Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Top Evangelical Theological Events in 2009

Collin Hansen at Christianity Today has compiled a very interesting list of the Top Ten Theological Stories for the past year. It is an interesting selection and worth a read.

The standouts for me are the unexpected news of the phasing out of the NIV (a translation for which I have an intense dislike, frankly- how such an inaccurate translation managed to become the translation of choice for a very substantial majority of Evangelicals, a group that prides itself on its reverence for Scripture, has got to be one of the great mysteries of the universe) and the unexpected hostility towards the Manhatten Declaration (check out the comments on the article that Hansen links to and you may begin to realise just how far from Church unity we are in the West).

The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer, also gets a mention, as well he should. He has cancer at the moment, as a matter of fact, and needs prayers. His blog is well worth a visit, for those who don't know him. One of the canniest Evangelicals about these days. And one of the most Christian.

Swansong of the Sewing Machine

And so it was decided that the sewing machine would be taken for one last drive, and as its shifting parts moved against each other, first slowly and then faster and faster, and the familiar whirring sound was heard for the last time, a certain melancholy pervaded the air and a certain reluctance was felt in the old pedal.

But then, within an hour, a new model was on its way, smooth and silent, bearing its owner home. And so the ageless cycle began anew.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Augmented Means to Diminished Ends

This evening, I saw the film Avatar, and the above basically sums up my reaction.

Which is not to say I didn't enjoy it. The spectacle is amazing. I saw it in 3D, and it was well worth the extra money. The alien creatures (the animals, I mean) are well-conceived. The final battle is exciting. There is no doubt that James Cameron knows how to make a crowd-pleasing movie.

The problem was, it was basically a B-movie. There was very little of original sci-fi in it. What was there was hardly touched upon. For example, the Avatar concept could have led to some really interesting implications. How can you grow a (to all intents and purposes cloned) body without some kind of consciousness already in it? This is a living organism waiting for someone else's consciousness to be implanted. How does that work? What are the implications for the mind-body problem? The film touched on none of this.

What it did have was a weird quasi-biological version of Star War's Force. And the Na'vi were basically cyphers for American Indians. That annoyed me. They couldn't have thought up an alien alien? With the budget they had? Come on!

Likewise, the script was merely decent -by no means extraordinary, but certainly not as horrid as Star Wars dialogue. Mind you, there were some corkers. At one point, for example, the obligatory hyper-gung-ho military baddie declares to his men, "We will fight terror with terror!" Someone should tell the scriptwriter that being gratuitously topical is not always a good thing, and that if one does choose to do it, it should at very least make sense within the film. In this case, there had been no Na'vi suicide bombers whatsoever- indeed nobody had been killed yet at all- and so the statement made absolutely no sense.

And the plot I have seen in at least half-a-dozen other movies. It was done better and more plausibly (though that conclusion may say more about me than the film- my Japanese history is by no means thorough) in The Last Samurai.

I suppose economically it makes sense to throw a mind-blowing budget and test out unprecedented effects on a film whose story is tried and tested. But just once I would really like to see the Cultural Mafiosos take a risk. Pitch Black was far better as sci-fi than this. And when is someone going to make a movie out of The Mote in God's Eye? Now there's an alien culture I would pay to see on-screen!

Friday, 18 December 2009

Delightful Turns of Phrase

One of the perks of my line of work is the fact that new speakers of English (especially of university age) have well-thought-out intellectual positions and critical thinking faculties (well, some of them do) and a whole bunch of relatively new words to put such thoughts into, but little experience with doing so or with the turns of phrase and conventions of expression that obtain among native speakers of English. This leads to some curious ways of putting things, which can sometimes be by turns striking and endearing.

An example from today's class. One of my students gave a seminar on "Family Decision-making During Adolescence", looking at the ways parents and teenagers relate to each other and make decisions during the teenage years. The student in question was from Vietnam (those folk have a thoroughly charming if at times incomprehensible accent- they seem to be allergic to final consonants). Some delightful turns of phrase ensued. The family, we were informed, is "society's cell", and good family relationships are necessary to "make us full-fledged". Teenagers tend to be of the opinion that "parents get nothing in the modern life", but in fact they are disadvantaged because "teenagers only think near future; they don't think far away far away future".

Sure, some of you may not fully appreciate the simple delights of such unorthodox English usages. It may also be that you have never gotten an euphoric rush from finding a new word by chance then using it in a sentence (such as, say, prolix- a word I learned for the first time earlier this week). In that case, you have my sympathy, and I can only describe the glee with which I attended (and marked) this Vietnamess's seminar this afternoon by comparing it to the unexpected joy of putting honey and peanut butter together on a sandwich and finding they not only go quite well together but in fact enhance each other. What sweetness to hear the thoughts of academia translated into language being stretched and tested like a new limb. Like a blind man looking out with newly-healed eyes and seeing men walking about like trees.

I love my job!

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

I must confess substantial ignorance when it comes to the majority of science subjects (they're interesting- I just can't handle all the maths!), so will say up-front that honesty demands I refrain from having an opinion on the veracity of the scientific studies and whatnot behind the climate change movement. However, I must admit, this

does remind me of this

I'm also intrigued by what Mr Pachauri says about the Saudis. I take the point that they have an economic interest in denying the global warming narrative in order to preserve the status quo of the oil industry. That is obvious. I have to wonder though, if, given that the climate change movement has taken on all the aspects of a religion in its own right (the collective fast of Earth Hour, the alienation and dismissal of heretics and the establishing of an orthodoxy which is beyond question, evangelists in people like Al Gore, the threat of imminent apocalypse if we do not repent of our sins and change our ways, and now what amounts to an Ecumenical Council in Copenhagen), if at least one factor in the Saudis' scepticism might not be that they already have a quite robust religion of their own and don't particularly feel the need to subscribe to another, thankyou very much. Are other Muslim countries similarly sceptical? Well, not necessarily. Still, I can't help wondering if the economics is really all there is to it.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Online Trilinear Bible

Fr. Tim Finigan at The Hermeneutic of Continuity has drawn my attention to a very handy new venture at New Advent (whose Patristics section is to die for, by the way). Specifically, their Scripture section has gone trilinear, with Greek on one side of the English text (the original for the NT, Septuagint for the OT) and Latin (Vulgate- not sure which edition) on the other. Looks like my Greek NT will be seeing a little less wear and tear from now on!

On the Wind, Ecumenical Whispers

This is interesting. A book of Pope Benedict's speeches about the future of Europe, entitled "Europe, Spiritual Homeland", has been published, not by a secular publisher but by the Patriarch of Moscow. Not a big ecumenical step; not even a step really, but a hint, a rumour, a whisper on the wind that the era of mutual suspicion is drawing to a close. Let us continue to pray for the day when we may once more be united in one fold.

UPDATE: Here is some more detailed information about the matter. Hopeful indeed. Historically, the schism happened after centuries of drifting apart. Perhaps this is the beginning of a trend in the other direction. And this Archbishop Hilarion seems like one to keep an eye on.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Advential Randomness

This song (though not the dialogue before it) nicely expresses the spirit of this season.

Adventine Thoughts

I love Advent!

It's moments like these I wish I had prepared better for the season beforehand. To be honest, I didn't prepare myself particularly well at all this year, and so here it is the second week and I'm only just beginning to get in an appropriate frame of mind. It makes me wish Advent was longer (even most Lents I don't start really seeing any spiritual benefits in my life until the last week or two - the old ανθρωπος is stubborn).

Still, the season is so rich (and so sadly neglected and often ignored). And it fits one's experience no matter what is going on in one's life.If one finds oneself in adversity, Advent lifts one's cries of desperation and pleading onto a higher plane, plugging you into the long trials of Israel, and reminding you of the fact that we still await the day when Jesus Christ shall return and at last put all to rights. The spirit of the season is perfectly encapsulated in the Kyrie eleison, the cry of the beggar, the cry of the drowning man, the cry of one in desperate straits for whom all other helps have failed. Advent promises deliverance. He will come to your aid at last; only wait and you will see.

On the other hand, if one is in a good place in one's life, if one finds oneself at the centre of God's will, and content, Advent puts before us the blessed expectation, the joy of imminent ineffable delight. The air is thick with excitement, like the days before a wedding, like waiting in line for the premiere of a film of whose story one has been a longtime fan. Joy beyond all imagining, glory and beauty yet unseen lie around the corner, with which nothing in our present experience can compare, for which nothing in our present experience can prepare us. He is coming. Or rather, He is coming back. And "the sufferings of this present time [will not be] worth comparing with the glory which shall be revealed in us." (Rom 8:18)

Tonight, the first reading (which I got to read- woot!) was from Baruch. Basically the whole of chapter 5. In the face of total disaster, the conquest, the exile, Baruch gives a prophecy of gradually increasing exultation, a crescendo of joy. All of these griefs will pale. God will bring the people back. They shall serve Him in truth. It is from the perspective of the ruined city herself, a prophecy that she should look out because all those who went out from her in disgrace shall return in glory. The expectation is palpable. "Arise, Jerusalem. Stand on high. Look to the east."

