Monthly Archives: October 2015

Book Review: Neither Here Nor There by Miriam Drori

This was one of the books that was recommended to me at the start of the year as one to challenge my view. It does seem, though, that it was merely a recommendation from a friend of the author who was just trying to boost sales by 1. But I got it anyway.

Neither Here Nor There is a debut novel from Drori.

The story centres on Etsy. We meet her shortly after she has made a major life decision; she has left a community of ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, known as the Haredi. Her dream is to “become secular”. The book’s title can then be understood as saying that Etsy has left one life, but has not yet integrated into a new one. She is an in between space, neither here nor there.

The impetus for the plot is provided by Mark, who is the first person she happens to meet. What evolves is the love story between them, though it did come across as a bit rushed and contrived. There was no reason given for their attraction; it was little more than “love at first sight”.

One of the things I couldn’t get past as I read was that Drori was very keen on getting the reader to understand the emotional side of the characters. Quite often, though, this was told to us in a quite forthright manner, rather than being shown to us. So the characterisation ends up a little flat, with no mystery at all. The whole person is laid out on the page for the reader to see. But this happens for both Etsy and Mark. So while we might used to be reading a book from one character’s perspective, what Drori does is try to show us both main characters at the same time.

The other problem I had with the book was the lack of a sense of place. So much has been invested in the emotional feel of the book, that Jerusalem fades into the background. With a few exceptions, the story could take place almost anywhere. I wanted to be able to get a sense of the ground underneath my feet, the heat of the atmosphere, the smells of the city, but it was all just a bit thin. It was almost as though the intention had been to write a play rather than a novel, given how dialogue-driven the whole book was.

The progression of the plot has a very familiar feel to it. Anyone who has encountered Romeo and Juliet knows the idea of the love between two people from different, but intersecting worlds. What we get here then is the walking down of a well-trodden path, almost to the point of cliché. It’s not a bad book, especially considering it is a first novel, but it’s not one that I feel rushed to recommend to people as (to compare to another debut novel) I did with The Night Circus. If Drori writes a second novel, I wouldn’t be disinclined to read it, but I would be hoping for something with a little more substance to it, where the reader gets to smell the atmosphere and has to work a little to get to know the characters and their motivations.

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Book Review: Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

After having finished Theology of Hope, I was in dire need of a light read. Wodehouse is one of those writers that almost everyone has heard of, quite a few have read and who garners a loyal following. Yet I have, thus far in 31+ years on this planet, never before read any of his works. It seemed only right to start at the beginning, only there is some ambiguity over precisely where to start, for the characters of Jeeves & Wooster made some early appearances in Wodehouse’s short stories, but I was hoping to read a novel. So it seemed that Thank You, Jeeves was the appropriate place to start.

One of the odd things about Wodehouse is that even if you haven’t read him, you are likely to have heard of Jeeves & Wooster or even seen a few episodes of the television programme that was made starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in the title roles. So I certainly came to the book with those two forming my mental image, as the book opens with a duologue between the two.

That particular opening sees Jeeves hand in his notice (that’s hardly a spoiler, it’s the first chapter) over the matter of Wooster playing a banjolele very badly. This has also prompted a number of complaints from Wooster’s neighbours, but being a stubborn old so-and-so, he decides not to abandon the instrument, but instead to abandon his home. The story then transfers to a coastal area, where Jeeves decides to rent a house and obtain the services of a new valet.

From here on, there are a series of farcical episodes that befall Bertie and thwart his every plan. Old friends and old loves bounce around his world (or rather, he bounces around theirs) in a delightfully comic fashion.

A reasonable review cannot pass over one very uncomfortable fact about the book. Written in the 1930s, there are racial epithets used here that were taken as norm, which I am loathed to put into writing myself and, if I were to use them in the workplace, I might well find myself unemployed. But it doesn’t end there. Much of the 2nd half of the book revolves around a running joke of one of the characters “blacking up” and getting into all sorts of scrapes. I strongly doubt that this particular book would get made into a tv programme or film because of this (though I later found out that this episode was adapted for tv as recently as 1991). So if you are thinking of reading it, consider this a due warning, in case you are sensitive to racism.

