Sep 202013
 

“In the beginning, when God created…”

The opening verses/chapters of Genesis are almost guaranteed to excite debate. Whether it is science v. creationism, or poetry v. history, interpreting the opening part of Genesis seems to cause splits between Christians and atheists, and Christians and other Christians.

Creationism (and its associated ‘young earth’ and ‘seven literal days’ doctrines) has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons (actually, maybe for all the right reasons) in recent weeks here in Scotland. A Christian group, working in primary school chaplaincy, were handing out creationist literature to the pupils, even the very youngest. Chaplaincy is a privileged position in schools. Chaplains are allowed in only at the invitation of the Head Teacher. It is clearly understood that proselytising is not acceptable, although that is not to say that we cannot share an understanding of our Christian faith. Handing out faith tracts which represent a fairly marginal position to children who do not have the critical faculties to assess it is, I would suggest, an abuse of that privilege.

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Sep 242012
 

Apologies up front – this is yet another ‘brain-dump’ post as I attempt to get my head round some thoughts.

One thing I miss about not having a supervisor is the opportunity for theological discussion. And since I haven’t been blogging much either then I’ve not had an opportunity to engage through that medium either. That’s not to say there hasn’t been ongoing theological engagement, but it’s been in settings where the topics up for discussion have tended to be the same old contentious chestnuts – and it’s fair to say that it’s getting a tad wearisome.

However, I have been dipping in and out of some other theological reflection areas, and one that has my old grey-cells working at the moment comes from some of the writings of Andrew Perriman. In particular, his Kindle book, Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective, has got me thinking about all sorts of issues. The Kindle book is a collection of selected blog posts, so it’s not really necessary to purchase it, but it does help having it all in one volume, and with a bit of editorial gloss.

His key premise is that scriptural interpretation of crucial parts of the New Testament ought to be approached with what he refers to as a ‘narrative-historical’ hermeneutic. This, he suggests, is a paradigm shift in approaching these texts. And, to be fair, I’m having a hard time readjusting my perspective to see the texts in that light. And I’m attempting to do so, because I think his approach has some merit.

My own theological progression has moved through a number of stages, and is now a significant distance from the conservative-evangelical approach I was primarily exposed to in my early years as a Christian. I can identify a ‘paradigm shift’ when I first read NT Wright. His writings had a major impact on my eschatological understanding. Exposure to Barth at university reshaped my outlook on revelation. The blog and books of Scot McKnight had a further impact on my understanding of ‘God’s Kingdom’, and also refined what was already my general approach to scriptural interpretation.

Perriman’s work though, challenges me in a new way. If I’m reading him correctly (and this is part of the issue of getting my head round his approach) what he seems to be suggesting is that much of the ‘future-focused’ aspects Jesus’ teaching in particular have already come to pass (but with resonances for a future still to happen). Jesus’ teaching, he is suggesting, is about the consequences of conflict with Rome, and holds a much stronger ‘corporate’ dimension than most western evangelical teaching allows.

It is this ’embedded in (already happened) history’ which shapes Perriman’s hermeneutic. And it does pretty much make sense as he presents it. One can see how the NT’s warnings on future ‘consequences’ have already been played out in the early centuries AD. The implications of this for thoughts on hell in particular are especially crucial. The ‘destruction’ and distress can be found, quite readily, in the historical events of the Jewish revolt (and remember, these warnings have a Jewish context, first and foremost) and its aftermath.

Perriman is not, I think, suggesting that these warnings, and the teachings we derive from them, are ‘time-limited’ – they are pertinent in all ages, I’d suggest. But his eschatology takes a quite different shape as a consequence. Where I’m struggling is how this impacts on our teaching of the Bible in our present day and age. In one sense, there is the danger of history repeating itself, and so that certainly becomes a focus. And his thoughts on hell and heaven fit into those I already hold as a consequence of other theological development. But I guess where I am struggling is how to present such a ‘paradigm shift’ to ‘the pew’. And I think that that is because I’m not fully clear on the implications yet of such a hermeneutic. More thinking required.

