Monthly Archives: July 2012

My first ever experience of long haul travel

Lufty Jumbo Jet

I am writing this from my hotel room in Jakarta where I have been based all week. I’ve never been outside Europe before, so this was my first time travelling long distance. Well, I say that. In order to avoid air fares, once, as a family, we drove to Austria. That was a pretty long journey in terms of time, but this was long in both time and distance.

This created the prospect of jetlag, which is something I’ve never experienced before. The journey went well, but it was rather overshadowed by an incident at the end which I shall elaborate on in a few paragraphs.

I had to make my way to Heathrow in order to set off properly. I arrived at Victoria on my season ticket, so it didn’t have a variable cost to it. I bought a ticket that would take me to Heathrow via the Heathrow Express. This entailed having to travel a few stops round the circle line in order to get to Paddington. I got on the underground fine but when I came to transfer to the mainline, my ticket wouldn’t let me through the barrier. Upon asking a member of staff, I was told that my ticket was not valid for the underground. Given that the ticket did not have the words “not via underground” on it and that I got on fine at Victoria, I was convinced that the staff member was incorrect. Anyway, she wouldn’t let me through and insisted that I go to a window to buy a second ticket. There wasn’t anyone at the window and I couldn’t attract any attention. Eventually, I went back to the barrier and another member of staff let me through.

Arriving at Heathrow, I quickly realised that it didn’t work in the same way as any other airport I have ever been to. I was really quite confused as there was no clear information as to where one had to queue. Eventually I had to resort to desperation and ask someone. I was directed to the business class check-in and they took my luggage and gave me my boarding passes.

I wasn’t able to find the business class lounge so I settled for the normal departure lounge, which was really quite noisy and chaotic. One of the theological topics I want to look at in some detail is that of “hell” – where I’m not convinced the traditionalist view is really the biblical view. So I tentatively hold to an opinion that is known as “annihilationism.” However, if there is a hell on earth, it is the departure lounge at Heathrow terminal 3.

This was my first time ever travelling business class. There was some unpleasant talk by the departure gate by some snobs who thought that this made them in some way inherently better than those who were travelling economy. Don’t let me ever become that kind of person.

We were served dinner and then they turned the lights down. The seats could be turned to a flat position and we were provided with blankets so you could effectively turn your seat into a very small bed. Thankfully, as I’m short, the length didn’t bother me as much as it some of those over 6 feet tall. Ignoring the advice I was given to reset my watch as soon as I got on the plane, I treated it like a normal bedtime. If I had reset my watch, I’d have had to get up 2 hours later. So by the time I woke up, we were over the Bay of Bengal, about 2 hours out from Singapore.

Our transfer wasn’t as painful as expected. We were simply directed to go about two-thirds of the way round the airport (probably so we could get some nice views). We had a little time to kill but were able to go into one of the club lounges (though the name was not clear, and I wouldn’t have found it without help). The last leg of the journey was in 1st class, though I didn’t think it was as good as business class. There was an unnecessary amount of legroom and there was no in-flight entertainment (ok, the journey was only just over an hour and a half), but who am I to complain? I wasn’t paying for it.

We got to Jakarta in good time and had to get our visas on arrival. You pay 25 US dollars and fill in a little form. This was the first time I had ever got my passport stamped. Travelling within the EU, they don’t tend to do it, as we’re all one big family (complete with arguments, foibles and the odd black sheep).

There was a bit of queue but we got through OK. Then it was off to baggage reclaim. My colleague picked up his bag very quickly. I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Until finally…..

A sign came round the carousel saying “last bag” – mine had not come! What was I supposed to do? I thought it was a myth that bags were lost in transit. I know luggage gets damaged but I’ve never before come across a verified story of someone having their language lost by an airline. I made my way to a lost luggage desk where they spoke reasonable English (sorry, I didn’t have time to learn to any of the Indonesian languages before departure). I gave them a description of the bag and copies of my boarding passes.

After getting a reference number for the claim, I was advised to go to my hotel and the bag would be forwarded on. The trouble was, Singapore airport had no record of it having passed through their hands. If it did arrive, it would be about 1am, so I would go and see the concierge in the morning.

