Monthly Archives: January 2013

Book Review: Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision by Tom Wright

Continuing to look at the New Perspectives on Paul movement, having recently looked at John Piper’s response to Tom Wright, this is then Wright’s response to Piper. The book divides into 2 (almost equal) parts. The first part is Wright’s more direct response to Piper’s book, combined with a restatement and clarification of some points, though these will be familiar to readers who have followed the same route that I did (What Saint Paul Really Said -> Paul: Fresh Perspectives – > The Future of Justification). The second half is an exegesis on the key sections in Paul’s writing relating to the theme of justification.

As the publishers chose to publish in the name of ‘Tom’ rather than ‘N.T.’ one might expect this to be at the more “everyday” level, more akin to Simply Christian or Surprised by Hope than his work on the Christian Origins and the Question of God series. Don’t let this lull you into a sense that there isn’t much to think through. Wright’s argument needs a great deal of care and attention in order to follow it. Indeed, one of his criticisms of Piper and other critics is that they have cherry-picked their objections, failing to see the bigger picture. There are flashes in the first half of some of Wright’s exasperation which some have taken to be slightly less than gracious. I must admit that I have some sympathy with this view, as the introduction comes across as though this was a book that Wright was compelled to write, which interrupted his schedule.

I must confess that I found the 2nd half of the book much tougher than the first. This is where Wright goes into detail on the key passages relating to justification in Galatians and Romans, with an interlude looking at Philippians, Corinthians and Ephesians. The trouble stems from the fact that Wright doesn’t include any of the texts he is talking about. So one is compelled to read this book in one hand and a bible in the other. Even then, the large sweeps Wright takes encapsulates large chunks of text at a time. While Wright is keen to show the “big picture” I couldn’t help but get a little bit lost along the way. Speaking to others about the book, it appears several ‘gave up’ at this point though I would strongly encourage anyone who has done so to try again.

One of the great treats of the book is that at several places, Wright echoes Paul’s writing style (especially his rhetorical questions) with the likes of, “What shall we say to these things?” or, “Where then is boasting in human traditions (including those of the Reformation)?” before going on to answer these questions himself. Having followed, chronologically by publication, some of the New Perspective writings, I’m not sure how accessible this book might be to those who haven’t followed the same path. There are certainly a lot of riches to be discovered, though I would recommend tracing the journey that resulted in arriving here. But for anyone who wants to understand the background, the debate and the interpretations that are important to the New Perspective, then this would have to be core reading.

[As an endnote, I ought to state that the day before I finished reading this, a commenter on this blog pointed my attention to the fact that the release of Wright’s magnum opus on Paul has finally been announced. Though I write about it a little around 18 months ago, little has been made public knowledge since then. Though the date has not been made more specific than “the autumn” we do now know that there will be 3 volumes. There is the book Wright intended to write, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, a review of recent Pauline scholarship, Paul and his Recent Interpreters, and a collection of Wright’s other writings on Paul (which may include extracts of the current book being reviewed). I look forward to it immensely.]

Advertisements

Would I like a referendum on Europe? Yes

Last week, David Cameron announced that the next Conservative manifesto will contain a pledge to have a referendum on whether Britain ought to remain in Europe or to withdraw. His intention is that the Conservatives will win an outright majority at the next general election, thus giving them a proper mandate to govern; something they lack at the moment.

I’ll give Cameron some credit, given how much of the current government’s actions were in neither manifesto of the two coalition parties, he has had the decency to delay any European referendum until after the next general election. Though I do wonder if Cameron’s promises are worth any more than Nick Clegg’s promise was when he vowed not to vote for an increase in university tuition fees.

Those who know me, and other regular readers, will be aware that I am no friend of the Conservatives or the values they stand for. I value fairness, equality and community above prejudice, capitalism and individualism. So it is through slightly gritted teeth that I say I would favour having a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. I’ll explain why:

When the first referendum was held in 1975 my parents were younger than I am now. All 4 of my grandparents were eligible to vote. My generation was just in the process of being planned, conceived, born, etc. So firstly, the population has largely changed since then. Anyone who voted in 1975 (if they were 18) will be 60 by the time of the next referendum. My grandparents’ generation have largely gone, my parents’ generation has aged and my generation has been born, grown up and become fully fledged members of a British society that, as far as our living memory goes, has always been part of the EU.

