Wednesday 29 April 2020

On (Not) Meeting Together

The below is an excerpt from an email written for the congregation where I am one of the pastors.

As some of us have discovered, and as several well-researched pieces are telling us, meeting by Zoom (other video conferencing apps are available!) can be emotionally draining.

As you’d expect, it’s down to a mixture of reasons. The physical proximity of each other when we get together has a way of stirring all our senses, much of which is lost when we connect via screens. Then there’s the constant presence of our own image as we interact with others, which raises our self-awareness and affects how authentic and available we are in the conversation. Zoom works well for lectures, or for formal meetings with rules about who speaks, but is less suitable for more interactive meetings when more than a few people are present. Even on the fastest of internet connections, the slight delay in saying something and it being registered by others on the screen can play havoc with the natural rhythms of how we normally communicate with each other. Those who have studied this area draw attention to unwritten rules about eye gaze, turn taking, and our reliance on microsecond timing. We have to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language, and all this consumes a lot of emotional energy.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful to God every day for the provision of technology which allows us to connect during this time – as families, friends, and colleagues, as well as a church – and I still get a happy rush when I see all the windows opening on the screen of my laptop. Plus, we should probably think about putting some online provision in place when this period is over, for those who are housebound.

Even so, I’m missing our gatherings, and I hope you are too.

I’m missing the smell of freshly-baked lemon drizzle cake when we meet for housegroup, the sounds of chinking mugs as drinks are prepared in the kitchen, the hubbub of catching-up conversations between friends, the way someone is able to detect by the slightest flicker of a look in our eye that the day hasn’t gone so well...

From beginning to end, the Bible makes it clear that God designed us to be embodied creatures – and social creatures too! The blessings of the digital age aside, church isn’t meant to be an experience we consume, like the latest series on Netflix, from the comfort of our sofas. Our gathered worship is meant to involve our physical togetherness in one place alongside people with whom we experience the highs and lows of real relationship.

It’s reminded me that there’s an important ‘horizontal’ aspect to our worship which we sometimes miss in our concern to get the ‘vertical’ aspect right. Our moments of gathered worship are not merely a place for our individual expression of worship upwards to God, but the place for the Spirit’s transformation of us together as the body of Christ. And it’s our immersion in the life and relationships of the gathered church that forms us and equips us to be God’s people in everyday life.

Lovely though it has been to meet via Zoom on Sunday mornings and at other times during the week, I’m looking forward to when we’re next able to gather, and I hope you are too.

Tuesday 28 April 2020

Ink 5 (Spring 2020)

The fifth issue of ink, published by Tyndale House, Cambridge, is now available, this one looking at ‘those who worked so diligently through history – sometimes under threat of their lives – to make printed Scripture as reliable and accessible as possible’. There’s also a piece from Peter Head, exploring ‘what we know about the letter-carriers who delivered the epistles to their recipients’.

UK residents can sign up here to receive issues through the post, but the publication is also available as a pdf here.

Monday 27 April 2020

Currents in Biblical Research 18, 2 (February 2020)

The latest Currents in Biblical Research recently arrived, with titles and abstracts of the main articles as below.

Joshua T. James
Research Trends in the Study of the Ethics of the Psalms
The study of the ethics of the Psalms is a relative newcomer in the field of Old Testament ethics, having garnered most of its interest following Wenham’s initial essay on the subject in 2005. In hindsight, the neglect of the Psalms is surprising given its overt ethical concerns, but throughout the early phase of the re-emergence of Old Testament ethics (from 1983 to the end of the twentieth century), it was indeed woefully overlooked. The goal of this article is to provide a survey of work on the subject. Because the content and themes of these studies are still somewhat limited, the article is arranged according to the interpretive methodology or hermeneutical framework guiding the various authors’ contributions. In addition to surveying the field, this approach allows for the dominant trends to be observed and set within their proper context.

