Thursday, 27 December 2012

Yet I read

A kind relative has given me a copy of Zizek's Less Than Nothing and, with a couple of quiet hours now open to me, I've begun the Herculean task of reading it. For the uninitiated this book has 1010 pages of text. I've paused on page 10 to write this.

Thankfully his writing style has improved on his earlier efforts. It's more clear than before and reads less like a transcript of his lectures and more like an actual book. And of course he assumes that the reader is the Model Reader, knowing everything that Zizek knew at the time of writing.

So, like many people who'd grown weary of Zizek's style I hadn't planned on reading this magnum opus. It's vast and complicated, and I imagine that much of it is beyond me... eppur si muove.

Even though I'll put it down time and time again, eppur si muove.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Suffering Servant

It must be a standard undergraduate question: who is the suffering servant? I had it as an essay question. I'm sure I wasn't the first and that I won't be the last. Oddly, I can't remember what my answer was. I remember being influenced by Norman K. Gottwald, though (the smiley bloke in the picture). His monumental work on The Tribes of Yahweh and his fantastic essay on Deutero-Isaiah (Social Class and Ideology in Isaiah 40-55) were formative. I seem to recall the lecturer telling me with a twinkle in his eye that my paper on Deutero-Isaiah announced that I was a card-carrying pinko.

I found myself back in Isaiah recently, wondering if my view had changed much. I read through a few chapters and much of it started coming back to me. Written by an exile, these chapters romanticise Israel and lionise the exiled upper classes. For a few moments I wondered if the author was slumming as he wrote, being ever-so-grateful to the peasants left behind, but that soon faded away. I'm more inclined (but as with all things scholastic, not utterly convinced yet) to think that the servant of chapter 53 is an audacious claim that the exiled Isaiah makes about the exiles themselves.

For the most part I come to this point from the connections between punishment and banishment. The servant is "taken away" and "cut off from the land of the living" to go to Babylon, taking the punishment on behalf of the whole nation. Conversely, it's the "people" the "many" and the "multitude" who are both at fault for the punishment and who are the reward once the punishment is complete.

It almost goes without saying that the familiar Christian-revisionist1 account of the passage throws all of this out. I think that Jesus would have had passages like this in mind as he prepared for his trial. He'd already imitated the Psalmist's verses that Jerusalem's king would ride in on a donkey, so why not also invoke the image of the suffering servant by not opening his mouth to the Romans and Jews? It becomes a motif, rather than exilic ideology.

It fits into the notion of penal substitutionary atonement neatly, and I think that makes me somewhat suspicious of the text as explicitly Christian. I think that even if Jesus redeems the motif away from an arrogant supposition of the ruling classes to a crucified peasant as scapegoat, there are a few too many gaps around the edges for the whole thing to fit together. Is Jesus' death really a parallel of the Babylonian exile?

For today only my answer to the slippery question of the identity of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is the exiled class of Israelites. Check in again in another decade to find out if I've changed my mind or whether Gottwald has cast an even longer shadow over me.

1. Sorry, should I have said "Christian hermeneutic" instead? It's a fact of Christian history that we claim Hebrew scriptures and imbue them with our own interpretive bias. Jesus did it and so did the rest of the New Testament writers. Call it hermeneutics or revisionism if you like. Maybe we should just call it hijacking.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Subversive Advent

Advent is here! I like Advent, and not just for the calendars. In a way, the calendars are a reminder and a cheap substitute for what Advent is about. The calendar creates a sense of anticipation, each day providing the opportunity to open another surprise window. Sadly, the whole anticipation of these calendars is lost as soon as the doors are all opened. Not only that but the object that closes the anticipation is usually something small and cheap, perhaps a chocolate or some plastic trinket. The joy of the calendar is not in the object revealed but in the anticipation of revealing the object.

Advent (the religious season) is meant to hold a deeper sense of anticipation. It's the start of the Christian year and is the time that we prepare for the arrival of Christ, both as a baby and as the eschatological Christ. The expectation of a baby is exciting and terrifying and there are probably some parallels to be drawn between a newborn and the divinity/demands of Christ. At the same time we are reminded that Christ has not just an incarnational presence in the world but also an eschatological presence that we hope for and anticipate. Infant expectancy should point us towards eschatological expectancy.

As the beginning of the ecclesial year, Advent is a little subversive. It's a rejection of the secular calendar, the financial calendar. Instead it's a calendar based around the expectation of Christ. Instead of new years resolutions and hangovers, Advent is an opportunity to look forward to something beyond personal improvement goals and instead catch a glimpse of an entirely new creation.

Sure, Christmas is around the corner but in the middle of the consumerism and travel plans we can lose sight of the larger hope that we have, that the new creation is now and not yet.

Monday, 3 December 2012

How the Locals Talk

Ever since I moved to Perth I've attended the same church. It's similar to some churches we've been to before but it has some characteristics which distinguish it. One that especially pings on my radar is the language. Some of it is uncommon in other churches, but isn't quite unique to this one. I guess it's fair to say that it's prominent here especially when compared to where we were but not so prominent compared to elsewhere.

I guess it's just really obvious to me since it isn't language that I use in everyday conversation in the same way.

I've started a list of the most notable and made some observations about how they're used. This isn't a criticism or an attack, just observations.

Presence. This has some variation in meaning depending on the speaker. Typically it's used in the sense of the presence of God which arrives at a location (c.f., Ezekiel 1, Acts 2 and so on). Most usage connotes the view that God is not present until he's invited. I suspect that no one would openly support that hypothesis despite the implication. Of course, presence only makes sense if there is also a...