With that warning aside, one is left trying to read through the book and see what was intended. While it firmly falls into the category of comedy, there is an element here of the Victorian sensation novel. The speed with which events happen, along with the sudden plot turns ensue, result in a story that is really rather fast-paced. The entire action takes place over just a couple of days. It provided me with the light relief I was after and was, all in all, a rather jolly tale.

If the world’s getting you down and you need a bit of gentle escapism, then this wouldn’t be a bad book to go for. Though very different in genre, it sort of reminded me of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  I definitely intend to return to Wodehouse later and read some more of his works.

How I read the bible

Today I’m joining up with Balaam as we cross-post about how we each read the bible. This began life as a “positive alternative” to the extremely conservative view as espoused by Kevin DeYoung in his book, Taking God at His Word (see here a review of my review). It’s changed shape a bit since then, but I hope it still hangs together.

I will begin with a summary I have used before:

I view the bible as a collection of books which is the most reliable source we have for understanding the origins, themes, aims and beliefs of the christian faith. To get as true and fair an understanding of christianity, out of which flows a faithful adherence, the Church and its members must make the best effort to understand the bible in its historical context and from there to apply it to the society, geography and time that we find ourselves in today. That understanding may be aided by any available tools we have, whether that be linguistics, historiography, tradition, etc. (all of which may be brought together under the umbrella term, ‘theology’).

There’s quite a lot condensed in there and there are some things I’ve chosen not to say. For example, you not find in that affirmation a statement of inerrancy or about authority. So let me try to unpack some of these.

The Chicago statement

One of the best known statements on the authority of scripture is the Chicago statement on biblical inerrancy. Drafted in 1978, it gained the backing of a number of well respected biblical scholars including Don Carson, Norman Geisler, Wayne Grudem, John Meyer, J.I. Packer, Francis Schaeffer and R.C. Sproul. What is most bizarre about the statement is that only applies to the original texts, none of which any person alive has ever seen and where it is extremely doubtful if they even exist any more. It doesn’t apply to copies of the texts (which we have) or to translations (which we have in our homes). It is, in effect, a statement of confidence about a series of objects where their content can only be inferred, and even then, not perfectly. Yet the idea of inerrancy necessitates the idea of being able to reconstruct the texts perfectly. If we can only have a “pretty good idea” what the original texts said, down to the nearest letter, then inerrancy is a non-starter.

The temptation of inerrancy

If the bible could be shown to be inerrant, then of course it would make things a lot simpler. There would be no need to wrestle with issues or to think things through for oneself. You could simply open up a book and know that it is flawless.

As such, the idea of inerrancy is one that is greatly tempting. It is a temptation that many fall into. Yet to do falls foul of one clause of what we speak of as the greatest commandment: to love God with all your mind. Statements of inerrancy are a wish fulfilment; a wish to not have to work for understanding.

Paul instructs the church at Thessalonica to “test everything, hold on to what is good”. What happens when we apply this to the bible itself? When tested, we find that one cannot claim the bible is inerrant and remain an honest person. As a simple test, read the book of Acts. You find there three accounts of Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus. Ask the question: did his companions hear a sound? Read the texts carefully and you will find self-contradiction within a single book. You may read much more widely and find discrepancies between books.

Authority of scripture?

The idea of ‘sola scriptura’ arose with the reformation as a reaction against catholicism, where tradition or the word of the pope were taken as authoritative. Scripture was relegated in importance and free reign was given for the catholic magisteria to make up whatever they wanted, hand that down, call it tradition and that became “orthodoxy”. It was from this approach that various aberrations sprung, including indulgences, papal infallibility, prostitute racing in the Vatican and transubstantiation.

Of course, a correction was needed.

Sola scriptura was what was formulated by the reformers as a kind of restorative simplicity. The trouble comes when you apply to the field of interpretation. There are few better examples of this than that demonstrated by Kevin DeYoung in the aforementioned work. In it, he claimed that scripture interpreted scripture and that since scripture was infallible then scripture’s own interpretation of scripture was also infallible. This is clearly an absurd circular argument, yet its adherents stick to it, because of their vice-like grip on the notion of infallibility. What ends up happening is that they shoe-horn in their own interpretation (which may or may not be correct) and defending it on the basis that it is scripture’s interpretation of itself.

