Tag Archives: church

The subversive act of breaking bread

Last night (Wednesday), a group of about 25 people gathered in a large room in a house in the London borough of Lewisham. We engaged in speech and acts that represent a challenge to the way the world works. It was symbolic, it was simple and yet it carried in it a breath of quiet power that brought some to tears.

What sort of underground meeting was this? This was church in the raw. We are an ecclesiastically liberal church, so there is no need for ceremony, for robes, for procession, for chanting or any number of things that distract and get in the way. We were merely a small community of people, drifting in at the end of the day to gather together.

There was some general friendliness, catching up on the events of the week, before the person who had called us together on this crisp evening at the start of autumn spoke to us from the book of Acts about a time of refreshing. There was some sung worship and a time of open prayer, where anyone may speak. One person sung in tongues and an interpretation was asked for. After a minute or so, an interpretation was sung back.

We then moved to what our church (and many others) refer to as breaking bread. Some call it mass, others Eucharist, still others communion and some call it the Lord’s Table. Each has their merits and connotations. In a small, private gathering such as this, some things are easier than in a bigger, public meeting. There was an encouragement that if people so wished, they could pray prayers of confession. Why this is a good thing, I don’t want to go into here. Maybe another time. Sometimes people will do so, sometimes they won’t.

Whatever prayers were said and what people asked forgiveness for shall, of course, remain private. But one by one people went to the table in the middle of the room and prayed their prayers of confession and asked for forgiveness. Then they took the bread and the grape juice, the symbols of Jesus’ body and blood, and partook of them.

Breaking bread is an act of obedience and could well be said to be one of christianity’s oldest practices. Every act of obedience is also an act of rebellion; it just depends on which you focus. For to obey God in breaking bread is to rebel against the world. Some may see the rejection of religion as a rebellion against (a non-existent) God, but while that is shouted, it echoes a quiet whisper of obedience to the world of the way things are, to the zeitgeist of passive indifference to the cross.

On the mountain where Moses encountered the burning bush, God asked Moses to remove his footwear for God’s presence there, at that time, made it a holy place. In that room last night, the spirit of God moved amongst the gathered saints and that place, at that time, became a holy place.

To speak of holy things is an act of rebellion against an unholy world.

To break bread in communion, in remembrance of a crucified Messiah subverts the hero narrative that our culture longs for and preaches to us every day.

We closed with a song of declaration, “I believe in Jesus“. This statement of belief is not only a positive affirmation, but it flies in the face of received wisdom, of “common” sense, of the assumed way of being that pervades every strand of our society.

As we left that place, some 2 hours later, we breathed in and out, our act of rebellion done behind closed doors. But as we continue to breath the spirit of God, we can go about spreading not only the message of defiance, but the positive message of joy and hope that Jesus brings.

Advertisements

Book Review: Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

After several recommendations, I pushed this up my reading list, but that’s something I’m quite glad of. It’s now 5 years since I was first introduced to Bonhoeffer when I read The Cost of Discipleship whilst hiking around the Julian Alps of north-western Slovenia. Following up with Letters and Papers from Prison, probably no two books have had a greater influence on the direction of my discipleship in recent years.

This is a very short book, running to a little under 100 pages in the edition I read, made up of 5 chapters. From the off, as with The Cost of Discipleship and much of the later parts Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer metaphorically picks up the reader by the lapels and gives them a firm shake. One of the difficulties with reading Bonhoeffer is that he writes quite concisely. Each sentence packs a lot into it, but it is also of such a quality that one cannot help but be drawn in. You keep reading and want to keep reading, but at the same time you want to stop and ponder the points made. So even though it’s relatively brief, I had to force myself to take longer over reading it than I normally would.

He opens with a chapter on christian community where the key point is that this is life lived in Jesus, not just a life lived unto Jesus. So we are reminded of the participation we have in all aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry. This is further expanded on later on and remains a running theme throughout the book. Bonhoeffer is keen to stress the difference between the christian community, what it means to be Church, from what it means to be any other gathering of people. In so doing, he is a strong advocate of community bound by spirit and has fairly short shrift for those who would try to view church community as any kind of social or anthropological construct.

Following up on this quite general opening, he moves onto some specifics when he writes about the day spent with others. Here, he is very family focused, almost to the extent of being assumptive that a christian’s life will be within a family, and that that family will have a fairly rigid routine. While I would recognise the great value that there can be in routine (what a friend of mine refers to as Holy Habits) I am sceptical about when a routine becomes a rule or goes even further and becomes a ritual. Nonconformists, myself included, will sometimes speak of a dichotomy between a living faith and a dead religion. What we mean by this is not that anything that could be spoken of as religious is inherently bad, but it is where the ceremonial has taken over and things are done for the sake of doing them. As one anglo-catholic friend of mine puts it, “You’ve got to have the dressing up, the chanting, the smells and bells. Otherwise it’s just not proper religion”. Now Bonhoeffer doesn’t go to that conservative extreme, but he is quite prescriptive.

He stresses the use of Psalms in worship, though he gets a bit tangled up at times. It’s noticeable that he takes a very “high” view of scripture – higher than mine, though I hope to have a piece written on this fairly soon. While he doesn’t venture into talking about inerrancy, one gets the impression that, were the question put to him, it’s a view that he might well endorse.

From the day with others he goes on to speak of the day alone. This is much more akin to the world I live in. Though he doesn’t make a huge about-turn from the previous chapter; it’s much more a continuation, noting that families are separated from one another by their work for most of the day. The main thing I got out of this chapter was the need for faithfulness in all that we do and what is meant by the phrase “pray without ceasing” – something I try to do in my work, but freely admit that I often fail in it. Although Bonhoeffer doesn’t speak of balance per se, there is a sense here that that is what he aiming for. Or maybe it’s rather that he is giving a model for a well-rounded, complete christian life.

The penultimate chapter is simply entitled ‘Ministry’. I had feared that this was just for those in church leadership roles and would have nothing for people like me whose employment is found in the secular arena, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that this fear was unfounded. In fact, I could hardly have been more wrong. What Bonhoeffer does is to look at various ways in which members of a community can minister to one another. Though brief, it is a marvelous exposition of the Petrine principle of the priesthood of all believers. There is no restriction based on whether someone is ordained or not. The ministries he goes into include holding one’s tongue, meekness, listening, helpfulness, bearing with one another, proclaiming and authority. Without recapitulating the whole thing here, I found it refreshingly challenging, like a cold, strong wind on a hilltop shortly before the break of spring.

The book culminates with a chapter mostly about confession. Here, as throughout, Bonhoeffer remains faithfully reformed. He opposes the idea of one person bearing the load of hearing the confessions of a whole congregation, but rather that that whole congregation should listen, on a small scale, to the confessions of one another. Though he doesn’t use the modern term “accountability partner” it is a concept which fits snugly within Bonhoeffer’s view of church. All this is to prepare for what Bonhoeffer sees as the culmination, the ultimate expression of church: communion. He doesn’t go into the theology of communion so doesn’t state here whether he takes a functionalist or symbolic view.

It is a truly beautiful vision of church that Bonhoeffer presents here and one that many christians possibly ache for, even if their expression of that vision isn’t worded quite so eloquently. I would reiterate my point that it is possibly a bit prescriptive and my take would be that each church community may find their own tweaks to this model which are more helpful than a one size-fits-all approach. An interesting point to note is that the model is seemingly only very loosely based on a biblical model. While Bonhoeffer takes a high view of scripture, this isn’t an exegesis, but any biblical backup is rather piecemeal. I get the impression that much is borne out of experience, but his own background is well disguised in the writing. He doesn’t say what he has tried and found helpful or unhelpful. Instead, I may try that myself as I would encourage you to read Bonhoeffer, consider his wisdom and perhaps try a renewed expression of christian community.

#CNMAC14 – a return to the christian new media conference

Pre-conference thoughts

Two years after last attending the christian new media conference and having skipped last year’s, I returned this year, after buying an early bird ticket. Also, with the advantage of having moved to London, it took little more than half an hour to get to the venue and at no additional cost. Last time I went I had the intention of trying to meet various people who I had spoken to online before, though it was all rather a stressful and draining experience. This time, I decided to stick to my more natural disposition by observing others and hiding in plain sense.

On arrival I grabbed a coffee, a welcome pack and sat down to plan what sessions I would attend. I spotted a few people I recognised come in, though such recognition was not mutual. One piece of information omitted from the agenda was to say what room the introduction was in. Thankfully, this year there was a wifi available to all (a vast improvement on 2 years ago) and my query was soon answered by someone else who was monitoring the #CNMAC14 hashtag.

So I found the main room and sat in my usual position; that is, as a way of reflecting my political views I tend to sit on the far left. I must say I thought the main room was very nice. It was far more spacious than the lecture hall we were in last time, with nice wooden beams augmented by some tasteful blue lighting.

