Friday, August 31, 2007

Myers on Spong

Speaking of Bishop Spong, the indefatigable Ben Myers has managed to produce a short review of his new book Jesus for the Non-Religious, in which he argues that Spong's Jesus is, well, boring.

Ben and his wife have also managed to produce a new baby. Since Dr Myers seems to gain most of his theological insights from his children, I expect his prolific output to only increase in the coming months.

Thursday, August 30, 2007


Books have the same enemies as people: fire, humidity, animals, weather, and their own content.

- Paul Valery (1871 - 1945)

Read any good books recently? Two have captured my interest of late. The first is The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to Saint John of the Cross by Rowan Williams. Williams is a senstive reader of and an excellent guide to a variety of patristic and medieval thinkers. It's been a refreshing tour of some Christian tradition too often ignored in Protestant circles. It can be easy to get the impression sometimes that after Paul, the next great thinker was Luther or Calvin (with perhaps a passing reference to Augustine or Athanasius). Speaking of Augustine, Williams' chapter on the bishop of Hippo was a real highlight.

The second book is a piece of popular history called Tamberlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World, a portrait of a Turkic-Mongol warlord in the late 14thC (and early 15thC) variously known as Timur/Temur/Tamberlaine/Tamerlane, who conquered central Asia from the borders of China and northern India to Turkey and Egypt. Along the way, he killed somewhere in the region of 15 million people and probably inadvertently saved Europe from becoming part of the Ottoman empire.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

'Whispers of Christ' in Harry Potter

An article in Christianity Today (now a few weeks old) about Christian echoes in Harry Potter (H/T Em). My recent post was not meant to indicate hostility towards hearing such echoes, just disappointment with further confusion in popular usage of 'resurrection'.

O'Donovan in Sydney

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, noted theologian and ethicist Oliver O'Donovan will be giving three free lectures at UNSW next week. If you want to go, you have to RSVP to New College by this Friday (31st).

Proverb of the week IV

Better a little with the fear of the LORD
    than great wealth with turmoil.
Better a meal of vegetables where there is love
    than a fattened calf with hatred.                           - Proverbs 15.16-17

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

"There is nothing new under the sun"

What does it mean?
Well, it's been over a year since I started this blog, and I've just realised that I had never attempted to explain my title. I seem to get a number of people ending up here after googling "What does 'there is nothing new under the sun' mean?" and similar questions, so I thought I'd offer my take on the phrase.

It originated in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes:

What has been will be again,
     what has been done will be done again;
     there is nothing new under the sun.
Indeed, this verse appears as part of the famous opening passage of that book:
The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
     vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
     at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
     but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
     and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
     and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
     and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
     but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
     there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome;
     more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
     or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
     and what has been done is what will be done;
     there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
     “See, this is new”?
It has already been,
     in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
     nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come
     by those who come after them.
Ecclesiastes is famous for its pessimism, its repeated claim that everything is hebel: mist, vapour, empty, transitory and unsatisfying - vanity. Life under the sun is filled with injustice, repeated disappointment, the same old same old. And this is just as true for someone who believes in God as it is for everyone else. Religion brings no guaranteed safety against absurdity and futility. There is nothing new under the sun.

Discovering this perspective in the Bible is usually a surprise when people first stumble upon it. It's not what we expect to hear. Doesn't God provide meaning and purpose, safety and joy? Why do anything at all if Ecclesiastes is correct? Why was this downer of a book left in? The fact that it was, and that it continues to provide an authorised testimony to what life is like, ought to make us pause in our construction of neat theological systems (or caricatures, if that's more your taste).

Yet Ecclesiastes is also a surprise because it is so refreshingly honest, so frequently accurate to our experience of life. Things do fall apart, whether objects, buildings, bodies, relationships or communities. We do repeat yesterday's mistakes. The sun keeps rising on the same old injustices. Sure, we might now have microchip technology and be able to hit a golf ball on the moon, but we still get bored at work, and whether you're wise or a fool, your heartbeats are still numbered. There is nothing new under the sun.

Yet despite his pessimism (or refreshing realism, depending on your taste), the teacher doesn't offer a council of despair. He doesn't throw up in his hands in nihilistic quietim - "why bother?". He still realises that the best thing to do is to continue to throw yourself into those very things that are hebel, ephemeral and frustrating: work and relationships, celebration and mourning.

I love the book of Ecclesiastes. There is nothing new under the sun.

Yet there is more to come.
Second photo by CAC.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Confession is good for the soul...

...but bad for the career. Or maybe not - it doesn't seem to have hurt Kevin Rudd so far.