Place. It's a kind of catch-all, covering the church auditorium, someone's house, or wherever. The interesting part of this word is that it always precedes the invitation of a presence (see above). A place is only ever a place which is about to become a sacred place. It's used in prayers which invoke the presence of God (for example) "right across this place."

House. Perhaps derived from the Israelite understanding of the temple, in this church it's analogous to "parish congregation" from Anglican or Catholic structure (also words I don't use on a regular basis). The house is this congregation of people, in particular but not exclusively as the people who are assembled in the church building. The notion is somewhat foreign to the New Testament which uses different language to describe gatherings and communities of believers. House is, however, consistent with the idea of the worship service as a gathering at a celestial throne room (c.f., the architecture of the tabernacle). The believers gather in the house and are part of the house.

Floodgates. The full phrase is typically "floodgates of heaven" and most often appears in songs or in prayers asking for the spirit to descend upon the place. It's not a biblical metaphor but a contemporary metaphor. In the biblical texts a flood is always an instrument of destruction, never an instrument of blessing. There is an exception in Ecclesiasticus and possibly in Psalm 93 (although the glory of Yahweh is often found in his judgement and destructive power). Language isn't static, however, so it's not worth digging too deeply into the subtext. I just hope no one is singing along expecting a biblical flood to arrive soon.

I hope to find a few more. These are certainly the most obvious examples and give me a little insight into this church and its wider movement.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Emo Scripture

Let's get this out of the way first: I don't like the Psalms as instructive texts.

Most other biblical works could be said to be testimonials about God, the written witness of the faithful. Psalms isn't written that way at all. There's nothing cohesive about it. It flips about from loving-kindness to hatred in mere moments. One shining example is Psalm 139. We move from the wondrous rapture of verse 13
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
to the bile of verse 22
I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.
Classy stuff. I've long heard verses like 13 as a universal encouragement that the creator God loves us all and thinks highly enough of us to be personally involved in our foetal development. By extension, should we universalise another verse in the same psalm to justify perfect hatred of people who loathe God? That doesn't fit in the broader message of God as love.

Then what to do with the Psalms? We can read the different literature forms in different ways, knowing that they're different. So let's read the Psalms differently; not as instructive texts at the level of science books, but as the emo songs of an ancient generation. Here's a paraphrased summary:
I love God, I hate God.
I love my friends, I hate my friends.
My neighbour praises God because of me, my neighbour curses me because of God.
So much teenage angst in there.

If we read them that way then the whole book seems to have a single message: it's OK to be emotional and to tell God about it. Be happy; so happy to sing songs and dance about it! Be angry; so angry to curse your neighbour and complain to God about it! Be morose! Be grumpy! It's OK to be melancholy and to put voice to the feeling.

But whatever you do, recognise it as your own legitimate emotional response to something and your desire to involve God in it somehow. It's probably not a good idea to base doctrines or philosophy on these moments, though. So let's revise my opening shot.

I don't like the Psalms as instructive texts. They're emo scriptures that tell us it's OK to be emotional human beings. Read them and know that someone else felt just as crappy as you do and that God didn't smite them for feeling miserable.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Confession: I see the Other

The church I go to these days is fond of the connect group. You may know them from such other titles as home groups, cell groups, soviets, etc. I've volunteered to run one during next year.

I'm yet to see how this will pan out. I'd like to think that I can indulge myself by grappling with the text of the week and helping people to learn how to exegete. If there's something I wish I could do better and wish I knew earlier was good exegesis.

Apparently for other people (you know who you are) exegesis is boring and/or dry. And apparently I'll have some of these "other people" in the group. I'm tempted to call them all the Others and militantly apply some good Other philosophy.

So I confess, dear reader, the presence of the Other and the obstacle it proposes. I confess that Bonhoeffer's solution to the problem excites and terrifies me.

Enough confession for today.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Good is bad is good

Continuing my earlier thoughts about why the gospel isn't all good news, and staying in Mark 10, is the story of the rich young man. It's a terrible story. The man has worked hard and been faithful to the Torah. He's tithed and maintained a personal holiness code ever since he was young1 and has become rich. He has every right to feel entitled to his possessions. He's blessed! Yahweh has fulfilled his promises and rewarded the righteous with good things.

And Jesus buys into this line of argument only for as long as it takes to expose it. I like to read Jesus' initial response with a sarcastic voice, perhaps with a "yadda yadda yadda" missing at the end. It's Jesus' second response that gets our attention. "Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said..." For the man, the covenant of reward-for-obedience is under suspicion and Jesus brings the challenge, not becauses he's up for another rabbinic debate, but becauses he loves him.

That challenge is famous. And again this is where Jesus turns things upside down. Having wealth is not an end, it's a burden and an obligation. Wealth is not to be accumulated, it is to be used to help people. The man saw wealth as the proof of his favour from God, but Jesus saw it as the obstacle to real favour from God; an obstacle that could become the its own solution. Accumulated, it's a burden; distributed, it's a blessing.

The whole story is another example of how Jesus clashes with the Torah while at the same time infusing some of the ideas of Torah with the command to love. Although its better to say, again, that the command to love supersedes the Mosaic covenant. If the rich young man loved, he would already know how to inherit eternal life.

The gospel is bad news for us because it breaks our illusion of the lure of wealth2 and substitutes it with the responsibility of wealth. In the basilea theou resources are not yours or mine, they're ours. And in a world where we congratulate people for material success (whether through luck, hard work or so-called divine favour), Jesus turns the congratulations over and demands further action. What's good is actually bad, but can be turned for good when subordinated to Christ. So the gospel is called the good news, is bad news for hoarders, but becomes good news for hoarders when they are freed from the burden of that accumulation.

