Friday, January 29, 2010

How To Read: On The Edge

Never go back. It can only end in people throwing you off a cliff. Jesus demonstrated this old maxim to be true when he took his ministry back to Nazareth, the town where he grew up as the son of a carpenter. He would be going back there as the anointed son of god, much to the initial surprise and eventual disdain of his former townsfolk.

When he stood up to speak in the synagogue he received curious appreciation, as those present puzzled over how Joseph’s son could say such gracious words. The atmosphere soon turned hostile, however, with Jesus’ one-time neighbours looking to throw him over a cliff by the end of his visit.

Why this dramatic transformation of response? The answer lies in Jesus’ reading of Scripture.

The boy from Nazareth kicks off his return home by standing up in the local synagogue on the Sabbath and reading aloud a scroll of the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.”

As N.T. Wright is at pains to show, Israel still saw herself as being in exile at the time of Jesus’s ministry. The national hope was for freedom from their Gentile oppressors, the restoration of YHWH’s rule from Jerusalem and vindication of his covenant people. A text such as Isaiah 61 would have been understood on these terms, and not as a sort of timeless, groundless list of good deeds to be done.

Therefore when Jesus sits back down, with all eyes on him, and says “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, he knows what is going on in the minds of those around him. The question is, what was going on in the mind of Jesus?

As seen in the wilderness, Jesus read Scripture in a way that placed him in Israel’s shoes. He assumed the role of a nation delivered out of slavery and headed towards the promised land, with a specific vocation to abide by: Be YHWH’s people.

Now here he is, quoting from a prophet who spoke to Israel not in exodus but in exile. God’s chosen people failed to live up to their communal vocation, so God removed them from the promised land. Judgement and separation seemed to be their fate, but YHWH would not let these realities have the last word. A new word is spoken; a word of comfort amidst affliction, hope amidst despair. Isaiah 61 represents one such word.

When Jesus reads these words, he reads them as more than the agenda of a charitable person/organisation; he reads them as the promise of return to a people in exile. They are eschatological words. Moreover, he reads them as the meat and drink of his own vocation. Jesus was stepping into the role of the anointed one, the “me” of the passage. The poor, oppressed, and brokenhearted of Israel would receive YHWH’s favour through Jesus’s own ministry. A quintessential christocentric reading of Scripture if ever there was one.

This all sounds like remarkably good news, but there is a sting in the tail. Many of Jesus's hearers supposed he was reaffirming Israel and her covenant with YHWH, but the thought of Jesus judging Israel was completely rejected by the multitude, probably as being contradictory. His fellow Jews read the “oppressors” and “captors” implicit in the Isaiah text as being the Romans, but Jesus not-so-subtly hints at his own people being the opposition to his ministry. (Might we Christians today be guilty of similar misinformed assumptions when we read Scripture?)

Joseph’s son does this by drawing on stories from the days of Elijah and Elisha, who tended to a widow and a leper from outside of corrupt Israel. Again Jesus reads Scripture as a scene in a drama, with himself in the role of Elijah/Elisha and his hometown in the role of corrupt Israel, too hard of heart to mourn and be comforted (cf. Is. 61:2; Mat. 5:4).

This method of reading is obviously extremely effective, because the crowd quickly turns on their former friendly neighbourhood carpenter. The person who they thought just might be their great liberator turns out to be their harsh critic. He reads to them a text of promise to Israel, and then turns around and hints at a ministry to Gentiles. Gentiles! This they cannot stomach. They refused to read the Scriptures the way Jesus read them. They refused to see themselves as oppressors of the poor, takers of prisoners, breakers of hearts. They refused to soften their own hearts, repent, and believe.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Real Enemy

You know when you’re doing a crossword, and there is one particular long word that you’re stuck on, which, if you cracked it, would help you solve lots of smaller words? Well, reading Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright is like cracking that long word.

