Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Films, Books and Television

 Here's a little round-up of my favourite/least favourite films/books/tv shows from the past year.

**Possible spoiler alerts**
Favourite Film

This has been a relatively quiet year of film watching for me. Looking at "Top 10" lists on other sites usually leaves me only recognising a minority of the films listed. Inception is one of those. I liked it, but more in the way I like a beautiful mathematical formula. I failed to connect with the film on an emotional level, which brings it down a notch. I also agree with a reviewer who said that for a film about dreams it is much too orderly. Harsh as it may sound, I think Inception lacked imagination.

The prize, then, goes to The Social Network. To make a two-hour film about designing a website is an achievement in itself, but to make it compelling is something else. The Social Network captures the spirit of our age. It may not represent accurate history, but the story it tells represents reality as we know it.

For better or worse, Mark Zuckerberg has defined a generation. The Social Network is therefore not just good; it's significant.

Most Disappointing Film

I could give this to Robin Hood. That would be a reasonable thing to do. I wrote about that mess after watching it, and stand by every word. Instead, the winner of this dubious award will have to be The Town.

Watching The Town was just like one of my sunny days. The worst thing I can say about it is that I'm not sure I'm able so say anything good about it. An unbelieveable male lead -- that is to say, a male lead who cannot be believed -- is the start of its troubles. A female love interest who is a love interest because, well, it's convenient for the plot doesn't help. Then there is the investigator who spends the entire film showing us how big his testicles are...metaphorically of course. Why do we even need an investigator in this film? He doesn't actually do any investigating, at least to any fruitful end.

Funnily enough, the most outrageous character in the film was actually the most believable, and therefore represented the only glimmer of light in a dark tunnel. Jeremy Renner played the part of psychotic hatchetman to perfection. His unwavering committment to violence and mayhem made some of the scenes worthy of a second watch.

But if The Town was hanging by a thread coming into the final stretch, Ben Affleck came on the scene with a high-powered chain saw and put it out of its misery. The last 20 minutes or so is as bad a resolution to a film that you'll see. Watch it, and see if you don't vomit in disgust. As I commented on Facebook afterward, "He now has a beard - he must have found redemption!" (How funny am I!?)

The strangest thing is, people rate this film very highly. It has been mentioned as a worthy follow on from Heat, which is tragic. It has a 90+% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Why? What do people like about this film? It is, as far as I'm concerned, a movie that is (vaguely) about redemption that has no redeeming qualities. The best thing I can say about The Town is that it makes me appreciate Michael Mann's cops-and-robbers classic all the more.

I'll fill in the blanks in due course...

Favourite Book

Most Disappointing Book

Favourite TV Show

Most Disappointing TV Show

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Desire To Explain

According to Stanley Hauerwas, modernity is characterised by a "desire to explain". This is why the scientific method is given pride of place when it comes to deciding what is true. In the link I posted below, Ricky Gervais says he is an atheist because "there is no scientific evidence" for the existence of God. Whether Gervais's statement is true is another matter, but say that it is. Say that there is absolutely no scientific evidence to suggest God exists. Does this fact, or indeed lack of "facts", require us to disbelieve the existence of God?

A phrase quoted by Merold Westphal sums up the position of scientism - "Anything my net doesn't catch isn't a fish". In other words, "If my method can't examine and explain it, then "it" can't be true." There is a subtle move here from a position that says "Science gives us knowledge of reality" to one which affirms, along with Gervais and many others, that "Nothing but science gives us knowledge of reality." William James says of this latter position,

a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from ackowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.

Stanley Hauerwas says that the "desire to explain" is pervasive within the church. It is an act of unhealthy control, especially when it comes to Scripture. We apply our scientific methods to the Bible in order to "get behind" the text and uncover what's really there. And of course it goes without saying that "anything my net doesn't catch isn't fish." That is, anything my hermeneutic doesn't uncover isn't relevant. 

When it comes to the interface of Scripture and sermon,  Mogwai fear satan Hauerwas fears explanation:

I fear that attempts to "explain" or "translate" Scripture too often manifest our attempt to make God conform to our needs. Of course God does love us, but his love usually challanges the presumption that we know what we need. The presumption that the gospel is "all about us" too often leads us to think "good" sermons are those "I got something out of." But sermons, at least if they are faithful to Scripture, are not about us - they are about God. That a sermon should direct our attention to God does not preclude that we should "get something out of it." But you will have an indication that what you got may be true if you are frightened by what you heard.

If explanations aren't the goal, then what is? "Showing connections" is the Hauerwasian answer. I won't explain what he means by that, partly because it would defeat the purpose of this post, but mostly because I don't know what he means by that.

For Hauerwas, the truth which all methods -- including the scientific method -- ought to point towards is that the world is "judged and redeemed by Christ". The goal of all truth-telling, then, is to help us develop the "imaginative skills" so that we can see the world in this light. Hauerwas applies this specifically to sermons, but numerous connections can be made between his statement and other disciplines.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Good News Of Christmas

Humankind is hopeless....Hope will depend on a move from God.
- Walter Brueggemann

Christmas represents one such move. Far from being the "unmoved mover", God was moved so much so that he chose to change his own history -- and therefore the history of the world -- in a way that we could never have imagined.

Three early Christian hymns sing about this dramatic move of God. In Philippians 2, one "who was in the form of God" became "born in the likness of humanity". God becomes a servant. God becomes obedient - obedient unto death. What kind of God is this? What kind of move is this?

Colossians 1 sings of the one by whom all things were created. He is the artist whose work of art stands as a testimony to his creativity and beauty. But the painting has been spoiled, and it will take the artist becoming a work of art to restore and renew. As in Philippians, this is a move that anticipates death. It is a move towards the cross. This is not art as we know it. What kind of God is this? What kind of move is this?

John 1 waxes lyrical about The Word. "The Word was with God, and the Word was God." The Word created our world. But one great act of creation was not enough. The darkness of the present world gave need for New Creation. This second great act began with the creation of The Word made flesh. The Word stands at the beginning of the old. The Word made flesh stands at the beginning of the new. The unseen God made a move to be seen. But his act of revelation was met by the world with a "did not know" and "did not receive". "The Word in the world creates conflict", says Dr Autry. Death threatens this move of God. What kind of God is this? What kind of move is this?

To quote my former teacher once more, "The incarnation reveals deity and heals humanity." The incarnation reveals a deity who will stoop as low as he can go in order to heal humanity. He will become like the ones who have chosen to be his enemies. But he will reveal himself to be their friend. The incarnation, in simple terms, is a move of friendship. It is a move toward "shared story". The story of the world, which became the story of Israel, has become the story of God in Jesus. This is why the death of Jesus is inevitable, but this is also why reconciliation becomes possible.

To complete the hat-trick, "Our story became his story so that his story could become our story". The story of Christmas begins the story of life, death, and life again. It is a story which depends from start to finish on "a move from God". Our brokeness moved him with compassion. His compassion moved him to enter fully into our brokenness, even to the point of death. But death does not get the last word.

The good news of Christmas -- the good news of incarnation -- is that creation is swallowed up by life.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Jervais On Atheism

Here's an article written by Ricky Jervais about atheism. Of course write about theism/atheism on the internet and you get, well, 3,684 comments. (Well, some people do, but I'm not bitter. Not bitter at all.)