Scripture, tradition and reason – an alternative trinity

Whenever the question of christian understanding crops up, there are 3 sources of information often cited: scripture, tradition and reason. How these three relate to one form the framework of many a person’s understanding. Some choose to emphasise one over the other two, two over the other one or they try to use all three equally.

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I’m not the biggest fan of tradition in the world. It’s mainly because when it’s boiled down to its essence, it’s doing something because it’s something that’s been done before. It might sound all well and good to say that you are following in the same direction as esteemed women and men who have gone before us, but it rather breaks down if they’ve set off in the wrong direction.

So is reason the best way to go? Well it’s better than tradition, but if it is devoid of an evidential basis, then it just becomes stuff we make up. Some of it might be right, but there’s no proper way to tell. In this respect reason-in-a-vacuum is little different from the worst examples of mysticism.

So what’s the alternative?

Epistemology

When discussing the nature of the bible, the question of epistemology comes up very rarely. This is something I find both surprising and disappointing, as it seems to cut through a lot of the undergrowth created by the obsession with authority. Those who err on the conservative side of things have a tendency to treat the bible as a normative document, that which gives clear, reliable facts and instructions. At the more liberal end of the spectrum, there is the idea of the bible as formative, telling the story of God’s dealings with his people, often told parabolically. One should get the gist, but not get hung up too much on the details, particularly with regards to history.

I don’t wholly agree with either, but I think each has their merits. The person who anachronistically projects relatively modern standards of historiography onto the biblical authors, imagining them to have been the idealistic journalists of their day, detailing the facts in an impartial manner, is a fool. Such an approach gives rise to young earth creationism, an utterly defunct view that has done nothing to advance the proclamation of the gospel and has in fact given christians (including those who denounce such nonsense) a bad name.

To me the starting point of christianity has to be Jesus. Many have started off with the idea of “God” and many words are spilled before we even get onto Jesus. A very influential example that I’ve been reading about lately is Thomas Aquinas. His Summa Theologica begins with a lot of questions and talk of God, but scant all about Jesus, who is relegated to later parts of the book. This approach, adopted by many after Aquinas, can be called “Godianity” instead of “Christianity”. It is this parody that ends up as the target in so many critiques of the so-called “New Atheists“. The idea of God gets attacked, with Jesus barely getting a look-in.

But if we make Jesus the starting point of christian epistemology, then many of the critiques lose their focus. Instead, there is then either a resort to the Christ-myth hypothesis, which is in the same league of intellectualism as young earth creationism and homeopathy, or one has to undertake a serious engagement with Jesus. And how do we know about him? In the bible. One has to be able to read it critically, without the naivety of thinking the gospels are accounts that were documentary accounts, but such an approach shouldn’t allow for reading non-evident material into the texts. Though they may not be inerrant, they remain the earliest and most reliable evidence we have through which we understand the person, life, actions and deeds of Jesus. This understanding is then the lens that we put in our glasses, and through which we view the rest of the bible and the world.

This lens, though, can always be refined. By understanding the context of the time, religion, politics, geography, etc. in which Jesus’ story is told, we can better understand the hues and textures of the biblical story.

What then, of sola scriptura? If one gets stuck with the obsession over authority, then sola scriptura still stands, more or less. My proposal is that if we pull ourselves out of the mire of authority and instead go with epistemology, then biblical study becomes somewhat easier. There’s still hard work to do, and there is plenty in the bible to wrestle with, but I don’t agree with those who choose to ignore or simply argue around those aspects we find difficult, particularly in regards to the hot topics of today.

It might be argued that I’ve missed the point of sola scriptura, if one still thinks of the bible as the primary source of our epistemology, and that the key question is over who is allowed to interpret scripture. Here, I refer the reader to my idealistic view of theology, where church is informed by the theology of academia, but where academic theology is also informed by the life of the church, in a kind of virtuous circle. No person should be restricted from biblical interpretation, but it doesn’t mean that everyone’s view is necessarily right. It is a community matter to discern correct interpretation from false.