Introductory session

The first session was given by Rachel Jordan, who is the national advisor for Mission and Evangelism in the CofE. The theme that it was her job to introduce was that of “Transformers” which has nothing to do with toys from the 80s or big budget terrible films of the last few years. Rather, it was linked to Romans 12 and the theme of transformation that one may find there.

Her key point was that transformation takes place when we meet God face to face. She used a few examples of people meeting Jesus as he was passing by and having their lives transformed as a result of those encounters. Secondary to a direct encounter is an introduction. So bringing in the aspect of the digital, she noted that the accessibility facilitated by the internet allows for more opportunities for people to meet and this then includes possibilities to meet or be introduced to Jesus. From here, the emphasis shifted to one of the busyness of modern life and how such busyness can get in the way of such encounters. Therefore, we need to get good at appropriate filtering and making the time and space to allow ourselves to be transformed.

It was a good introductory presentation, which was evidently well-rehearsed. The general impression was one of agreement, with the Twitter feed buzzing with soundbites from the talk. Though here and in most of the talks I heard during the day, there seemed to be less of a strain on the part of the speakers to generate soundbites. That had been a bit of a plague 2 years ago that detracted from well-constructed arguments. That’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of quotes used and generated this time round, but they didn’t feel quite so forced.

Breakout 1

After this, I headed down to a talk on crowdsourced theology. It was done in two parts, the first given by Danny Webster, the second by Marika Rose. It was a very different kind of talk, not least because the two speakers didn’t exactly agree on all points, though it wasn’t framed as a debate between the two. Danny began by noting that dissent is often the oxygen of social media. The upshot of this is that the priesthood of all believers can be abused and becomes the priesthood of the loudest voices. There can also be a temptation to think that if we garner a strong, negative or otherwise hostile response that we can convince ourselves we must be on the right track. It’s a symptom of “[if you go looking for it on the internet, you will be able to find something]” – which can lead to confirmation bias if we’re not careful.

It seems that frequently, attempts to engage on more serious issues quickly go off the rails with every Thomas, Richard and Harry jumping in with an opinion; often an opinion that hides where people come from, hiding their background theology and their agenda. So if, on the one hand, social media prioritises polarisation and isn’t very good at patience, while on the other hand, working out matters of doctrine require patience and less polarisation, then the natural conclusion is that social media isn’t the best place for discussing church doctrine. In this I would largely agree with him.

Marika’s response was characteristically robust. She began with the proposition that “Patience isn’t always a virtue.” She continued by pointing out, correctly in my view, that theology is always political. Unfortunately, she didn’t expand much on this point as that assertion could be taken in a number of different ways. Instead, she used the example of the civil rights movement to illustrate changing attitudes in that Martin Luther King was considered an extremist until Malcolm X appeared on the scene. With a caveat that analogies between civil rights and other issues including egalitarian leadership in churches and the accepting of LGB people are fragile; parallels can’t be drawn without invoking false reasoning. It’s worth noting that this caveat was later questioned by one of the members of the audience, to which there was no convincing backup of the assertion.

She further contended, contrary to Danny, that asking for patience is equivalent to taking sides with the status quo. Harking back to Martin Luther King again, the response to the demand for change that is worded as “not yet” is really just a “no” put a little more politely. She also queried whether polarisation was necessarily a bad thing or something to be avoided. A very interesting point that resonated with me, though I’d never quite enunciated as such, was that the prophetic speaks with a harsh voice, while the pastoral speaks with a softer voice. This was backed up by noting that Paul could be firm with those he addressed his letters to and that the Old Testament prophets hardly adopted a softly-softly approach to dealing with the sin of a nation.

Breakout 2

The second breakout session was on the subject of church websites. And who better to present this than Sara Batts? The session didn’t get off to a great start as we were invited to turn to our near neighbours and discuss two questions with them. Those who know me know that I find such things to be really quite tortuous and in my own church it is the one thing I dread more than any other.

The two questions were: 1) What sort of thing might a visitor to your church website be looking for? and 2) What information does your church website have on it?

It was put to us that these two lists of information may not coincide. We were shown a few examples of good church websites though Sara stayed away from showing a bad church website (possibly because there was a risk that the creator of such a website might be in the audience). The key warnings were to avoid the mentality that information should be there “in case someone might want to know”. There was also a warning against the essence of traditionalism: we do it this way because that’s the way we’ve always done it.

One of the responses from the audience to the first question was “to find out what sort of church it is” which I think was a much better answer than the person who posited that the most important information is about weddings, funerals and baptisms (which indicates that they probably came from one particular denomination!). One of the other topics that cropped up was the question over membership logins. I am very firmly against these, as they seem exclusive and divisive. The church where I grew up (but haven’t been a part of for many years) hides the recordings of its sermons behind a login, so anyone who wants to sample the teaching of the church are prevented from doing so online, as a conscious act of the church, which I find a bizarre way of sharing the gospel.

Speaking to someone afterwards, they shared my impression that this was overall a bit of a ‘beginner level’ talk; that this was all fairly basic things that constitute competent website design, not necessarily exceptional design. So it might be an improvement to have the agenda labelled a bit more clearly (ironically enough) to say who the target audience is. I’m sure it will have helped quite a few people there, though the impression given was that the digital surgeries were more designed for beginner level.

Probably the most pertinent point was that 16% of all adults in the UK have some level of difficulty with reading and that if our websites are too text-heavy then we run the risk of excluding them.

So with that we headed off for lunch. I must say it was quite disappointing. There was nowhere on site and we weren’t permitted to bring food in from the outside so we all piled into an eatery next door. Unfortunately, I’d developed quite a headache so nipped to get some paracetemol first, which put me rather far back in the queue. So we were late in being served and they ran out of various dishes so I had to wait for them to do another batch of mine; even then they added mushrooms which I had to pick out. I mean, why ruin perfectly good food by adding a fungus to it?

Transformative Technology

Coming back from lunch, we had 3 short talks entitled ‘Transforming Technology’, ‘Transforming Mobility’ and ‘Transforming Humanity’ given by Alastair Somerville (Acuity Design), Paul Johnston (Padajo) and Pete Philips (CODEC) respectively.

The first of these focused on the ‘sensory web’ which was essentially technology that we wear and beacons that detect when a suitable device is nearby and automatically send messages to it. The purpose of these is mainly advertising, so you would be bombarded with shoe ads any time you get near a shoe shop, which I find to be an extremely annoying prospect. The idea here, though, was that they could be used to augment a space you are travelling through (say, within a building) and to then create an alternative experience of pilgrimage. It was an interesting idea, but it struck me as a case of IT-itis. i.e. what *can* we do instead of what *should* we do. I’ll touch on this theme again below.

The second was on mobility, but this was nothing to do with accessibility for the disabled. The only point I really picked up on was that if messages become free to send, then they can lose their value. Our tendency to regard anything as slow if it is not instant creates impatience that has subsequently shortened our attention spans. This results in the idea that messages that are created quickly also fade quickly. In my head, the contrast that was conjured up was the difference between a Snapchat message and a stone engraving.

Pete’s talk on transhumanism rather passed me by as I was scribbling notes from the previous talks. Also the live Twitter stream on screen had been hijacked by a load of spammers, so quite a few were trying to alert the tech team that their filters had failed. The most seized upon soundbite was that “we are all cyborgs” though the follow up to this appeared to verge on bullying one of Pete’s colleagues on the CODEC team. [Late edit: To clarify, this last reference is to the follow up to the talk, not the content of it. This should not be taken as any statement or hint of anything untoward from any member of the CODEC team]

Between the three talks, they all had their interesting points, but I couldn’t see much that was very applicable here. It was more a session of tentative prophecies, some of which may look quite out of date in just a few years; only time will tell.

Breakout 3

I had a change of mind about the 3rd breakout session. Having seen a session that posed a question of “How should Christians react to militant atheists and people of other faiths who challenge their beliefs?” I was rather turned off by the use of the phrase ‘militant atheists’ so I had planned instead to go to Chris Juby‘s session on digital engagement with the scriptures. At the last minute, though, I changed my mind and decided to give the apologetics talk a go. As it turned out, it was very popular and was in one of the smallest rooms, so we were rather squeezed and one or two latecomers turned back or else had to stand by the exit.

The talk was given by Ruth Jackson of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and who also runs the social media for Ravi Zacharias Ministries. As might be predicted for a talk on apologetics, there was a strong focus on 1 Peter 3:15, though I wasn’t familiar with the version used. I suspect it was The Message, the New Living or some other paraphrase. This particular version began with the phrase “If any asks you…” with the emphasis put on the ‘if’. i.e. we shouldn’t go looking for a fight, but we ought to be willing to answer anyone who asks.