Then we have John the Baptist in the gospel. Out he comes from the desert. Back into society from his near lifelong exile from the company of men. But he has a message. And it is, in some ways, the same as Baruch's. God is coming. Get ready. You will soon see what He will do.

After the sermon, we appropriately had this hymn, which I love (in particular I like the third verse):

On Jordan's Bank the Baptist's Cry"by Charles Coffin,

On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry
Announces that the Lord is nigh;
Come, then, and hearken, for he brings
Glad tidings from the King of kings.

2. Then cleansed by every breast from sin
Make straight the way for God within;
Prepare we in our hearts a home
Where such a mighty guest may come.

3. For You are our salvation, Lord,
Our refuge, and our great reward.
Without Your grace we waste away
Like flow'rs that wither and decay.

4. To heal the sick, stretch out Your hand
And bid the fallen sinner stand;
Shine forth, and let Your light restore
Earth's own true loveliness once more.

5. To Him Who left the throne of heav'n
To free mankind, all praise be giv'n;
Like praise be to the Father done,
And Holy Spirit, Three in One.

Fantastic stuff!

Saturday, 5 December 2009

On Receiving Communion

I am not a big fan of receiving the Flesh of Christ in one's hand at Communion. I make a practice of receiving Him directly into my mouth as a rule, which strikes me personally as a more fitting and respectful manner, and for me to refrain from doing so or to change my practice would be to demonstrate a diminishment of reverence on my part. This is, of course, an act of personal devotion to Jesus. It does not (or should not) cause me to judge the devotion or love for Jesus of those who do differently.

Of course, there are numbers of people who would regard the method of reception as some kind of a quasi-litmus test of devotion or, alternatively, suggest that abolishing the possibility of receiving the Lord's Flesh in one's hand at Communion would naturally increase people's reverence for Him. This is, I think, a potentially insidious temptation and an unhelpful way of thinking. Our bodies and our actions do, of course, communicate something of our attitudes. That is the element of truth in such persons' mentality. But bodies and actions are not an infallible indicator. And there is not always a causal effect from one to the other or vice versa. Acts of personal devotion are frequently precisely that- personal- and that which communicates or demonstrates something profound in the heart of one believer may leave another cold.

For those who think that somehow such things are a natural consequence (or, worse, a cause) of a general loss of a sense of awe and reverence before the Almighty over the last several decades, hear the words of St Cyril of Jerusalem, who could hardly be accused of a lack of reverence for the Holy Flesh and Blood of the Saviour:

Approaching, do not come with your palms stretched flat nor with fingers separated. But making your left hand a seat for your right, and hollowing your palm, receive the Body of Christ, responding Amen. And having with care hallowed your eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, take it, vigilant lest you drop any of it. For should you lose any of it, it is as though you were deprived of a member of your own body.

What would be to me a symptom of irreverence was to St Cyril quite the opposite. A very small minority would question the orthopraxis of a bishop who gave this advice today. But they would be wrong. It is good that the Church has instituted options for the faithful in this regard, rather than conforming us to an absolute and monolithic expression of worship. When I receive the Body of my Saviour, I may express devotion to Him in a way that seems fitting to me; someone else to whom such actions have no such significance is able to express the same devotion in a different way. It is then for me not to judge people's love and desire for God merely by whether or not they conform to how I naturally express these things. "For man looks at the outward appearance but the LORD looks at the heart." (1 Sam 16:7) And it is by our hearts, mine and theirs, that we shall be judged.

Thursday, 3 December 2009


I had a go at writing a sestina last week. Man, those things are the dickens to write! Pretty satisfying when it's done though (although I'm not sure if I'm likely to try another for a while). Not sure what to call it yet, but here it is, for public gustation.

In every place in which I walk about
I notice man's life isn't what it seems,
For every beast, when danger comes, will hide
Until it goes, but mankind looks for fun,
Oblivious until his doom has come;
Then, at the last, he finds there's no way out.

And in that moment every man cries out,
"Now that all's lost, what is my life about?"
At last does desperation make him come
To his senses, then - only then - it seems
Like he's awakened, lost his taste for fun
And maybe will from real things cease to hide.

For sometimes life's as tough as tanned hide
Or burns like roasted meat just taken out
Of the pan and eaten. It's no fun
To be betrayed or to have a bout
Of flu, to have life splitting at the seams,
To wait for something that will never come.

And when adversity like this should come,
Why should I be surprised that most men hide
By substituting what is with what seems,
And never daring once to venture out
To see the things that lie all round about
The bunker of illusion they call 'fun'?

Yet outside the confines of sug'ry fun
Lies something else which, if allowed to come,
Would shout the things they dare not talk about
And bring to light the good and bad they hide.
The one now peering in starts gazing out-
Yes, joy will shatter all that merely seems.

For Joy, not the emotion that just seems
To ignore the world, akin to fun,
But rather that which God, by trav'ling out
From heaven to be man, has caused to come,
Smiles quietly at grievous things that hide
In plain sight. It knows what the tale's about.

So hardships lie about, although it seems
That men can hide out in amidst their fun
Until God's joy should come and find them out.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Biggest Theological Battle

David Ould drew my attention to this video of part of an interview between Mark Driscoll and R.C. Sproul. Driscoll asks what, in Sproul's opinion, the most important theological battle for pastors in the next few decades will be.

Sproul's short answer is "Christology". Which is spot-on. And would be difficult to disagree with in any case- arguably, every major controversy Christians have had has been fundamentally about Christology. Moreover, last century and since, the influence of theologians such as Barth and Balthasar has, I suspect (and hope), renewed the focus of theology and theologians on the person of Christ- more than for the couple of centuries prior, perhaps. Which is something to be thankful for.

Sproul's longer answer is quite interesting. He replies that the specific Christological battle in Evangelicalism over the next generation will be over the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. This confirms suspicions I have had for some time (or at least strengthens them with the agreement of a noted Evangelical theologian and pastor), and indeed Sproul mentions the New Perspective by name. The shadows of James Dunn and N.T. Wright loom large as ever.

Of course, I find myself to a large extent on the opposite side of that battle from R.C. Sproul. The battle is and will be about Christology, but I think orthodox Christology is at odds with the imputation of Christ's righteousness, certainly the way that doctrine has been traditionally understood by the Reformed. The doctrine of the imputation of the alien righteousness of Christ (alien being the keyword, imputation less so), in my opinion, fundamentally alienates Christians from their Saviour, placing a barrier between the two. It doesn't do justice to key biblical images such as that of Christ as the Head and the Church as His Body, or of the Vine and the Branches. I believe it also creates problems for the doctrines of sanctification and the work of the Holy Spirit, separating entirely the work of the Spirit from the work of Christ, thus, I fear, in some ways undermining the nature and raison d'etre of what the Spirit does in believers.

The doctrine of the Incarnation must be and remain at the heart of the doctrine of justification. By taking flesh, Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, has hallowed humanity, become its new and proper source and definition. Humanness has been justified- made righteous- because Christ is human, has neutralised and defeated sin conclusively as a human and He, as a human, has been glorified. By becoming a member of Him, uniting myself with Him, the justified, sanctified, glorified life that is His begins to flow into, penetrate and take root in me. And thereby, I become not only a partaker of the life of the new Adam, but a partaker of divine life (2 Pet 1:4). That is indeed good news.

Friday, 20 November 2009

The Dean's Secret Diet

Another random attempt at nothing particularly profound but simply flexing prosodic muscles. This is meant to be a variation on the Sapphic Ode. The final line of each stanza is a bit shorter than normal, but I've tried to use spondees where possible (though it's difficult not to slide into inadvertent trochees).

The crucial question is, I ween,
What are the methods of the dean
By which he keeps himself so lean
And so fit.

Inquiring women want to know
About his metabolic flow
And speculate in whispers low
About it.

Why is his diet so effective?
What is his secret weight corrective?
The global feminine collective
Must know!

But he will make no revelation,
Despite all this interrogation-
"My legs have been since ordination

With words like these he mocks the fuss,
And likewise with the curious
Among the men, he won't discuss
It ever.

Thus sought by casual and keen,
The stubborn nature of the dean
Makes its discovery no mean

And so the secret all do crave
Shall go with him into his grave-
Unless the health his methods gave
Prove endless.

As Clouds Fly O'er

At the constant promptings of Kiran to improve my minimal understanding of prosodic jargon, I recently purchased this book (actually, it was more of an impulse purchase, but don't tell Kiran that). Curiously, I bought it mere days before its author started making a name for himself as a leading anti-religious zealot, but that notwithstanding, the book is excellent. It includes, among many other things, chapters on all major metres in English, and quite a few minor ones, many with which I had had nothing but a passing acquaintance hitherto (often not knowing the metre's name but knowing poems that use it) and several that were utterly novel. This has inspired me to try my hand at a couple, just for fun, and for no particularly good reason I thought I might post some of these. Of course it goes without saying that the copyright (on the off-and-decidedly-unlikely-chance that I ever publish any of these) remains mine.