1. Since that probably meant from early teenage years, this guy is extraordinary. Imagine a What Would Moses Do bracelet on him and you get the idea.
2. "Everybody wants to be a fat tycoon. Everybody wants to be on a tropic honeymoon." - Michael Franti

Monday, 8 October 2012

Demonic Embarrassment

Over the years I've heard lots of great claims that the kingdom of God is advancing and that our greatest enemy is the devil. Apparently, it's the devil that stops us from... well, stops us from whatever it is that "advancing" means. I guess that's part of the problem of having a mindset that equates the new creation with an earthly structure like a kingdom.

If we take the grandeur away from these kinds of metaphors and just look at the every day experience of Christians, I think we get a different picture. What's the real obstacle for western Christians today, in their quest to embody Christ to the world? I daresay that it's probably nothing other than embarrassment. We're hesitant to take a step and proclaim our faith, but only for something to do with what other people will think about us or say about us.

This is a strange perversion of Christianity, though. It's a faith that centres around the crucified and risen Christ, and crucifixion was a horrible and humiliating way to die. It was public execution, with the dying victim put on display as an example to others not to try the same thing. Jesus' death was humiliating, from the Romans, from the Jewish leaders, from his own disciples, from his own Father who abandoned him.

Doesn't it seem perverse, then, that the Christians who follow Jesus are embarrassed to proclaim his message to the world? Jesus told his followers to take up their crosses; a direct allusion to the humiliation of crucifixion. We are commanded to expose ourselves to ridicule for the sake of the gospel and to welcome that ridicule when it comes.

The real demonic power - the power that is illegitimate - is the embarrassment that stops Christians from proclaiming the gospel in word and deed. It's bizarre that the obstacle is not a bigger version of the humiliation that Christ experienced, but a smaller one. For the sake of social embarrassment we are held back, and that's what we should be most embarrassed about.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Turning it all over

One of the most reassuring and difficult messages of the basilea theou is the constant levelling that it brings. The notion that euangelion should be translated as "good news" is only good insofar as chemotherapy is good news. It hurts but is meant to end up with a good result. For me it's more natural to call it the message1. That's my own preference, though, and even thinking about this translation is a reminder that if Jesus' message is for me alone it's not good news, but if it's for everybody it's very good news.

We see glimpses of this in Mark 10. Even just looking at vv2-16 is enough to see an example. In the first part Jesus deals with the Pharisees' question of divorce. At first glance we could see this as little more than a response to an ethical question, or as Jesus' final pronouncement about marriage and divorce. But notice his response, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you." In other words, "If you had softer hearts you wouldn't need this commandment." I like to think that softer hearts would eliminate the need for divorce altogether, never mind just limiting it to the Mosaic commandment2.

After the vignette on divorce Mark includes a story about Jesus and children. Again we can take this to be about how even adults should be like children with regard to the basilea theou but in light of the divorce debate we can see even more than this. Jesus has castigated his audience for having hard hearts, but just in case the reader thinks that only other people have hard hearts Mark points out that even the disciples are prone to this. They turn people away "sternly" for what? For daring to bring children to Jesus. The disciples show that there is still hardness even in their own hearts, unwilling to admit people who are lower on the social ladder.

These are just a couple of examples of how Jesus turns the established order over. The established order permits divorce rather than insisting on soft hearts. The established order includes a social hierarchy in which women and children are lower than men. Jesus' message opposes this kind of thinking. That's good news for people oppressed by the established order, and woeful news for the rest.

For those of us in the privileged world we need to pay attention to this carefully. Jesus' message of the basilea theou is a warning to us about accepting the benefits of that order at the cost of others. Jesus has come to turn that over for the sake of the common good.

1. I wish Peterson's translation was better. It's so full of ideological translation choices that I can barely read anything in it without my stomach turning. Sorry Eugene, I guess you didn't publish it with me in mind.
2. See Matthew 22:40. Love comes from a soft heart and is more than all laws can prescribe and proscribe.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Faith or Faithfulness? The Votes are in

Having just finished, after a very long time[1], The Faith of Jesus Christ the verdict is in. On the question of whether pistis christou should be translated as "the faithfulness of Christ" or "faith in Christ" it seems that the majority of these scholars are in favour of the former. Admittedly this debate isn't a democracy and neither is this a sufficiently wide sample group from which to develop a proposition that "most scholars believe." Nevertheless, the book presents more arguments for both sides (and some third ways) than the average lay reader would have encountered. There's a lot to chew on in these pages.

I especially liked the closing essay by Ben Myers. Written for easy reading without diluting the content, it summarises much of Barth's comments on the debate and probably was amongst the most persuasive in the book. Loosely speaking the position is that all righteousness comes from God and it is God's faithfulness that makes it possible for humanity to be saved and thereby triggers faith and faithfulness in humanity.

OK, so it's loosely speaking.

Despite my trivialising of Barth, this is close to the position that I also end up taking now that I've read the book. There appears to be enough grammatical evidence, textual evidence and contextual evidence to warrant it. The effort of salvation is on the part of God, and it provokes a response of faith. The response is not the means of salvation, but the acknowledgement of it.

1. With several months of not even touching the book at all because I relocated across the country.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Matthean Angels

Matthew's gospel only includes angels at the beginning (1:20-21, 2:13-15, 2:19-20) and at the end (28:1-8). Especially in chapters 1 and 28, the angels tell people not to be afraid. They tell Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife and they tell the two Marys not to be afraid at the empty tomb. In and around the same passages of angelic activity Matthew records two others who are afraid, but who aren't encouraged by the angels. Early on, Herod and "all Jerusalem" were frightened (2:3) and later on, the guards at the tomb "shook and became like dead men" (28:4).