Anyway, have a read.

Shared Story

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.
Paul and Silas in prison.
Declan at the beach in Florida.

This is communication through story. Shared story. This is how an alien race in Star Trek converse with each other. They dip into the myths and stories of the past, and convey presents thoughts through allusion to these common narratives. The crew of the Enterprise understand the words, but they don't know what they mean because they aren't "in" on the stories.

The alien captain could have said to Picard, "You and I are going to go down to that planet and join forces to defeat a common enemy." Picard would have known what that meant. But all Picard got was, "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra." Without knowing the story of Darmok and Jalad, the words meant nothing to an outsider.

Nevertheless, there was a way for Picard to interpret, and the alien captain knew that way. It was the way of experience. Picard could not share the story of the past, but he could share a story in the present, and through that shared experience he could begin to interpret. By quite literally joining the alien captain on a planet in order to defeat a common enemy, he figured out what Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra was all about. These two heroes embodied a story of heroes past, and through that embodiment Picard's eyes were opened. Perhaps now he knew what Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra meant in a much deeper way than if someone explained the story to him.

There are numerous connections to be made between this story and theology/hermeneutics/church praxis, but the reality I think it touches the most (which I suppose is a reality soaked in theology/hermeneutics/church praxis) is friendship. It speaks of friendship as shared story, which is really its essence. We share our stories of the past with one another, so that the words "Declan at the beach in Florida" assume meaning. We also share experiences together, so we can talk about "That time we...". Even just one word shared between friends can trigger a whole narrative; a whole web of meaning that grounds communication in something deeper.

I sometimes look at a couple who have been married for longer than I've been alive and wonder how the communication hasn't dried up. After so many years together, surely you've said everything to each other that can be said? But this is to ignore their shared story. They have a history together that will always be talkaboutable, and they are creating new stories every day. Stories of laughter, stories of pain, stories of hope. From the outside looking in their communication might at times be incomprehensible -- as it was for Picard and his crew -- but when you're on the inside the stories mean the world.

"Our words create our worlds." Our shared stories create our world.

Jesus on a cross at Calvary.

Jesus and two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Essay Formerly Known As "The Myth of The Fall"

One of the reasons I chose to study Financial Mathematics and Economics was that I wouldn't have to write any essays. Other reasons were that I wasn't sure what else to do and it had a cushy number of lecture hours. A degree frought with danger from the outset, some might say.

Between finishing my first undergraduate degree and starting my second (you mean you've only ever done one?), I've taken up the art of writing. Of course it could be well argued that blogging is one thing, the art of writing another, and never the twain shall meet. But legitimate grievances aside, words are words and writing is writing.

Nevertheless, writing a blog post and writing an academic essay present two very different challenges. It's like moving from writing text messages only to writing a proper email. Gone are the "c u sn"'s and "l8r"s, hello to the "see you soon"s and "later"s. The same brain is doing the work, but it is being forced to refine its way of expressing itself.

The problem with this is that you can easily end up being untrue to yourself. An email, or an essay, becomes generic -- the literary equivalent of paint-by-numbers. The only thing to distinguish it as your work is that it has your name attached. I haven't avoided this pitfall in my opening attempt at writing an essay. But I am trying to write in such a way that the words come out of me rather than me re-arranging words from external sources. That's not to say I'm attempting complete originality. Rather, the goal is to soak myself in the words of others and then to express myself as only I can given this rich heritage that is slowly becoming a part of me.

Though I avoided them like the plague in the past, essays are a gift. The opportunity to write one and have it graded by somone who knows more than me is one that should be treated with a healthy mix of seriousness and joy. This first one that I've attached below was a labour of love. It was for a module called "The Biblical Story", so I tried to make it as story-ish as I could. Have a read and see what you think.

Setting the Scene

Primal Conflict
“A major feature of any story is its central conflict.”[1] The Biblical story is no exception. What’s surprising is how soon conflict appears on the scene. Genesis opens with a poetic retelling of God’s creative action, climaxing with his creation of human beings – bearers of imago dei (Gen. 1:26-27). This new human life is characterised by “vocation, permission, and prohibition.”[2] Living under God’s wise and loving rule, Adam and his wife enjoy an existence free of shame (Gen. 2:25). They are at peace with God, with one another, and with the whole of creation. Conflict arises, however, when the vocation, permission and prohibition given by God are neglected in favour of autonomy. Curse is introduced to a world that had previously only known blessing. Which of these two will triumph?

This story of primal conflict is merely the first in a series of connected rebellious episodes[3], culminating with people constructing a tower in Babel to “make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:1-4). With humanity subsequently scattered throughout the earth in a state of confusion, the stage is set for God to make a fresh promise to Abram.

The Faithfulness of God
Though the authorship of Genesis is inconclusive[4], two things are known – Genesis was written by the people of Israel and for the people of Israel. The implications of this have not always been appreciated by modern readers of the text.[5] If we approach the Scriptures with ears to hear, however, “The Fall” becomes more than a story of the human predicament and the origins of evil. It becomes, like the rest of Scripture, a story of God’s desire to be faithful to his creation even in the face of unfaithfulness.
The Story

Reading a story as Story 
The story of Adam and Eve has been read as a minefield of theological and anthropological truths since the dawn of Christianity.[6] While there is legitimacy to such reading, it is my intention to read the story as precisely that – a story. This is not to eschew theology, but rather to merge story and theology so that they become indistinguishable.

In Israel’s Gospel, John Goldingay writes, “It is the essence of Israel to be a people with a story….The Old Testament tells us who God is and who we are through the ongoing story of God’s relationship with Israel.”[7] While Goldingay’s assertion is valid, I find it striking that Israel’s Scriptures do not begin by telling the story of  God’s relationship with Israel. They begin, rather, with a much broader scope – God’s relationship with humanity, as told in the story of Adam and Eve. Is there a deep connection between the two stories? Does the story of Adam shape the story of Israel, and vice versa? An imaginative reading of the text suggests so.
Adam’s story moves in four scenes – creation, call, disobedience, and exile. Since no scene can be properly understood without relation to the other three, all four will be briefly examined.

Scene I – Creation
Genesis 2 focuses on God’s creation of man: “Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen. 2:6).

In Israel’s faith this stands not as a historical/scientific statement, but as a theological proclamation: Man is only rightly understood as the creation of God -- and not just any God, but Israel’s God, Yahweh. The life that man has is a gift from Yahweh, and can only be truly lived in relation to Yahweh. This is what being Yahweh’s creation meant for Adam. This is what being Yahweh’s creation meant for Israel.

Isaiah uses creation language as he speaks to exiled Israel: “But now thus says Yahweh, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel” (Isa. 43:1, emphasis mine). As children of Abraham, Israel was a people created ex nihilo; the handiwork of a God “who calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17). While the faith of Israel declared that Yahweh was the maker of everything, the account of Adam’s creation evoked for Israelites their own special status as a people not only chosen by Yahweh, but intimately formed by him for a unique purpose.

Scene II - Call
An overlooked detail in Adam’s story is his relation to Eden. Adam was not born into Eden: he was brought into Eden by Yahweh. The text mentions this twice.[8] The garden was Yahweh’s gift, and he chose Adam to enter into it as his partner, his vice-regent.