This one is another potshot at the rondeau form, which I'm finding kind of agreeable, actually- like a sonnet, its nice and compact:

As clouds fly o'er an azure sky
The businessmen don't lift an eye
But in their offices they lurk
And, bending over paperwork,
They disregard the sun on high.

Once long ago, in years gone by,
Each soul began to ossify;
Here see this long process's work
As clouds fly o'er.

Yet comes the day these men will try
And break the mould, revivify
Their spirits, for an instant shirk
The burdens of their office work
And lift their gaze to sun and sky
As clouds fly o'er.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Our Lost Youth

On a whim, I had a go at writing a rondeau today. I don't think it's too bad for a first try. Tell me what you think. I retain copyright.

In our lost youth, we used to laugh;
We'd energy enough by half,
Our interest piqued by petty things,
And in our backyard we were kings,
A broken branch our royal staff.

Yet now, before the epitaph,
Despite the claims of some riff-raff,
I mourn not long nor feel the sting
Of our lost youth.

But why? Youth is a golden calf
Some worship, but at last like chaff
It's borne aloft on Zephyr's wings,
And pining for it only brings
Denial, pain, a bitter laugh
For our lost youth.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Carl Sagan Sings (with Stephen Hawking back-up vocals)

This is cool.

Rapprochement et Eloignement

This is a very interesting article.

It bears out what I have said before about the importance of the present debates on justification within Evangelicalism and the Calvinism/New Perspective divide. I also found this paragraph very interesting:

Beeson Divinity School founding dean Timothy George signed the 1994 ECT statement, which he said was a "circumscribed step forward" in Protestant-Catholic dialogue. Among ECT participants, George said, there is strong agreement with the Augustinian emphasis on the gratuity of grace, that we do not earn salvation by good works or merits. He acknowledges Protestants' and Catholics' lingering disagreement over how justification relates to sanctification and Luther's famous phrase simul iustus et peccator ("at the same time righteous and a sinner"). But he does not see justification as the focal point of Protestant-Catholic disagreement.

Yes and yes. This gentlemen has both identified the core of our disagreement on this particular issue and has also realised that this particular issue is not the core of our disagreement.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Professional Development Woes

There were no classes today. Instead, we had to attend an insufferable professional development day with all the other staff. There were a couple of amusing moments but overall it was tedious and mostly unhelpful, some of it being entirely irrelevant to the profession ("Keynote speech: Customer Service Essentials"?! We're teachers; we have students, not customers!). Behold the fruit of the thinking processes of bureaucrats who haven't stepped into a classroom in years.

Still, rather than complaining (at least in a normal way), I decided during the course of one of these PD sessions to translate my frustration into verse. Below is the result.

Vicarious embarrassment is rife
As corporate drones attempt to motivate,
Instilling in us useful skills for life,
Suggesting that we all participate
With stupid cheers and endless pair-groupwork:
"We-all-learn! Now repeat it after me!"
Nervously, we wonder where this jerk
Has happened to misplace his dignity.
He seems to be (I think) professional
Yet talks to us like we are ten-year-olds:
"This OpenSourceWare's educational
System will assist your teaching goals.
Now turn and ask your partner how they feel
About these diverse possibilities."
Fast falls now from my brain all trace of zeal
In face of these weird incongruities.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Waul and His Ball

So I stumbled across another amusing piece of news media and, frankly, it baffles me how they remained blind to the potential headline given the fellow's surname. But no matter. I've taken advantage of it myself.
Mr. Waul has created a giant ball of rubber bands. See below.

But the question remains, can it compare with the World's Largest Ball of Twine?

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Amusing Headline

Michael Flynn, science fiction writer and notable, drew my attention to this unintentionally hilarious article. The headline reads "Education Board calls for Less Cuts to Schools".

Well, you don't need me to tell you what's wrong with it, do you?

Monday, 26 October 2009

I'm on a Mission from God!

We've gotta get the Churches back together!

Catholic Anglicans

There are big things afoot and it would be remiss if I didn't offer at least some small comment. I and many others have been paying close attention to the talk of an Anglican personal ordinariate whereby disaffected Anglicans will be able to be reconciled with the Catholic Church while maintaining their liturgies and Anglican traditions including, importantly, married priests. This was all brought to light last week at a joint press conference attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster.

However big this turns out to be (and it may be bigger than many expect), it is a huge thing for ecumenism. Quite possibly the most significant since the Union of Brest. The head of the Traditional Anglican Communion, whose requests for reconciliation with the Church were in large part the catalyst for what is being proposed, talks about it here (and I have to say, 'divine divide diminishes' is a sweet turn of phrase). Having just gotten back from Egypt, seeing at close quarters the vibrancy of a persecuted church which has been separated from us for over 1500 years (and having also, as it happens, assisted at my first Greek Orthodox Mass- at the foot of Mt Sinai, no less), I am very interested in the implications for broader Church unity, particularly with the East. I'm not as confident that things are as far advanced as John Hepworth seems to think (the Russians still have huge reservations, their new Patriarch notwithstanding, and the Uniate situation in the Ukraine still leaves a bad taste in their mouths).

Nonetheless, this is a significant move. It opens the Western church up to the possibility of liturgical and cultural (and even to some extent disciplinary) diversity while still maintaining corporate unity. If the Anglican ordinariate is taken up and Anglican Catholic churches in English-speaking countries (not to mention Africa) become, not some odd and rare curiosity but a not entirely uncommon and culturally influential presence- something on the radar of the laity- then the identification of the Latin rite with the Catholic Church will be to some extent diminished. This is so even though, technically, the Anglican personal ordinariate will be operating as part of the Latin rite. The same is true of Summorum Pontificum. This is also in spite of the fact that there are Eastern rite Catholic churches around. Most of those don't figure much on the radar of your common Catholic, nor, I strongly suspect, on that of much of the clergy. But one effect that I hope this initiative contributes to is the changing of that.

This is how I hope and pray this plays out on a broad scale. More legitimate liturgical diversity is introduced. A certain mental break follows. The Catholic Church and a totally uniform Latin rite are not coterminous, it is realised. Cultural uniformity is not necessary for the Catholic Church to be what it is. Therefore, the way lies open for reunion of the other apostolic churches whose traditions and culture and whole theological mentality are totally different from the Western Church. Give it another 500 years and we might at last see something that we have not seen in 1500 years- the apostolic churches corporately reunited again and something that actually looks like the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Granted, a long way down the track. But that is what I'm hoping and praying for. And, unless I'm very much mistaken, that's the ball Pope Benedict has his eye on. John 17 is quite clear. Church unity is about evangelism, and ultimately effective evangelism requires one united Church. If we hope to truly bear witness to the gospel, we need to get the churches back together.

In the meantime, the Anglican personal ordinariate has other implications of lesser import but which are nonetheless significant and worthwhile. It means the glories of Cranmerian English set free from Cranmer's theological errors, and that on a wide scale (it has already been accomplished to a very small extent in the States- this promises to broaden it). It means disciplinary diversity- Western Catholics will be able to experience both celibate pastors and married pastors, and appreciate the strengths (and inevitably, the weaknesses) of each vocation. And, who knows, as the Anglican Communion disintegrates and disestablishment looms, this initiative might even do something towards saving Christianity in England and England for Christianity. And I'm all for that.

There is ambition here on the part of the Pope. The practicalities and the response begin to take shape but are not completely clear yet. So, with high hopes and hopeful prayers, we wait for the details to emerge and concrete responses to be made.

UPDATE: The talk of married clergy as a norm and widespread phenomenon within the Anglican Ordinariate seems to have been premature. According to Cardinal Levada, it looks like that at least will not change substantially, with celibacy being the norm for all clergy in the Latin rite, Anglican Catholics included, while the possibility of case-specific exceptions remains. I think it a pity, though understandable. Having two norms in the one rite could have been a nightmare. One can imagine a regular priest beginning a relationship with a woman and transferring to the Anglican Ordinariate simply so he could marry her. I can see why possibilities like that would cause headaches higher up. On the other hand, I don't doubt there are many Anglicans who would see a married clergy as part of their Anglican patrimony, a patrimony which it is the intention of the Ordinariate to preserve, and so they might feel somewhat betrayed by the clarification. Of course, there are exceptions and then there are exceptions, and it is perfectly possible that this is simply a way of avoiding the prospect of Roman clergy transferring to the Ordinariate for ulterior motives while leaving open the possibility of married clergy for those in the Ordinariate for whom this is part of their patrimony. At any rate, it will be revealing to see the wording of the Apostolic Constitution when it is finally released, and thereafter to see how its terms are implemented practically.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Alternate History - A Piece of Random Whimsy

For millenia the earth has been plagued by a constant ongoing war. Since the dawn of time, two implacable enemies have fought for supremacy throughout the world. Never satisfied with anything but total victory, and never irrevocably defeated, these two foes have warred down the ages. They are cats and dogs.