Tammi J. Schneider
In the Beginning and Still Today: Recent Publications on Genesis
This article reviews the monographs and edited volumes on the book of Genesis published since 2015. As a means of organizing the material, the books reviewed are categorized into groupings that reflect different aspects of the study of Genesis as a book, as well as the field of biblical studies and its placement within the humanities writ large. The organizational process leads to examining who writes about Genesis, the perceived audience, and how publishers consider their task and role in the process of disseminating scholarship on the book. An apparent shift in biblical studies, or at least in research on the book of Genesis, is identified towards situating the material more into world history and contemporary issues than into the historical-critical method.

T.M. Lemos
Order from Chaos: Comparing Approaches to Violence in Anthropology, Assyriology, and the Study of the Hebrew Bible
This article compares the history of scholarship on violence in anthropology in the past one hundred years to major approaches to studying violence in the ancient Near East and ancient Near Eastern sources, including ancient Israel and Israelite literature. The article demonstrates that anthropology and ancient Near Eastern studies have diverged widely in their approaches to violence. In the past two to three decades, the concept of structural violence and new materialist approaches have dominated the study of violence in anthropology, while in Assyriology and the study of ancient Israel/Israelite literature, studies of violence have repeatedly turned to an order and chaos framework. The article ends by suggesting that scholars of ancient West Asia incorporate new materialist approaches more concertedly in studies of violence and either rethink or jettison the simplistic order/chaos dyad.

Matthew W. Bates
The External-Relational Shift in Faith (Pistis) in New Testament Research: Romans 1 as Gospel-Allegiance Test Case
Evidence is marshalled for a recent ‘external-relational shift’ in scholarly understandings of pistis (traditionally translated ‘faith’) among New Testament scholars and historians of early Christianity and its social world. There is a movement away from predominantly personal existential accounts of pistis toward those that are relational and outwardly manifest. ‘Faith’ (pistis) is predominantly a way of life characterized by fidelity or loyalty which is outwardly expressed in relationships. Beyond the New Perspective on Paul, which is an obvious factor, four streams are feeding this shift: (1) the pistis Christou debate, (2) increased appreciation of ancient social and cultural norms, (3) advances in linguistics, and (4) an emphasis on the gospel as a royal proclamation. To show why the external-relational shift matters theologically, Paul’s use of pistis in Romans 1 is explored along external-relational lines.

Friday 24 April 2020

On Not Being the First to Walk This Path

The below is an excerpt from an email written for the congregation where I am one of the pastors.

Media pundits have kept on using long words like ‘unprecedented’ and ‘unparalleled’ to describe what’s going on at the moment.

That’s true, of course, but only in part. We know from history that humanity has experienced many lethal plagues over the centuries, some killing vast numbers of people. We are not the first ones to walk this path.

In the first four centuries, several major plagues swept through the Roman Empire. In each case, the response of Christians demonstrated the transforming power of Christ in their lives. Pagan priests and philosophers had no satisfying explanations or comfort to offer, but Christians had a perspective which enabled them to face the terrible suffering without fear of death. They saw such epidemics as moments of ‘schooling’ and ‘testing’, when they were to put their trust in God – who might spare them, or who might take them to himself. Christians also knew a God of love and mercy who had called them to be merciful to others. In one case, in Rome, whilst many fled, Christians remained behind – looking after each other and their neighbours, caring for the sick and dying – bringing many people to Christ in the process.

Then, when the Black Death raised its head again in 1527 in Germany, many people fled for their lives in panic. Yet, Martin Luther and his wife Katharina stayed and turned their home into a makeshift hospital, taking in the sick, caring for them, and risking their own lives in the process. Luther’s response was a wonderful mixture of prayerful dependence on God and basic common sense, all flowing out of a solid faith in the Lord and his goodness.

A cholera outbreak in 1854 struck fear into the hearts of Londoners. Only 20 years old at the time and already a pastor, Charles Spurgeon would look back to this plague as a time of learning for himself and for the city – a time when people became more aware of life’s shifting sands. Spurgeon saw the plagues of his day as storms that led many to seek refuge in Christ.