His sweeping portrait of Jesus is full of historical and theological depth, and opens up a fresh way of understanding certain passages that have long been held to mean one thing. Example:

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.” - Luke 12:4-7

The only way I have ever heard this passage interpreted is that the one we are to “fear” is God. Man can kill the body, but God can kill both body and soul, so fear him!

I’ve always accepted this interpretation, but reluctantly, because the very next verses talk about God the Father who remembers the dime-a-dozen sparrows and who cares for us so much more. Therefore, we should “fear not”.

So which is it: fear God because he can kill, or don’t fear because God deeply cares?

Wright makes the point that for Jesus (as seen in the wilderness and in other scenarios throughout his ministry) the real enemy is the satan, the evil one. It is he who has gripped the nation of Israel, and it is he who must be defeated. Therefore if anyone or anything is to be feared, it is he who exerts malevolent power over body and soul.

But, his power is trumped by the power of the Creator, whose goodness toward sparrows is infinitely exceeded by his goodness toward human beings. Of course as Wright points out,

Jesus did not, to be sure, perceive Israel’s god as a kindly liberal grandfather who would never hurt a fly, let alone send anyone to Gehenna. But again and again, not least in the very next verse of this paragraph, Israel’s god is portrayed as the creator and sustainer, one who can be trusted in all circumstance, not the one who waits with a large stick to beat anyone who steps out of line.

I don’t know about you, but I think that makes a lot more sense.

Get behind me, misinterpreted passage!

Monday, January 25, 2010

How To Read: The Wilderness Days

Immediately after being anointed for ministry, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness. We don’t often think about what he was doing for these six weeks, but I would venture to say that reading (or recalling to memory) portions of Deuteronomy was on his daily “To do” list. I say this because when the tempter approaches Jesus with questions about his identity and vocation, Jesus replies to him with three verses all taken from Deuteronomy chapters 6-8.

“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” - Deut. 8:3

“You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” - Deut. 6:16

“You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” - Deut. 6:13

Whole books can (and probably have) been written on the temptation narrative, but allow me to narrow the focus by asking, What do these scriptural responses tell us about Jesus’s reading and interpretation of Israel’s Bible?

- Firstly, Jesus obviously viewed Deuteronomy not only as a word addressed to the children of Israel, but a word addressed to him in the present time. The “you shall” that once represented a command to the Israelites now represents a command to Jesus. He has stepped into his ancestors’ shoes, and what was commanded of them by YHWH is now commanded of Jesus - Trust YHWH, do not test YHWH, and worship YHWH.

Of course this begs the question, How much of Deuteronomy was normative for Jesus? Was he adamant in avoiding food with no fins or scales? Or when Jesus quotes from the Law, was he highlighting the “spirit” of the law (trust and worship) while downplaying what we might see as the “letter” (the copious food laws etc)? Did he read Torah as an external rule book making demands on his life, or did he have a different way of reading what we call “law”? So many questions, so few answers.

- Secondly, Jesus’s reading of Scripture is covenantal at its core. Perhaps this goes some way toward answering some of the above questions. The temptations push him towards autonomy, but Jesus relates everything back to YHWH’s gracious initiative towards Israel, and Israel’s vocation to be YHWH’s people. Where the satan stresses independence, Jesus stresses relatedness to YHWH, which from man’s side looks like trust and worship.

Is it thus correct to say that Jesus both trusted and worshipped YHWH? If so, what does that do to our understanding of the term “Son of God”? (More generally, what does that do to our theology/christology?) Through his reading of Scripture Jesus seems to have turned the title “son of god” on its head, seeing sonship not as the chance to exert domineering authority but as a call to trust and obey.

- It is dangerous business quoting imperatives to someone without the power to live by them. As a human being, Jesus was fully reliant on the spirit of God to empower him to trust and obedience. He read Scripture not only knowing the words, but the power of God that lay behind the words (or perhaps in the words, as suggested by his quotation of Dt. 8:3).

