Mar 102008

At my recent local review I was asked for my views on a couple of specific subjects – the ordination of women and infant baptism. These are standard questions so they weren’t a surprise really. But why, oh why, do I always make life difficult for myself by not giving a simple answer – especially as I don’t have any particular issues with either subject? A simple ‘no problems’ answer would have sufficed, but I have to go and add ‘kind of’ to the end of my reply about infant baptism. This is not because I have an issue with infant baptism – I do think it is justifiable. Nor do I have issues with baptism being a ‘once-and-for-all’. But I am sympathetic to those who reach adulthood, come to faith and look to be ‘baptised properly’. But I’m only sympathetic in the sense that I know what they’re trying to do, but I believe their understanding of baptism is lacking.

Anyway, I decided to give it a bit more thought and, coincidentally, there was a question about this very issue on a forum I look in on. So I jotted down some thoughts and thought I’d share them here so that the gaping holes could be poked at.

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Feb 252008

Part of the discussion that kicked off the “Hell!” article made mention of Fowler’s stages of faith. It sounded intriguing so I did a bit more digging and came up with a couple of articles which give an overview of what it’s about. The first is an article from Theology Today which covers the subject in a wider sense. The other is an overview summary specifically of Fowler’s ideas.

I think it has some merit though it’s not without its problems. I’m not convinced that it completely characterises each ‘stage’ well enough (but then, I have just been reading the overviews), but there is enough in them to see the general picture. I do think that there are indeed many people who are happy in the early stages (back to this issue of simple/simplistic faith) and I do tend to agree that moving to the ‘next level’ is pretty scary for most people. It involves letting go of what’s comfortable and embracing something that itself may still be wriggling and reshaping itself. But I have to say, in my experience, it’s a rewarding jump. And that’s perhaps my other criticism. I’m not sure that it’s a progression. I think we take leaps and tumbles, almost oscillating between lower and higher ‘levels’ until issues are resolved.

Still, it makes for interesting reading and perhaps sheds a bit of understanding on why it’s difficult to move people from a particular position.

Jan 132008

An odd pairing you might think, but surprisingly apt – or, at least, it seemed to make sense in the shower this morning. The reading for our ‘Method of reading the Hebrew Bible’ class this coming week was an introduction to, and a fairly robust criticism of, Historical/Literary Criticism. This particular branch of Biblical criticism seeks to ‘de-construct’ scripture as it stands and ‘re-construct’ the original documents or oral histories that make up our combined texts. The purpose is to get under the skin of the texts, analyse them for historical content and so be able to better place them in context and understanding. It is a ‘scientific’ approach to the texts, but that description should be used guardedly for it does not imply that ‘facts’ may be extricated from the text, rather that it is a very analytical approach.

The critique of this method, in my reading, comes primarily from Lou Silberman. In a nutshell he says that texts are best understood when the are ‘experienced’ rather than analysed. In the article I was reading he cites a number of examples where ‘analysis’ of the language of the text raises concerns over the technically correct usage of words, leading to considerations of scribal errors or questions over meaning. However, when one ‘zooms out’ of the text, it can be seen that the choice of words or phrases better fits the rhythm of the story or its poetry or its emphasis. It’s easy to forget that the Bible is literature – it has a dramatic story to tell and it tells it in a dramatic way. Remember too that much of it stems from oral tradition. When was the last time you heard a good storyteller use bland phrases and uninteresting delivery?

But for some, reading scripture as a story devalues it in some way. Rather, it should be a list of ‘rules’, examples of what’s right and wrong, guidance without ambiguity. How can a ‘truth’ be transmitted in a story when it would be better stated clearly? I think the answer is ‘impact’. If we have to work at getting the truth of a passage, the message of a text then it has much more impact on us. Moreover, it means that there are many paths that can be travelled to reach that truth and, what’s more, there are many truths that can be found along those paths.

And that brings me to limericks. I was trying to think of a more contemporary or literary example of this idea of valid truth within a form of literature that, at first glance, detracted from the truth it contained. For whatever reason the following limerick popped into my head:

An epicure dining at Crewe,
found quite a large mouse in his stew.
Said the waiter, “Don’t shout,
or wave it about,
or the rest will be wanting one too!”

Now, at first glance it’s mildly amusing – the absurdity of other diners also wanting a mouse in their meal. Then there’s the puzzling choice of the word ‘epicure’. Surely a word like ‘gentleman’ would be just as effective to communicate the absurdity? But then we consider who/what an epicure is and we realise that the limerick can actually be quite a biting social comment. Why is that? Well, here’s a definition of the word:


n. person taking care over the niceties of food and drink. epicurean, a. luxurious; sensual; n. such person; follower of philosophy of Epicurus, who taught that ultimate moral good is happiness.