Ruth did put a qualifier near the start of the talk which was to define what she had meant by the term ‘militant atheist’. She confessed that she hated the term but that it was a shorthand for the kind of person who instead of having their atheism as a default position or apathy, it’s the kind of person who frequents social media and where the majority of their output is concentrated on their atheism and who sometimes take a hostile or otherwise highly negative view of anything vaguely religious.

Ruth advocated the idea that “I don’t know” is a powerfully honest and highly respectable answer. While I would like to agree with her, my experience of discussing christianity online is vastly different. It’s taken as a fob off whereby one goes away to find a clever christian apologist to rabbit back at the atheist. Though in fairness, any atheist who says that God is our imaginary friend or is a sky fairy is themselves merely rabbiting a line that is far from original.

It’s important to remember that behind every profile is a person (or people, I might add). This is the antidote to dehumanisation. She gave an example using The Wee Flea blog, where some hostile commentators had found their way to the site, but where the host was far more interested in them as people rather than in trying to satisfy his own ego by winning an argument. [n.b. a quick search of the site didn’t yield anything resembling the conversation Ruth describes and I would not endorse some of the content of that blog]

A recommendation that was put to us was that online discussions should avoid denominational or controversial issues. This wasn’t really expanded on, so it was open to (mis) interpretation. Harking back to the 1st breakout session, I wonder what Marika Rose would’ve thought of Ruth’s advice.

There were some fairly fundamental points that anyone wishing to engage in online apologetics should take as lesson 1. These included listening to objections and trying to understand someone else’s point of view, so as to avoid constructing a strawman argument. She pointed out some atheist memes (oh the irony of the origin of the term ‘meme‘!) and how they demonstrate a lack of understanding of christian issues, but rather than use the same kind of mockery that is sometimes encouraged of atheists to use against christians, she encouraged us to be more serious-minded and engage with the issues at hand in a mature manner. In trying to understand someone else’s views, that includes being able to spot the clichéd fallacies that get churned out from time to time including assertions that faith is blind belief or misleading notions of the nature of God.

However, Ruth went a little bit further than this. She advocated that we christians should try to make sure that “the ball is in the other court” and we do this by enquiring of atheists what their views are. Now, any time I’ve tried this, I’ve found not only evasion on the part of the person who I’m talking to but also an accusation that I am the one avoiding the issue. For example, if someone asks a question of me, I think it is at least courteous to attempt a response. Sometimes people will try to ask 6 part questions where several conflate various issues. This is what should be regarded as “trolling” though that term has somewhat morphed away the meaning it used to have online (meaning a time waster or someone who was simply trying to get a rise out of you) into a term to describe abuse – which ought to be known as “flaming”. Yet I do think that avoiding answering a question by asking them back is no less an element of trolling than the original question (or series thereof) might have been.

One of the little things that caught my eye was that Ruth put up a screenshot of various resources she recommended and I noticed a reference to the book that so riled me that it prompted me to write a review of it, which gave birth to the current incarnation of this very blog: Who Made God by Edgar Andrews.

The final point was that in all online apologetics we mustn’t forget to pray. It can be easy to get drawn into debates and there’s a great temptation to forget graciousness and idolise the idea of being right. But if the lesson of the Wee Flea above is heeded, it is better to lose an argument if you win the person – though on reflection I wonder if that soundbite actually makes sense!

Breakout 4

The final breakout session I went to was on the topic of creating community. I was surprised to not see many of the faces I thought would be there, as I know quite a few people treat the online world as a community in its own right and would want to listen to this talk. It was given by Jason Ham who was simply described on the agenda as “Church Online Leader”. In fact, he’s a facilitator for the online dealings of a particular church in Exeter as well as being responsible for the social media output of God TV.

The opening gambit was to look at what sort of communities can be created by social media. He used the example of the American megachurch, Saddleback to demonstrate an example of people posting prayer requests on Facebook. However, using that example didn’t make it seem very close to home. If, in a church of that size and fame, a prayer request could generate about a dozen responses of people saying that they were praying, how would that translate to a church of more modest size and of no great fame? Then there’s also the question of privacy which wasn’t addressed at all.

Again, we had demonstrations of IT-itis, whereby lots of possibilities were shown but there didn’t seem to any kind of coherence to it, or really a questioning of what the needs were of the potential audience (see breakout 2) of the church and then trying to address them. We were shown a bookclub that consisted of members in the UK, USA, Australia and another couple of countries I missed as I was writing notes. The impression that we were given was that just because you can connect with people from across the globe, that is an inherently good thing and therefore is to be embraced.

But as I sat listening, I couldn’t help but think that this was an indirect indictment of the local churches. After all, I had agreed with Danny Webster earlier when he said that if you hold opinion X, it is easy to go online in search of someone who agrees with you and who will back you up. If someone is relying on a community that is so disparate, does it not imply that either there is a failing in their local community to adequately look out for the needs of someone who is potentially isolated in plain sight?

One of the other examples used was that the church in Exeter which Jason is a part of rebroadcasts its services 67 times per week. While having the availability of an online service can be valuable to those who are elderly, disabled or otherwise have difficulty getting to a meeting, this was not clear at all from the talk. Instead, what seemed to be advocated was a wholly new, and rather haphazard, way of doing church. i.e. it was more of a substitute than a supplement.

I think the root of my issue was the question of isolation. It’s possible to be physically isolated but digitally connected, in which case some of the ideas of open forums, Skype, etc. are valuable tools which can be used to address the need of these kinds of isolations. But instead, what was advocated was the provision of online services because they can be provided. It certainly wasn’t clear that there was a need to which these were a solution. Instead, there was more of a mentality of ‘if you build it, they will come’. There was a muted acknowledgement of the limitations of online community, but there was no solution proposed. There was a Q&A at the end, where the tone seemed to be mildly hostile, as was the question I wanted to ask but which ran out of time. So somebody asked about safeguarding vulnerable people online, particularly as one of the forums demonstrated allowed posting without any kind of sign-up process to it. So people could just come and go. In a church where the congregation is so transient, can there really be adequate pastoral care given to someone who hasn’t been around for the last month? How would such people be noticed?

My question was going to along these lines: For anyone who regularly visits an online church, what efforts are made by that church to put them in touch with an offline, local church who can provide what the online community cannot?

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t answers to these questions, but the relentless optimism generated by IT-itis seems short-sighted. If anything, it is an issue that pervades the whole christian new media conference, in that while there are some fantastic tools to enhance our spiritual lives and help to connect those who might otherwise be isolated, the increasing reliance on the digital realm creates its own form of isolation: digital isolation.

If there were any topic I’d like to see addressed in the next conference as a burning issue, it is this one. Looking around my church, nearly all the over 15s have a mobile phone and access to the internet, about half have a Facebook account, maybe about a dozen are on Twitter, but for the most part there isn’t as much focus on what can be done as there is at the conference. It is my fear that if we pile more and more resources into creating the best digital spaces that we can, then all we do is create a great space for a few people who are very interested in it at the expense of ignoring a great many people. One obvious comeback is to become evangelists for what can be done digitally and try to get as many people interested in our particular way of doing things as we can. Yet this runs into two problems: 1) Not everyone will be interested and it is arrogant to suppose that because we see good in a given tool that someone else will; and 2) if we are to evangelise, then should that not be evangelism to the wider world about gospel of crucified and resurrected Messiah? These two could be summarised by the phrase: misdirected effort.

Final session

The final session was billed as a cross between Songs of Praise and the Graham Norton show. To an extent this true. It consisted of 3 guests having short interviews by the host (Vicky Walker) and each guest was then to showcase their work. As with guests on Graham Norton, they only seemed to have gone there to plug their products. We had a rapper called Faith Child who performed his forthcoming single, a subversive artist (think a christian version of Banksy) called Micah Purnell who was launching a new website and a singer called Tabitha Webb who was launching a new musical. By the end of the day, and having been less than impressed at the previous session, it’s fair to say I was in a cynical mood. This final session just came across as a series of commercial plugs. OK, rap music isn’t my thing so I can’t say whether, given that particular artistic medium, it was very good or not. The subversive art was quite good as was Tabitha’s singing, though I couldn’t help but think of Danny Webster’s piece on the christian reviews of her musical as I watched.

It seemed that the whole concept of transformations which began the day and had been key to the mini sessions just after lunch was by now out of the window and forgotten about. I noted this on the Twitter stream and had a couple of responses which advocated the idea that the purpose of the session was to show how digital means had been used to transform creativity particularly in how these 3 people marketed their material. I could kind of see that, but it was heavily buried under the immediate promotion that they were making here, in person, to the audience of around 500 people.

As we ended fairly promptly, I stuck around for 5 minutes in case there was anyone who wanted to quickly chat, but I just stood around looking like a lemon so I shot off and headed back for home.

Conclusions

So with all that observed, what were the impressions I left with and which I have dwelt on in the 30 hours since leaving?

