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.