Though that last sentence is not quite true, is it? The 1975 vote was on membership of the EEC, not the EU. A small difference in the acronym, maybe, but it is indicative that what we have now is not what was envisioned back in 1975. The very nature of what is referred to as ‘Europe’ (meaning the politics of the union thereof, not just the geographical nature) has evolved in time, with more member states now than at the beginning and a sense of government that is stronger than economic friendliness between near neighbours.

Given that politics, parties and economies change so quickly, it is right that we get to vote for a new government at least once every 5 years. I might even argue for a 4 year term, though not here. Given how different Europe is now from what it was in the mid-1970s, it seems only reasonable to offer the British people a choice.

On top of this, anyone aged 18-59 (allowing some flexibility for months of the year, depending on when precisely such a referendum may take place) would be having their first say. Although ‘Britain’ may sometimes be personified, the question isn’t really being asked to the same group of people. Those that have the opportunity to vote in both referenda will be a small minority indeed.

The odd thing about last week’s politics was the position of the Labour party. I cannot help but think that Ed Milliband has painted himself into a corner by saying that he would not support holding a referendum. Had he done so, he would surely have taken some flak from the Conservatives for not bringing about a referendum during Labour’s time in office. But any such accusations wouldn’t have stuck, given that Milliband wasn’t leader of the party then. Nor would it likely still be an issue by the time of the next general election. As it is, however, the next Conservative manifesto will contain one attractive promise that the Labour manifesto will not.

It may be reasonably argued that those who wish for a referendum are those who are wanting to withdraw. In that case, I am in the minority who would want a referendum for the sake of following through on principles of democracy, but who would likely vote to remain in Europe.

Though I do wonder, given the current governments deplorable attacks on the poor, disabled and unemployed and their total and utter lack of credibility on the economy (not that Labour’s reputation, if not their actual record, is all that better in this last respect) whether or not the referendum is going to be the Conservative’s biggest selling point at the next general election. Are they just going to be the Referendum Party in the emperor’s new clothes? I would be fearful if they are, as they may well campaign on a referendum and then claim they have a mandate to inflict much more harm than they have done so in the last 3 years. That is, if they win. I shall be voting strategically to do my best to ensure they don’t.

Book Review: Night by Elie Wiesel

Several years ago I came across an extract from this book in a compilation entitled ‘Belief’ which was put together by Francis Collins. I recall its great eloquence and its emotional punch. This gave me a desire to read the book, though I do not really know why it has taken me so long to get around to reading it.

For those that have not heard of the book, it is an account that Wiesel wrote as recollection of the Holocaust, which he survived. From a village in Transylvania, his is present as the population is herded into a ghetto and transported to the concentration camps in Poland via cattle trains. In some graphic detail, he describes the brutality to which he was an eyewitness. The edition I
read also includes his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Perhaps it was fear that prevented me from picking it up. The book has acquired something of a reputation for being immensely powerful, as has The Diary of Anne Frank, another classic of the era which I have not yet read. There ought to be little doubt about how powerful this book is; just reading the introduction was an experience in itself. In reviewing this, I am more aware than ever of how divorced reading can be from real-life experience. Knowing that this gap exists, and yet still experiencing an immense force conveyed by the power of Wiesel’s writing, I can barely imagine the
depth of anguish felt of which his words are but a shadow.

In some ways, I can understand how some might want to wish that the Holocaust was a fiction. The horrors described here find no place in my comfortable, 21st century English world. I could not countenance babies being tossed on a bonfire, some alive when they were so discarded. As well as providing an eyewitness account on history, this reads an exercise in the dehumanisation of people. With people moved from camp to camp, relationships are broken, making any contact within the camps transient.

As gut-wrenching as this book is, I cannot recommend it highly enough. I feel ashamed to have not read it earlier in life.

A christian ethic of blogging

Of late, I have been reading Justification by Tom Wright. I have now finished it and my review will be published before long on this site. However, near the beginning, one little passage jumped out at me and I could not help but be drawn into engagement with it. It reads thus:

“Go to the blogsites, if you dare. It really is high time we developed a Christian ethic of blogging. Bad temper is bad temper even in the apparent privacy of your own hard drive, and harsh and unjust words, when released into the wild, rampage around and do real damage. As for the practice of saying mean and untrue things while hiding behind a pseudonym – well, if I get a letter like that it goes straight into the bin. But the cyberspace equivalents of road-rage don’t happen by accident. People who type vicious, angry, slanderous and inaccurate accusations do so because they feel their
worldview to be under attack.”

