, 2 Cor 12:2-4. "Due to it's brevity the text is a rather unusual representative of the "heavenly travel" genre." (Okland, p96) It fits the rhetorical form of Aretalogy, a tribute to great man or deity, a form which could also lend itself equally well to ironic mockery.

3rd Person

Paul starts the account of the vision by moving into the third person and introducing a "man in Christ" whom he knew fourteen years ago, or who had a vision fourteen years ago. The scholarly consensus is that Paul switches to the third person in order to talk about himself. There is no consensus as to why he did this. Perhaps it was out of humility or a desire to distance himself from the grandeur of the vision. Bultmann suggests that "Paul's responsible "I" did not participate [in the vision], that something occurred to him of which he was an observer, or which in retrospect happened to him as an alien." (Bultmann, Second Letter 219). If it is a turn to rabbinic modes of speech (not unlike a certain Rabbi capable of referring to himself as the “son of man” why does he not do it in 11:22 when he is actually defending his Jewishness? It is entirely possible that he would talk about himself in the third person as his contemporaries did so in similar situations. However, Paul does so nowhere else that we know of and so this oddity needs explaining. Perhaps the best explanation is that he is indeed talking about someone else?

Ockland writes, “Although some scholars have considered the possibility that he is indeed speaking of someone else, most scholars regard this possibility unlikely . . . how would this story serve him, if it were not his own experience?" (Ockland p102) If the only objection to this story being about someone else is its purpose, then reading this story as mockery rather than tribute resolves the problem as the story serves to undermine and ridicule Paul's opponents and then allows him to contrast his own concrete experiences of suffering for Christ.

14 years?
This detail is often used to argue that it is Paul speaking. In many commentaries there are surveys of all of Paul’s visions recounted in Acts and references to visions in his letter, at the end of such sections they conclude, in the representative words of Ralph Martin “there nothing we know of the apostle with which we can identify this experience” (Word, p400). There has even been speculation that this describes Paul's experience of Jewish Mysticism prior to conversion. (J Bowker ”Merkabah Visions and the Visions of Paul” JSS 16 (1971) 157-73; cited in Dunn, TOPTA, p47) Yet the fourteen year interval between vision and recounting in 2 Cor is in fact a hindrance to the idea this is Paul’s vision at all as such an extraordinary and powerful experience seems to have left no discernible mark on his theology elsewhere in his letters.

In the body or out of the body? 
This repeated phrase, which is unmatched in it complete failure to convey any information whatsoever is vague even to the point of not having a clear referent, does it describe Paul's knowledge of the man or the experience of the vision? It is decidedly un-Pauline, how can someone whose theology is so rooted in the soma show so little consideration for it here? Earlier in the letter in 2 Cor 5:6-10 Paul talks about being away from the body as the a cipher for death. Within the pericope this expression is literally out of place, and has been shuffled around in most modern translations to force it to make sense.

So what options do we have for understanding the significance of the phrase?  With its unusual wording and sentiment, repetition, syntactic dislocation, and parallel structures, it satisfies many of the criteria of a Corinthian slogan. It may not be a classic slogan in the sense that Paul does not seek to rebut or redefine it, but if we see it as a slogan it would explain its nonsensical nature and its repetition. If it was intended to convey information on a purely locutionary level then it is hard to see why Paul would repeat himself here. However if it had an illocutionary intention, e.g. as a catchphrase to alert the listener of his intended target of mockery then repetition serves a valid purpose. The verbal clue of the catch phrase would alert the listener to Paul’s intended target and thus to the presence of irony. The imitation would suffice to set the tone of ridicule, but the subsequent account only adds insult to injury. They would have been able to set aside the surface meaning of the discourse and to recognise that Paul was using the established rhetorical technique of censuring with counterfeit praise. While the passage can be read as a straightforward boast about a vision of a super apostle, an ironic reading of the text results in a discrediting of the visionary it appears to commend. The only other way to explain the repetition of the phrase is that Paul wanted to reinforce the extent of his ignorance about his bodily state during the vision - but why should he want to emphasize that aspect of the vision.

