Tag Archives: testimony

Book Review: Dazzling Darkness by Rachel Mann

I first came across Rachel a few years ago via Twitter. Since then I think she’s published two books, of which this is the first (The Risen Dust being the other) but I only got round to purchasing this at the Greenbelt festival last year when we passed each other like ships in the night.

Opening with the full trio of a foreword, an introduction and a preface, we get to see that this is a work of testimony, intertwined with theological musings.

We begin with the tonka truck Christmas, where, as a 5 year old boy who was struggling with their gender identity, a decision was made to try to embrace masculinity. But this didn’t last and as one could tell from simply reading the back cover, Rachel underwent a sex change. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Citizen Kane and the role of rosebud, only the tonker truck had the opposite effect if anything.

The book has a certain flow to it, but it doesn’t feel like a sequential memoir. So of those I’ve read recently, it is most unlike Moltmann’s and much more like Augustine’s (though with a similar level of swearing to Hauerwas’). It is quite confessional in tone, almost as though we are hearing Rachel tell her story a little after after she had first recounted it painfully and fragmentary to family, a close friend or psychologist. But by now the story has been thought through in whole, seen afresh and told with a purpose. So although the reader is taken along a journey, the author knows in advance where we are going, even if the reader doesn’t.

At times, particularly early on, one feels as though Rachel is beating us over the head with an array of philosophers who are name-dropped by way of referencing how they viewed things and how aspects of their thinking were adopted. Being relatively poorly read in philosophy, I struggled to get a grip of the points being made. But given philosophy was the subject Rachel studied at university and lectured on for a while, this is a forgivable point. I mention it here so that any potential reader may consider themselves duly warned that there will be some mental exercise needed.

One thing you cannot do is read through it at a jaunt. For all the way through the reader is made to stop and think. It’s not that Rachel implores us to do (so rid yourself of the awful triteness of Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle) but her writing compels us to. It varies from page to page, either where she looks at something in a different light, sometimes implicitly asking the question “[have you seen things this way]” or “[how does your church deal with this]”. So as I read it, mostly on public transport, I couldn’t help but keep looking out of the window at the world going slowly by and trying to marry up the grotty end of south London that I pass through with the world as Rachel see it.

One of the reflections that was always going to capture my attention was Rachel’s take on the evangelical church, for this is the broad end of the spectrum where I find home within the larger Church. Now I read various takes on the evangelical churches, some of which are fiercely defensive, overlooking the flaws (both historical and present) and some which are wholly condemnatory, with a haughty “older brother” attitude, presenting evangelicalism as something that one ought to grow out of. Neither are views I find helpful, but thankfully Rachel doesn’t go too far into either one. Rather, there is critique that is carefully measured and an acknowledgement of the good the evangelical churches have had in her life.

One of the aspects that I confess I struggled with was the appeal to poetry. It’s an art form I’ve never really “got” and, aside from the war poets (who she does cite), those parts of the book that rely on an appreciation of poetry were rather lost on me. I guess I’m too much of a rationalist. But if poetry is your thing, then you’ll get more out of this book than me and you may well want to follow up with The Risen Dust.

One phrase that I don’t think Rachel used but that came to mind more than once as I was reading was the phrase “an incomplete gospel”. In her critique of evangelicalism, one of the concerns that comes across is that the gospel preached by the churches she visited or was a part of didn’t quite reach the place where she was. As someone who had undergone a sex change and who was also a lesbian, I hope it’s not transphobic or homophobic to say that that’s a fairly niche place that isn’t too well populated. Regardless, any gospel preached by any church must be one for all. That’s a message of Rachel’s that I wholeheartedly agree with.

One of the running themes of the book is the idea of the “dark God”. Coming again at the incomplete gospel from another angle, we often speak of God as light, not least in reference to John 1. Yet Rachel’s contention is that God has a dark side. This isn’t an assertion of dystheism, but rather saying that when we speak of gospel bringing people out of darkness into light, Rachel contends that sometimes God will stay with us in the darkness. I may have misunderstood, and while I could see some merit to it, I wasn’t wholly convinced. I did wonder if, as many do (myself included), God is envisaged as a projection of ourselves and that the dark God was Rachel’s expression of such a projection. I might be wrong about that. While I would certainly agree that God does meet us in dark places, what I was less sure about was the idea that he would stay with us there and not lift us into the light.