Though Jesus identified himself with those to whom Deuteronomy was originally addressed, there were notable differences between the two readers. The chief difference was that where the Israelites were unable to live by the words, Jesus was able. The Law was written on his heart. It was no burden to be carried, but rather it was his meat and drink. Nothing gave Jesus greater pleasure than pleasing the one he called “Father”.

I mentioned that Jesus read Scripture with “covenant” in mind. The question now becomes, which covenant?

- There is also a case to be made for Jesus reading Deuteronomy as a script, or a scene in a drama which was being re-enacted in his own life. It is surely no coincidence that Deuteronomy 8 mentions Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness as a time of testing, and its words are addressed to them just before they move from wilderness to promised land. No doubt this is where Jesus saw himself as standing. His experience of scarcity and solitude in the wilderness was temporary. He would not turn stones into bread for his own selfish gain, but he would wait until his period of testing was over before finally turning the five loaves of bread into enough food to feed thousands.

Jesus knew in some way that the kingdom of god was at hand through his own ministry, which was a kingdom where Israel “would eat bread without scarcity” (Deut. 8:9). But, lots of bread aside, what would that kingdom look like, and how would it be inaugurated? Jesus’s reading of Isaiah 61 (mentioned immediately after the wilderness account in Luke 4) might just have the answers.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

How To Read: Jesus the Spirit-filled Jew

Jesus was (and is?) a Jew. As Christopher Wright points out in Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament, that’s the first thing we learn about him in the New Testament. Therefore the first thing to note about Jesus as interpreter of Scripture is that he interpreted it as a Jew, and a Jew (though certainly a controversial one) he remained throughout his life.

As much as we’d like a timeless, generic, non-Jewish Jesus, we simply don’t get him if we take the gospels seriously. Instead, we have a Jesus who had his foreskin removed eight days after being born and was brought up in accordance with the Law of the Lord. And despite popular presentations of him resembling a 70’s progressive rock band member, he quite possibly looked something not altogether unlike this:

A first-century Palestinian man's mugshot

A Jew through and through. I think that’s worth keeping in mind during the course of this journey into unknown territory.

The second thing to keep in mind comes immediately before we get our first Old Testament quotation from the lips of Jesus. Luke tells us in chapter 4 of his gospel that Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” as he was led into the wilderness to be tempted. It is therefore vitally important to highlight that the gospels (especially Luke) don’t present Jesus as a lone interpreter, gaining insight through his own ingenuity. According to the gospels, the spirit of god was powerfully present with him, authorising him at every turn and making that connection between him and god.

If nothing else, for Jesus, reading and interpreting Scripture was a triune experience. Even as son, he fully relied on the words of the father made alive by the spirit. Therefore in order to read, interpret and apply Scripture the way Jesus did, being “filled with the spirit” is a prerequisite. But is it a realistic one?

I think so. The Book of Acts mentions the phrase “filled with the Spirit” numerous times, and never does it seem like less of a filling than that which Jesus enjoyed. The same connection between Jesus and the father was available to the early church, and is available to us too.

To drag Paul into the equation, it is the spirit of god that knows the mind of god. Implicit in this statement is the reality that an un-spiritual (or un-spirit-filled) reading of Scripture does not reveal the mind of god. Word and spirit must be conjoined if the text is to come to life and god is to be known.

Merely quoting Scripture was not what Jesus was doing during his dialogue with the satan at the end of his wilderness wanderings. Undergirding his use of Scripture was a present experience of god’s empowering presence.

What might such a spirit-filled reading of Scripture look like? How do we know we’re on the right track? The answers to these questions is what I hope we'll stumble across along this quest.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

How To Read

Jesus of Nazareth once had no teeth, but over time he grew some, lost them, and grew some more. There was a point in his life when he couldn’t walk, but through trial and error he eventually managed to scamper around on his own two feet. Despite the romanticism of certain carols, there can be little doubt that he cried when he wanted to be fed, until finally he was able to feed himself.

Jesus spoke his first word (which, if he’s anything like my second youngest nephew, was “camouflage” in Aramaic) and learned to do all sorts of things that human beings learn to do over the passage of time.