The cats have long had as their headquarters the land of Egypt. Indeed, at a certain point in their history, they were the rulers of this land, claimed as divine. From Egypt, they made slow inroads into Europe, where dogs held sway.

The dogs have long held the European heartland. Though attempting to make inroads themselves into the Egyptian feline home with such creative religious syncretisms as the deity Anubis (a blatant copying of the cats' initial strategy), the canines were held in acclaim and affection under successive empires, culminating in that of the French.

It was during the peak of French civilisation that the dogs felt that at last they were ready to take on the cats in their home territory. So, styling a puppet conqueror called Napoleon, a face to unite the masses and behind which they could hide their true purpose, they launched the invasion, a gargantuan effort to bring the long war to its close and ensure total victory.

It was a brutal and vicious campaign. Truly, the dogs' ambitions were great. But in the end, their reach exceeded their grasp and they were defeated, as the cats of Egypt called in the unexpected aid of the British tabby.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

A Festival of Dangerous Ideas

Actually, before I forget- for anyone in Sydney during the first week of October, this looks very interesting. A potentially healthy cultural sign, I think. And not only are Christopher Hitchens and Cardinal Pell facing off against each other, but the crazy old Germ is making an appearance and speaking on what sounds like a very intriguing topic herself.

Off to Egypt

These images are my attempt to resist the temptation to display the obligatory pyramid photo. Anyway, I fly out to Cairo tonight. Blogging is likely to be anywhere from sparse to non-existent for the next month, depending on a host of factors of which I am presently largely ignorant. Truth be told, its been pretty sparse lately anyway, but for the next month I will have an EXCUSE! So expect posts when you see them. Ma9 salaama, folks.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Hufu- The Pleasures of Cannibalism without the Moral Dubiousness

I'm a big fan of random happenstance, and last week saw a choice example.

A colleague of mine was conferencing with her English for Academic Purposes students on essays they were preparing. One of them had volunteered to do his essay on "The Pyramid of Hufu". Coming into the staffroom during the break, she expressed loudly her perplexedness at this mysterious essay topic. I volunteered that perhaps the student had made a spelling error and had actually meant the Pyramid of Khufu (which turned out in fact to be the case and which monument, coincidentally, I shall be visiting next week) but not before my colleague had done a search for 'Hufu' on one of the computers, whereupon it was discovered that this word has a meaning of its own.

As it turns out, there is such a thing as hufu, or rather there isn't. It is, apparently, a parody version of tofu for recovering cannibals who wish to ease off their dependence on human flesh for sustenance but are not ready to take up the exclusive consumption of non-human based food products. Unfortunately (or fortunately) its website has been off the air since 2006 but one can read about it here. Moreover, the folks at Damn Interesting (a site which is well worth your time anyway) did an article on it a while back as well. Certainly, the concept of a pyramid of hufu does create a curious and rather risible image in the mind.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Mots D'Heures: Gousse Rames

A colleague of mine brought in a delightful tome to work today. It purports to be some kind of collection of medieval French poems (complete with scholarly footnotes) but, if one reads it aloud, one immediately recognises that the French poems are actually English nursery rhymes cunningly disguised. Who would think up something like that (much less publish it)? Fantastic!

Below is one example (which I hope I can reproduce without breach of copyright):

Chacun Gille
Houer ne taupe de hile
Tôt-fait, j'appelle au boiteur
Chaque fêle dans un broc, est-ce crosne?
Un Gille qu'aime tant berline à fêtard.
(Luis van Rooten, Mots D'Heures: Gousses Rames, Penguin Books, 1980)

The author/editor interprets this to be a short tale about a country bumpkin (a Gille), who adores carriages and other such pleasures and who, having uncovered part of a seed while hoeing, calls to a limping man something about cracks in pitchers and Chinese cabbages (the editor conjectures there might be some moral implicit here which is lost on the modern reader). What becomes immediately apparent upon reading the thing aloud, however, is that it is actually 'Jack and Jill'!

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

What We Call Ourselves (and Each Other)

These two posts form an interesting juxtaposition.

(I'm not, I should add, asserting that one is a reply to the other; simply that they make an interesting pair, being on a similar topic but from quite varied perspectives.)

Was Jesus Christ Divine?

A short talk I gave for Lumen Verum last Friday on the divinity of Christ.

Read it here.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Hello from Earth

"When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?"

This towering monument to faith would seem to suggest yes. There is more faith here than in most churches. But faith in what?

One can't help but find things like this and SETI vaguely amusing. Huge efforts and great wads of cash are expended in pursuit of something which has no basis in reality and no evidence to even suggest its existence. This latest outworking of religious zeal is particularly bizarre, and strikes me as very redolent of the Twitter generation.

But one wonders, if indeed there were intelligent life on Gliese581d, what the reaction of those aliens would be to messages like "Stage fright! What do you say in an intergalactic message? Hello? Peace? What's the weather like? Know that we're here, we're waiting. Hear from you soon. Ally". Humans from a century or two ago would have been mystified by a message like that (come to that, so probably would a modern tribesman from Papua New Guinea). What would a non-human intelligence make of it? Wondering if this, a random pick, was a poor example of the kind of messages sent, I clicked on Top Messages to find out what the best ones were. The best, apparently, was "Hello Gliese 581d inhabitant. Can you help us humans travel through space and become smart like you. Please do not eat us we are a friendly race." And the CSIRO funded this?! Hmmm.....

Since one would assume, given the style and vocabulary, that most of the messages have come from children or young adults, it seems supremely ironic that Richard Dawkins and others of the New Atheism, while decrying religious education as "child abuse", turn a blind eye to stuff like this. Does it really seem more rational to them?

UPDATE: A commenter has pointed out that not all atheists ought to be tarred with the same brush on this point, and that there are indeed some who are sceptical about the benefits of programmes like this one. Some of these can be found in this thread on the Debating Christianity and Religion Forum.

St Augustine

Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your guidance the innermost places of my being; but only because you had become my helper was I able to do so. I entered, then, and with the vision of my spirit, such as it was, I saw the incommutable light far above my spiritual ken and transcending my mind: not this common light which every carnal eye can see, nor any light of the same order; but greater, as though this common light were shining much more powerfully, far more brightly, and so extensively as to fill the universe. The light I saw was not the common light at all, but something different, utterly different, from all those things. Nor was it higher than my mind in the sense that oil floats on water or the sky is above the earth; it was exalted because this very light made me, and I was below it because by it I was made. Anyone who knows truth knows this light.

O eternal Truth, true Love, and beloved Eternity, you are my God, and for you I sigh day and night. As I first began to know you, you lifted me up and showed me that, while that which I might see exists indeed, I was not yet capable of seeing it. Your rays beamed intensely on me, beating back my feeble gaze, and I trembled with love and dread. I knew myself to be far away from you in a region of unlikeness, and I seemed to hear your voice from on high: “I am the food of the mature: grow, then, and you shall eat me. You will not change me into yourself like bodily food; but you will be changed into me”.

Accordingly I looked for a way to gain the strength I needed to enjoy you, but I did not find it until I embraced the mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who is also God, supreme over all things and blessed for ever. He called out, proclaiming I am the Way and Truth and the Life, nor had I known him as the food which, though I was not yet strong enough to eat it, he had mingled with our flesh, for the Word became flesh so that your Wisdom, through whom you created all things, might become for us the milk adapted to our infancy.

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!
Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made
I rushed headlong – I, misshapen.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being,
were they not in you.
You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.

Today is a hopeful day for sinners. Today we are reminded that the chief of sinners (in Bunyan's phrase) is in heaven. If God's grace can do that, there is hope for the worst of us.

Kiran has a nice reflection here.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

St Monica

God our Father, comforter of the sorrowful, You accepted Saint Monica's offering of tears for the conversion of her son, Augustine. Help us, by their intercession, to have true contrition for our sins so that we may receive the grace of Your forgiveness. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

One in Christ: A Walk Through Galatians

For those interested, here is the transcript (or at any rate, a link to the transcript) of the lecture I gave at Sydney University last Wednesday. With the addition- for those who were there for it- of those several paragraphs I had to skip because of time constraints and the next group wanting to get into the lecture theatre. (Note to self: do not agree to speak on an entire Pauline epistle in a single lecture again. Unless it's Philemon or Titus.)

One in Christ: A Walk Through Galatians

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Israel/Palestine- Glimpses from the Ground

Israel is one of those utterly insoluble human problems created by politicians with an agenda at a particular time which then creates strife and misery for generations upon generations afterward. Not unlike Northern Ireland.

On the one hand, the Jews ought to have a land of their own, after so many centuries dispersed (and still, amazingly, retaining a uniform cultural identity!) and especially after their ordeals during the first half of last century. On the other hand, the Palestinians also ought to have a land of their own, and the tragic thing is that they did up until fifty years ago. After the events of the last fifty years, and having dispensed with the anger and recriminations on both sides, the insoluble question remains, how can one recognise the rights of the one group without impinging on those of the other?

