Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Jason Clark on Word Association: Connecting the Bible with Everyday Living

Notes from a seminar at the London launch of Biblefresh (30 March 2010):

Jason addressed his topic under four main headings:

1. Stories and imagination
Jason began by talking about the significance of ‘social stories’ – particularly for children on the autistic spectrum – which provide information about situations that may be difficult or confusing, what things looks like, the things that might occur, etc., so that children can picture where they will be and what it will be like.

Similarly, he noted, social theorists talk about ‘social imaginaries’, a set of understandings, practices, expectations, and the like, which give human beings a sense of how we ‘do life’, how we organise life. Most people don’t organise life around a set of rules. We have stories, and are engaged in ongoing conversations we tell internally and externally.

Most people live their life through ‘story’. Jason here commented on the significance of using story when speaking to others about our faith, that when we tell a story, something often happens as a result.

2. Relationships, homes, and jobs
So, what are the stories of life? Drawing on his pastoral experience, Jason commented that there are a few key stories that regularly go around our head: what relationships we have, where we live, what jobs we have.

Although we are already living somewhere, many people see themselves as passing through to somewhere else, such that we talk about where we’d like to be one day, where we’d like to live one day. The notion of the ‘housing ladder’ is a social imaginary, and we’re increasingly giving all our lives to these sorts of stories.

Likewise with our jobs, where the whole of life gets bent round our jobs, where the only considerations about going for a new job are whether we are going to like it and how much it is going to pay.

If this is our story, it affects how we live our life and the things that concern us.

Jason recalls meeting a careers advisor at sixth form college who was expressing some anxiety about Jason’s hopes to study theology at a vocational college. Jason commented that he had effectively said to the advisor: ‘I’ve met the creator of the universe’, to which the reply had been – ‘Don’t let it affect your life too much!’

But he noted that genuine danger, where what’s seen as really real is my relationships, finance, and job, and Christianity is simply an add-on to those things or a resource that helps me with those things. We’ve met the creator of the universe, but we shouldn’t let it affect our lives too much…

This can become the case even with church. People ask, What should church be about? And the frequent answer is: one that’s relevant to me, helps me with my job and relationships – helps me, in other words, with this permanent conversation I’m having everywhere.

3. The story I find myself in
Theologians and biblical scholars have made a major turn to this idea of narrative theology in the last few decades. One of the key factors in this area is to recognise that the Bible is a big story, and the significance of this.

Jason spoke about three stages we might go through in this respect:

• We’ve got our various ‘stories’ going on and Chrisytianity is a resource ‘over there’ that helps us with our stories. We’ve got Jesus rather than Oprah, but essentially we want the same thing everyone else wants.

• Instead of just a story that helps me, it becomes something I live in.

• The Christian story becomes my story completely in that it takes over my imagination, aspiration, practices, goals, etc. The gospel becomes our social story, so that we act and behave differently as a result.

4. Re-framing life
This might mean that we start to talk and frame life in the language of the Bible. So, in a conversation about work, at what point do we ask, What does Jesus want you to do? Does the gospel have something bigger to say than about living somewhere nice and having fantastic jobs? Jason cited Jeremiah 29 with the advice of Jeremiah to the Judean exiles in Babylon to settle down there – to go out, get jobs, have families – but to seek the welfare of the city in doing so. All our stories should be about the benefit that comes to others.

Jason also spoke about the significance of a cruciform identity. For the conversations that go on inside us – I need this, I deserve this – how often are those earthed in conversations with Jesus through reading the Bible? How often do I take the most difficult things I’m challenged with and take them to the cross in terms of my identity? We need to have different conversations…


Jason concluded by noting that often our pain about loss in life is the pain of losing stories that aren’t supposed to be our stories in the first place. Indeed, does the Bible affect our lives at all? In our relationship with the Bible, it seems, we have barely begun to scratch the surface.

Andy Flannagan on Reading the Bible Politically

Notes from a seminar at the London launch of Biblefresh (30 March 2010):

Andy started by saying that it’s an exciting time to be involved in politics and the public life of the nation, not least because of current high levels of interest on the part of churches in issues of public life.

He noted the importance of working appropriately on the inside and the outside. In 1 Kings 18, for instance, Elijah stands on the outside bringing a prophetic challenge, but Obadiah has a position within the state – an example of how different people are called to different things. Likeise today, there are many agencies and local Christians speaking from the ‘outside’, and there are others seeking to be salt and light within the political world itself.

Andy then took us on a journey through the whole of Scripture – looking briefly at every biblical book or collection of books – to show that all the way through there are points of significance about God and government. (This part was too full and too fast to make decent notes, but the talks will at some point in the near future be made available on the Biblefresh website for those who would like to chase this up.)

Given the amount of compelling evidence of God’s interest in ‘politics’, Andy asked those gathered why more folks had not fleshed this out in the reality of everyday life. Various answers were offered, including that we have privatised our faith, that we are concerned about the possible degree of compromise people have to enter into in politics, that it is never preached about in church, and that we don’t think of Jesus as a ‘political’ animal.

Andy recommended N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope, which lays out the vision for the restoration and redemption of all things, and the importance of demonstrating the presence of the kingdom whenever we’re involved in acts of redemption.

He also directed us to a website – Susa – containing helpful resources for people to get politically engaged.

Other books recommended were Richard Bauckham, The Bible in Politics, Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin (eds.), God and Government, and Krish Kandiah, Just Politics (Authentic).

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Jason Gardner on Reading Youth Culture through Biblical Lenses

Notes from a seminar at the London launch of Biblefresh (30 March 2010):

Jason’s topic was helping young people critique the world around them from a biblical perspective.

He began by talking about the recent proliferation of Vampire films, TV series, Sephanie Meyer’s Twilight books, etc., showing the impact of this in youth culture, and raising the question, From a biblical perspective, where would we go to deal with ghosts, werewolfs, and vampires?

Taking his cue from Clifford Geertz’ definition of culture as ‘the ensemble of stories we tell each other about ourselves’, he made three points (I think) about stories:

1. Stories connect us
What TV series did you have to watch as a teenager in order to be able to chat in the playground the next day? What stories are young people telling us today? What stories are they telling each other?

2. Stories shape us
Big stories impact our lives, forming a worldview that drives attitudes, behaviour, values, approaches, and beliefs – and there are powerful stories being told in contemporary culture, such as secularism, which clashes with the biblical worldview – sometimes leading to an ‘enthusiastic dualism’ in young people, where two contradictory stories impact and affect their lifestyle in different ways.

What channels are our young people absorbing the story of God through? What channels are they absorbing secularuism through? Where are the stories in conflict, where are they overlapping?

How do we help our young people to be active critics, not just passive recipients, of the stories that shape their lives? How do we help them understand their story through the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, future hope? And how do we help them understand how that story engages with the stories around them?

In exploring the relationship between Christainity and culture, Jason referred to the work of H. Richard Niebuhr (reducing his fivefold typology to three):

• Christ against culture – Christ and culture as a radical either-or choice.

• Christ of culture – where Christians find their culture compatible with the surrounding culture, and perhaps even cut off bits of the biblical story that don’t quite fit.

• Christ the transformer of culture – not opposition or agreement but transforming. Cultures can be converted; the fall only corrupted and misdirected culture, and improvement, even redemption, is possible.

Jason here referred to LICC’s use of the ‘10-110’ model. If our young people spend (no more than) 10 hours a week in church and 110 hours elsewhere, how much of that 10 hours is spent equipping them for the 110, in their mission to redeem every area of society.

We use the Bible to critique, affirm, and transform what’s in the stories in society and culture.

3. Help them understand how stories shape them
Jason finished with two ways to read culture, one simple and one profound.

The simple one comes from Paul Tillich, focusing on hopes, fears, and enduring stories. What are the stories that keep getting repeated – such as told in Pride and Prejudice, for instance? What does it say about the hopes and fears of the culture?

And think about Star Wars, the Harry Potter movies, and the Lord of the Rings saga, each with main characters who are orphans living with their uncle, who go on a journey, who are nurtured by sage warriors – perhaps showing the ‘orphan’ heart of people everywhere. What are the core elements of these stories?

The more profound way comes from Andy Crouch’s Culture Making, asking the question, What does culture make possible, and what does it make more difficult or impossible? Jason used the examples of motorways and mobile phones.

Jenny Baker on Fresh Approaches to Sharing the Bible with Young People

Notes from a seminar at the London launch of Biblefresh (30 March 2010):

Jenny began by saying that young people don’t share our view of the Bible, showing a video clip of young people answering the question, What do you think of the Bible?Answers: long, lots of pages, small writing, few connections with life and their world, lots of misinformation.

