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.

Sep 302007

Well, I was this close (imagine thumb and forefinger held up really close together) to dropping Modern Christology and opting for something like Homiletics. 150 pages of Schleiermacher just about did my head in and I was seriously thinking of finding something less burdensome. So, last Monday morning I happened to bump into the lecturer and told him what I was thinking of doing. He told me that I wouldn’t ‘get’ Schleiermacher until the end of the course and not to worry about it. To cut a long story short, he persuaded me to stick with it (and not be a dropout like the other 15 out of 35 who did quit). If I’m being honest, I probably didn’t need much persuasion. And now I’m quite glad I stayed.

I’ve just about finished a couple of Bultmann readings and very challenging they are too. One of them was his lecture on ‘Demythologizing the New Testament Proclamation as Task’. This is basically saying the the ‘myth’ thought-world of the New Testament is no longer something modern society can deal with effectively and so it is necessary to strip out the ‘mythical’ aspects of what we read in scripture and look for the bits that we can still directly relate to. It’s not that these aspects are irrelevant, rather we just don’t ‘get them’ with our rational thought processes and so we should dispense with them. So a lot of the ‘magic stuff’ disappears – demon possession, virgin births, miracles, etc. We ‘accept’ them in faith, but only because others before us did and now they are no longer necessary for our faith.

I just happen to be reading Moltmann at the moment as well and coincidentally got to a chapter on much the same thing. The virgin birth, for example, is really of no interest to us and should be irrelevant to our faith. It’s a gynaecological issue, not a ‘make or break’ basis for our faith. Its import comes through the projection, backwards, of what the ‘origins’ of the Messiah might be expected to be (based on cultural myth and past prophecy). In essence – Jesus is the Messiah so He must have had a virgin birth.

As I say, quite challenging stuff and it really forces you to strip away the layers of your own faith and see whether what’s left will withstand scrutiny.

I do wonder though if things aren’t changing again. Bultmann’s lecture was written in 1941. I think that, since then, society has become less ‘rational’ in thought-world. I think there is more of a search for the spiritual and that what was once dismissed as myth (as in just a made-up story) is now becoming more acceptable as myth (a way of expressing a spiritual truth that is beyond our ability to properly describe). Post-modernism is, I think, rediscovering a sense of the ‘greater’. Theologians (and more pointedly, those who put it into direct application, in the pulpit) perhaps need to (re)discover an appropriate language that connects with that spiritual searching.