I have a former student with whom I have maintained touch for a while now (we take tea together- he practices English and I practice Arabic) for whom these are burning questions. He is from Jordan but his family originally lived in Jerusalem, and had for as far back as they could trace their family (several generations, so at least a century or more) until they were expelled after the 1967 war. Curious, I asked him once what he thought about the issue of Israel and what should be done, given his family's own experience. He thought for a moment and then told me that he can't see why they can't live together in one sovereign state with a party system, etc. although he admitted the Israelis would never go for that because, in that scenario, they wouldn't have a political majority, hence their political autonomy (the whole point of having a land of their own) would be compromised.

I become increasingly interested in these questions, and in what those touched by them think about it all, particularly since I will be spending some time in Egypt from next month, a country which has figured prominently in the whole debacle. Not so much because I have a vested interest (I have little sympathy with all those Leftist "Free Palestine" protestors, whose anti-imperial stance, I feel sure, obscures the endless ambiguities of the reality; nor, on the other hand, with those many Christians who see the state of Israel as some kind of fulfilled prophecy), but because behind the politics are human realities and human suffering on both sides, families and cultures and mutually exclusive histories and cultural narratives rudely and abruptly thrown into conflict with one another.

In that connection, while looking up some details about my upcoming trip to Egypt (specifically transport to monasteries in the Eastern Desert) I stumbled across this travel video by (apparently) an Israeli Jew posing as a British journalist. Of particular interest to me were the opinions of the man in the car at the beginning.

Friday, 14 August 2009

How Much He Must Suffer For My Name

Anglican David Ould has an excellent reflection on the little-noticed text of Acts 9:16 here.

Of particular note is this line:
This attitude to suffering is not masochistic or stoic but a quite
counter-cultural embracing of a whole lifestyle because it mirrors that of Jesus.

'Tis but a small step from that insight to monasticism.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Christ the Lord- Out of Egypt

I have been a fan of Anne Rice since I did an exchange to La Rochelle, France, eight years ago and reluctantly began to read The Vampire Lestat because it was one of the few books in English at the local public library and I needed an English language fix. I was at first put off by the simplistic and colloquial register (I was used to more descriptive and sophisticated prose) but was quickly sucked in by the atmosphere, the sensuality of the writing and the incomparable sense of historical milieu. Anne Rice has a way of writing that engages all the senses and thereby immerses you in the story. Moreover, Rice has an acute historical sense; fascinated by what other times not just looked like but felt like- how did people think and feel then; how and in what terms did they interpret their experiences, etc? She can capture the mentality and mood of a period like few others. And of course vampires are always fun.

It is difficult to read any of Rice's books without realising that she likes to ask and think about the deeper things. Whether it's Louis meditating on his alienation or Lestat disproving to himself the existence of God in a quintessentially Enlightenment-esque manner, issues of philosophy and religion are constantly bubbling under the surface and often poke their way through. So when I heard that Anne Rice had come to faith in Christ and had been reconciled with the Church, I was both surprised and delighted, but not entirely shocked.

Rice's first novel after her coming to faith is "Christ the Lord-Out of Egypt". It has been out for a while and I bought a copy about a year ago, but I only started reading it last month. I finished it just before the weekend, and thought to share some impressions.

Before doing that, however, a preliminary comment or two. In the same volume as the novel itself, Rice includes a short testimony to explain why she has written the book and how she has come to be where she presently is. This is an account which is very moving, and it forever dispelled any doubts that I had that her conversion might have been a publicity stunt or some kind of ephemeral self-realisation thing. She describes beautifully how she came to a point where all the issues she had with Christian beliefs (and there are several, mostly relating to feminism and homosexuality) could be surrendered to Jesus Christ because, even if she didn't know the answers or didn't understand why Christ's Church teaches what it does, He knew and understood- and He loved the people who were affected by these issues and was holding them, as it were, in His Hands. Here is genuine faith. Beautiful.

She also describes interesting points along her journey, such as coming to the realisation that most liberal scholars don't actually like Jesus and that this building a career on writing about someone for whom one's habitual stance is a sneer was utterly unprecedented in any scholarship on other historical persons; or her coming to believe the Gospels and Acts must be dated early because they don't incorporate an account of the Fall of Jerusalem, and that most scholars have not really grappled with why that is.

Now, to come to the novel itself:

1) The first thing one notices about it is that it is written in the first person from Jesus' point of view. I was extremely sceptical about how this would work when I started. How can you get inside the head of the God-man? I was reassured somewhat by Rice's firm statement at the beginning that the novel is written from a firm belief in the Hypostatic Union and is intended to express the reality of that doctrine. But I was still sceptical. Having finished the book, I'm still not sure if it was the best way to do it. But I think, insofar as one could write a novel from the perspective of Our Lord as a child while firmly believing in the Hypostatic Union, and precisely to that extent, Rice has done it. The merits of the approach can be debated, but, accepting it on its own terms, it is largely successful, and at times beautiful and moving. One thing that Rice does as well that I was also initially sceptical about is including miracles from the apocryphal Infancy Gospels, but I can see why she did. She wants to emphasise that Jesus was always true God and true Man, and that the divine nature was always present, rather than being, as it were, dormant until adulthood or Christ's baptism or whatever. One final thing on this note: it is wonderfully refreshing to read a novel (not a theology textbook, but a novel) about Jesus which takes the Incarnation seriously.

2) One of the things that came home to me in a big way while reading this book was how God works in converting individuals and saving them. I suspect sometimes we (or at least some of us) act with a certain implicit assumtion that when God converts someone, they become a new person, totally different from who they were before. The beauty of the reality of conversion is that God has created everyone as a totally unique and unrepeatable individual, and it is that individual that He redeems. Grace builds on nature. God doesn't what to redeem a person so that they turn into something different; He wants to redeem them, with all their baggage, their ways of thinking and feeling, their experiences, their virtues and vices, talents and weaknesses, so that they become what they, as an individual, were always intended to be. To me, Anne Rice bears witness to this, because I loved her writings while she was an atheist, and now that she knows and loves Christ, I can see in this book everything I liked in her writing already, now transformed and put at the service of something higher.

Specifically. The sensuality of her literary style. That ability to immerse you in an experience by imaginatively engaging all the senses, which made her vampire novels so memorable, is perfect for someone trying to express literarily the reality of the Incarnation. Reading this novel takes you beyond an abstract doctrine to something that attempts to approach the immeidate experience of the Incarnation. The feel of places, the small-town atmosphere of Nazareth, the sound of the wind and texture of the grass and the silence as Jesus, even as a boy, seeks solitude to pray, the bustle and crush of pilgrim-crowds at Jerusalem where you stand for minutes without moving forward because of the number of people. One is immersed into Christ's experience, not just intellectual experience but bodily, sensible experience. Then there is the historical milieu. But I shall give that it's own point.

3) Historical milieu. Rice has always been good at capturing a period's feel, and no less so here. Several impressions in this regard were notable for me. Firstly, family. In this novel, Jesus' family is huge. There are aunts, uncles, cousins and random family relations everywhere, both in Egypt and back in Palestine, and unless you make an effort to draw up a family tree while reading the first chapter, you won't be able to remember how everybody is related to everybody else. There is therefore a palpable sense of community, which maintains throughout the novel. The Holy Family here is not a Western, nuclear family. It is a Middle-Eastern family (and certainly gels with my experience of Egyptian families). Everybody supports everybody else; everybody knows everybody else. This has interesting implications, such as the way the Rabbi grills Jesus because everybody remembers that there was something sus about Jesus' conception and birth, or the way Our Lady keeps to herself a lot because she knows what people say about her. Joseph, on more than one occasion, has to defend Jesus' parentage to those outside the family, which of course is never openly questioned but simply implied to be not quite kosher. Joseph himself, by the way, all too often neglected among the saints, dimmed as he is by the overwhelming light of the Saviour and of Our Lady, comes out of this novel a winning portrait of a good man, following and trusting in God despite many odds and near total ignorance of God's purposes for his family. Here is a man willing to trust God in the dark and keep following Him no matter what.

The Jewishness of Jesus is constantly on display. Of particular note is the Temple. The way the Temple is described captured my imagination- this monolith of whiteness visible for miles, the gold pillars, the crowds, the market in the Outer Court, the whiff of incense almost overpowered by the stench of blood, the troops of priests gutting what amount to whole herds of animals, the sheer scale of the place, and how Jewish life is centred on it, so that even while miles away in Nazareth on Yom Kippur, the narrative leaves you with a palpable sense of the significance of the events happening simultaneously in the Temple even though the narrative doesn't actually place you there. Connected with the Jewish element, the practices and the whole culture of the Torah come to life. The sense of the Covenant as both a story telling us who we are and as a way of life is constantly in view. And there are some delightful touches. Like the way, when meeting someone knew, characters in the story rattle off their genealogy to several generations to introduce themselves. Or the way people know all the Psalms by heart (and this is totally taken for granted as completely normal within the flow of the narrative) and start singing them at random moments throughout the story (with the whole Psalm quoted or paraphrased in the text). Or the way Joseph tells the story of Jonah or Tobit like a grandfather telling war stories, with all the colour and vivacity (and audience participation) that implies.