The context in which we teach is that we have good relationships with young people, recognising that they are going to be looking at our lives.

Creative expression is really important for young people; children are often self-starters here, and self-expression is part of the cultural furniture.

Some suggestions here included:

Revisiting the psalms through making videos. Give them an exericse about what the back story to a psalm might have been, ask how they might have felt. Or, get them to rewrite a psalm of their own. For instance, David himself knew what it was like to care for sheep, and he imagined God doing for him what he had done for sheep. How about: ‘The Lord is my football coach. He makes me stretch after training…’ Some psalms are acrostics, so we could encourage them to write an acrostic psalm of their own.

Use imagination in stories – get inside the skin of a biblical character.

Learning through experience, citing Kolb’s cyle of experiential learning – experiencing, reflecting, generalising, applying.

The prophets engaged in symbolic acts that communicated their message.

Encourage young people to think about how biblical stories apply to their own lives, think about which character they identify with, or use art.

Lectio divina – a slow and prayerful way of praying the Bible – read a passage a number of times leaving space to linger on the words, seeing Scripture as a place of encounter with God. Lectio divina is enhanced when it is coupled with a good working knowledge of the Scriptures.

See the big picture of the Bible, the narrative running through from beginning to end. At this point Jenny showed a video from the Lacey Theatre Company portraying the Bible in three minutes, and mentioned Nick Page’s The Big Story (especially useful for young people themselves) and The Bible Book: A User’s Guide, as well as a resource from Urban Saints – God’s Living Story for Young People – written by Jenny herself.

Krish Kandiah on From Bible Baddies to Storynory: 20 Ways to Engage Children with the Bible

Notes from a seminar at the London launch of Biblefresh (30 March 2010):

Krish began by saying that he was speaking mainly as a parent rather than a children’s worker, and had primary school children in mind for most of his suggestions… which were as follows…

20. We need to be enthusiastic about the Bible if we are to inspire young people to be enthusiastic about the Bible.

19. Make use of every available medium possible. Krish referred here to iPhone apps by Kore (providing a red-letter verse everyday) and one called Yahero (produced by the Canadian Bible Society), and the You Version.

18. Encourage children to read the Bible for themselves – help them be self-feeders. Krish mentioned The Toddler’s Bible, The Jesus Storybook Bible (especially recommended), The Lion Graphic Bible, and The Bite-Size Bible.

17. Family Bible reading – so that kids see Mum and Dad engage with the Bible too. Here Krish mentioned Easter Unscrambled, The Real Christmas Tree (an Advent calendar), and referred to resources designed to be used when a family is on holiday.

16. Make our Bible teaching EPIC – an acronym from Leonard Sweet – Experiential (e.g., where we teach could be important), Participatory (allowing children to contribute to stories and ask questions), Image Rich (allowing the images of the Bible to speak), Connected (building a community, asking what the Bible means for the way we relate to each other).

15. Do a journey through the Old Testamernt by enacting some of the festivals, such as Passover and Tabernacles.

14. Play Biblical 20 questions – ‘I’m a person in the Bible, can you guess who I am?’ – and doing this when we’re out walking, as a normal part of life.

13. Listen to the Bible rather than read it – using multiple media such as The Bible Experience.

12. Do your exegetical homework – and seek to enskill others as well. Read books, such as: Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom; Mike Novelli, Shaped by the Story; Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet; Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to read the Bible for all its worth.

11. Make stop motion videos using a digital camera.

10. A book at bedtime – such as stories from Bob Hartman’s Bible Baddies, which don’t ‘Disneyfy’ the Bible.

9. Storynory – listen to Bible stories during car journeys; get involved in telling and recording Bible stories in 10-15 minutes for possible upload to the Biblefresh website.

8. Intertextual engagement of biblical worldview and Hollywood cinematography – help children read film through the Bible. Compare and contrast Finding Nemo with the Prodigal son; use Camp Rock to provoke discussion of moral dilemmas, or The Boy in Striped Pyjamas for the ideas it evokes about overcoming barriers.

7. All age obedience – underline the Bible is not just a text, but provokes action. If we can do that collectively as a church, so much the better.

6. Raise up peer Bible teachers – young people to teach the Bible.

5. Echo the story – Mike Novelli’s Bible storying scheme – telling the Bible stories, and then getting young people to retell the story, then going round the group and ask ing ‘What if?’ questions.

4. Photo storyboard – issue a challenge to come up with a three-picture storyboard of a parable. When people have to produce something in response to the Bible text, that helps them to think it through.

3. Memorise the Bible reading for a church service.

2. Create a voiceover video, getting kids involved in producing something.

1. Art project – referred to earlier in the day by Krish – an example of a local church getting involved with schools through leading assemblies on the parables of Jesus, combined with an art project and competition, displaying pieces in the church, and inviting parents to view the art.

Mark Meynell on the Shock of the Old: How the Ancient and Other Speaks into Today

Notes from a seminar at the London launch of Biblefresh (30 March 2010):

Taking his cue from Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock – describing the shock whch comes with too much change in too short a period of time, the suffering from information overload – Mark asked whether the experience of reading the Bible should be one of ancient shock.

Leading off with a quotation from Thomas Merton about (among other things) questioning the Bible and being questioned by the Bible, Mark noted that evangelicals can be blasé about the Bible, forgetting its troubling and disorientating strangeness, along with the danger of treating every book of the Bible as if it was our favourite letter of Paul’s.

He shared about speaking recently from Exodus 12, a significant episode in the Old Testament story, but also profoundly disturbing with the death of every firstborn son in Egypt. Or, what about Psalm 137 with the dashing of infants against a rock? Or some of the teachings of Jesus himself – hating parents, being poor in spirit – which have lost something of their shock-value precisely because we are so familiar with them.

So, we have to face up to the diversitry, alienness, strangeness of the Bible, and we must help contemporary readers of the Bible to do that too.

Mark addressed this issue under three headings:

1. Put off by the ancient shock? The problem of chronological snobbery
For some people the very fact that the Bible is ancient is problematic. Although there have been good attempts made to put the Bible into today’s ‘vernacular’ (Eugene Peterson’s The Message, for example), there will still inevitably be an element of ancient shock. C.S. Lewis describes how Owen Barfield challenged his chronological snobbery. Why should our generation necessarily have got it right?

So, a top tip here is to expose the fallacy of chronological snobbery. We’ve got some things right now compared to centuries ago (ancient dentistry anyone?), but why should we assume our generation has everything sussed? We need to engage in the deconstruction of people’s assumptions of cultural superiority.

2. We should expect ancient shock: the inevitablity of a worldview clash
Mark cited 2 Peter 1:20-21 to underscore the divine and human origins of the Bible. Prophets spoke from God, not as typewriters, but through their own personality (Isaiah is different from Ezekiel, Paul is different from James, etc.)… and yet still from God! We need to be careful of undermining the humanity of the Bible; the authors were all of their time, and so their world can seem so alien. But there is a sense in which the Bible’s message always comes from ‘outside’ our world – and it clashed with people’s assumptions then as well as now. There can be an assumption that the world revolves around me and so the Bible also needs to revolve around me, but we need to undergo a Copernican revolution in this respect. The Bible will always be subversively shocking.

Mark notes that part of the semantic range of the greek word metanoia is ‘change of mind’, restoring God to his rightful place. Sin means we will resist metanoia, assuming the Bible will justify the way we naturally think. But we should expect to be challenged and shaken up by the Bible – which is why group study is important, as is cross-cultural engagement.

So, a second top tip is to start again if you are not shaken up by the Bible.

3. The hermeneutic of ancient shock: spending time with strangeness
A good question to ask of a Bible passage is, How would I have told it? The difference between how I’ve retold it and how it is on the page will be illuminating. Mark here related an account of Dick Lucas preaching on the images used to describe Christian leaders in 2 Timothy 2 – soldier, athlete, farmer – where Lucas asks us to imagine how we might have phrased 2:7, suggesting we would be unlikely to combine the two halves of the verse in the way Paul does.

Paul did not write: ‘Rreflect on what I’m saying and you’ll soon get the point.’

Nor did he write: ‘Pray about it, and the Lord will give you insight into all this.’

Rather, he wrote: ‘Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this.’

We use our mind and we pray.

Mark also encouraged us to identify the oddities in a familiar story, taking the parable of the tenants in Luke 20 as an example. What the tenants did was appaling, and surely some sort of punishment would be expected; but the reaction comes in an odd place – 20:16 – because the listeners sense a correlation between the tenants and themselves (cf. 20:19)… but it is this response that provokes Jesus warning about the rejected stone becoming the cornerstone.

