Friday 30 January 2015

Not Without God

I contributed this week’s ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

‘If we held 1 minute of silence for every victim of the Holocaust then we would be silent for eleven and a half years.’ So tweeted @therealbanksy earlier this week on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Although powerfully distressing in its own way, others understandably took considerably more space than 117 characters to unfold the horrors of what took place, with survivors urging that the tragedy never be forgotten.

Not for the first time are we challenged to ask how millions of men, women, and children were murdered with planned and systematic efficiency. Nor does what has taken place in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Syria and elsewhere leave us hopeful that we have moved on. We are probably not surprised that the involvement of ‘religious’ people in what happened at Auschwitz has been enough to rid some people of any kind of belief in a good God.

Indeed, there are some experiences of evil before which we defend our faith only with deep sensitivity. We listen with deference to those like Elie Wiesel who speak for the victims. In Night, an account of his experience in concentration camps, Wiesel describes in painful and graphic detail his first viewing of a hanging, with the haunting question of the man behind him, ‘Where is God now?’.

And yet, in a television interview years later, Wiesel affirmed: ‘For a Jew to believe in God is good. For a Jew to protest against God is still good. But simply to ignore God, that is not good. Anger, yes. Protest, yes. Affirmation, yes. But indifference to God, no. You can be a Jew with God; you can be a Jew against God; but not without God.’ For Wiesel, the consequences of leaving God out of the Holocaust are worse than keeping him in.

From a Christian perspective, it’s right to have a problem with evil. It’s an alien intrusion into God’s good world. But the gospel allows us to understand the gravity of evil, our complicity in it, and God’s determination to deal with it. And for Christians, God’s wisdom and power are seen supremely in the death of Jesus, who died to destroy the power of sin and death, and was raised as the firstfruits of a new creation. There is a hope of unending joy for the earth – but not without God.

Thursday 22 January 2015

Thomas Schreiner on Hebrews

In an earlier post, I drew attention to the launch this year of ‘Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation’, a new 40-volume commentary series covering the Old and New Testaments, published by B&H.

Thomas R. Schreiner serves as one of the editors of the series, and there is an interview with him here, in which he is asked what will set this series apart. He responds:

‘What sets it apart is conveyed in the title for the series. The series is distinct in its focus on the biblical theology of each book. We have many commentaries that do an excellent job of unpacking the structure of the book being studied. They are also excellent in explaining the contribution of each verse. The BTCP series also explains each verse, but it does something different as well. The role each book plays in the whole canon of scripture is explored. Hence, the function of the particular book in relation to the whole canon is unpacked. Also, the major themes of the book in question are set forth. In a commentary, one can’t pull the threads of a theme together since we have verse-by-verse exposition, but in our series the major themes are explicated for readers.’

The first volume by Schreiner on Hebrews is due to be published in February, and there is a pdf sample of it here.

Journal of Missional Practice (Winter 2015)

The Winter 2015 edition – devoted to ‘Experiment and Innovation’ – has just been posted, containing (along with a book review and some stories) an editorial by Martin Robinson and Alan Roxburgh, and two main articles:

Martin Robinson and Alan Roxburgh
Editorial: Responding to the New West
Lesslie Newbigin’s sharp critique of western culture, offered in a relatively brief but incisively penetrating publication, The Other Side of 1984, came as a shock to many who read it for the first time in the middle of the 1980s. He seemed to encapsulate what many had been feeling but had been unable to articulate.

Paul Weston
Lesslie Newbigin – Looking Forward in Retrospect
Sixteen years after the death of missionary bishop Lesslie Newbigin, Paul Weston offers a retrospective of his contribution to missionary theology and assesses his continuing relevance for the church’s mission to Western culture. He backs the view that Newbigin’s work maintains a surprising and often prophetic edge for contemporary practice. After describing Newbigin’s abiding knack of putting into words the really important questions for contemporary mission, he goes on to outline three areas in Newbigin’s work which hold particular promise for the future. First, he explores Newbigin’s identification of the local Christian community as the source of an authentic gospel witness. Second, he analyses Newbigin’s contribution to a re-focusing of apologetics and their relocation in the narrative of the gospel itself. Finally, he assesses the on-going contribution of Newbigin’s contention that the gospel is ‘public truth’. He concludes that Newbigin’s approach to missional practice still has the power to critique and refocus our thinking, and continues to offer a ‘place to stand’ that is theologically coherent as well as culturally engaged.

