Once upon a time, in a college somewhere in England, there was a sign saying ‘Keep off the grass’.
Most people, being obedient types, kept off the grass, though once in a while someone did cut across a corner of it, or even run right across the middle if they felt the consequences of not doing so were worse than any possible consequences of doing so.
And yet…the grass was so lush and beautiful, and some people really wanted to step on it. After all, what is the point of a lawn that no-one can use?
The arguments were persuasive. Perhaps a blanket ban was a little out of touch with the needs of a modern college, perhaps the prohibition should be eased. To save the lawn from being turned into a quagmire, though, a compromise was reached and a new sign was made.
This sign said, ‘Please keep off the grass unless accompanied by a Senior Member of the College’.
But students were students, and many of them really wanted access to the grass without having to take the time and considerable effort required to find a Senior Member and persuade him or her to accompany them. Sometimes there simply wasn’t time – the lecture was about to start, no-one was around, and cutting across the grass would save valuable seconds.
Eventually, one student decided to speak up. “Couldn’t we,” she asked, “remove the original sign and do away with that rule? It is archaic and outdated. It doesn’t take account of the kinds of busy lives people have these days, or the fact that nowadays people like to sit on grass for picnics instead of using the more formal benches around the edge of the quad. The world has changed and this restriction should be lifted.”
Many people objected. “The grass would be ruined,” they cried, “if everyone were allowed to walk on it all the time.”
“No, don’t worry,” she assured them, “they would still have to be accompanied by a Senior Member, we could keep that sign in place. It’s just that there would be no punishment meted out if anyone crossed the grass without a Senior Member.”
To those who supported the motion, this seemed perfectly reasonable. Yet to others, who had been around students long enough to know that they were quite bright really, it seemed that there was little chance of them going through the hassle of finding a Senior Member to accompany them each time they wished to do something that they were already allowed to do anyway.
The question was taken to the College Council: Should they remove the archaic restrictions on walking on the grass and trust the students to always walk responsibly, accompanied by a Senior member?
Was the freedom of the students more important than the protection of the grass? Was the idea of preserving green spaces hopelessly outdated? Did those who cared about nebulous concepts such as beauty and life have any right to restrict what students did with their feet?
How would you have voted?
In case you’re wondering if I’ve completely lost my marbles, try this.
For ‘Keep off the grass’, read ‘Offences Against the Person Act 1861, Sections 58 and 59’ (the law that makes procuring or helping someone to procure an abortion a criminal offence).
For ‘Please keep off the grass unless accompanied by a Senior Member of the College’, read ‘Abortion Act 1967’, which sets out the conditions under which abortions may legally be carried out.
For the question taken to the College Council, read: ‘Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Bill’.
This Bill, introduced by Diana Johnson MP last week, seeks “to regulate the termination of pregnancies by medical practitioners and to repeal certain criminal offences relating to such terminations; and for connected purposes.”
This wording is confusing, but in her speech Ms Johnson made it clear that she is seeking the decriminalisation of abortion: “I hope that hon. Members will join me in saying that in England and Wales in the 21st century, abortion should no longer be considered a criminal offence, and that the 1861 Act is now obsolete and no longer fit for purpose in this century.” (Emphasis added.)
She claims that this won’t lead to any increase in the number of abortions (ie that students will still meekly seek out a Senior member to accompany them across the grass), even though she cites examples of three women whose circumstances typify the kind of scenarios she’s trying to solve – the implication being that these women are currently unable to procure abortions (or at least would find it extremely difficult to), and therefore may not be able to terminate their pregnancies. In other words, if the Bill were passed tomorrow, Ms Johnson knows of three more abortions that would take place. These would most likely all be conducted outside of the safeguards that Ms Johnson claims would remain in place, since it is those safeguards and restrictions that are currently causing the problem.
I could go on. There are other weaknesses in her logic which mean that unless an entirely new law was crafted making abortion an offence under certain circumstances, the way would be opened for abortion to take place on any grounds – gender, hair colour, inconvenient timing – potentially right up until the point of birth. (There is legislation from 1929 making it an additional offence to ‘destroy the life of a child capable of being born alive’, defined in the legislation as a child at 28 weeks’ gestation. It is unclear whether Ms Johnson wishes to abolish this law or not. Early reports suggested so, but it appears her language may have changed by the time the Bill was proposed, such that this is not explicitly included.)