So, the final top tip is to make a point of looking for the surprises.

In short, Mark’s talk was an appeal to embrace the ‘ancient shock’ of Scripture, to relish it, embrace it, and allow it to change us. Hence:

• We need to overcome our chronological snobbery
• We should expect to be challenged
• We meditate on its strangeness, looking for unexpected, and asking the right questions

Mark finished by saying that the most exciting phrase to hear in a laboratory is not (as we might expect) eureka, but ‘Hey, that’s funny…’ – because that can lead to a whole new body of study.

So, let’s learn to embrace the shock of the old.

Having made these notes, I now see that Mark has himself summarised his three points on his blog here, and made available the full text of the talk as a pdf here.

Pete Phillips on ‘A chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents’ (Dawkins): Rebuilding Confidence in a Rubbished Text

Notes from a seminar at the London launch of Biblefresh (30 March 2010):

Pete stood in at the last moment for Gavin McGrath (who had to pull out due to illness) but addressed the assigned topic surrounding the Bible’s ‘texts of terror’.

He introduced his presentation with representative quotations from Richard Dawkins about the Bible’s texts of terror, noting as well that Dawkins has been speaking more about the Bible recently, arguing that one can’t appreciate English language and literature unless one is steeped in the English of the King James Version of the Bible; according to Dawkins: ‘Not to know the KJV is in some way to be barbarian.’ Others (Pete referred to Andrew Motion) are also noting the significance of the Bible as a cultural artifact and the need to understand the Bible to understand culture.

Even so, what are the problems when it comes to handling texts of terror?

1. Partial knowledge
Dawkins is able to select texts and use them the way he does because many people don’t know the wider context of those texts. We need to give people more knowledge of the Bible, rebuild partial knowledge into fuller knowledge, give people ownership of the Bible.

Pete mentioned a few helpful online resources, including Cross Reference, Bible Dex, You Version, the 2011 Trust, as well as the Glo Bible software (produced by Immersion Digital, and distributed in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton).

2. Lack of perspective
Focusing on a text of terror runs the risk of losing a certain sort of perspective, perhaps in forgetting the bigger pictre of the Bible. We need the sweep of the whole Bible, a deep familiarity with the Bible. And we need depictions of the biblical story in multiple media – visual, aural, plastic, dramatic – seeking to recover the splendour of art, music, and so on. As we move into a post-book culture, we should turn our churches into multi-media environments. Pete also referred here to the potential significance of mystery plays, rituals, festival rites, and the like.

3. Marcionite Disneyfication – or well-intentioned censorship
Here the issue is the mistaken notion that the Bible has to be pure and wonderful and lovely… and smell nice… and that it has to soothe us and stroke us… and anything that doesn’t do that, we’ll rip out. Except that in doing so, we end up with a cosy text. Do we go for the New Testament only, and (even then) only the inclusive bits we like? Do we prefer to read a Bible that doesn’t challenge us – a sugar-coated Bible, a saccharine Bible? But what good is such a text in Chile, Moscow, Jerusalem, or when you’ve been raped or tortured, or when God seems a million miles away?

So, we don’t live in simple denial. There are texts of terror in the Bible! Genocide did take place, and God did perpetrate it. There is abuse of woman and minority groups in the Bible. And when we own up to the texts of terror, we see the Bible can speak into situations like Rwanda and Nigeria, enabling some ‘grown-up’ discussions.

4. The problem of literalism
I’m not sure this was the exact heading, but the point was raising questions of interpretation, particularly of biblical narrative and the reading and performance of it. Pete showed a clip from a video of a musical, ‘Terror Texts’, dramatising six texts of terror from the Bible which warn about reality, act as cautionary tales, showing the deep fundamentals of what a religious worldview is all about.

5. Lack of awe, humility and imagination
We look for answers rather than something which engages with us. The Bible is ‘mythic’ and ‘mysterious’. Let’s be prepared to say we don’t always understand the difficult texts. After all, we don’t want a buddy Jesus who says nothing to us in the face of the reality of evil.

In short… how to handle a text of terror? We need:

• Knowledge – of what the Bible says
• Perspective – know the whole picture
• Realism – about what these texts are
• Creative interpretation with theological depth
• Opening ourselves up to the mystery of the text

Krish Kandiah on the Bible: Tedious, Taboo and Toxic or Transforming, Treasured and True?

Notes from a seminar at the London launch of Biblefresh (30 March 2010):

Krish began by telling the story of going to a church to speak during the recent heavy snow in the UK, packing his car with supplies, and reversing out of the path only to drive over his rucksack containing his laptop – containing music, talks, powerpoint presentations, movie clips, etc. – all destroyed in the process. Krish commented (wryly) that he was due to give a talk on Psalm 119, and all he had was his Bible…

From 2 Timothy 3:10-17 comes the assurance that it’s the Scriptures the church needs. Of course, it’s okay to use technology, but it’s also apparent that the church has managed to witness to Jesus throughout the centuries with the Bible. We want to see the church change society, and we can only do that if we engage with the Scriptures.

Recent surveys suggest that many people no longer have confidence in the Scriptures. But not only have we lost confidence, we’ve also lost appetite. We have more Bibles than ever before, but seem to be reading them less and less.

Krish referred here to the video of a Linkin Park song containing the lyric ‘Let mercy come, and wash away what I’ve done’ – juxtaposing pictures of some people unable to eat because of lack of food and others unable to eat because of lack of appetite.

Biblefresh exists because of lack of confidence and lack of appetite, with the desire is for the whole church to re-engage with the Bible in 2011. 2011 is the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. Things will be happening in the wider culture, and it would be great if churches could cash in on the interest that will be generated.

So, Biblefresh is asking churches to become Biblefresh churches for 2011, and to make pledges in four areas:

• Bible reading – what can we do as a church to encourage people to read the Bible more? Krish referred here to the Weightwatchers mentality – the significance of getting weighed with others, being accountable to others. We often make Bible reading something ‘personal’ – and it is – but what if we read the Bible as a church – read the Bible through together in a year, say, and supplemented it with housegroup meetings or website material.

• Bible training – people who teach on the Bible have the potential to sow passion and apathy for the Bible. If we can help to raise up inspirational Bible teachers, that will make a difference in the church. We want the church to commit to training, for preachers to go on refresher courses. Of course, it’s not just preachers who teach Scripture. For Timothy, it was his mother and grandmother – so let’s think about training up the whole church to handle Scriptures better – youthworkers, Sunday school teachers, for instance, many of whom have had little input in handling the Bible. Let’s invest in training – by doing some teaching about the Bible in the church, going to a conference or festival, or attending a teaching series in a Bible college.

• Bible translation – in 2011, we’d love to have a partnership between churches in the UK and Burkina Faso… so we’re asking churches to send people home one Sunday, do a Bible hunt through the house, gather all the Bibles together, thank God for having the Scriptures, for all those who have made it possible, pray for those who do not have the Scriptures in their own language, and give £1 for every Bible in the house to help translate the Bible for people in Burkina Faso.

• Bible experience – can we provide people with an experience of the Bible which will make people want to read the Bible again? Krish referred here to the Lord of the Rings films which made people go back to the books. One church is taking their church away for a weekend to learn Mark’s gospel by acting it out. Saltmine are touring the country doing a production, From Eden to Eternity, presenting the story of the Bible in an hour. Krish also shared an idea from his own experience in church leadership, getting involved with local schools through leading assemblies on the parables of Jesus, combined with an art project and competition, displaying pieces in the church, and inviting parents to view the art at the church. The third year of running this project saw 1,600 pieces of art by children displayed and 800 parents coming through the church.

The church in the UK is divided in all sorts of ways – ethnically, denominationally, tribally. Biblefresh is an opportunity for one church to be reading one book together.

Biblefresh Event

Today (Tuesday 30 March 2010) I will be attending the London launch event for Biblefresh, being held at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. It’s a whole day, divided into three separate segments for three main audiences: church leaders, youth and children’s workers, and everyone else. There will be seminars throughout the day, and I may blog on some of these, if I’m able to do so.

Biblefresh is a partnership of over fifty agencies, festivals, colleges and denominations who are joining forces to help Christians and churches grow in their appetite and confidence in the Scriptures during 2011 (coinciding with the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible). The initiative plans to offer a host of ideas and resources to inspire and equip people, churches and local communities to read, study, meditate, listen, learn and live the Bible.

