Sunday, 17 August 2014

Biblical contradictions

It's well attested that there are contradictions within the bible. Or at least that's the conclusion that most armchair critics come to. I think that the problem is not one of logical contradiction, but one of textual form.

Most armchair critics approach a book like the bible with an expectation of a systematic description of God, and life and how life ought to be lived. Unfortunately the bible is a canon, not an essay. As a canon it collates documents from various authors, various times, various social class, various experiences. It is not univocal. It is a polyvocal testimony to experiences of God, and as such we will find one passage which critiques another, or one passage which clarifies another.

All of these texts are attempting to convey a testimony about God and all falling victim to the reality of language. Once we use language we can only ever approximate. Symbols have meanings and meanings require interpretations. Trying to impose an expectation of consistency on a canon is an inappropriate method.

As a canon, with all the various factors that contribute to its production, I think that we would be more fruitful in treating it as a perichoretic testimony. The texts interplay with each other, drawing from each other and distinguishing themselves from each other. All the while they make space in the middle for an actual experience, an inference, an interpolation. By reading them and allowing them to be in dialogue with each other, they make space for the reader to use those testimonies and reach a conclusion about God.

"Subjectivity is truth" and the pursuit of truth needs the believer to own the truth for themselves. A systematic presentation could never generate this kind of subjectivity. On the other hand, a canon of texts that demands the reader to wrestle with them, deliberate on them, and find a truth that resonates with lived experience… this is what drives people to developing faith that transcends the self and creates more than a human animal.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Kindy Theology: The Prodigal Son

I was telling my five year old the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) over the weekend. It's a good choice of story for him; he's the eldest of two sons. At the end of the story he asked a great question.

"What did the older brother do next?"

Like a lot of parables this one poses a challenge of unfinished detail to the audience. The Good Samaritan challenges the hearer to be a good neighbour, for example. The Prodigal Son parable challenges the audience on how they will react to the penitent sinner. Will they pout about the unfairness of God or will they join the celebration for someone else's salvation? After all, the eldest son has been good and obedient and probably has the right to refuse the younger son any welcome.

For those wondering what I said next, I asked my son what he thought the older son would do. He said that the older son would try to get the younger son into timeout and tell the dad about it. So I asked what the son should do. He said that he should not try for the timeout and should join in the party to welcome the younger son home.

In other words he got it. Even a five year old understands the message of this parable. No theological training required because the story had immediate relevance to him. I'm not sure I'd expect the same about some other parables. :)

The next question he asked was a doozy. He did what good expositors will do and ask about who was not there.

"Did they have a mum? What was she doing?"

Thinking about who's conspicuously absent is part of close reading and I feel like a caveman for not seeing this before. In the story of Esau and Jacob, Rebekah was the voice in Jacob's ear, guiding him about how to get the greater inheritance. Could there have been a mother who did the same? Or was the mother in as much anguish and joy as the father, sharing the turmoil of parenting? Perhaps she organised the feast for the younger son's return. Jesus didn't include her in the story but we can meditate on it and wonder what we would do as the mother of these boys.

Parables that need no explanation. An absent mother. Kindy theology is a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Your presence is heaven to me

Like all liberal theologians* I find that some unpalatable songs become palatable when we mess around with the meaning of words.

For example, here's one that's doing the rounds at the moment: Israel Houghton's "Your presence is heaven to me."

But I find the mysticism jarring. I feel nothing in songs like this, nothing other than chord progressions. But when I do hear this song, or even sing it at church, this happens:

Your presence
From Matt 25 we learn that just as we treat the least, that's exactly how we treat Jesus. And from Matt 18 we learn that where two or three are gathered in Jesus' name, he is there. Jesus' presence is in the people around us, in the neighbour, in the other.

From Rev 21 we learn that it is not us who go to heaven, but it is heaven that has come down to us and formed the church. Heaven is now invading this world in the church.

So when I hear "your presence is heaven to me" it always means "the people around me, believers or needy, are the presence of God in this world and by being among them I am in heaven."

Silly physicalist Christian that I am, but without this the song is a meaningless ditty.

* Stereotypes are welcome here, just for this sentence.