Friday, November 27, 2009

A Cultural Consciousness

A society without a cultural consciousness of the absolute, such as we are in the process of creating, is like a lawn laid on top of a concrete yard: it may briefly give the impression of health, but eventually, for obvious reasons, it withers away. What is called secularism, therefore, strikes not merely at specific religions, or even religions in general, but at the very capacity of humans to be human.

So says Irish Times columnist John Waters. Read the full piece here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Terrible Films

The Agony Booth is a website dedicated to recapping terrible, terrible films. The writers wade through a movie scene by scene, picking it apart one appalling piece of direction/screenwriting/acting at a time. It may sound a tad excruciating, but based on the two recaps that I've read, it results in pieces that are really quite funny.

Consider this excerpt from the recap for Batman Forever, which I must admit had me chuckling for a good two minutes. (You had to be there):

Gordon introduces Batman to Dr. Chase Meridian, and it turns out Batman is already familiar with her work, because he cites it as naïve, but insightful. Some dreadful banter ensues between Batman and Chase that's too insipid to recount. The highlight, however, is when she calls Batman's own sanity into question by referring to him as "a grown man who dresses like a flying rodent."

BatVal gets a bit irritated by this. He responds by doing his very best scary eyes, and invading Chase's personal space, and offering the following reply.

Batman: Bats aren't rodents, Dr. Meridian!

Chase says she didn't know that. Honestly? Where did she get her PhD? I'm no zoologist, but even I could have told you that. Then Chase delivers the verbal coup de grace, and the most ridiculous line in the whole film.

Chase: By the way, do you have a first name, or do I just call you "Bats"?
What? Exactly what kind of response was she expecting there? "Oh, yeah, sure. I'm Melvyn. Melvyn Batman."

Monday, November 23, 2009

All Powerful and All Loving?

In a world not without its fill of pain and suffering, how can god be both all powerful and all loving?

This is the question that dominates a particular branch of theology known as Theodicy, which literally means “the justification of god” or something like that.

But more than that, it is a question most, if not all, of us grapple with it, be it often or be it when some kind of tragedy inevitably invades our small corner of the world.

Before I briefly share my thoughts on this question, let me say this: It is never wrong to cry out with a “How?” or a “Why?” The Psalms (and plenty of other books in the Bible) are filled with the outcries of anguished souls questioning their god. The reality of painful human experience is not glossed over in Scripture in favour of glib theological musings and formulae.

And on that note, allow me to present you with some glib theological musings and formulae.

First things first - the question in question once more: In a world with so much evil, how can god be both all powerful and all loving?

There are a number of presuppositions brought to the table when this question is raised, which I think I’m right to be dubious about.

1 - That there is a contradiction between an omnipotent, all loving god and a world where bad things happen. Why can’t the two co-exist? The question is often asked in the same way that someone might ask “How can a room with no windows have one of its windows wide open?” but clearly it is not in that category of obvious contradiction. So from where is the contradiction derived? From how we think such a god ought to operate within his world?

2 - That we know who the word “god” is referring to. Which god are we talking about when we ask this question? Where did we get our ideas about what he is like? Talk to Richard Dawkins, and he is a fictional character, and a really horrible one at that. Talk to N.T. Wright, and he is the world’s loving creator who is intimately involved in putting his creation to rights. Talk to a deist, and god is some being who created the world and then left it to run by itself as he resides in a far away place. In short, the unknown in this question is not simply the answer to the paradox it poses; the unknown is perhaps god himself.

3 - That we know what godly power and godly love would look like if we saw it. We come to this question with our own definitions of power and love, and we perhaps remain unwilling for those definitions to be altered.

There are I’m sure other presuppositions that we all have, but those are some of the main ones I can think of.

I approach this question as a Christian, which means that I think the unknown god in the paradox is known through Jesus of Nazareth. This, for me, is highly significant when it comes to wrestling with the tension posed by the question. If we look at the question through the three lenses Richard Hays uses in his book on New Testament Ethics -- community, cross, and new creation -- the significance of Jesus becomes clearer.


Jesus did not come and eradicate all of the evil in the world through powerful love. He began something transformative, but he then left the power (so to speak) into the hands of his disciples. They were to be his community which would be a light to the world, empowered by the spirit of god to manifest the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. God -- in what might be considered foolishness -- has chosen this community to continue on from where Jesus left off. Perhaps if the church of today was more willing to be god’s healing agent in a broken world, the apparent contradiction between god and his creation would be rather hollow.


If I have made Jesus sound like simply the founder of some new human movement, then the cross will surely correct this. Christians see this as -- amongst many things -- god’s definitive solution to the problem of evil. It is the place where “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself”.

Moreover, the cross also redefines what we mean when we talk of power and love. It is the ultimate revelation of both. As Paul says in Corinthians, god’s power looks like weakness. Actually, it is weakness; it is power in weakness. When we talk of an all powerful god, this usually triggers images in our mind of some glorious being floating around on a cloud and zapping things in order to fix them (or perhaps smite them); rarely does it trigger the image of a man dying on a Roman cross.

Love also gets a make-over, seen now not to be a pain-free, happy-clappy thing, but something costly, something which feels hurt as well as joy. God’s love revealed on the cross is a love that runs deeper than him wishing us well, with his power then the power to make us well. It is a love that enters into the depths of human need and suffering; a love which can cry out “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?” The real paradox is that god has experienced the feeling of god-forsakenness.

New Creation

Finally, the Christian knows that what we see now is not the way things will always be. There is hope. God has raised Jesus from the dead, and so though we suffer now, we can be confident that it does not and will not have the last word over our lives. This does not mean that suffering is to be ignored or trivialised. It is real and tragic. New creation has burst into life, but the old order of being lingers on, and we continue to feel its harrowing effects, and we continue to cry out to god “Why?” and “How long?” The tension of the question “how god can co-exist with evil?” is felt by the Christian, and is not supposed to be explained away. I hope I haven’t done that.

I only hope to have shown that god has not remained silent on the issue. As the Psalm which begins with “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?” goes on to say,

You have answered me

Indeed, god has not hidden his face from us. He has heard our cries. Through Jesus of Nazareth he has dealt a devastating blow to evil, triumphing over it through the cross. Through his community of believers he intends to point back to what Jesus has accomplished, and to point forward to the consummation of his new creation. The present remains a time of tension and toil, but there also remains faith, hope, and love in the midst of it all, and the greatest of these is love. We are to re-enact in the present the powerful love of god that was made known on the cross, doing so by faith in Jesus, and in the hope that one day all wrongs will be made right.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The X-Factor

I’ve yet to watch an entire episode of The X-Factor. Tonight I intend to change that, and to walk you -- the misfortunate reader -- through my experience into uncharted waters.