I have now posted several summaries, but the notes are rough and ready. Please excuse the inevitable typos, and I apologise to the contributors for any misrepresentation.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Jonathan R. Wilson on Evangelical Ecclesiologies

Jonathan R. Wilson, ‘Discerning the Spirit in the Ferment of Evangelical Ecclesiologies’ (Believers Church Conference 2008).

I recently stumbled across this helpful article by Jonathan R. Wilson, and was glad to do so. The heart of it looks at five movements, all of which are contributing to what he calls the ‘current ferment’ in evangelical ecclesiology.

The five movements are:

• Ancient-future
• Ekklesia project
• Emerging
• Missional
• New monasticism

He provides very good summaries of each of these, with some comments of evaluation, often connected to the ‘gospel’.

It’s available as an html file here, and downloadable as a Word document here.

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (50/50) – To the Glory of God

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the final one of the fifty emails.

In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human being,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:5-11

The lordship of Christ and the glory of God – there could hardly be a more appropriate place to end our tour through Scripture.

Actually, it’s where we began too – with Jesus as Lord of all in Colossians 1:15-20. Here as there, the biblical story of salvation – never far below the surface of Paul’s letters – rises to the top. Here as there, we are taken from the beginning of all things to the end of all things, an account in which Jesus is central. Here as there, it is this story of this one that shapes us – providing a pattern of thinking and living that is ours by dint of being ‘in Christ’.

And at the centre of the story stands the cross, Paul’s words here evoking the horror and shame associated with the public execution of criminals. And yet, it is the scandal of the cross that was central to Christ’s own determination to press on to Jerusalem, showing the true nature of God’s self-giving love. And it is the cross that is central to understanding what it means to be a disciple, to follow in his footsteps in serving others – his death not only bringing about redemption but providing a model for our lives.

Even then, the cross is not the end of the story, for God raised Jesus to a place of highest status and assigned him a name that reflects his vindication, with the result that all will confess him ‘Lord’ – Paul’s language here deliberately echoing Isaiah 45:22-23, with Christ receiving the glory God says is reserved for him alone. Beyond this, the confession would have carried political overtones, perhaps especially in Philippi, a colony of the Roman empire in which emperors were proclaimed as ‘Lord’. The church’s worship of Jesus as Lord not only qualifies the empire’s rule, but anticipates the confession that will be offered by the whole universe – the sovereignty of Christ over all things.

All of which has profound implications for the daily life of Christians in Philippi, and of Christians everywhere since, as we ‘work out’ our salvation, with God himself working in us ‘according to his good purpose’ (2:12-13), concretely applied in our relations with each other and our integrity of witness in the world, where confessing him as Lord means committing to a way of life marked by his lordship.

And all for the glory of God.

For further reflection and action:

1. Some scholars think this passage in Philippians might be an early hymn, perhaps even pre-dating the letter itself, and thus one of the oldest parts of the New Testament – a poetic celebration and confession of Jesus as Lord sung by groups of Christians, putting us in touch with very early expressions of faith in Christ. Reflect on the significance of this possibility, and turn it into an opportunity for praise.

2. Read Philippians 2:5-11 again, thinking about some of the suggestions for the background of the passage: (1) personified divine wisdom who leaves her dwelling-place with God to come into the world to be with humankind (Proverbs 8:22-31); (2) a contrast between Jesus and the first human beings in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3; cf. Romans 5:12-21) and the different choice made by Jesus, where equality with God was not something to be exploited for his own personal advantage; (3) parallels with the suffering servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, who humbled himself (53:4, 8), was obedient (53:7), and poured himself out to death (53:12). Which, if any, provides the best ‘fit’ with the passage, and why?

3. Even though there are political implications in calling Jesus ‘Lord’, the early Christians still submitted to Roman authority, understanding that the Emperor had lawful authority delegated by God (e.g., Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). If Jesus, not Caesar, was Lord, why did they act this way? If it is more fitting to describe the early Christians’ approach as ‘subversive’ rather than directly ‘counter-political’, how appropriate is it to follow their lead in our own context?

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F.H. Henry et al. on Evangelical Affirmations

Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F.H. Henry (eds.), Evangelical Affirmations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 535pp., ISBN 0310595312.

This volume consists of papers presented at the Convocation on Evangelical Affirmations at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in May 1989. I was googling the title of one of the essays, and stumbled across the entire collection available online. The table of contents with links to individual papers and responses can be found here.

I read the collection when it first came out, and benefited from doing so. The debate about the nature of evangelicalism has moved on in the last twenty years, but some of these remain useful discussions, in my opinion.

After the preface and foreword, the contents run as follows:

Chapter 1
The Evangelical Affirmations
Carl F.H. Henry

Chapter 2
Keynote Address
Charles Colson

Chapter 3
Who are the Evangelicals?
Carl F.H. Henry

Response to Carl F.H. Henry
Nathan O. Hatch

Questions for Discussion

Chapter 4
Evangelicals and the Way of Salvation: New Challenges to the Gospel – Universalism and Justification by Faith
James I. Packer

Response to James I. Packer
John Ankerberg and John Weldon

Questions for Discussion

Chapter 5
Word and World: Biblical Authority and the Quandary of Modernity
David F. Wells

Response to David F. Wells
Robert Sloan

Questions for Discussion

Chapter 6
Christian Personal Ethics
Kenneth S. Kantzer

Response to Kenneth S. Kantzer
Ralph D. Winter

Questions for Discussion

Chapter 7
Evangelicals and Social Ethics
Harold O.J. Brown

Response to Harold O.J. Brown
Myron S. Augsburger

Questions for Discussion

Chapter 8
Reflections on the Scope and Function of a Black Evangelical Theology
William H. Bentley and Ruth Lewis Bentley

Response to William H. Bentley and Ruth Lewis Bentley
H.O. Espinoza

Questions for Discussion

Chapter 9
Evangelicals, Ecumenism and the Church
Donald A. Carson

Response to Donald A. Carson
Joseph M. Stowell

Questions for Discussion

Chapter 10
Evangelicals and Modern Science
Robert C. Newman

First Response to Robert C. Newman
Pattle P.T. Pun

Second Response to Robert C. Newman
Wayne Frair

Chapter 11
Tribes People, Idiots or Citizens? Evangelicals, Religious Liberty and a Public Philosophy for the Public Square
Os Guinness

Response to Os Guinness
David P. Scaer

Questions for Discussion

Chapter 12
Afterword: Where Do We Go From Here?
Kenneth S. Kantzer

Friday, 26 March 2010

Michael Schluter on Capitalism (Again)

Michael Schluter, ‘Beyond Capitalism: Towards a Relational Economy’, Cambridge Papers 19, 1 (2010).

Having posted (here) on an earlier paper by Michael Schluter on capitalism, I thought I should mention that a follow-up paper – where he sets out an alternative – is now available.

Here is the summary:

‘Western societies face economic decline and political instability due in significant part to the five moral flaws of Capitalism and their severe social consequences. A radical new economic vision is urgently needed. This paper proposes a way forward through five strategies: embed relational values, strengthen household balance sheets, empower extended families, engage capital providers and entrust welfare to local communities. These changes are mutually reinforcing because they all reform economic life so as to strengthen personal bonds in the local and wider communities. They point towards the Christian vision of a “Relational economy”.’

The whole paper is available here.

Lausanne on World Faiths

The March 2010 issue of Lausanne: World Pulse is available, the topic this month being ‘World Faiths: A Primer for Evangelism’.

It contains short pieces on ‘The Uniqueness of Christ and Committed Pluralism’, engaging with people of faiths other than Christianity, and more besides.

There are links to individual articles from here, or a pdf of the full issue here.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Slipstream on Refreshing Politics

The latest Slipstream update has come through, with downloads available here.

They write:

‘With the UK General Election just around the corner, we’re taking this opportunity to look at Christian engagement with politics. The Evangelical Alliance has an elections website running which you’ll want to check out, with guides to organising hustings and “cheat-sheets” of party policies. We also have talks from Andy Flannagan, Zoe Dixon and Elizabeth Berridge on the topic of refreshing politics. Krish Kandiah has come out with a new book called Just Politics, and Nims Obunge urges us all to register to vote.’

Monday, 22 March 2010

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (49/50) – A World Remade

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the forty-ninth of the fifty emails, this one written by Margaret Killingray.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.’
Revelation 21:1-3

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating: for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy and its people as a delight.
Isaiah 65:17-18

A new creation, redeemed, renewed – not just heaven, ‘above the bright blue sky’, but heaven and earth combined, fused, the two dimensions of reality brought together in a final triumphant rebirth, a new creation that began with the resurrection. The very physicality of Jesus’ resurrection points us to the physicality of the new creation – because we believe in his resurrection, we also believe that we too will know ‘the resurrection of the body’ in the new heaven and the new earth. An earth purged of all evil, put right, glorified as Jesus was glorified at the transfiguration, washed clean of dirt and pollution, where God ‘will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more’ (Revelation 21:4). ‘No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime’ (Isaiah 65:20).