By the time I left, I was pretty much the last person out. I was waved through customs without any interrogation at all, as I was cutting a pretty lonely figure with just a small bag on my back. Thankfully, a car was waiting for me and I was whisked off to my hotel.

I can say I’ve now experienced jetlag but it’s not really what I was expecting. I thought that the way I’d managed my sleep and clock changes were ok, so I effectively got up really late on Sunday morning and went to bed early. Yet the next couple of days were mostly ok, except for the occasional “wave” of extreme tiredness that struck at apparently random times. For example, I’d wake up fine and have breakfast, only to come over all sleepy at about 9:30. Then I’d pick up after an hour and start to nod off around 3pm. But by 5pm, I’d be raring to go.

Update

The bag finally arrived at my hotel on Tuesday night. There was no label on it except for one saying “British Airways – priority world”. The proper luggage tag was gone, as was the padlock that I had put on the zip. The padlock was only one that came with the bag and the key was fairly generic-looking. So I suspect someone picked the lock to look inside for valuables. Finding only clothes, they decided to put it back. Of course, this is only speculation. I have no firm evidence to support this hypothesis, although none of the facts contradict it.

I’ve definitely learned some lessons from this, not least that you should always pack spare socks and underwear in your hand luggage! With that cheery mental image, I bid you adieu.

Book Review: Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright

At last, I return to Christian Origins and the Question of God. For those of you who don’t know, this is a series of books by N.T. (Tom) Wright which is he is still in the process of writing. I began in late 2010 by jumping straight to volume 3, The Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG). At the time, I wasn’t aware it was a series, but stuck with it at the time. I have since gone back to volume 1, which was The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG). Now, as I write this review, the next volume, with the tentative title Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG), is due to be completed this summer and should be published in the summer of 2013.

In this volume, as the title suggests, Wright looks at Jesus. In his introduction, he takes issue with those who propose that we can know very little about Jesus himself and propose that there is a stark difference between the ‘Jesus of faith’ and the ‘Jesus of history’. Instead of accepting this proposition at face value, Wright sets out to examine who the Jesus of history was and what his aims were. He proposes that many Christian theologians have, over the years, examined very closely the idea of why did Jesus die, but at the neglect of the question as to why he lived.

The introduction is almost as detailed as that of NTPG and runs on for well over 100 pages. So this is a book for the patient reader, yet it is well worth it. The one drawback to the book, which is highlighted early on, is that, for the most part, the testimony of John’s gospel is ignored. Instead, what we have is a study solely of the synoptic tradition. This may frustrate many readers as it seems as though, in acting as jury, Wright is dismissing one of the key witness statements. Part of the reason given for this was one of brevity, as the book is over 600 pages long (plus bibliography and index) on the basis of the 3 other gospel accounts.

However, hints are given that he will return to the John, along with the other gospels in a later volume in the series. Yet I couldn’t help but think that this hinders Wright’s analysis from the off. I think most readers of this blog are fairly theologically astute (probably more so than me) so will know what I mean if I say that John’s account is more christologically developed than the Synoptics. Yet Wright seems to want to disentangle Jesus from Christology and so, while he often criticises Bultmann and his ‘demythologisation’ Wright seems to be following Bultmann’s footsteps very closely indeed, even if he is looking in a slightly different direction whilst doing so. That said, Wright does outline, at the very end of the book a kind of ‘christology’ thought it is one that is very different from what most churches teach.

An example of this may be found when dealing with the problem any historian looking at Jesus must face: the miracles. Rather than tackle the issue head-on, Wright somewhat sidesteps the issue and instead focuses purely on what the 1st century ‘audience’ would have interpreted by the signs. Yet dodging the historicity and moving straight onto the interpretation is the same approach that Marcus Borg takes to the biggest miracle of all: the resurrection. If you see his 2006 book ‘Jesus’ (not published in the UK until 2011) he says of the resurrection: “Seeing the Easter stories as parables need not involve a denial of their factuality….If you believe the tomb was empty, fine…..And if you’re not sure, or even quite sure they didn’t happen this way, fine. Now, what do these stories mean?” Yet Wright spends a significant amount of space in volume 3 of this series (which was the first that I read) arguing very much for the historicity of the resurrection. Whether Wright went through a significant change of mind between his writing volumes 2 and 3 is unclear, but his approach certainly appears to have shifted.