Most importantly for present purposes, he learned how to read. And not only to read the 1st Century equivalent of Ann and Barry, but to read the stories of Adam and Eve, Moses and Pharaoh, David and Goliath, Israel and her exile. In short, he learned to read Israel’s Scriptures, and developed a way to interpret and apply them throughout his history-defining ministry.

How one reads, interprets and applies Scripture is of great importance, whether Christian, Jew, agnostic or other. We all have our ways to engage in these tasks, and these ways help shape the kind of people we are and the kind of lives we lead. We can be moved to trust in a gracious God and joyful obedience to his word, or at the opposite end of the spectrum, we can be moved to contempt for this primitive, fictitious God of the Old Testament and disregard for what his (often volatile) word says.

My aim is to explore the ways Jesus read and interpreted Scripture. Since he’s a pretty big deal for Christians, I thought it might be interesting to look at gospels’ portrait of the one called the Messiah in terms of his use of what we have dubbed ‘The Old Testament’.

Do we have something to learn from Jesus in this regard? Might his interpretations of Scripture be instructive for us, or did different rules apply to him? Was there a “centre” or a “focus” to his reading, both in terms of belief and behaviour? Are there places where our understanding of Scripture is in conflict with Jesus’ understanding? What about the whole area of "authority"?

I don’t know the answers to these questions and more, but I hope to somewhat rectify that through examining some relevant gospel passages and through dialogue with those of you interested in such things for one reason or another.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Recording Artist

Technically, technically, I am a recording artist. I may record the music myself in an attic resembling the aftermath of a bull in a musical equipment shop, but there is recording done nevertheless. My credentials as an artist are much more tenuous, but I have sculpted one original song from start to finish, which you can read about/listen to/poke fun at here.

For those aching for more, the following is something I recorded during the summer, with the gracious help of a rising star in the Galway Christian music scene as well as former holder of the prestigious 'Oranmore Young Person of the Year' title.

The words form Psalm 23 will be familiar to most, the tune perhaps less so. There are various things I would do differently given the benefit of hindsight -- I'd sing in tune, for starters -- but overall I'm more than happy with the result.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Nature of Myth

A while back I did a series on Peter Enns's Inspiration and Incarnation (a series now available in my new book at mark-down prices), which looked at issues like the historicity of Genesis, the nature of myth etc and so on. If you want to hear N.T. Wright sum up the thrust of my own series better than I ever could, hop over to this post at the Science & the Sacred blog.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My Own Book

In terms of presents, this Christmas brought the traditional mix of new clothes, books, and several dozen pairs of socks and underwear (you can never have enough, can you?).

However, one thing I was not expecting was my own book. That's right - I got a book authored by me! Has there ever been a more ego-enlarging present given in the history of Christmas? This even trumps giving gold to a new-born baby, so outlandish it is to hand someone a book they wrote themselves.

Of course what makes it worse is that I started reading it straight away and highlighting the good parts...

No, that's not strictly true. But I did scan through it, in what was a very surreal experience. Basically, my sister pieced bits of this blog together on a website whose name escapes me, and formed it into a short book of about 80 pages. You input what you want to the website, and they create your book, complete with bar-code no less [!]. In fact I'm pretty sure you can buy my book should you be foolish enough to think that's a good idea.

Anyway, here are a couple of pictures for your amusement/disdain:

Front Cover

Sandwiched between Walter Brueggemann and N.T. Wright

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Thou Shalt Love

The answer to this question is universally familiar. Millions of tongues testify to it evening and morning: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy might.” Thou shalt love -- what a paradox this embraces! Can love then be commanded? Is love not rather a matter of fate and of seizure and of bestowal which, if it is indeed free, is withal only free? And now it is commanded? Yes of course, love cannot be commanded. No third party can command it or extort it. No third party can, but the One can. The commandment to love can only proceed from the mouth of the lover. Only the lover can and does say: love me! -- and he really does so. In his mouth the commandment to love is not a strange commandment; it is none other than the voice of love itself.