One thing that is undeniable as well is the political upheaval. There is a point in the story which is quite shocking to the reader, when the family have departed from Alexandria, a lively but stable city, and have trekked to Jerusalem from Caesarea after landing there. Jesus sees the Temple for the first time and is awed by it, but as they move into it, it suddenly becomes clear a rebellion is imminent, and it breaks out while they are in the Outer Court of the Temple. There Jesus sees a man killed in front of him by a Roman soldier. They escape Jerusalem intact and travel north to Nazareth, but all around the sense of danger and political instability is palpable. Allegiances are shifting; you can't trust strangers; fires are seen in the distance. At one point, the leader of a rebel group threatens the family for money to support his cause, but Joseph talks him down. When they finally get to Nazareth, Jospeh forbids Jesus or the rest of the children to go onto the roof of the house, because if they did they would be able to see the crosses lining the road to Sepphoris in the distance. It's a worthwhile reminder, I suppose, that not much has changed, and perhaps a subtle admonition not to subconsciously whitewash what we read in the Gospels and Acts or what we assume about their context. It was a pretty gritty place and time.

These are the standout points for me, having just finished the book. At some point in the near future, I will move onto its sequel, "Christ the Lord- The Road to Cana". Overall, though, this book is a thing of literary and spiritual beauty, coming from a deep love and devotion to the Lord. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Two Ecclesiologies

I had dinner with Kiran tonight after Mass, and we got to talking about, among innumerable other things, the ecclesiology of various Christian groups. In the course of this discussion, Kiran came up with what I think is a very neat and succinct turn of phrase describing a whole host of differences in this area of theology and Christian practice. Having obtained his permission, I've quoted this below a) because for Kiran to say anything succinctly is a rare enough occurrence anyway, b) because he's unlikely to write it down himself, and c) I think it's worth filing away for future reference.

"For the Protestant, properly so called, the Church is a group of people who are Christians; for Catholics, Orthodox and Lutherans, Christians are a group of people who are members of the Church."

Thursday, 6 August 2009

A Bit of Wright on Piper

I am going to get around to posting more on this subject, because I think it both interesting and significant. At present, however, I am in the process of negotiating my own way through all the issues in preparation for a lecture I will be delivering in a couple of weeks at Sydney University on Galatians. To which, if it's any good, I may even offer a link on here once it is finished. In the meantime, an update on David Schutz's blog pointed me in the direction of this brief summary/advert by Wright himself for his book responding to Piper.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Wi-Fi Brolly

Imagine for a moment that you are out walking in the country and it begins to rain. Naturally, you unfurl your umbrella. Then, as the rain continues, above the horizon, you notice a magnificent rainbow. It is one of those rare ones that is a full arc, touching the horizon at both ends with its peak high in the sky. Marvelling at this, you are further amazed, as the rain continues, to discern another rainbow, over and above the first. You are witness to a double rainbow- that rare and awesome sight! You wish that you had a camera to capture the beauty of it, but, alas, cameras are awkward to bring on a ramble and even if you had brought one, getting it out in the rain would ruin it. How are you to demonstrate to your friends and family what you have seen? How to express to them the majesty of this singular apparition?

Worry no longer! For the Japanese have come up with a device for just such an occasion. With a built-in camera in your brolly, you can capture that moment forever! Never again will you regret not being able to find quite the right expressive adjective to convey the marvellous sights that invariably present themselves to you on a rainy day!

And suppose (to continue the hypothetical anecdote) that on your ramble the mist suddenly obscured the two rainbows. You sigh to yourself- you wish you could go on looking at them but the moment has passed. Well, the Japanese have thought of that too. Not only can you send the pictures of the rainbow to friends and family via the Internet before you even get back from your walk (because, naturally, this umbrella has an Internet connection as well) but you can also project them onto the underside of your umbrella so you can continue to look at them while walking.

And then (to still further continue the story) suppose the mist became so thick that you couldn't see your way and began to lose your sense of direction. Well, of course, the Japanese, being the resourceful folk they are, have also thought of that eventuality, and have endowed this umbrella with a GPS system AND a digital compass.

Gosh, I'm glad there are people in the world who have taken the time to cater for those individuals who habitually see amazing and photogenic things on rainy days and can't wait to capture and share them with everyone on their Facebook page, and then get lost and can't find their way home. I'm sure this is a rapidly growing market and it's just as well at least one corporation is forward-thinking enough to respond to what is clearly a pressing need amongst consumers!

Mediaevals, Moderns and a Lamp-post

I came across this quote from G.K. Chesterton today. I think it sums up nicely the relationship of the modern world to the mediaeval world.

SUPPOSE that a great commotion arises in the street about something -- let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached on the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, 'Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good -- -- -- ' At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamppost is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmedieval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp we must now discuss in the dark. - G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

The Future of Justification

For those keeping tabs, this is Part 2, following on from my earlier post, "The Battle for the Soul of Evangelicalism".

I'm going to devote a post to each book in turn, Piper's first, then Wright's. Be aware I'm still thinking through a lot of this material, so if thoughts and impressions noted here are half-formed or could use a bit of nuance, that is why.

The first thing to be noted about Piper's book is that, like Wright, he is respectful from the get-go. This is the case even to the extent that it appears Piper sent drafts of his book to Wright for critique to make sure he had not misread or misunderstood where Wright is coming from. That, to say the least, is good form.

Piper, from the outset, lists the disagreements he has with Wright's theology and then tackles them in turn. I won't list these exhaustively, but will note the standouts.

1) For starters, he addresses Wright's cosmic theology- that the gospel is not a soteriology but an announcement that Jesus is now Lord of all things. Piper doesn't disagree that this is true, but is gravely concerned at the theological and biblical (and practical) implications of denying that the gospel is a message about how to get saved. His argument boils down to: gospel means good news; if you tell me that Jesus is now Lord of the universe and I understand what that means, I will fear for my life and soul because I, being a sinner, have no place in that universe; for a sinner, news like this is emphatically bad news until you tell him how to get saved.

Reading that particular chapter I had the peculiar experience of first sympathising and then becoming increasingly distressed the clearer the point became. One may be sympathetic when one reads lines like, "Not until the gospel preacher tells the listener what Jesus offers him personally and freely does this proclamation have the quality of good news." (p86). But then the language becomes progressively creepier- "The good news was not that Jesus died and was raised- that was emphatically bad news at this moment! What turned that bad news of death and resurrection into good news was the teaching- the doctrine- that by faith alone this life and death of Jesus could be the ground of the justification of the ungodly, not condemnation. "(p87-8)- and creepier - "..the sinner will say, 'What good is that for me? How can that help me or any sinner?' If the gospel has no answer for this sinner, the mere facts of the death and resurrection of Jesus are not good news. But if the gospel has an answer, it would have to be a message about how the rebel against God can be saved." (p89)

It seemed to me a disturbingly utilitarian view of the gospel and I couldn't help thinking: if I were one of the disciples on Easter Sunday, having come face to face with the Risen Christ, "What good is that for me?" doesn't quite seem the right thing to ask. I was somewhat gratified to find I was not alone in having this reaction. Wright addresses it himself in his book (which I will treat in detail in my next post on this topic), analogising it to two men who are both agreed on the brilliance of the sun relative to the earth, but one of whom believes the earth goes around the sun while the other believes the sun goes around the earth. An apt metaphor. There is a serious problem if, in my mind, the gospel is all about me. There is a perilous and subtle error here. Where the gospel comes to release me from sin and hell (which is precisely the self turned in upon itself) it will have the effect of opening me to God, not confirming me in my egoism. If I believe that I am so important that God Himself revolves around me and that all of salvation history has been leading up to that glorious moment that is my conversion, my soul is in serious danger. If the Paschal Mystery is not at the centre of my faith, Heaven help me! As Lewis says somewhere, if the Christian looks at himself honestly he will see a small and wretched creature, but it is far better not to look at oneself at all. Fix your eyes upon the Crucified and Risen Jesus. Therein lies joy and salvation.
There is another danger here, I think. Wright identifies it as the belief that we are justified by believing in justification. I think most Protestants would rightly decry such an idea, and I do not believe that all, or even most, fall into that error. But there are some who do. And there are others who come close to it. I would say Piper falls into the latter category. Rightly, he declares that we are saved by trusting in Jesus, not trusting in our own beliefs about Jesus. Nonetheless, dangers lurk. Notice how Piper sees the proclamation of the gospel in the quotations above. To proclaim the facts of the Paschal Mystery is not sufficient. The sinner also needs to be told "how the rebel against God can be saved."; the good news of Christ's death and resurrection is bad news until you are told "the teaching- the doctrine". Only then does it become good news. This is perilously close to saying that the it is not the central events of Christianity themselves that save us but rather ideas about them. The good news stands in danger of becoming the good technique- not news or a proclamation but a how-to. The full extent of this is demonstrated in a later footnote- "'If you believe, then such and such will be true of you,' is how the gospel speaks to unbelievers." (p99) If that is the essence of how you preach the gospel, then you are not bearing witness to Christ crucified and risen, but rather indulging in a peculiarly Christian form of self-help- 'do this and your life will be better'.

