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 072010
 

As someone whose job is ‘words’ it should mean that I am more careful than many about how they are used and, indeed, which ones I use. I can get very picky about words – especially theological ones. I dislike ‘sloppy’ words which get one into a fankle when speaking of God. I dislike inaccurate words which are used incorrectly. Unfortunately, I am not immune from falling into the same pitfalls.

I recently wrote about the BBC programme, ‘A Church in Crisis?’. In that article I picked up on the issue of secularism, even suggesting that a fellow blogger had mistakenly promulgated a misconception. Peter very kindly replied to my article but his comment was caught by an over-zealous spam filter and didn’t appear until he questioned me about it. He questioned my interpretation of secularism and suggested that in its promotion of egalitarianism it serves a very useful function; undermining power structures (especially religious ones) and promoting individual control.

Peter’s usage is, I would suggest, more true to the root understanding of secularism – the separation of church and state. This is a part of the definition of secularism found on the Secular Society‘s website:

Secularism supports the individual against the pressure of the group and the individual conscience against the dogma of the group.

I can’t help but think that these are words which the church could easily get behind and endorse. And yet, here is the problem with words. They accumulate baggage that ends up creating division which isn’t present in the core definition. Or perhaps, one might say that words are twisted to mean whatever we need them to mean in our own context.

Secularism is one such. From a Christian perspective, it is often used almost pejoratively – the implicit threat it contains to the religious establishment turns it into something tainted. Yet, one cannot deny that it is a word which has been seized by many as a banner or slogan around which to rally in opposition to religion.

What’s the answer then? At worst, one falls into the post-modern malaise of having define one’s terms every time. It is, undoubtedly, necessary to separate the ‘word’ from the inherited baggage at times. Yet it is often the ‘baggage’ which gives a word its richness of meaning. The problem with words is that they’re all we have to explain things by. Yet, on the other hand, they’re not all we have to show Christianity by. We may be followers of the Word, but we are known as such by our actions.

Sep 022010
 

Yesterday marked the last day of my final candidates’ conference: today marks the beginning of probation.

Endings and new beginnings are, I suppose, the very marks of a Christian’s story. That grand meta-narrative of scripture is a cycle of endings and new beginnings; enslavement and redemption, death and resurrection.

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Aug 252010
 

Last night, BBC Scotland aired a short documentary, A Church in Crisis?, about the Church of Scotland and its current circumstances. The broadcast date marks the anniversary of the Kirk’s creation following the Scottish Reformation. Peter has already blogged about the programme and notes that it offered a balanced view of the Kirk’s present state.

There was the “What’s the Kirk ever done for us?” bit; a reminder of the legacy of that early push for education and literacy which established Scotland as a leader in educational achievement. The Kirk’s social conscience was highlighted and its impact on today’s social care noted. Although that place is now filled more and more by local authority groups, the Kirk still has a significant presence in this area. It begs the question though, as a friend recently discussed with me, that perhaps the Kirk has achieved what it set out to do in this area –  show how social care ought to be done – and now it is time to invest the resources in other work of social inclusion and justice.

However, the outlining of the current state of the Kirk jangled a few nerves. It rightly highlighted falling membership, financial pressures and ministerial resources as areas causing concern. But it phrased them in a slightly disingenuous way I thought. Falling mambership cannot be disputed, but little was made of the changing social culture where ‘membership’, of anything, is increasingly becoming out-of-date. Loose affiliations and fluid loyalties are the characteristics of our present society. Any sort of ‘commitment’ has people running a mile. I’m not suggesting that the numbers attending church are in any way much rosier than they are, but membership numbers alone do not tell the whole story.

The financial situation was also misrepresented. A running deficit of just over £5m is not the same as being “nearly £6m in the red” as was reported. Again, I’m not suggesting this is an acceptable situation, but it ought tohave been reported accurately. Furthermore, little was made of the proposals to address that deficit.