All that is beautiful and good will survive the purging fire of judgment – leaving a place we will know and people we will recognise, just as the disciples recognised Jesus, not always straightaway, but always in a burst of delight.

As sleep that follows fever,
As gold instead of grey,
As freedom after bondage,
As sunrise to the day;
As home to the traveller
And all he longs to see,
So is my Lord,
My living Lord,
So is my Lord to me.

Timothy Dudley-Smith wrote these words as a love song to the Lord that we can sing today. But they could equally well describe how it will be, when we are there with him in his new, fresh creation at the end of time. This is the sure and certain hope that is motivating us to bring the love, justice and joy of his kingdom into our world today.

Margaret Killingray

For further reflection and action:

1. After a long hard winter in northern parts of the world, the signs of spring delight the heart – the songs of busy birds, the flowering of early bulbs, and the growing warmth of the sun. Rejoice in it all, and know that the Lord, who filled this damaged and troubled world with such beauty and joy in creation, will recreate a new world both reassuringly familiar and astonishingly different.

2. The Song of Songs is, for many people, a surprising book to find in the Bible – a lyrical song in praise of human love, very physical, very sexual, with its love analogies drawn from the natural world around them, wine and perfume, gold and silver, springtime and blossom, leaping gazelles. Here again the Bible is giving us pointers, in our experience of human love and longing, to the redeemed and perfect creation God has prepared for those who love him. Read it and praise him.

3. This world will be purged in the fires of judgment. The Bible speaks of this from Genesis to Revelation. The vision of a new heaven and a new earth should bring us to our knees before the cross, the terrible cost of full redemption.

Forthcoming James Davison Hunter Book: To Change the World (2)

James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 368pp., ISBN 9780199730803.

Justin Taylor is blogging his way through this book (out in the USA, but not yet in the UK), starting here. I suspect he will not be the only one to do so.

He also draws attention to a website – Faithful Presence – ‘created to perpetuate a conversation that has already started around this book by those taken by its argument’, providing ‘resources and connections for those who seek to live faithfully present in our generation’.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Forthcoming James Davison Hunter Book: To Change the World (1)

James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 368pp., ISBN 9780199730803.

Coming with endorsements from Tim Keller, Robert Bellah, Charles Taylor, and Nicholas Wolterstorff, this book is already being described as ‘one of the most important books published in 2010’ (see, for example, the earlier heads-up by Justin Taylor at Between Two Worlds, where the comments posted there give some early indications as to how some sectors may respond to the book) – and it’s not even been published yet.

The book can be found on the publisher’s UK website here, but there is more information on the US website here. The Amazon link allows a peak inside the book here.

The volume itself is divided into three main ‘essays’, each containing several chapters, as follows:

Essay One
Christianity and World-Changing

1. Christian Faith and the Task of World-Changing
2. Culture: The Common View
3. The Failure of the Common View
4. An Alternative View of Culture and Cultural Change in Eleven Propositions
5. Evidence in History
6. The Cultural Economy of American Christianity
7. For and Against the Mandate of Creation

Essay Two
Rethinking Power

1. The Problem of Power
2. Power and Politics in American Culture
3. The Christian Right
4. The Christian Left
5. The Neo-Anabaptists
6. Illusion, Irony, and Tragedy
7. Rethinking Power: Theological Reflections

Essay Three
Toward a New City Commons: Reflections on a Theology of Faithful Presence

1. The Challenge of Faithfulness
2. Old Cultural Wineskins
3. The Groundwork for an Alternative Way
4. Toward a Theology of Faithful Presence
5. The Burden of Leadership: A Theology of Faithful Presence in Practice
6. Toward a New City Commons

Here is the description of the book from the publishers:

‘The call to make the world a better place is inherent in the Christian belief and practice. But why have efforts to change the world by Christians so often failed or gone tragically awry? And how might Christians in the 21st century live in ways that have integrity with their traditions and are more truly transformative? In To Change the World, James Davison Hunter offers persuasive – and provocative – answers to these questions.

Hunter begins with a penetrating appraisal of the most popular models of world-changing among Christians today, highlighting the ways they are inherently flawed and therefore incapable of generating the change to which they aspire. Because change implies power, all Christian eventually embrace strategies of political engagement. Hunter offers a trenchant critique of the political theologies of the Christian Right and Left and the Neo-Anabaptists, taking on many respected leaders, from Charles Colson to Jim Wallis and Stanley Hauerwas. Hunter argues that all too often these political theologies worsen the very problems they are designed to solve. What is really needed is a different paradigm of Christian engagement with the world, one that Hunter calls “faithful presence” – an ideal of Christian practice that is not only individual but institutional; a model that plays out not only in all relationships but in our work and all spheres of social life. He offers real-life examples, large and small, of what can be accomplished through the practice of “faithful presence.” Such practices will be more fruitful, Hunter argues, more exemplary, and more deeply transfiguring than any more overtly ambitious attempts can ever be.

Written with keen insight, deep faith, and profound historical grasp, To Change the World will forever change the way Christians view and talk about their role in the modern world.’

Friday, 19 March 2010

Joel B. Green and Max Turner on Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology

Joel B. Green and Max Turner (eds.), Between the Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 256pp., ISBN 9780802845412.

[A version of the following review was first published on London School of Theology’s website in February 2000. It was the heraldic volume to the then forthcoming ‘Two Horizons’ series of commentaries, published by Eerdmans. It’s over ten years old now, but I think many of the essays remain significant early forays into the area of theological interpretation which, of course, has grown exponentially in the time since then.]

The review began by talking at some length about the gap in the academy between ‘Scripture’ and ‘doctrine’, and then went on to note that…

Joel B. Green and Max Turner are among a significant and growing number of scholars who are actively working on ways of bridging the gap, ‘spanning New Testament studies and Systematic Theology’ – as the subtitle of this collection of essays indicates.

In fact, the volume is designed to prepare the way for a ‘Two Horizons’ commentary series, published by Eerdmans and overseen by the two editors, which will seek to help readers ‘(1) to understand individual books theologically in their ancient context and (2) to be able to interpret them competently into the theological contexts of the turn of the twenty-first century’. If the series does the job well, it will succeed in filling a long-standing gap in biblical and theological reflection. So be it.

Some of the prospective commentary writers contribute essays to the current collection, and the volume as a whole explores several different and vital issues:

• Appropriate methodology and models of interdisciplinarity (Joel B. Green).
• The importance of the historical character of biblical texts and ‘behind the text’ issues in theology, as compared with ‘in the text’ and ‘in front of the text’ issues (Max Turner).
• Authorial intention and its theological relationship to divine intention in Scripture (in different ways, Max Turner and Stephen E. Fowl).
• How different commitments of faith shape interpretation and theology, and how we do justice to them in self-conscious and self-critical ways (Robert W. Wall and, with a test-case from a Pentecostal perspective, John Christopher Thomas).
• The methodological issues involved in developing theology from narrative texts (John Goldingay).
• The theological role of the two testament canon in theology (Steve Motyer).
• The question of multiple and competing voices in the canon (Robert W. Wall).
• The impact that tradition and an understanding of biblical authority has for Christian theology (Trevor Hart).
• A sample essay of how the project might be carried out on a given text (N.T. Wright on Galatians).

Some will doubtless complain that consideration of the Old Testament is significant by its absence; others will point out that most of the contributors are New Testament specialists and the project is still being shaped with their specific concerns in mind. Both criticisms are ultimately unfair and, in any case, only serve to invite Old Testament specialists and theologians themselves to get involved in the dialogue. As indeed they are doing.

At a time when increasing numbers of biblical scholars – both Old and New Testament – are becoming aware of the need for theological reflection, and when theologians are likewise looking for more engagement with the fruit of biblical studies, this collection (and the commentary series it heralds) calls all students of God’s word to move, with integrity and humility, from the biblical text through biblical theology to a theological formulation in a way which will speak powerfully to the contemporary church and world.

Brian D. Russell on Books on the Psalms

Brian D. Russell, ‘Reading the Psalter: A Bibliographic Review’, Catalyst 34, 1 (2007).

This is a short, helpful piece which reviews key resources (since about the mid-1980s) on the interpretation of the Psalms.

Russell notes that two main avenues for reading the Psalms have emerged over the last 20 years or so: (1) the shape of the final form of the Psalter as a whole, and (2) the function of lament psalms in the Psalter and in the life of the church.