The acts have to perform a song by George Michael (either during his days with Wham! or as a solo artist). If this isn’t a set-up for Jedward then I don’t know what is.

By the way, how many George Michael songs can you name? Once you get past “Wake Me Up” and “Last Christmas”, I’m very much struggling.

Here we go…

It starts with the most over-the-top introduction in televisual history. It is a flashy recap of what happened last week, with a voice-over by the guy who does those second-chance Sunday adverts for E4 [!?] This makes even the opening credits for Batman & Robin look understated. No easy task.

The Judges have just been presented before us in a fashion not unfamiliar to Triple H or The Rock. Cheryl is wearing, er, something. That’s a start anyway. We’re only five minutes into proceedings, and I’m already overwhelmed to the point of epilepsy. Not good.

As an aside, Cheryl Cole: the most beautiful woman in the world, or a decent looking girl with loads of make-up and hair extensions? You decide.

Lloyd is getting ready to kick things off, with what Cheryl calls George Michael’s most “recognisable” song. If this isn’t either “Last Christmas” or “Wake Me Up” then I’ll be extremely disappointed. Simon muses that if Lloyd was a cat, he’d have used up 8 of his lives by now. (Lloyd is not a cat, incidentally). In other words, Lloyd needs to produce the goods tonight. Will he?

His performance is short and, well, average. Louis compliments Lloyd on his new hair cut, which is a classic case of damning with faint praise, given that Lloyd probably didn’t even cut his own hair. In other words, having just heard someone sing a tune in order to be judged, Louis decides to give some kudos to Lloyd's barber. Non sequitur much? Simon is much more positive, but you know he’s probably just being so merely to disagree with Louis (oh those two!). Cheryl says that Lloyd is turning into a man right before her eyes, and then undoes all of that by calling him “adorable”. Adorable!? Babies and cats are adorable, Cheryl, and as has been made perfectly clear already, Lloyd is not a baby, nor a cat. He’s a man, and men are not adorable. Cheryl couldn’t have been more patronising if she walked up to Lloyd on stage, spat on a tissue, and started cleaning around his mouth so that he’d “look nice for all the girls”. Danni said things before anyone else did, but she (like Cheryl earlier) doesn’t seem to understand that when the audience is screaming, the judges can’t be heard.

I wish the audience screamed more.

My verdict? If Lloyd was a cat, he wouldn’t be allowed to enter the X-Factor, which I think is grossly unfair. I say all felines rise as one and put the producers of this anti-cat show in their place! As Jedward are proving week by week, it is not a singing competition, so I’m sure there’s something the cat community can do to win over the public. May I suggest getting milked?

Dermot O’Leary welcomes us back, and next up is the only girl left - Stacey. Danni simply calls her “the voice”, which might be a ploy to take the attention away from Stacey’s face. I’m sorry. That was mean and uncalled for.

Stacey seems like a nice girl. Down to earth and all that. Seriously. She’s just not very attractive, but since when has that mattered when it comes to being a huge popstar [?].

The performance starts shakily, and continues on in that manner. Oh dear. “The voice” isn’t working tonight. She seems to be okay on the big notes, but there is a notable lack of consistency. Over to the judges.

Louis doesn’t mention anything about tonight’s performance, and neither does Cheryl. Criticism by omission? Simon finally talks about stuff that actually happened tonight, and says much the same things as I did. I’m not sure how that makes me feel. Not good, is my gut reaction. Danni finishes things off this time, but she fails to mention anything relevant. If I were to turn the tables and judge the judges right now, Danni would be gone. She serves no discernible purpose.

Stacey is obviously liked by all, which seems to be clouding the judgement of at least the judges, and probably the voters. She is a good singer, but nothing special. In a sort of backwards way, her not-very attractiveness seems to be working in her favour. Because she doesn’t have “the look”, people are almost assuming that she has “the voice”. On the evidence of tonight, she doesn’t. She is better than that cat Lloyd, though.

So far, the performances are as underwhelming as the production is overwhelming. Let’s see if John and Edward can change that. Shock horror, they will be doing a Wham! song.

They’re dancing on top of a table with a couple of girls. Good start. They’re also singing in tune, which is more than what can be said for some of Stacey’s performance. It is all very circus-ish, however, with a man at the front of the stage just spinning on his head…for no particular reason. I’m not sure who this campness appeals to, but clearly people are being won over. What is it with these two? What do they have that others don't? They seem to have this special gift, almost a factor, that is mysterious and undefinable. But whatever it is, they have no business on a show like The X-Factor. None at all.

Once again, Danni talks while the audience is screaming. Simon says that Jedward are like Louis’s own little action men dolls, but not in a creepy way (I think, though I hesitate to jump to a definite conclusion). More in a “using them to make millions of pounds” kind of way, I imagine.

Next up is Arsenal’s Eduardo. I was thinking that he wasn’t all there against Sunderland this afternoon.

Actually, it’s DanYl, and he is singing one of George Michael’s most famous songs. If this isn’t either “Last Christmas” or “Wake Me Up”…

After a verse of it, I still don’t know what song it is, but he’s doing okay. Probably the best singing performance yet, which really isn’t saying much. But you can only beat what’s put in front of you, right?

Danni talks while the audience...ah, you know the drill at this stage. Louis sticks the knife into Simon, and Cheryl goes after Danyl by dubbing the performance "flat". After judging which has mostly consisted of ignoring everything about the performances on the night, these comments are a little out of the blue. Sure Danyl wasn’t fantastic, but he was certainly better than the rest. Perhaps he’s just not very likable? Or perhaps, unlike David Brent, Louis and Cheryl don’t like people of mixed race. What about the melting pot, guys? Simon says Danyl exhibited what is known in the business as “respecting the song”, which is something Simon can’t quite define, which makes you wonder if he just made that term up there and then in order to appear knowledgeable and clever. If I know Simon Cowell like I think I do, however, that clearly isn't the case.

Next up is Olly. “Late” by Ben Folds plays in the background as he hugs his parents during a video montage, which finally gives me something musical to enjoy. By the way, Olly looks like Gary Barlow’s love child. Also, Olly plans on being more “sexy, and modern, and current” tonight. Has he been performing as a medieval minstrel thus far, or something?

Well if wearing black and sitting down is considered sexy and modern, then Ollie is on fire tonight! It also doesn’t hurt that he has half a dozen female dancers wearing catsuits gyrating around him. He could be wearing a Brian Cowen mask while singing a Richie Kavanagh song right now and it would still be sexy, thanks to his environs.