All these examples – and there are many more – remind us that in the midst of the difficulties of this imperfect world, we can be confident that God sets limits to evil and brings good even out of horrible situations. In addition, moments like these have allowed Christians to demonstrate counter-cultural love to others, winning respect, often resulting in people coming to Christ.

As we continue to face the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus for ourselves and our loved ones, friends, and colleagues, we may do so with a boldness based upon God and his promises, trusting in Jesus, who triumphed over death and the grave.

May those of us who have this confidence and hope for ourselves encourage each other, and – as we get opportunity to do so – share it with others.

Monday 20 April 2020

Credo 10, 1 (2020) on Theology through Fiction

The current issue of Credo is available, this one devoted to the topic of ‘The Truth Inside the Lie: Theology through Fiction’.

Here’s the blurb:

The world of fiction and the world of theology might as well be worlds apart. Rarely, if ever, do theologians write fiction, or even pay attention to the insights they might imbibe from a world make believe. That must change. For not only does fiction communicate truth, but truth becomes incarnate through characters with flesh and blood, people not all that different from us. Through the art of the story, beauty itself is embodied. In this issue of Credo Magazine, we move past the artificial divide to explore the innumerable ways fiction infuses our minds and hearts with stories of rebellion and redemption, stories that in some substantial way bring us closer to the master storyteller himself.

Individual articles, along with interviews and book reviews, are available to read from here.

Thursday 16 April 2020

On How God Provides

The below is an excerpt from an email written for the congregation where I am one of the pastors.

We know that God can provide miraculously. He’s done it on several occasions: manna in the wilderness, oil in a jar that doesn’t run out, small amounts of bread and fish which feed thousands...

Amazingly, though, in the normal scheme of things, he chooses to provide through a combination of the turn of the seasons, the rhythm of sowing and reaping, and a lot of hard work. It’s just as miraculous in its own way.

So, we pray ‘Give us today our daily bread’ (Matthew 6:11), but we don’t expect the bread suddenly to appear in the bread bin. (If it does in your household, please let us know!) God is still the ultimate giver of the bread, of course, but he provides it through a combination of farmers, bakers, truck drivers, and shop keepers. There’s a similarly long line of people between the rain that falls in the reservoirs and the fresh, clean water that comes out of our taps. No bread or water comes to our tables without the work, time, skills, and gifts of people who work on our behalf.

The 16th-century reformer Martin Luther recognised this, insisting that the farmer shoveling manure and the maid milking cows please God through their work as much as the pastor preaching or praying. As Luther made clear, ‘God is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid’. He knew that so-called ‘ordinary’ men and women are agents of God’s providential care in the world. Our work – your work – is one of the ways God himself works in the world.

In these recent weeks, this has been pressed home to us with even more force.

If ever there was a time we needed dedicated doctors, paramedics, nurses, healthcare workers, microbiologists, economists, government leaders – and many others like them – it is now. They deserve our respect and admiration as well as our prayers at this time. But it’s also a time when the significance of the apparently more ‘mundane’ jobs has come to the fore – the people who stock the shelves and serve us in shops, the people who deliver our post, the people who empty our wheelie bins. God uses them all, working through them to bring about his own good purposes for society.

For us, too, whatever we find ourselves doing in this season, God continues to work through us to benefit other people – as husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, grandparents, friends, neighbours, and colleagues. Through us, in spite of the current situation and however we might feel about it, God is at work each and every day.

Monday 13 April 2020

Bible Society on Easter and the Coronavirus

Bible Society released three short videos over the Easter weekend, fronted by their Chief Executive, Paul Williams (whose recently-published book, Exiles on Mission, I am currently enjoying reading).

The videos can be accessed at the links below:

This is a special message from Bible Society for those in the thick of it taking on the coronavirus crisis, whether in healthcare, as key workers or helping those who are suffering.