In the first case, he refers to Gerald H. Wilson’s The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (1985), which argues for an intentionality in the organisation of the Psalms such that it could be read in its final form as a book, and that the Psalter itself invites us to read it as such.

Books I-III of the Psalms (1-89) are dominated by laments, mostly grouped in terms of authors mentioned in the headings, and with royal psalms (e.g., 2, 72, 89) inserted at key places, pointing to the theme of the rise and failure of the Davidic monarchy.

Books IV-V (Psalms 90-150) serve as an answer for Israel in the plight of exile and loss of the monarchy with the reality of the Lord as the true king, and exhorting Israel to trust and obedience. The books are also dominated with the theme of God’s covenant love.

In the second case – the function of lament – Russell refers to the work of Walter Brueggemann and his organisation of the Psalms around three core types: psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, psalms of reorientation. The lament psalms represent the disorienting level in the faith of Israel, presenting a direct challenge ‘to the safe and predictable worldview envisioned in the psalms of orientation’ (e.g., Torah psalms, creation hymns, wisdom psalms), a disequilibrium which ‘resolves into a new world of deep faith articulated in the psalms of reorientation’ (e.g., thanksgiving psalms, royal psalms, songs of confidence, praise hymns).

Brueggemann has also written of ‘the costly loss of lament’, outlining the danger of ignoring lament in the church, and the general absence of lament from hymns and lectionary readings.

This is how Russell summarises it:

‘When the community of faith loses its ability to lament, it risks two profound losses theologically. First, the community loses the opportunity for a genuine covenant relationship with God. Apart from the opportunity for complaint and challenge present in lament, worshippers are reduced to “yes” men and women. Second, when the community of faith loses the will or capacity to lament, it stifles its own ability to struggle with the questions of God’s justice in the face of the injustices of life. In both cases, the psalms of lament model for the community of faith direct dialogue with God over questions of justice that are based on a genuine relationship between worshipper and God.’

Russell also mentions some introductions to the Psalter, some commentaries, and preaching and teaching guides.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

William H. Willimon on Too Much Practice

William H. Willimon, ‘Too Much Practice: Second Thoughts on a Theological Movement’, Christian Century (9 March 2010).

Here’s a brief article which will probably generate a fair bit of interest. I try to summarise the gist here but mostly use Willimon’s own words as I do so.

In short, according to Willimon, practice has become ‘another way to avoid God’.

Close to the start, he writes:

‘While I still believe just about everything Stanley Hauerwas and I said in [Resident Aliens], I’ve come to have a few regrets.’

He continues:

‘In Resident Aliens we stressed that Christianity is a communal tradition that gives us the skills, habits and practices that enable us truthfully to know the world in the way of Christ and subversively to resist the toxic pressures of the world’s godlessness.’

He notes that they cited Alasdair MacIntyre’s well-worn definition of a practice as:

‘any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the results that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.’

[Yes… most normal people need to read it at least twice…]

And then he says:

‘Note anything missing in MacIntyre’s thick definition of “practice”? God.’

He reckons that he and Hauerwas ‘gave a strong shove’ to the idea that ‘Christianity is best defined as a “socially established cooperative human activity” rather than as a set of beliefs or a type of experience’, and that he bears ‘some responsibility for the now popular conviction that Christianity is a practice and that Christians are best described as people who have adopted certain practices’.

So, he shares why he is now having ‘grave doubts about describing Christian spirituality as a practice’.

For starters, ‘practice’ has become a term to speak about religion in general, such that ‘it is acceptable to speak of Christianity as a practice in company who would not tolerate a conversation about “Jesus Christ as Lord”’, which ‘should tip us off to some of the theological hazards of this approach’.

He notes that Kierkegaard ‘attacked the idea that one becomes a Christian simply by accepting intellectually some supposedly rational set of arguments for the validity of Christianity’, that ‘Christ calls people not to admiration but to discipleship’. Even so, Kierkegaard’s ‘practical Christianity is based on the “infinite qualitative distinction” between God and humanity that is seen in Jesus Christ’, whereas ‘much contemporary talk about practice appears to be based on certain vague anthropological (rather than theological) assertions about the way human beings behave – such as that our lives go better when we inculcate certain allegedly salubrious habits like Sabbath-keeping, prayer, meditation and hospitality’. For Kierkegaard, however, ‘practices are those ways that one must live if one is convinced that Jesus Christ is the full revelation of God’.

Willimon thus sees the ‘possible error of construing Christianity primarily as a practice’ in ‘the propensity of books on Christian practice to describe the Christian faith in general’, noting that ‘when Christianity is conceived as a practice, a set of paths toward God which some people have found helpful but which lead in much the same direction as every other path, then Christianity has been misconstrued’.

He uses sabbath-keeping as an example, pointing out the danger of commending sabbath ‘apart from the story of the salvation and sustenance of Israel as God’s people’.

He avers that the God Karen Armstrong makes the case for (in her The Case for God) ‘is the innocuous god that most North Americans already believe in’, that ‘by defining religion as “a practical discipline” – that is, a set of practices – advocates like Armstrong seem to feel that they can sidestep the tough theological decision required when one is confronted with the question, “Is this god whom you are following actually God or not?”’

‘My worry is that attention to practices deflects our attention from the living God.’

He also sees Pelagianism in the shadows here – ‘the idea that we must do something for God before God will do anything for us, the concept that my relationship with God is sustained by my actions or feelings or inclinations, the notion that “religion” is something I do rather than God’s effect upon me’.

Drawing inspiration from John Wesley, he writes that ‘worship’s object determines the nature of worship’.

‘We’re always in danger of reducing Christianity to a matter of our experience. The true God can never be known through our practices but comes to us only as a gift of God, only as revelation… Thank God we don’t have to devise a set of practices to take time for God; in Jesus Christ, God takes us.’

Unusual personal reflection coming up: bravo, Willimon, and thank you!

Aspects of Theological Interpretation 11

[This is the eleventh of twelve posts outlining a number of streams in the current interest in theological interpretation, paying particular attention to recent treatments. For earlier introductions to theological interpretation, see here, here, and here.]

#1 – Its uneasy relationship with historical criticism

#2 – Its disputed overlap with biblical theology

#3 – Its natural affinity with precritical interpretation

#4 – Its noteworthy exemplar in Karl Barth

#5 – Its relative comfort with multiple interpretations

#6 – Its significant emphasis on the role of the community of faith

#7 – Its contested dependence on ‘general’ hermeneutics

#8. Its careful attention to the role of the canon and typology

#9. Its renewed reflection on the doctrine of Scripture

#10. Its increasing interest in reception history

#11. Its undeveloped potential for engaging global concerns and the social locations of interpreters

This is connected to the previous point in this series (regarding the increasing significance attached to reception of the text) where the cultural context and social location of the interpreter is important in the framing of theological discourse.

[For a helpful overview, see: Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 157-86. See also Walter Brueggemann, ‘The Re-Emergence of Scripture: Post-Liberalism’, in Paul Ballard and Stephen R. Holmes (eds.), The Bible in Pastoral Practice: Readings in the Place and Function of Scripture in the Church, Using the Bible in Pastoral Practice Series (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005), 153-73, esp. 164-70, who discusses the contextual reading of the Bible with postliberal approaches to Scripture, which emphasises ‘pragmatic’ interpretation in and for particular faith communities (171).]

Here is a basic recognition that where theological interpretation is carried out, it is done so in a variety of contexts.

[Stephen E. Fowl, ‘Introduction’, in Stephen E. Fowl (ed.), The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Classic and Contemporary Readings, Blackwell Readings in Modern Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), xii-xxx, here xx, and see the African-American and feminist readings of biblical passages in the essays that follow Fowl’s Introduction.]

Two of the main driving elements are postcolonial theory and the rise of Pentecostalism in the ‘south’, with its belief in supernatural revelation.

[Philip Jenkins, The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Fernando F. Segovia, Decolonizing Biblical Studies: A View from the Margins (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2000); R.S. Sugirtharajah, The Bible and the Third World: Precolonial, Colonial and Postcolonial Encounters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).]

It is a reminder that those interested in theological interpretation do not necessarily endorse a single approach to the text (say, historical criticism), that even so-called ‘academic’ exegesis takes place in particular contexts, and that ‘by attending to those contexts (in the act of interpretation itself) we have the possibility of maintaining some awareness of our own prejudices which may condition or distort reading’.

[Christopher Rowland and Jonathan Roberts, The Bible for Sinners: Interpretation in the Present Time (London: SPCK, 2008), 43.]