My strongest thought on leaving was on the issue of digital isolation mentioned above. It may have been addressed in other sessions which I didn’t attend, though it wasn’t plain from the agenda summaries. Unless that issue is addressed then new media will fail to live up to the prophetic hopes which surround it and become a clique for the initiated and those who have grown up with it. Yet there remain a generation of people who form an integral and loved part of the church for whom this generates little excitement and we must not leave them behind or exclude them in any way.

Looking back, trying to draw the threads together, I think the theme of confirmation bias, of looking for things that back up your views, that came out in the first breakout session can be seen in several of the other talks. We might project onto others our ‘ideal’ visitor to a church website and miss the real people who find us in their searchings. In the Transforming Technology session, it came across as all too easy to think that because something is new that it is inherently good. This was also true of the final breakout session. Of course, one could react the other way and think that anything new is inherently bad.  In the third session one could see this idea of bias in seeking out argumentation, where we may have a presumption of how someone arrived at their expressions of atheism and to argue to those presumptions rather than love the person who may hold a very different and more nuanced view.

Of course, this theme isn’t really linked to transformations. Maybe that’s indicative of how loosely that theme permeated the day. Yes, it was strong in the introduction and after lunch, but it was tenuous at best elsewhere. Perhaps it was a case that the theme was decided independently of the proposals for each session. I can only speculate at that.

Only time will tell what ultimately sticks. One of the noticeable things was at how little emphasis there was on personal blogging. It’s been noted by many that some have given up their blogs while others have merged or stepped back. Is it possible that the day of the blog is over? I can’t say there was much there that seemed of imminent practical use. Of course, there were useful reminders of basic issues that could be immensely useful to the newcomer to new media.

So those are my thoughts. Over to you now:

  • Were you there?
  • Did you go to any of the same sessions?
  • What was your overall impression?

Book Review: Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N.T. Wright

Signed copy

Signed copy

It has finally come. 10 years after the publication of The Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG), Wright finally completed and published volume 4 of his series ‘Christian Origins and the Question of God’ (COQG). The plan from the outset had been to write an introduction (The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG)), a book on Jesus (Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG)), a book on Paul, a book on the gospel writers and a conclusion. In the preface, Wright acknowledges that the plan has somewhat altered, though he returns to this theme in his conclusion.

Knowing that it would feature the new perspective on Paul, you may recall I did some preliminary reading on the matter a little while ago. See here for my conclusion on the matter with links to the reading I did at the time. Early in the book, however, one gets the impression that this aims to move beyond the new perspective on Paul. Wright makes frequent reference to false dichotomies that have been put forth by various scholars over the years and outlines how to draw such distinctions is either anachronistic or ‘alocalist’ as he puts it (meaning out of location, rather than out of time – though I thought ‘atoposist’ might have fitted the bill better).

On picking up the book (spread across two volumes) one might think of 1 Tim 4:8 as is it not only a spiritual workout but it also provides a physical workout, even in paperback, with one friend commenting that he hurt his wrist in picking it up. The book is split into 4 sections, 2 in each volume. In this review, I’ve tried to echo, where possible, the style of the book. So, I hope you’re sitting comfortably, as this is going to be long. I’ve kept it at one blog post, though you may find it easier to digest if you bookmark it and read each section, one at a time, with breaks.

Part I

So where might one begin to look at Paul’s thoughts? Romans? 1 Corinthians? Galatians? No. Wright begins with an exposition of the little book of Philemon. The story of the runaway slave is contrasted against another letter from Pliny the Younger to Sabinianus about a slave who has also run away. I would like to be able to start a sentence with the phrase “The main point Wright makes here is…” but to do so would almost inevitably misrepresent Wright’s viewpoint. Instead, I would choose to highlight those elements which, I, as a reader, took from Wright’s book. If the author takes the time to read this review then he may assess for himself whether his key points got across to his audience.

So what did I get from his take on Philemon? The contrast in the letters is one of emphasis. Paul was most concerned about the issue of reconciliation. That trumped other considerations. From a (post) modern perspective, one might have wanted Paul to address the issue of slavery, particularly to condemn it, and call for Onesimus’ freedom. The fact that Paul did not do so in anywhere near as forthright a manner as we might have wanted may cause others to condemn Paul for advocating slavery. But, Wright points out, to do this is to miss the point, bringing 21st century assumptions into the questions we ask of a 1st century writer.

Wright then identifies verse 17 as being the heart of the letter, which , though not calling for emancipation, does request of Philemon a radically different treatment of the slave than would have been considered normal at the time. Hence, even though there is not the extensive discourse here that we find elsewhere in Paul’s letters, there are hints here that there was something different about Paul’s thinking. Even though the Jewish mindset was heavily influenced by the idea of freedom of captivity, reconciliation was something new. The implication is that this was something christian.

Wright’s analysis of the letter serves as a reference for the rest of the opening chapter which forms the introduction to the work. Here, Wright recapitulates some of the work covered in the earlier volumes in the series, particularly NTPG. Given the number of years between publications, such a reminder is no bad thing.

Having looked at the idea of worldview in some detail, Wright gives us his view on a topic that he has thus far rather demurred upon in his earlier books; that is, the authenticity of Paul’s letters. His earlier writings (at least those that I have read) lean much more heavily on Romans, Galatians and the 2 Corinthian letters than anything else. In his introduction to the pastoral epistles commentary he did as part of ‘New Testament for Everyone’ series, he made reference to some debate but was far from providing a clear ‘yes/no’ opinion on their Pauline authorship (see here for more detail on the debate over the pastoral epistles). Here, at last, he goes some way to showing us his cards. Without a great amount of detail, and stopping short of saying outright which he thinks are not genuine, he states that he will use 1 Timothy and Titus for illumination rather than support. As the book progresses, they are noticeable by their relative absence.

So that’s the opening chapter, which sketches out the plan in some detail.

In chapter 2, we delve into the Jewish background of Paul. That said, the focus is less on Paul than it is on Judaism in general, with a particular focus on the Pharisees. Here, one gets the distinct impression that some 20+ years on from NTPG, Wright’s thinking has moved on to the extent that he now feels the need to fill in some gaps from his earlier introduction. While he stands by his earlier work, there is much more that needed to be said to give a suitable background to Paul’s Jewish mindset which is here given in some depth.

At times, the work gets rather academic, with Wright analysing and countering the views of other writers on second Temple Judaism. In particular focus is the idea of a continuing exile. Wright draws on a rich breadth of early writings do demonstrate that even though the temple had been reestablished, the diaspora hadn’t completely ended and that there was an expression of a hope for a final renewal and restoration. In this analysis, Wright points out that the stories, questions, theology and aims which he portrays are prevalent, but not universal. As such, there may well be counter-examples and other viewpoints which existed at the time, but that the picture painted is one that would be familiar to a 1st century Jew.

Much of this would have also been relevant to Wright’s earlier study of Jesus, though it’s not stated whether or not Wright might have reconsidered volume 2 of the series in light of this more detailed background.

While chapter 2 gave more detail to an area of study already given a lot of treatment in NTPG, chapters 3-5 feel more “new”, though they did get a cursory look in in that earlier work. In these, I got the feeling that Wright was not only trying to give a background into all the schools of thought that would have been relevant to Paul at the time, but that he was having fun in his writing, drawing on his formal training as a classicist. At times in these chapters we seem to lose sight of Paul, with just an occasional reference here and there. This, it must be added, is very firmly corrected in Part IV, where these topics are revisited in reverse order, with Paul very firmly in focus.

Chapter 3 covers Greek philosophy, chapter 4 covers what ‘religion’ and ‘culture’ (with those two put in inverted commas for very good reason) while chapter 5 looks at Rome and the influence that that culture had (Paul, after all, was a Roman citizen!). These are all very interesting chapters and each could serve as a primer in studies in each of those topics in their own right. The only downside to them as I read was for me to wonder “where does this fit in?” At the time it wasn’t particularly obvious how a discussion on the sanity of Caligula was helping us understand how to understand Paul’s writings. I got the idea that Wright was trying to get us to watch him paint a picture. The study on Philemon was something of a preliminary sketch, but here he gets to paint the background on the big canvas. I had an idea that Part II would then sketch the main features in the foreground, Part III would fill in the details and Part IV would then be standing back and looking at the whole composition.

So is that what I found?

Part II

Labelled as “The Mindset of the Apostle” we have some very chunky discourses here on what is referred as symbolic praxis. First of all, how Paul related to those around him in the three worlds of Judaism, Greek philosophy and Roman Empire. There is far more detail and nuance here than I could do justice to. I will, though, give a brief run down of the points I thought were dominant.

To begin with, there is a tricky issue to deal with: supersessionism. The way Wright puts it, the symbolic praxis of second-temple Judaism was like a car that was being driven towards an end. In the death and resurrection of the Messiah that goal was reached. Therefore it was time to park the car and turn off the engine. He tries to be careful with his speech as some of the terminology he uses is very similar to that used by supercessionists, though as I was reading this section I attended a lecture of his at Kings College London in which he said he “resisted the term”.

