Thursday, September 29, 2011


At this time and place, what would Christians have to do that is faithful to the gospel that would also cause them to be persecuted?


At this time and place, what are Christians doing that is faithful to the gospel that is also causing them to be persecuted?

Not that I'm looking for it, of course.

Text and People

I am in the middle of reflecting upon the role of scripture in God's ongoing revelation to the world. From my "research", one of the tentative conclusions I'm drawn to is that scripture is only useful to the extent that a community of readers has been made competent to read it rightly.

In the fourth chapter of Echoes -- the chapter on the possibility of a Pauline hermeneutic found in 2 Corinthians -- Richard Hays takes this community beyond the written text, beyond readership, and into the realm of embodiment where not texts but lives are read. the new covenant incarnation eclipses inscription.
             By incarnation I mean not the incarnation of the divine Son of God as a human being, but the enfleshment of the message of Jesus Christ in the community of Paul’s brothers and sisters at Corinth. That fleshy community is, according to Paul, Christ’s letter, which is to be recognized and read by all people (v. 2b)....In this eschatological community of the new covenant, scribes and professors will be useless, because texts will no longer be needful. Scripture will have become a “self-consuming artefact”; the power of the word will have subsumed itself into the life of the community, embodied itself without remainder.

I'm not sure that what Hays writes can be sustained. These words, after all, are the words of a professor who is exegeting a written text - moreover, a professor who is very much a part of the "eschatological community of the new covenant" and by no means useless.

Perhaps Hays is thinking more of our final destiny as the people of God, which he imagines as a scriptureless destiny. This ties in with some of the things Sameul Wells writes, especially his notion that the location of theology -- that is, the location of the word about God -- is not in sacred texts but in a sacred people.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Death as Justice?

Arguments regarding the death penalty are generally arguments about justice. Can execution be justified or can it not? I don't have any easy answers, but here are a few reflections:

  • This is not the same question as, Does X deserve to die? The real question is, Would X's death promote justice? Punishment must always be for good and not for ill, because the purposes of God are always for good and not for ill. Framing the question with death getting the last word is already to lose the struggle for justice.

  • If death is not the answer, then what is? It is easy to say that execution is unjust, but what is the just alternative? 10 years in prison? 30 years? A life time? I recently listened to a lecture by Richard Rorty where he congratulated our progressive society for leaving behind such primitive forms of justice as the stocks. The very last question he was asked during the Q and A stopped him in his tracks and pointed out the most common form of justice today: throwing people in a cage and treating them like zoo animals. Is that progress? Is that justice? Christians needs to criticise what needs to be criticised. It is a vital part of our prophetic ministry. But there must also be an energising, an envisioning of alternatives that better serve God's mission to justify the whole creation. And if the prison system is the best we can come up with, then perhaps there are few more important tasks for Christians today than to visit those in prison.

  • Justice is ultimately relational. Murder is an act of injustice. It does not so much destroy relationships as it does create relationships of hate and mistrust. Executing a murderer seeks to promote justice not by healing relationships but by ending them. This can never be justice, because it is anti-relational. Christianity only makes sense if we take it as a given that there is no relationship that is irredeemable. The vilest offender can be forgiven and restored to a community in some shape or form. Like it or not, we must side with the offender and seek justice for him or her. This doesn't mean making light of atrocities or blocking some form of punishment, but it does mean acknowledging that people already did the worst thing they could do when they executed Jesus of Nazareth, yet his death and resurrection has paved the way for even those people to be forgiven and given the chance of new life. The power of execution is opposed to the power of the gospel, and so we must oppose it. Not merely because execution is bad, but because the gospel really is good news about the triumph of life over death that must be proclaimed and heard.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Nature of Scripture

Here are two views on the nature of Scripture and the nature of our interaction with Scripture. the process of examining and determining proper Christian belief no appeal can be made against Scripture. Anyone who says, “Scripture teaches that such-and-such is true, but I disagree and urge that Christians believe something contrary to Scripture” is departing from foundational Christian thinking in precisely the same way that a United States judge would be departing from American jurisprudence and his or her own oath by saying “The Constitution holds that such-and-such is a basic principle and right, but I disagree and rule against the Constitution.” That is unthinkable. 
- Roger Olson
What Olson deems unthinkable, Terrence Fretheim deems necessary. For this seasoned Old Testament scholar, the God-breathedness of Scripture does not mean that everything is settled. Indeed, Fretheim asserts that the Bible is not always trustworthy in its portrayal of God himself. Therefore as Abraham and Moses could dialogue and dispute with God regarding God's character and actions, so must we if we are to be faithful. Fretheim isn't directing this comment to Olson's above, but it certainly works as a riposte to what might be called the traditional view of Scripture:

Once again, this [that is, the traditional view of Scripture] implies that experience is finally drawn back into the Bible and its perspective, and such experience cannot stand over against the Bible and speak a “no” to one or another matter of which it speaks. But it must be said clearly that God is actively engaged in that worldly experience, and God may work in and through that experience in such a way as to bring a critical word to bear on the Bible. Difficult issues of discernment and criteria are quickly at hand, but we cannot in the face of those difficulties simply retreat into the narrative world of the Bible. For God is never simply “at home” in such a retreat. 
- Terrence Fretheim