I like the idea of a christian ethic of blogging. Though I wonder how it might differ from a christian ethic of any other form of communication. As a fairly regular blogger with an online presence on Twitter and Facebook also, how we communicate our faith to one another and to those who are not christians is a topic of great interest to me.

I agree with Wright that we ought to remain courteous and gracious in all our dealings with one another, whether that be conducted face-to-face, via handwritten letters, writing books or composing blog posts and commenting thereon. Though it strikes me that these are all just different forms of communication; so maybe we could generalise to a christian ethic of communication. Though I think this was outlined quite well by James in what has become known as chapter 3 in his letter to the dispersion.

What really struck me about this snippet was the phrase, “hiding behind a pseudonym”. I have written a little on web anonymity before but it may be worth restating some things. I blog under a pseudonym to keep my normal life and my working life separate. I’m not sure how many of my employers, past or present, would like what I write. I do not claim to speak as a representative of anyone other than myself, which would be compromised if I openly blogged in my own name. Aside from that, there is nothing duplicitous in what I write. I would hope that any readers here have found me to be open and honest.

What I aim for is what I think of as credible anonymity. To avoid such fallacies as the argument from authority or the argument from no authority, I think it is important to assess a person’s words on what they actually say rather than any secondary information which may be dug up by researching their real name. After all, what is a name if not a label by which someone is known. To be simultaneously credible and anonymous, one ought to maintain a self-consistency. I wouldn’t claim I always attain this, though it is something I aim for, and I hope you might recognise this.

The trouble with anonymity is that there are those who use it, as Wright points out, as a mask to hide behind while abuse is hurled out from behind it. Yet to characterise all such anonymous bloggers as such would be (though Wright doesn’t quite go that far) a terrible slur. Of course, people don’t like being told that they’re wrong, especially when the accusation is false. That doesn’t just happen to famous authors, bloggers do that to one another.

In my opinion, it is only by setting an example of being both anonymous and credible, with others following en masse, that attitudes towards anonymity may be helped. I don’t think it will ever be free from suspicion, as the likes of LulzSec and the “Anonymous” collective continue to use the web for purposes perceived (not always unjustly) as nefarious.

I also, wonder if, given that this blog is anonymous, Prof Wright would even read this piece, all other considerations aside…

Book Review: The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller

It is hard to find anyone serious who dislikes Tim Keller; I am frequently recommended his books and various quotes of his regularly crop up in my Twitter timeline, possibly only behind direct bible quotes, CS Lewis and Nietzsche. To date, the only book I’ve read of his was the excellent ‘The Reason for God‘ to which The Prodigal God is the follow-up. Effectively, having established the groundwork that one may rationally believe in God, Keller is here laying out what he sees as the heart of the christian message.

Keller acknowledges in the notes a debt he owes to Kenneth Bailey, upon whose work, amongst others, Keller has leant on heavily. So those familiar with Bailey’s take on the Prodigal Parable may well find themselves on familiar territory. He is also quick to clarify the use of the word “prodigal” in the book title does not refer to a God who has abandoned us and gone away, but rather it is to someone who is “”recklessly spendthrift.” It means to spend until you have nothing left.” So his reference is here to God’s extravagant grace.

His focus is on the parable known as ‘The Parable of the Prodigal Son’ – which Keller points out is a bit of a misnomer, in that it is really the story of two lost sons – but lost for different reasons. As such, much of the book explores the roles of “younger brother types” and “older brother types” – with a quite pointed critique of the latter. His point is that the older brother of “religion” has missed the point and wrongly views the younger brother in a loveless way. It’s a marvellous exposition on why christianity should not be regarded as a religion, but acknowledging that religiosity has the capacity to alienate both christians and non-christians alike.

As a basic introduction to the christian faith, this is right up there with C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity or Tom Wright’s Simply Christian. As with the others, I don’t agree wholly with the author’s outlook. Though considerably more liberal than a lot of American evangelicals, Keller’s reformed orthodoxy is a still little too conservative for my taste. But this only comes to light towards the very end of this short and highly readable book.