In talking through the issue of symbolic praxis, Wright’s argument is that Paul’s primary concern was the ekklesia, what we would not call the Church. Though he rightly points out that to regard the ekklesia as some kind of hierarchical organisation is anachronistic and doesn’t help us to understand Paul. In NTPG, Wright made reference to the importance placed on baptism and communion. Here he has notably with more emphasis on baptism than on communion, in accordance with the frequency with which they occur in Paul’s texts. He takes the same approach as he did in Surprised by Hope by portraying baptism as a boundary marker used by the ekklesia to determine who is part of that group. Though he includes this in a section on symbolism, there’s a curious remark thrown in which hints that he may still hold to a functional view, which I would disagree with. The theme occurs again later in the book, again hinting at, but not being explicit about the functional view.

Symbols are one part of the worldview analysis, but it’s not the whole thing. I almost got the feeling that the main part of the book was yet to come but that Wright wanted to get these bits out of the way before he embarked on the main thesis. In the subsequent chapter he goes onto make the firm foundation and the wireframe of the heart of the book, that being the ‘storied worldview’. It is a rejection of systematic theology and a return to narrative. The work here is detailed but clearly aided by the use of some diagrams which I found helpful, but others may well find annoying. I have also heard other comments from some who are critical of Wright’s narrative form. He gives a very good case here, though I am not sure it will convince those who see his approach as a ‘flattening out’ of the richness and variety of the Old Testament.

The contention is that Paul had a number of “grand narratives” in mind when he was writing, but that they were nested within each other like a set of Russian dolls. One subplot played a part in the solution to the wider story. Here, Wright appeals to an analogy with A Midsummer Night’s Dream (and purely by coincidence I am finalising this review on midsummer’s night!). The ‘top level’ story proposed is of God’s plan for creation as a whole and humankind’s place within it. Where we then get stories of the Fall, of Israel, of the Torah, etc. these are all subplots to the wider view. Wright’s view is that much of western theology has missed this over-arching story and has wrongly focused on one of the subplots. So while he does not deny the common ‘evangelical’ view of personal salvation, he is keen to point out that it is not the whole gospel and to portray it as such is misleading. As each story is told, there is something wrong that happens at each level. The idea then is that Jesus, understood as a thoroughly Jewish Messiah, is the solution to the problems at a variety of different levels, including his fulfilment of Torah, the embodiment of Israel as the means through which humans could be restored to the role they were meant to play within creation.  It is a very carefully constructed chapter, though as one critique I have already heard of it, it’s largely based on Romans, at the expense of other books.

The worldview analysis is not quite complete though. There is one further chapter in this section which looks at the questions which a worldview has in mind. Here, Wright takes us back again to his first volume in the series, NTPG.  So we ask what answers Paul had for the following questions: 1) Who Are We? 2) Where Are We? 3) What’s Wrong, and What’s the Solution? 4) What Time Is It?

Wright’s contention here is that Paul’s worldview remains Jewish, but one that recognises that Jesus was the Messiah, who nobody expected to be crucified, let alone resurrected. That cannot leave the worldview unaltered. So while the above 4 questions were pertinent to the pre-Messiah view of Saul, the zealous Jew, they needed to be re-asked and re-answered in the fresh dawn of the resurrection by Paul, the originator of “Christian” theology.

Part III

From worldview to theology. That’s how Wright starts the longest section of the book. This is constructed around what he sees as the three big themes in second-Temple Judaism: monotheism, election and eschatology.

In the chapter on monotheism, we look at how God is revealed in and through the person of Jesus. Wright’s level of detail is far too intricate to do justice in such a relatively short review (relative compared to the length of the book!). Yet to think of the chapter purely as being about monotheism would be misleading. Wright works into it a number of different themes, as he picks what he sees as the key texts and gives us an exegetical view of each of them. Paramount to all this is how Paul harked back to the Old Testament. So here, and throughout the book, we see in the footnotes various little critiques of other writers on the same topic. Though I must say I was surprised to see that some of his sharpest criticisms are not for the likes of Don Carson or John Piper, who have tackled Wright in the past over his interpretation of Pauline theology, but rather he is harshest about Ed Sanders and Jimmy Dunn, two fellow protagonists of the ‘new perspective’ movement. Any time he mentions the movement, he is usually rather disparaging, prefacing it with the phrase “so-called” and this work seems more than ever before to distance himself from that movement. Whether one might like to refer to it as “post new-perspective” I doubt Wright would like the term himself.

The culmination of his chapter on monotheism is to look at the reworked Shema. Here, the Jewish statement of God’s unity is transformed in 1 Corinthians 8:6 with Jesus not just added to it, but worked into it, so that there is no less monotheism here but that Jesus is revealed to be the same God whom the Jews worshipped. In other words, after criticism following JVG of advocating a low christology, Wright finally gets  round to stating that in referring to Jesus as both Christos (Messiah) and as crucified and resurrected, Paul did demonstrate an early high christology.

In terms of ‘finally getting round to’ I think there is much that Wright says which people for years have waited for him to say, particularly in the COQG series. Well aware of this, he even wryly points it out at one stage with respect to ‘dealing with the problem of sin’. Yet for as much that many will find comfortably orthodox, Wright will always have something up his sleeve to unsettle his readers. One feature that comes to the fore is that Wright is not a major fan of false dichotomies. For example, in his relatively brief treatment of atonement, he rejects the choice between Substitutionary Atonement and Christus Victor, even if those who merely scan the titles may have formed the impression he was purely an advocate of the latter. Instead, he firmly embraces both, though with the caveat that he does so not quite in the forms that they are traditionally expressed, and not only those, but that the doctrine of atonement Paul expresses has more dimensions than that.

It was also good to see a place for the Holy Spirit forming a wholly necessary role within Wright’s theology. Though he stops short of saying Paul expressed the same kind of trinitarianism that the later church developed in its various councils, the argument is made that Paul implicitly saw the Holy Spirit as God. I must admit to a wry smile at this point, as I wonder if Wright realised just how close he is to the theology of the modern charismatic churches here. Though I also took in a sharp breath at his mention of theosis (divinisation). Though before one starts to think that Wright has turned to Eastern Orthodoxy, he does clarify what he means. Elsewhere in the book, in some personal remarks, he states that he has lost any credentials to be considered “Protestant” though again, anyone thinking he is danger of crossing the Tiber need not be worried, as there is very little in this book that will be of much comfort to Catholics, not least the emphasis on justification by faith.

If there were any doubt that Wright was ambitious in writing this book, one would have that doubt removed by looking at the footnote at the start of his chapter on election where he takes on all of Calvin, Augustine, Aquinas and Barth and essentially says, “[they got it a bit wrong, here’s my view].” To take on such a group of theological giants would mark one out as being either courageous or foolish. Yet it would be braver still to charge Wright with being the latter. It is also the opinion of this reviewer that Wright is forming a legacy whereby he will he will regularly be spoken of in the same breath as those he cites here.

From monotheism, he turns to the idea of election, specifically on the identity of the ‘people of God’. Here, Wright more than anywhere else, goes on the defensive against his critics. But in a twist on the old adage, sound exegesis is the best form defence. So we return here to the dominant theme in Wright’s previous writings about Paul, that of justification. Of course, there is much more to it that just that in this chapter, but space (and copyright!) prevents a thorough review. Those who are familiar with his New Testament translation will know that instead of “righteousness” he much prefers to translate dikaiosyne as “covenant faithfulness”. This has been a point where I have earlier thought that Wright has taken a connotation and made into the denotation. Here, though, he makes a much better case for doing so than he had done before, where he harks back to the Hebrew terms tsedakah, particularly in relation to Abraham. In so doing, Wright admits that “covenant faithfulness” is just one of the reasonable ways to think of dikaiosyne, which in itself cannot be summed up easily, but to bring out the multi-layered meanings would be overly-cumbersome.

Those who have read Justification will be familiar with the line of the argument as well as the way Wright tackles the key texts. Here, though, instead of engaging directly with John Piper as he did before, Wright chooses as his main conversation partners more academic theologians. Indeed, I had an interesting discussion with some in my church, who wryly pointed out that the theology that gets taught in Sunday sermons, in housegroups and at the bible school usually expresses the same theology that comes out of universities some years later.