Ignoring Danni, Louis says that he likes how “not fake” Olly is. That’s probably as much a dig at some other contestant, more than likely Danyl (I say that purely because of the ‘y’ in his name. How fake is that!?). Much like Stacey, Olly is well liked. Niceness seems to be taking ordinary people a long way in this competition, which is no bad thing. I missed Simon and Cheryl’s comments, but if their previous is anything to go by, they talked about anything but the stuff happening right in front of us.

Finally, we have Joe. Not Jo. Not Joh. Not Joye. Just Joe. I like him already. Let’s see if he can sing.

Simon nods during the performance as if to say “Yes, he can”. I agree. Allow me to indulge in some hyperbole before the judges do - “Best singing performance in the history of music”. “You will not only win this competition, Joe, but you may well become president of world”. “You make me want to be a better man, Joe”.

To the judges, then.

Danni lauds Joe for his honesty of voice. Louis calls it the best performance of the night, but points out that the song was penned by Elton John, which is slightly bending the rules. Simon and Louis engage in some light-hearted banter over Louis’ throwing of the rule book, which is of course hilarious. You just know those two are sleeping with each other outside of the show, don’t you?

Well, as the adage goes, the show must come to an end sooner or later, and so we close with a quick recap of the performances. All pretty average, with Joe just about rising above the rest. If any of these people hit the big time, then I promise to buy Michelle McManus’ latest album, which, rumour has it, is simply a recording of her eating different types of food. Track number four -- tentatively entitled “Apple” -- is supposed to be a classic in the making by all accounts.

I can’t say I enjoyed my X-Factor experience, but I’d be lying if I said I’ll never watch it again. Is it necessary that I watch it? Well, is it necessary that I drink my own urine? No, but I do it anyway, because it’s sterile and I like the taste.

Did I just liken watching The X-Factor to drinking your own urine? Yeah, that sounds about right. Oh the wisdom of Patches O’Houlihan. It knows no bounds.

Take A Look

Mildly interesting piece of information: Jeremiah is the second longest book in the Bible, surpassed only by the book of Psalms (which has sort of cheated its way to the top if you ask me).

A related piece of information: I know very little about the book of Jeremiah.

Finally: Jesus was likened to Jeremiah by his public.

I know there's some sort of conclusion to be drawn from all of this, but I just can't find it. Anyway, back to the Pauline epistles I go. All those other books are too "strawy" for my taste.

Speaking of books, I've just finished reading one of those that in years to come you mark down as being "formative" or "life-changing" or what have you. If you only read one book before year's end, make it The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann. It was written in 1978, but its message is oh so timely. It's a little over 100 pages, and so not a jot of ink is wasted.

And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets...

- Paul

Prophecy -- that much misunderstood vocation -- is a vital (in the literal sense of the word) part of the church. We who desperately need to hear the perspective of God ignore it at our peril. Brueggemann's book helps us to see this ministry with fresh eyes and restores it to its rightful place. I strongly encourage you to take a look.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Everlasting Trousers

The other day a scientific summary of the state of a prehistoric tribe began confidently with the words 'They wore no clothes.' Not one reader in a hundred probably stopped to ask himself how we should come to know whether clothes had once been worn by people of whom everything has perished except a few chips of bone and stone. It was doubtless hoped that we should find a stone hat as well as a stone hatchet. It was evidently anticipated that we might discover an everlasting pair of trousers of the same substance as the everlasting rock. But to persons of a less sanguine temperament it will be immediately apparent that people might wear simple garments, or even highly ornamental garments, without leaving any more traces of them than these people have left. The plaiting of rushes and grasses, for instance, might have become more and more elaborate without in the least becoming more eternal. One civilisation might specialise in things that happened to be perishable, like weaving and embroidery, and not in things that happen to be more permanent, like architecture and sculpture. There have been plenty of examples of such specialist societies. A man of the future finding the ruins of our factory machinery might as fairly say that we were acquainted with iron and with no other substance; and announce the discovery that the proprietor and manager of the factory undoubtedly walked about naked-- or possibly wore iron hats and trousers.

- G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Job Will Not Save You

If the status updates of my Facebook friends is representative of Ireland’s collective psyche, then we were a nation in mourning last night. The word “gutted” was used by not a few, as the general air of gloom and doom loomed large. My initial -- and rather cynical -- reaction to all of this was, “These people obviously haven’t seen Ireland’s other qualification games, otherwise they’d be used to the post-match depression that inevitably follows”. The away fixture against Cyprus springs to mind. There’s an old saying in football - When Cyprus have more possession than you, then WHAT THE HELL IS UP WITH THAT!?

But I digress. Last night’s match was no Nicosian nightmare. For large swathes of the game, Ireland were the better football team. Our goal was one of real quality; and one of the utmost rarity, with Zinedine Kilbane providing the penetrating through-ball which unlocked the French defense. It was a pass that the onlooking (and let’s face it, cool looking) Zinedine Zidane would have been proud of.

And there were chances after that. Oh there were chances. Damien Duff managed to make a horlicks of a one-on-one. You could argue that he is not a right-footer, but that is no excuse. You’re a professional football player who gets paid thousands of pounds per week to kick a ball. The least you can do is be able to kick it with both of your feet. Robbie Keane managed to out-do Duff by missing an even more glorious opportunity to bury the French once and for all. With only the keeper to beat, he decided the best way to do so was to take it around him. What he didn’t seem to factor in was that he had almost no space in which to accomplish said task, and he simply ran the ball over the end line. What Robbie attempted -- taking it ‘round the keeper -- was indeed possible, but he needed to shift the ball onto his left foot quickly rather then merely let the ball run and hope to catch up with it. If you want to see how it should have been done, click here.

With those two chances spurned, you couldn’t help but feel that it “wasn’t our night”. The circumstances surrounding France’s winner confirmed as much. It could have been disallowed on roughly three accounts, but it wasn’t. Our sense of injustice was tingled. We became the righteous sufferers who bore the wrath of FIFA. We were its sacrificial lamb, who took the punishment of no World Cup trip upon itself. We were the scape-goat the was banished to the wilderness of a quiet summer outside of South Africa. And we were not one bit happy about it.

Thierry Henry has been branded a cheat. Go 6 minutes 41 seconds into this clip, and you’ll hear the sentiments of a million Irish people. I’ve never been a fan of the former Gooner, and so as with Rawls and McNulty, if Henry was a big cheat then I’d be the first to say it. But what he did was simply act human. It was instinctive, and something I wouldn’t put past any of the Irish players.

Cast your mind back to Ireland’s ridiculous penalty to equalise against Georgia. Nobody knew what it was for, and yet Kevin Doyle had his hand up appealing for it. Why? Because he’s a big cheat? Maybe, but there’s also the possibility that he was so desperate for Ireland to score that he would instinctively brand something legitimate “illegitimate” in order to influence the referee. There was no handball, or whatever, by any Georgian player, and yet Ireland got a penalty and secured a much needed result.