In any case, I've been tagged by Benjamin for a meme for an interesting site called Christians confess. The directions for the meme are these:

• Apologize for three things that Christians have often got wrong. Your apologies should be directed towards those who don’t view themselves as part of the Christian community. Alternatively, apologize for things you personally have done wrong towards those outside of the church.
• Post a comment at the originating post so others can keep track of the apologies.
• Tag five people to participate in the meme.
• If desired, send an email with the link to your blog post at the Christians Confess site, giving permission for your apologies to be added to the website.
1. I am sorry that I don't laugh more. And cry more. I am sorry that Christians have treated emotions with suspicion. I am sorry that the good news is sometimes restricted to the head and doesn't also include the heart, hands and feet. I am sorry when we don't weep with a groaning world and overflow with Easter laughter.

2. I am sorry for acting as though it were possible to love God without loving my neighbour.

3. I am sorry for speaking when I should have been silent. And for being silent when I should have spoken. I am sorry for thinking I knew all the answers and for forgetting that Jesus is truly good news.

I tag Boxologies, Dead Flies and Perfume, Duck5, Hebel and Frankly, Mr Shankly - all selected for having obscure blog names.
Five points for the first to correctly name this building.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Most difficult passage?

A little while ago, I discussed one of my favourite passages, and I even had the chance earlier in the year to give a sermon on it.

A question for all the preachers: what has been the most difficult passage you've had to preach on? Or, which passage would you least like to have to preach on?

Northern Territory intervention revisited

Back in June, the Australian government announced an 'intervention' of sweeping proportions into the Northern Territory to reduce widespread child abuse amongst indigenous communities. While there is a broad consensus on this goal, the specific measures to be taken have proved controversial, sparking widespread community debate.

The Sydney Anglican Social Issues Briefing has recently published a response which briefly summarises a number of the key issues and ends with some useful questions for both the government and its opponents to ponder:

Questions to Government:
      1. Is government being honest about its limitations? a) Is it clear on what forcefulness can, and cannot, achieve in people’s lives? b) Has it taken enough notice of local knowledge concerning what will and won’t work, and what has and hasn’t worked, on the ground in each place?
      2. Does government have long-term proposals for the self-sustaining health and good order of these remote communities, a genuine process of review, and an appropriate exit-strategy?
      3. Is government honest about those failures in indigenous communities that have occurred because productive pilot programs have not been maintained long-term?

Questions to its opponents:
      1. Are opponents honest about some of the intractable problems facing indigenous communities, and willing to concede the failures of some previous strategies?
      2 Are opponents willing to suggest at what points force is necessary or in-order (or do they believe that all government use of force is evil)?
      3. In what way can they encourage government in its efforts while at the same time suggesting improvements?
I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of these questions, especially if you first take the time to read the briefing.

UPDATE: A NT linguist reports on some effects of the intervention. (H/T Ruth)

Williams on Spong

As I alluded to earlier in the week, controversial retired Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong is in town at the moment.

What I didn't know until today was that back in 1998 Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury (though he was then Bishop of Monmouth), responded to a list of twelve theses Spong had composed criticising various traditional tenets of Christianity, such as theism, the incarnation, the fall, all miracles (including a bodily resurrection), the ascension, and the role of prayer and the scriptures. The theses were an echo of Luther's famous ninety-five theses of 1517 and they are here, together with Williams' response. Despite expressing appreciation towards some of Spong's other contributions, Williams was not impressed, calling the theses confused, "uninteresting" and "the sort of thing that might be asked by a bright 20th century sixth former." In his conclusion, Williams says:

It is no great pleasure to write so negatively about a colleague from whom I, like many others, have learned. But I cannot in any way see Bishop Spong's theses as representing a defensible or even an interesting Christian future. And I want to know whether the Christian past, scripture and tradition, really appears to him as empty and sterile as this text suggests.
I am sympathetic to those frustrated by their experience of church, who have not found life together in the Christian community to be a taste of God's future. I believe there is an important role to be played by a faithful opposition. But in my brief and limited experience, it seems like there are better critics, more insightful contemporary prophets, and more worthwhile conversation partners than Bishop Spong. Nonetheless, I'm willing to be corrected. Can anyone recommend Spong's best book?

CORRECTION: I initially misquoted Williams as saying that the theses were "poorly-thought through". My apologies for sloppy work. Williams used this phrase about the issues raised by the theses, agreeing with Spong that these issues need further thought, but still sharply criticising Spong's answers to them.
Archbishop Williams' image from the official Archbishop of Canterbury website. Bishop Spong's image from the Harvard University Gazette.

Proverb of the week III

Although there are plenty of great proverbs in the canonical text, this week I've picked one from the rabbinical writings:

If a man calls you an ass,
         the best way is to take no notice of it;
     but if you are called so by two or more persons,
         take the bit into your own mouth.