The second reading of the Bill is scheduled for this Friday, 24th March. Please pray that it will be voted down. If you live in the UK, you can write to your MP (find them here) and ask them to vote against the Bill (you can check how they voted on the first reading, if they were present, here, and thank them and encourage them if they voted ‘No’). Maria Caulfield MP, responding to Diana Johnson in the House, made some further excellent points, that you may wish to use in formulating any such letter.
Even if nothing materially changed, even if every woman seeking an abortion did so following the restrictions currently in place, and there were no more abortions on any more liberal grounds than there are currently, still everything would change. The decriminalisation of abortion would fundamentally change the status in law and, eventually, in the public perception, of the unborn child. A sign saying ‘Keep off the Grass’ might be quaintly old fashioned, but removing it signals loud and clear that grass is no longer a thing of beauty to be treasured and protected, but merely an object to be enjoyed in the sunshine, but trampled on whenever it gets in our way.
The recent selection, and then withdrawal, of Philip North as Bishop of Sheffield generated a lot of spilled ink and emotional-blood among Anglican commentators. North’s withdrawal seems to mean that it will no longer be possible for a ‘traditionalist’ who disagrees with the ordination of women to become a diocesan bishop, despite provisions that were intended to accommodate such traditionalists.
One of the more interesting responses was that of Elaine Storkey. Storkey laments the “appalling hounding, vilification and name-calling meted out to Philip North,” and regrets that he will not be bishop – despite being a strong advocate of women’s ordination herself. I have no axe to grind in Anglican arguments, but is has been interesting to trace how things came to this pass.
Storkey describes how, “The Women Bishops measure would not have gone through the General Synod without the co-operation of many traditionalists. I say co-operation, rather than agreement, because that is what it was.” It was that co-operating despite disagreement that was meant to preserve space for traditionalists in the Anglican church, but to me this looks a naïve hope.
There is an inevitable trajectory in these matters: first women become regular preachers of the word, which makes keeping them from ordination inexplicable. Once ordained, it is equally inexplicable to keep women from serving in any church office. Parallel to this same-sex relationships are increasingly accommodated and legitimised, then blessed and sacralised. And, finally, those who oppose such moves are themselves prevented from holding office in the church. This happens because the initial denial of functional differences between the sexes eventually erodes the foundation for any difference between men and women; in effect making sex (gender) something that is contingent rather than essential to the understanding of human personhood.
I am not here offering any value judgment about this trajectory: some mourn it, many celebrate it. My observation is simply that the end result seems inevitable. And while this particular instance applies to the Anglican church, the principle is true for all churches. There are parallel examples aplenty in the nonconformist/evangelical/charismatic waters in which I more normally swim. But for Anglicans, the direction of travel was effectively set when in 1992 the decision was made to ordain female priests. No one should be surprised about what has happened to Philip North: the fruit you harvest is always born of the seed that you plant.
I don't know why this only appeared in my twitter feed last Friday, but it's a follow-up Q&A by Ravi Zacharias Ministries after 'that' speech at the Church of England Synod last month. (If you don't know to which speech I'm referring, just click through, the short video clip is reproduced there.)
It’s all excellent, measured, wise, and well worth your time, but here are a couple of extracts that stood out to me:
God never says “No” to something without saying a bigger “Yes” to something else.
This came over wonderfully clearly in Sam’s speech. Celibacy, for whatever reason, is not an intolerable burden, laid upon us by a kill-joy God who has chosen to prevent some people from full human flourishing. Jesus is the best example of human flourishing we have. If he managed to find some kind of hope and meaning in life, maybe singles can, too. We believe that the laws and restrictions he puts on us in all other areas of life are for his glory and our good, so why would this one be any different?
The most important insight the Bible gives us when it comes to identity is that it is not earned or discovered, but received. We cannot on our own determine or discover our own true identity, whether it is sexual identity or any other kind. We cannot know who we are without first knowing whose we are. The only way to make sense of who we are is to make sense of what we’re for.
This is not news, hopefully. We’ve all heard it before, but it is worth repeating, since it is very, very easy to forget in a world that doesn’t imagine for one moment that there could be any source for your identity than what you know/believe/feel yourself to be. It’s one of the key issues of our time and we need to continually remind ourselves of the truth.
On the cost of discipleship:
I suspect that Christians who balk at what the gospel seems to cost their gay friends haven’t really started counting the cost of discipleship in their own lives.
David Benjamin Blower is a musician, writer and community theologian from south Birmingham, UK. For the last ten years he’s been making apocalyptic junk-folk music – sort of protest music in the spirit of the biblical prophets - writing books and, as he puts it ‘experimenting with ways of making radical public art to challenge the powers’. His latest project is his most ambitious yet - a radiophonic performance of the story of Jonah, narrated by none other than Nicholas Thomas Wright. Jonny from Sputnik caught up with him to find out all about it.