Henry handled the ball, but it was not deemed a foul. A Georgian player didn’t handle the ball, and yet Kevin Doyle got the penalty he so badly craved. I wonder what the Georgian reaction to that was on Facebook. Something about FIFA favouring the more established nations, perhaps.

Of course it’s perfectly okay to be upset about this injustice (we wouldn't be human if we weren't), but I think that taking our anger out on Henry for his handball is misguided, as is branding him a “cheat”. There are plenty of other reasons to dislike the Barcelona forward -- he’s arrogant, he’s French (there’s two to get the ball rolling) -- but to call him a cheat is to go too far. It is to misunderstand the game of football. Think of Eduardo of Arsenal getting booed for his dive against Celtic. Is he a big cheat? Not exactly. He simply did what almost most all footballers do in that situation. If you want to boo him then you are free to do so, but on that principle you had better be prepared to boo almost every football player that walks out onto a pitch. And while you’re at it, remember to boo those people who surf the internet during work hours, or who take an extra fifteen minutes for their lunch break.

Ireland lost, and we can all be upset about the way it happened. We can even be “gutted”, because our group of hard-working players deserved to be rewarded for their noble efforts. But right after the game, my brother put all of our collective misery into perspective. Four young women died in a car on their way to do some Christmas shopping a couple of days ago. There are greater injustices in the world than Henry’s illegal use of his left arm. Think also of Robert Enke, the German goalkeeper who recently took his own life after a long battle with depression. How did we let this happen? Could anything have been done to prevent it?

Football is not a matter of life and death, but it tells us a lot about ourselves that we often act like it -- or something similar to it -- is. Life goes on, people. Listen to the wise words of Lester Freamon and pay heed to what he says: the job will not save you.

[Dismounts from high horse.]

There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. The Premier League starts back on Saturday, with Liverpool playing Man City in what could be a pivotal fixture for both clubs. International football was always just a nuisance anyway, wasn’t it?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Killing In The Name Of - #6

“You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

- Jesus of Nazareth

Recall the six ways to interpret the above passage which aim at diminishing its countercultural, counterintuitive, and counter-Christendom claim on our lives today:

- It doesn’t apply yet.
- It only applied for a limited amount of time.
- It only deals with self-defense.
- It’s only for the select few.
- It’s a moral diagnosis to expose our sinfulness.
- It’s highly contextualised.

The argument of Professor Richard Hays is that the setting of this passage within the context of the entire Sermon and within the wider context of Matthew’s Gospel taken as a whole (both of which are outlined in the previous post) lays to rest five of the six interpretative strategies listed above. (I won’t go into Hays’s laying to rest of the sixth, which is too long-winded and complicated for present purposes.)

It doesn’t apply yet

It actually does. Through his own suffering in the face of enemy hostility, Jesus practiced what he preached. It was on an unknown hill that he spoke these words, and it was on the hill of Calvary that he definitively brought them to life. Moreover, his final message to his disciples is a call to teach all nations to obey his commandments, which includes the command to enemy-love. They (and we) are to continue on from where he left off, acting in the knowledge that he is with us always, empowering us to embody his sacrificial love.

It only applied for a limited amount of time

Matthew’s vision for radical discipleship is not short-term. Jesus is present with the church “until the end of the age”, and so the call to nonviolent enemy-love has not been revoked. As long as Jesus is alive, it still stands.

It only deals with self-defense

There is nothing in Matthew’s Gospel which limits the words of Jesus at the end of Matthew 5 to self-defense alone. Consider the events in Gethsemane, when Peter acts out of violence in defense not of himself, but of Jesus - the most righteous of sufferers. Jesus does not condone Peter’s “violence in defense of justice”, but warns him that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).

It’s only for the select few

The Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) discredits this claim. As Hays notes, “All baptized believers are to be taught to observe all that Jesus commanded.”

It’s a moral diagnosis to expose our sinfulness

That it does this is beyond doubt, but that this is its primary function is refuted by the concluding words of the discourse. Jesus intends not only for us to hear these words and be convicted by them, but to hear these words and do them. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock.” (Matt. 7:24)


With these hermeneutical escape hatches closed shut, we’re back to where we usually are when we first read the passage plainly: left scratching our heads at the impossible idealism of Jesus’ words, and despairing at the thought of having to take him seriously.

We can concede that he meant exactly what he said, but doing so leaves us hopeless…until we remember who said these things, and what happened next in Matthew’s story. Jesus is one who not simply has the authority to command, but the authority to bring into being what he commands. His words come with power - power to heal, power to restore, power to transform.

If relentless enemy-love is idealism, it is an idealism that was really realised in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. His actions have re-defined reality, and he really intends for his disciples to enter into that new reality, where suffering for righteousness’ sake is not a tragic end, but the beginning of something beautiful that will last forever.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Out of Context

A concrete example of what it means to take something out of context:

Skinner and Baddiel

Poor Pele. He really was rubbish, wasn't he?

Killing In The Name Of - #5

The Sermon on the Mount is considered by Hays to be “Jesus’ basic training on the life of discipleship”. It is a disclosure of kingdom life. In light of Jesus teaching from a mountain a la Moses in the book of Exodus, Hays calls the contents of the Sermon a “new Torah” or “a definitive charter for the life of the new covenant community”. New Law? I don’t think so, but Hays’s basic point remains.

The sermon is addressed specifically to disciples of Jesus (Matt. 5:1-2) but within earshot of the crowds, who, we are told at the end of the discourse, “were astounded at his teaching” (7:28-9). As Hays perceptively notes,

The instruction for the disciples takes place openly before the crowd, emphasizing Matthew’s conviction that the community of disciples is called to be a light for the world (5:14-16). The disciples are called to live in accordance with the stringent standards articulated in the six antitheses precisely because of a concern to exemplify the reality of the kingdom of God in a pluralistic and sinful world.

Life in this kingdom is upside-down, or more accurately, rightside-up, with the meek, the poor in spirit, the persecuted all considered “blessed”. It is, in sum, a kingdom “full of surprises”, with perhaps the biggest surprise of all being the kingdom call to enemy love. Hays goes on to say,

Instead of wielding the power of violence, the community of Jesus’ disciples is to be meek, merciful, pure, devoted to peacemaking, and willing to suffer persecution -- and blessed precisely in its faithfulness to this paradoxical vision.

That, rather briefly, is the immediate context of our passage in question (Matthew 5:38-48).

What of the wider context - Matthew’s Gospel?