Gurt S. Cordier and Cornelius JP. Niemandt
The Minister as Missional Leader
This article describes the journey of a congregational minister in his or her search for the essence of missional leadership. The journey led to a research project for a PhD at the University of Pretoria under supervision of Prof Nelus Niemandt. The research was done against the context of huge paradigm shifts within society and missiology, described by the WCC as a ‘changed landscape’, and within the context of the South-African Partnership of Missional Churches (SAPMC). The goal of the partnership is to equip congregational leaders with the capacities necessary for the journey of spiritual discernment and faith formation. The research recognised the changes within congregational partners of the SAPMC and explored the importance and role of the congregational minister towards the successful transformation of congregational culture. It went on to identify the core capacities needed for the role and these are described in part 2 of the article which will be published in Spring 2015.

Tuesday 20 January 2015

KLICE on the General Election 2015

The Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics has commissioned some pieces in the run up to the General Election in Britain in May. They write:

‘Our major offering is a special series of eight extended Ethics in Brief essays on the main British political parties. Our contributions won’t advise you how to vote but may help to think more critically about your political allegiance. Some authors belong to and support the parties they discuss, others don’t.’

Two have already been posted:

It is nearly 150 years since a large part of the (male) urban working class were enfranchised by the Representation of the People Act 1867. For much of that time mass democracy has been realised through the mechanism of mass-membership political parties. This system is facing fundamental challenges. Do these amount to a crisis? This article explores the nature of the challenges facing political parties, and the implications for a Christian understanding of citizenship.

The Liberal Democrats are one of the smallest parties, but they have the biggest ideas. One cannot have liberalism without ‘liberty’. Liberty is a value that infuses all western politics and is not confined to any one party. The importance of liberty for the liberal western consensus arose from Christian reflection on the nature of creaturely and Divine life. Yet behind the one word ‘liberty’ lie two competing, even opposite, meanings. The liberalism of the Liberal Democrat party and beyond exists in tension with the liberty of Christianity, but is not for that reason inimical to it. Western liberalism can be a good home for Christianity, for after all, Christians helped to create it.

Saturday 17 January 2015

Paul Mills on the Looming Government Debt Crisis

The latest Cambridge Paper from the Jubilee Centre is available online, this one by Paul Mills:

Here is the summary:

‘During the recent financial crisis, governments borrowed as if they were fighting a world war. They have struggled to reduce deficits ever since and so their debts are at record levels, leaving societies open to the temptations of repression, default, or inflation. This is the poisonous legacy of the ‘Prodigal’ baby boomer generation that squandered not only their inheritance but that of their children too. Biblical wisdom helps us to understand the state we are in and the possible means of escape. But societies ultimately need a change of heart to understand that debt is financial servitude and we all have obligations before God to future generations.’

Friday 16 January 2015

Belief in Politics

I contributed this week’s ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Next Tuesday, 20 January, marks the 750th anniversary of the first English Parliament, held by Simon de Montfort in the Palace of Westminster. As we gear up for a General Election in May, it seems appropriate to recognise the long, albeit somewhat checkered, history of democracy we have enjoyed in this country.

At the very least, elections provide an opportunity for us to reflect on priorities and concerns, for ourselves and for the society in which we live: health, education, transport, housing, welfare, tax, crime, environment, immigration. Not for the first time will we notice how many of these play to our fears as well as our hopes.

In all of this, we recognise that politics is an inevitable feature of life for the ‘whole-life’ disciple. We recognise, too, that Scripture allows us to be neither overly cynical nor overly confident about the potential of politics to make a difference.

As Romans 13:1-7 reminds us, we acknowledge that ‘the authorities... have been established by God for... our good’ – words written in the context of an imperial power holding sway. In the UK where we have a voice in deciding who the ‘authorities’ should be, where it’s possible to encourage the values by which society operates, we accept the responsibility that comes with the privilege, and vote wisely.

More specifically, a perspective nourished by Scripture helps to reframe how and why we vote. We vote not simply for what will benefit ourselves, but for what will benefit others, for that which serves the wider community. Scripture places high premium on right treatment of the vulnerable and marginalised. What do manifestos say about the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the asylum seeker? Since the gospel reframes aspirations, we vote less for what might bring material gain than for what might bring moral gain. What will be the effect of policies on marriage, family life, poverty? Given the the centrality of relationship at the heart of the gospel, we vote for what will build and nurture relationships – personally, nationally, internationally. On issues related to religion, not least the freedom to practise our faith in the public square, we vote for that which is more likely to promote the way of the gospel.

Who we vote for and why arguably says as much about us as it does about candidates and parties.

Who will you vote for? What will you vote for?


Some Resources

The Show Up campaign aims to encourage positive Christian engagement in the run up to, and beyond, the 2015 General Election.

Guy Brandon’s Votewise (London: SPCK, 2014) seeks to help Christians think about the major issues in the May 2015 General Election from a biblical perspective.

The Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics is also publishing a series of pieces to help Christians engage with election issues.