Nov 262011
 

Apologies up front. This is a bit of a ‘brain-dump’ post as I try and sort out some thoughts that have been running around my head. It largely draws on a number of different strands of thought coming from books I’ve read recently, sermons, and just general thoughts that are always lurking around. It’s also an opportunity to engage critically with one of those ‘light-bulb’ moments when things, for an instant, seem to make a little more sense.

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Aug 042011
 

View from the Mount of OlivesOne thing I hadn’t really anticipated about Jerusalem was just how ‘compact’ it is. I just hadn’t really thought about how close together many of the known sites actually are. Maybe it’s the result of living in a medium-sized town or having lived in a city for a number of years, but I’m used to things being a ‘fair distance’ apart. Within the walls of the old town of Jerusalem you’re really never more than 15 to 20 minutes walk from anywhere (crowds permitting). It is, after all, a rough rectangle with its longest side about 1 mile long. Many of the events recorded in the New Testament which took place within Jerusalem happened within a good stone’s throw of each other (ish).

Even moving beyond the city walls, things are never really far away (at least in terms of Biblical sites – modern Jerusalem is a sizeable city, similar in size to Edinburgh); a trek from one place to another only extended because of having to descend into and out of the Kidron Valley or the Valley of Hinom (Gehenna). After our morning visit to the Haram, we spent the afternoon wandering across to the Mount of Olives and viewing many of the sites there and enjoying the views from it.

BethesdaBefore we got there though, we stopped off at Bethesda – the place of the healing miracle in John 5. What is fascinating about this place is the excavation of the site. In essence, you can see the ‘layers’ of history. In many respects, when you walk around Jerusalem you’re not entirely walking in Jesus’ footsteps. Many of the buildings and the paths now sit atop the rubble and stone of centuries of building and rebuilding. The site at Bethesda reveals some of those layers, going back, indeed, beyond Jesus’ time. The pool and site is associated with a much older ‘healer’ – Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of medicine. It reminded me of my fascination with the archaeological dig under St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva (which I never did get around to blogging about). That site in Geneva had a ‘spiritual’ link going back far into pre-Christian history – it was a burial site for a venerated warrior which, over time played host to various pagan and Christian churches. What fascinated me was the sense that a physical location could become a deeply spiritual place and make that link to the spiritual search within us which pre-dates Christianity and points to our innate spirituality and need to express the ‘beyond’ in some way. Bethesda, in a sense, falls into the same category – a ‘touching place’ with the ‘other’, with God, where the water would ripple from time to time and healing was believed to take place. The miracle Jesus performed didn’t require the water, of course. And how much more powerful would the impact of that miracle have been having been done, in that way, in a place normally associated with healing? Of course, the subsequent events show just what that impact was.

But onwards to the Mount of Olives.

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Jun 132011
 

Day 4 saw us up bright and early – well, early, but probably not too bright. The reason for the early start was that we had a lot of ground to cover. We were travelling from Jerusalem to Tiberias on the Lake of Galilee, via Masada, Qumran and a quick dip in the Dead Sea.

MasadaAfter a trek through the impressive, but somewhat featureless desert to the East of Jerusalem, we arrived at Masada. Masada means ‘rocky promontory’ and this particular ‘Masada’ had a rather civilised cable car to take us to the top. That didn’t stop some of the more adventurous members of the group from walking up the ‘Snake Path’ – presumably so-called because it snakes up the 400-odd metres of precipitous cliff-face to reach the top. The top of Masada is more or less flat and is home to various ruins. Even at this height it is only 33 metres above sea level.