Hays cites some events in the life of Jesus which can be seen to embody his ethical teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 4 -- the temptation narrative -- Jesus renounces Satan’s view of a power-wielding messiahship, and instead dedicates himself to the humble service of God. There are also the three “passion predictions” (16:21-3; 17:22-3; 20:17-19) in which Jesus foretells of his being “persecuted for righteousness’ sake”, and bids any would-be disciples to follow in his footsteps (16:24-6). Most significantly, there is the passion narrative itself. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus aligns himself completely to the will of the Father, which is the way of the cross. As Hays remarks, “the death of Jesus exemplifies the same character qualities that are taught as normative for Jesus’ disciples in Matthew 5”.

The end of Matthew’s gospel -- while pointing forwards to the spread of the gospel into all nations -- also points backwards to the teachings of Jesus. The Great Commission involves, fundamentally, “teaching [all nations] to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20, my emphasis). As I said recently in another blog post, the resurrection of Jesus not only vindicated him as a person, but also vindicated his way of life, specifically his sacrificial love. Disciples of Jesus are now called to embody and re-enact that love, and to teach others what was taught by Jesus in word and deed. According to Hays,

This conclusion to the story makes it abundantly clear that Matthew does not regard the discipleship of the Sermon on the Mount as an impossible ideal. It is, rather, the way of life directly commanded by Jesus, who possesses “all authority in heaven and on earth.” The calling of discipleship is not impossible, for the powerful risen Lord is present in and with the community: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20b).

That is not to say that there will be perfection, for correction and forgiveness are to be hallmarks of the community of faith. If the life of discipleship admits to anything, it admits to failure and thus the need for forgiveness from God and from others.

Where does all of this leave the list of Sermon interpretations from a previous post? We’ll return to that (in light of the above) in the next installment.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Echoes of Psalms in the Sermon

YHWH, who shall dwell in Your tabernacle? Who shall dwell on Your holy hill?

He who walks uprightly,
And works righteousness,
And speaks the truth in his heart;
He who does not backbite with his tongue,
Nor does evil to his neighbour,
Nor takes up a reproach against his neighbour;
In whose eyes a vile person is despised,
But he honours those who fear Jehovah;
He who swears to his hurt, and does not change;
He who has not put out his money at interest,
Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.

He who does these things shall never be moved.

- Psalm 15

Having read this Psalm of David in the midst of re-reading Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul and Richard Hays’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, a wonderful convergence seemed to appear right before my eyes: Is this Psalm not echoed in Jesus’ teaching on that now famous mount?

I won’t profess to be the first to draw such a parallel, but allow me to act as if I am.

First of all, it shouldn’t surprise us if this is the case. Jesus was well versed in Scripture, and we know of him both quizzing the Pharisees on an interpretation of Psalm 110, and also uttering those haunting opening words of the 22nd Psalm from the cross - “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

What then of the relationship between Psalm 15 and the Sermon on the Mount? I think there are two important things to be said about this: There are striking similarities of thought, but also striking differences.

The question being dealt with in Psalm 15 is the following:

YHWH, who shall dwell in Your tabernacle? Who shall dwell in Your holy hill?

Allow me to phrase the question like this: Who is at home in God’s house? This, I think, is a markedly similar question to the one Jesus addresses in his discourse, which might be worded as follows: Who is at home in the kingdom of God, and what does life in that kingdom look like?

The differences between these questions lie in the respective meanings of “tabernacle” and “holy hill”. For the Psalmist, these were specific places, geographic locations. Jesus, however, redefines what it means for God to dwell with man. He is the Word who became flesh and “tabernacled” amongst us, as a literal translation of John 1:14 might put it. Abiding in God’s tabernacle is no longer to abide in this temple or that temple, nor is worshiping God something done on this hill or that hill. At the centre of God’s kingdom is not a place or a building, but a person, and all who dwell in that kingdom must first abide in Jesus.

Moving onto the character and behaviour of the one who lives life in the presence of God, the similarities between psalm and sermon are obvious. Both speak of “righteousness” (Psa. 15:2; Matt. 5:6, 10, 20; 6:33) as foundational to kingdom life. Where the psalmist talks of not “backbiting with the tongue”, Jesus warns against insulting a brother/calling him a “fool”. Both also speak about what can generally be called “neighbourly love”.

But it is the differences that are most telling. For the psalmist, the person who dwells with God is one “in whose eyes a vile person is despised”. Compare this with the following words of Jesus:

"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your friends, hate your enemies.'
But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…"

Surely there can be no getting away from these contradictory descriptions of one who is at home in God’s kingdom. In the psalm, the enemy is despised; in the sermon, the enemy is loved. Jesus has exposed the shortcomings of the psalmist’s ethic, just as he exposed the divorce laws as being short of God’s true intentions for his people (Matt. 19:3-9). God’s children are shown to be those whose actions are permeated with love for friend and foe alike, for this is the kind of all-encompassing love that the Father has shown by sending His Son to die for the sake of the whole world.

There are also modifications of the psalmist’s “oath taking” and “lending” ethics, but I won’t go into those.

One final comparison. The last line of Psalm 15 is as follows:

He who does these things shall never be moved.

Now listen to the closing words of Jesus in Matthew 7:

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them…”

Anyone who "does these things", Jesus (in effect) says, will be like a house built on a rock - unmovable, unshakable.

I don’t pretend to have answered the “So what?” question in terms of the relationship between Psalm 15 and the Sermon on the Mount, but that one exists seems very likely to me. There are a few things worth noting, though:

- Jesus was not a decontextualised moral teacher. He was a Jew, grappling with and interpreting Israel’s Scriptures.

- Jesus was not afraid to contradict Israel’s Scriptures. Where the psalmist praises those who despise a vile person, Jesus turns this ethic on its head by claiming that children of YHWH must learn to love not only neighbours, but enemies especially. This is the true fulfilment of God’s law, His way of life.

- Kingdom ethics cannot be divorced from God’s presence, but there is a specific order to things. Abiding in Christ is not a consequence of living righteously; living righteously is a consequence of abiding in Christ, who came not to call the righteous, but sinners.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Killing In The Name Of - #4

The Sermon on the Mount has long posed problems to the Christian community, not because of the difficulty in understanding it, but rather the simplicity. The words of Jesus contained within are plain and direct. Our response to them is usually anything but, trying as we do to duck and dive in the face of seemingly impossible instructions.

Here is the pertinent passage from the Sermon which will garner our attention for the next post or three:

"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

What is your initial reaction upon reading these words?

Professor Hays lists several influential interpretations of the above passage, which he dubs “ingenious interpretations that mitigate the normative claim of this text”. See if you, like me, have bought into one (or several) of these interpretations.

- These words describe life in the future kingdom of God, and so are not meant for present earthly application. (I call this the “not yet” interpretation.)

