Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Burden of Belief

I realise I am late to the party on this one, but a fascinating article (and further links for the time-rich) from the Guardian about a Canadian pastor who has embraced the title of atheist.
“I do not believe in a theistic, supernatural being called God,” says Gretta Vosper, the United Church of Canada minister who has led West Hill since 1997. “I don’t believe in what I think 99.99% of the world thinks you mean when you use that word.” Tor her, God is instead a metaphor for goodness and a life lived with compassion and justice.
The ecclesiastical ruptures Gretta Vosper has and is causing are on thing, but her relative success in forming a community as an atheist pastor is also worth noting: 
Some, such as Eve Casavant, 44, recently started attending West Hill after hearing about Vosper among atheist circles. She was delighted to find the same sort of church she had been raised in, save the burden of belief. “It’s like that sense of community without the barriers,” she says. “It’s a beautiful thing and it is too bad it’s not being as embraced as it should be.”
Speaking from my own experience, you would be surprised how many people go to church primarily for the community, rather than for belief in God. On the other hand, it is well documented how many God-believers now seldom darken the doors of a church. The real kicker though, is this,
Stripped of God and the Bible, services here are light on religious doctrine and instead emphasise moral teachings. The service begins with a nod to the First Nations land on which the church stands and goes on to mention human rights in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Palestine. Global concern is coupled with community-building, with members invited to share significant moments of the past week.
The idea that the way to moral action on social, environmental and historical issues is through atheism is a real challenge to us God-botherers. How often does Christian piety become an insulation from the pain of the world?   Matthew 5:20 could well be re-written for us as
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Atheists and the Unbelievers, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Big House - A parable of Colonisation

I posted earlier about the latent racism in New Zealand, especially (but not exclusively) against the Maori. Moana Maniapoto says the same kind of thing but, uh, better. Well she has the dubious advantage of being on the receiving end, rather than a spectator like muggins. Be sure to read the whole article.

Imagine you and your extended family lived in a big house. One day, a group of strangers knocks on the door and asks if they can move in. You welcome them. But more and more keep coming. So you and the visitors sort out a tenancy agreement, just to be on the safe side.

As more of their mates pile in, your family is forced into the basement.

By now, the visitors are in the majority. They paint, plumb, rewire and transform the house without checking with you. You wave the agreement in their faces. After all, no matter how much a tenant pimps the property, the landlord is still the owner. But the newbies talk about how, thanks to them, the house is so much nicer. More modern even. “Look at all the bells and whistles,” they say. And they’ve got new rules, too. They suggest that if you want to challenge the alterations, “you could vote — just like anyone else in the house. That’s democracy. After all, we’re all one people. All equal.”

Robert Myles on the Quest's for the Historical Jesus

If you haven't already, check out Myles' short but stimulating essay on Bible and Interpretation.

Jesus is not merely an object of historical interest, but a figure of immense cultural significance and authority today, in that any statement made about him is simultaneously a statement about the contemporary world we inhabit.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Curse of Ham

Every now and then a blog post comes along that is an education all in itself.

Check out Esau McCaully on the Curse of Ham

From childhood, I had known about the curse of Ham. I knew that it meant I was supposed to be inferior. Thus, black slavery in the past and our present second-class status was a manifestation of the will of God . . .

For many at my seminary, a world in which black people struggle with questions of identity and worth and their place in the biblical narrative was as foreign to them as New England was to me. They did not realize how often Black Christians have to struggle and strive to prove to skeptical friends and family members that Christianity is a religion that has a place for black folk. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Beginning to read the Bible?

I was asked recently for some suggestions on how to get into reading the Bible from someone without a church background (or a personal faith that I know of). I quickly became aware that most internet resources are huge, not suitable for beginners and generally assume a rather conservative faith stance, not conducive to curious agnostic Bible readers. So I wrote a shortish email with a few points. Obviously I could have said more but I tried to keep it simple. My intention is to provoke curiosity rather than to achieve indoctrination. This was my response, let me know what you think.

Hi

The Bible can be confusing because it is not really a normal book. Some basic points help when you are trying to get into it.

1. It is not one book but 66 different books (by about 40 different authors)

2. These books have been arranged (roughly) to tell one big story, from the creation of the world (Genesis), to the saviour of the world, Jesus (gospels), to the end of the world as we know it and the ultimate salvation of the world (Revelation) with a whole bunch of stuff in between.

3. There is lots of double ups. 2 different stories of creation (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3). 2 different accounts of Israel's kings (1 Samuel - 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles). 4 accounts of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).

4. There are many different genres. E.g. poetry, history, biography, prophecy, songs, letters, myths, genealogy, law, etc. And often books seem to have more than one type of genre in them. 

5. Not many people succeed in reading the whole thing straight through (at least not on their first attempt) because after Genesis and the first part of Exodus, we start to get bogged down in lots of laws and this goes on for 4 books!

