Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Faithful Writer redux

Haydn over at The Giraffe Pen has written a summary and offered some reflections about the writer's conference on Saturday that I mentioned back here. His footnote about whether Christians ought ever to be deliberately 'aggressive' and 'annoying' (as was suggested during one panel time) has generated an interesting conversation.

UPDATE: I didn't get a chance to offer my own opinion on this matter as I was in a rush when I posted this last night. While I am all for being provocative and subversive, I do not think that these straightforwardly equate with being aggressive or annoying. Paul says Let your speech always be gracious, seasonsed with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone (Colossians 4.6). It is the very graciousness of our speech that is most tasty. This doesn't necessarily mean being 'polite', but we are not gospel shock-jocks, out to provoke any reaction we can. To think we are assumes that apathy is the greatest problem our hearers face. However, in my experience, apathy can itself often be a protective mechanism to avoid repeating the pain of previous ungracious speech.

The discussion has also been raging over on MPJ's blog (and here).

Monday, July 30, 2007

News

Last night Jessica and I had another chance to enjoy the hospitality of RPA and said goodbye to an old friend. Read the full story on my other blog.

Also in the news is my rector Tim Foster, who has written a report on hospitality and church, which has made the front page of the Anglican Media website (Tim is holding the platter in this very staged shot, taken at our recent Dawkins forum).

And for those interested and in Sydney, Prof Larry Hurtado will be giving a seminar at Macquarie Uni tomorrow night on Early devotion to Jesus in which he will present his research challenging the common scholarly assumption that the early church's christology evolved gradually from 'low' to 'high'. More details here.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

God with us? VI

Tasting the future today
And these tastes of the future, these glimpses of God's coming presence, are genuine tastes, real glimpses, because of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the future. The physical resurrected body of Christ is hidden with God, but he has poured his Spirit, the Spirit of the risen Christ, into those who follow his way. And so by the Spirit, God is with us today. Not physically, not in fullness, not unveiled. But truly with us. The Spirit blows where he will (John 3.8). We can’t control or summon him like a pet dog. But when the gospel is truly proclaimed and people turn to Christ, there is the Spirit, there is God with us. When love overcomes hate and indifference, when death doesn’t get the last word on the meaning of our life, when we acknowledge our interdependence with all living things, there is the Spirit, there is God with us. When we share a meal of bread and wine and find ourselves bound together by a bond of peace, there is the Spirit, there is God with us. Where Christ is proclaimed and honoured in word and deed, there is the Spirit, there is God with us. Where there is a broken heart that cries to God in loneliness and anguish, there is the Spirit, there is the presence of God: The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit (Psalm 34.18).

I recently received an email from a friend in long-term isolation on a cancer ward which ended like this:

I feel God's presence very strongly at the moment and throughout all of this there have been many blessings. I have realised more than ever that I would rather cross a raging river with God that stroll on the river bank without Him. I cannot imagine what it would be like to go through this without Him.
God is an ever-present help in trouble (Ps 46.1). This help is not necessarily what we expect or demand, but exceeds all we can ask or imagine.

But what of our ordinary life? Is God with me day by day?
For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit.

- Isaiah 57.15

The Spirit of Christ, like Christ himself, prefers to hang out with those who recognise their need, who come to life with empty hands and are quick to give thanks. Is this me? Am I contrite and humble, or am I so full of myself there's no room for anyone else, no room for God? Are we as a community humble? Is God with us?

God’s Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, breathes life into us as the body of Christ, as a community tied together by our experience of God with us. This is what animates our meetings, what quickens our passions; this is who gives us a word of comfort or careful rebuke, a word of apology or hope. This is who moves us to care for the lonely, to stand up for the weak and voiceless, to share with our neighbour. This is who enables us to live fearlessly. It is the Spirit of Christ, God with us. God is not stingy. Our everyday lives are saturated with hints and echoes of his presence. Moments of beauty, of humility, of grace and truth.

We live everyday in the presence of God. But he is not our magic talisman, our lucky charm, our guarantee of success, our assurance of being right. He is not so much on our side, as beside us – in our neighbour – and inside us, giving us no rest until we find our rest in him. God is with us, but he is not in our box. Remember, he sits on top of the box, ruling as king, enthroned between the cherubim. He is lifted up on a cross, ruling as king as the nails are driven home. He is alive and amongst us as we live and move and have our being. He can be found in an embrace, seen in a gift, heard in a kind word, yet heaven and earth cannot contain him. He is here. He is coming soon.

Come Lord Jesus. Amen.
Series: I; II; III; IV; V; VI.

Harry Potter: the end or a beginning?

OK - I finished late last night. Time to discuss it. I'd love to hear your reflections and theories. Those who don't want spoilers can avoid the comments. This was certainly the most theological volume of the series.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

God with us? V

Today: God with us
But what about us? What about today? It may be all very well to say that if you lived two millennia ago in Palestine you could have seen Immanuel, God with us, but is God with us? And what might this mean?

In one sense, Immanuel has come and returned to be with the Father. He is physically absent. It is no longer possible to see God in the flesh as it once was. We are waiting for his return. Indeed, this is one way of thinking about what our lives are about: we live preparing for the presence of God. We await not simply the return of the risen Jesus, but the day when everything is set to rights and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2.14).