This happened haphazardly. I started writing a musical of the story of Jonah, mostly out of a fondness for the Bible, Moby Dick, Pinocchio etc. and while I was putting together songs about how terrible things were in Nineveh, I saw on the news footage of ISIS blowing up the tomb of Jonah in modern day Nineveh; that is, Mosul, in northern Iraq. I thought to myself, “I wouldn’t want to go to Nineveh either.” The news about ISIS (back in 2014/15) became so disturbing that I lost all taste for the musical and started, wide-eyed, writing a book about how frightening real enemy love might actually be. Everyone picks on Jonah for his lack of warm feeling towards the enemy, but I don’t see many of his pious critics marching off to Mosul to make peace with the regime there. And any historian will tell you that the Ninevites (Neo-Assyrians) were more dreadful than ISIS, by a long way.
The book was published last summer, and then after that, rather more soberly, I finished recording the musical retelling.
I know it has been gestating for a while and I imagine that there has been a weight to living with these ideas for so long before being able to finally unleash them on the world. How do you manage to contain such a strong prophetic vision (alongside the accompanying passion and restlessness) without it eating you up?
I think it probably does eat me up. I don’t know if you can make good art about something without allowing yourself to swallowed up by it. If you’re not battered by the journey, then where did you go, and what do you have to tell? Perhaps this is why artists have often been considered dangerous by controlling societies. We’re unhinged openings for dangerous and unpredictable kinds of power to enter the orderliness and disrupt it: in this case, grace, forgiveness, re-humanisation of the enemy, redemption of the irredeemably evil, etc. The prophetic job is to bring in this dangerous new thing, not, I suppose, to always come out in one piece.
Living with this story over the last few years has also been interesting, because the contemporary subject matter has changed. When I began, the monster of public discourse was ISIS. Today, many struggle to see people like Trump, Farage and Le Pen as human beings – an attitude which is quietly and dangerously transferred onto all those who support them. I also know people on the right who can only talk with disgust about “liberals” and people on the left. Who wants to go Jonah-ing over to the terrible other now?
So, how did you end up getting NT Wright on the album?
No living theologian has made a deeper mark on me than NT Wright, and I would have been tickled just to meet him. So it was a strange and unexpected thing to get to work with him on something like this.
A couple of friends of mine from Nomad Podcast were going up to interview him about his new book The Day the Revolution Began. They were up for having me involved in the podcast, so I emailed Tom to see if he’d be interested in narrating Jonah while we were up there. He’s a very good sport.
We recorded in his study, surrounded by huge, wobbling towers of books, as you might expect. He was very engaged and eager to capture the sense of drama I had in mind for each point of the story. I didn’t need to say too much really; he had an instinct for the book’s inner logic, and I think his wisdom and wit have made their marvellous mark on the story.
Besides his sonorous voice and scholarly brilliance, he’s a warm and wonderful character with a very kind and connected presence. A delight to work with.
The Book Of Jonah/Sympathy For Jonah then - give us the hard sell. Why should this release be added to our bookshelves and iTunes libraries?
The Book of Jonah is a radiophonic production of the biblical story, read in it’s entirety from the old King James Bible by the deep voice of theologian Professor NT Wright. Jonah himself is played by the theologian and activist Professor Alastair McIntosh, in his wheezing Hebridean sea-dog’s tones. The story is punctuated with dark folk ballads and awash in spaghetti western soundscapes.
Sympathy for Jonah is a series of meditations on the biblical tale, delving into the necessity, and the dreadful cost, of enemy-love, for all of us. Especially in these divided times. It’s short. I’m told it’s funny, though I didn’t particularly mean it to be. And it gives theologically digestible exploration of both the Book of Jonah and of the cross of Jesus.
What’s next for you? How are you going to promote this project, and have you got anything else in the pipeline?
I’ll be spending time performing The Book of Jonah where I can - lounges, bars, churches and gatherings - and holding discussions around the themes of the book. There’s always something new in the pipeline, but I’ll focus myself on planting our community garden and gathering some theological learning groups in the coming months.
In Andrew's annual Lenten absence from this blog, I feel obligated to try harder than usual to find things to blog about, and since he often posts other people's posts with a bit of commentary, I think I'll give that a go.
This, by Luke T Harrington, is an excellent (in the sense that it agrees with me) post on ‘Those Little Communion Cups, Whatever Those Are Technically Called’.