6. I would normally suggest to people to dip into a few different sections first before trying to read the whole thing through. And if you do read the whole thing through don't worry about skipping some of the more tedious bits, you can always go back and read them later. Some ideas to start with,

Mark: the shortest gospel of Jesus, probably only 30 mins to read.
Genesis: The introduction to the whole Bible, Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Joseph.
Psalms: a collection of songs expressing a wide range of emotion, not all of it positive. Psalm 23 is the most famous. 51, 121, 113, are good ones too.
Jonah: More than just a guy who got swallowed by a whale.
Judges: R18 level violence
Ruth: The love story that gives hope to the story of Judges
Acts: This is the sequel to gospel of Luke and tells the story of the Early Church and introduces Paul who wrote many of the letter in the OT.
Esther: The girl who saves a nation.
Philippians: A letter from prison
Song of songs: Ancient erotic poetry (I kid you not)

7. As you read through you'll realise that lots of the books reference each other, it is a very interconnected set of books and even by dipping in and out you'll start to get a sense of the whole thing.

8. I've read it through several times, but it usually takes me more than a year. If you read three chapters a day you get through it in a year, I think. Good luck!

Feel free to throw any further questions my way. I am a Bible geek so always happy to do my best to answer.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Andrew Judd and Racism in New Zealand

This fascinating and terribly titled video exposes what most Maori and many migrants have long known: White New Zealand is endemically racist. Now before you turn away in disgust at my unfair judgement, let me explain. White New Zealand is not racist because the people are mean and nasty. When we hear the word racist we think of horrible angry people blaming others for their misfortune and frothing a bit at the mouth. New Zealanders of all colours are the most generous and kind people you could hope to meet, of course there are always exceptions, but as a whole they are really not bad people, so to be told they are racist it is hurtful. If they saw someone in need, no matter the race they would help. If a neighbour moved in, no matter the race they would welcome them. If two people fall in love, no matter the race, they can be together. If someone does a good job (especially in sport), no matter the race, they deserve to be celebrated. I truly believe it and have seen it. So how can we possibly be racist?

We are not racist because we are horrible people, we are racist out of ignorance. And this is why when someone like Andrew Judd gets a bit more knowledge, the scales fall from his eyes and he zealously seeks a better world!

We are racist because we are ignorant of our own history.
It is no accident that Judd's conversion came after reading a history book. If people really understood what Maori have been through they wouldn't complain about having Maori issues "shoved down my throat". Try having your own language banned for 100 years by a government you didn't get to vote for. Hows that for having something shoved down your throat? Being forced to learn about Maori issues (as if anyone is) is not force feeding, it is education about your own history. Yes it will make you uncomfortable but nothing worth comparing to how uncomfortable the Maori's have been made in their own country.

We are racist because we are ignorant of democracy.
Much of the dissension in the story revolves around Maori seats on councils. White folk get upset because (in their minds) it is special treatment for a person who otherwise wouldn't be elected. But the purpose of modern democracy is not mob rule, but representative rule, The reality is councils with all white boards are not representing the Tangata Whenua in their regions. A seat or two for Maori representation would not have given any real power (more's the pity) but it would at least have given a voice to a minority who deserve to be represented just as much as "Grey Power". (oh the irony of that title) [A side issue is all the councilors getting paid not to turn up to meetings, the citizenry should have been up in arms about that, but instead, as usual the powerful scapegoat the minorities]

We are racist because we are ignorant of social legacies.
The whole "why don't they just sort themselves out" reveals the suspicion lurking in so many people minds that Maori have higher rates of poverty, crime, addiction and abuse than the rest of the population because they are too stupid or immoral to pick themselves up. They are blind to the reality that most of us have not dragged ourselves from the gutter to our current lifestyles and neither can we claim everything we have is a result of our own hard work. The families we were born into have a huge amount to do with it. Why did I stay at school and go on to university? Was it because I am smarter and more moral than a brown person? Or is it because my parents went to university, supported me to go and set me an example I could follow? In the same way when a group of people have been systematically oppressed for over a century simply ceasing oppression is not sufficient. The damage has been done the legacy has been created. While individuals may well break the mold, as a group the social legacy needs redressing to rebalance the scales. Maori can't "just get over" history because it is still affecting them now.

We are racist because we are ignorant of theology.
Perhaps the most galling for me was the the "Christian" involvement in this. Now there are always going to be idiots carrying Bibles that don't know how to read them. But how is it that with all the churches in New Plymouth no pastor sought Andrew out to encourage him and give him a different view of what Christians might think? Yes we are all called to be one in Christ (Gal 3:38). But one what? Not one monocultural society where everyone is as white as the next guy. What makes us Christians one people is not conformity to each other (and definitely not to white NZ culture) but conformity to Christ. The Bible celebrates the unity of all tribes and tongues (Yes, Te Reo!) in worship of God (Rev 7:9) and any Christian worth their salt should be doing the same.

We are racist because we tolerate Paul Henry and Mike Hoskings.
The two high priests of Middle New Zealand Racism are terrible broadcasters, joyful wallowers in the most bestial ignorance, and by reputation (it's a small town) utterly unpleasant people. Why do we continue to adore them and applaud their hateful rhetoric? Because they reflect us so well and say things we like to hear. Because we are a racist country.