This is what we are waiting for – the ultimate and permanent fulfillment of the promise: ‘I will be your God and you will be my people.’ Here’s how the final pages of the Bible envisage it:

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home [lit. tabernacle] of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new."

- Revelation 21.2-5a

Our lives are preparing for this day. We are maturing our taste to enjoy the messianic banquet, we are exercising our heart so it can be inundated with God’s love, we are training our eyes to see the invisible God. You are getting ready to be able to stand in the presence of divine glory, to reflect and shine with that glory. The tastes we get of the life to come now are only a taste, but they are genuine tastes. Whenever you are generous to someone in need, that’s a taste of the future. When you welcome a stranger, when you forgive a deep wound, when you resist a chance to gain at someone else’s expense, when you keep a promise, when you fail but confess and turn your life around, when you bless instead of curse, when you trust despite fear, when you hope despite pain, when you love despite busyness – you are catching a glimpse of the future presence of God.
Ten points for guessing the cathedral in the picture.
Series: I; II; III; IV; V; VI.

Live Green

City of Sydney is organising a Live Green day at Victoria Park on Saturday 25th August. There will be stalls, entertainment, kids activities and workshops/seminars on a wide range of topics.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter: the beginning of the end

I'll be getting my hands on a (borrowed) copy of #7 this evening. No spoilers in the comments please.

More than five years ago, I wrote an English honours thesis comparing the representation of children and childhood in Harry Potter and Narnia. At that stage, only the first four books had been published and no movies had come out. I'll be very interested to see whether my claims still hold up in light of the final revelations.

As is often the case, the best thing I've read on Harry Potter is found on Alastair's blog in a lovely post called 'Of Boggarts'. Here's a taste:

Christian authors can and should tell stories of Greek and Norse gods, of dragons, giants, goblins, faeries, of witches on broomsticks, of pixies, gnomes, elves and dwarves. These stories are the chains in which defeated Boggarts are paraded in triumph before the Risen Christ.
Also from Alastair comes a link to this catchy video which I can't get out of my head.

God with us? IV

Immanuel

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning ...The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

- John 1.1-2, 14.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling – or literally, ‘tabernacled’ – among us. This one who is the expression of God, set up his tent of flesh and blood. He lived amongst us humans, as a human. Just as God’s glory had dwelled amongst Israel in a tent in the wilderness, so John says we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth.

The disciples did not see a pillar of fire or God’s glory in the tabernacle like the Israelites. They saw the glory of the One who had come from the Father. According to John, this glory was seen in his obedience to his Father (17.4), in his betrayal (13.30-31), suffering and death (12.23-24). This was a surprising manifestation of God’s glory: he was crowned king (19:14, 19), but with a crown of thorns (19:2). He was lifted up (3:14; 12:32), but upon a cross. This is God’s glorious presence. This is what it looks like: a peasant being unjustly executed by a brutal regime. This deconstructs all our assumptions about God’s presence. If God is on our side, perhaps this is what it will look like. Not fame, success, security and comfort, but difficulty, pain, loss and humiliation. Grace and truth are costly. Obedience is not an easy road. To walk with God is to carry a cross. If God is with us, it might look and feel more like dying than victory. If God is on our side, or rather, if we’re on God’s side, we ought to expect to often seem to be losing. We ought to be surprised and wary if we seem to be always amongst the powerful, if we find ourselves rich and comfortable. God’s glorious presence was found most decisively in one who lived amongst the outcast and was himself rejected and despised.
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No-one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known.

- John 1.17-18

Jesus has made the invisible God known; he embodied God with us. He was even called Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’. God has been on the side of humanity and that is what it looked like. We need to keep on putting our ideas of what God is like, of what it is like for God to be with us, through Jesus, who has brought grace and truth. We don’t get to decide what we think God is like, what we think God’s presence might be like. We might like to think of God in a particular way, but unless he looks Christ-shaped, cross-shaped, then we’re fooling ourselves. To ignore Jesus, even to honour him as one among many, is to ignore God amongst us.
Five points for the identity of the statue. Five more to translate the Greek. Five more to give the NT reference. And fifteen if you can guess the city in which the picture was taken. No more than one correct guess per person.
Series: I; II; III; IV; V; VI.

Can we trust what the Gospels say about Jesus?

Andrew Errington, a previous guest-poster turned blogger has put together an excellent short resource for those interested in a brief introduction to the historicity of the four accounts of Jesus found in the pages of the New Testament. It can be downloaded for free. In twelve pages Andrew answers 'Where did the Gospels come from?', 'What are the Gospels?' and 'What evidence is there?'. An appendix looks at the non-canonical Gospels.
These ruins are just outside an important NT town. Eight points for guessing which one. Photo by HCS.

Monday, July 23, 2007

God with us? III

Dangerous goodness
During their time in the wilderness, the tabernacle pitched in the middle of the camp reminded the Israelites that God was with them. He had promised to meet Moses from his 'throne' between the golden cherubim above the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25.22). The Israelites could therefore say “God is with us”. Indeed, he had promised: “I will be your God and you will be my people.” His presence protected them, provided for them, guided them through the wilderness, and set out the good regulations by which they were to live. But this wasn’t all cause for celebration. To have the maker of heaven and earth living with you is not a safe prospect.

When world leaders arrive in Sydney for the APEC Conference this September, we’re going to know about it: road closures, parking restrictions, security checks, traffic escorts, a public holiday and a highly visible police presence. Current estimates place the security budget at $169 million. Many of the world’s leaders will be in our midst and every measure will be taken to ensure their security.