It starts off light - an amusing little look at the history of a Christian oddity, but packs a punch later on. It’s as though Luke thought it didn’t bother him, but discovered as he wrote that it did. Quite a lot.
Apparently, the idea of using individual communion cups dates back to around 1894, and Luke says the idea and its popularity were due to that heady cocktail of industriali[s]ation and convenience:
What made it seem like such a good idea? Part of it was just a side-effect of industrialization. More people had been moving into the urban centers for a new life of 12-hour sweatshop shifts and never seeing the sun again, and because the sewer hadn’t been invented yet , the era was seeing outbreaks of infectious diseases like diphtheria and tuberculosis. Fortunately, germ theory was revolutionizing medicine, and Americans have never met a problem we didn’t think we couldn’t solve with whatever scientific discoveries were grabbing headlines at the time.
By 1906, the practice was becoming popular enough that Pastor J. D. Krout published an article in Lutheran Quarterly arguing that (1) no one can say for sure that there was only one cup at the first Lord’s Supper (except, presumably, everyone who had ever read the relevant Scriptural passages before he did), (2) individual cups are more sanitary, and (3) hey, it’s more convenient. Maybe it’s that last point that really led to the practice catching on—Americans have never met a convenience we didn’t like. We won’t eat food unless we can microwave it or get it out of a drive-thru window (preferably both), and we want our movies in three easy acts and our pop songs in two simple verses (and, like, a million choruses). “In this advanced age,” Krout wrote (weirdly describing an era before spray cheese was invented as “advanced”), “when congregations swell to the ranks of hundreds and thousands, it is necessary to expedite matters as much as possible. People are no longer willing to sit in the sanctuary and watch the minister as he slowly moves to and fro in administering the Lord’s Supper.”
I like this guy’s writing style.
I like his biting sarcasm, too:
If you’re wondering, there’s actually never been a disease outbreak traced back to the common communion cup. Nor is it likely to occur, given the particulars of the ceremony—silver and gold don’t constitute a hospitable environment for bacteria, and neither does an alcoholic beverage. And if you come from a tradition, as I do, that believes Jesus is actually present in the wine (and the bread), it seems pertinent to point out that that guy is in the business of healing disease, not spreading it. But then again, if Americans were the sort who let sound science and good theology get in the way of our love of novelty, we never would have invented Hot Pockets, either.
Once you get that “convenience” ball rolling, though, it’s hard to stop it. It wasn’t terribly long before we had gone from silver-and-gold communion cups to disposable plastic ones, and then—once we realized filling all those little cups was a pain in the butt—we started selling all-in-one, prepackaged communion. You can buy this convenient product right now, hermetically sealed for astronaut-caliber freshness, complete with a styrofoamy wafer and your choice of red or white grape juice—because nothing says “sacred rite” like, “Here, peel the plastic off of these Lunchables.”
I liked the post and I shared it on my twitter and Facebook feeds. Twitter responses: Zero. Facebook responses: lively, thoughtful conversation.
One person noted that with the individual cups the congregation can all drink together, and indeed this was what happened the first time I encountered them, at Spring Harvest back in the 1980s. I was in the youth work, and, however much I might have liked the symbolism of it, passing round a single communion cup to thousands of teenagers would have been less than practical. Instead they arranged us into groups and handed each group a piece of bread (probably pitta) and a tray of shot glasses of juice. We broke the bread, then ate it together, then passed around the juice and drank together. I was very struck by the feeling of all of us joining in with the single moment. It made it very meaningful to me.
That seems to have been a one-off, though. Probably more a reflection on me than on the relative holiness of the act.
Another commenter pointed out that in her church there was a large number of people for whom the presence of alcohol would be a genuine problem, and it seems to me that that is the best possible reason for going with juice, and once you’ve done that, individual cups are also probably wiser (she also mentioned that using a shared cup in her situation you risked catching rather more than a cold…!).
The why is, as ever, so much more important than the what or the how, and informs them, even as it is informed by them.
Luke points out that, “How we do something has a direct effect on how we feel about it”:
When we share a cup, we proclaim that we’re all united in one Christ, not only with each other, but with the saints throughout space and time. When we take shots of grape juice, we’re telling the world…what? That we can’t find some decent Scotch?