The use of the word to indicate merely a lover of food is actually a relatively modern usage and departs somewhat from Epicurean philosophy. Nonetheless, let me suggest that it implies that the diner would be, identifiably, a lover of fine foods. And if the epicure had a mouse, then it must be good and so, in order to appear as ‘sophisticated’ diners, then the rest would wish to eat the same. So the ‘truth’ at the heart of this limerick is that we are always concerned about appearances and like to emulate those who, in our opinion, set a fine example to follow. And so we arrive at a ‘truth’ within an absurd form of literature.

The question is, is that what is intended by the limerick? Maybe it is, maybe it’s not but the point is that when we de-construct the limerick, we may understand the meaning of the words, but it’s only when we ‘experience’ the limerick in its entirety that deeper truths may be revealed. De-construction may help us to see the social comment (and even allow us to phrase it in more ‘rule-like’ form), but the humour and the absurdity and the style make it memorable and add emphasis to the truth it is imparting. The fact that we may need to do a bit of digging to appreciate it simply adds to the overall impact.

I quite like the analytical – it can highlight fruitful avenues of exploration but, ultimately, it can be dry with only an academic interest at its heart. So, I guess I’m firmly in the camp of scripture needing to be experienced and that means allowing the Spirit to open up the truths it contains, noting, carefully, the plural.

Dec 212007

Stewart recently posted on his blog about ‘depth‘ in the Christian faith. Coincidentally, I had been reading some discussions across some other websites (here and here) about some of the misconceptions surrounding the Christmas story (and the selective reporting of what was said). The two seem to come together in my mind and chime with some of the stuff I’ve been doing at uni (this, for example) this last semester.

I do wonder just how much baggage we have floating around in our head that shapes our understanding of our faith – and more to the point (and pertinent to Stewart’s blog) how ignorant we are of its inaccuracy. I was thinking about this in terms of hymns and praise songs. To what degree does what we sing in church become our understanding of the Christian faith? After all, ask someone to tell you what was said in the sermon and ask them for some lines form what was sung and I think it’s a safe bet which will be remembered best my most. This, I reckon, is even more true of those who turn up to church at Christmas and Easter only – generally to see ‘the kids’ take part in nativity plays or Easter presentations.

So, take for example “We three kings of Orient are”. Right from the very opening line it’s a misrepresentation of scripture. Pick almost any other hymn (Christmas or otherwise) and you’ll find similar things. And that’s what becomes people’s understanding of what scripture really says and what the Gospel message is.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be singing hymns. What we should understand is what hymns are. They’re poetry set to music – they’re metaphorical, symbolic, fanciful, exaggeration, and all the other things that make good poetry poetry and not an academic study. And the same applies to scripture. We need to be able to distinguish between its poetry, its prose, its metaphors, its parables, its advice, its history and so on. But to do that we need education and depth of understanding – right back to Stewart’s point. And as he suggests, that takes effort, both on the part of the educator and those who wish to learn. I think it also comes back to something that seems to have been cropping up in much of my studies this year – the proper understanding of myth/legend/saga/story, call it what you will. I was also reading an article by Richard Dawkins (sent to me by a friend) and I think it perfectly illustrates the ignorance, even of those who are well-educated, of how scripture needs to be read.

Do I have an answer to how to ‘fix it’? Absolutely not, except perhaps to make the same commitment as Stewart has done – to take responsibility and become a better-educated Christian; and in so doing, become a better witness to the truth of the Gospel, rather than reinforce popular misconceptions.

The next big question then is how to carry this into ministry. How does one have a teaching ministry that encourages and promotes depth in a congregation and yet also meets all of the other needs of that congregation. Now there’s a subject for serious consideration.

Dec 042007

Interesting to see someone in government speaking out against the ‘pc’ brigade.

BBC NEWS | Politics | Christianophobia warning from MP

And along the same lines:
BBC NEWS | Magazine | Reindeer Ralph supplants Nativity

In the second report it’s interesting to note that it’s not other faiths who have a problem with Christmas or Christianity, it seems to be those with ‘an agenda’ – arguably a misplaced one.
I think I’d agree with Mark Pritchard’s assessment that an erosion of Christian ‘rights’ (not the correct word, but can’t think of another at the moment) will eventually lead to a more extremist backlash. I don’t mean that in the sense of a violent protest, rather that the voice of Christianity that will become most vocal will be the more fundamentalist one.

A Journey


Some may call it a testimony, others, a life story. Whatever it may be, it’s an ongoing journey, often without a map and with a guide who seems to bunk-off just when you’d really like clear directions.

At some point in my life, I eventually realised that the tickets I had in my hand were no longer valid and my destination had been changed. Writing about the itinerary I’ve had and the new one I seem to have been issued could take a while and it’d be presumptuous of me to assume others would want to read it. Nevertheless, as a personal discipline, and as a crude guide to who and what I am, I’ll put down the edited highlights for posterity.