- The ethic pronounced in this passage was only to have a short life-span, with the expectation being that the end of history and God’s final judgment were just around the corner. (I call this the “already…but not for very long” interpretation.)

- Some, for example, Augustine, see this passage as forbidding self-defense, but not defense of an innocent third party.

- These words only apply to that special class of Christians such as monks or clergy, and not to the rank and file believer.

- These words are a plumbline which measures how crooked we are, thus exposing our condition as sinners in need of divine grace. They are a moral diagnosis as opposed to moral directives.

- This passage is highly contextualised, thus having little global application.

Do any of those interpretations resonate with your own? If so then a challenge lies ahead, because Hays claims that “A careful exegetical consideration of the passage in its broader Matthean context…will demonstrate that none of these proposals renders a satisfactory account of Matthew’s theological vision.”

The key word there is “context”. When it comes to biblical interpretation, the golden rule when buying property applies - location, location, location. Where is this passage found? It is found in the Sermon on the Mount. Where is the Sermon on the Mount located? It is located toward the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, the first book of the New Testament, though almost certainly not the first written.

In sketching both the “immediate literary frame” of this passage and its wider Matthean context, Hays attempts to help us read these plain words of Jesus afresh.

(As an aside, I think we are in desperate need of this help. Years of reading Paul almost exclusively (and in a somewhat mistaken fashion, some will argue) has dulled our understanding when it comes to reading Jesus in the gospels. Paul we know, the epistles we recognise, but who is Jesus? Hay’s approach will help us to once more get to grips with this neglected or misunderstood Jewish teacher, revealed in the end to be the Jewish Messiah and (thus) Saviour of the world.)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

No Promises or Assurances

I was once a poker fanatic. I was a decent player, but like most poker players I thought I was a lot better than I actually was. It is, after all, a game built around the ego, so no surprises there. I still play some home games every so often, and still vastly overrate my skill level, but all aspirations of becoming a professional poker player (and believe me when I say that I at least flirted with the idea a number of years ago) have disappeared. Last night the wisdom of this disappearance was confirmed.

Phil Ivey -- considered by many to be the most feared poker player in the history of the game -- was involved in the final table of a huge tournament (the biggest on the poker calender), with one of his opponents being Darvin Moon, a woodcutter from Maryland. Moon may be one of the most feared woodcutters in the world, but a top poker player he is not. In terms of skill level, a match up between these two players is the equivalent of Lionel Messi pitted against, well, a woodcutter from Maryland.

To cut a long story short, Ivey was short on chips, and in need of a double-up. In Darvin Moon he found someone willing to oblige. Ivey took his Ace-King to battle against the Ace-Queen of Moon. This was the spot the top professional was looking for. Well, until a queen landed on the flop, that is. In one fell swoop, Phil Ivey was all but out of the tournament. The remaining two cards provided no relief, and so out crashed the most feared poker player in the world. In the crucial moment, his enormous advantage over the woodcutter was irrelevant. Their respective fates were ultimately wrapped up in a deck of 52 cards; a deck which favoured Ivey, but which could make no promises or assurances.

"I'd rather be lucky than good" is the adage adopted by many a rubbish poker player, usually uttered after inflicting yet another bad beat on some poor college student trying but failing to crack a seemingly lucrative cash game. Phil Ivey was good, but Darvin Moon was lucky, and it is the latter who maintained hopes of winning poker's most prestigious prize at the end of the hand. The former exited making no mistake, and yet being punished for exactly that reason.

I'm simply not built to deal with this reality. When it happened to me in the past I felt like the psalmist who complained about the wicked prospering and the righteous suffering. The simple fact is that poker is a game rife with injustice. Bad play gets rewarded. It is a mathematical certainty. Misfortune is a part of life in the real world, but at the poker table you are inviting it into your life in spades, quite literally. This is something I could not do.

Still, Phil Ivey is cool, and that has to count for something.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Least Attended Meeting

It's been far too long since Charles Price got some air time on this blog, so in order to rectify that, here is his diagnosis of Christians and their prayer lives:

...if there’s a big discrepancy in many Christian’s between what we believe about prayer and what we do about prayer.

One of the evidences of that is in most churches wherever you go across the world, the least attended meeting of the church calendar is the prayer meeting.

Quite right, although one might wonder if there is in fact any discrepancy between what we believe about prayer and what we do about it. Perhaps it's simply a case of lack of belief/knowledge leading to lack of action. Whatever the case, Price is right when he goes on to say that we need to learn not only how to pray, but simply to pray. If there is any Christian you view as being mature and godly, then you can be sure that they have learned and experienced the value of regular prayer.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

High Praise

There are moments when Explosions in the Sky remind me of Mozart; Mozart if he was armed with a couple of chiming electric guitars, that is. That may sound like high praise. Indeed it is, but some of the sweeping melodies conjured up by the Texan quartet deserve it. Much of music, like ballroom dancing*, is about rise and fall, and there are few bands who do crescendo's better than Explosions in the Sky. The band name is most appropriate, because as you listen to them (preferably with big headphones and lots of volume) you begin to feel like you are caught up in some sort of cosmic drama, where all sorts of beauty is exploding all around you.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding. My challenge to you is to stop what you are doing, find yourself a nice big pair of headphones, turn the volume up on your computer, lie down on your bed or couch, press the play button below, close your eyes, and just listen for roughly 4 minutes 30 seconds (the song kind of peters out after that). See if you don't feel better afterward.

* "What do you know about ballroom dancing!?" I hear you ask. I have but three words for you, which are as much a confession as an answer - Strictly Come Dancing.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Deeply De-Christian

I was tagged by someone who Jamie Redknapp might call a top, top Irish theo-blogger -- Zoomtard -- on a blogging meme which posed the following task:

List 5 doctrines that are taught within the Christian church that you believe to be deeply de-Christian.

I most likely haven’t followed all of the rules, but here is my humble interpretation and response to the challenge:

1. The Holy Spirit is taught about mainly in silences, which is deeply de-Christian. As God’s empowering presence in our world he (or she, perhaps?) is ignored to our shame. Luke (author of roughly a quarter of our New Testament) had much to say about the Holy Spirit, the beloved disciple John had much to say about the Holy Spirit, Paul had much to say about the Holy Spirit, and that most ignored Christian teacher, Jesus, had much to say about the Holy Spirit. Why don’t we?

2. The idea of “once saved always saved”. Were it so, the NT surely wouldn’t have as much to say about persevering, enduring, and remaining faithful to the end as it so clearly does, nor would it talk of being cut off from the vine or being blotted out of the Book of Life.

3. The notion of a Platonic salvation, where the chief end of man is to be a disembodied soul floating on the clouds of eternal bliss. Christians should not be in the business of abandoning a sinking ship (and calling others to do likewise), but rather aiding, through the power of the Spirit, in the renewal of what was once called “very good” by someone who knew what he was talking about.