Pointless
As Okland observes "In so many stories belonging to this genre, the narrator or protagonist is given a particular message to communicate. . . this is unusual also compared to the other texts authored by Paul." (Okland, p96) Paul describes here a vision in which nothing is seen that is recounted and nothing sensible is heard. It must be said that the third heaven/Paradise (they may or may not be the same place) is/are a long way to go for not very much. If you have spent any time reading Paul's letters you will realise that there are not many things he will not try to explain or put words to. He is certainly never short of a message to bring. So how is it here that this vision which he allegedly recounts as the apex of his spiritual experience is so utterly pointless? I would suggest that it only makes sense if it is intended to be meaningless as a parody of the sort of visions the "super apostles" boast about, and therefore is not intended to be understood as Paul's vision at all but as the vision of someone else.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Is that really necessary?

Mystic or Sarcastic? Visions and Revelations in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. Part 3
Paul introduces his vision narrative by writing
It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it,
but I will go on to visions and revelations in the Lord.
- 2 Cor 12:1
This introduction is peculiar. Paul who has in the past exhorted the Corinthians to do only what is beneficial (e.g. 1 Cor 6:12) is here doing something which he has prejudged as non-beneficial. Martin dubs this an "opening irony" (Word, p391) and that we should not take it literally as it is “most likely a polemical statement against his opponents, who have boasted to aid their own cause.” (p395). The problems with this verse do not end here. The expression "visions and revelations in the Lord" is also curious, Barnett suggests that "this expression is offhand, and perhaps dismissive in intent.” (NICNT, p558). Others have remarked that it sounds like a stock phrase or slogan of the false apostles. It certainly isn't a phrase Paul uses elsewhere.

Altogether we enter this pericope via an awkward introductory sentence and it is necessary to find irony somewhere. Either we find irony in this introductory sentence or as I am arguing the irony should be found in the following verses. Indeed, nothing will be gained, because Paul is recounting the following vision to cut the ground from under those "super apostles" (2 Cor 11:12 NIV). It is not for their benefit but for the silencing of those ministers of Satan (11:15).

Friday, March 1, 2013

Boasting and Roasting

Mystic or Sarcastic? Visions and Revelations in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. Part 2
The visions and revelations passage is part of a larger section of ch. 10-13 where Paul is defending his ministry against "Super Apostles" who, Paul wants us to understand, are boasting of their status as Jews and as receivers of mystical revelations and are using their elevated status to undermine Paul’s authority and the stability of the church. Despite the discussion of Hebrew status and visions the overarching and inescapable theme of the section is suffering and service as an Apostle of Christ.

In approaching 12:1-10 we should note Paul makes a number of commitments that delineate his own intention in this section.
10:12-18, not boast beyond proper limits . . . let him who boasts boast in the Lord.
11:12-15, cut the ground from under those . . . false apostles . . . their end will be what their actions deserve
11:16-17, Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do then receive me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting
11:21-23, what anyone else dares to boast about – I am speaking as a fool – I also dare to boast about.
11:30, If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.

So Paul expressly states that he wont be boasting of anything except of the Lord and his weakness. He also signals his intention to sort out the false apostles, to cut the ground out from under them. He also signals that when he boasts as others do, he is only doing so as a fool - in other words he is fooling around, not being serious. If we read the vision in 2 Cor 12 as Paul's own vision he has both broken his commitment to not boast and has also failed to deal the decisive blow to the false apostles that he has undertaken to deliver. However, if we take Paul at his word that he is going to refuse to boast in anything other than God and his weakness; and that he is going to deal with the false apostles; and be foolish when he boasts like they do; then we are prepared for a moment of stinging sarcasm. Which, I will go on to argue, the vision narrative of 2 Cor 12 is his delivery of such.