The Exodus – Israel’s foundational narrative -- is not only a story of escape from Egypt. It’s the story of a people who were formed by God and called to enter the Land that Yahweh would give them.[9] In this land they would embody the reign of God as his “kingdom of priests”.[10]

As a guideline to this embodiment, Yahweh gave Israel Torah. He set before them life and death – which would they choose? This choice reflects the choice facing Adam – Live in obedience to the Source of Life, or “you shall surely die”. What choice would Adam make, and how would future generations of Israelites identify with it?

Scene III - Disobedience
Conflict emerges in the form of a serpent. Adam’s wife engages in a “tutorial with this strange theological professor”[11], who questions the goodness of God’s purposes for his human creation. “Eat the fruit”, says the serpent, “and you will be like God.”

Adam and his wife succumb to the temptation. Life in relation to Yahweh is replaced by a life concerned only with self. Trust is abandoned in favour of unhealthy suspicion, and equality with God is considered a thing to be grasped (Phil. 2:6). And so they grasp.

Adam’s disobedience can be read as a prophetic exhortation/warning to a people who were prone to “do what was right in their own eyes.”[12] The message to Israel was clear: Trust in the goodness of Yahweh; respond to his graciousness with obedience, not grasping. If the people of Israel understood themselves as the renewed humanity – or even the ones through whom all humanity would be renewed – then they could ill afford to re-enact Adam’s story scene for scene.

And yet they did. Yahweh’s grace was met with disobedience at almost every turn.[13] Would “God’s-single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world”[14] fail? Had the people chosen to set right the story of Adam not also fallen short? Had Adam and Israel’s faithlessness nullified the faithfulness of Yahweh (Rom. 3:3)?

Scene IV - Exile

The consequences of humanity’s original disobedience are extensive, but the focus here is on their exile “East of Eden”. Faithlessness to their vocation leads to a loss of Yahweh’s special presence. Adam and his wife are “driven out” from the garden. Is there any hope of return?

For exiled Israelites reading Adam’s story, the parallels would be regrettably complete, yet the story would feel unfinished. They knew Yahweh as Creator and Caller, they knew themselves as disobedient covenanters deserving of exile.[15] But who would have the last word, and what would it be?

It is significant that in Adam’s story, judgement and gospel intertwine. Curse is pronounced, but clothes are provided.[16] Moreover, the expulsion from Eden itself is an act of judgement and grace. God sent Adam and his wife away not only as a punishment, but also as an act of mercy. Yahweh would not have them eat of the tree of life and live forever in a world with curse. Adam naming his wife Eve – which ‘resembles the word for “living”’[17] – also injects hope into the drama as the act draws to a close. A future of life, not death, is prophetically imagined.

Exiled Israel held fast to Yahweh’s desire for blessing – a desire which undergirds the story of Adam.[18] They knew that their exile was punitive (e.g., Jer. 7:14-20), but hope that it could also be restorative began to emerge. Jeremiah captures this hope. Like Adam, he prophetically imagines that life and not death, presence and not absence, will have the last word:
11For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. – Jeremiah 29:11-14

The Climax of the Story
A New Story Emerges
During Israel’s exile a new story was told amongst the people: The story of a Servant.[19] Would Adam’s story of “falling short of the glory of God” – a story embedded not only in the conscience of the nations, but in Israel herself -- be put to rights through a righteous Servant?

The Return Home
It is into the yoked stories of Adam and Israel that Jesus of Nazareth fits. Indeed, he forms the climax of these stories and in turn weaves one new story for all of humanity to participate in: the story of cross-resurrection; the story of “new creation”. Israel’s Messiah becomes the “second Adam”. The exile is over. Access to the “tree of life” is once more available (Rev. 22:2). The Father is calling for his sons and daughters to return home.
Has Israel’s faithlessness nullified the faithfulness of God? Me genoito! Through the faithful Israelite Jesus, “God’s single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” is brought to fulfilment. Blessing triumphs over curse.

1 C. Bartholomew and M. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture, 22. Screenwriter Robert McKee takes this truth one step further in his Law of Conflict: ‘Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.’ – R. McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, 210.
2 W. Brueggemann, Genesis, 46
3 Cf. J. Goldingay, Old Testament Theology Volume One, Israel’s Gospel, 147: ‘…Genesis 1-3 only begins the narrative’s portrayal of the origins of human wrongdoing. It is Genesis 1-6 or Genesis 1-11 as a whole that offers the total portrait.’
4 See the discussions in R.B. Dillard and T. Longman III, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 38-48 and T. Fretheim, Genesis, 322-324

5 Cf. D. Alexander, “Pentateuch” in The IVP Introduction to the Bible, 54: ‘As readers we need to attune ourselves to what these ancient authors wished to say and not impose our present-day agenda on their writings. We must not expect the biblical text to answer questions that its authors were not addressing.’
6 The origin of this Christian reading is Paul’s Adam/Jesus typology in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. As a guideline for its continuing practice, it should be noted that Paul was more interested in making proclamations about Jesus than about Adam, and that the Old Testament itself has little or nothing to say about Adam and “the fall” other than what we find in Genesis 2-3.
7 Goldingay, Israel’s Gospel, 30

8 Genesis 2:8 and 2:15
9 Cf. Genesis 15:7; Exodus 6:8
10 The language of “priesthood” evokes Israel’s calling to be a “light for the nations” (Isa. 49:6). This point is well made in D. Peterson, Engaging With God, 28: “As a priestly kingdom, [the Israelites] were to serve the LORD exclusively and thus be a people through whom his character and will might be displayed to the world.”
11 Goldingay, Israel’s Gospel, 131. Cf. H. Thielicke, A Little Exercise For Young Theologians, 34: ‘Consider that the first time someone spoke of God in the third person and therefore no longer with God but about God was that very moment when the question resounded “Did God really say?”’

12 Judges 17:6; 21:25
13 See, for example, the story of the golden calf in Exodus 32, about which Terrence Fretheim asserts “It is Genesis 3 all over again.” T. Fretheim, Exodus, 279
14 N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, 105

15 See Leviticus 26:27ff. for an Israelite understanding of the link between disobedience and exile.
16 Cf. Ezekiel 16:8-14 for an interesting parallel between Adam and Israel.
17 T. Fretheim, Genesis, 364
18 Cf. Goldingay, Israel’s Gospel, 139: “To describe God as blessing but not directly cursing suggests that blessing is Yhwh’s natural activity, while cursing is less so. It parallels the implication that light and mercy are nearer to Yhwh’s true nature than darkness or anger. While Genesis can imagine the possibility that Yhwh might curse and get angry (Gen 5:29; 18:30, 32), it sees that as not Yhwh’s first nature. In Yhwh’s nature blessing has priority over cursing, love over anger, mercy over retribution.”

19 Isaiah 42:1-7; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Enlightenment Freedom vs Covenantal Freedom

When Christians talk about sex, it sounds like they are against freedom.

Enter the man of the hour Dr Brueggemann, who says we need to

distinguish between Enlightenment freedom, which means 'I'm not accountable to anybody', and Covenantal freedom, which means 'I'm situated in a neighbourhood and my freedom is defined in relationship to the neighbours'.