- from Genesis Rabba (a 5th/6thC Jewish Midrash upon Genesis)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Last night I went to see Michael Moore's new(-ish) doco Sicko on the US Health system (amongst other things). As usual for Moore, there were more stories and stunts than statistics, more emotion than evidence, more amusement than analysis. Nonetheless, this film is worth seeing and talking about. Not only is it less bitter and nasty than his other work that I've seen, it also raises issues more directly relevant to Australia than Bowling for Columbine or Fahrenheit 9/11. With a health system more privatised than the UK, but far more public than the US, debates about the direction of Australian health care continue.

Since being diagnosed with cancer in December, I have received thousands of dollars worth of consultation, treatment and drugs, at almost no cost (a few dollars for the drugs). I give thanks for the public health system and taxation that has enabled this. Yet thoughout the process, I noticed many encouragements towards private health cover, with some messages advising that to do so would help the public hospitals by giving them more funds.

While this may be true in the short term, I am very hesitant about doing my little bit to encourage us closer to the US system. The more patients on private cover, the easier it is for the government to justify health cuts, thus downgrading the public system and giving more incentive for people to switch to private cover. And the losers are those who can't afford it. Though as Moore points out, this means we all lose.

I realise this is a very complicate issue and that I only have a very basic grasp of it, but I'd love to understand more.

Do you have private insurance? If so, why? Do you think this makes any difference to the system as a whole for you to 'vote' this way? Any opinions from those who work in the health system?
Dr Perseus performs a tricky piece of surgery. Twelve points for the first to guess the city in which this work is found.

August points update

This month's points table is dominated by newcomers, yet there have not yet been any guesses as to who might win. Get in early to pick your favourite.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Eliot on church-going

The inhabitants of Raveloe were not severely regular in their church-going, and perhaps there was hardly a person in the parish who would not have held that to go to church every Sunday in the calendar would have shown a greedy desire to stand well with Heaven, and get an undue advantage over their neighbours - a wish to be better than the 'common run', that would have implied a reflection on those who had had godfathers and godmothers as well as themselves, and had an equal right to the burying-service.

- George Eliot, Silas Marner, Chapter 10.

Is it possible to go to church too much? What are legitimate reasons for not going on a given week? If you consider yourself a church-goer, how do you decide whether or not to attend each Sunday?
Ten points for the first to correctly name this building.

"If only Jesus were an ecosystem"

With all the local media attention given to Bishop Spong's current visit to Sydney, today's Sydney Morning Herald includes a nicely titled article by Sydney historian John Dickson comparing the media treatment of extreme views in climate change and Jesus studies. His basic argument: if Jesus were an ecosystem, we'd have less patience with voices (such as Spong) so out of touch with contemporary scholarship. But since the field of Jesus-studies is generally perceived to have no consequences, the media are happy to publish anything sensational.

What does hang on the outcomes of the historical study of Jesus?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The gospel: how is it good news? VI

Good news!
Jesus is king. It’s good news – because fear and terror don’t rule. Neither terrorists nor the politics of fear run the lives of those who trust the prince of peace.

Jesus is king. It’s good news – because injustice doesn’t rule. Oppression has a used-by date. So we are freed from the nightmare of having to achieve a perfect world now, free to work in small ways to make the improvements we can. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.

Jesus is king. It’s good news – because karma doesn’t rule. We don’t need to take revenge, to even the score ourselves. Nor are we trapped irredeemably in our mistakes. Where Jesus is, grace reigns, not karma.

Jesus is king. It’s good news – because the church doesn’t rule. We are Christ’s body and his ambassadors, but we are not him. We don’t need to confuse our opinions with his truth. We follow as best we can, but no one person or institution is beyond error. We are free to admit our mistakes and learn from them.

Jesus is king. It’s good news – because my mortgage doesn’t rule. If Jesus is the Christ, then nothing else need rule my life, not a quest for wealth, for security, for status or influence. These all take their place as secondary things, tertiary things, quarternary things! I am free to be content and generous, enjoying God’s good gifts by sharing them wisely and liberally.

Jesus is king. It’s good news – because our children don’t rule. I don’t need to make my life revolve around maximising their every possibility, preventing every possible misfortune. I am free to love them enough to want to see them grow up as children of God, relying on him, not me.

Jesus is king. It’s good news – because my plans don’t rule. I am not left to my own devices to muddle out a path of my own devising in a mix of dream and nightmare. I am called to high and noble task: to love God with all my heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love my neighbour as myself. Or to put it another way: To be faithful to God by loving my neighbour, and to be faithful to my neighbour, by loving God.

The crucified Jesus is king. It’s good news – because my past doesn’t rule me. Broken relationships are not final. Guilt is atoned for. Forgiveness and reconciliation are possible because, as Paul said, Christ died for our sins.

The risen Jesus is king. It’s good news – because sickness and death don’t rule. We may fall ill, we may get cancer, we may be in accidents, or be intentionally injured. But death will not have the last word since we follow the one who is the resurrection and the life.