Conclusion?

How might this be summed up? Well, the bible is the starting point for our knowledge of the story of God acting in the world, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. From this start, we use whatever tools we can (be they reason, history, literature, sociology, etc) to try to understand it. If those conclusions, when tested, turn out to be good, they may be passed on and become something akin to a tradition, but we retain the right to constantly question received wisdom of ages past, nomatter how treasured they may be.

Book Review: Hebrews for Everyone by Tom Wright

Of all the ‘For Everyone’ series of books, this one naturally provokes the most jokes, typically involving cups of tea. However, such frivolity is not the subject this book.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept of the ‘For Everyone’ series, they are commentaries on the bible. Tom Wright has written all of the New Testament commentaries whilst John Goldingay is making good progress with the Old Testament. In addition to providing commentary, Wright also gives his own translation of the book of Hebrews. The intention is to make it as accessible as possible. So while he discusses issues of great depth, he doesn’t go into all the depth that he could.

The format is such that you get a section of the text (say, 6-15 verses) followed by Wright’s take on it. Sometimes that interpretation begins with a radically left turn. We get little windows into Wright’s world, whether it be his family or professional life. But these are the mark of a preacher who wishes to relate to his audience an exposition of scripture that is firmly rooted in the life and world that people can relate to. Of course, this may be limited to 21st century British christians, but that happens to be a demographic into which I fit.

The overarching theme that Wright brings forth throughout the book is the idea of “better”. This is something that is prevalent throughout the book, and is by no means a unique insight that Wright brings. What he does bring is a gentle insight into the Jewish background against which Hebrews was written. For it was to a primarily Jewish-Christian audience. This was a somewhat more thorough approach than that adopted by my church, which began a series on Hebrews shortly after I finished this book. Their approach was to find 4 or 5 words scattered throughout the book that, in English, began with the same letter, and claim that these words form the key themes of Hebrews.

In Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright clarifies his particular nuances in relation to supersessionism, though here he doesn’t have the space to go into these, which may lead some to raise a quizzical eyebrow at his interpretation.

Another criticism I’d have is that there are times Wright goes off on a bit of a tangent, importing commentary that really belongs in other books, rather than concentrating on Hebrews. In other words, he incorporates some Lukan narrative as well as Pauline theology into his commentary, when he hasn’t established that either the Lukan or Pauline corpus was either available or known to the audience of the book of Hebrews. So while it may mesh with his other ‘For Everyone’ commentaries, it doesn’t always seem to stand up on its own.

My final critique is about the theme of priesthood. I’m not convinced Wright brings out the meaning of the text, and somewhat sidesteps the fact that Hebrews is not advocating an institution of a christian priesthood. I might suspect this is due to Wright’s own Anglicanism, which rather dilutes the radical nature of the text.

That said, it’s still a very worthwhile work and serves as a useful introduction to the book of Hebrews. That’s what it sets out to be, so it fulfills the brief.

100 word ‘Thought for the month’

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to write “about 100 words” for the church newsletter. Below is what was sent and today published as a ‘Thought for the month’. For context, the name of our church is Ichthus.

The term Ichthus is a shortened form of a bold declaration: Jesus is the Messiah (Christ), the Son of God, Saviour. Three terms that denote the same person but which carry different connotations. Yet Jesus did not go about introducing himself with these titles. Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah came part way into Jesus’ ministry and wasn’t obvious, for it had to be revealed by the Holy Spirit. So when we introduce Jesus to others, should we immediately tell them of the conclusions of christian thought or invite them to become disciples and walk a path alongside us? 

Book Review: Hegel – A Very Short Introduction by Peter Singer

In a few of the books I’ve read recently, most notably Das Kapital and Theology of Hope, the figure of Hegel has loomed large. Yet it any discussion on him always comes across as esoteric and rather impenetrable for this reader, untrained in philosophy. Without diving straight into his works, it seemed more appropriate to read about him, with a book designed for a beginner. So what could be more appropriate than a Very Short Introduction?