The Christian story of sex is not rooted in command or control; it is rooted in community. Community gives birth to sex, sex gives birth to community...quite literally. Therefore to think our sex lives are our own is to begin down the path of self-destruction. As we have discovered, Enlightenment freedom -- the freedom of autonomy -- is the pathway to lonliness. It is into this lonliness that the Christian narrative as it relates to sex should sound not like oppressive legislation, but like good news.

Why, then, do we seem to always make it sound like oppressive legislation!? The gospel isn't merely good news about our eternal destiny. It is good news that has profoundly positive effects on our sex lives in the present. We need not apologise for them.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Nanosecond With Jesus

Walter Brueggemann on the church's (ab/non-)use of the Old Testament:

the church...under the pressure of reductionist fundamentalism has wanted to reduce the whole Bible to a nanosecond with Jesus, and if you can do that then you can get rid of almost everything costly and everything important.

Friday, December 10, 2010

To Be Truly Human

From a comment by Daniel Kirk in his post on Christology in Luke:

...I think that one of the more significant things we find in the Jesus of the Gospels is what it means to be truly human. Too often, in my experience, when folks start finding divinity in the Gospels that becomes an explanation for why Jesus can do what he does (heal, exorcise, etc.)–and why we, in turn, can’t. But if all of it is a big picture of what it means to be truly human, as God’s children, then the family of God on earth has just such a high calling and stunning responsibility.

If this is true, might it be a good enough reason to continue using the word "incarnation" in reference to the church and its mission, despite the fair warnings of Creideamh? Incarnation, after all, is about becoming truly human -- something the church and the world is called to be.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.

- Author of Hebrews

Everything starts with belief and if you don't believe you might as well not play...

- Robin van Persie

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Theology Out Of Footnotes

From a Christian perspective, then, Old Testament theology is a truncated exercise, but a defensible one. In contrast, New Testament theology seems not only a truncated exercise, but also an indefensible one. It deconstructs. One of the New Testament’s own convictions is that the Old Testament is part of the Scriptures (indeed, is the Scriptures), give or take some questions about its boundaries, and that the Old Testament provides the theological framework within which Jesus needs to be understood. The New Testament is then a series of Christian and ecclesial footnotes to the Old Testament, and one cannot produce a theology out of footnotes.

There may be a hint of bias in Old Testament scholar John Goldinagay's words, but the man has a point. Nevertheless, there are four books in the New Testament that stand as a stumbling block. The irony is that they are probably the four books most overlooked when it comes to developing what might be considered a "New Testament theology". They are of course Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Footnotes they are not.

That being said, the Gospels might arguably feel more at home in the OT rather than the NT. What do you reckon? Would that transform our reading of the Bible, perhaps helping to bridge the gap between the testaments? Do pipe up, so I can call the people of NIV before it's too late!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

How You Play the Game

When learning a new game, a guy I know does not ask, How do you play? He asks, How do you win? The definitive question of a results oriented culture. What matters is not how you play the game, but whether you win or lose.

I had the pleasure of watching El Clasico a week ago, accompanied by two Barcelona fans and a Real Madrid fan. This was a club game that the world was watching, and it didn't disappoint. To sum up, Barcelona were breathtakingly good. As one writer described it, they not only had the ball on a string, but the had the Madrid players on strings too, so in control were the Catalans. 5-0 was the final score, but after the game my Madrid amigo was defiant that this isn't the end, and that we should wait and see who gets the trophy in the end.

I think such comments reflect not only a misunderstanding about football, but a misunderstanding about life.

Madrid may well win the title at the end of the season, but nobody watches football so that they can see a large cup being passed from a suited gentleman to a sweaty football player. We watch football, as a typical Arsenal fan said, for the moments of delight that flicker our way every now and then. If Barcelona celebrated like they won the league last week, it's because the joy they felt was on a par with if not greater than they joy experienced had they just completed a league triumph. That's how much style means to them. Winning will get you on the history books; style will get you into stories that will be passed on for generations.

Can I relate this to Christianity? You bet I can!

Salvation as we conceive it has become the answer to the question, How do I win? We don't care about the present moments of beauty and faithfulness and love, forgetting the reality that it is such things that will echo through the ages. We're like my Madrid-supporting friend, consoling ourselves with the thought that we'll end up winning the big prize eventually therefore the present moment is of little worth.

The Bible flips this on its head. We're told that precisely because of the grand future that awaits us -- i.e. resurrection bodies restored to the image of Christ -- our present moments of beauty, faithfulness and love are not in vain. This is like telling Barcelona that right now they are playing the football of the future, the kind of football that will last through the ages, the kind of football that will triumph over Jose Mourinho's dark arts once and for all.

Good news, eh?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Nothing Comes Easy

Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?
- Paul of Tarsus

The problem with Christ's kind of love is that it hurts. Often times it seems wasteful and foolish, but the mysterious truth is that it is the only kind of love that will last. The invitation to take up our crosses is not so much about enduring hardhips like illness or poverty with the knowledge that one day such things will be no more. The invitation is an invitation to love people now in the way that we will love them in the age to come.

I want an easy Christianity, an easy love. But as my old friend Mr Beaver might reply, "Easy? Who said anything about easy? Of course it isn't easy. But it's good." If you read nothing else this weekend, read the following extract from William Willimon's book Who Will Be Saved? In it he describes the surprising "grain of the universe".

Jesus' love is what Jesus commands, something enabled by who he is. He expended everything. He laid down his life for a bunch of stupid, wayward sheep, friends who were also his betrayers.

In so doing, Jesus was not simply being a great ethical teacher; one is impressed by the impracticality of what Jesus commands. If you give everything you've got to the poor, eventually you will have nothing to give. And how does self-giving better the lot of the poor after they have consumed everything that you have given? Will such liberality only produce character flaws in the poor? If you so thoughtlessly give to the needs of others in this way, you will eventually be used by others who will take advantage of you. Taken to the extreme, it could lead to your death.

But then Jesus says that this is exactly where this should lead.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The New Additon

I reference my "former teacher" a lot, especially now that I'm in Bible College and I want to appear to know more than I do. Have a theology-based conversation with me and by sentence three I'll have probably said, "My former teacher used to say that..." 

By "my former teacher" I mean to refer to one Dr Arden Autry, with whom I metaphorically walked the road to Emmaus as he opened to Scriptures to me for a whole year. His classes were the embodiment of what I wrote about yesterday. Nobody left the classroom without being formed ever-so-slightly more into the image of Christ. If you wanted a simple piece of encouragement to help you make sense of the life of faith, Arden would provide it. If you wanted a discussion on Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics, Arden would provide it, though probably not until either break time or the end of class.

I learned many things from Arden during my year of biblical studies, but perhaps I learned nothing more important than how it is a Christian ought to know things: with humility, grace, and, if necessary, firm conviction (a half-hour debate with a man about the resurrection of Jesus was a particular highlight of mine from the year).

I write all this because my former teacher has been persuaded to start a blog! Perhaps he has become too embarrassed at the half-truths that his former student is spouting across the internet and now intends to the right the wrongs. Whatever the reason, this is good news. The address is I'll let you decide whether that reads Ask In Garden, A Skin Garden, or Asking Arden.