Wright’s portrait of Jesus is that of a man who understood himself, and was understood by others, as being a prophet, using as his foundation passages such as Mark 8: 27-30 and its parallels. The key theme to the book is what Jesus meant by the “kingdom of god” – a topic that I’ve often found glossed over in many different churches, presumably on the assumption that everyone knew and agreed what the referent was, even if it somewhat hazy.

After his “portrait of a prophet” Wright moves on to look at the aims and beliefs of Jesus. Much of this is tied in with what has gone before. It is here that Jesus moves onto the end of Jesus’ life.

In trying to understand Jesus in his historical context, Wright does seem to be missing a very big side of the story. He is keen to stress that in order to understand Christology you must first get “Jesusology” or else risk putting the cart before the horse. But I cannot feel that by focusing exclusively on Jesus’ reformation of the Jewish worldview and ignoring the impact on Gentiles and at any time and place other than 1st century Israel/Palestine, that Wright is painting a portrait of the horse and cart, only without legs and wheels, so that Jesus is so firmly rooted in his setting that he is static and has nothing of relevance to say to 21st century westernised christians. Only at the very end of the book is this problem acknowledged. The proposed solution is that everything changes with the resurrection, so the reader is referred onto the next volume.

This is not the only thing that may rattle those of us who hold to fairly orthodox (note the small ‘o’) beliefs. In in his discourse of Jesus in relation to “apocalyptic” Wright swims against the tide of 2,000 years of theology to deny that there will be a “second coming.” Though hints are dropped throughout the book, the core argument is given in Wright’s exegesis of Mark 13. Rather than consider this a new form of apocalyptic, Wright chooses to read this as a strictly Jewish apocalyptic in exactly the same vein as Daniel.

I realise that this review may sound quite negative, but that is not the impression I want to give. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to christians, jews, muslims and atheists. To understand christianity (and how it relates to Judaism) one has to study the figure of Jesus. And though this doesn’t cover all aspects of Jesus’ ministry and life, it certainly covers a lot and in a lot of depth. It is at once both enlightening and challenging, asking us to look at our worldview in a different light – just as Jesus did in his day.

Memoirs of a crossroad

This blog post began life as a critique of 3 groups of road users in London, but as I realised that this was all based around one junction in one estate in London, I have amended it to be more specific and less generic. Having started by new job in a different part of the capital I can now see there are some subtle differences, even though much of the behaviour is shared between different estates.

I’ve worked in London, on and off, for a little under six years. From that, I’ve been able to make quite a lot of observations about the main competing factions within the city: pedestrians v cyclists v drivers. Much of what you are about to read, you may think is stereotype. Indeed, I used to think it was a stereotype, but the observational evidence demands that it actually be taken seriously.

Near to my old office there was a crossroads. These were controlled by a set of traffic lights. These were used by all 3 parties.

Pedestrians

For most of the time I worked there, the traffic lights were extremely irrational. The traffic would be blocked off from travelling down one road, but the pedestrians were simultaneously prevented from crossing that same road. That is, the pedestrians had a red light. The trouble was, all the regular users of the crossing knew that there was no reason for the pedestrians to be shown the red light. So what we would do is to ignore the lights completely and observe the traffic. If you couldn’t see anything coming, you’d dash across the road.

Cyclists

Before I started to work in London, I always thought that the idea of cyclists being law-flouting road menaces was little more than unsubstantiated myth. But something seems to change as you get within the M25. The regular cyclists that you come across in towns and country lanes are replaced by a wholly different kind of animal; the only similarity being the mode of transport they use.

Cyclists around the Farringdon crossroads would adapt their behaviour to whatever suited their purpose. If the lights were green for the pedestrians, but red for the cars, they would often hop off their bikes and wheel them along with the rest of us. Sometimes they would ride along with, often bumping, the pedestrians as though they thought no one would notice that they had wheels which the rest of us didn’t.

But if the lights were green for the cars, then the cyclists were happy to pretend to be cars, though their impersonation of those that had petrol pumping through them was even less convincing than that their imitation of those filled with haemoglobin & plasma.