4. The doctrine that God accepts us as we are. Before you form a village posse intent on lynching me, consider this passage, quoted from the Book of Proverbs in the epistles of Peter and James - “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble”. Did Jesus die for the proud? Absolutely. But the grace born out of that sacrifice flows to those who are humble enough to receive it. How humble? Humble enough to know we need it, I suggest. How often do our Sunday services bid us to humble ourselves before we worship God in song and in the proclamation of his word? Sometimes I think we’ve created for ourselves an unholy god who is far removed from the One experienced as being so majestic and awesome by our ancestors in the faith.

5. I think the word “faith” has been, for all intents and purposes, butchered. Do we really have any idea what it means anymore? Judging by the way it is predominantly taught, you could be forgiven for thinking it has to do with mere mental assent. “Faith in Jesus” becomes the equivalent of getting 100 per cent in a Christology 101 multiple choice exam. Or else it is talked about as being a once off decision, as opposed to a way of life. We are called not to think by faith, but to live by faith. Perhaps if we let that sink into our hearts we will begin to understand the interrelationship between faith and good deeds in fresh ways, because here is one place where I think the church’s doctrine has failed miserably.

Here’s the tricky part: tagging 5 people who will want to keep the ball rolling.

I’ll go for Paul Clarke, Ellisha King, Luke Johnson, Elaine Wilbur (whose post can be displayed here if she feels it’s too irrelevant for her own blog, which I think it just might be) and Dr Arden Autry (who doesn’t yet have a blog, but whose depth of insight demands that he should).

Killing In The Name Of - #3

Professor Richard Hays begins his argument with a story of a picture. The canvas is a window in a small Washington D.C. church. It is a stained-glass window, portraying the Good Shepherd, Jesus, who is carrying a lamb in his arms. At the foot of the window we read, “Testimonial to the boys of the parish who served in the Great War.”

This picture (and many others like it in churches throughout Europe and North America) tells its own story. It bears silent witness to the reality that the church has accepted war as something which is sometimes necessary for Christians to engage in. It may be a lamented reality, a “sad duty”, but its fittingness as occasional Christian practice has rarely been brought into question by the church, according to Hays at least.

The sentiment of the stained-glass window is that the “boys” who fought -- and who possibly died -- in the war are safe in the comforting arms of Jesus. However, Hays highlights the unintentional irony of this iconography in the form of a question: Is it appropriate for those who profess to be followers of the gentle Shepherd to take up lethal weapons against enemies? Broadly speaking, the question being dealt with is the following:

Is it ever God’s will for Christians to employ violence in defense of justice?

Christians can and have come up with a positive answer to this question, albeit with some positive answers being more thought-out and informed than others. Hays cites Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s decision to participate in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler as an example of one such informed answer, and also cites a less known story involving a less informed positive answer to balance the scales. This particular story was reported by a newspaper in 1986 as follows:

An Ozzy Osbourne concert has been cancelled after protests and threats against the singer’s life…in Tyler, Texas, where the controversial British rock star was to appear Saturday. Several groups, including religious leaders and the City Council of PTA’s, said Osbourne represented anti-Christian values… County Sheriff J.B. Smith told Osbourne’s security chief of anonymous threats against the singer, including the use of fire and dynamite.

As Hays muses, ‘When we hear threats to commit terrorist murder as a way of preventing a singer from representing “anti-Christian values”, we cannot help but wonder what “Christian” values are being defended’. Hays sees this mentality as an affliction derived from Cain - that affliction is the impulse to impose our will through violence.

The church has obeyed this impulse in obviously distorted and perverted ways. Pacifists and non-pacifists [?] will of course agree on that, and join together in condemnation of senseless murder - genocide, even (with the recent ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia given as an example of such perversion). “But what are we to say about the Catholic military chaplain who administered mass to the Catholic bomber pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945?”, asks Hays. This incident is quite close to home for us in the West, which is perhaps one of the reasons condemnation of these actions has not been universally meted out. Yet after reading the following penitent words of Father George Zabelka, it is hard to see why that remains the case.

To fail to speak to the utter moral corruption of the mass destruction of civilians was to fail as a Christian and as a priest as I see it…I was there, and I’ll tell you that the operational moral atmosphere in the church in relation to mass bombing of enemy civilians was totally indifferent, silent, and corrupt at best -- at worst it was religiously supportive of these activities by blessing those who did them…Catholics dropped the A-bomb on top of the largest and first Catholic city in Japan. One would have thought that I, as a Catholic priest, would have spoken out against the atomic bombing of nuns. One would have thought that I would have suggested that as a minimal standard of Catholic morality, Catholics shouldn’t bomb Catholic children. I didn’t. I, like the Catholic pilot of the Nagasaki plane, “The Great Artiste,” was heir to a Christianity that had for seventeen hundred years engaged in revenge, murder, torture, the pursuit of power, and prerogative violence, all in the name of our Lord.

I walked though the ruins of Nagasaki right after the war and visited the place where once stood the
Urakami Cathedral. I picked up a piece of censer from the rubble. When I look at it today I pray that God forgives us for how we have distorted Christ’s teaching and destroyed his world by the distortion of that teaching. I was the Catholic chaplain who was there when this grotesque process that began with Constantine reached its lowest point - so far.

Aside from being a poignant example of repentance, these words speak loud and clearly against the Cainic [?] impulse to impose our will through violence that has so plagued the church for centuries. For Hays, these words of Father Zabelka bring to mind the story of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, because “the things that make for peace” were hidden from her eyes (Lk. 19:41-42).

Before getting into the key text in Matthew 5, Hays briefly touches on the “just war” tradition, which he says “was developed in Christian theology precisely as a check against the indiscriminate use of violence and, at the same time, as a way of articulating norms that would justify the participation of Christians in armed conflict under the authority of the state.” The question is, can the just war tradition be justified on the basis of New Testament teaching? Fr Zabelka’s answer is that the just war theory is “something that Christ never taught or even hinted at”. In turning next to the Sermon on the Mount, we will discover just what level of truth there is in that claim.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Killing In The Name Of - #2

Before we get stuck into some key biblical texts to do with violence or lack thereof, Professor Hays makes some important preliminary remarks on what he calls “The Pragmatic Task”, i.e. making specific judgments regarding ethical issues. This task is the fruit of Moral vision’s first three tasks: (1) surveying the moral visions of the NT writers, (2) examining their coherence, and (3) searching for a suitable way to interpret the texts. Each task builds up to (and is in fact meaningless without) some answers to Hays’s practical question, How shall the Christian community shape its life in obedience to the witness of the New Testament?