There’s much more to the book than I have space for here. For example, I’ve not mentioned her health struggles – especially with Crohn’s disease or her call to be ordained (although she uses the term priesthood, I wouldn’t echo this, holding as I do a priesthood of all believers). I will leave that for you to discover. As I said in the introduction, this is a work of testimony. I conclude then with an amendment to that: it is a work of testimony that I recommend you read, listen to, think on and grow with.

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How do you define a christian? Part 1: Intro & self-definition

Introduction

The question “how do you define a christian” is one that has been bugging me for a little while. It sometimes crops up in conversations I have with non-christians who are keen to try and put me in a box. The question often comes in some variation of “what kind of christian are you?” At this point there’s usually an involuntary rolling of the eyes, but I do my best to be helpful. Afterwards, I often question myself as to whether it’s the best approach to pander to someone’s expectations or whether it would be more kind to let forth an exegesis on what christianity means to me. Erring on the side of caution, and not wanting to come across as a “bible-basher” my current thinking is that the gentler answer is the more productive.

It’s not a question I actually can give a definitive answer on. Here, I am just exploring some ideas, and would welcome other views and input on the matter. To my way of thinking, there are 4 routes we can head down, and I will sketch each of these in turn. There is some overlap between them, but I’ve tried to segregate them as reasonably as possible. These are:

-Self-definition
-Following a creed
-Sacraments as boundary markers
-Denominations, cults & heretics

I also acknowledge that my articulation is somewhat lacking to be able to discuss this without resorting to the occasional tautology, but I have felt they needed to be included, or else I’d be driven down a reductionist road of infinite regress, which never leads anywhere meaningful. I will also be quite frank, which may cause some offence, though that is not my intent.

As the writing of this particular piece has gone on, it just started to get longer and longer. So I have decided to split it up into several separate parts in order to make it more readable.

Self-defining?

One of the first and most obvious definitions of a christian is for someone to simply self-define. i.e. a christian is whoever says they are a christian. At first glance, this is quite appealing, as it is the free choice of any given individual to be whatever they want to be. However, you quickly come across difficulties. I have come across a group before who called themselves “christian atheists,” who are a very interesting bunch; they don’t believe in God, but do think that Jesus was a great moralistic teacher. So, as followers of Jesus, how many other christians would affiliate themselves with this group? I think not many.

More recently, we had the example of Anders Breivik, who murdered 76 people in Norway recently. He described himself as a christian on his Facebook profile, though again, I don’t think that many christians would recognise his right-wing extremism in the gospels.

The short answer to this dilemma is that if I am free to say that I am a christian, anyone else is free to make the same claim, yet we can believe completely different things and consequently display different attitudes and have different relationships. To simply state that one is a christian is completely meaningless without some other definition of christianity that various parties can agree upon. It’s a little like two people who call themselves vegetarian, one of whom is fine with eating fish and another who is not. Who is then to determine which is vegetarian or not? Are they both vegetarian, given the difference in their viewpoints?

The obvious step is then to then to define some set of parameters which can be agreed upon. In the case of christianity, this has come about the form of a doctrinal basis, statement of belief or creed, which I will look at in the next part.

Book Review: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham

I’d not really come across Richard Bauckham much before and this was the first book of his I had read. He was heavily referenced with some favour by Tom Wright in The Resurrection Of The Son Of God, and a five minute search reveals that Bauckham is an emeritus professor at Edinburgh (though currently on placement to Cambridge), where Wright now has a nominal post, though I understand this is merely to let him write his prodigious amount of books.

There is no great lengthy introduction to this work, and Bauckham dives straight into his proposition, giving us a quick glance at the conclusions he will reach (I would graciously assume that the book was researched and the conclusions reached prior to the writing of the introduction). The title kind of says it all, although Bauckham does not think that the 4 gospels were all first-hand eyewitness accounts. Rather, his assertion is that they faithfully record the eyewitness testimony of others.

The depth and breadth of Bauckham’s reading and understanding can hardly be doubted, and this is a work of immense scholarship. The downside is that in being rigorous, it gets extremely dry in places. It took me an awfully long time to get through this, not least because I kept dropping off during my daily commute, though that may have had something to do with the workload I have had of late.

I did get the impression that at times he made a little too much of some very scant evidence, though that is not to undermine his whole argument. For those who would contest his viewpoint that the gospels were based on eyewitness testimony and were not either invented or significantly distorted through oral traditions, Bauckham’s work would need to be very carefully dissected; something I am not knowledgeable enough to do.