Herod, the guards and all Jerusalem are afraid but get no consolation. Who do they represent? It's probably an easy fit to say that they represent empire; the machinations of humanity to which God says an eternal "No!" In a way, that's consistent with the broader content of the gospels. Jesus is the messiah who poses a challenge to Rome, to the Jewish populace and to collaborators with both of those authorities. The gospel of Matthew has a mission for Jesus, and standing in the way of that mission are (amongst others) Herod, all Jerusalem and the tomb guards. When God intervenes it provokes fear. The actions of God, mediated through the activities of the angels, impose on their position in this world.

Matthew's lesson for us is about being in the kingdoms of this world or being in the kingdom of God. When God moves, allegiance to this world will bring no comfort whereas allegiance to the basilea theou immediately consoles. God's actions are bold and terrifying, but only for those enmeshed in the kingdoms of this world.

Friday, 17 August 2012

The Hammer & Sickle

It's an odd thing, the hammer and sickle. It seems to evoke a strong visceral reaction whenever we see it. I was raised in the anti-communist west, just after the Vietnam War and on through the Cold War. The Russkies were the enemy. They were going to launch the nukes first. The threat even made it into games I played. In Theatre Europe the Warsaw Pact had more units in play, but were poorly trained. Thus, the ultimate challenge was to play as NATO and hold off the overwhelming commies.

But now? So I take the demonising out of the equation and find out more about these people. I get it. I understand that it's about the solidarity of the proletariat and the peasantry, about remembering who wields the tools that feed us all and provide goods for us all and ensuring that they aren't exploited.

My shirt came from somewhere. My car came from somewhere. People made those things in a factory. My lunch was grown somewhere. My breakfast was grown somewhere. People worked on those farms.

Our supply chains are so long now that we've lost sight of these facts. Even with the prevalence of farmer's markets it's still easy to shop there and forget the workers.

For me, I can't ever forget the hammer. I'm in manufacturing. I hear the hammers striking all day long. We need the hammers. Thankfully my hammers produce something useful for society.

Whatever your instinctive reaction to the hammer and sickle, take a moment to think about it in all its idealism. Forget the evils of failed communist states just long enough to remember that in our daily lives we are supported by the masses of invisible workers who wield the hammer and the sickle all day long. We mustn't forget the evils entirely, of course, because remembering them will help us avoid them. But always remember the people who wield the hammer and sickle.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Is it possible?

A challenge of sorts has been put forward to liberal theo-bloggers. The challenge is to write something substantive about God but not Jesus or the Bible.

It seems like a good idea at first. Let's write about God to set out something, anything about God that we believe. Evangelicals have done it, so why not liberals?

Part of me wants to rise to that challenge and get cracking on a few hundred words about God, but there's a gnawing doubt that stops me. The gnaw is the very core of our faith, the declaration that Jesus is the Christ, that Jesus is the complete revelation of God. Without seeing Jesus, can we actually see God? Or to put it another way, the Christian faith derives from this declaration that God has revealed himself in Jesus and in no one else.

Proponents of natural theologies might like to argue otherwise, and I'll happily argue back. For this challenge, and for us as Christians, for as long as we insist that Jesus is the Christ we necessarily also say that we cannot talk intelligently or certainly about God without reference to Jesus.

So if I'm going to say anything in resinse to this liberal theo-blogger challenge to write about God, it's that whatever I say about God can only be said in reference to Jesus.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Why there are no Christian men

Like most fairytales, once upon a time it was clear that humanity could be divided into men and women. In lots of ways, we can still divide ourselves this way. If the income statistics are anything to go by, we clearly do. I've never seen the income information for transgenders but I'm sure it follows just as clear a division.

This post isn't about LGBT issues, though. This post is about the idea that there are no Christian men. It's a bit conceptual, but come with me on this one.

In the pre-Christian Greco-Roman world the roles and identities of women and men were different to each other. The salacious example often quoted is in marital fidelity. Women were expected to remain faithful to their husbands but men were free to take lovers, male or female. I think that in many ways the broader expectations society places on women and men hasn't actually changed much (e.g., domestic roles, income scales, recreational interests, entertainment topics).

Into this world comes Paul's letter to the Galatians, with one of the most revolutionary assertions in the whole new testament.
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
"There is no longer male and female," is the consequence of following Christ. Paul instructs his audience that the societal expectations of gender are irrelevant to Christians because they have been cancelled by belonging to Christ. For the people of the time this is an extraordinary claim. The roles and identities that they'd grown up with had to be abandoned. The pressure from society and non-believers had been overcome by Christ. As believers, they were no longer entitled to the privileges of gender, nor were they trapped by it.

Today, if there is something that we Christians are still to catch up with, it's Galatians. Every time we fly a national flag in a church, we deny that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek. Every time we host a Christian business breakfast or networking opportunity, we deny that in Christ there is neither slave or free. And every time we hold a men's or women's activity, we deny that in Christ there is no male and female. Those things belong to the old creation, to the way of this world.

Paul's message should be heard again today. "There is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." For those who live in Christ, there is no theological category of "male" or "female" there is only "in Christ." If our theology is to mean anything, then it must be lived and acted upon. The sharp divisions we make in our congregations need to be brought under submission to Christ. Will we have the courage to live in the new creation that Christ has brought? Will we actually be able to be a community in which the non-Christian categories of male and female aren't applied?

If we can do it, we will find that there are no Christian men and no Christian women. We will find that we are simply Christians. We have to put our minds and our energies on being a community that has overcome the very structure of this world.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Is homophobia actually a phobia?