But when the living God dwells in the midst of his people, the precautions and barriers are not to keep him safe from the people, but to keep the people safe from him. God might have been with them, but he wasn’t in any straightforward sense simply on their side, at their beck and call. They could not keep God in a box. God didn’t live in the box, he sat on top of it, a king on his throne between the cherubim.*
*1 Samuel 4.4; 2 Samuel 6.2; 2 Kings 19.15; 1 Chron 13.6; Psalm 81.1; 99.1; Isaiah 37.16.

There’s a great passage in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, where the children are speaking with Mr and Mrs Beaver about the prospect of meeting the great lion Aslan, who in the novels represents the presence of God.

    “Is he - quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
    “That you will, dearie, and no mistake," said Mrs Beaver; "if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly.”
    “Then he isn't safe?” said Lucy.
    “Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don't you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”
Dangerous goodness. That’s what it’s like to have God dwelling in your midst. Dangerous goodness. No one is safe from his purifying, life-giving power.
Apologies for using this Lewis quote again. I find it very useful.
Series: I; II; III; IV; V; VI.

Amazing Grace

This film about William Wilberforce and the abolition of British slavery comes out in Australia on Thursday. A group from All Souls and friends will be going to see it together on Thursday 2nd August (Thursday week) at Palace Cinemas on Norton Street. We'll go back to the church café for coffee and discussion afterwards. Let me know if you're interested. If the group is large enough we can get a good discount.

I'd love to start a regular (monthly?) discussion forum at All Souls, probably on Thursday evenings, for chewing over some contemporary and perennial issues. I'll keep you updated as this idea develops.
Eight points for explaining the link between this image and the post.

Spam, spam, spam, egg and spam

We all know what it is. Not so many realise that the term originated from its use in this Monty Python sketch (or the script). Someone may know the correct technical terms, but not only are there straightforward spam emails promising enlarged bank accounts, kudos, pharmaceutical access and somatic appendages, there are also those designed to see if you respond by clicking a link or composing a reply. As readers (and automated spam-filters) get better at avoiding spam, spam-writers have become (a little) more creative, for instance, sending a 'news headline' of considerable interest with a link to the 'full story'. However, a (possible) new one I hadn't seen before was an email praising my blog in general terms (without any mention of specific content), expressing a desire to ask a question, but first wanting to know if I reply to emails.

If this was a genuine email from a regular reader, then my apologies for (anonymously) embarrassing you. Please ask your question. I do reply to emails, but a tip for anyone wanting to contact a stranger by email: make it clear you're not a spam-generator. And a tip to spam-writers: this would make a good scam.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

God with us? II

God with Israel: Exodus 25
The first half of Exodus is a riveting and rollicking story: a baby saved from the bulrushes and brought up amongst foreigners; murder and betrayal; a burning bush and plagues; dramatic rescue and great rejoicing; suffering and complaining; bread from heaven, a flaming mountain, earthquakes and God himself writing on tablets of stone. It’s the kind of material you’d make a movie out of – or maybe two.

But the movies – and most readers – give up when they hit the second half. After 20 or so chapters of action, most of the second half of the book seems to be building instructions.

My in-laws are architects and so I’m learning to love buildings, but even I find these chapters hard going. First come seven chapters (Exodus 25-31) filled with detailed instructions on making a box (ark), table, lampstand, tent (tabernacle), altar, courtyard, dress clothes for priests and more, then a few chapters on the golden calf incident (Exodus 32-34), before the same elements appear again in similar detail recording the actual construction of each element (Exodus 35-40).

All together, it probably looked something like this or this or this.

The tabernacle was basically a mobile tent with portable furniture. The Israelites traveled with it and set it up wherever they pitched camp while wandering through the wilderness. The tabernacle would be in the center of the camp, and the 12 tribes of Israel would set up their tents around it. There was a fenced courtyard, and then the tabernacle itself was divided into two sections: the holy place, which contained the lampstand, table and altar, and the holy of holies, which contained the ark of the covenant. This ark was a wooden box overlaid with gold in which were placed the tablets recording the covenant (binding agreement) made between God and Israel at Mount Sinai. On top of the ark were golden statues of two winged angels (cherubim) facing each other.

Unless you’re an archeologist or have a thing for tents, it’s all a bit of a slog to read. What’s it all doing here? What’s it all about? The key is in Exodus 25.8: And have them make me sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them. God's presence in the midst of his people Israel - that's what this whole section is about: the concern for holiness; the importance of the sacrifices; the repetition and symbolism of different numbers; the position and orientation of the tabernacle; how the quality of the metals increases the closer they are to Holy of Holies (bronze, silver, gold); the way the ark was meant to represent the throne of God, such that he would sit ‘enthroned between the cherubim’. All this was to highlight what an awesome and weighty privilege it was for the Israelites to have the living God in their midst.
Series: I; II; III; IV; V; VI.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Permablitz

Rachel just sent me this article from The Age about Permablitzing: permaculture meets Backyard Blitz. What a great idea! Volunteers use permaculture principles to transform a backyard to make the household more sustainable, reducing the need for heavily transported food, and building community in the process. I nominate Rachel and Alex to start a movement in Sydney.