Is coronavirus the end of the world? Or just the end of the world as we know it? What does the Bible have to say, and what other wisdom might it have for us as our lives are put on pause?

Is there anyone who doesn’t fear death? Apparently so. This Easter Sunday we explore why Christians take strength from the Easter story and how it can give us hope as we face the coronavirus crisis.

Friday 10 April 2020

Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness

For this year’s Good Friday.

The words are a translation by John Wesley (1703-91) of a hymn written by Nicolaus Ludwig Graf von Zinzendorf (1700-60).

Jesus, thy blood and righteousness
my beauty are, my glorious dress;
’midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
with joy shall I lift up my head.

Bold shall I stand in thy great day;
for who aught to my charge shall lay?
Fully absolved through these I am
from sin and fear, from guilt and shame.

When from the dust of death I rise
to claim my mansion in the skies,
e’en then this shall be all my plea,
Jesus hath lived, hath died, for me.

Jesus, be endless praise to thee,
whose boundless mercy hath for me,
for me a full atonement made,
an everlasting ransom paid.

O let the dead now hear thy voice;
now bid thy banished ones rejoice;
their beauty this, their glorious dress,
Jesus, thy blood and righteousness.

Tuesday 7 April 2020

Centre for Public Christianity (April 2020)

This month, among other items (including some on COVID-19), the Centre for Public Christianity links to an audio interview with James K.A. Smith on ‘The Story of Your Life’, looking at memoir, biography, and confession.

Monday 6 April 2020

So Great a Salvation #6: The Cross and the Sacrificial Altar

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

This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
1 John 4:9-12

Would it surprise you to hear that the earliest known visual depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus makes fun of it?

It’s the ancient equivalent of schoolboy graffiti, but it’s significant nonetheless. Scratched into plaster, it depicts a figure with the head of a donkey hanging on a cross, underneath which stands a man with his hand raised in reverence. Below it is a caption which reads: ‘Alexamenos worships his God.’

To be clear, the ridicule is not that Jesus died, but that he was executed as a criminal in the most shameful way possible. That was something to mock.

And yet, for all its apparent strangeness, the Christian faith makes no sense without the cross.

The biblical writings provide a rich mosaic of images to unfold the significance of what’s really going on at the cross – as that which replays and regains what we lost in our first parents, forming a new humanity in the process; as that which brings about a release from slavery to one owner into the service of another; as the place where reconciliation between God and human beings is made, which will one day be extended to the whole cosmos; as that which enables us to be declared right with God and brought into covenant relationship with him and others; as the supreme victory over the powers of darkness and death...

And all made possible through the sacrifice of one in the place of others.

Apart from the explicit language here in John’s letter and elsewhere, repeated phrases such as ‘through his blood’ and ‘for our sins’ make clear the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ sin-bearing death. So it is as Jesus heads towards the cross, he takes on the role of the servant spoken of in Isaiah, suffering and dying on behalf of others, where ‘the punishment that brought us peace was on him’ (Isaiah 53:5).

Crucially, all this flows from God’s love. Far from involving a cold transaction, the cross is rooted in the heart and actions of the triune God – the abounding love of the Father, the atoning death of the Son, the applying grace of the Holy Spirit.

That love is then reflected in our own lives. Christ’s death not only provides the source of our salvation but the shape of our salvation, such that our daily life ratifies our core allegiance to Jesus – as we take up our cross to follow him.

Friday 3 April 2020

On Being Overwhelmed [Redux]

I wrote this piece for ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. If it sounds familiar to the two regular readers of my blog (Hi, Mum! Hi, Brett!), that’s because it’s a beefed-up version of a piece I wrote last week.

It was Harold Wilson who allegedly said that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. In these recent momentous days, it looks as if that should be reduced to five minutes.

In the space of a very short time, life has been turned upside-down. Work, school, family life, daily routines, leisure activities, as well as that number one pastime – shopping – have changed for all of us, almost overnight.