Wednesday 14 January 2015

Journal for the Evangelical Study of the Old Testament 3, 2 (2014)

The latest issue of the Journal for the Evangelical Study of the Old Testament is freely available online. The main articles (listed below with their abstracts) are available from here, with a pdf of the entire issue available here – but, as always, it’s worth checking out its book reviews as much as anything else.

Martin A. Shields
Was Elihu Right?
The major difficulty facing any suggestion that Elihu provides a possible explanation for Job’s suffering is that nothing he says comes close to describing the events described in the book’s prologue. This paper builds on the suggestion that the account in the prologue is not meant to provide a comprehensive rationale for Job’s continuing suffering, freeing the reader to review Elihu’s contribution in a new light. Furthermore, I argue that Elihu’s contribution presents a non-retributive rationale for Job’s suffering which does not fall under the same condemnation as that of his friends. Ultimately, then, Elihu’s account might be correct. This serves the author’s purpose by allowing an alternative to retributive justice while, by not affirming Elihu’s explanation, ensuring the reader understands that the true cause of Job’s suffering must remain a mystery.

Joshua Joel Spoelstra
Queens, Widows, and Mesdames: The Role of Women in the Elijah-Elisha Narrative
The Elijah-Elisha narrative cycle (1 Kgs 17–2 Kgs 13) features a higher density of women than usual in the Hebrew Bible. What do these women contribute to the narrative unit(s)? Through semiotic analysis, this paper presents a complex of three socio-religious and theological themes: food-famine, life-death, and orthodoxy-idolatry. These semiotics do not come into sharp focus, it is argued, without the analysis of the women of 1 Kgs 17–2 Kgs 13. The semiotic axes of food- famine, life-death, and orthodoxy-idolatry are, further, interwoven into and indicative of the miraculous and prophetic activity of Elijah and Elisha.

Jay Todd
Patriarch and Prophet: Abraham’s Prophetic Characteristics in Genesis
In Gen 20:7, YHWH refers to Abraham as a prophet, thus distinguishing Abraham as the first person explicitly identified as a prophet (נביא) in the Hebrew Bible. Unfortunately, the relevant secondary literature (prophetic introductions, biblical theologies, and theologies of the Pentateuch) has given minimal attention to Abraham’s prophetic role. This article attempts to correct this oversight by examining Abraham’s prophetic characteristics in the Abrahamic narrative (Gen 11:27–25:11). After outlining general prophetic characteristics given in the Pentateuch and the rest of the Hebrew Bible, this article highlights Abraham’s prophetic characteristics in order to demonstrate Abraham’s role as a prophet in the biblical text. The article’s final section compares and contrasts Abraham with two other prophets in the Pentateuch, Balaam and Moses, in order to identify possible implications for the theology of the Pentateuch.

Ron Haydon
The “Seventy Sevens” (Daniel 9:24) in Light of Heptadic Themes in Qumran
Daniel 9:24 is fraught with puzzling language, particularly the meaning of the “seventy sevens.” Rather than add to the relevant commentaries, this paper approaches the phrase in light of the heptadic language we find in select Qumran sources. Jubilees, 1 Enoch, and related scrolls portray these heptadic structures as primarily theological expressions, with chronology either set in the background or absent altogether. I suggest this context casts the seventy sevens in a new light, wherein it serves a mainly theological function instead of a rigid temporal one. Beginning with a brief examination of each major extracanonical source, we will consider two theological implications that come as a result of these texts’ reception of Daniel: first, Daniel’s seventy sevens may need to be considered a theological image; second, the image likely paints a picture of exile and restoration in its fullness, spanning all epochs, not just the Babylonian, Media-Persian, and Seleucid-Hasmonean crises. The conclusion notes how such literary and theological moves may also point to a deliberate shape inherent to Dan 9, one that includes subsequent, interpretive communities, such as Qumran and its sects.

Book Reviews

Monday 12 January 2015

Obedience and Praise

I contributed this week’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the LORD,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
Psalm 1:1-2

Praise the LORD.
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
praise him for his surpassing greatness...
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.
Praise the LORD.
Psalm 150:1-2, 6

The book of Psalms opens with a promise that the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, those in covenant relationship with him, those who delight in his instruction and live by it. Readers take this call and its assurance with them into the rest of the book.

Then, as Psalm 1 provides an introduction, so Psalms 146-150 seem to form a conclusion to the book, with psalms of praise, culminating in the unfettered adoration of God in Psalm 150. In that sense, the Psalms are – as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it – ‘bounded by obedience and praise’.

And the sequence could well be important. Loving obedience initiates praise, praise is the culmination of obedience. Only those who begin in Psalm 1 can honestly end in Psalm 150. We don’t stay in Psalm 1 – that’s only the beginning – but nor do we rush too quickly to Psalm 150 – praising the Lord without taking account of his loving demand on our lives. Our adoration of God is bound up with our observation of his revealed will. Obedience is embedded in worship. The whole Psalter witnesses to a movement from piety to praise.