Drivers

Probably the most law-abiding of the 3 groups were the drivers. But this is a comparative measure. Whenever the lights turned red, usually 3 or 4 more cars would creep across the line at which they were meant to stop, pretending that they didn’t see the lights change or perhaps they were just idly following the vehicle in front.

Typically, whoever had just been caught out by the lights (and hence, would be sat at the front of the queue) would quickly develop anger management issues. Frequently, as a pedestrian crossing when I was entitled to, the car driver nearest would rev their engines aggressively at those who they saw as the cause of the red light.

The relative ease with which the cyclists switched their identity was also a cause of vexation for the drivers, who would frequently wind down their windows just to shout abuse and obscenities at cyclists who were too far out of earshot half of the time.

Yet it was the drivers who were the biggest danger to others. When a pedestrian or a cyclist chooses to run a red light, they risk their own life. Though it does happen, deaths caused by cyclists to pedestrians or other cyclists are extremely rare. But some drivers chose to run red lights or make a right hand turn where they had no right to frequently risked the lives of others who were, at that time at least, abiding by the highway code.

Later

The timings on the lights were re-jigged earlier this year. They became much more sensible, allowing more pedestrians to cross whilst not holding up traffic any more than previously. I don’t know if there was anyone killed at that junction in the 2 years I worked there. Of course, there are plenty of deaths on the roads in London in each.

What do I mean, “plenty”?

There are far too many deaths on the roads in London each year. If there weren’t any on that junction, then that is amazing. If there were any, I didn’t see them. On several occasions I was a few inches away from being one myself.

Book Review: The Iliad by Homer

Many years ago, I picked up a copy of The Odyssey and loved it. It was a great story, brilliantly told and I was riveted by it. So, having taken a short break from reading ancient Greek texts (other than the New Testament) after the mammoth effort that was needed to complete Herodotus’ Histories I returned to Homer to read his other famous work.

Unfortunately, I’m not convinced I picked the best translation. Whereas the version of the Odyssey I read was written in prose form, in plain English, the translation I picked up for the Iliad was not. The translation was done over an 11 year period from 1598 to 1611 and it reads just as one might imagine if you have read much Shakespeare or The King James Bible. Only it’s not quite as clear and understandable as either of those great bodies of work.

The main trouble is that the translator (George Chapman) has attempted to keep it as an “epic poem” and so has forced the whole text to be made into rhyming couplets. In order to make each pair of lines rhyme in English, he has had to tear up the text and rearrange the sentences just to create the effect. What this does is to completely screw up the word order and to introduce all manner of odd abbreviations and turns of phrase. So in aiming to make it poetic, the whole structure has been massacred. For this reason, I would not recommend this translation to anyone who isn’t au fait with Chaucer or as qualms about reading Beowulf in its original form.

In order to try and make some sense of this, I found I had to make a conscious effort to ignore the artificial rhythm and rhyme and to try to read whole sentences. Once I managed to do this (which probably wasn’t until book 3) The Iliad became a bit more intelligible. What is then revealed is an epic story of warfare and battles. The highly anthropomorphised gods of Greek mythology fight alongside their semi-human offspring and having petty squabbles with one another. The panoply of plentiful persons which populates the prose puzzled me rather, as it was hard to keep track of them, particularly because some of them, once introduced, met a rather grizzly death.

That said, there are many moments of great poetic expression which do break through. The difficulty of the translation does make it impossible for me to give a synopsis of the plot, so this review shall be somewhat short. I may well post another review when I find the time to read a more intelligible translation.

Inviting Jesus into your heart?

Prayer is the language

Preamble

This is just intended to be a short post as a precursor to a forthcoming article on what I mean when I talk about priests and also why I don’t refer to members of the clergy as such. That post is getting quite long, so I wanted to use this to clear a little ground first. So with that in mind, you might want to revisit this after the priest post has been published.

The argument

I have occasionally heard/read some criticism by the use of (predominantly) evangelical christians using the phrase “invite Jesus into your heart” as the means by which one becomes a christian. Much of this criticism is fair, I think, but there’s a little more to it than meets the eye.