I've thought this before, but never articulated it quite like this article.
My chief concern is that when anyone expresses a contrary view, whether it is on religious, or like our PM - sociocultural grounds - they are abused and labelled as homophobic and intolerant.
As it's commonly used I don't think it's a phobia; at least not under any medical definition of the term. Although it's conceivable that a person might have an actual phobia like this, it's typically used as an ad hominem tactic, name-calling rather than an actual argument. I'm pleased to see an article on Online Opinion calling it for what it is, without condoning the arguments made by opponents of homosexual civil rights. Some amusing retorts from the article:
They are notorious for using specious arguments that really have little validity. The main ones are slippery slope arguments (what next – marrying dogs?), moral danger (what next – legalising paedophilia?) and natural order (marriage is for procreation). These really have almost no evidential basis.
But go and read it for yourself. What's key here is the appeal to have an actual debate using facts and arguments, not name-calling.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Reading the Politics of Redemption

 I know this one's been out for a while, but I've slowed a lot in my reading in the past few years. But enough of my excuses, this one is next on my hit list. I think I'm especially looking forward to it because it covers some crucial ground (ah hah!) in Christian theology. I grew up with penal substitution theology and am keen to read around the issue from different perspectives.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Angsty 168th Birthday

Today is the 168th anniversary of the publication of The Concept of Angst. Even all this time later, the existential decision is still just as terrifying and wonderful as it has ever been. Thank you, Kierkegaard, for such an illuminating text.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Biblical Marriage, Gay Marriage

Gay marriage is big news around here at the moment. I'm especially fond of opponents who object to it on the grounds that it's not biblical because I wonder which biblical view of marriage they want. Let's review a few.
  • Abraham had a wife who brought him the maid to have children with when she couldn't conceive.
  • Jacob married both a girl and her sister.
  • Both King David and King Solomon had multiple wives and concubines.
  • Jesus didn't marry and preached that whoever did the will of God was his mother, brother or sister.
  • Paul never married and wished celibacy for all Christians, unless they burned with uncontrollable lust.
  • Paul wrote to Timothy that bishops and deacons should be monogamous.

Several other passages in Paul's books and letters imply a marriage of one man and one woman, but it doesn't appear to be a mandatory structure. If anything, instruction about celibacy or monogamy are firstly about a person being free to pursue Christian service without being distracted by domestic life (a facet of celibate priesthood that seems to be forgotten in common understanding of the vocation). In fact, Paul's writing about family life demands that anyone who does marry should be submissive to the others in the family. No wonder it limits a person's ability to be an activist for the Christian cause.

But what's the consequence of this for gay marriage in civil society? Nothing. Even if we disregard the texts from the Hebrew Bible and concentrate on passages advocating monogamy, we learn that they are addressed to Christians who wish to be involved in a church office, i.e. bishops and deacons. There's nothing in there to prohibit gay marriage as a civil arrangement. If gay people wish to live together and have families, there appears to be no secular reason to stop them.

Is there a religious reason? Let's put it another way. Is there sufficient reason to warrant enforcing Christian ideas on the wider populace? If there is then banks should lend and expect nothing in return; weapons should be rusting from disuse; national borders should be erased; every person should receive according to need; every person should give according to ability; and so on. Christians are called to live that way, but aren't called to legislate any of it for non-Christians.

I'm not going to leave this as a hand-washing, though. There is more to this than simply denying responsibility. Gay couples may well have common financial concerns (investments, property). Should we deny them access to shared control of these assets? Gay couples may experience illness and hospital access may be limited to families only. Should we deny one access to the hospital to visit the other? There are a host of privileges that straight married people enjoy, perhaps without being aware of it. Gay couples are acutely aware of the disadvantage. If we are to love all people, regardless of particularities, and especially people who don't share our worldview, then we should support gay marriages because of the privileges that they will grant to those couples and because of the pain that can be avoided for them in various circumstances.

Gay marriage can't be argued down on the basis of a biblical model of marriage because there are too many biblical models. Christian marriages can't be legislated on non-Christians without legislating a host of other principles. And Christians should show compassion to all people, whether in agreement or not, and therefore should support granting civil rights for gay people to get married.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The music, it does nothing!

I had a strange musical experience over the weekend. On Saturday night I watched Doctor Who At The Proms. It's all about the music of the show, with some theatrics thrown in for good measure. I've liked the show since I was a child and watch the current series when it's on, but even I was surprised when one of the pieces nearly brought me to tears. I was overjoyed to hear it in all its musical glory, without it being just a support to the visuals of TV.

The next morning, however, I was in church. It's a church with lots of music. The service starts with music and the music keeps going. I haven't timed it, but I guess that there's music playing for well more than half the service. We sing it, it plays under some of the speaking, and it's a soundtrack to the announcements.* Nevertheless, even though it's so deeply entwined with religious conviction, I'm sorry to say that it does nothing for me. In fact, it leaves me quite flat.

None of this is limited to Doctor Who, by the way. It's also true of some songs by Michael Franti, Ben Harper, The Herd, and so on.

So why? Here's the list of current hypotheses.

  • The Christian music just isn't as good. Maybe the writers are less skilled.
  • The chord progressions. With the right chord progression, songs feel different.
  • Rhythm correlates with mystical experience, so I block the feelings from the music and throw the musical baby out with the musical bathwater.
  • I don't agree with the lyrics, so the rest of the song becomes meaningless and pointless.
  • The way music is used in church (e.g., music = worship, music coincides with the presence of God) is formulaic rather than spontaneous.