The way the topic is tackled is somewhat back-to-front, though if you read RSG then this  may not surprise you. He lays out his case, entitled The Shape of Justification, before going into great detail on the key texts. What differentiates this take compared to that found in Justification is the relation with the rest of the key themes brought out thus far in Paul and the Faithfulness of God. To attempt to summarise it, the primary concern is not to conflate justification with salvation. Justification is instead the present verdict, giving assurance of a final verdict whereupon salvation will be complete. But at the same time, it is arrived at by faith (pistis) which becomes the new boundary marker which identifies the people of God. It’s a question of “who is in and who is out”. In keeping with Wright’s keenness to distance himself from historic and unhelpful dichotomies, he balances the ideas of “forensic” and “participationist” views of justification, maintaining a both/and approach instead of either/or, arguing that these categories are later impositions upon Paul which he might well not have recognised in his single, over-arching vision. From my own baptist/charismatic background, it is a puzzle that these two were ever confused; I wonder if it is a confusion that is primarily found in academic circles or Anglican/conformist theology.

The third chapter in this most lengthy part of the book, each of which may have been books in their own right, is ostensibly about eschatology (where, against many in my church, I favour the pronunciation esker-tology, as opposed to ess-scatology, which doesn’t sound good), though Wright’s take is far from what one might expect.  We get very little of what one might expect in terms of eschatology, though in fairness part of the reason is the extensive treatment given to the eschatology of resurrection in RSG as well as Wright’s own interpretation of inaugurated eschatology, whereby Jesus was the eschaton, realised over the course of the Easter weekend. So this chapter instead expands more on the earlier two themes of monotheism and election, particularly election.

Before the major exegesis of Romans 9-11, we first get a very interesting glimpse into ethics, a subject on which Wright has been curiously quiet thus far in the COQG series. Without going into detail in the specifics, Wright asks why the behaviour of this new Messiah-community would be important. To understand this is to hark back to the storied worldview of Part II and to reject the notion that the aim of salvation is “to go to heaven when you die”. If anyone still harbours such a notion about christianity, then Wright may just despair at you! It is about new creation. The call is to live as part of that new creation, which is something that has begun, not some hope to escape from the world in the future so it doesn’t matter if we let it decay. One can almost hear the uncomfortable murmurs from the American anti-environmental lobby at this point.

There is then a detailed commentary on Galatians 4-6 before we embark upon possibly 3 of the toughest chapters not only in Paul, but in the whole of the bible, to get to grips with (admittedly, some of Revelation may just pip Paul in this instance). Yet I wondered if in making Part III the heart of the book, consisting of chapters 9, 10 & 11 (this being chapter 11) whether or not Wright was trying to deliberately echo the structure Romans.

Again, I cannot do justice to Wright’s ideas here. He revisits the idea of supersessionism, but only to reject it. He starts off though with the idea of return from exile, first covered in Part I, and relates this to Romans 10:1-17. His reason for doing this is that he sees all of 9-11 as chiastic structure, centred on 10:1-17 with the focus being at 10:9 – “because if you profess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” In highlighting this as the focus, and doing so after his more detailed look at justification, we can see how Wright understands justification to be a part of, but not the whole of, soteriology. He draws together the themes he has worked on through Part III and gets us to see their interplay. The conclusion that jumped out at me is that Paul is re-telling the story of Israel to a gentile audience and telling them that they are now a part of that story. While they may not share the history, their participation in the Messiah means that they are now inheritors of that Jewish heritage, but that this in no way invalidates Judaism. It is that Jesus was the fulfilment of the promises and the hope that Israel had.

Rather than recount the intricacies of the argument which are better critiqued by someone with more theological training than I, I would just recommend that you read it.

Part IV

Still with us? Good.

If you are to tackle the Behemoth that is this book, then you should be prepared for some long reads. Though my writing is not up to Wright’s quality, if you’ve struggled thus far then I would warn you that you may have difficulty with Wright’s magnum opus.

The chiastic structure that Wright has adopted means that we now come back and revisit the themes first explored in Part I. Above, I noted that Paul was curiously absent to begin with, but here we finally get to see why. Wright has first of all painted the backgrounds, before going into a lot of detail in animating this one figure, before now he puts this character of Paul into the pictures and we can see how he fits in and how he interacts with the interlocking worlds that Paul found himself in.

We begin with Paul and the Roman Empire. After the very long chapters in Part III, it was something of a relief to see such a relatively short chapter. The thrust here is the idea of “If Jesus is lord, then Caesar is not”. This idea will be familiar to many christians and I must say that there was little here that was particularly new or surprising. That may be because the treatment is very similar to that found in Paul: Fresh Perspectives. The odd thing about this chapter, and this recurs throughout Part IV, is that Wright chooses to engage with one or two writers who hold different views, so that it becomes less of an essay and more of an argument with a fellow scholar. Knowing that Wright was also writing Paul And His Recent Interpreters (currently due out this autumn) I couldn’t help but wonder if these engagements might have been better left for that work rather than here.

As I read this as fairly ordinary chap in the pew, not a theological specialist, just an accountant who is part of a church and tries to be faithful, the fine points on this argument were rather lost on me, not least because I had not read any of the works which Wright cites. If I got anything out of it, it would be this: Paul was not overtly anti-imperial. His view of “christianity” was not a protest movement against the powers that be. Rather, if one focuses on Jesus as the Messiah, crucified and resurrected, he is therefore lord. Because of this, brought sharply into focus, all else fades into the background. The terminology Paul used sometimes deliberately echoed that used within the Roman Empire, as examined in Part I, but any hints of anti-imperialism are not the focus of Paul’s attention, is a mere corollary of his worldview and theology.

Continuing the ring structure, we then have another look at Paul and “religion”. The key point here is that the religio which Paul writes about and which would have been well-known in the Mediterranean in the 1st century should not, but has been by many, confused or mistaken with 18th century categorisations of religion. So while this new Messiah-community lacked of the features that would have been recognisable in the religions of the day, but that in a new and strange way, it is not an unfair description.

Following this, we look at Paul and his philosophy. We have a little recap of what was covered in Part I and ask how Paul might answer particular schools of thought, in particular the Stoics, though Wright acknowledges that modern western society is often more Epicurean in nature. The point Wright makes, quite unsurprisingly I thought, is that Paul might not try to counter his critics in their own terms, since the all-pervasive transformation through the mind of the Messiah entails a fresh way of looking at the world. The point is made, as it was before, that the early church may have been described as a kind of school of philosophy, not in the same manner as the Cynics, Stoics or Epicureans, but as a new kind of thinking. As with the chapter on the Roman Empire, our emphasis is once again the Messiah and how, when looking at him, our priorities are transformed and renewed.

Entitled, ‘To know the place for the first time’, the penultimate chapter of the book brings us full circle to the subject of Paul and Judaism. Much has already been written about this topic earlier in the book and, rightly (though un-Wrightly?), no attempt is made at recapping the vast body of work preceding this chapter. Indeed, Wright is arguing that Paul never ceased being a Jew, but rather his understanding of what that meant, and what the family of God (as Wright puts it, the “Messiah-people”) entails. The allegory that came to my mind, not used by Wright, was that of someone who knew who their family was and in particular who their father was. But then you find out that he undertook some action not unlike that of Oskar Schindler. You do not cease to be his child, but now, because of his actions, one now realises more about the nature of your father and come to the conclusion that you have many more siblings than you previously thought and that in light of that one must rethink what it means to be a child of Schindler. I wouldn’t push the point too far, though, given the role-reversal of Jews & Gentiles.

So how might we conclude? Well, it’s with a topic that I had originally included in my critique below. The reason is that in Wright’s main analysis, his categorisation of the 3 main areas of thought as monotheism, election and monotheism seem to miss one major point. It was alluded to in Parts I & II but throughout this book and its predecessors in the series, I have wondered, “where is the temple?” Thus far, it seems to have been marginalised somewhat by Wright, in spite of his references to second Temple Judaism. The term has functioned as a label to summarise a school of thought, a religion and a cultural identity, but the temple itself has not been dealt with in much detail. Yet here, in the conclusion, it comes back to the fore. It is part of the answer to the question, “What was Paul trying to do?” In answering this, Wright identifies as the clearest summary of Paul’s aims 2 Corinthians 5:13 – 6:2. The conclusion that Wright reaches is that Paul is a builder. His whole missionary zeal is to see the construction of the new temple, the Messiah people, the ekklesia, the Church. That is what he was aiming to do. Implicit within this (though it was odd that Wright doesn’t mention it here) is that Jesus is the cornerstone of that building.

As Wright has ended each previous volume of the COQG series, he looks forward to the next volume. He states his intention to look at the subject of the Church’s ‘missiology’. I must say I look forward to it, though I would hope that it is not quite as long in coming as this volume has been.