The book’s first main contention is that those who were name-checked in the gospels were present because they were witnesses. I found this quite an unusual proposition and not entirely convincing. From here, Bauckham looked at the frequency of names in the society at the time, and concluded that the names we find are fairly typical of what we might expect, though I was unsure of what this was meant to prove. That said, it did contain some extremely interesting points about individuals known by two different names (I immediately thought of Saul/Paul, though Bauckham, oddly, didn’t mention this) as the disparity between lists of names is an objection I often find cited against the gospels.

One writer on whom he hangs a lot of his argument is Papias, who I think is very seldom known in modern Christian circles (at least the ones I move in). This demonstrates for me quite well how historians have to deal with the evidence they have available, as opposed to scientists who can devise experiments in order gather evidence. For those of you who don’t know, there are no known surviving works of Papias. So how can Bauckham rely on his writings, if we don’t know what they are? Well, it’s because he is quoted by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History. The quotes amount to just a few hundred words, much shorter than the length of this review!

One of the most interesting chapters concerns the proposition that Mark’s gospel (widely regarded as the first to be written) was based predominantly on the testimony of Simon/Peter. The main piece of evidence in favour of this is some Greek grammar, where a third person perspective is used quite awkwardly, when a first person perspective would read more naturally. Unfortunately, my Greek grammar is not good enough to be able to form a suitable critique on this, though there is a lot more to it than the crude outline I have given.

After his detailed look at Mark, Bauckham then moves on to look at the way the testimonies of the original eyewitnesses would have been passed on. He takes a sceptical view of the form critics, most notably Rudolph Bultmann. He also takes a look at the more modern, moderate style of form criticism, more widely accepted, as put forward by Kenneth Bailey in his highly influential work, Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels; a copy of which you can find, for free, here.

In Bauckham’s analysis he draws out a very important point which is often ignored by critics who dismiss gospel tradition as “Chinese whispers” in that the gospel stories were not passed down through many generations, with each generation adding new material in an uncontrolled way. Rather, we are talking about 1-2 generations, where many of the original eyewitnesses were still alive and could be consulted if there were any doubt on the details.

From here, he takes a slightly different direction and looks at psychology. I suspect that this may be Bauckham’s weak area, unless he is a true polymath. He looks at whether or not eyewitness memory can be reliable at all. He cites a couple of examples both for against the proposition, before looking at the characteristics of what distinguishes true memory from false memory and examining the gospel evidence to determine which we find there.

His last piece of analysis is to look at the gospel of John in more detail and to examine the view (which Bauckham supports) that is the testimony of the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Much of the discussion regards the identity of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and whether this was John the Elder or John the son Zebedee. However, given the earlier discussion on the frequency of names, John was the 5th most common name, so the discussion, though interesting, does not really progress the argument much.

The concluding chapter of the book is one of the most thought-provoking and I intend to write a much fuller post on this chapter alone. As mentioned at the top, there is very little by way of introduction. It is only now, at the end that I realise why; the introduction is at the end! In this chapter, Bauckham sketches his epistemology and his reasoning behind why he considers the testimonies he has reviewed to be of value to the historian and the theologian (as well those for whom the two disciplines are intimately entwined). He adopts a possibly controversial approach by drawing parallels, albeit with significant caveats, to the testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Much of the best available evidence we have for the details of the Holocaust has come from the witness of those who were present at the time, and similarly the best available evidence for the details of the life, death & resurrection of Jesus comes from the witness of those who were present at the time. I can understand that some may see this as poor form, citing an event so emotionally charged and volatile, which his critics may pounce on, though I think Bauckham does not overstep the boundary into disrespect or emotional blackmail. In this chapter, Bauckham is extremely critical of those who would undertake an historic review of the gospels with a default position of rejection. So, it might be reasonably said that the author is advocating a hermeneutic of credulity, though this would be to misunderstand him, as he does explicitly state that witness testimony should be reviewed critically.

There is one interesting omission, which I felt was not dealt with properly, and that was the relation of gospel writers (OK, Matthew & Luke) to the nativity. In his chapter “Eyewitness from the beginning” Bauckham is clear that this refers to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he was around 30 (according to John). There is no space given to the discussion of the possible eyewitnesses to the birth of Jesus, his early life, or the family tree (however problematic that is!).

So what shall I say in conclusion? Well, it’s not the faint-hearted. It does get quite tedious at times and Bauckham’s writing style is not the most lively I have read. Nonetheless, it is a book worthy of very serious consideration, with many important questions asked and challenges raised to those who would not accept the gospels as being grounded in the contemporary eyewitness testimony.