Its primary attraction lies in the history of those ruins. At one end of Masada lie the multi-tiered remains of Herod’s Palace (one of many dotted around the country). As a country retreat for a rich and famous despot it has few equals. That Herod is the Herod the Great of Biblical fame, although there had been fortifications on the site from around the 2nd century BC.Model of Masada

But what makes the place so famous is that it was also the site of a 2-year siege. After Herod’s death, Masada was used by the Romans, but in 66AD it was captured by the Jews in their first revolt against the Romans. The Romans first dealt with the Jews in Jerusalem (resulting in the destruction of the Temple in 70AD) then turned their attention to the remnants. Held by fewer than 100 defenders, Masada held out for 2 years under siege, finally succumbing in 73AD. The Romans breached the wall by building a massive earthen siege ramp on the western side.

According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, the remaining Jewish defenders, rather than be killed by the Romans, chose to commit suicide after first dispatching their own family members. The oath, “Masada shall not fall again” is part of the swearing-in oaths of the present-day Israeli army. Kind of sums up so much, really, and is a remider of just how much history influences a culture and people.

QumranQumran was the next stop. Despite its somewhat unassuming and even bleak appearance, Qumran is probably one of the most significant sites in the history of Biblical studies. It is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Useful not just for their confirmation of ancient Biblical texts, but significant for the differences they contain, the scrolls were under the safe-keeping of and Essene community – a community which lived by a ‘rule’, not dissimilar to the way communities of monks would live. Property was shared and other distinctive ‘rules’ were followed. Again, like later monastic traditions, not all such communities followed the same set of rules and differences existed.

The focus on communal living and care for one another has given rise to speculation that Jesus’ teachings were widely influenced by such ‘rules’, but there is no great evidence to support that and Jesus’ teachings contain significant deviances from what is known of the Essenes. Perhaps a greater link could be made to another Biblical character – John the Baptist. Again, though, it is more a matter of speculation than any hard evidence existing.

The two sites are visually stunning. Sitting in a desert land, it isn’t hard to imagine how difficult life might be at particular times of the year. Being at the mercy of the life-giving rains meant that Masada, in particular, had some ingenious water storage schemes. The heat is intense, perhaps because of the land sitting below sea level. When you consider settlements like Qumran then it may have been only sensible to ensure such communal-living was ‘formalised’. It ensured that the community was equally supported from the resources available. And the presence of so many scrolls indicates that the community was far from primitive. Life may have been harsh and even basic, but the community was no illiterate bunch of savages. This was an educated and dedicated group of people who understood the significance of the manuscripts they had in their possession.

The day also included the somewhat bizarre experience of going for a swim in the Dead Sea. Actually, swimming is not recommended. The very high levels of salts makes the water extremely unpleasant if you get any near your mouth, but that same dense solution means that you bob around in a most strange manner. You can practically sit on the stuff. Still, it made the swim in the Pool at the Scots’ Hotel in Tiberias all the more welcome when we eventually arrived.

Jan 102011
 

I’ve just finished Scot McKnight’s book, The Blue Parakeet and have thoroughly enjoyed it, both as a challenge and an affirmation. His basic premise is that we all read the Bible with our own bias and preconceptions – and we should all be honest about that. Nothing new there really – except perhaps the call for honesty from all readers and interpreters.

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Dec 212010
 

There’s been plenty of chat on Facebook and on blogs about the new dramatisation of the nativity on the BBC. I’ve seen the first two and have been pleasantly surprised. Obviously it’s highly speculative, but in seeking to tell the human story behind the events so well-known to Christians, it has, I think, brought a fresh dimension to it.

I think when we visit the story we focus so much on the ‘Christian’ aspects (because that is, rightly so, the important part for believers) that we forget there is a very human story there. Can we really expect Joseph to just accept, unquestioningly, what he has been told in a dream, regardless of how devout he may be? Putting the human face on the story makes it, I would suggest, even more ‘believable’.