All in all, something isn't right with the religious music I hear. I just don't like it; it holds little aesthetic interest. Perhaps that stops the music from becoming an idol for me (even if it's an idol for others), but that seems unlikely.

How about you? What's your experience of religious music and secular music? What does it do for you?

* As I write this, I remember reading that the X-Files' relationship with music was a bit like this. The percentage of that show with music is much higher than nearly every other show on TV. No parallels to be drawn, this is just a curious footnote.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Modern Dubai, Ancient Jerusalem

Sometimes I see photos of Dubai. It's usually accompanied by paragraphs gushing about the architecture or the opulence or wealth. It sickens me because I know that it's built on some of the worst labour conditions on the planet. A quick web search into "dubai slavery" will give you the picture. I refuse to be impressed by the place.

And perhaps this is just confirmation bias at work, but it also gives me a perfect modern day parallel to the most overrated person in the Hebrew Bible: Solomon.
King Solomon conscripted forced labour out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men. He sent them to the Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts; they would be a month in the Lebanon and two months at home; Adoniram was in charge of the forced labour. Solomon also had seventy thousand labourers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hill country, besides Solomon’s three thousand three hundred supervisors who were over the work, having charge of the people who did the work. At the king’s command, they quarried out great, costly stones in order to lay the foundation of the house with dressed stones. So Solomon’s builders and Hiram’s builders and the Gebalites did the stonecutting and prepared the timber and the stone to build the house. 1 Kings 5:13-18, NRSV
For the sake of the house of Yahweh, he enslaved his own people. Yeah, great king.

No wonder I have such a terrible reaction when I hear people talk about "the house" rather than the congregation or the building. If it's so bad for Dubai to be built on slavery, then it's equally as bad for Solomon to build the temple on slavery.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

I Link, Therefore I Blog

My heart is all aflutter with a few recent posts from AUFS. They're just interesting and/or provocative. You should go and read them.

Who gate-keeps the gate-keeper is a dig at Scott Stephens, and perhaps online editing in general, for being too quick to publish. In amongst the comments on the site, though, is a remark that Scott responds positively to feedback. Go give him feedback, kids.

John Milbank on Blogging is another dig at Scott, but mostly an excavator-sized dig at Milbank. This is where AUFS snark is at its best. I confess that I've not read much Milbank, but I'm always entertained at the AUFS response to him and his horde.

What is atonement theory? plugs Adam's book publication of his dissertation. It's a book I'm going to buy sometime soon. The atonement is something we no longer give enough attention to. Two interesting quotes from the page: "As you may be able to tell, Jesus has always been something of a solution in search of a problem..." and this from the comments:
You could take the underpants gnomes route
1: Jesus dies and raises from the dead
2: ? (atonement theory)
3: salvation

Genius. So genius it deserves a crimp.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Faith as God's Act

I know it's been a while since I posted a reflection from the book The Faith of Jesus Christ. Still, here's another one. I can only hope the next one isn't quite so far into the future.

Chapter 8 is The Faith of Christ by Mark A. Seifrid. It's the easiest for me to read so far, perhaps because of the author's style or perhaps it's just a new section in the book. It's less about the technicalities of Greek translation and more about the context of pistis christou in the Pauline letters. Greek isn't my strong suit.

He presents the texts in a clear and methodical fashion, within the context of the question, "What does it mean to believe in Jesus Christ?" It's a good choice of question since the interesting part of any theological debate is the meaning and consequence of the conclusion. There's no point having the debate if it doesn't provoke or inspire some kind of action. Jesus is not just an ideas man, he's a master who commands obedience.

Seifrid's conclusion is worth quoting from, since it has the core of his essay:
For the Apostle, to believe in Jesus Christ is not first to act, but rather to be acted upon by God in his work in Jesus Christ. It is to know that our faith is the work of another. It is to know that the crucified and risen One is our Lord. Here lies the connection between doctrine and doing that the "subjectivists" have sought but failed to find. Here our "doing" is not our own doing, but the doing and work of another, given to us in the apostolic proclamation of the gospel.
This conclusion highlights the nature of the power of God, the passivity of humanity, and the necessity of human agency in light of faith. In the matter of faith, it is God who acts first. God's faithfulness is the first step and is manifest in the faith and faithfulness of Jesus. At the core of what it means to believe in Jesus is to be the recipient of the faith of Jesus. Herein is the passivity of humanity in the situation. Humanity cannot successfully strive after God, but can be found in Christ. In fact, Seifrid's emphasis in being in Christ and of Christ shows that the place of a Christian is more important than the reductionist notion that salvation comes by Christ. In this way it reminds me of Bonhoeffer's idea of being in Christ from Act and Being. Once we are in Christ we are then compelled to act according to that being, to pursue the "doing and work of another" rather than our own.

Monday, 30 April 2012

Disagreement in the Church

Church history is mostly about the consequences of disagreement. From synods to heretics to sectarian war, our history begins with a disagreement about something. I remember writing a paper on the filioque clause, without the context of the history behind it, and finding a conclusion at the end. Afterwards I read up on the changes in the ecclesial landscape that resulted from it and shook my head in wonder.

Don't get me wrong, I understand that the early church wanted to lay out markers for what counted as Christian and what didn't. It's unfortunate that their solution was to write creeds and require people to uphold them. It seems to fly in the face of Jesus' own teaching that people will know Jesus' disciples because of the love they have for each other (Jn 13:35). The move from loosely organised disciples to an institutionalised church has created some baggage: creeds.

I know I'm a victim of the books I've read, but I can't help think that Badiou's analysis of Paul's work presents us with a solution. There is a single truth that creates the subject and which binds the movement together: Jesus is risen. This is the truth that supports Jesus as Christ* and which gives support to Jesus' teachings, especially about law and love.