It’s easy to see why our nation – nay, our world – is uneasy. You may feel it yourself, identify it in friends and colleagues, or see it reflected in your social media feeds. We’re experiencing what theologian David Ford has called ‘multiple overwhelmings’. Whether personally, professionally, or politically, it’s one thing to have a single event that knocks us off our feet. But what if the knocks continue to come thick and fast? Is it any wonder we’re confused, anxious, distrustful, and fearful?

In all this, though, shafts of light manage to break through – the neighbours forming WhatsApp groups to support people in their street, the already-exhausted NHS workers coming in for the next shift, the rainbows in windows of houses saying more than the occupants of those homes perhaps know about the commitment of God to his creation.

They’re all traces of grace, showing something of a refusal to be shaped by the prevailing culture, which Christians of all people should understand. Because while some ‘overwhelmings’ wound and crush us, others are life-giving and transformative. As David Ford says, the wisest way to cope is ‘not to expect to be in control of everything’, but ‘to live amidst the overwhelmings’ in a way that lets one of them shape the others.

During this period of Lent, Christians remember that Christ himself embodied ‘multiple overwhelmings’ – baptised in the Jordan, driven into the wilderness, tempted by the devil. Then, at the climax of his life, betrayed, deserted, tortured, crucified. But, as Ford writes, ‘then came the resurrection, the most disorienting and transformative overwhelming of all’.

Given that death-and-resurrection pattern, what would it look like at this time to be overwhelmed by gratitude? Overwhelmed by generosity? Overwhelmed by a commitment to pray? Overwhelmed by a desire to see others thrive, even if it comes at our expense? Overwhelmed by an assurance of God’s love?

Given the resources available to us in the gospel, what might we be overwhelmed by today?

Thursday 2 April 2020

On Finding a Purpose

The below is an extract from an email sent to my church.

Beyond the ever-changing daily headlines, questions of hope and meaning are never too far away.

Several of my friends have linked on Facebook to a thoughtful article in this week’s The Spectator magazine, by the journalist Douglas Murray, who asks, ‘In this strange new world, where do we find purpose?’

Murray himself concludes that ‘we are most likely to find meaning in the places where meaning has been found before. That what has seen our forebears through, and nourished them, will see us through and nourish us in turn’.

While Murray has elsewhere admitted to having a respect and admiration for Christianity, he is also a self-professed non-believer. But his sentiment here has the ring of truth about it, and it strikes me that Christians of all people know where real ‘meaning’ is found.

In his first letter, Peter encouraged his first-century readers to ‘give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3:15). It’s good to be able to tell others how we became a Christian, but Peter is expecting us to be able to say why. Why do we have hope? Not, in the first place, because we have a better philosophy or a better morality. The reason, ultimately, is Jesus. As Peter has said earlier in the letter, we have been born ‘into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade’ (1:3-4).

It is that hope which has nourished those who have gone before us, and it will continue to nourish us through this season.

9Marks Journal (March 2020) on Gospel-Centered Preaching

The latest issue of the 9Marks Journal, available from here in various formats, looks at the question, ‘What’s wrong with gospel-centered preaching today?’

In the Editorial Note, Jonathan Leeman describes a conversation he had with David Helm, in which the latter mentioned that he was concerned about the growing popularity of gospel-centered preaching. As Leeman describes it:

‘What?! Why? Isn’t gospel-centered preaching a good thing?

‘He answered, “Because the tail is going to start wagging the dog.” Helm was worried that young preachers would get lazy, not pay close attention to their texts, and move toward Christ too quickly. They wouldn’t do careful exegetical work; or preach the point of their particular texts; or take canonically responsible ways of moving toward the gospel. To put it another way, they would allegorize.

‘Of course, that’s not the only problem with preaching out there. Some preachers don’t preach the gospel at all. Others fail to apply the text to their whole church. And still others fail to respect the rules of their particular genre, have bad biblical theology, or preach without exemplars.’