Having finished it a little over a week ago, I have had a little time to reflect on it. I was thinking who I would or wouldn’t recommend it to. While I thought of plenty in the former category, the latter was virtually empty. As a long-time christian, I found the book shone light on the object of my faith with a fresh angle. For those wanting to explore the basics of christianity, then I would happily give them a copy, though I’ll hold on to mine for future reference!

A christian response to trolling, Part 3: What Jesus did and what we might do

I now arrive at the last part (the one I really wanted to write) of my mini-series. Please see the necessary parts 1 & 2 for some more background a bit more depth.

What Jesus did

Of course, Jesus was never subjected to trolling as we currently know it. But he did face something not dissimilar, in face-to-face encounters. You may think of more, but I wish to consider just two such instances. The first of these is the incident of the woman (but mysteriously, not the man) who was caught in adultery:

“The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.” [A footnote in my bible says “Other ancient authorities add the sins of each of them”] (John 8:3-8, NRSV)

There is much that could be said about the passage and the wider context which I have chosen to omit for brevity I hope that will make this more focused and that you can forgive me for the gaps. The kind of approach adopted by the scribes and Pharisees matches very closely that of trolls as described in Part 1: they are courteous, precise, demanding and ask less out of genuine desire for learning but to entice Jesus into saying something regrettable. What I didn’t notice until I transcribed that passage above was the phrase “kept questioning” – i.e. they didn’t just ask once.

While I would love to know what Jesus wrote in the sand, I really don’t have a clue. I’ve heard & read various speculations, but I’m not sure that’s a wise thing to do. However you look at it, though, Jesus doesn’t seem to give one of the two answers the scribes and Pharisees were hoping for. If John’s account is to be taken as chronologically accurate (a big “if”) then we may conclude that this took place during the festival of booths alluded to in the preceding chapter. If he said, “stone her” then then to do so during a festival would have been outrageous and possibly caused a riot, not unlike that which occurred a few years later when Paul was there in Acts 21. On the other hand, if Jesus had said, “let her go,” then the scribes and Pharisees would have succeeded in trapping him into contradicting the law, for which he might well have been arrested.

His response, as we have it recorded, is a little like a politician’s dodging of the question. It may well frustrate some, myself included. If we (as many christians do) consider Jesus’ sideways response to be indicative of Solomon-esque wisdom, then maybe we don’t give our politicians enough credit. I don’t know, I’m starting to waffle.

For a much better and fuller exposition, including the textual criticisms over the passage’s origins, I’d recommend Kenneth Bailey’s essay in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, though he does indulge in some of the speculation which I was not in favour of.

The other incident to look at is Jesus’ interrogation before Pontius Pilate:

“Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus said, ‘You say so.’ But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, ‘Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?’ But he gave them no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.” (Matthew 27:11-14, NRSV)

Thankfully, Matthew isn’t as cryptic as John in letting us know what Jesus did and didn’t say. Of course, there are queries over how Matthew knew this, who was the eyewitness? But this is not the time to discuss such questions.

It is said that sometimes silence speaks louder than words. Though I’m not convinced Jesus intended it, I couldn’t help but think of 1 Kings 19, where the voice of God was not in an earthquake but in a silence (sometimes translated as “still, small voice” or “whisper”). By having the confidence to answer with silence, the question is allowed to linger and to echo back at those who ask the question. In so doing, the questioner is invited to attempt to answer the question themselves. A genuine enquirer may then posit their own answers, though a troll may continue to sneer, naysay or simply fail to think things through themselves.

In what he said, he may have lacked clarity, open to being misunderstood, but he seems to have said all that he wanted to. One episode of his ministry was ending, with the worst episode looming on the horizon.

Of course, one could point to a host of other examples to Jesus’ manner of answering questions.

What might we do?

I hope I have been reasonably clear in what I have written so far, so that you have been able to get an insight into my thinking on this from a few angles. I hope now to draw these together into some kind of coherent picture. If I could sum it up in one word, it would have to be discernment. If someone asks about my faith, then I have a responsibility to explain it as clearly and honestly as I can. However, one must have a careful think about the motivation underlying such a query. If it is genuine, open-minded inquiry, then I have no problem in engaging in productive dialogue whereby I might not only help someone else see things from my point of view, but also that I might be able to see the world through their eyes also, which may necessarily entail a shift in my worldview.