The role of the believing community in biblical interpretation is being explored in ‘local’ UK contexts.

[On which see, e.g., Andrew Rogers, ‘Reading Scripture in Congregations: Towards an Ordinary Hermeneutics’, in Andrew Walker and Luke Bretherton (eds.), Remembering Our Future: Explorations in Deep Church (Bletchley: Paternoster, 2007), 81-107, and John B. Thomson, ‘Time for Church? Evangelicals, Scripture and Conversational Hermeneutics’, Anvil 21, 4 (2004), 245-57; Andrew Village, The Bible and Lay People: An Empirical Approach to Ordinary Hermeneutics (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).]

Encounters 32 (2010) on Christianity and World Religions

This issue of Encounters from Redcliffe College explores the relationship of Christianity with other world religions, suggesting that ‘the future of Christianity will depend in part on her ability to engage meaningfully and missionally with the growing religious plurality of our world’.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (48/50) – The Reunification of All Things: United We Stand, United We End

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the forty-eighth of the fifty emails.

With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment – to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ… His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross… Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace… until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Ephesians 1:8-10; 2:15-16; 4:3, 13

In the breathtaking opening of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul outlines the broad sweep of God’s plan of salvation set in place before the foundation of the world. Even as he catalogues the amazing blessings we enjoy in the here and now, he still looks forward to the moment when ‘the times reach their fulfillment’, when all things will be summed up – gathered together under one head – Christ, the one in whom God will restore harmony to the cosmos.

And as the letter goes on, it becomes clear that the ultimate unity of all things – to be fully displayed in Christ – has already had its beginning in the church.

Though dead in sin, enslaved by forces of evil, and deserving of wrath, we have been made alive with Christ – only because of God’s love and only through faith (2:1-10). But the death which brings together God and humanity also unites formerly alienated people, as Jews and Gentiles are made into ‘one new humanity’, reconciled through the cross – both given access to the Father, both citizens of the heavenly temple indwelt by the Spirit, both declaring that defeat of the ‘powers’ is now certain, both called on to display the wisdom of God (2:11-3:13).

So, far from being a passive spectator in this cosmic drama, the church is to live a life worthy of her calling, to display the unity of the Spirit, to grow together in Christ as a unified body, to reflect to the world God’s ultimate plan for the universe, testifying to a comprehensive, all-embracing salvation in lives turned around.

While the vision is cosmic and grand, the outworking is local and specific as we witness to the reconciliation of all things in our everyday existence in particular locations, from Basildon to Bangalore. In doing so, we demonstrate a whole new way of living – before God and with others, consistent with our new humanity – starting with where we find ourselves everyday, with the choices we make everyday, with the people we live with everyday, with our families and in our jobs – as very ‘ordinary’ people through whom God is present to the world.

For further reflection and action:

1. Paul makes it clear in Ephesians that the church has been included from the outset not as a ‘supplement’ to God’s plan but as an essential ingredient in his scheme for the universe. How often do we think of the church this way, and what difference might it make to our thinking and practice if we did so?

2. How do we become ‘ministers of reconciliation’, demonstrating the restoration the gospel brings to every area of life? Read Ephesians 4-6, and reflect on how God’s design for reconciled lives works out on the ground and in relationship with others.

3. Buy or borrow – and read – a copy of Eugene Peterson, Practise Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2010), which looks at the theme of ‘growing up in Christ’ in Ephesians.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Jonathan Chaplin on How Christians Should Vote in 2010

Jonathan Chaplin, ‘How Should Christians Vote in 2010?’, Ethics in Brief 15, 2 (2010).

This is a helpful, short piece from Jonathan Chaplin, making it clear from the start that the question is not ‘who should Christians vote for in 2010?’, but ‘how can Christians prepare to vote as Christians in 2010?’

He notes in the Introduction that the article proceeds from four assumptions:

(1) that ‘all Christians should strive to allow their political thinking and acting to express their Christian discipleship just as in any other part of their lives’, seeking the welfare of the city.

(2) that ‘such striving is best done, not in solitary acts of private judgment accountable to no-one, but in open, respectful, rigorous and prayerful deliberation in the community of believers’.

(3) that ‘in engaging in that task of corporate discernment we do not have to start from scratch’, but are able to ‘draw on the rich legacy of Christian political wisdom’.

(4) that ‘when Christians reach considered judgments on the task of government, they need to make their contributions within the normal channels of public democratic debate and action’, working for the common good of the whole nation, not just our own interests.

W.R. Shenk on the Gospel

W.R. Shenk, ‘Gospel’, in William A. Dyrness and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen (eds.), Global Dictionary of Theology: A Resource for the Worldwide Church (Nottingham: IVP, 2008), 356-58.

‘The gospel is the dynamic center of the biblical narrative, the heart of the Christian faith. The term means to announce good news as well as the content of the good news, that is, God’s redemptive action in Jesus Christ for the salvation of humankind’ (356).

The Old Testament
Isaiah 40-66 combines the themes of eschatological expectation, the ingathering of Gentiles, and the new order of shalom, all pointing to the coming messianic age. The chapters speak of the herald from Zion who will proclaim to the whole world God’s universal victory over rebellion and sin (Isaiah 52:7).

The New Testament
In Mark 1:15, Jesus announces the ‘good news’ of the in-breaking reign of God. He proclaims this in word and deed. Paul summarises the content of the gospel in Romans 1:1-6 (linking Christ with Old Testament prophecies, Jesus’ resurrection and lordship) and 1 Corinthians 15:1-28 (emphasising the historical nature of events that make up the gospel narrative).

The Gospel and Human Culture
‘Every person receives the gospel through a particular culture’ (357). The combination in modern culture of the separation between fact and value, and the pietist-evangelical awakening led to a twofold reductionism: ‘(1) the gospel was interpreted primarily in terms of personal salvation and preparation for heaven, and (2) it was an evangelistic formula’ (358). But, for Jesus, ‘personal salvation was not to be separated from the larger movement of the kingdom of God’, with disciples ‘called to live out God’s righteousness/justice’ (358). By the 1970s, a movement was underway to recover the message of the whole gospel.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Global Dictionary of Theology: A Resource for the Worldwide Church

William A. Dyrness and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen (eds.), Global Dictionary of Theology: A Resource for the Worldwide Church (Nottingham: IVP, 2008), xiv + 996pp., ISBN 9781844743506.

I’ve dipped in and out of this dictionary over the last year or so, and enjoyed its different take on a number of items.

It was conceived ‘to provide a general overview of theological reflection and practice around the world’ from a self-conscious evangelical and ecumenical perspective (xiii). It has come about through a recognition that Christianity can no longer be exclusively identified as a western religion, and that theology needs to take account of this, ‘negotiating differences and seeking new ways of framing questions and answers’ (ix-x).

To this end, the editors, combined with the expertise and experience of Juan Francisco Martinez (Hispanic) and Simon Chan (Asian), have pulled together 250 articles from over 100 international contributors.

They begin their Introduction by talking about the implicit claim to universalism in different types of theology, each one insisting that ‘this is the way theology ought to be done’ (vii). Instead, they say:

‘Our only claim is that theology is by nature contextual’, that trinitarian theology carried out by, say, Colin Gunton (in his context), is no less neutral than that carried out by the Tanzanian Roman Catholic Charles Nyamiti (in his context) (viii).

Given the nature of the globalising world, one of the ways forward in theology is to acknowledge the diversity of Christian difference:

‘We would argue that such an approach is necessary today. In the light of religious resurgence, complex flows of migrants, capital and technology, and the dramatic growth of Christianity in some areas and its retraction in others, we believe we are in the midst of a massive re-formation of the Christian church at the global level’ (ix).

There are entries on standard areas of theology (Trinity, ecclesiology, eschatology, etc.), some of these quite lengthy and by multiple authors, reflecting different contexts. Although there are no entries on individual theologians (except that such contributions could be tracked through the full index at the back of the volume), the dictionary carries entries on themes, country and area studies, movements and traditions, as well as topics not normally covered in theological dictionaries, such as ‘terrorism’ and ‘children at risk’.

I’m glad to have this resource near my desk.

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (47/50) – The Resurrection of the Dead: Soul or Body?

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the forty-seventh of the fifty emails, this one written by Helen Parry.

The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
1 Corinthians 15:42-44

As we have followed God’s unfolding plan for the human race, we are now in the final act.