Go ahead and begin reading here. I'm not exactly sure what the contents will be, but I am very sure that all of it will be worthy of your time.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Losing Sight of Salvation

To separate theology and ethics is to understand neither. (I read that in a book somewhere.) The affirmation "Jesus is Lord" is as much ethical as it is theological. Indeed it's ethical because it's theological, and vice versa.

Seeing things this way opens up a whole new world as we read the New Testament. I don't think Paul wrote Romans so that the church in Rome would know his gospel before he came to them. I think he wrote it so that the Jews and Gentiles in the Roman church would just get along. How ironic that we have turned Romans into a theological treatise (I use "theological" in the worst sense of the word) which we then use to cause division rather than unity. If Paul was "doing theology" in his Roman epistle he was doing it in order to form a community characterised by love - love for the God who has manifested his love for us through Jesus and love for each other through the connecting power of the holy spirit. Paul as abstract theologian just doesn't cut it.

I understand that N.T. Wright has used Philemon as the foundation for his forthcoming book on Paul. This is a master stroke. We tend to shy away from Philemon because it isn't happy hunting ground for abstract truths that we can disagree over. In this short letter we can't so easily separate theology and ethics as we think we can in the other epistles, and this makes us uncomfortable. But the letter to Philemon is a beautiful glimpse into the purpose behind Paul's ministry. It was the ministry of reconciliation. Reconciliation of human beings to God, and human beings to each other. Slave and master become one. Jew and Gentile become one. Man and woman become one. That's a picture of the church right there.

Paul was, after all, a church planter, and he set up churches in order for them to display the power of the gospel through love. He wrote to these churches to remind them of that inextricble connection between gospel and love, or theology and ethics. Irony number two - how many churches today are founded on division? How many are planted in order to be separate from fellow believers? Living in Northern Ireland has been a wonderful experience so far, but it also a reminder of how far we are from that oneness that Jesus so fervently desires for us. We tend to use doctrine to draw distictions, but the best purveyors of doctrine know that it can and should be used to "do" something entirely different. Consider these thoughts from Ellen Charry:

The theologians who shaped the tradition believed that God was working with us to teach us something, to get our attention through the Christian story, including those elements of the story that make the least sense to us. They were interested in forming us as excellent persons. Christian doctrines aim to be good for us by forming or reforming our character; they aim to be salutary. They seek to form excellent persons with God as the model, and this is in a quite literal sense, not as metaphors pointing to universal truths of human experience that lie beyond events themselves. In other words, I came to see that the great theologians of the past were also moralists in the best sense of the term. They were striving not only to articulate the meanings of the doctrines but also their pastoral value or salutarity – how they are good for us.

Doctrine at its best sweep us into a drama where we are called and equiped to play a role not unlike that of Jesus in the Gospels. This is what Paul's life and letters were all about: forming communities of "excellent persons", or as he might say himself, persons who are "mature in Christ". Lose sight of this and we lose sight of salvation.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"It Is All Worship"

Courtesy of Storied Theology I read this article on worship. It's probably nothing you haven't heard before, but it's definitely something you need to hear again and again. the American church we have so equated worship with cultural habits that we fail to see how biblical worship is even worship at all.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Risky Preaching

Every imperial agent wants to reduce what is possible to what is available.

- Walter Brueggemann

This happens all the time, both inside and outside the church. We forget that the very world we live in is an unavailable possibility; that something new happened at the moment of creation that couldn't be explained by appeals to the past. 

I think this is one of the most interesting aspects of Jesus's ministry. He takes us to a place where future possibilities are not hindered by present availability. This is the world created by his miracles and by his stories.

"But the miracles can't be true; those kinds of things just don't happen", some might say. Away from me, you imperial agent! You are reducing what is possible to what is available, and by doing so you are questioning, even denying, your own existence.

For Brueggemann, the job of a pastor or preacher is the job of a poet/prophet. It is perhaps the most difficult job in Christian ministry. It is the job of imagining God's good future and calling people to enter into it. This is why Paul could describe his own preaching as foolishness. He imagined a cruciform future and called people to find life through death. This is risky preaching, but as Mr Beaver rhetorically asked, Who said anything about safe?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Praise Us Rising

Roughly half the time Hosanna (Praise Is Rising) is sung during a church service a part of me dies.

Since the first time I heard the song I’ve always loved verse two. It went like this:

Hear the sound of hearts returning to you
We turn to you
In your Kingdom broken lives are made new
You make all things new

Any time I sang the song in my home church, that’s how it was sung. As far as we were concerned, that was the only way to sing it.

How wrong we were.

There is a school of thought that has changed the last line ever so slightly, and by doing so they have ruined everything. Participate in a church service and you may end up singing the following:

In your Kingdom broken lives are made new
You make us new

“All things” I once held dear has been counted as “us” for the sake of…it being slightly easier to sing in time? It’s a disgrace, Bill. Think of what is lost. First and foremost, the Biblical echo has all but disappeared. “Behold, I am making all things new” is blocked from infiltrating our imaginations. As Richard Hays has convincingly shown, an echo of Scripture can merely be the tip of the iceberg, with the surrounding text also making its way into the scenery of our imaginations (and what a surrounding text Revelation 21 is). All of this is evaporated as we sing the true but vague “You make us new”.

Second, the focus has narrowed from “all things” to “us”. God’s plan to redeem the whole of his creation has become God’s plan for our individual salvation. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but the second is best understood in the context of the first, lest we think that the world revolves around “us”. God is not only making the people who sing Hosanna (Praise Is Rising) new. God is not only making Christians new. God is making all things new. God has a stake in the whole of his creation, and in Christ he has acted to reconcile the world to himself. Or as Colossians puts it,

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 
and through him to reconcile to himself all things, 
whether on earth or in heaven, 
making peace by the blood of his cross.

“All things” is the scope of this beautiful hymn in Colossians 1, because it is the scope of God himself. Presently we do not see all things inhabiting his kingdom, but we see Jesus – the one who is “making all things new”.

If you sing or play on a worship team, do not let the “us” people get away with their sabotage! I read recently that words create our worlds, therefore we must endeavour to choose our words carefully.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Psychology 101

Merold Westphal wrote a book that aims to help Christians learn from three of the most influential thinkers in history: Freud, Marx and Nitzsche. I only read the Freud section, but there was enough in that to keep me preoccupied.

One of the areas that Westphal critiqued using some Freudian analysis was our focus on the death of Jesus. Now of course this is sacred ground for Christians, but Westphal wondered if perhaps there is something deeper (and more sinister) going on as we fixate on the crucifixion to the exclusion of almost everything else, including the resurrection.

A dead god is one we can control. A dead Jesus provides a beautiful memory of love and sacrifice, fills an emotional need within us, but does little to shape our present and future. As Westphal highlights, we're quick to "proclaim the Lord's death" but we tend to leave out the "until he comes" part. Of the love that we express toward God, Westphal writes through the mind of Freud:

...where that love is unusually intense, it may very well be the mask behind which our envy of God's privilege and power and our revenge against his authority come to expression.

I think the problem for Christians is that we live in a two-world dichotomy. There is the world of our theology and the world of our experience, and the twain don't often meet. The first world asserts the upside-down character of reality, a reality in which self-giving love makes ultimate sense. The God of this world appeals to us very much. We don't want to live like this reality is true for us, however, so our "lived" world still operates under the old structures, where the strong dominate the weak, where love is taken rather than given, and where the rich and powerful inherit the earth.