Of course, that move is not without its struggles! The world doesn’t always seem to go the way Psalm 1 suggests it should – with the righteous prospering and the wicked getting their comeuppance. We get to Psalm 150 in the end, but we don’t do so unscathed. Nor does Psalm 150 necessarily obliterate the despair and doubt, fear and failure that have been expressed along the way. It’s precisely in the ‘stuff of life’ that we discover our ultimate purpose in glorifying and enjoying God forever.

The psalms take account of the reality of sin and suffering and shame and setbacks, and they do so with brutal honesty; they also testify to moments when God works to bring us through those periods and renews our hope. And through it all, we come to understand that God doesn’t just exist safely at either end of the Psalter, but is found in the middle as well, in the midst of suffering and hope, in the midst of a life bound by obedience and praise.

Saturday 10 January 2015

Mission Frontiers 37, 1 (January-February 2015)

The January-February 2015 issue of Mission Frontiers, published by the U.S. Center for World Mission, contains a number of articles looking at ‘The Power of Honor’.

Editor Rick Wood writes:

‘The history of mankind is one of people seeking to gain honor, power and glory for themselves and to jealously guard whatever honor or position they hold. Some, like the Pharaohs of Egypt or the Caesars of Rome, have actually commanded that they be worshiped as deity. Even when people don’t go this far, there seems to be a driving desire in the hearts of people from most cultures to seek honor and to avoid shame. Everyone seems to want to make a name for themselves. Even in the West many want to be a celebrity, thinking this will bring meaning and satisfaction to their lives.

‘These are powerful cultural forces that dominate the world and its peoples. The Islamic cultures are well known to be centered around honor and shame. The Asian cultures are well known for trying to “save face.” But as we highlight in this issue, most cultures around the world are affected by the issues of honor and shame.

‘The critical question then arises, “if honor and shame is such a powerful dynamic in the thinking of people in a myriad of cultures, why does our presentation of the Gospel not reflect this cultural and biblical reality?

Individual articles can be accessed from here, and the whole issue (23.9 MB) can be downloaded as a pdf here.

Sunday 4 January 2015

Ethics in Brief Volume 20, No. 2 (2014)

An issue from Volume 20 of Ethics in Brief, published by The Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, is now available online:

Nigel Biggar’s book In Defence of War is the most substantial, forceful and provocative Christian defence of the idea of a just war to have appeared in many years. This article presents a summary of key arguments of the book (Part I) and briefly offers three critical observations on these arguments evoke (Part II).

Saturday 3 January 2015

International Bulletin of Missionary Research 39:1 (January 2015)

The latest issue of International Bulletin of Missionary Research carries the feature articles noted below addressing the issue of ‘Witchcraft and Mission Studies’.

Here are the opening paragraphs from J. Nelson Jennings’ Editorial:

‘Challenges presented by witchcraft and witch accusations have long been urgent concerns of countless Christian communities worldwide. Even so, the reality of witchcraft has escaped the notice of most missiologists and mission studies. This issue of the IBMR seeks to help rectify this discrepancy.

‘Contemporary Europeans and North Americans may blush at the early modern witch trials in Europe and in Europe’s North American colonies. Accordingly, modern Western theologians and missiologists have for generations conveniently turned a blind eye to such phenomena, which have been rumored to take place elsewhere. In actuality, however, witchcraft-related activities – including violent witch hunts directed toward women and children – stubbornly plague Christian communities all around the world. Missiologists must catch up with these acute, long-neglected spiritual and pastoral issues.

‘Today’s requisite missiological response to the realities of witchcraft must be honest, active engagement – even if my colleagues and I might not think that witches are cursing our own families or congregations. Missiologists as well as theologians – contextually bound as both are – must finally become fully engaged with the issues of spiritual agents, sociological dynamics, and people’s assumed universes.’

Cultural Highlight of the Year – Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs

I was invited by Third Way to write 100 words on a ‘cultural highlight of the year’. Whilst claiming absolutely no nous at all about art, my offer of writing something on the Matisse exhibition at Tate Modern was accepted, and I submitted the below 100 words.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
Tate Modern: Exhibition
17 April – 7 September 2014

When ill-heath prevented Matisse from painting, he turned to paper and scissors, cutting painted sheets into varying shapes and sizes – ‘painting with scissors’, as he called it – inaugurating a fresh phase in his career. From dancers and clowns to snow flowers and stained-glass, to see so many in one place was a treat. For me, it was a combination of factors: simplicity coupled with sophistication, the involvement of others in his work, its accessibility to all ages. Above all, perhaps, it represented triumph over adversity, the strength of the human spirit to create beauty out of brokenness.