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Seeds of Capitalism

"Private vice can be publicly beneficial"....That is, a just and beneficial social order could be built on the basis of, not individual virtue, but individual self-interest. Self-interest, even avarice or greed, might lead to public benefits. This was utterly foreign to ancient/medieval thought. If you asked Plato or Aristotle or Aquinas, if we start with a group of individuals whose behaviour is dominated by vices -- namely, they're selfish -- can we design a system which will, without them undergoing a conversion, take their selfishness and together weave out of that a result that's good for all, Plato and Aristotle and Aquinas would have said, "Of course not. Garbage in, garbage out. You start with vice at the basis of your system, you're going to have a vice-ridden system." The modern idea of spontaneous order implies that you can. 
And of course, in there are the seeds of capitalism. 
- Lawrence Cahoone

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Church, The World, and The Bible: Three Approaches

1. The Bible is a book for the church and the world. The world is called to live by the same vision as the church.

2. The Bible is a book for the church, not the world. The church is called out of the world to live by an alternative vision.

3. The Bible is a book for the world because it is a book for the church. The alternative vision lived out by the church is a summons for the world to leave everything behind and live likewise.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


On the day of R.E.M.'s break up I think it only fair to post my favourite song from my favourite album of theirs - in fact it's one of my favourite albums of all time. I bought it when I was quite young because it was on the cheap and I knew that R.E.M. gave us 'Everybody Hurts' - the first song I learned on the guitar. Hope wasn't what I expected, it wasn't how I imagined it would sound like, but great art converts us; it pushes back our horizons of expectation and opens up appreciations that were never there - in this case, my appreciation for repetitive electro-pop and references to alligators.

A Mess of Thoughts on God and Feminist Theology

At chapel on Tuesday our lecturer in church history and historical theology played this video:

The first line is "God is not a man", with the rest of the verses continuing that exercise in negative theology, eventually leading to choruses of affirmation: God is love, and God is good.

Of course any theology student knows that God is not a man, but our imaginations fuelled by our language tells us something very different. God is not mother but father. God is not she but he. God's is not hers but his. God is not queen but king. To refer to God as anything but a man seems at best a helpful deviation from the norm, at worst an utterance of blasphemy. Our images of God, the language we use to describe God, is what we know of God. And based on our use of images and language, God, for all intents and purposes, is a man. It is written into our trinitarian confession - God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

To describe God as a man is of course biblical. The almost exclusive use of masculine words as descriptions of God is a practice rooted in Scripture. We are taught by none other than Jesus to pray "Our Father". But as I said a couple of posts ago, what is biblically faithful is not necessarily theologically faithful. I am not arguing the case for liberal protestantism. I am not wincing at the particulars of Scripture. Quite the opposite, I am questioning whether it's faithful to turn those particulars into universals. In much theology today, God as Father is no longer a culturally embedded expression in a certain time and place, but a literal description that transcends time and space.

The Bible makes no apologies for being a product of its culture, nor should we. Even as a product of its culture, it was always challenging the status-quo, always standing as a witness to a more excellent way. If we are to be faithful to the God of the Bible, we will speak of a God who does not baptise the status quo (even the status quo of the Bible), but who offers an alternative vision for life in the world. This vision begins with our language about God. We can say that God is not a man. We can say that God is not a republican. We can say that God is not a unionist. We can say that God is not a capitalist or a democrat or a conservative or a liberal. But these isolated statements are not our theology. Our theology is the songs we sing in church, the sermons we listen to, the prayers we utter, the evangelism we engage in, the kind of love we show to enemies and friends. Our theology is rooted in our life as members of the church, and that life is nothing less than an alternative to the politics of the world.

The world understands God imaged as a man, though biblical faith moves against our presumption that we know what  kind of person we are talking about when we use the word "man". The world does not understand God imaged as a woman, and neither does the church. Perhaps we can only know what it means to pray "Our Father" when we learn to pray "Our Mother". God is at once neither and both.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Value of Science, The Value of Not Science

What science is good at is predicting and controlling the environment. Scientists know what their job is. They know how to get it done....But the reason people are dubious about science is they want truth to be redemptive; they want truth to add up to wisdom. And knowing how things work, which is all that science can give us, doesn't amount to wisdom, it doesn't redeem the human condition. In certain moods it can strike you as relatively unimportant.
- Richard Rorty

The Bible and Theology

Theology is word work. It is a linguistic enterprise, which means it is a cultural enterprise. For that reason, I sometimes think that biblical theology fails - not at being biblical, but at being theology. Take the term "kingdom of God". Biblically/historically speaking, this was term was at the centre of Jesus's proclamation. As 1st Century Palestinian theology, its articulation would have resonated with the culture of its day. Of course this isn't incidental, because it was necessary for Jesus to be a product of this particular culture at this particular time if he was to be the rescuer of the world.