2) Another major problem for Piper is imputation of the alien righteousness of Christ. Wright doesn't believe in this at all (contra Luther, Calvin and any Protestant theologian worth his salt), regarding it as a simple category mistake based on a misreading of Paul. Piper goes to work on this, exegeting a number of appropriate texts to support the classical Protestant interpretation of them. His best work here is on 2 Corinthians 5:21, a very close and convincing piece of exegesis in which he builds a very solid argument based on the parallelism between the two parts of the verse, arguing that since Christ is sinless and yet is said to have been "made sin", likewise we, though being sinners, are said to have "become the righteousness of God" in the same way i.e. without affecting or changing our ontological reality. There is more to be said about this verse, and I have a good mind to devote at some point a post to that verse a lone and the different interpretations I have seen of it in various quarters (I can think of at least three quite different readings I have seen of it). Piper in some places seems to say or imply that 'sinner' will remain our ontological reality even after the Parousia. But I'm not sure this is what he means. In other places, he pulls Wright up for merging "the imputation of a new position with the impartation of a new nature." (p126) What would have been helpful in this regard is a discussion of the relationship between justification and sanctification, as Piper sees them. As it is, he doesn't mention sanctification at all, i.e. the ongoing work of the Spirit in the believer to conform him to the image of Christ, not just nominally but truly. This is something I would like to hear Piper clarify (it is possible he does this in other books he has written- I will be keeping my eye out for such treatments). Regarding imputation, I'm not convinced there is as much difference between Piper and Wright as at first appears. Both see righteousness as a status that is given by God, rather than an ontological reality, but whereas Piper sees this as the morally upstanding and Torah-obeying life of Christ being regarded as ours, Wright sees that righteousness as being a covenantal vindication, a declaration that one is indeed a member of the Covenant People of God and an indication that one will be among the elect on the last day. Wright's main beef (and consequently Piper's beef with his beef) lies in whether this righteousness is God's own counted as ours or whether it is not His own but a status, as it were, freshly created, counted as ours.

The real dispute here, I think, is how to regard salvation. Wright comes at it from a very participationist view. We are justified by being in Christ. Since we are in Christ, what is His is also ours. Since we are in Christ, the Spirit of Christ is in us and works to perfect that participation by making us like Him. This naturally leads to synergism, where the good works we do are done both by us and by Him, not as a supplement (I do what I can and He does the rest) but by a paradoxical dual totality (everything I do I do with all the effort and energy I can muster, but in the end everything I have done has been done by Him and I can regard none of it as my own). Piper decries synergism, smelling about it a gospel of works and Pelagianism, but on more than one occasion I got the impression that he didn't quite get the paradox. So when Wright says that we will be judged on the basis of the totality of our life (which, personally, I don't think is sufficiently nuanced as it doesn't leave room for things like deathbed conversions), Piper springs into action to defend the doctrine of grace alone, seemingly under the impression that Wright has denied it. Witness, for example, this passage: "It is unclear whether Wright is merging our imputed position in Christ as vindicated before God with an imparted newness of nature that lives by faith. I don't think Wright would even like this distinction, since both are totally gracious gifts of God."[italics mine] (p127). Piper is probably right that Wright would dislike the distinction he makes, but I think the reason he gives is telling. He seems to think Wright would dislike the distinction because it would mean that God's grace does everything and leaves nothing for me to do; in other words, because the distinction assumes sola gratia. I believe this is both a misunderstanding of Wright's theology and also a symptom of a certain tonedeafness on Piper's part. Actually, it reminds me of nothing so much as the difficulty of explaining the hypostatic union to a Jehovah's Witness: "Look, you can see from these verses that Jesus was a man." "Yes, I agree with that." "So you see he cannot be God as you claim." "Well, no, he is God." "But as you can see the Bible shows that he is a man like any other." "Yes, he is a man like any other but he is also God." "Do you believe that Jesus was a man?" "Yes, I do." "So therefore he can't be God." "No, he can be God. He is God and man at the same time. He is both." "But the Bible says..." and so on and on.

This seems to be a similar blindness to paradox. "Do you believe that you are justified by works?" "Yes. Have you read Romans 2?" "So you deny the gospel of grace?" "No, there is nothing I can do to be saved. God's grace through Christ alone can save." "Then you admit that your life will be irrelevant at the judgement?" "No, I will be judged on the basis of the life I've lived in the Spirit." "So you believe you need to do something to be saved?" "No, it is the Spirit who works in me." "Do you believe what the Bible teaches, that God does everything and you contribute nothing to your salvation?" "Well, I do believe that God does everything but I also believe that I do do something towards my salvation." "But if you do something, then that something is something God doesn't do." "No, God does it and I do it." "That doesn't make any sense. Do you do it or does God do it?" "We both do it." "So you believe you contribute something to your salvation?" "Yes, the life I live in the Spirit." "So you think you need to add something to the grace of God!" and so on. Frustrating.

The need for a clarification on what Piper believes about sanctification becomes more acute later in the book. He says things like, "Whether this right standing with God consists in the imputation of righteousness from beginning to end or consists partly in the impartation of righteousness is a crucial and necessary question." (p182) To which I reply, why partly? Can it not be a total imputation AND a total impartation? Or do we remain partially sinners to the end? Elsewhere, Piper quotes Charles Hodge sympathetically: "Christ bearing our sins did not make Him morally a sinner...nor does Christ's righteousness become subjectively ours, it is not the moral quality of our souls..." pp179-180) A statement like that cries out for a statement about sanctification and the action of the Holy Spirit to balance it. But nothing is said about either. Further on, Piper quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in an effort to demonstrate how close Wright's ideas are to the Church's and therefore why he should be opposed: "God's final verdict of justification is based on the Christian's inherent righteousness , acquired by grace..." Does this mean that Piper believes that the Christian is never intrinsically righteous, but only ever nominally?! Hence the need for clarification.

Getting back to imputed righteousness, one question I would like to see Piper (or for that matter, any Calvinist) answer is, if we are in Christ (and Piper accepts that idea, even if he is uncomfortable with some of the implications Wright, or for that matter the Catholic Church, draws from it), then how can His righteousness be 'alien'?

3) Connected with these points is what is, I think, a common Protestant mistake, which is to get faith and grace confused. I can't count the number of sermons I've heard where the preacher has spoken of sola fide where actually what he meant was sola gratia. So when Wright denies sola fide (at least in the narrow sense that Piper wants him to adhere to), invariably Piper ends by accusing him of denying sola gratia. An example: "What then, in Wright's system, does this description of works as 'signs' point to? Clearly, it points to the fact that union with Christ by faith secures a vindication for us that we have only because of union with Christ, not because of our merit or 'self-help moralism'. But what is less clear is whether it points also to a Spirit-wrought transformation 'in Christ' that also functions coordinately with the death and resurrection of Christ as the ground or basis of our final vindication." (p127) Note what has happened here. Wright has been claiming that Spirit-wrought transformation works coordinately with faith, both of which have as their basis the grace won by Christ through the Paschal Mystery. Piper subtly replaces faith with the Paschal Mystery, making it look like Wright is trying to add to the work of Christ. I don't put this down to any disingenuousness on Piper's part. I think Protestants in general have a habit of getting grace and faith mixed up, treating them as though they were the same thing when in fact they are not.

Now, more positive points.

4) Wright goes to great lengths to demonstrate that first-century Judaism was not Pelagian, was not about earning salvation through works of the law, but was rather built on a doctrine of grace based on God's election of them as a chosen people. Piper, in a very well-argued chapter, demonstrates that, whether or not they believed they could earn their salvation, they could still be guilty of what he calls a 'soft legalism' deriving from their consciousness of the covenant and election, thereby leading to self-righteousness. So, whether, as Wright says, the Torah provided a distinction between them and the Gentiles, a badge of covenant membership or whether, as the Reformers (and Piper?) said, it was a kind of Pelagian instrument designed to merit salvation; in either case, it led to self-righteousness so the different perspectives here are a moot point. In his own book, Wright acknowledges the validity of Piper's argument on this point.

5) Piper criticises Wright's definition of God's "righteousness" in Paul as His faithfulness to the covenant. He says that this is one of the things God's righteousness does, but not what it is in its essence. Wright, in his book, says things which, I'm pretty sure, amount in the realm of ideas to more or less the same thing. So I think this is also a moot point.

That will do for the moment, I think.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Most Popular Bible Verses

I tend to use a lot. So I was interested to see what they turned up when they took some statistics on the most searched-for Bible verses on their site. And the results are indeed interesting. Take a look at them here.

Arguably, what's even more interesting is which verses are the least popular. According to their findings, that would be anything in 1 Chronicles 23-27. Hmmm...