The Faithful Writer

On Saturday 28th July, CASE and Matthias Media are running a one day conference at UNSW called The Faithful Writer for Christians to think about how writing can be service. The main speakers will be Tony Payne and Greg Clarke, and then there will be a number of panel discussions: Writing as Ministry; Writing and the Internet (including yours truly on the panel); Christians and fiction; Writing for impact. Sounds fun? Registration is $70/$55 before 21st July or $90/$75 after it.

It just got a write up today in Southern Cross, including a scintillating interview with one of the panellists.

The Internet

We've heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the Internet, we know it's not true.

- Robert Wilensky

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

God with us? I

God on our side
I recently saw a documentary hosted by Australian comedian Andrew Denton called God on my side. Denton tours the stalls of the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Texas interviewing people, predominantly fundamentalist Christians. In is usual way, Denton let his subjects do most of the talking and gets them to reveal quite a lot about themselves, their beliefs and their foibles. But the title of the program shows the heart of what Denton thinks these people believe: With God on my side. The implication is that God is my magic talisman, my lucky charm, my guarantee of success, my assurance of being right. If God is with me, who can be against me? If he’s on my side, then heaven help my enemies!

Is God on our side? What would that even mean? How could you know? Is God with us, or against us? Where is God? Where can he be found?
This is the first post in a new short series (based on a recent sermon I preached on Exodus 25).
Series: I; II; III; IV; V; VI.
I'll be really impressed (and give fifteen points) if someone can guess the Sydney suburb.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Hart on learning to see

Sometimes we don't see what's under our noses. Sometimes we see but do not perceive. Having one's eyes open and head pointed in the right direction is no guarantee of correct vision. Hart makes an excellent point about the labour of vision that is required in order to see straight in a world bent out of shape:

[A]ll of nature is a shattered mirror of divine beauty, still full of light, but riven by darkness. ... [T]o see the goodness indwelling all creation requires a labour of vision that only faith in Easter can sustain; but it is there, effulgent, unfading, innocent, but languishing in bondage to corruption, groaning in anticipation of a glory yet to be revealed, both a promise of the Kingdom yet to come and a portent of its beauty.

- David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea:
Where Was God in the Tsunami?
(Eerdmans: 2005), 102-3.

Learning to see creation rather than merely 'nature' does not mean closing our eyes to the pain all around (and within). Instead, it is to look thankfully not fearfully, seeing abundance rather than scarcity. It is to look caringly rather than instrumentally, seeing beauty before usefulness. It is to look hopefully, seeking glimpses of the glory yet to be revealed.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

One does not live by bread alone...

Having baked (and eaten) a lot of fresh bread recently, I consider this far from self-evident.

July points update

The month is only half over, but there has been much activity on the July points table. After Matt Moffitt established a strong early lead, first Andrew, then Jonathan have drawn near. The latter has just slipped ahead. But it's still wide open with hundreds of points available. Remember, there are points for picking this month's winner. Apologies to those who consider this a frivolous distraction from the rest of my blog. Apologies to those who consider the rest of my blog a frivolous distraction from this.
Ten points for the best suggested title of this work.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Williams on church leadership

What I have been proposing is that the empty tomb tradition is, theologically speaking, part of the Church’s resource in resisting the temptation to ‘absorb’ Jesus into itself, and thus part of what its confession of the divinity of Jesus amounts to in spiritual and political practice. Jesus is not the possession of the community, not even as ‘raised into the kerygma’, because he is alive, beyond qualification or risk, he ‘lives to God’. The freedom of Jesus to act, however we unpack that deceptively simple statement, is not exhausted by what the community is doing or thinking – which allows us to say that Jesus’ role for the community continues, vitally, to be that of judge, and that those who are charged with speaking authoritatively for or in the community stand in a very peculiar and paradoxical place. The distance from the community that is built into their role has to be something other than a claim to share the kind of distance that exists between the risen Jesus and the community. They remain under the judgement of the Risen One, along with the rest of the community, and their task is to direct attention away from themselves to Jesus, to reinforce the community’s awareness of living under Jesus’ judgement.

- Rowan Williams, 'Between the Cherubim: the Empty Tomb and the Empty Throne' in On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 192-93.

This fascinating essay is sobering reading for one charged to speak in the community this Sunday. I've re-read it since I'm preaching on the tabernacle (and ark) in Exodus 25-31. Here's another quote from earlier in the essay where Williams is setting up the imagery of the 'empty throne', the space between the cherubim on the ark of the covenant, where the God of Israel is said to dwell. Williams reads it an emobodiment (or disembodiment as the case may be) of the second commandment:
The cherubim flanking the ark define a space where God would be if God were anywhere (the God of Judah is the one who sits between the cherubim or even ‘dwells’ between the cherubim); but there is no image between the cherubim. If you want to see the God of Judah, this is where he is and is not: to ‘see’ him is to look into the gap between the holy images. What is tangible and accessible, what can be carried in procession or taken to war as a palladium is not the image of God but the throne of God, the place where he is not. … YHWH is not capable of being represented definitively or indeed at all except as the one who is invisibly enthroned on the kapporeth [mercy seat] of the ark. … [There is a] non-representable, non-possessible dimension [to] the paradoxical manifestation of God to God’s people.

- Williams, 'Between the Cherubim', 187.

The prohibition against images of God is to remind the people of God's freedom, that though he might be 'on our side', he is never in our possession. He can't be put in a box, because he sits on the box!