Perhaps this is another reason we hold an "unusually intense" love for the cross: It is where we seek the forgiveness we so desperately need for living lives that go against the grain of its world-shattering message.

If some unorthodox Christianity wants the crown without the cross, it might be fair to say that much orthodox Christianity wants the cross without the cross.

There are further arguments and counterarguments aplenty, but that's enough quack psychology for now.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Who Will Be Saved?

When a book has blurbs by Walter Brueggemann and Stanley Hauerwas on the back cover, you know it is doing something right. The first chapter of William Willimon's Who Will Be Saved? is explosive. I can't wait to see what else it has in store.

We suspicious of abstract, impersonal, generic notions of God that make abstract claims that God is omnipotent, utterly free, and transcendent. Abstractions mean nothing apart from the specific narratives of Scripture that tell was what true power, freedom, and transcendence look like now that God looks like a crucified and resurrected Jew from Nazareth.

A devastatingly good case for narrative theology (and narrative preaching), I think.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Did the Bible Really Say...?

In Tom Wright's book on Justification -- a book I imagine him to have written during a lunch break (and I mean that as a compliment) -- he makes the bold statement that you cannot understand Paul if you read the NIV.

There is a school of thought -- one which I admire in some ways -- whose mantra is "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it." So simple, so sure. Forget all this fiddlin' about with hermeneutics, forget all of the overly complicated theologizing that seems only to confuse. Let's just put as many Bibles as possible into the hands of Christian lay people and tell them to go nuts. This was one of the tasks of Reformation people (slightly sensationalised, of course) - We need to get everyone a Bible so they can read and understand the Scriptures for themselves.

Now I'm not questioning the value of this task. I'm not about to go around knocking on people's doors saying "Actually, change of plan - can we have those Bible's back, please?" Scripture is not a code book for the initiated. You don't have to have read Anthony Thistelton in order to read the Bible for all its worth. "Simplicity is beautiful", according to philosopher John Giles, and we read the Bible best when it comes to us as something simple.
Now back to that mantra. So what does the Bible actually say? According to Wright, the Bible does not say what the NIV says it says, at least when it comes to sections of Paul's epistles. So we can read our Bible, believe it, and settle the question, but in reality we have believed and settled something that was never intended to be believed and settled. We have fallen at the first hurdle - the Bible doesn't actually say it!

One of the NIV passages Wright laments is Romans 3:21-26. The term dikaiosyne theou is translated in the NIV as "a righteousness from God", when a more faithful translation might read "the righteousness of God" or "God's righteousness". What's the difference? The NIV's translation shoehorns the text into a scheme that goes like this: We lacked a thing, a moral quality called "righteousness", and so the good news is that God gives us his "righteousness" or perhaps the "righteousness of Christ" (a phrase you won't find in the New Testament) to make up for our short-comings. What we need, and what we get, is "a righteousness from God".

Translating dikaiosyne theou as "righteousness of God" or "God's righteousness" leads us to conclude that what we need is for God to reveal his own righteousness. This could mean many things, but God told me that it is closely linked with his will to salvation; his committment to make things right and restore justice to the world (which, lest we forget, was always intended to happen through Israel). Books like Psalms and Isaiah certainly back this up - books that Paul's imagination was steeped in.

If my limited knowledge of Church history is correct, Martin Luther was terrified at the thought of God revealing his righteousness. He wondered how on earth that this could be good news. And so a scheme was formed that the NIV has echoed - a scheme that bent Scripture out of shape in order to make it say things that it didn't actually need to say at all. Because in biblical thought, what could be better news than hearing that God had revealed his righteousness!?

But now, a revised version of the NIV has been revealed apart from the 1984 edition, although the 1984 edition testifies to it. Is this good news? Here is its translation of Romans 3:21-22a:

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in (or "the faithfulness of") Jesus Christ to all who believe.

I think Tom Wright would say amen to verse 21, but that 22 undoes all of its good work. That word "given" is a leftover from the old scheme, with no basis in the actual text. It is a word included because of a misunderstanding of the law.

The law was not given so that people could keep it perfectly and get into heaven when they die. The law was not a series of hoops that need to be jumped through. In short, the law was never intended as a means of our salvation. When we think that it was, then the Lutheran scheme makes sense: What we need to be saved is a perfect moral record. Since we are sinners we can't achieve that, so Jesus has acheived it in our place. This "righteousness" is then given to us when we have faith in Jesus.

The irony of this scheme is that for all its proponents' antagonism for works righteousness, it is an utterly works righteousness scheme. Sure it might not be our works of the law that save us, but we are still saved by the works of the law.

Yet Romans tells us that God's righteousness has been revealed "apart from the law". There must be another means of salvation other than Law, vicariously kept or not. But what?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

In The Beginning...

A sentence that sums up a book that sums up the Christian story:

In the beginning God raised Jesus from the dead.

With these nine words strung together Michael Pahl has hit the proverbial nail on the head. We cannot think theologically (in any Christian sense of the word) unless we begin with the resurrection. I'll return to my acquaintance Karl Barth (whose Church Dogmatics will be delivered to my doorstep in a few weeks) for some back up:

[Jesus Christ's] resurrection is the supreme act of God's sovereignty; henceforth we are bound to live and think in its light.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Poem


October sunlight falls in unexpected places
Reflection shimmers, surprises, shows
Life, she's lost not all her graces
For Grace, her fount, delight he knows.

"Deserve not I," the protest rings
"Such beauty befalls so unworthy a soul."
Yet over protest, Behold! There sings
A voice so pure, so lovely, so whole.

Like bliss at birth in wake of pain
New creation dawns, and with it, joy
For trespasses past are remebered not, Refrain!
Now employ your all, and again I say, Employ.

Two Thoughts In One

DeYoung, Duncan, Mohler: What's New About the New Calvinism from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

I'm not a Calvinist, and I don't think anyone should be. Paul would be horrified to know that anyone's identity as a Christian is wrapped up in a human being other than Jesus of Nazareth, be it Calvin, Luther, Arminius, Apollos, or even Paul himself.

There will be strong objections to the above paragraph, but I think much of them will rely on a devastatingly false presupposition: That Christian unity is acheived through shared doctrine. If this presupposition were true, then it makes perfect sense for us to label robust bodies of doctrine and identify ourselves with one of them. That would be the most effective way of making people feel united to something. But if this is the kind of unity that we crave, then we of all people are to be most pitied.

I say this not to destroy the importance of shared doctrine. That would make me an idiot. So what am I trying to get it?

If you watched the video clip, did you notice anything missing? 

Consider this small body of doctrine:

...salvation is accomplished by the sovereign grace of God, operating through the death of Jesus Christ in our place and on our behalf, and appropriated through faith alone.

The person who wrote this says that there is not one syllable in this summary that he disagrees with, and I imagine all three of the men featured above would say the same. "But there is something missing", the author goes on to say. Worringly, this something -- or someone -- is actually the source of real Christian unity: the spirit.