The main arguments against its use are as follows:

1) Such a phrase is never used in the bible.

2) It is highly simplistic.

While both of these are true, I would argue that they are not the whole truth of the matter. Rather, the phrase is a summary of a much more sophisticated theology, which I shall attempt to enunciate: When Jesus was crucified, Matthew’s gospel records that the curtain in the temple was torn in two. This is highly symbolic as the curtain was an emblem of the separation of God and mankind. So its destruction, in symbolic terms, said that Jesus’ crucifixion was the act that meant God and mankind were to be reconciled.

Prior to this, Jesus had caused a rumpus in the temple by overturning the tables and throwing out the money-changers. Some regard this as a cleansing of the temple, though others regard it as a parable acted out denoting the destruction of the temple. If we are to accept the second theory (c.f. Mark 13:1,2) then the implication is that the temple was no longer needed. It was more than a prediction of its historical destruction in A.D. 70; it was a declaration that the purpose for which it stood was now redundant.

What was that purpose? It was the symbolic home of God on earth. It was never a literal dwelling (c.f. 1 Kings 8:27, 2 Chronicles 2:6, 6:18, Acts 7:48, 17:24) so it shouldn’t be taken as anything remotely mystical. So if the temple was now redundant, what replaced it?

The short answer is us. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (see Acts 2: 1-13) filled each person individually with the spirit. They were now the figurative dwelling places of God on earth. So instead of one temple situated in Jerusalem, there would now be a multitude of temples walking across the earth. Or rather, to be less individualistic, there are multiple parts of the temple wandering the planet.

This is expanded upon by Paul in some of his writings. Take, for example, Ephesians 2:19-22. Here, he uses the image of the church to be the new temple. In 1 Corinthians 3:16,17 the same metaphor is used. Though, it seems clear that the message here is for the whole church. 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, however, seems much more aimed at the individual, which was a topic I touched on recently, so as to not have the discussion on individualism here.

Most christians I think would agree with me when I say that salvation (note, I have not defined precisely what this means, for now, I confess to being a little fuzzy in my terminology) comes about through faith in Jesus as Lord. Now, there may be many aspects to this which are worth exploring and indeed, as stated recently, I am pursuing one of these lines of enquiry at the moment. This is why there is an emphasis on the person of Jesus, whose action is history is more readily grasped (if not with complete ease) than discussions of the more tricky notion of ‘God’.

Conclusion

So by stating that we are “inviting Jesus into our hearts” we are making a declaration that we wish to become a part of the new temple, filled with the Holy Spirit. We are trusting that Jesus’ death was a once-and-for-all substitutionary sacrifice for our ‘sins’ (or perhaps, for being ‘sinners’). This step of faith is very much an inward action. The follow up to this is much more public where, as an act of obedience, we are to be baptised, which in itself is a highly symbolic act, which is why in the majority of churches, it is accompanied with a testimony of how that person came to be a christian, though I admit that this latter part is not a biblical imperative; it is merely helpful for the person being baptised and for those in attendance.

Of course, there is an obvious weakness to my argument, which I freely admit. That is, how much of this is necessarily understood by the person making the step of faith? I would argue that the basic tenets of christianity need not be over-complicated. Acts 2:39 makes it clear that from the outset, the gospel was to be accessible to all. You don’t have to have a full grasp of all the details before setting out. That can, and should, come later. For example, you don’t have to know all the details about an internal combustion engine before learning to drive. Later on, some understanding of mechanics may help when the car starts spluttering.

I know that I have used a lot of terms here that I have not defined well and may appear rather religious. This is probably a by-product from having, for the most part, grown up in church, surrounded by the terminology. In due course, I may try and hone some of these terms to make them less religious, thus making them more accessible. But I hope I have been reasonably clear. Let me know if you agree or disagree; this could be a fascinating discussion.

Book Review: Paul: A Very Short Introduction by E.P. Sanders

As promised recently, this is my first foray into looking at the New Perspectives on Paul. Sanders has been name that keeps cropping up in my reading, particularly as referenced by Tom Wright, but this was the first book of Sanders’ that I’ve read. It’s not his most scholarly; it is meant as a brief introduction to new readers and summarises much of what Sanders has written before.