Critique

Having then given an overview, I here choose to echo Wright’s engagement with Engberg-Pederson in chapter 14 by critiquing certain points. Some of these I have hinted at above, but I want to draw these out explicitly. Almost anyone who reads Wright will find something to disagree with. So vast is this work, entire agreement seems unlikely. You may have other points to pick up on. I choose to focus on two:

Completeness/Omission

Having been clearer than before as to his views on Pauline authorship of the pastoral letters, he does not seem to use them for illumination as he promised to do so. Added to this, Wright expresses grave doubts over the historicity of the book of Acts. Firstly, this seems rather odd given the extent to which he relied on Luke in forming a view on the historical Jesus. So why not use the sequel from the same author to look at the historical Paul? Unless, of course, Wright doesn’t think they are by the same author. But if so, he is far from clear in expressing this, let alone providing a good reason for thinking in this way. So while we predominantly get a view of Paul from Romans and Corinthians, with support from some other books, I could not escape the opinion that in spite of the depth Wright looks at Paul, he keeps the blinkers on, preventing us from seeing the full breadth of Paul’s worldview and theology. That said, Acts is referred to, but only in places where it seems to back up Wright’s view, which gives one cause to suspect the possibility of confirmation bias.

Emphasis

In this account of Paul, his worldview, his theology and his place in the worlds he inhabited, there is, as one might expect much to be familiar. After all, Wright is here taking a fresh look at a figure that many have looked at before, not inventing the figure of Paul from scratch, nor does he presume that everyone who has come before has entirely misunderstood him. Yet in so doing, those who have read Paul extensively, listened to sermons on his writings and been part of churches where Paul’s theology is woven deep into the fabric may be surprised at the weightings given to the various aspects of Paul’s theology. For example, atonement is featured but doesn’t get close to the emphasis that the joint picture of justification & participation get.

In a similar vein, while Wright speaks of God “dealing with” sin, the term ‘forgiveness’ is rarely used. Admittedly, when it is, it is highly spoken of, but it comes in just one paragraph in the final quarter of the book. Blink and you’ll miss it. The same can be said of grace which seems similarly pushed to the fringes. Together, one might well question how these two themes can be considered so peripheral to Paul’s thought.

Conclusion

From the moment one picks up this book, one entertains the hopeful wish that if you get to the end you will be rewarded with some kind of medal as you might get at the end of a marathon. For those who like their medals, I’m sorry to disappoint. I didn’t get one for finishing this monumental tome. But that is not to say I didn’t get a reward, if you will forgive the double negative. The richness of thought that Wright lays out is a treat. But like a chocolate cake, too much in one go will leave you feeling slightly the worse for wear.

As I read I had an image of Wright being the host of a great banquet. The basic ingredients are all there and familiar to most christians. To that extent, Wright rightly says that he is not really making any grand new proposals. What he’s doing is putting everything in its right place. Maybe the soufflé of justification has been over or under done by others in the past, but here we are shown how to do it in accordance with the recipe book that Paul left for us. By including ethics within eschatology, we are not giving ourselves indigestion by jumping straight to dessert. So with the feast cooked and the table laid, we may now taste and see that the Lord is good.

The other image that comes to mind is one of a surprise party. In Part I, tracing the worlds in which Paul lived, was like arriving and talking to people from different walks of life who all interact with the person whose birthday is being celebrated. So while one might get some colleagues from work, a few old uni friends, some family and other friends, we meet them as isolated groups. When the person for whom the party is thrown arrives, the focus is on them, but as the evening progresses we get see how he relates to the various groups and how they interact with one another.

In terms of the overall COQG project, we have 2 major gaps left. His two books on Jesus focused very much on the synoptic gospels, with John getting only occasional mentions. Similarly, with Paul as one of the major figures of the early church one may well ask ‘what about Peter?’

The other potential follow-up would be if Wright plans to something like “Simply Paul” as he summarised other volumes in this series in other, shorter works such as Simply Jesus, Surprised by Hope and How God Became King or if he considers that this has already been done with his earlier works on Paul. At present, that’s purely speculation on my part.

Coming back to this volume, it is a greater commitment to read than other books. The page count is greater than War and Peace. If you do get through this, I would confidently predict 3 things:

1) You will learn much about Paul, his world and how the heart of his theology may be viewed as a coherent whole. If anyone finishes this and says they learnt nothing, then I would think they have either failed to engage with Wright, are guilty of some arrogance, or they themselves are the author – though as he did at the lecture at King’s College, he acknowledged that in writing this he learnt plenty himself.

2) There will be something in here you will agree with and something you disagree with. The range of Wright’s analysis and his huge reluctance (in most cases refusal) to be tied to a particular tradition will inevitably put some noses slightly out of joint.

3) You will keep flicking back. In trying to lay things out clearly, Wright loves enumerating his points, though the length of those points sometimes means that you suddenly start a paragraph with the word “Thirdly…” and then you have to back to what you were reading the day before in order to get the precise context. And not wholly unlike Revelation, you may find the final point has 7 or 12 sub-points to it.

So with both a fair warning and an encouragement, I commend this work to you. To paraphrase the title of a wholly unrelated, but recently popular, work: Read, pray, think, live.

Theology – an idealistic view

After noting in my last review that the author had a rather idealistic view of how physics works, I thought I might take a lesson from that and give a similar-styled view in relation to theology. I wouldn’t pretend that this is how theology works, rather a sketch of a manifesto for how it should work. The seed of the idea goes back to a conversation I had some months ago about whether it was possible for theology to be a purely academic subject.

Then, as now, I would love for there to be healthy circularity in the relationship between theology and church life. Because of this circularity, where one starts might be arbitrary. So let’s first have a think about community.

Being a christian does not just mean giving assent to a set of ideas or subscribing to a creed. Nor is it just about living as part of a community. Both are involved, but one without the other will be an anaemic form of christianity. The shorthand terms for these are orthodoxy (correct view) and orthopraxy (correct practice). My idea is that these two need to held in balance. To emphasise one over the other leads to a lop-sided faith. With all due cautions over the relative terms (see here), I have found that those who identify as liberal christians will tend to emphasise orthopraxy whilst those who are more conservative will place an emphasis on orthodoxy.

The theologically informed Church

Churches need to be theologically informed. Without sound teaching, the risk is not only that false teaching may creep in, but there is also a risk that there is a wrong emphasis in what is taught. As Kurt Willems has recently pointed out, churches which constantly emphasise teachings on single issues are those one should be cautious about. Though not a church, anyone who occasionally reads the fundamentalist e-zine, Charisma, will be familiar with the constant stream of homophobic and Zionist output. The misplaced emphasis (leaving aside how much I disagree with the content of those views!) means that the form of christianity that emerges is rather cross-eyed (no pun on cross intended). The gospel may be right in front of your nose but you look from one fringe to another and portray them as the most important thing, then the message of Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection gets sidelined.

“High” and “low” perspectives

So how about theology? The study of the bible inevitably has to start with a view about the bible. Whether one chooses a “high” view or a “low” view of scripture is a thorny issue which I shan’t attempt to explore in any great depth soon. For now, I think it best to pick a place on the spectrum and work through to see if it comes up with a coherent picture.

My own view is that I am at the “high” end of the spectrum but do not advocate the idea of inerrancy. Too often, discussions about how one views the bible focus on the question of authority. This is, in my view, unhelpful. If one accepts the idea of God (how might one get to this point?) then it would seem to follow, given centuries of christian teaching, that God is the ultimate authority. In the great commission, Jesus gave authority to his disciples. To some, this is the origin of the idea of apostolic succession, whereby a christian order of priesthood is established. For more on this, see here. To others, it is the origin of the idea of apostolic authorship, whereby the criteria for inclusion in the canon of the New Testament has to be that the author came from a list of apostles. While this may serve to understand the exclusion of the Shepherd of Hermas or the Epistle of Barnabas (both of which were included in the Codex Sinaiticus) it does give rise to some awkwardness over the inclusion of the books of Revelation and Hebrews, as well as the epistles labelled John and the pastoral epistles, whose authorship was disputed much later.

Instead, the question to which “the bible” is the answer is: “What is the earliest and most reliable source of information regarding christianity, its origins and aims that we have?”

Exegesis

Given this, where might one start with the more academic work of theology? Surely, it has to be with the task of exegesis: the task of bringing out of the texts what the author(s) meant to say to the audience they intended to read/hear it. To do so with integrity requires a study of the languages the texts were written in and an understanding of the cultures in which and to which they were written. This why theology is not really a solo discipline in and of itself, but in a similar way to geology being a hybrid of mostly chemistry, physics and geography, so theology is a hybrid subject, requiring mastery of the use of many tools.

One may question whether the task of exegesis is ever complete, though to remain stuck within this would prohibit progress, so we must at least come to tentative conclusions and move on, bearing in mind the need to possibly revisit the exegesis and alter it. So what is the next step? Well, there are many possibilities. This is why theology is such a rich subject, as, having put together the ingredients of the cake and properly baked it, we may slice it in any number of ways.