Christian unity is a unity of the spirit. And for all of popular Calvinism's talk of "robust" theologies, there is a death-dealing dearth of spirit language that undermines the whole. It is as if a group of people have been given 1959 Gibson Les Paul's, the value of which they know, but with the problem being that they don't actually know how to play the guitar.

Calvinism -- though I question the term itself -- isn't the problem. The problem is with how it is played.
Mohler, Duncan and DeYoung may be right in what they say about the New Calvinism. But I think they are blind to other factors involved in Calvinism's resurgence. Modern Calvinism has embraced a term floated around quite a bit in Irish politics recently - knowledge economy. In this economy, information is power, information is product, information is prestige. He (and I use the masculine deliberately) who can answer the most questions wins.

In short, this is not merely a "religious" movement. There are political, economic, social, theological, philosophical and psychological factors involved that need to be examined. That in itself is okay. Christianity should touch all of these spheres. But it is my hunch that when these factors are examined, Calvinism, like many other expressions of Christianity, will find that the gospel is not being allowed to grow holistically; its light is not being shone on the dark forces at work in our world.

N.T. Wright says that "you can't simply add the spirit on at the end of the equation and hope it will still have the same shape". The spirit not only calls into question what we know, but also calls into question how we know what we know and how we use what we know. Unity goes deeper than shared doctrine. It is a Spiritual thing that finds its expression not only in knowlege but in love.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Reimagining "The Fall"

In Israel’s Gospel, John Goldingay writes, “It is the essence of Israel to be a people with a story….The Old Testament tells us who God is and who we are through the ongoing story of God’s relationship with Israel.” While Goldingay’s assertion is well-founded, I find it striking that Israel’s Scriptures do not begin by telling the story of  God’s relationship with Israel. They begin, rather, with a much broader scope – God’s relationship with humanity, as told in the story of Adam and Eve. Is there a deep connection between the two stories? Does the story of Adam shape the story of Israel, and vice-versa? An imaginative reading of the text suggests so.

In our module "The Biblical Story", one of our assignments is to pick an act from the Bible's narrative and write an essay on it. I chose The Fall, with the above being a little taste of where I went with it. There were many conclusions that I was unable to explore due to lack of space, but one of them is that the story of Adam is best read from a post-exilic context. It was told to "catch the conscience" of Israelites in exile, and in doing so it created deep connections between the story of Israel and the story of non-Israel. The chief connection was not merely that both parties are human beings, but that both parties of human beings are partnered to Yahweh. Moreover, the destiny of non-Israel is contingent on the destiny of Israel - but like non-Israel (as represented by Adam), Israel has been "driven out" from Yahweh's special presence due to disobedience.

It turns out that non-Israel is actually Israel, or perhaps that Israel is actually non-Israel. Their stories parallel up to a devastating exile. What next? *broad strokes conclusion alert*

During Israel’s exile a new story was told amongst the people: The story of a Servant. Would Adam’s story of “falling short of the glory of God” – a story embedded not only in the conscience of the nations, but in Israel herself -- be put to rights through a righteous Servant?

It is into the yoked stories of Adam and Israel that Jesus of Nazareth fits. Indeed, he forms the climax of these stories and in turn weaves one new story for all of humanity to participate in: the story of cross-resurrection; the story of “new creation”. Israel’s Messiah becomes the “second Adam”. The exile is over. Access to the “tree of life” is once more available (Rev. 22:2). The Father is calling for his sons and daughters to return home.
Has Israel’s faithlessness nullified the faithfulness of God? Me genoito! Through the faithful Israelite Jesus, “God’s single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” is brought to fulfilment. Blessing triumphs over curse.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Under An Illusion

Leadership is the aspect of life that Christianity has gotten the most wrong. Where we should look so different ("but not so among you") we have simply reproduced the power structures of the world and applied some Christian finishings to ensure we are under an illusion. I have much to learn about what leadership looks like, but here is my starting point:

Relate to people, or your ministry will die; or worse, it will flourish.


It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

In the words of theologians Will Munny and Snoop Pearson, Deserve got nothing to do with it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Culturally Conditioned Gospel

The following passage from Lesslie Newbigin's book Foolishness to the Greeks is taken from a post at the Harvard Ichthus.

In speaking of ‘the gospel,’ I am, of course, referring to the announcement that in the series of events that have their center in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ something has happened that alters the total human situation and must therefore call into question every human culture. Now clearly this announcement is itself culturally conditioned. It does not come down from heaven or by the mouth of an angel…Neither at the beginning, nor at any subsequent time, is there or can there be a gospel that is not embodied in a culturally conditioned form of words. The idea that one can or could at any time separate out by some process of distillation a pure gospel unadulterated by any cultural accretions is an illusion. It is, in fact, an abandonment of the gospel, for the gospel is about the word made flesh. Every statement of the gospel in words is conditioned by the culture of which those words are a part, and every style of life that claims to embody the truth of the gospel is a culturally conditioned style of life. There can never be a culture-free gospel. Yet the gospel, which is from the beginning to the end embodied in culturally conditioned forms, calls into question all cultures, including the one in which it was originally embodied.

- Lesslie Newbigin

This passage is eating me a good way. Note to self: read more Lesslie Newbigin.

Friday, October 22, 2010

One For the Football Lovers

It has been a week of breathtaking cynicism and opportunism seldom exceeded when it comes to exposing so much that is wrong and morally bankrupt about modern-day footballers and a grubby industry where the rich are so obsessed with getting richer it can feel like money is how we must now keep the score.

To read the rest of Daniel Taylor's wonderful article click here

When it has sufficiently depressed your spirits, watch the following video to renew some hope. This is the theology of Michael Laudrup in 11 minutes. The thought "Andres Iniesta...but better" comes to mind, which is big for me.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Permitted To Play

Inasmuch as all Scripture is the product of a single divine mind, interpretation must stay within the bounds of the analogy of Scripture and eschew hypotheses that would correct one Biblical passage by another, whether in the name of progressive revelation or of the imperfect enlightenment of the inspired writer's mind.

From Scripture:

"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."

There's something wrong with our doctrine of Scripture when Jesus (along with Paul and most other New Testament writers) would be castigated if they applied their hermeneutical methods today.

Note also an instance of "regressive revelation" found in the Scriptures:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" He answered, "Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate." They said to him, "Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?" He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so."

I'm tired of a lot of things in Christendom today, but one my of chief grievances is its need to protect and defends docrtines in such a way that actually silences the text of Scripture. This deep-seated desire for the Bible to be what we say it is is yet another instance of our wanting a god who thinks like us. He doesn't. In speaking briefly about the gospel in his essay "Reading the Scriptures Faithfully in a Postmodern Age," William Stacey Johnson makes this clear in arguably the best sentence I've read all week:

The gospel is not a "foundation" to render our tradtional notions of rationality secure but a remaking of everything, including rationality itself.

I'm convinced that the majority of people under the Christian umbrella have a concept of God that has been largely formed without relation to Jesus or to the Scriptures, and this concept has then been read into said Jesus and Scriptures...with disastrous effect. I include myself in this majority.