Of course, that assumes the historicity of events in the first instance and I was interested to discover that one of my former lecturers at new College was an historical advisor to the programme. Dr Helen Bond writes about her take on the adaptation here. She makes the wise observation that the historical accuracy is, in a sense, a secondary consideration, because it is the story in all its dimensions – the theological, the historical, the human – that is important. To separate out the parts may make for a more acceptable story to the more ‘rational’- or ‘secularly’-minded, but it is only as a whole that it makes sense, because it is a story which must, by virtue of it being a story of faith, contain all of those elements.

The Nativity helps, I would suggest, give that nudge back towards remembering the human story behind it all.

Sep 032010
 

Sometimes I think I must be excruciatingly dim and I have to wonder why I ever felt I ought to respond to a call to ministry. I was reading a post on one of my favourite blogs earlier and came across these words:

The entire trajectory of Scripture points to a kaleidoscopic people of God, ever more diverse, with always surprising revelations of unlikely people using their gifts in unexpected and even subversive ways to encourage the family and bless the world.

A simple enough statement but about something that has just whooshed past me without me noticing. It’s such an obvious statement about the witness of scripture that I can’t help but feel somewhat dim for only just noticing it.

Of course, as for the implications…

Jul 242010
 

Many moons ago (well, it seems like it anyway) I agreed to do three pulpit supply dates in August. My thinking was that by the end of July my dissertation would be progressing well and things might be easing off a little. Aye right!

Now, one of those churches uses the lectionary and the other two don’t so that sets the agenda for at least one of the Sundays. All three churches are geographically diverse and so there is virtually no risk of ‘being followed’ from one to the other. So, given that it’s unlikely that the lectionary passage is going to crop up in the two other churches any Sunday soon, why not make life easier and use the same sermon and order of service for each church?

It’s probably what I’ll end up doing (with variations to allow for the different length of sermon anticipated at each), but part of me still thinks that it’s ‘cheating’. Mind you, a few years ago we were on holiday and happened to catch a visiting preacher in the church we went to. Soon afterwards we heard that same person in another church and, surprise! surprise! heard the same sermon.

Maybe I should look on it as way of reflecting on how the same text/message is received differently in different contexts. Or maybe it’s an opportunity to present the same text in different ways and so experience the richness to be found in scripture. The next question though is whether I start with the short sermon and pad it out or do the long one and trim it down.

Anyway, as I was saying…

Jun 012010
 

In the spirit of not making any public statements, but encouraging discussion and understanding of the subject which cannot be named (why do I feel like we’re in a Harry Potter story?) I would like to point to some good and thought-provoking articles which were themselves pointed to in JohnFH‘s blog which I sometimes dip into (except for his Hebrew stuff which goes whizzing over my head).

The first is an article by Richard B Hays which is an adaptation of a lengthier book section. It is a pretty comprehensive statement of the conservative position on homosexuality. I recall reading the full book section in 2nd year New Testament studies and found it to be useful then. That was not long before General Assembly discussed the issue of human sexuality. The Mission and Discipleship report (.doc file, via OneKirk) and the congregation discussion resource document (1.5M pdf file, via OneKirk) they produced drew heavily on this work for the conservative perspective. It was also at the heart of a ‘refutation‘ at the time by Paul Middleton, but that work never fully engaged with Hays and so I was left feeling that it was a somewhat selective and not entirely convincing counter-argument.

The second referenced article is by Kim Fabricius (on Ben Myers blog) is a useful ‘in a nutshell’ view from the other side of the debate. The comments are extensive and worth a skim through. It is not a point-by-point argument and assumes a degree of ‘honest’ scholarship which recognises the ambiguity in many of the scriptural references to homosexual activity. If that’s not your ‘place’ then I would recommend doing some wider reading before decrying what Kim says. An ‘honest’ approach will/should leave Romans 1 as one of the few ‘unambiguous’ texts which need to be dealt with. Thereafter you may engage with his propositions and reach your own conclusion.

Finally, the third article referenced is not a theology one, but rather a media comment on a recent sex scandal in Australia. It makes some very valid moral/ethical observations which, I think, are quite pertinent to the whole discussion.

*Updated 18/7/11 to fix dead links