One could look at particular authors and try to understand their particular views, in relative isolation from other biblical authors. Or one could look at themes that emerge across a range of authors and develop a theology of these ideas, as seen from the perspective of many authors. However we set off, we need to not lose sight of the heart of the gospel nor the direction it heads towards. What should hopefully emerge from such a study is the idea of doctrine. To some, the idea of doctrine is foundational. Though it is important, I would argue that it is an emergent idea from the foundation of the writings themselves. After all, the development of systematic theology is a relatively modern phenomenon, not found in any of the writings of the bible. One might even go so far as to say that the notion of systematic theology is itself misguided; after all, Jesus was asked some very straightforward questions to which he gave rather unexpected and totally unsystematic answers. I think part of the reason is that what we are talking about is life. And life cannot be boiled down to an axiomatic approach without destroying the richness of variety that exists within and between cultures across centuries of civilization.

So if we have doctrine can we draw a straight line from that to application? I would argue not. The reason for this is that we live in a very different time from the communities out of which the writings of the bible came. So if we combine an understanding of those cultures with a correct understanding of the doctrine, then, and only then, can we make sense of the practical applications.

An example

To give a particular example, if we look at 1 Timothy 2 and take it as face value, then the bible is very clear that women are not allowed to teach. This would mean no pastors, no vicars, no “priests”, no bishops, no housegroup leaders are allowed to be women. But to take a passage in isolation from the positive affirmation of the role of women in the early church then the simplistic maxim becomes less black-and-white and more something to be worked through. If one then adds into the mix the cultural background in which Timothy lived, that of Ephesus, with its cult of Diana led by a female priesthood, then one can understand that there might be a time-and-location-specific reason for the way Paul wrote. The counter-argument includes Paul’s characteristic appeal to the Torah, specifically to the order of creation. At the risk of getting unnecessarily sidetracked, I shall leave further exploration of that particular issue for another time. I intend only as an example of the kind of ways of thinking that I believe are healthy.

The great cocktail

To return to the main point, then. Imagine a set of tubes. We have two input tubes and one output. The two items feeding in are doctrine (having been properly prepared) and community of the local church. When these two are mixed, what we should end up with is a realistic, Christ-centred practicality. That mixing is the job not so much of the academic theologians, but of our church leaders, whether one refers to them as pastors, priests or vicars, they are the great cocktail mixers who have the tough job of holding these two inputs in balance whilst remaining relevant to their own church community and indeed, the wider, unchurched community around them.

Coming full circle

So having made the point that churches need to be theologically informed, and how that might look in practice, how about the other way around? In short, it’s about theology being informed by the life of the Church. Without it, what we risk is turning the study of theology into a purely academic field, devoid of life.

So when it comes to the issues that affect the life of the Church and its members, which are in essence the issues that face humanity, then ivory tower thinking will not do. All the time, there are pressing questions which are asked both within christian communities and asked of them by the rest of the world. How might we respond?

This is where get to glimpse that theology is not a static subject, restricted only to the study of ancient texts. Within the bible, we see how doctrine interacted with the needs of the community, both Jewish and christian, and we have examples of how it has worked, but mostly how it hasn’t. I would hope that we’re good at learning from the past, if only just to make brand new mistakes. But my hope would be that good theology, informed by the Church it seeks to serve, helps to restrict the range of mistakes we might make.

To go back to my example above, for centuries it might well have been unthought of that women might have leadership roles within churches, just as one might take it for granted that slavery is a fact of life. Yet changing societies put pressure on churches to re-examine what we think, and such re-examination is no bad thing. Differing hermeneutics have given rise to people defending the use of slavery, though again we need to be conscious of differences in cultures, in that the kind of slavery against which the abolitionist protested was quite different from that present in the Roman Empire in the 1st century. Likewise, the feminist movement gave credence to the thought that there is no good reason why a woman shouldn’t hold to the same roles as a man. Today, I can’t think of any churches that advocate slavery, though the issue of women in leadership continues to be an issue for some.

In so doing, though, there needs to be care taken not to simply jump on a bandwagon. What sometimes worries me with churches that have more liberal social values is that sometimes they seem to skip the good theology part and jump straight to conclusions. In other words, the idea that “Jesus was a liberal” is taken as axiomatic, rather than the product of exegesis. It for such a reason that I cannot agree with Vicky Beeching’s anachronistic example of this, “Jesus was a feminist“.

Conclusion

So what we need is a Church that is theologically informed. A Church that is familiar with the texts which are the best source of information about the origins, ideas and communities of our belief, both as a matter of history, but also as a matter of everyday practicality, living as an example of a renewed humanity between pentecost and parousia. At the same time, theology as a study has to be informed by the Church and the many church communities that comprise it. There needs to be something of an urgent hotline whereby the very real issues christians face throughout the world can be addressed by those who have the gift of understanding, in order that the Church may be soundly led and guided.

Of course, this is all idealistic and doesn’t necessarily reflect the real world. I would hope that some of this is faintly familiar, though I guess many of you have other insights borne out of your own experience of church life and theology.

So, what do you think? Does all this sound reasonable, pie in the sky or just setting off on the wrong track?

Institutional church – an analogy

On Wednesday, this question was posed on Twitter:

The following exchange was:

This got me thinking.

I’m happy for an institution to exist which supports the church, but I would hesitate to regard the two as equal. In the early church, when the apostles started to find their work hindered they delegated responsibility. The seed was sown for an organisation to help the body.

I view it as one might scaffolding. It can be a bit ugly, certainly not as beautiful as the building beneath. This can put people off; though they may glimpse something of what is within, it’s often masked by steel, or plastic that flaps in the wind. It’s firmly attached to the building, but it is not the building. It’s sometimes staffed (manned?) by those who occasionally shout at one another, or give unhelpful comments to those passing by.

With a large church, it’s an unfortunate necessity, borne not out of theological imperative, but of practical need.

Some churches may try to be inside-out, giving a beautiful presentation to the outside world, only for some to be bitterly disappointed when they enter, finding building works going on indoors.

Picture by Peter Broster, used under creative commons license

Picture by Peter Broster, used under creative commons license

All analogies, have their failings, as does this. But might this ring a little true in your experience? I’m just musing here.

On leaving churches and remaining united

This post has been heavily edited and rewritten over the last week (not least the title, which I’m still not sure is the best it could be). There is much that has been left out which was on my heart but which I’m not convinced was wise for publication just yet. I hope that what remains is coherent and kind.

A little over a week ago, a friend posted a link on Facebook to the blog of an American pastor entitled 5 Really Bad Reasons To Leave Your Church. The post prompted a lot of interesting responses, some on Facebook, some on the blog itself. I wrote a first draft of a response in the weekend following, but couldn’t quite it right, whether that be in tone, in detail or in length. I found myself going off on all sorts of tangents. The best response was one of the first, where Hannah Mudge (@boudledige) engaged directly with the points raised in the article and looked at the analogy of escaping from an abusive relationship.

I queried the author about whether or not he thought there were any good reasons for leaving. I could not help but think of my own reasons and those given by a friend from the opposite end of the ecclesiastical spectrum from myself, The Artsy Honker. Where I got bogged down in my first draft was trying to recapitulate those, rephrasing my own past reasons in terms of Aaron’s post.

After a week of reflection, I think the lingering idea that has stuck has been that of emotional engagement. It takes a lot of courage to speak up about reasons for either leaving or considering leaving. If we view church as a family, then we can never “truly” leave, but we can move out of home and move in with others. So when I talk about leaving a church it’s never about giving up one’s faith. I am firmly of the idea that there are times and circumstances when it is right for someone to move on. At that point, one has a choice about how to go about it. One could just slip out of the door one Sunday morning and never come back or one can talk through with a pastor/minister/vicar (however you want to phrase it) the reasons why. Whether that means a face to face conversation or a written communication, that is up the individual and whatever is most helpful.

In any such conversation one has to bear in mind the well-being of the other party. I would hate to leave a church in any kind of a bad mood. If there is any critique to be given then this should be done graciously, with the aim of ultimately building up one another, or encouraging them. Likewise, if a church leader disagrees with such reasons, this should not be done in a condemnatory way. I think this was my issue with Aaron’s post, as it came across (bearing in mind, he’s American, so it may it not have translated well across the Atlantic) as unloving, judgmental and indicative of a pastor’s hurt pride.

Nomatter how good our intentions are, one thing we have to bear in mind is that we are fallible and get things wrong. If I try to be sensitive to someone else’s feelings as I move away then I may not get it right; I might say a word out of place or fail to mention something I should have done. The unity of the christian Church (as a whole) is vitally important. Yet we have different local gatherings for a wide variety of different reasons, whether they be because one favours a particular tradition or a hierarchical structure, while another is more liberal about such things.

Since moving to London last summer, the church I have settled at doesn’t meet on the 4th Sunday morning of the month, for reasons to do with the building we hire. What that allows me is the opportunity to be more ecumenical and visit another church in the local area, sharing fellowing one month with the united reformed church, another month with the methodists and just yesterday I went to an anglican church. I would love it if people from other churches dropped into us once in a while so we express a common identity in Christ, rather than living in parallel worlds which inhabit the same neighbourhoods, as can often happen.