Saturday, 26 January 2013

The Gospel and Australia Day

It's Australia Day today. The ads are on, telling me to cook lamb on the barbie. The flags are flying on cars and houses. The TV is drenched with images of people at the beach, wrapped in flag towels, smeared in sunscreen and laughing. It all looks wonderful and draws us in to be proud Aussies.

Except I'm not and here's why.

Mostly I'm just not a patriot of any kind. Nations are artificial constructs. We've drawn invisible lines across the ground to separate Us from Them, to mark the edge of Our Stuff and say that if They come across the line We will use violence to send Them back.

The revolutionary truth that opposes all this is in the gospel. Jesus is asked which are the greatest commandments and replies with, "Love the Lord your God" and "Love your neighbour as yourself." His interlocutor immediately asks, "And who is my neighbour?" It was a topical question amongst other rabbis of the day and Jesus answers it with the parable of the Samaritan. In the parable it is one of Them who goes out of his way to help one of Us who was in need. Jesus' command is that his disciples should go and do the same.

Jesus' definition of a neighbour goes beyond national and ethnic boundaries. These boundaries are simply irrelevant to the love of Christ.

When I think about Australia Day I'm reminded of this parable. I'm reminded that although we can enjoy life in Australia we also have the command of Jesus to love our neighbour wherever they may be found, and that the power of this love is greater than the powers that try to divide Us from Them.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Our own best critics

More than one commenter has pointed out that one of the strengths of Christianity is that it critiques itself. By doing that it avoids the kinds of indulgences and arrogance that characterise the worst kinds of religious expression in history. When Christians or the church are seen to be at their worst it's a guarantee that the self-critiquing has stopped.

Take the notion of divine punishment as an example. Just some quotes from throughout the Bible. First up, the "two ways" of Deuteronomy 28. If you obey then you'll be blessed but if you disobey then you'll be cursed.
Now, if you obey the LORD your God, to observe faithfully all His commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations o the earth. All these blessings shall come upon you and take effect, if you will but heed the word of the LORD your God. Dt 28:1-2
But if you do not obey the LORD your God to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect. Dt 28:15
Then something we read over (and over, and over) again in Psalms, the appeal to God to punish the wicked and rescue the righteous because the wicked are rich and the righteous are poor. Take these gems from Asaph's Psalms
Such are the wicked;
Ever tranquil, they amass wealth. Ps 73:12
Till when, O God, will the foe blaspheme,
will the enemy forever revile Your name?
Why do You hold back Your hand, Your right hand?
Draw it out of your bosom! Ps 74:10-11
Then the move to resignation in Qoheleth.
I have further observed under the sun that
The race is not won by the swift,
Nor the battle by the valiant,
Nor is bread won by the wise,
Nor wealth by the intelligent,
Nor favour by the learned,
For the time of mischance comes to all. Ecc 9:11
When we get the gospels Jesus is challenged about a misfortune that happened to a man born blind. Sin is still viewed as the cause of these kinds of problems.
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. John 9:1-3
Jesus is also fond of telling people that it is because they are his disciples that they will have trouble, and that to follow him means to take up a fate of death, the cross.

This thread about why there is evil in the world is a trivial example, though, and there are others like it. The texts disagree with each other, refining each other, critiquing each other, bringing the idea into sharp relief. The canny Christian has a diversity of opinions in the Bible from which to draw. The canon we have allows us the space to debate issues, to correct ourselves. It's no wonder, then, that Kierkegaard comes to the conclusion1 that God's word to human self-aggrandisement is a resounding "No!" as though our own constructs are nothing but repeats of the Tower of Babel.

Christianity has inherited something wonderful from Judaism: space to argue with itself. As Paul writes, we need to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" immediately after he admonishes his readers to remain humble. We are our own best critics and we should revel in that.

1. At least according to Zizek.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Every day's the same

You know, I just don't buy into this "Monday sucks. Can't wait til Friday" thing. Surely every day is the same. Every day we have to choose how we'll live. Every day we live with the responsibility and consequence of that choice, whether it helped us or hurt us. If your Monday sucks, find a better Monday.

And yes, I know (and would be among the first to point out) that some people have hard, depressing lives. Some people live in drought, in war, in famine. I get that. However, the gospel message is that in the midst of the crap we have something better than the crap. In the midst of trouble and turmoil we can rise above it, and that's part of the power of Christ.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The Joy of Ecclesiastes

Reading Ecclesiastes is such a joy. I'm taking my time through it at the moment, savouring the labour of reading it (the toil, if you prefer that translation). It has some gems hiding in there, just like this one.

For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upwards and the spirit of animals goes downwards to the earth? (Ecc 3:19-21)

The utter materialism of this passage makes me smile. Yes, even with the mention of spirits I read it that way. It's refreshingly honest about the question of life after death and reminds us that the life that counts is the life lived now.

I'm also fond of the Kierkegaardian stages throughout the book. There are viewpoints for the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious (only A, of course). Thankfully, like a good piece of wisdom, the whole book requires contemplation. Taking a verse here or there doesn't do it justice and removes the prospect of wrestling with the problem of life.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Listening to Sermons

I have a nasty little habit during sermons. While I'm listening to the preacher I have a bible open, scouring the focus passage and its surrounds. The preacher has their own interpretation to give and that's going in through the ears. Going in through the eyes at the same time is the text as I dip into some armchair exegesis.

I'm told it's a nasty habit because it looks like I've zoned out and am on twitter.

The truth is that it's a nasty habit because sometimes I find things that the preacher isn't talking about. That doesn't mean the preacher is wrong and must be corrected all over the internet, it just means I've seen something else in the same text.

Although maybe I'm the only person who does it during the sermon itself, I think that it's the right thing for all Christians to do. It's part of the refusal to check your brain at the door of the church when you come in - it's the commitment to intellectually embrace and wrestle with the faith and with the text. It's the commitment to refuse to be led astray by poor preaching. It's the commitment to refuse to mentally fall asleep while appearing to be listening. And last on my list, it's the active working out of Christianity as it critiques itself from within.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Divinely Traumatic Statistics

I've not posted much on this blog in 2012, courtesy of a new job and its demands. Nonetheless I've taken the time to see what the blogging statistics reporting tells me about this blog across the year. The most interesting, for me at least, are the most popular blog posts.

1. Coffee and the Representation of Absence (May 2011)
2. Biblical Marriage, Gay Marriage (June 2012)
3. Supply and Demand After Disaster (January 2011)
5. Kierkegaard and Tolstoy (November 2011)

Clearly the fans like my old stuff better than my new stuff.

As for posts from 2012:

1. Biblical Marriage, Gay Marriage (June)
2. Why There Are No Christian Men (August)
3. Is Homophobia Actually a Phobia (July)
4. Modern Dubai, Ancient Jerusalem (June)
5. Good is bad is good (October)

And courtesy of google search terms it appears that there are lots of people who want to know about Zizek's comments on coffee without cream or coffee without milk, as well as the connection between Kierkegaard and Tolstoy.

So thanks, 2012 readers. I've gained insight into what you're looking for: more Gay Zizek, with footnotes on Kierkegaard.