We begin with a look at Hegel’s life. One instantly gets confirmation of a likely suspicion: Hegel’s work is heavily shaped by (both in agreement with and as a reaction to) Kant’s philosophy. Having not read Kant or much about his thought, this would seem to be an instant hamstring. Perhaps I should come back to Kant later. The other figure that Kant wishes to highlight is Friedrich Schiller, whose own critiques of Kant may be thought of as mirroring Hegel’s, but that the history of philosophy has looked on Schiller unfavourably, with Hegel emerging as the more memorable of the two.

Singer’s look at Hegel’s own thought begins with The Philosophy of History. The key point I picked up from it was that Hegel viewed history as a progression towards a state of liberty. It is hinted at, though not stated explicitly, that Hegel viewed his own contemporary German state as the culmination of that progress. Singer looks at a few civilisations through Hegel’s eyes, to show us how he reached this view.

The question then arises as to what is meant by liberty. To do this, we get a précis of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Singer is quick to point out that this is not a matter of right as in ‘right and wrong’; i.e. a study of ethics. But rather it concerns rights, a matter of political philosophy. Hegel reacted against the idea of liberty as the ability to do what one pleases, viewing this not as the greatest height of humanity, but as an immature dream. I couldn’t help but think that maybe Friedrich Hayek would have been wise to heed these words. Indeed, the discussion quickly moves to one of economics, where, having referenced him earlier, one cannot but think of Karl Marx.

Moving onto the motion of community, Singer takes us on a tour of Hegel’s view of planned and unplanned ways of living. At this point, I admit I got a bit lost in Singer’s explanation, so goodness knows how hopeless I’d be at trying to get a grasp on the source material of Hegel’s writings on the subject!

Halfway through the book, Singer unleashes on us the following: “It is time to confess: I have been cheating. My account of Hegel’s philosophy so far has carefully omitted of mention of something that Hegel himself refers to repeatedly and regards as crucial: the idea of Geist.” Thus we see that what has been spoken of so far has only partially dealt with the works those chapters purport to. So it is that we then have to look at Hegel’s Phenomenology, starting with whether Geist is better translated as ‘spirit’ or ‘mind’. Singer takes the view that ‘spirit’ sounds too religious and, notwithstanding Hegel’s Lutheran tendencies, is too misleading, preferring ‘mind’ instead.

Without having studied Hegel, I think Singer did a pretty good job here. It hasn’t made me an expert, but I think I got the gist of it (pun intended).

Finally, and almost reluctantly, we get onto Logic and Hegel’s work on dialectics (not to be mistaken for dianetics!). For it is here that I first got a bit lost at the start of Das Kapital. Beginning from a classical view of dialectics as going to and fro with ideas, Singer tells us that Hegel’s view is much more systematised, starting with a thesis, countered with an antithesis before finally the two come together in the form a synthesis, which then in turn becomes the next starting point. i.e. the next thesis.

Throughout the second half of the book, with particular reference to the notions of Geist and dialectics, Singer refers us back to the first part, showing the reader more explicitly what was hinted at before, or showing us that a particular example (e.g. the mind recognising another mind that is not itself, as a means of recognising that it is a mind) fits the models that are explored in the latter part.

The afterword of the book gives the reader a taste of where to go next, by looking at Hegel’s legacy. Singer’s view is that the more conservative take on Hegel’s work (which emphasises his later writings) died a death in a cul-de-sac, while the more radical take (exemplified by Feuerbach and Marx) flourished, understanding Hegel’s later work as a failure to follow through with his earlier ideas, seeking to rework them. An offshoot of this that grabbed my idea was David Friedrich Strauss’ Life of Jesus which I haven’t read yet, but which I know was a work against which Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus was partly a response. A thesis and antithesis, if you will.

Overall, I think Singer met the brief very well. It may be some time before I come to read any of Hegel’s own works, but I think if he comes up again in my other reading, I have here something of a handle to hold onto to help me understand what more modern thinkers are saying about him and his work. So if you have started in the same position as me (see first paragraph) then I would definitely recommend this little book to you as a useful overview.