The Bible is not a safe place for our wall of presuppositions. It dismantles them, brick by brick. But it does not leave us defenseless. When it is read as it ought to be read, we are introduced to a living person  who is so unlike us yet who is with us and for us. He is at once unknowable yet known, though only in part. He is unsafe, and yet the source of our greatest security and comfort (which, by the way, should utterly redefine what we mean by such words). He does not dwell in temples of stone or in books of systematic theology. He is free, and in Him we also are free. This is the "strange, new world" that the Bible transports us into. We ought to read it as inhabitants of this world. Raymond Brown captures this hermeneutic well:

After all, in the Scriptures we are in the Father's house where the children are permitted to play

Sunday, October 17, 2010

"Embodiment, Not Argument"

The real issue with Christianity isn't whether it's intellectually believable; the issue is whether it's morally believeable. In that debate, "beauty, excellence embodied will speak in a way that we can't reduce to paraphrase."

Saturday, October 16, 2010

According To Bill

The Christian story, according to Bill Hicks:

Eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God's infinite love.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Another Aspect of the Gospel?

God’s knowledge of us comes about through having a relationship with us. Perhaps this is because his knowing everything without our ever revealing anything would severely qualify the mutual relationship between human beings and God….Instead, God lets people reveal who they are. God’s not knowing everything is thus another aspect of the gospel.

John Goldingay, Israel's Gospel

I read this a few days ago and it has been haunting my thoughts and prayers ever since. One of the key questions to ask of a scientific theory is "Is it beautiful?" Goldingay's assertion is by no means scientific, but the above question is nonetheless valid - is it beautiful?

Monday, October 11, 2010

On Writing

9. Writing and life. The widespread notion that life is more important than writing – as though writing were something I do when I’m not really living – owes much to this modern abrogation of the threat of death. To distinguish between writing and living betrays a deep misunderstanding not only of what it means to write but also of what it means to live. My happiest childhood memories are of sitting alone writing stories: was I writing, or living?

If you enjoy writing, read these Thirteen Theses by Ben Myers. If you don't particularly enjoy writing but are required to do it, read these Thirteen Theses by Ben Myers. If you think writing is a waste of time, read these Thirteen Theses by Ben Myers.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Right Place

…the faith claim of the church is that the Bible as the church’s Scripture is without parallel, for it is God-given – given to be sure through the quixotic work of human beings – as originary testimony to the truth of God’s presence in and governance of all creation. Because it is God-given, given as God characteristically gives through the hidden workings of ordinary life, the book endlessly summons, requires, demands and surprises with fresh reading. The only way to turn the book into a fixed idol is to imagine that the final interpretation has been given, an act of imagination that is a deep act of disobedience to the lively God who indwells the text. The only way to avoid such idolatry is to know that the lively God of the text has not given any final interpretation of the book that remains resistant to our explanatory inclinations.

- Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament

Herein lies one of the best aspects of Belfast Bible College: We are offered no final interpretations.  This place is not grooming ministry robots whose sole output is trite answers to difficult questions. Real human beings are being formed to live a real life of complexity and tension, but with these three abiding: faith, hope, and love. If anyone is worried about me, rest arrured that I am in the right place. God told me so on Tuesday at chapel service:

And who knows whether you have not come to the (united) kingdom for such a time as this?

Sure, these words may have been originally spoken to a Jewish woman over two thousand years ago, but remember - no final interpretations!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

What About Jesus!?

As I was going to and fro on the blogosphere, I found a video interview with Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. They were exploring the question “What is the mission of the Church?”

For those unfamiliar with the above names, they are leaders in the “young, restless, and reformed” movement that’s making its way to a heated Bible Study on Romans near you.

Without going into the nitty gritty of everything said – which would be both boring and unfair – there is a statement by Gilbert that brought to mind N.T. Wright’s critique from yesterday’s post. Gilbert says,

You can take a good thing, which is certainly commanded of us in Scripture, which is to do good deeds of all kinds – love your neighbour, care for the poor – good things, and you can take those and get them wrapped up and twisted up around the wrong theological themes – gospel, kingdom, shalom.

Correct me if I’m reading this wrongly, but Greg Gilbert appears to be saying that to connect good deeds with the gospel or the kingdom is to connect them with the wrong theological theme.

But…but…what about Jesus!? If what Gilbert says is true then of course we’re going to be confused by the question ‘why did Jesus live?’ This, after all, is the Jesus who said “If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”

You cannot take the Gospels seriously and conclude that good deeds and the kingdom/gospel are in separate theological categories. The kingdom of God is where God’s will is done. And what is God’s will? What does he desire? “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before your God.” In short, do good. The gospel that Jesus proclaimed was the reality that God’s will was being done, and thus the kingdom was at hand. Was "the gospel" the proclamation or was "the gospel" the deeds? Yes!

What about Paul? What gospel did he hold fast to? Basically the same one: Through the man Jesus, God’s will was done. In him, especially in his death and resurrection, the purposes of God are fulfilled.

The irony lost on some in the Reformed camp is that because of the cross, gospel and good deeds are beautifully interwoven, for what is the gospel if it is not the announcement of the greatest of deeds?

How, then, does all of this relate to the Church’s good deeds? Contrary to what Gilbert suggests, our good deeds find their greatest motivation and significance when they are wrapped around themes (or realities) like gospel and kingdom. The event of the cross becomes a lens through which all of life is seen. And the life that we now live is joined, by faith, to the life of the resurrected, crucified Jesus. We are united with the one we proclaim.

To use one of Gilbert's examples, the command in Scripture to “love your neighbour” is thus wrapped up with the gospel, for we are called to love as Jesus loved. The “good news”, the “story” of Jesus, shapes our present stories.

DeYoung later mentions “The Great Commission” as being what the church is all about – i.e. the proclamation of the gospel is the mission of the church. But to perform an act of rhetorical jujitsu, the Great Commission is precisely concerned with connecting gospel and good deeds. Jesus commissions his disciples to teach the nations everything he commanded. To “make disciples” isn’t to make good students of abstract atonement theology: it is to make doers of the word - embodiers of the message. Paul had a shorthand way of making disciples – “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

Finally, regarding DeYoung’s remark about there being no New Testament interest in “transforming the whole world”, what else can taking the commands of Jesus to the nations do but call for a complete transformation? What else does the book of Acts show but a small band of passionate Jews turning the "world upside down"?

The distinction is perhaps unwarranted, but the gospel is not the thing. The formation of a new community in Christ is the thing. The gospel is the power that effects the (trans)formation.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


N.T. Wright is a thorn in the flesh of many a Reformed Theology adherent. He sometimes caricatures the tradition to make a point, but there are occasions when you do need to provoke someone into hearing you. The following is one of those occasions:

The reformers had very thorough answers to the question 'why did Jesus die?'; they did not have nearly such good answers to the question 'why did Jesus live?'

...orthodoxy, as represented by much popular preaching and writing, has had no clear idea of the purpose of Jesus' ministry. For many conservative theologians it would have been sufficient if Jesus had been born a virgin (at any time in human history, and perhaps from any race), lived a sinless life, died a sacrificial death, and risen again three days later. (In some instances the main significance of this would be the conclusion: the Bible is all true.)

These quotes tap into the reason behind much of Wright's work: When we de-Judaize Jesus, his life makes no sense, and so everything is up for grabs for whoever wants it. Perhaps this is an unfair question, but when was the last time you heard a sermon in which it was mentioned that Jesus was in fact a Jew? Is this important?