And really, love is what unifies us. Everything else is opinion. We all have opinions about how to interpret certain passages of scripture, but they cannot override the command to love. We should also be able to debate and discuss any disagreement with our fellow believers without ever compromising the core unifying spirit of Christ. My hope is to be in a church that encourages these kinds of discussions. I want to work these things out with other believers to understand how we should best live out the commands to love.

* Yes yes, I know that Peter said it before Jesus was crucified. That's a post for another time. The point here is that Paul makes this faith claim and derives his theology from there.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

How faith and reason are required for truth

This is a long quote from another page. It's worth reading the whole thing, though. If you don't have time, just read this part.
"The truth is a desire of the human person, the search for which always supposes the exercise of authentic freedom. Many, however, prefer shortcuts, trying to avoid this task. Some, like Pontius Pilate, ironically question the possibility of even knowing what truth is (cf. Jn 18:38), proclaiming that man is incapable of knowing it or denying that there exists a truth valid for all. This attitude, as in the case of scepticism and relativism, changes hearts, making them cold, wavering, distant from others and closed. They, like the Roman governor, wash their hands and let the water of history drain away without taking a stand.

On the other hand, there are those who wrongly interpret this search for the truth, leading them to irrationality and fanaticism; they close themselves up in “their truth”, and try to impose it on others. These are like the blind scribes who, upon seeing Jesus beaten and bloody, cry out furiously, “Crucify him!” (cf. Jn 19:6). Anyone who acts irrationally cannot become a disciple of Jesus. Faith and reason are necessary and complementary in the pursuit of truth. God created man with an innate vocation to the truth and he gave him reason for this purpose. Certainly, it is not irrationality but rather the yearning for truth which the Christian faith promotes. Each human being has to seek the truth and to choose it when he or she finds it, even at the risk of embracing sacrifices.

Furthermore, the truth which stands above humanity is an unavoidable condition for attaining freedom, since in it we discover the foundation of an ethics on which all can converge and which contains clear and precise indications concerning life and death, duties and rights, marriage, family and society, in short, regarding the inviolable dignity of the human person. This ethical patrimony can bring together different cultures, peoples and religions, authorities and citizens, citizens among themselves, and believers in Christ and non-believers.

Christianity, in highlighting those values which sustain ethics, does not impose, but rather proposes Christ’s invitation to know the truth which sets us free. The believer is called to offer that truth to his contemporaries, as did the Lord, even before the dark omen of rejection and the Cross. The personal encounter with the one who is Truth in person compels us to share this treasure with others, especially by our witness."
Vatican Radio - Pope: Homily at Mass in Revolution Square, Havana:
Special note for me is the parallel that he draws between Pontius Pilate and the refusal to find the truth by declaring that it's impossible to know. His criticism is directed towards giving up the search itself. Truth might not be easy to find or easy to accept but it should not be left alone.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

False Starts, Or Another Reason Not To Believe In Heaven

I should say this up front: I don't believe in heaven as a spiritual plane of existence to which my consciousness will go after my death. The Bible presents a number of diverse views about the matter, revolving around words and phrases like "paradise" and "new creation" and "the heavens." I've learned to be gracious with other Christians who adhere to it because it's really not that important. I've learned to be especially gracious with fellow Christians who (intentionally or otherwise) centre their faith around the reward of "getting into heaven."

Amazing grace indeed.

Perhaps a strong, extra-biblical reason to discount belief in a heaven is the question of why God didn't get it right first time. If he can get it right a second time, why not get it right the first time and avoid all the evil along the way?

For me, the answer lies through interpreting the visions of the future (paradise, the day of the Lord, the second coming, the new creation, the kingdom of God) in the same way that we talk about what life ought to be like as lived here and now. The gospel is about how we should live now. I think it's easy to reduce Jesus down to the point of what he did for us on the cross. Even though that's a significant event, it's an over-simplification and also misses the point of the gospel.

I like that gospel should actually translate as message rather than good news. The gospel isn't all good news. It's got some bad news. Good news for the oppressed. Bad news for the oppressor. But what's the bad news? The bad news is that the oppressor, who gains by oppressing someone else, has to stop doing it and look after the oppressed.

Ouch. Sounds harsh. #sarcasm

And what's left when the gospel is enacted by humanity? The lamb (oppressed) can sit down with the lion (oppressor). The lowly are lifted up and the lofty are brought down so that they are equals before God and each other. The people at war with each other make peace and live peacefully. And so on and so on. Does it sound like a great idea? Absolutely. Can we do it today? Absolutely. That's the hope of the gospel and the faithful work of every Christian.

I think that the Bible doesn't tell us to wait until after we die to see this kind of reality. I think that it tells us to make it happen today.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Late Starts

One of the more plausible arguments against a creator God with a personal interest in humanity centres around the long time between the start of the universe and the appearance of humans. If the universe is over thirteen billion years old and humanity has only appeared in the last few hundred thousand years, it seems like God waited a long time for the arrival of the species for whom he created the universe.

Imagine God saying, "Let us create a vast universe and put processes in place so that humans can exist on a single planet... eventually."

The typical argument that comes back is that God is outside of time so he can afford to wait. Sure he can, but if we're so important to a creator God why not make evolution happen faster? Maybe God has something larger in mind. Maybe humanity isn't the jewel in the crown of the universe, but still with some importance to God.

Or will the next stage of evolution be more important to God? If pre-human humanoids weren't worth saving, how valuable will post-human humans be?