Yet there is another dynamic here that Williams places less emphasis on: God makes his own image. Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Col 1.15; Heb 1.1-3). God's transcendence and invisibility might lead us to silence about God, theology dumbfounded. But this is not the case because God himself speaks. He supplies his own icon in Jesus. This is how we are to speak and think about God. This is how we are to follow and obey him. This is what we can and must hope for. God's freedom is not an endless deferral of open potential. He decisively acts to give himself.

Nonetheless, in doing so, he does not give himself away. He remains the Lord. And this is the thrust of Williams' christological point in the first quote. We don't own Jesus. Jesus' friends can and do get him wrong.
Eight points for correctly naming this English abbey.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

God in Genesis 2

Having recently re-read Genesis 2, I was struck by how many different roles God has within a single chapter. Here are some that I noticed:

God the rainmaker (v. 5)
God the potter (v. 7)
God the lifeguard giving the kiss of life (v. 7)
God the gardener (vv. 8-9)
God the removalist (v. 15)
God the career-advisor (v. 15)
God the commander (v.16)
God the matchmaker (v.18)
God the assistant (v.19)
God the anaesthetist (v. 21)
God the surgeon (v. 21)
God the genetic engineer (v. 22)
God the celebrant (v.22)
Did I miss any?

These opening chapters of Genesis are so rich. Like the first pages of a novel, the main characters (God, humanity and the rest of the creation) and their basic relationships are sketched. God is the source of all that is, including human life. Humanity is blessed with abundance and in order to be abundant. The good world is both gift and task.

Despite the tragedy of chapter three, these relationships remain foundational for the rest of the story. Humanity's tasks - to be fruitful and to exercise God's caring rule over creation (1.28) - are both affirmed even in the midst of the 'curse' passage in 3.14-19. Both will now be more painful and difficult, but the basic tasks remain.
Fifteen points for the name of this cathedral. And twelve if you can correctly name the artwork.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Augustine on embarrassing Christians

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.

- Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram 1.19.39
(translated by J.H. Taylor; Newman Press, 1982). H/T CraigS.

This issue has been around a long time.

Monday, July 09, 2007

World Youth Day

Sydney 2008
Next July, hundreds of thousands of young people will arrive in Sydney for World Youth Day. What is WYD? Here's the answer from the official website for Sydney 2008:

World Youth Day is the Catholic Church's week of events for youth and with youth. It gathers thousands of young people from around the world to celebrate and learn about the Catholic faith and to build bridges of friendship and hope between continents, peoples and cultures.
It was started by JPII in 1986 and happens in Rome or internationally every year (this will be the 10th international event). Although called a 'day', major events will take place in Sydney during the week of 15th-22nd July (just over a year away), culminating in an overnight vigil at Randwick Racecourse with Pope Benedict and concluding mass on the Sunday.

If you haven't heard of it yet, you will soon. This will be huge. Just look at some figures for other gatherings:
Denver 500,000
Toronto 800,000
Paris 1,200,000
Częstochowa 1,600,000
Rome 2,000,000
Manilla 4,000,000
And from the website FAQ:
An estimated 500,000 participants are expected to attend at least one event during the World Youth Day week. We expect Sydney to receive 300,000 visitors during this time, including 125,000 from overseas. A media contingent of 3,000-5,000 is anticipated. At the last international WYD in Cologne in 2005, 1.2 million people attended the Final Mass and 7,000 media personnel covered the event.
Already 120,000 have registered for Sydney and there's still a year to go.

I'd love to hear what you think of this event. Has anyone been to one in the past? Do you have any ideas on what to do in response? A suggestion I liked (from my rector, so I'm paid to like it...) is that we should look into the possibility of billetting a few of the visitors.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Resurrection books?

Does anyone know of any good, readable books on the resurrection that deal with historicity and theological implications? All the ones I can think of focus on either history or theology, or are out of date, or mediocre, or 740-pages long. I've had a few conversations recently where I found myself wishing I had something to recommend/loan/give. Any ideas?

PS On a personal note, I had another CT scan yesterday, which had good news.

UPDATE: Thanks for all the suggestions. I should have been clearer in my original post, but I was particularly interested in popular, rather than academic, texts: books that an interested investigator or younger Christian might read.

Friday, July 06, 2007

To the reader

Pray thee take care, that tak'st my blogge in hand,
     To reade it well: that is, to understand.
With apologies to Ben Jonson.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Full yet? IV: God's blessing

Be fruitful and multiplyWay back in February, I outlined a new series pondering the issue of population growth. After a couple of posts, it ground to a halt in indecision. I'd like to keep picking away at it, and maybe somehow make some headway. I'm abandoning the complicated structure I initially announced and instead will procede in my more traditional manner of adding whatever next occurs to me. I make no promises about finishing the series.

Last night in Bible study we spent some time looking at Genesis 1, a passage which must be up there as one of the most commented upon pieces of text in history. Nevertheless, I had a few thoughts. I doubt any are original, but since I can't remember where I got them from, I won't footnote.