- Franz Rosenzweig, quoted in The Unsettling God by Walter Brueggemann

Can one who loves command another to return that love? Is “Love me” a valid request from the mouth of a lover? Is it a valid request from the mouth of God, or does it make him a narcissist? Do different rules apply to creator and creature?

Perhaps the word “command” evokes the wrong imagery, conjuring up a military scenario rather than the relation of a lover to his beloved. We are not called to love god because he insists, or because arbitrary punishment awaits disobedience to the command. We love god because he is love, and because he first loved us -- and continues to love us -- even when we were at our most unlovable.

“Love me” from the lips of god is not the command of a master to his slave, but the free choice made available to a bride - a bride whose perfect bridegroom has just uttered the most emphatic “I do” in all of history.

In other news, Walter Brueggemann is fast becoming a favourite author of mine after reading only 1.1 of his books. If there are any others of his out there that I need to read then do inform.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Album Countdown: Complete List

If you're into the whole brevity thing:

1 - Sun Kil Moon - Ghosts of the Great Highway
2 - Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker
3 - The Decemberists - Picaresque
4 - Bright Eyes - I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning
5 - Kevin Devine - Put Your Ghost To Rest
6 - Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
7 - Damien Jurado - And Now That I’m In Your Shadow
8 - Iron & Wine - Our Endless Numbered Days
9 - Coldplay - A Rush of Blood To the Head
10 - Rosie Thomas - These Friends of Mine
11 - Ryan Adams - Gold
12 - Sun Kil Moon - April
13 - Damien Rice - O
14 - Owen - At Home With Owen
15 - Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
16 - Coldplay - Parachutes
17 - The Swell Season - The Swell Season
18 - Explosions in the Sky - Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place
19 - M. Ward - Post-War
20 - Red House Painters - Old Ramon

Album Countdown: 6-1

In order to keep up with time, I'm cutting out the comments from ## 5-3. If you'd like those filled in at some point...ah who am I kidding? You're not going to ask, and I couldn't be bothered even on the off chance that you do.

Be under no illusions about this list. It is filled with terrific music. If you're in need of freshening up your musical tastes, or sceptical about the previous decade's music, why not try and get your hands on all or some of the albums I've championed? I may not convince anyone to become a Christian, but I'll be damned if I don't influence people's taste in music!

#6. For Emma, Forever Ago - Bon Iver (2008)

Why it makes the list

I care quite a bit about lyrics, which makes the placing of Bon Iver’s debut at number six a great mystery. Why? Because I have absolutely no idea what he’s singing about most of the time. It sometimes feels like I’m listening to an album by Chewbacca, so indiscernible are the sounds coming from Justin Vernen’s mouth.

I’m overstating the case, of course, and if truth be told, I kind of like the mysterious nature of the album’s content. Who doesn’t like a good mystery to be solved? And besides, musically, this album hits all the right spots. Great melodies, catchy guitar riffs, peaks and troughs - all with a constant falsetto-ed male voice high in the foreground. This is an album I thoroughly enjoy listening to, and what really surprised me is how well the songs translate to a live performance. The Bon Iver show at last summer’s Galway Arts Festival was outstanding. If you haven’t been introduced to Justin Verner, then do yourself a favour and get to know him immediately.

Favourite tracks

Lump Sum, Blindsided, Re: Stacks

#5. Put Your Ghosts To Rest - Kevin Devine (2007)

#4. I'm Wide Awake It's Morning - Bright Eyes (2005)

#3. Picaresque - The Decemberists (2005)

#2. Heartbreaker - Ryan Adams (2000)

Fact about the album

It is named after the word on a tee-shirt that Mariah Carey once wore.

Why it makes the list

For those of you who don’t know, Ryan Adams releases one album roughly every 25 minutes. Therefore it is little wonder that there are more than one of his frequent efforts on this list. But Heartbreaker was the first, and it remains my favourite.