If, on the other hand, any such enquiry is motivated by the desire to waste my time or to try to trick you into saying something that might readily be misunderstood or regretted, then I may be more wary in my words. Sometimes, this may only be revealed only after an initial exchange. In such an instance, there is nothing wrong in choosing to not answer them, or at least in waiting some time before answering, giving time for the question to hang in the air.

Though hesitant, I am not averse to ‘shaking the dust off’ from some trolls. In modern parlance, this would equate to blocking a user if the platform you are using allows that. Of course, this cuts both ways and I would not advocate any christians taking part in any trolling or flaming activity. As I was reminded recently, we are ambassadors for God, and as such we bear an immense responsibility. I cannot see how verbally abusing others is edifying.

I can’t say I’ve abided by this guidance at all times. The balance between being clear and being gracious can be hard to get right. I pray for wisdom to improve this balance always. I conclude with these words from Ecclesiastes:

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: …a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;”

A christian response to trolling, Part 2: What Jesus taught and what Paul did

Continuing my look at how a christian might respond to trolling. In part 1, I looked at a few general aspects of trolls and at Peter’s encouragement for people to be willing to share the reasons for their faith.

What Jesus taught

I do not pretend that Jesus gave specific teaching on dealing with internet trolls. I strongly doubt he ever even considered them while he was an itinerant preacher in 1st century Israel/Palestine. For that reason, this section is quite short. Do let me know if you think I’ve omitted any pertinent passages.

One possible passage to consider would be a part of the sermon on the mount, where Jesus said, “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them underfoot and turn and maul you.” (Matthew 7:6) I’ve often heard this snippet used with the interpretation that the “[holy pearls]” is a reference to the word of God. Its aim is therefore to dissuade christians from wasting their energies in evangelism on ‘lost causes.’ I used to be quite resistant to this idea, as there seems to be some ambiguity over what Jesus really meant by “holy”. Though I am coming round to this view, in particular in light of the “what Jesus did” section in part 3.

Further light may be shed on Jesus’ mindset when he sent out his disciples en masse to, “proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”” (Matthew 10:7) Initially the message was exclusively for “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and to exclude specifically the Gentiles and the Samaritans. Within Jesus’ instructions, he says, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” The phrase, ‘to shake the dust off’ has translated from its middle eastern origins into our western vernacular with much the same meaning; that is, to show contemptuous rejection for a location, refusing to have any further business there.

What Paul did

This idea has later echoes with Paul in the book of Acts. “But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, and stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of the region. So they shook the dust off their feet in protest against them, and went to Iconium.” (Acts 13:50,51) The region in question is Pisidia, the area in which the city of Antioch was located, where Paul and Barnabas spoke after an invitation to do so from the local officials. We find Paul shaking the dust again in chapter 18, though before coming to that, it’s worth pointing out that later in that chapter, he returns to Antioch and “spending some time there.” So I wonder how seriously he took his promise.

Back to Acts 18. “When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus. When they opposed and reviled him, in protest he shook the dust from his clothes and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’” Even after this, though, Paul goes off in a huff to the house next door to the synagogue. It’s not as if he’s left town, he’s just gone next door, not unlike a child with a temper tantrum. How long did he then stay there? 18 months. 

A phrase that sometimes comes up in christian circles is “hard-hearted” – it usually denotes someone who is stubborn or refuses to change their mind. More common these days is the phrase “close-minded” which I use to be an equivalent phrase, though some conservative friends of mine have a very different take on it with which I disagree profoundly. To them, the opposite, “open-minded” means to accept anything and everything you are told. My personal view is that it means you are open to accepting you may be wrong and are willing to listen to someone else’s point of view.

With that in mind, I think these passages are practical guidance not to waste time with time-wasters. Both Mark’s gospel and John’s Revelation include a phrase along the lines of “[he who has ears, let him hear]” – I think the world is populated both by people who are willing to listen and those who aren’t. Some may fix themselves in a particular mindset about something and will not be budged to reconsider the basis of what they think. Such people are often known as fundamentalists. Of course, I don’t deny that there are christians who fall into such a category; though I am yet to be persuaded that such a mindset is unique to those of a “religious” persuasion. I have also encountered this view in those of no religion, those involved in politics and those who debate the merits of Apple v Android.

In the last part of this mini-series, I’ll look at the example Jesus set and conclude with what I set out to write initially, a possible christian response to trolling.