No answers here today, just questions.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

One God is not One Lord

It's Lent! I like a good Lent and this time I've started through the Corinthian letters, in which I see Paul's great formulation that repeats throughout his work.
1 Cor 8:5-6 Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
One God and one Lord. Paul keeps the two quite distinct throughout his writings. The way he writes about them is different. They do different things. They want different things from humanity. In fact, the sense I get is that Paul emphasises their difference more than he writes about their unity. The unity of God the Father with the Lord Jesus Christ and with the Holy Spirit appears to come more from Johannine sources.

But what's the difference? Something I'm thinking about is whether, for Paul, God the Father is power without authority whereas Christ is authority without power. After all, God "highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name" (Php 2:9) and Jesus "emptied himself" (Php 2:7). Is the relationship between the two one of complimentary emptiness? And if that's so, how does the Holy Spirit enter into the picture? Whatever "the spirit" does, it's confounded by the typical translation issues from Greek to English. The capitalisation of "Spirit" in most modern English translations doesn't help resolve the matter.

Unity does not mean equivalence. Paul's explicit differentiation should not be ignored.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

How tithing made it through the net

The Christian emergence from second-temple Judaism managed to leave behind food laws, beard trimming laws and even circumcision. How the hell did tithing manage to stick around? Surely God loves a cheerful giver and not a legislated giver.
Acts 15:22-35
Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers, with the following letter:
‘The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds, we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.’
So they were sent off and went down to Antioch. When they gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. When its members read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation.

And so do I.

I don't have a problem giving to a church or to an individual. That's a good thing. I just wish we could leave behind the label of tithing. It's connected with too many of those lovely "promises" that Hallmark Christians love to claim.

And of course, the cynical explanation is probably correct.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

How To Find A Church

This will be more autobiographical than theoretical. I've just moved to a new city (Hi Perth!) and want to find a new church to be part of. I can't say it's much fun to find one. We've been going to a pentecostal church for the last few weeks and it's an odd experience. It's so familiar, in the same way that a finger traces an old scar with familiarity, but so foreign.

I'd forgotten all the pente jargon. Apparently, this is a new season and we should position ourselves before God to find out what he wants for us and for the house.

Ooh boy. I haven't heard that kind of thing for years. They sincerely believe it too. I imagine my hermeneutic method won't be especially common there, but is that a good enough reason not to attend that congregation? After all, it's the spirit that unifies the community and not doctrines or creeds. We are, after all, all followers of Jesus. I'm sure he and the disciples had their debates about the finer points of Torah and the prophets, and they probably didn't all agree. From what we know, that didn't break up the disciples in any meaningful way. The debates about food laws and circumcision were still centred around the common lordship of Christ.

I think I'll be more interested to find out how they act out the gospel message. Maybe I won't really see that in just a few short weeks. It'll take time.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Inevitable Over-population

There's plenty of evidence across nature to support the idea that population sizes are controlled by resources. Farmer's spot this one easily. Rabbits and locusts peak in numbers one year, over-populate and die off so the following year there are fewer.

We humans can't be much different. We move to where the food and water are. Lots of water and food allows for high population count. A country like Australia can't support high population because we don't have lots of food and water, and we can't really eat coal and iron.

I don't think that we are really capable of restraining ourselves on a large scale. We consume a lot, not just food and water. The pragmatist in me thinks its inevitable that we'll all go to war with each other to secure food and water. The Christian in me hopes that we can avoid that war by making love real and sharing more equally those basics for life.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Church Mission

If the mission of the church is to only make disciples, then what are we making disciples for? Being a disciple is about a new way of living, about a new humanity and a new society that Jesus called the kingdom of God.

So perhaps the mission of the church is not conversion by itself but transformation of human society. It's nothing less than political change, but not political change through the political process. This political change comes about through the personal process.

The goal can only be the creation of the kingdom of God here on earth through the lives of disciples. If one's church isn't doing that, is it really pursuing the work of God?

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Aspects of Jesus

I like thinking about Jesus from the point of view of a disciple who does not yet know that Jesus will be resurrected. It's a thought experiment that forces a perspective. The disciples are recorded in the gospels as confessing Jesus as Christ before his crucifixion or resurrection, but there isn't much to support how they reached that conclusion. In short: why call Jesus the Christ if the ultimate sign of God's approval has not been given?

For my thought experiment, I'm left to ask which aspect of Jesus was convincing. Jesus the teacher? Jesus the wonder-worker? It was, after all, the pre-resurrection Jesus who did most of the preaching and wonders and so on. Lately, I think we could identify a few aspects of Jesus to consider.

The teachings; the words he said. Maybe this is Jesus as philosopher or ethicist. There's a lot to be gained in the world if the teachings were adopted without any creedal statements. Are they enough for a declaration of faith? There were other Rabbis at the time, some of whom had similar things to say, but did they have followers who called them Christ?

The signs; sometimes mistakenly called miracles. The gospels call them signs. They're supposed to point to something, or represent something. The ancient world is full of thaumaturges, so what's special here?

The acts; the things he did. Think of these as different to signs, but equally demonstrative. When he paraded into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, I'm sure it wasn't an accident. He deliberately told his disciples to get him a donkey. He probably knew that it was a religiously and politically significant act. Also consider the last supper, in which he washed feet and took over the meanings of the Passover meal for his own purposes. Acts with meanings.

The character; what people met in relation. When Jesus had conversations with others, not teaching sessions. What was it about the character he showed then?

It's possible to separate these things, but we're left with a pile of pieces. The teachings could have been anonymously written down. The signs could have been from other wonder-workers, or several others. The acts could have been from several others. The character is the exception, though. Without the others, we wouldn't see the same character. Put the pieces all together, though, and we're left with Jesus that people called Christ.