Associated with that was the throwaway comment of “only four trainees have entered Scotland’s leading divinity school.” Now, while I would happily agree with that assessment of New College’s place in the ordering of things, to ignore the intake at the other institutions is irresponsible and misleading. New College has fallen foul of entrance quota restrictions in its associated University College. Those who have been unable to gain a place have deferred or have gone to one of the other institutions. A fairer report would have been to cite overall numbers in training.

But I want to highlight one final thing in the programme which went entirely unchallenged and has an insidious effect on how we, the Church, approach things. Peter fell into the same trap in his assessment as well. It is stated, without any qualification or justification, that we live in a secular society. I’m not convinced that this is true. I would, perhaps, have agreed ten or twenty years ago, but not today. Secularism is also fighting a losing battle as many more people begin to see the society of ten, twenty, thirty years ago as heading towards moral bankruptcy. In a similar way to post-war theologians, there is a reaction against the ‘me-centred’ doctrines of, in today’s case, the consumerist state. More people are now looking for ‘something else’ to help order their life. There has been, in recent years, an increase in ‘spirituality’ in our cultural mindset. The unfortunate thing is that the years of secularism have left many without the vocabulary or grounding of a Christian spirituality. Pic’n’mix religion has become the order of the day. This, I would suggest, is a very different challenge to the church. It’s one thing dealing with a society which is entirely indifferent to religion, quite another to deal with people who see all religions as their personal spiritual supermarket to pick and choose from as it suits them.

Without a doubt the Kirk has some hard times ahead but I would tend to agree with Ron Ferguson’s thoughts towards the end of the programme that a beleaguered church is not necessarily a bad thing.

Jun 222010
 

In that amazing way that only seems to come through a sense of God at work by the Spirit, there was a consistent theme running through much of the activity and challenge on the recent trip to Geneva. (Although I suspect that the lecturers who organised the trip would like to claim that that was its intention all along). That theme can probably best be described by paraphrasing (my excuse for poorly translating) the main sermon point from the French service in the Cathedral St Pierre on the Sunday morning:

Unity does not mean uniformity; diversity does not mean division.

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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

May 112010
 

I don’t generally blog on politics. It’s not a subject which particularly enthuses me – at least in the traditional sense. I have no particular love of party politics. The confrontational Westminster style is just irritating and the negative campaigning is simply depressing. But this blog entry isn’t about any of those things anyway. Rather, it’s about a train of thought that was triggered by watching a programme from a few days ago.

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Apr 222010
 

Glancing through my blog feeds this morning, this entry at [hold this space] caught my eye. It’s a timely reminder for those in the Church of Scotland that we should not define people by labels. Only we do. The ‘issue which shall not be named’ so often descends into just that. OK, I’ll name it – the issue of gay ministers. Oops, there we go – a label. An easy shorthand which shifts the focus away from the fact that it is people we are discussing; people who are not defined by their labels, or at least the limited labels we want to apply to them.

Labels can be useful. They are convenient at times and without them our discussions would be laborious and time-consuming. But when the label becomes the person then what we have done is dehumanised them. We have decided that they are just a… As a friend reminded me recently in conversation, the gospel is not about dehumanising, but rehumanising. We find our full self-understanding and self-identity in our relationship with God and the gospel is that God is willing, even dying, to get us to understand that.

My devotional reading this morning was from the flood narrative in Genesis. Regardless of whether you view it as historical or a rewriting of another culture’s mythology, it contains a pretty brutal assessment of humanity and, more importantly, God’s response. “I will never again curse the ground because of the human race, even though everything they think or imagine is bent towards evil from childhood.” (Genesis 8:21, NLT) We have been labelled, yet God looks past the label. We are all, every one, imperfect. No one is more ‘good’ than another in God’s eyes for everything we do is tainted. Yet God’s grace looks beyond the label and says, “I love and choose you anyway.”

Last year, at GA, there was an invitation to join in conversation over coffee; an opportunity to get to understand the person, not the label – gay, straight, fundie, liberal, whatever. I wonder how many coffee conversations have taken place? It’s kind of difficult to have a conversation with a label. It’s kind of difficult to even accept an invitation from a label; we can only accept an invitation from a person.