This is a question that is not often asked by our churches, or if it is asked, it is only asked in relation to certain issues we’re relatively comfortable in dealing with. This leads Hays to tangentially but accurately state that,

One reason that appeals to the authority of Scripture often seem unconvincing is that the church has been inconsistent in shaping its life according to Scripture. For example, some voices in the church have insisted stoutly on the normative authority of a few texts dealing with sexual morality while ignoring or finessing equally clear New Testament teachings on possessions and violence. In such circumstances, is it any wonder that the church’s witness is ineffectual? If the church is to have any credibility, any integrity, we must seek to be a Scripture-shaped community in all respects, not merely on selected issues of our own preference.

In dealing with the issue of pacifism, Hays does not claim to be speaking with utmost authority, and so if you disagree with him that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are wrong. What he offers are “discernments to the church in prayerful humility”. These are his own convictions (based on Scripture, of course), which are not put forth to excommunicate anyone but rather to persuade others of the biblical grounds for his ethical stance.

This may all sound a tad relative. That’s your ethic, this is my ethic, let’s agree to disagree. But the nature of the New Testament is such that it is easier to pin some things down than it is others. Hypothetically, if two Christians disagree on whether murder is right or wrong, then it is not simply a case of them having to agree to disagree. Analysis of the New Testament leaves one in no doubt that the person who is anti-murder is in the right, and so to be Scripture-shaped is to be un-murderous. The Christian who thinks murder isn’t so bad is in need of serious change, to put it mildly. “Repentance” might be the pertinent word. But what about, say, smoking? Some Christians will argue that believers shouldn’t smoke (your body is a temple, after all), and some will argue that it is perfectly acceptable behaviour (it is not what goes into a person that makes him unclean, but what comes out of him). Which side of that divide is Scripture-shaped? Or is it simply a matter of the individual’s conscience, as eating temple meat was in Paul’s day?

The point is that ethical issues are not as black and white as they are often painted out to be. On some things we can be sure; on others, we need to be open to dialogue, trusting that the Spirit of God will lead us into truth as we wrestle with ambiguous issues.

For Hays, pacifism is not akin to smoking, a matter of mere personal conscience perhaps. He nails his colours to the wall by saying “I will argue that the normative witness of the New Testament against armed violence is powerful, virtually univocal, and integrally related to the central moral vision of the New Testament texts”. He does not present a take-it-or-leave-it ethic; not on this particular issue. For Hays, the New Testament’s stance on violence (in all shapes and forms) is a whole lot closer to that for murder than it is for something at the opposite end of the seriousness spectrum, such as the aforementioned smoking. As we work our way through his argument, you may or may not end up seeing why.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Their Original Call

Near the harsh coastline of the Atlantic Ocean there was a small town called Ecclesville that had witnessed a seemingly endless string of lives lost at sea. From catastrophic shipwrecks to surfers being swept out to their watery graves by the unforgiving undercurrents, it was as if there was no hope for any poor soul who came into contact with this beautiful but deadly corner of the earth.

The residents of Ecclesville became so perturbed by the long list of tragedies that they decided the only right and wise thing to do was to form a Rescue Society. The Rescue Society would exist to save as many potential victims as it could, sailors, surfers, swimmers, and anyone else who would otherwise be swallowed up by the sea.

For years the Rescue Society performed its duties with admirable courage and conviction. Hundreds of lives were snatched from the jaws of death. Though the Rescue Society members risked -- and sometimes lost -- their own lives in the line of duty, they remained faithful to their original call to exist for the sake of others, and their selfless heroics became known throughout the surrounding regions.

As a new generation of members entered the doors of the Rescue Society, eager to better the last, they began to perfect their rescue operations. Rescue workshops were constantly being run, with trained teachers educating members on the latest techniques and advancements in rescue procedure. Small groups of Rescue Society members would meet throughout the week, discussing the workshop material and bouncing ideas off each other with a view to bettering themselves. The equipment being used also experienced constant updates, with many sales teams invited in to showcase the latest rescue harness or life-jacket or some other such device.

The Rescue Society had indeed progressed from its original conception. Its members were better trained, the rescue station could accommodate twice as many people, and the equipment being utilised was far more technologically advanced than that of the previous generation. The perfection of the Rescue Society was the focus of this ambitious generation, and every day they came closer and closer to achieving it. This filled them with a certain sense of pride and accomplishment.

One night, as every member of the society gathered in Ecclesville town hall to hear a top rescue consultant thrash out innovative ways to improve the Rescue Society’s performance, a massive passenger liner crashed into the perilous rocks just off the coastline and quickly sank. Hundreds of lives were lost. The Rescue Society was simply unable to act quickly enough. In existing for its own perfection, it had forgotten its original reason for existence - for the sake of others.

Stolen from Inspired by M. Robert Mulholland Jr (“Spiritual formation is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others”) and The Guardian, a truly appalling film.

Killing In The Name Of - #1

My first proper contact with the idea of pacifism came last year, when a friend of mine posed a hypothetical dilemma designed to force one to pick a side. The dilemma went something like this:

If an intruder burst into your home and was about to shoot your mother, would you use lethal violence in order to stop him? Or to attach a religious element to proceedings, would it be right or wrong for a Christian to resist the use of violence in this situation? In short, what would Jesus do? Christians should be utterly concerned about doing the right thing, so what is the right thing in this situation? Or, indeed, is there such a thing?

Well my friend -- a committed Christian whom I greatly respect -- had a very definite answer to what Jesus would do, or at least to what he would do as a 21st century follower of Jesus - he would stop the intruder from shooting his mother using any means necessary. He would employ violence in defense of justice, with “justice” in this case being his mother’s right to life. If for his mother to live an enemy -- a criminal -- had to die, then that was a price he was willing to pay.

Placing the dilemma in front of me, he looked for an ally. I mulled it over, but I could only offer a Switzerland-esque stance of neutrality. At that moment there existed an irresolvable tension between valuing the life of my mother and valuing the words of Scripture, particularly those found on the lips of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount about loving your enemy and turning the other cheek and so forth. I couldn’t commit to simply watching my mother be murdered, but I also couldn’t commit to killing in the name of justice - or at least my take on justice.

The matter of pacifism has lain dormant since then, awakened only by a chapter in The Moral vision of the New Testament which the deals with the issue head on. The question tackled is the following:

Is it ever God’s will for Christians to employ violence in defense of justice?

This series will present Richard Hays’s answer to that question, which is set forth as an answer rooted in the New Testament’s witness concerning Christian ethics. It may prove controversial, it may upset your theological and ethical applecart, but it’s an answer worth listening to, and perhaps -- perhaps -- an answer worth obeying. Let the reader decide.