It is often noted that the first three days involve the separation of two realms (light and dark, sky and sea, land and water) and the latter three the filling of those realms (sun and moon, birds and fish, animals and humanity). Initially, God creates simply by speaking, by divine fiat: 'Let there be light'; and there was light (v. 3). But later, his words call for creativity on the part of agents already created: 'Let the earth put forth vegetation'... The earth brought forth vegetation (vv. 11-12). The creation becomes itself creative. Other actors are invited onto the stage under God's direction. God's purposes of an abundant and good world are to be realised (at least partially) through the obedience of his creatures. Indeed, by the end of the chapter, with everything 'very good' (and that by God's standards!), nonetheless, there remains a job to be done. All is not finished when God enters his rest. Humanity has been given a task, a blessed responsibility: to continue the filling and ruling that God has initiated.

Some read verse 28 as a command: 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.' But the text calls it a 'blessing'; this is God's intention for us, an invitation into his good abundance. Furthermore, it is addressed to humanity, not to an individual. To take it as a command that each human must have children (and as many as possible) is, I think, to misread this passage.

It is common when reading this passage to note the various way that humanity is distinguished from the rest of creation: we are the final item in a series (in fact, God's rest is the final item); we are made in the image of God; we are given dominion. However, we are the not the first recipients of divine blessing. In verse 22, the animals* are also told be fruitful and multiply. Abundance is not just for us. We, like the animals, are dependent upon God's favour for increase and prosperity.
*Specifically, the fish (or all that lives in the waters) and the birds receive this blessing. Is there any significance to the fact that the land creatures do not receive it? Or might they somehow be included the blessing of v.28 (since they are explicitly mentioned in v. 30)?

These parallel blessings unite us with the whole community of creaturely life. We are not simply different; we share with them the good gifts of God. Indeed, the same blessing may even indicate a common project, a mutual need. Human prosperity is interdependent with that of the rest of the biosphere. We don't flourish alone. This rules out both the instrumental rationalising of 'resources' to ensure our way of life at all costs, as well as cynically viewing humanity as a disease of an otherwise healthy planet. Creation will not achieve its purposes without us; but neither will we without it.
Series so far: 0; I; II; III; IV.
Up to five points each for the different ways this image breaks continuity with the rest in this series. No more than one attempt per person.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Dawkins night review (Part III)

Part I; Part II.
Christianity and Atheism
Dr Greg Clarke concluded the Dawkins evening with some reflections directed particularly to Christians.

There is surprisingly little discussion of atheism in the sciptures; it is simply assumed that the normal human situation is to be religious. This indeed has been the overwhelming statistical norm for humanity throughout cultures and history. Yet the Bible does often describe the experience of living in a world where it seems like there is no God. Nonetheless, the few explicit mentions are quite scathing: Psalm 14.1 (and 53.1) says the fool says in his heart 'there is no god' and Romans 1.18-32 speaks of suppressing the truth in wickedness.* Perhaps atheism might be the expression of a desire to live my own way without God's interference.
*Rom 1.23 makes it clear that this passage is about idolators rather than atheists; I assume Greg must have been applying this pattern more broadly. This may be valid, but I remain to be convinced. Does Paul have a more specific group in mind here than simply all gentiles? Interestingly, while the fool says in his heart that there is no god, the converse does not necessarily follow. Is it fair to accuse all atheists of being fools who suppress the truth because of their wickedness? As one questioner later put it, mightn't more be said at this point?

Dr Clarke ended with four suggestions as to how Christians might respond to Dawkins and co.:

1) Don't fight fire with fire. This is a very bitter book. Respond kindly, rather than in kind.
2) Acknowledge where religion can oppress and welcome the critique of life-destroying faiths. This is not alien to the scriptural witness.
3) Acknowledge that not all 'Christian' claims and behaviour are defensible.
4) Like The Da Vinci Code, seize the opportunity for discussion.
The ensuing question time followed a number of paths which Greg had opened, and overall I thought the night went quite well. I'll finish with a brief reflection on method.

I have learned a great deal from Greg, both directly and through example. In particular, I have appreciated his threefold classification of apologetics: (a) traditional 'defensive apologetics' (a tautology, I know), where attacks on Christian belief are answered; (b) kategorics, or 'reverse apologetics', where the claims of other views receive critical scrutiny; and (c) 'attractive apologetics', where the fecundity, coherence, explanatory power and beauty of Christian belief are displayed in a way that makes the Christian life appealing. Without denying the place of (a) and (b), Greg has repeatedly demonstrated the priority of (c) in his role as public apologist over the last few years. However, on this evening, I would have liked to have seen more (c), which I felt was somewhat muted in comparison to (a) and (b).

Speaking of which, in the latest edition of CASE magazine, Ben Myers has contributed an article called "An Apologetics of Imagination" (Ben has also written a longer summary). He rejects the 'imperialist' apolgetics of rhetorical violence in which one's opponent is backed into a logical, but inhumane, corner, in favour of an ethically self-reflective apologetic discourse, one where the forms of speech used are consonant with the message being advocated. Such a discourse would be not only 'rationally persuasive' but also 'imaginatively compelling'; rhetorical coercion would give way to imaginate invitation: come and see the world from over here! Managing to footnote Hart, Milbank, Küng, Barth and McGrath in a handful of lines, this article expressed with theological breadth what I think Greg has been trying to embody for years. This is more than simply being nice (though Greg is a deeply nice guy); it is speaking the truth in love.
One final time, twelve points for the best explanation of the link between image and post.

von Balthasar on atonement

It is always the dogma of the removal of guilt through representative substitution that shows most decisively whether an approach is merely anthropologically or truly christologically (that is, theologically) centred. Without this dogma, it always remains possible to interpret everything in rational terms as an expression of human possibility, no matter how much historical mediation one wishes to build in. Our inability to resolve this dogma into gnosis is the true scandal; it is a signal and a warning that this is where genuine faith begins.

-Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible
(trans. D. C. Schindler; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004 [1963]), 100.

Ever since at least Feuerbach, some people have taken theological language (language about God) as really just a metaphorical way of talking about humanity and the human condition. Of course, whatever we think or say about God reveals something of what we think about ourselves (and vice versa), but this is an implication, not the (true, hidden) meaning of theology. In this passage, von Balthasar points out that it is the doctrine of the atonement - of Christ's dealing with our guilt by dying for our sins, dying for us - that bursts the bubble of thinking we're actually just talking about ourselves. Either we drop this doctrine, or we drop the focus on ourselves.

Independence Day

The Hunter
The hunter crouches in his blind
'Neath camouflage of every kind,
And conjures up a quacking noise
To lend allure to his decoys.
This grown-up man, with pluck and luck,
Is hoping to outwit a duck.

- Ogden Nash, from Versus (1949), 5.

This is not a comment on the war on terror.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Dawkins night review (Part II)

More heat than light?
This is the second part of a review of a Dawkin's discussion forum at church last week. Part I is here.

Dr Greg Clarke continued his discussion of Dawkins with a brief bio highlighting Dawkins' sense of wonder at nature from an early age and his "normal" (nominal) Anglicanism. He now holds a chair at Oxford designed specifically for him - the Chair for the Public Understanding of Science, which he uses to promote Dawinism and atheism (seeing the two as synonymous).

We then turned to considering his highly publicised recent material: The God Delusion and The Root of All Evil?* This material is not aiming at a dispassionate investigation of the issue, but is a polemic aiming for converts to an atheist 'church'. This needn't be a problem, but in these cases it has resulted in material more vigorous than rigorous.
Dawkins was uncomfortable with the sensationalism of the latter title, suggested by the BBC, and argued that at least it ought to end with a question mark.

Dr Clarke (who has a background in literature) noted the rhetorical strategies upon which Dawkins' suasive attempts rely. There is an agressive disdain for theology, without deep engagement with the recognised voices of the church through the centuries; you'll find no discussion of Augustine or Aquinas, Barth or Basil, Calvin or Chrysostom. He refuses to acknowledge probabilistic arguments, assumes you agree and employs emotionally charged terms: belief is a 'virus'. His overall approach relies more on the emotional connection gained through anecdote than argument or fact.

Yet where arguments do appear, they come in four kinds: philosophical, sociological, Darwinian and ethical.

1) Despite his influential work against teleological arguments in The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins makes little use of philosophical arguments in his recent works. Most prominent is his Boeing 707 argument, which runs roughly thus: the universe is very complex and is therefore unlikely to be here simply by chance (as though a wind might blow through a junkyard and assemble a Boeing 707). Yet God, as the alleged designer of this complex world, must be even more complex than his design, and so is even less likely to exist. While somewhat cute, and nicely taking a common teleological argument as its starting point, it fails appreciate a basic point commonly held by thoughtful Christians. Namely, the belief that God as creator is not simply one more being amongst many beings (even the greatest being amongst beings), but is a different (though perhaps analogous) kind of thing to his creation.

2) His most prominent sociological argument is that mature societies become more atheistic. Dr Clarke noted that while there is some evidence that prosperous societies are more atheistic, this reveals more about us (and our beliefs) than about God. It is important to both the Christian and the sociologist to investigate the function of religious belief (or the lack of it) in the life of the individual/community.

3) Dr Clarke noted that the technical details of Dawkins' Darwinian arguments were not his [Greg's] area of expertise, but that philosophy (especially philosophy of science) is not Dawkins' area of expertise. Darwinism as an explanation for the origin of the species is one thing, but it is something else when applied beyond this sphere to become an encyclopaedic worldview that attempts to answer all questions. Such explanations, though not necessarily ruled out a priori, are not in the realm of hard science. In particular, Dawkins' arguments about belief transmission through the notion of 'memes' is highly speculative.

4) Dawkins' ethical arguments for atheism are by far his most interesting and strongest. Dawkins finds belief in God disgusting and morally corrupting. He offers his own version of the ten commandments, a set of universal moral principles readily acceptable by all reasonable people. Dr Clarke found this claim particularly naïve. Not only does it ignore philosophical debate problematising any easy reference to universal rationality as a basis for morality,* it also fails to offer any advice on what to do with the ubiquitous problem of moral failure. Even if we can get everyone to recognise universal ethical rules, what shall the church of atheism do when a member sins? (More to come)
*I thought more could have been said about Dawkins' Enlightenment assumptions regarding Reason, particularly his thoroughgoing opposition of faith to reason.
After the heroic efforts in the comments on the previous Dawkins post, I offer the same competition on this picture: twelve points for the best explanation of the relevance of this picture to this post.

Becoming friends with Kevin

Kevin Rudd, leader of the opposition, now has a Facebook account. Someone is trying hard to win the young 'uns.

Speaking of which, of course it would be our most media savvy bishop, the Right Reverend Robert Forsyth, who would be the first episcopal face of Sydney Anglicanism on Facebook.