Maybe sometimes we’re telling the world - and God - that we feel we’re “spending way too much time on the most sacred of all Christian rituals”, and need to speed things up a bit. Sometimes we might be telling them (and him) that we don’t trust him enough to obey him (‘I would do what you command, Lord, but I might get ill.’). But sometimes we may be telling the world, and God, that we’re finding a way to be obedient to both this command and the one “never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. ... For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.” (Romans 14:13, 15)
I would love for more of our churches to be forced to have individual juice cups for all because there were simply too many people in the congregation with communicable diseases, addictions to alcohol or sensitivities for other reasons (perhaps recent converts from Islam) for it to be loving to continue to bring wine into the building.
Changing an ancient ritual because we’re too middle class and sophisticated to follow it any more is one thing. Changing it because we’re too committed to loving God and neighbour is another thing altogether.
Image credit: fcor1614 on Flickr.
I've always taught, and assumed, that the meaning of the temple curtain at the moment of Jesus' death is fairly straightforward: it removes the barrier between God and man. I wrote a whole chapter in my book GodStories about this, and it honestly never occurred to me that anything else might be going on.
Fleming Rutledge thinks there is. In The Crucifixion, she suggests four things:
First, Jesus predicted the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, so that rending of the curtain vindicates Jesus by signaling the destruction of the sanctuary.
Second, the Markan wording implies an act of the wrath of God against the corruption of the temple and its priests (as, for instance, in Mal 1:6-3:4).
Third, since the rending of garments signified mourning, there may be an element of that as well.
Fourth, the rending of the veil is included by Matthew in his carefully worked-out list of four signs indicating that the apocalyptic turn of the ages is occurring with the death of the Messiah.
Plus the possibility of human beings approaching the presence of God, when formerly it was off-limits. Plus the corresponding reality that the presence of God is now spilling out into the world. Pretty good news, in other words.
I don't think I've ever posted here before with a picture as the main item, but this one is so good that I'm breaking the habit of a lifetime. Behold: the Jewish calendar in one picture.
HT Patrick Schreiner
This past Sunday I preached my one thousandth sermon.
On the advice of an older pastor (well, he was probably the same kind of age then as I am now) I have kept a preaching log, in which I record all the times I speak in public. It’s a somewhat idiosyncratic list: if I do a whole day of teaching that gets logged as just one talk, whereas if I preach the same thirty-minute sermon three times on a Sunday, that gets logged as three talks. For some reason I haven’t logged weddings I have spoken at, but have recorded some of the funerals (Eccl.7:2). But overall, since speaking from Luke 9 at a university Christian Union meeting in October 1993, to preaching from Luke 19 at Gateway Church this past Sunday, I have delivered a thousand public talks.
This works out at preaching more than forty times a year, although it took me seven years to clock up my first one hundred messages. Since taking on the primary teaching role in the churches I have served, and then with going to multiple Sunday services, the pace has quickened substantially.
I reckon it was only after I had preached about 300 times (a milestone that took thirteen years to reach) that I began to get to grips with the process. Learning how to prepare a message, working on delivery, the whole A to Z of communicating to a crowd, takes time and repetition to get on top of. But if Malcolm Gladwell is right, and it takes 10,000 hours practise to ‘become good’ at something, then I still have an awfully long way to go – death will catch up with me long before I hit that total.
Another way to calculate this is that in the nine years I have been at Gateway I have preached on 266 Sundays. A rough estimate is that adding together preparation and delivery time, each Sunday represents about ten hours work – so, thus far I have put in about 2,500 hours of labour. At the same rate, I’d need to be here nearly forty years (and be well into my 70’s!) to clock up the 10,000 hour mark.
That feels rather dispiriting, but it is probably not an accurate reflection of the reality; because the reality is that sermon preparation is going on all the time, albeit not the conscious, sit at a desk and put pen to paper preparation. Learning the ways of a congregation, and of the town which the congregation is from, is an exercise in constant preparation. There is an exegesis of the people, as well as the text, and a constant focus on seeking to connect the text to the people. This means I hit 10,000 hours some time back. But it is also an argument for pastors staying in their towns, and with their congregations for lengthy periods. It really does take a long time to get to know a place, and a people, and to be a pastor, rather than just a deliverer of talks.
The vision you say you have matters less than you think. The vision you actually have matters more than you think. That's my theory.
If you lead a local church, it will be shaped far more by the vision you actually have—the things you are genuinely passionate about and committed to—than by the vision you say you have. With a company it can be hard to see through the spin (if there is any) to the reality, but with a family, like a church, it is different; people know each other, integrity is critical, spades are spades whatever you call them, and most people know that. Hopefully, of course, the vision you have and the vision you say you have are the same. But in my experience they often aren’t.