He begins by looking at the person and character of Paul, contrasting the different sides of him as seen through Acts and through Paul’s own writings. Sanders subscribes to the idea that Paul wasn’t the author of the pastoral epistles though, disappointingly, he states this as a fact and doesn’t attempt to give any evidence of this. If you’re interested in this matter, please see my critique of the evidence (including a link to the source) here. So the body of work that Sanders looks at is a little more restricted than we might think at first.

From this platform, he begins to look at Paul’s theology, with a look at belief in resurrection and Jesus’ return. This is a fairly brief overview, possibly too brief. For a much more detailed work on this subject, if it interests you, I’d recommend Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. Sanders stays relatively uncontroversial here, but he doesn’t stay on such safe ground for long.

From here, he moves onto the theological background in which Paul was writing. The two main themes here are monotheism and providence. He touches on the very sensitive (to some) issue of predestination and free will, noting that Paul and his contemporaries did not think of them as mutually exclusive, thus circumventing the debates that have ranged since the issue was emphasised during the Reformation.

Sanders then goes into some detail on the book of Galatians (and as it’s quite a short epistle, I’d recommend you read it before delving into this chapter). Here, he tries to wrest back the idea of ‘righteousness by faith’ from Luther, who Sanders thinks didn’t grasp the issue properly. This section is intensely fascinating, though quite dense. I thought I had been reading for ages, only at one point to see that I had only gone through 5 or 6 pages in an hour. Some of the argument may have been lost on me, I admit, as I couldn’t help but think that “to be made righteous” and “to be justified” were, and are, two different ways of saying the same thing. But Sanders is keen to drive a wedge between the two, expounding the idea of the pressures put on Gentiles to convert to Judaism in order to become the children of Abraham.

From here, his focus switches predominantly to the book of Romans, contrasting the different audiences that Paul was writing to and his imperative for doing so. Here, he does get quite technical and nuanced but it is well worth reading through it with due care.

Although the book may be called “A Very Short Introduction” one should not be fooled into thinking this means “a very simple introduction.” There is some meaty theology in here, along with discussions on Greek grammar and some fairly detailed reasoning. But don’t let that put you off. Even though Sanders does occasionally use more exotic words like “eschatology” or “soteriology” (which you can look up in a dictionary) his writing style is very accessible and he makes a good job of explaining the difficulties involved, especially on the difficulties of translating Greek to English.

There is a very distinct emphasis on Galatians and Romans, so it is difficult to tell whether this really is an accurate study of all of Paul’s thinking, as his other books (besides the pastorals which, as I said, were discarded as non-Pauline) are relatively marginalised.

Having determined that to not be “justified by law” was to contrast finding one’s identity in Christ, rather than by dismissing rules, Sanders then moves on, quite naturally, to how Paul viewed behaviour. Here, Sanders’ own views come to the fore, somewhat. I will admit to being surprised, as I had read that he described himself as a “liberal, modern, secularized Protestant” which sounds right up my street. Yet I found him to be surprisingly conservative, advocating a puritanical and ascetic interpretation of Paul. Of course, such a view is not wholly unwarranted but it is also, I would argue, not necessarily the whole picture. Sanders does try to wriggle in a little liberalism into his argument by stating that Paul’s traditionalist Jewish approach to personal morality was moderated  in instances where he was confronted with pastoral issues and forced to think about the matter.

The book ends with Sanders looking at Romans 9-11 and the salvation of Israel. Here, he highlights how Paul’s emphasis changes and swings from one position to another within the space of a few chapters. Paul’s view on who would and who wouldn’t be saved are touched on, though much of the discussion on this has already taken place. The book ends quite abruptly without any kind of overarching conclusion. Instead, Sanders leaves us with a few questions about whether it is right to try to “systemise” Paul since his thinking was that of “an apostle, an ad hoc theologian, a proclaimer, a charismatic who saw visions and spoke in tongues – and a religious genius.”

There is much food for thought in this little book, and I would well recommend you have a taste. I wouldn’t wholly agree with every angle Sanders uses and would probably say there are facets of Paul’s writings which have been overlooked. Nonetheless, it is a good introduction, particularly for someone wanting an overview with some solidity to it.