Also no prizes for noting that Kevin's picture goes on the left, and the good bishop's on the right. Rob interviewed us on 2CH on Sunday night (he also married us seven years ago) and during the ads confessed his interest in Facebook.
Images from their respective Facebook profiles.

Cigarettes will kill you

To mark the introduction of new anti-smoking laws in NSW, I thought I would offer this reflection from Ogden Nash:

Thoughts Thought after a Bridge Party
All women are pets,
But most women shouldn't be allowed to open a package of cigarettes.

I call down blessings on their bonny heads,
But they can't open a package of cigarettes without tearing it to shreds.

Of the two sexes, women are much the subtler,
But the way they open a package of cigarettes is comparable to opening
     a bottle of wine by cracking it on the butler.

Women are my inspiration and my queen,
But as long as they can rip the first cigarette from the package they don't
     care what happens to the other nineteen.

Women are my severest friend
But the last nineteen cigarettes in packages opened by them are not only bent
     but sere and withered and the tobacco is dribbling out at either end.

Women are creatures of ingenuity and gumption,
Which is why when they finish one cigarette they leave the mutilated nineteen
     cigarettes for some man and go to work on a fresh package, thus
     leaving thirty-eight mutilated cigarettes for masculine consumption.

Women are ethereal beings, subsisting entirely on chocolate marshmallow
     nut sundaes and cantaloupe,
But they open up a package of cigarettes like a lioness opening up an
     antelope.

- Ogden Nash, from Versus (1949), 6-7.

Speaking of cigarettess, Boxologies in Scotland, a libertarian turned smoking-ban enthusiast, has offered these extra suggestions in a flush of interventionism.

And since I've been offering so many points recently, I thought I'd just keep going. For eight points, what rank did chronic smoker Sir Winston Churchhill achieve in a recent BBC poll of the Greatest Britons? And for another five (with apologies to MK), which activity did he ban from his office during WWII?

Monday, July 02, 2007

Dawkins night review (Part I)

The New Atheism
A few thoughts from Thursday's discussion forum: The Dawkins Delusion?

Dr Greg Clarke (amongst other things, the newly appointed director of MSCI) gave a lengthy presentation followed by questions and discussion. I had hoped to be able to begin the night by showing some clips from The Root of All Evil? to set the mood, but this fell through.

Dr Clarke opened by asking 'why is religion back on the agenda?'. It was not long ago that religion in general and Christianity in particular were rarely mentioned in mainstream news media. However, even a casual glance today will turn up many examples (does anyone know of any research on this? i.e. the frequency of 'religious' issues in news media over the last few decades). Greg suggested three possible reasons: (a) post September 11 fascination with religious extremism. This is focussed upon, but not limited to, Islam. (b) The results of contemporary research indicating the positive benefits of religion. For example, one meta-study summarising hundreds of studies on the effects of relgion found that 79% of studies indicate a positive correlation between religious affiliation and life/health benefits (longevity, marital stability, mental health, etc.), 13% found no relationship, 7% gave confused results and only 1% discovered a negative correlation. It seems 'religion' is good for you. The imprecision of this term is a weakness of the studies, but since we're talking about public perception, this is a tangent. And (c) it is now possible to begin to look back on the twentieth century with a little distance and many commentators call it 'the century in which we lost God'. It was also, from one perspective, the century that demonstrated the failures of atheism as a social agenda.

The last few years have seen the rise of 'the new atheism', represented most prominently by Dawkins (but also by Hitchens - God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Harris - The End of Faith/Letter to a Christian Nation, Dennett - Breaking the Spell and Onfray - Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). Dr Clarke claimed that this movement represents the increasingly shrill declarations of those fighting a losing battle. He suggested that of all the responses to this publishing phenomenon - Christian anger, atheist delight, agnostic puzzlement - the least appropriate is that of the 'apatheist': I don't know and I don't care. Life is more precious than that. (More to come)
Twelve points for the best explanation of the relevance of this picture to this post.

July points table

As announced last month, I have started a new monthly points competition in addition to the ongoing overall leader board. The winner for June was Rachel (who is about to start a series on why Christians ought to oppose nuclear power) - ten bonus points. Five to second-place Anthony (who still dominates the overall table); three to Ali, and one each to Mike Wells and Peter J in equal fourth. July's competition looks ended up like this:

58: Jonathan
47: Matthew Moffitt
37: Andrew
27: JRS
22: Martin Kemp
21: Anthony
15: Chris, Steve
14: Drew, Linden, Peter J
8: Michael Jensen
7: Zeekstar
5: Andrew Paterson, Mr Tim
3: Cecily, Honoria, John P., Rachel
For the points-hunters, there are currently at least 270 points on offer (or there were when I first posted this...).
Eight points for the first to predict correctly the ultimate winner of the July points table. This is getting a little self-referential, isn't it? Jessica has also just pointed out that it could result in a Catch-22. Bonus points if this happens.
Five points for explaining why Jessica and I have framed a red square on our main wall.

Worse than death? Series links

Back in December/January/February, I wrote a six-part series called 'Worse than Death?' I was re-reading the posts yesterday and thought that they deserved a post linking to the series as a whole:

I. Death as enemy
II. Sin is worse than death
III. Jesus' obedience unto death
IV. Death is not the focus of life
V. You have died
VI. All Donne (Death be not proud)
Five points for the species of this skull.