It is a simple album, with plainly crafted songs void of frills and tricks (except for the opening track, which features 37 seconds of arguing about Morrissey). The opening proper is the foot-stomping, honky-tonk track ‘To Be Young’, but it is something of a false start, because the rest of the album most certainly doesn’t follow suit.

Rather, we’re “treated” to the expressed emotions of someone who has clearly just had his heart tossed into a blender which was then turned up to 11. But unlike many other albums dominated by heartbreak, Ryan Adams manages to capture emotions in a way that we can relate to rather than laugh at (I’m looking at you, James Blunt). There is a rawness about this album that I love. Just listen to the way he sings ‘Don’t Ask For the Water’ and you’ll see what I mean.

If the album at number one is unified by a theme or motif, Heartbreaker is unified by a feeling; a brutal feeling that most people with a heartbeat have felt or will feel at least once in their life. As one reviewer puts it, it is like the soundtrack to the last 10 minutes of a relationship. Adams manages to put into song many of the things which go unsaid. It is the album I wish I could write, but would never dare to because of how wrong it could go. It is also an album that gives country music a good name, and so for that alone it deserves to be praised.

What memories does it evoke?

This was an important “Declan: The College Years” album. From all of the feelings those years entailed to arguments with a classmate concerning which Ryan Adams album is better -- Heartbreaker or Gold -- listening to these 15 tracks brings me back to the days of Metric Spaces and Topology.

Favourite Tracks

Call Me On Your Way Back Home, In My Time of Need, Damn Sam (I Love a Woman That Rains)

#1. Ghosts of the Great Highway - Sun Kil Moon (2003)

Fact about the album

Boxing is a favourite sport of frontman Mark Kozelek, which might just explain why three of the songs on this album are named after boxers - Glenn Tipton, Salvador Sanchez and Duk Koo Kim. Also, the final song on the album -- Pancho villa -- is a toned down version of the earlier track Salvador Sanchez. I didn’t realise this until after roughly a year of listening to the album. I’m an idiot.

Why it makes the list

To call an album your favourite of a decade’s worth of music is quite something. Ghosts wasn’t an instant hit for me, but it had enough solid tracks to make me come back for a bit more. One of those was ‘Carry Me Ohio’, which is basically Sun Kil Moon’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ or ‘American Pie’. It fits comfortably on a list of great songs with the word “Ohio” in the title, with an instantly memorable/likable riff and poignant, autobiographical words:

Can’t count to
All the lovers I’ve burned through
But why do I still burn for you?
I can’t say

Once I explored the album in greater depth all sorts of hidden gems just appeared as if from nowhere. There were tracks which catered for all tastes - upbeat folk, downbeat ballad, rock anthem, Mexican-sounding instrumental; what more could you ask for?

And then there’s ‘Duk Koo Kim’. Listen to that song four times in a row and that’s an hour of your life that you won’t get back. At last count, it stands at an impressive 14 minutes 32 seconds, but not a jot of time is wasted. Those first few strums are haunting, with the remainder of the song rising and falling every couple of hours. It is surely the piece de resistance in Sun Kil Moon’s repertoire, showcasing everything that Mark Kozelek is known for.

The thing I love most about Ghosts of the Great Highway -- the thing that puts it where it is on this list -- is how unified it is. It is no mere random collection of good songs thrown together. There is a thread running from track one to ten, which makes the whole even greater than the sum of its parts. This is an album lover’s album.

What memories does it evoke?

I rented the film Shopgirl simply because Mark Kozelek had a minor role in it and a couple of Sun Kil Moon songs were also featured. As a film, Shopgirl was anything but memorable, but because of its association with Ghosts of a Great Highway any time I hear the album I generally think of a rather creepy Steve Martin trying to woo Claire Danes which large black gloves. I’ll leave you to fester in that disturbing image.

Favourite tracks

Carry Me Ohio
, Duk Koo Kim, Last Tide