Considerable confusion surrounds the Christian concept of eternal life. This goes right back to the culture prevalent at the time of the early church. It is commonly thought that Christians believe in the ‘immortality of the soul’. This was, of course, a Greek concept, put forward for example by Plato in his Dialogue Phaedo, in which he contrasts the pre-existent immortal soul with the corruptible human body. It is probable that Hellenistic converts held this dualistic belief. Paul, however, does not accept this theory. ‘The perishable’, he wrote (1 Corinthians 15:53), ‘must clothe itself with (or put on) the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality’.

No, the Bible teaches not the immortality of the soul, but the resurrection of the body. As long as we think of an immaterial, spiritual ‘heaven’, we find it hard to conceive of what Tom Wright, in his masterly book Surprised by Hope, describes as ‘a new mode of physicality’. But if, along with the apostle Paul, we conceive of Christ’s return as inaugurating not only a new heaven but a new earth, this physicality makes perfectly good sense.

Wright points out that the contrasting adjectives in verse 44 are misleadingly translated as ‘natural’ or ‘physical’, and ‘spiritual’. Rather, he says, the contrast is between the present body, which is ‘animated’ by the normal human soul, and the future body, which is animated by ‘God’s breath of new life’.

This understanding astonishingly liberates us from two of our great dilemmas about the future life: first, Shall we be able to recognise each other? And second, Will all my present physical characteristics, many of which seem to me unattractive, be there for all to see throughout eternity? Jesus is described as ‘the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep’ (15:20). So as we look at his resurrection body we get a glimpse of what it may be like for us: the individual essence of each of us ‘in beauty glorified’, recognisable yet transformed.

In the meantime, may we seek to look at our brothers and sisters in Christ through the eyes of the future, seeing them, by faith, in their ultimate beauty?

Helen Parry

For further reflection and action:

1. How far are your own beliefs about life after death consistent with each other? How far are they consistent with Scripture?

2. How may our understanding of the resurrection body shape our attitude to our present bodies? Can we learn to thank God for the bodies he has given us, as well as praising him for what they will be?

3. May we seek in the large and small areas of our lives to make the world a better place, in preparation for the physical return of Jesus?

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Mark L. Bailey on the Kingdom in Matthew 13

Mark L. Bailey, The Doctrine of the Kingdom in Matthew 13’, Bibliotheca Sacra 156 (1999), 443-51.

Mark Bailey concludes his last article in a series of eight on Matthew 13 with a series of helpful ‘applicational principles’ (though not all of them to be given equal weight, in my opinion):

1. Not everyone will respond to the message of the kingdom, and not all who do respond are equally fruitful.

2. Satan is personally active in seeking to prevent people from receiving the message of God’s kingdom.

3. Both external pressures and internal distractions hinder the proper appropriation of the Word of God.

4. God desires that people hear, understand, and apply the truth of His Word in order to be fruitful for Him.

5. The hearers of the Word are at least partially responsible for the level of productivity in their lives.

6. Jesus’ followers should realize that Satan sends his representatives into the world to masquerade as sons of the kingdom to disrupt and hinder the work of Christ.

7. Believers need to be realistic about the presence of hypocrites, but believers should not assume the role reserved for Jesus by seeking to judge others.

8. Servants of the Lord need to wait patiently for Jesus to judge and separate the wicked from the righteous.

9. People should decide to be followers of Christ in light of the impending judgment which will determine their eternal destiny.

10. God has promised the righteous a glorious future in the shared reign of the Son and the Father in the next phase of the kingdom, Jesus’ rule on earth.

11. The success of God’s work cannot be fully evaluated until the time of the judgment.

12. Messiah has come in humility and will one day reign in sovereignty.

13. The work of the Spirit authenticates the ministry of Jesus Christ.

14. Jesus’ disciples need to depend on the invisible yet powerfully transforming work of the Holy Spirit.

15. The kingdom of heaven should be the highest priority of anyone who finds it.

16. No sacrifice is too great in light of the value of the kingdom.

17. The joy of participating in the kingdom should motivate Jesus’ followers to make whatever sacrifice is necessary.

18. Discipleship calls for wholehearted dedication to God’s kingdom purposes.

19. Participation in God’s kingdom is not restricted to any single race.

20. Jesus places a high priority on evangelism to all classes and cultures.

21. The need to evangelize the world is motivated by the reality of future judgment.

22. God’s judgment will be based on inner character rather than cultural backgrounds.

Jonathan T. Pennington on Matthew 13

Jonathan T. Pennington, ‘Matthew 13 and the Function of the Parables in the First Gospel’, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 13.3 (2009), 12-20.

Before looking more specifically at Matthew 13 itself, Pennington considers the place of Jesus’ parables in his ministry more generally. He draws here on the work of N.T. Wright, noting that ‘several of Jesus’ parables are quite close to apocalyptic discourse, with a strange story interpreted so that its secret symbols may be understood by those with ears to hear’. The disciples ‘play the role of seers with Jesus as both revealer and interpreter of the mystery. And inevitably, this mystery is about the story of Israel and God’s coming work and judgment’ (13).

‘Jesus’ parables are not merely ways of communicating information about the coming kingdom but much more radically, they are a retelling and retooling of the very story of the OT, now centered and consummated in Jesus himself… The parables are not simply teaching or informing or making a moral or religious point. They are instead the vehicle for the paradoxical and dangerous campaign which Jesus was undertaking, namely a redefinition of the people of God and a reorientation of the grand story of Israel’s hope’ (13).

This is important for Matthew 13 too, where the separation at the end-time harvest ‘is not based on ethnic Israel identity but faith-response in Jesus’ (13).

Matthew 13 is a ‘lodestar’ for understanding parables in Matthew, because it is one of Matthew’s five major blocks of teaching, it stands apart from the other discourses in containing only parables, it contains two explicit quotations from the Old Testament related to why Jesus teaches in parables, and it is placed at a crucial turning point in the narrative (see 14).

The discourse itself is intricately structured. There are seven parables, leading off with the four soils (13:1-9). After a conversation with the disciples on why Jesus speaks in parables, containing a quotation from the Old Testament (13:10-17), comes an explanation of the four soils (13:18-23).

Then, the remaining parables come in two sets of three. The longish parable of the wheat and the weeds (13:24-30) is followed by two shorter parables (mustard seed, leaven, 13:31-33). With 13:34 comes a transition in the chapter and another quotation from the Old Testament (13:35), after which comes an explanation of the wheat and the weeds (13:36-43). These are parables of ‘spreading or growth’ (15).

The next three parables are in reverse to what has gone before, with two shorter ones (treasure, pearl, 13:44-46) followed by a longer one of the net with an explanation (13:47-50).

The first four parables have a ‘farming’ theme, while the last three have a ‘merchant/business’ theme (15). The second and the seventh parables both ‘describe a mixed group of good and bad’ (16), both are explained by Jesus, and both are about separation at the end of the age.

Pennington holds that three threads run through the entire chapter: the sower, the secret, and the separation (see 16-18).

The sower
It is apparent that the first parable ‘is not primarily an exhortation to be fruit-bearing ourselves but is rather an explanation of the mixed reception to Jesus’ kingdom message’ (16). The parable describes what happens when the seed is sown.

The secret
The disciples do not know what to make of the parable of the sower (13:10), and Jesus’ answer ‘is as shocking as his parable is vague’, for he is teaching in parables ‘not to reveal the truth of God to all, but to conceal’ (17).

‘So, even though our tendency in Christian understanding is to think of Jesus’ parables as evidence of his down-to-earth, relating-to-the-people teaching style, in reality they are just the opposite.’ The shift from the plain style in the Sermon on the Mount to parabolic teaching comes after the opposition in chapter 12, when Jesus ‘changes his teaching style to this prophetic double-functioning mode so that he can simultaneously judge and proclaim’ (17).

The separation
Jesus’ parables themselves separate those with understanding from those without, a theme which ‘goes through all three of the major parables here in chapter 13’ (17). ‘The Great Separation is already occurring according to how one responds to Jesus and his message. All who follow Jesus are the holy remnant whom God has graciously preserved even in the midst of His justified judgment’ (18).


‘Jesus’ parabolic teaching is a sowing of the Word in the world. This Word from God is simultaneously a message of judgment on the unbelieving and a word of hope and blessing for the believing. The Word both reveals and conceals and in the process it performs a great separation of all people (cf. Heb 4:12), based on their response to the Son, the Incarnate Word’ (18).

Catalyst 36, 2 (2010)

The latest issue of Catalyst – 36, 2 (2010) – is now online, containing the following essays:

Darrell Bock
Jesus in the Apocryphal Gospels

Joel B. Green
Taking Stock of the Reign of God

Elaine A. Heath
What Would Phoebe Do?

Frederick J. Long
Building a New Testament Library: Romans–Ephesians

Henry H. Knight III
Consider Wesley