The question is: how do you tell? How do you tell whether the vision you (or they) say you have is the vision you (or they) actually have? Well: the vision you say you have is the one on your website, poster, flyer, bulletin, billboard, projector screen, video, order of service or whatever else you do. That much seems clear. The vision you actually have, though it is not as immediately obvious, can fairly easily be identified by asking five questions.
1. What are you reviewing? What are the things that, every week, you are keeping an eye on to see how you’re doing? (Many companies and more than a few churches would call these Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs). In many churches these will focus on the Sunday meeting: the number of people present, the number and quality of the charismatic contributions, the length and intensity of the sung worship time, the quality of the sermon, the number of visitors, the size of the offering, the number of public responses to the gospel, and so on. But they might include all sorts of other things: the percentage of regular attenders who are in small groups, the turnout and level of encounter at the prayer meeting, the number and quality of healing stories, the number of people touched through ministries of mercy or social justice, the success of conferences and resources produced by the church, or whatever else. The things that you review—or, in churches that review lots of things, the things that you focus on most in your review process—are almost certainly the things you actually care about, rather than merely the things you claim to care about.
2. What are you paying for? Generally speaking you get more of what you incentivise, and less of what you penalise. So: what are you paying for? If serving the poor, or reaching unreached people groups, gets forty percent of your vision time but only four percent of your budget, then while it may be central to the vision you say you have, it probably isn’t quite so central to the vision you actually have. As journalists often tell us, borne out by a fair bit of experience: follow the money.
3. What are you disappointed by? If you had to make a list of the top five things about the church you serve that can really ruin your Monday (or whatever day it is), what would they be? I know leaders who are fine with low attendance but devastated if the sung worship time feels “flat” (and if I’m honest, that’s a category I fall into myself); I know others for whom the most disappointing thing would be a duff sermon, or a meeting with no visitors, or declining giving, or poor attendance at the weekly prayer meeting or evangelistic initiative or ministry to the poor. The things that make you most disappointed when they don’t happen, in all probability, are the things you are actually most envisioned by.
4. What are you celebrating? This one is a great question for two reasons. Firstly, there is the flip side of the previous point: the things you celebrate the most are almost certainly the things you care about the most. But secondly, there is the power of public celebration (or, if you are from a tradition that doesn’t really do celebrating, the power of commendation or even honourable mention) in communicating and reinforcing your public vision. We replicate what we celebrate. It’s like a comment Don Carson made about teaching at seminary: my students won’t remember what I taught them, but they will remember what I was passionate about. If you celebrate large meetings, intense times of prayer and fasting, successful youth events or generous offerings, then the church will catch how important those things are to you. Vision is easier to show than tell.
5. What are you praying for? This is the most revealing of all, because it reflects the vision we are carrying when absolutely nobody else is looking. In the quiet place, when you are pouring your heart out to the Lord for his church, what are you asking him for? The chances are, that’s your vision.
Hopefully, those five things will help you establish what your vision—or, if you prefer, your dream or hope or ambition for the church you serve—actually is, whether or not it is what you have so far been saying it is. And if there’s a conflict between them (or, equally, if there is a conflict between your vision and the vision of your team members!), it’s probably worth knowing about, and doing something about. Just a thought.
Do you ever find the Bible hard work?
Probably we’re meant to. It is full of comfort and light and life, but it is also full of challenge, culturally alien references, and hard sayings. Almost every time I read a passage of scripture there is something that I have to wrestle with, and submit to once again. But it is not only the content of the Bible that can make reading it demanding work; stylistically it can also be a challenge.
As a young teenager I was already experiencing the rub of this. I started reading in Genesis 1 when I was 13, and got to Revelation 22 by the time I was 15 – a cover to cover approach that I would never advise to a first time Bible reader now. There was plenty to stumble and trip over along the way, but I remember one frustration being that much of the Bible just didn’t seem very well written. As literature, it didn’t always stack up well against other books I was reading.
Many cover to cover readings of the Bible later I have a greater appreciation for the different biblical genres, the challenges of translation, the cultural context of the narrative, and so on. But there are still times I wish Scripture was written differently.
So this, from Kevin Vanhoozer’s essay in Allen & Swain’s Christian Dogmatics has really helped me:
That Scripture is made up of human language and literature no more disqualifies it from being a vehicle for God’s Word than does Jesus’s humanity: both are servant forms. Jesus is God’s corporeal discourse (the Word incarnate); Scripture is God’s canonical discourse (the Word inscribed). We should not impose our concept of perfection on Scripture but rather acknowledge that God in his wisdom chose to employ just these forms of human discourse to present Christ and administer his covenant.