Is individualism in christianity anachronistic?

In the crowd

I’m currently writing a few blog posts and the question which constitutes the title of this piece has cropped up. Rather than take a long side argument in one of those pieces, I wanted to clear the ground here.

In much of my reading through historically based theology (such as N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God) I keep coming across comments that state that individualism is an anachronistic way of looking at society in the Middle East in the 1st century. However, I’m not wholly convinced.

That’s not to say the criticism is incorrect, I do agree with it quite a lot, just not entirely. Anyone who has done much reading on the early church and its relation to its Jewish roots will see that there was far less individualism then than we find it today’s western culture.

Yet I cannot escape the idea, when reading through the New Testament, that within early christianity were the seeds of a less corporatist mentality. Not that the worldview was switched entirely to individualism, but rather that it shifted to a mid-way point between the two. There was to remain a “group identity” though radically changed from membership of the people-nation of Israel, but at the same time individuals were to take a greater responsibility for their roles within this reformed community.

In 1 Corinthians we get to see most clearly amongst the epistles this half-way house that I described above. The communal view may be seen in chapter 13, epitomised by verse 12:

“For just as the body is one and has many members and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”

There is a recognition of our individuality, and the rest of the chapter looks at the different roles individuals play, yet at the same time, there needs to be a unity. So there is an appreciation that a lung is very different from a finger, just as within a single congregation the person who operates the sound desk serves a very different task than the one who makes the teas & coffees. On a wider scale, the small Anglican church is a rural English village might appear very different from the large Pentecostal church in South Korea. Yet all are to be cherished for who they are, whilst recognising that though they may not come into contact all that often, they are part of a bigger, more complete picture.

The duties of the individual are not lost in this. In the same letter, just a few pages before, we have Paul’s more “physical theology” in 6:12-20. Here, although the metaphorical overtones refer to the church as the body, the instruction is for each individual as a microcosm of the church.

Also, if we look at Romans 10:9-13 (within the wider context of Paul’s discussion) then there can be very little doubt that the referent is the individual and that although Paul does discusses collectivism in both the previous and the subsequent chapters, the idea is firmly that of a single person. This is further backed up by Philippians 2:12.

This New Testament perspective is very different from that we find in the Old Testament. If you read through the prophets, there are numerous references to Israel as a whole and how the nationhood was thought of as a collective.

The example that jumped to my mind was that of Lot’s pleading for Sodom & Gomorrah. Of course, I take this story with more than a pinch of salt (pun intended) as my personal belief is that stories of such “conversations” with God are a shorthand literary device to convey a more general point. But nonetheless, the ideas it contains are those which shaped Judeo-christian beliefs. In this story, God is appears willing to destroy the cities even if a few people are found to be “righteous” – in other words the sins of the city as a whole meant that potentially those who were innocent would be included as part of the punishment.

I still find this profoundly challenging to my innate sense of justice, and is pointed out (rightly) by opponents of christianity as an example of God appearing capricious or unjust. I am still thinking this point over.

But for the purpose of this piece, the implication is clear: collectivism was a standard part of the mindset of Judaism that was transformed by the Jesus’ death, which heralded a step towards, but not by a long way reaching, individualism.

One may further note the story of Jonah, where he was told to go to the city of Ninevah (which was very large, according to 3:3,4) and speak judgement upon it. Yet one wonders how a city, which by its very nature has no consciousness or will of its own, could possibly take heed. Yet that is the understanding that was present at the time. The city was represented by its king and the actions of the city as a whole reflected that of the king.

Conclusion

It seems clear to me that along with the sea change that was precipitated by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the idea of collectivism/individualism also underwent a paradigm shift. So while collectivism might be needed for understanding the culture before the 1st century, I don’t think it’s right to try to apply that, unaltered, when talking of early christianity.

Yet there’s still something that bugs me about collectivism. It just seems to fall short of good sense. While there may have been a perception of collectivism, but I still think that that perception was simply wrong.

How can God be a just god if it is willing to pass judgement on an individual based on the beliefs and behaviours of their peers?

It may have been that this paradox influenced the change in view from Judaism to Christianity. I’m not asserting that it was, I am merely musing.