Thursday, 16 July 2009

The Battle for the Soul of Evangelicalism

I have a lot of thoughts flitting about my head at the moment and am trying to get them into some sort of order. It will probably take a couple of blog posts to do it. So this is Part 1, I guess.

Let me start at the beginning. A couple of months, wait, let me go further back. About 6 years ago, as I was preparing to enter the Church but still quite involved with Evangelical activities (it was a strange yet very fruitful transitional time), I was chatting to the then-President of the Sydney University Evangelical Union, Andrew. We had just finished a small group Bible study and were talking about books we were reading. He pulled one out that he had nearly finished and started raving about it to me. It was called "What Saint Paul Really Said" and was by a fellow called N.T. Wright, whom I later discovered to be the Anglican bishop of Durham. Intrigued, I went out and picked up a copy and began to read it. I was a bit put off by the title (seemed a bit presumptuous to claim to know what Paul meant with the implication that few others did) but I was impressed by the content. The perspective was fresh, the methodology refreshingly free of prooftexting and several of the conclusions mirrored things I had been thinking about justification myself (eg. imputed righteousness as a misreading of Paul).

As time went on, I became aware that there was a theological movement going on in Evangelicalism that had similar emphases and conclusions, called the New Perspective on Paul. But by that point I was in the Catholic Church, so these were like rumours from a distant land. Evangelicalism has fads like this and they come and go (eg. dispensationalism was huge in the 70s and 80s- well do I remember Hal Lindsay and companions- but doesn't seem to be nearly as big these days).

Fast forward to about a month ago. I happened upon a book review on the blog of an acquaintance of mine (and dear friend of my brother and sister-in-law) from Glenmore Park Anglican, who is presently at Moore College (the Anglican seminary in Sydney, for those who don't know). The review was of "The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright" by John Piper. John Piper, if you haven't heard of him, is one of the big names in Evangelicalism. He is the pastor of a Baptist church in America and has written dozens of books. A number of small groups at Glenmore Park Anglican have been working through one of his books over the past several weeks, in fact- I had a look through it at the behest of my (other) brother some time ago and found it to be pretty solid. In other words, Piper is a popular writer, not a polemicist. If he has "A Response to (insert individual's name)" as the subtitle of one of his books, something's going on. Curious at the fuss in high and influential places, I did a search to see if N.T. Wright had written a response to this response to him. As it turned out, he had (once again I thought, hmm...something's going on here- bishops, especially modern Anglican ones, are also not usually given to personalised polemics).

So I went out and purchased both books. I began with Piper's. This afternoon I finished Wright's.

I want to blog more on specifics over the next few days, not least to get my thoughts in order and to gather up my margin notes into something a bit more coherent. But for the moment, some initial impressions.

Firstly, having just plowed through both books in a matter of about two weeks (and they are pretty dense), I find myself reeling from the experience. This is not least because it has been not unlike finding oneself in a Godzilla movie. Piper and Wright, whatever else one may say about them, are giants. These are theologians and biblical exegetes at the top of their game. Neither man is sloppy in his reasoning, neither misrepresents his opponent's ideas, neither is uncharitable to his opponent but neither compromises his own view. These are two men who have no interest in polemics for its own sake, who take deadly seriously their responsibility as pastors and who have total reverence for the Scriptures. Yet their views on Paul's meaning are, in many aspects, diametrically opposed. Not so much in the particulars (although they are sometimes that) but in the whole way they read the Epistles (and indeed the whole Bible). Both are what would be called conservative in doctrine, yet each comes at the Pauline epistles and, thus, a good deal of Christian theology, with a completely different way of reading and understanding them (and it). For this reason, it has been quite a spectacle.

Secondly, there dawns over me the distinct impression that the views represented by these two men are not a side-issue, another theological fad (like dispensationalism was). In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion (which I'm still mulling over and testing against reality) that this is the battleground over which the future of Evangelicalism is going to be fought over the next 30-40 years. That's a big claim, but let me set out my reasons for this growing suspicion.

Obviously, its more than just Piper and Wright. On the one hand, you have, arrayed out behind Piper, the Reformed/Calvinist line. The Calvinists have been making a comeback over the past couple of years. When I was at Sydney Uni, Arminianism seemed generally taken for granted. I recall at Annual Conference 2004 that the doctrine of free will was held up as a non-negotiable. I also recall the doctrine of total depravity being held up as something we should believe, but not in the Calvinist sense that "man is utterly depraved and can therefore neither desire nor do any good of himself" but rather "there is no human faculty that has been left untouched by the influence of sin", which is a perfectly Arminian and, indeed, Catholic way of understanding total depravity. Since then, I have noticed many of my Evangelical friends and acquaintances here in Sydney take a much more Calvinist line. I am aware that the Anglican archbishop here is a Calvinist. I also note with interest that several of the more popular writers and speakers among Evangelicals in the past couple of years have tended to be Calvinists. John Piper, of course, is one example. Another notable is Mark Driscoll, who seems to be quite popular (though I hear rumours he's not as solid on Limited Atonement as some would like him to be). This is a relatively new thing, I should point out. Not that long ago, the Evangelical pillars were all Arminian- Billy Graham, John Stott, etc. So there is a definite trend here, and I think the more Arminian Evangelicalism, whose forebears were people like the Wesleys and George Whitefield, is on its way out. There do remain those that wouldn't dream of questioning free will. When I was talking about this with my parents, they were horrified to think there were people (much less Evangelicals) who genuinely believed that God predestined some to perdition. I fear, however, the time of such horror is drawing to a close.

On the other hand, arrayed behind Wright, is the New Perspective, Sanders, Dunn and the like. Here we have a whole new way of reading Scripture, based on covenant theology and what we know of actual Judaism during the Second Temple period. This view is adamant that Scripture must be read in its context with attention paid to the whole of the author's meaning, undiluted by later theological accretions and uses to which these texts were later put. The New Perspective regard the covenant with Israel as foundational to how one understands what Paul says about soteriology, ecclesiology and everything else. They tend to focus much more on a cosmic (rather than individualist) soteriology, accept a more active role for the Holy Spirit and are big on participationism. They prefer to leave behind sixteenth century categories, inserting their own (which may or may not be Paul's own, depending on whether you agree with them). This view is becoming popular in many quarters. As I said, I was first recommended Wright by the E.U. President. I have met others who find themselves ascribing more and more to this methodology and its conclusions. Also, I noted with interest that Wright was interviewed sympathetically in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney outreach programme "The Christ Files", aired on public television (!) during Easter 2007 ( a terrific programme, I must say, which put us Catholics to shame with regards to presenting society with the gospel- although we made it up the following year with World Youth Day).

Both movements have their thumb firmly in the Evangelical pie. And neither can be easily dismissed by your average Evangelical churchgoer as theologically liberal or unbiblical. Now let me describe a couple of reasons why I think the future of Evangelicalism must lie with one or the other.

The fact that it cannot lie with both seems clear. Their ways of reading Paul (which is what Evangelicals usually mean by 'reading the Bible') are incompatible with each other. There could be compromise on particular doctrines, but these are whole theological narratives that are at stake.

Each view has certain advantages. The Reformed/Calvinist side has the advantage of history and (ironically) tradition. Forensic justification, imputed righteousness, faith alone; these are Protestant bread and butter and have been for centuries. To the average Evangelical today, these were the battle-cries of the Reformation (I remain sceptical that that was in fact the case, but let us leave that for the moment). And the Reformation is, of course, the foundational event of Protestantism. Call that into question and what is left (-a lot, of course, but none of that stuff is really on the radar unless the Evangelical in question is talking to a Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian)? Piper (and others) appeal to this a lot. Their theology has the venerable and holy names of Luther and Calvin attached to it. To question what seems to most Evangelicals to be the centre of their theology seems to put one outside of Protestantism altogether. On the other hand, to uphold it is to continue to defend the truth that the Reformation was begun to defend, and therefore to place oneself side by side with those brave and noble Reformers. One questions the foundational narrative of one's culture at one's peril. One upholds it for the good of all. The Calvinists see themselves as doing the latter, and they regard the salvation of individuals to be at stake. That's something worth fighting for.

On the other hand, the New Persective actually has a lot going for it. It appeals to perennial Protestant instincts: the inclination to go back ad fontes, to the sources; the reverence for Scripture and the desire to strip away extraneous traditions and get at what Scripture actually teaches. These are very deep desires in the Protestant heart, and the New Perspective appeals to them in a big way. To those who ascribe to this view, the Calvinists appear to be clinging to human traditions and muzzling the Scriptures. The New Perspective also see themselves as taking on the mantle of the Reformers, but by tearing down fallacious and misleading philosophical and theological edifices and getting back to the pure doctrine of the early Church.

I may be wrong on this, but I get a greater and greater sense that this is going to be the Evangelical battle over the next couple of decades, and that the Evangelicalism that emerges will look rather different to what comes before, the same way the Wesleys looked quite different from both the Reformers and the Puritans. I shall say more of each side, and of my thoughts on specific arguments and exegeses, in future posts over the next week or so. Suffice to say, for the moment, its a battle not to be missed.