Why have I never seen it this way before? Jesus was perfect, but in his flesh appeared ordinary, with ‘no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.’ Had Jesus been physically superhuman, it would have been a denial of what the incarnation meant to achieve. Similarly, a Bible written to always win every prize for literature would have been a denial of what Scripture is for. Jesus stands supreme over all men and the Bible over all books, but not by normal human concepts of perfection. God in his wisdom became incarnate in the body of a first century mid-eastern peasant, and God in his wisdom speaks to us through the pages of Scripture.
There is beauty here for sure.
Jesus died as our substitute, argues Fleming Rutledge in her remarkable The Crucifixion. The Bible says so; the fathers said so; the Reformers said so; I say so. This is standard fare in evangelicalism, of course, but given her Episcopalian background, academic context and substitutionophobic audience, it is both interesting and very encouraging that Rutledge is there too (albeit with some differences of emphasis). Yet, as she points out—and as I experienced first-hand on Twitter only minutes before writing this post!—the idea that substitution was invented by Anselm, or even the Reformers, continues to reappear in contemporary discussions like a bad smell. So, in her very kind and Episcopalian way, she goes in for a spot of debunking. It's all over the fathers, she explains:
Athanasius: “Taking a body like our own, because we were all liable to the corruption of death, he surrendered his body to death instead of all and offered it to the Father ... Whence, as I said before, the Word, since it was not possible for him to die, took to himself a body such as could die, that he might offer it as his own in the stead of all.”
Ambrose: “Jesus took flesh so as to abolish the curse of sinful flesh, and was made a curse in our stead to that the curse might be swallowed up in blessing ... He took death, too, upon Himself that the sentence might be carried out, so that He might satisfy the judgment that sinful flesh should be cursed even unto death.”
Cyril of Alexandria: Christ “was stricken because of our transgressions ... this chastisement, which was due to fall on sinners ... descended upon him.”
Melito of Sardis: “The Lord ... suffered for the sake of him who suffered, and was bound for the sake of him who was imprisoned, and was judged for the sake of the condemned, and was buried for the sake of the buried.”
Gregory of Nazianzus: Christ saves us “because He releases us from the power of sin and offers Himself as a ransom in our place to cleanse the whole world.”
John Chrysostom: “Christ has saved us ... by substituting Himself in our place. Though He was righteousness itself, God allowed Him to be condemned as a sinner and to die as one under a curse, transferring to Him not only the death which we owed but our guilt as well.”
Jerome: Christ “endured in our stead the penalty we ought to have suffered for our crimes.”
Rutledge continues through the tradition, by way of Anselm, Thomas, Luther, Calvin and all the way up to Karl Barth (“the Judge judged in our place”), and makes a couple of insightfully acerbic comments in the process:
“It is not an exaggeration to say that in some circles there has been something resembling a campaign of intimidation, so that those who cherish the idea that Jesus offered himself in our place have been made to feel that they are neo-Crusaders, prone to violence, oppressors of women, and enablers of child abuse.”
“A good deal of the opposition to the substitution motif is rooted in an aversion to its fundamental recognition of the rule of Sin and God’s judgment upon it.”
I think she’s probably right.
Sorry for the double-posting today, but I've just written a review of Fleming Rutledge's magnificent The Crucifixion over at The Gospel Coalition which you might be interested in. Here's how it begins:
Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ is an extraordinary book. It’s theologically deep and beautifully written, pastoral and scholarly, ecumenical and evangelical. Like its author, it’s Episcopal but not as you know it. It’s endorsed by people you rarely find endorsing the same book: Stephen Westerholm and David Bentley Hart, Kate Sonderegger and Stanley Hauerwas, Larry Hurtado and Robert Jenson. In some ways, it’s the successor to John Stott’s The Cross of Christ; in other ways, it’s nothing like it. Readers looking for something on the cross that incorporates both richness and retrieval should forget N. T. Wright’s latest offer and get this.
In no particular order, here are 10 reasons why.
Read the rest here.
Here's a helpful paragraph from Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390) on why theology is so difficult (or, in his words, the incomprehensibility of the divine nature). In his Five Theological Orations (2.12), he suggests three reasons:
... we say that perhaps one reason is to prevent us from too casually throwing away the knowledge of it because it was so easily come by. For peopel cling tightly to that which they acquire with labour; but that which they acquire easily they quickly throw away, because it can be easily recovered. And so it is turned into a blessing - at least to all whoa re sensible - that this blessing is not too easy.