My issue is that the term "kingdom of God" carries little cultural weight in the time and place I was raised in. In the 1st Century, to confess Jesus as king was, as others have noted, to simultaneously confess that Caesar was not. This kind of confession was political, subversive, and inherently relevant, because it was rooted in the language and practices of its time. An Irishman saying that "Jesus is king" no longer has that same direct impact. I do not speak of kings, I do knot know what it is to have a king. The confession Jesus is King means almost as little to me as the confession Jesus is Sultan. Neither metaphor is rooted in the culture I have grown up in, therefore neither metaphor provides me with the kind of theology that is needed today.

I have, as usual, no prescriptions. In fact I think my diagnosis needs a heck of a lot more work. I'm going on instincts here, and little else. I think the broader point I'm trying to make is that what is biblical is not necessarily theological. Or to put it another way, what is faithful to the Bible is not necessarily faithful to the God of the Bible today.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Gilead: Some Snapshots

Gilead is a novel written from the perspective of an old preacher in a small American town who is about to die. The old preacher is married to a younger woman and is the father of a seven-year-old boy. In light of his age and the boy's, he decides to write letters to his child telling about his life past and present in the hope that this son of his will know the kind of man his father was.

To call the novel a "christian novel" would be misleading, given how shallow most other things are that have the adjective "christian" preceding them. The novel, however, is soaked in Christianity. It is like an extended exercise in the art of theological reflection, with Ames interpreting life through the lens of Scripture, spiritual experience, John Calvin, and Karl Barth, while also not shying away from those who would challenge the reality of the faith. 

One such person was his brother, Edward. Heralded as the next great preacher of Gilead, he was sent off to Germany with financial backing from the church in order to study for the ministry. He came back to Gilead an atheist. This poignant dinner table scene captures the ramifications of this small-town catastrophe:

He and my father had words when he came back, once at the dinner table that first evening when my father asked him to say grace. Edward cleared his throat and replied, "I am afraid I could not do that in good conscience, sir," and the color drained out of my father's face. I knew there had been letters I was not given to read, and there had been somber words between my parents. So this was the dreaded confirmation of their fears. My father said, "You have lived under this roof. You know the customs of your family. You might show some respect for them." And Edward replied, and this was very wrong of him, "When I was a child, I thought as a child. Now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things." My father left the table, my mother sat still in her chair with tears streaming down her face, and Edward passed me the potatoes. I had no idea what was expected of me, so I took some. Edward passed me the gravy. We ate our unhallowed meal solemnly for a little while, and then we left the house and I walked Edward to the hotel.

Edward is far from the villian of the novel, however. Ames admires his brother, and calls him "a good man". Rather, the tension of the novel is created by the arrival home of John Ames Boughton, the prodigal son of Ames's good friend and fellow preacher. Boughton is a slippery character whose presence carries tremendous ambiguity. A sort of triangle forms between Ames, Boughton, and Lila (Ames's wife). This is not a sleazy love triangle, however. Ames never portrays his wife as anything but a saint. One of the most beautiful aspects of the novel is Ames's love for and fascination with his wife. Reflecting on his first sight of her at the back of his church service, he writes, seemed as if she didn't belong there, but at the same time as if she were the only one of us who really did belong there.

From that moment on, Ames was captivated. Lila burst into his long-settled routine and his small corner of the world in Gilead would never be the same:

...there I was trying to write a sermon, when all I really wanted to do was try to remember a young woman's face.

The details of their marriage are captured with succinct charm:

She began to come to the house when some of the other women did, to take the curtains away to wash, to defrost the icebox. And then she started coming by herself to tend the gardens. She made them very fine and prosperous. And one evening when I saw her there, out by the wonderful roses, I said, "How can I repay you for all this?" And she said, "You ought to marry me." And I did.

Ames is marked by an appreciation and reverence for the gift of life given by God, and the gifts that make up that life. His struggle is knowing how to -- even wanting to -- share those gifts with John Ames Boughton. It is a beautiful struggle.

I will not say you need to read this book. To say so would be to abuse the word "need". But this is an exquisite book that deserves to be read. There are far too few of those being written today.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

My Latest (Hauerwas-Inspired) Conviction

It is wrong for Irish Christians to sing the Irish national anthem.

A One-Paragraph Short Story

Inspired by a fellow bus traveller...

She has him saying things she always wanted to hear. But the words don't do what she thought they'd do. They are not at home in her. They are well-meaning strangers playing the role of friends. Though uneasy as hostess, she invites them in over and over again, hoping to become comfortable in their presence. She even sends out similar words to him, charged with the task of doing something in her as much as him. "Can my words to him create in me that which his words to me cannot? Must I rely on another to kindle love within me? Who creates love, anyway?" She has wanted so long to be loved, and now she is, by a decent, kind, man. She thinks maybe she has wanted  it so long that she has simply forgotten to love in return. "Time with him will help me remember." It doesn't. He cries like he's never cried before after she says goodbye.