In other words: easy come, easy go. Perhaps theology is difficult to teach us appreciation. Or, alternatively:
Or perhaps it is in order that we may not share the fate of fallen Lucifer, lest, as a result of receiving the full light, our necks become stiff against the Lord Almighty and we fall from the height that we had attained - a downfall most pitiable of all.
If theology were too easy, we would become proud. So perhaps it is difficult to teach us humility. And there is one more possibility:
Or perhaps it may be to give a greater reward hereafter to those who by their labour and glorious life have here been purified and have persevered in seeking what they desired.
That is, the difficulty of theology teaches us hope, and encourages us to persevere in faith until, one day, we see face to face, and know as we are fully known.
Why is theology so difficult? Perhaps - and Gregory would stress that these are possibilities, not certainties - it is to provoke a mixture of appreciation, humility, and hope. And even if it isn’t, those are good things to cultivate anyway.
I was in Paris a few days ago, and as luck would have it, I was staying right by the Pompidou Centre on its 40th birthday, so admission was free. I browsed the massive modern art collection for a while—Duchamp, Dali, Picasso, Braques, Miro, Kandinsky, Pollock and so on—but modern art has never really been my thing, so I mainly ended up looking at the rooftop views across the city. I had seen enough, however, to be prompted again to consider something that has often made me curious: the relative decline of abstract, absurdist, surrealist and nihilist visual arts in the last half-century. Eric Hobsbawm wrote years ago about the death of the avant-garde, and the Pompidou Centre highlights it accidentally, simply by juxtaposing these great names from the first half of the 20th century with a group of more recent artists, clearly overshadowed by their illustrious predecessors, that no non-specialists have even heard of. (I am no expert on any of this, but it seems to me that the same thing is true of music since Stravinsky, drama since Beckett, novels since Joyce, and so on.) So the thing I am given to wonder is simply this: what happened to the absurd?
The next day, by coincidence, I was reading Terry Eagleton’s (quite superb) The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction, and to my astonishment he started talking about exactly this question. Here’s what he said:
Life seems absurd in contrast to a meaning which it used to have, or which you believe it used to have. One reason why modernists like Chekhov are so preoccupied with the possibility of meaninglessness is that modernism is old enough to remember a time when there was still meaning in plenty, or at least so the rumour has it. Meaning was around recently enough for Checkhov, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, and their colleagues to feel stunned and dispirited by its draining away. The typical modernist work of art is still haunted by the memory of an orderly universe, and so is nostalgic enough to feel the eclipse of meaning as an anguish, a scandal, an intolerable deprivation. This is why such works so often turn around a central absence, some cryptic gap or silence which marks the spot through which sense-making has leaked away. One thinks of Chekhov’s Moscow in Three Sisters, Conrad’s African heart of darkness, Virginia Woolf’s blankly enigmatic lighthouse, E. M Forster’s empty Marabar caves, T. S. Eliot’s still point of the turning world, the non-encounter at the heart of Joyce’s Ulysses, Beckett’s Godot, or the nameless crime of Kafka’s Joseph K. In this tension between the persisting need for meaning and the gnawing sense of its elusiveness, modernism can be genuinely tragic.
Postmodernism, by contrast, is not really old enough to recall a time when there was truth, meaning and reality, and treats such fond delusions with the brusque impatience of youth. There is no point pining for depths that never existed.
What happened to the absurd? Artists stopped remembering the meaning they had lost. If that’s not an opportunity to preach the gospel from Ecclesiastes, I don’t know what is.
Here's the conclusion of Fleming Rutledge's wonderful treatment of the Akedah, Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac:
We note two verses especially: “The Lord himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son,” and “You have not withheld your son, your only son, whom you love.” Abraham is for us the unparalleled example of steadfast trust in unimaginable circumstances. God enver asked this of anyone else; it was a onetime event, never to be repeated. Never, that is, until the day of the ultimate “counter-attack” (Calvin), God seeming to be against God, when God’s own Son cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
For Isaac, a substitute was provided - Abraham saw a ram caught in the underbrush. “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” When Jesus came to the cross to bear the sin of the world in fathomless darkness, there was no substitute for him. He himself was the Lamb. God did not withhold his son, his only son. The Son himself became the substitute - for us. But the crucial difference between the Akedah and the cross, finally, is that the Father is not sacrificing the Son. God the Father and God the Son together, with a single will, enacted the eternal purpose of God that the second person of the blessed Trinity would become “once for all” the perfect burnt offering, for us human beings and for our salvation.