But how does he rule? And how can we know he does - when so often it seems like the bullies get the last laugh?
Series so far: I; II; III; IV; V; VI.
Five points if you can guess the Australian state in which this picture was taken.

Proverb of the week II

If you have found honey, eat only enough for you,
    or else, having too much, you will vomit it.
                                                                     - Proverbs 25.16

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The gospel: how is it good news? V

Whom do you want in charge?
The gospel is that the crucified and risen Jesus is God’s king, the Christ. And this is indeed good news.

Even if it weren’t good news, it would still be news. If the one put to death for claiming to be God’s king was raised to life again by God’s power, then he really is king, whether we like it or not. In that sense, the gospel tells us to line up with reality. This is how things are going to be, so get used to it!

But it is good news, because if we think about it, whom do you want to be ultimately in charge? John Howard? Kevin Rudd? George Bush? Hillary Clinton? I doubt it, however much some of us may prefer one or another as less bad than other options.

Perhaps you’d prefer final power to rest with a popular vote? Democracy seems to be a major attempted export of the West at the moment. But is this really what you want? Winston Churchill famously said, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government. Except for all those others that have been tried.’ He also said, ‘The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.’

What about you in charge? Every buck stopping with you? Although it might feel nice to dream sometimes, is that what you really want? I doubt it – and I doubt that anyone with a few teaspoonfuls of honesty and a minute of self-reflection would put their hand up for it.

So perhaps it would be best if no-one was in charge? I suspect that would be worst of all - just ask an Iraqi. When there’s no teacher in the classroom, it might seem fun at first, but pretty quickly the bullies take over.

No, in the end, none of these is king: not you, not me, not George Bush, not the bullies. Jesus is king. And that is good news. Because he’s no tyrant. He uses his rule to serve, not to be served. He gives his life to rescue his subjects. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. His kingdom has begun, and even now the humble enter into it. Not all his enemies are yet defeated, but he’s won the decisive victory.
Series so far: I; II; III; IV; V.
Eight points for the name of the flag flying in the picture.

O'Donovan coming to Sydney

Oliver O'Donovan, one of the world's leading scholars in theological ethics and politics and currently Professor of Christian Ethics & Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh, is coming to Sydney. On 4th-6th September, he will be giving the 2007 New College Lectures, entitled Morally awake? Admiration and resolution in the light of Christian faith. Entrance is free, though RSVP to New College is required.

I've often posted O'Donovan quotes in the past, but was reminded of these lectures by seeing Andrew Errington post yet another one (this time on infant baptism). There is even a Facebook fanclub (that fact alone may tempt Erro onto Facebook).
Image from O'Donovan's homepage at Edinburgh University.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Harry Potter and the hallowing of death

Warning: spoilers aplenty
"...there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying." (p. 577)
It seems J. K. Rowling has been reading my blog. She must have been doing so even as far back as Order of the Phoenix, 718, where the idea is also expressed.

As I mentioned before, the final Harry Potter novel is by far the most theological. Not that such themes were absent from the rest of the series, but Deathly Hallows takes them to a new level. In particular, I'd like to reflect a little on death in Harry Potter.

It's been there from the opening chapter of Philosopher's Stone: "The Boy who Lived". Muted at first, Rowling starting popping off characters from the middle of the series: Cedric (Goblet of Fire), Sirius (Order of the Phoenix), Dumbledore (Half-Blood Prince) and the final book is almost Shakespearean in its blood bath: Mad-Eye Moody, Tonks, Remus Lupin, Fred Weasley, Bathilda, Colin Creevy, "and fifty more", plus Severus Snape, Bellatrix, Voldemort himself and, of course, Harry.

Or does he? For all the discussion of a Christ-like death and resurrection, Harry does neither. The much-pondered penultimate chapter "King's Cross" is quite clear that Harry never died: "He failed to kill you with my wand. ... I think we can agree you are not dead" (570); indeed, Harry's blood in Voldemort's veins has kept him alive while the dark lord lives (567). King's Cross is a near-death experience (from which it would be possible to board a train and go "On" as Dumbledore says: 578)) occurring in Harry's head. It is here that wounds are healed and glasses are no longer needed (except for Dumbledore's, confirmed as a fashion accessory: 567). This is Harry's taste of restoration, of 'resurrection'. When he comes back, he is again the scarred, mortal boy who almost died. Except that he has now also become a man: "You wonderful boy. You brave, brave man." (566)

The Resurrection Stone is no such thing. It is a ghost stone, able to bring back shadows of those who once were. Indeed, the very desire to see the dead again is what mislead Dumbledore into attempting to use the stone and so destroyed his hand (and his health). The dead who are 'raised' by this stone at worst make the user himself want to die in order to join them, and at best give some moral encouragement to the living. The dead do not live again, except in life-and-love-sustaining memories.

When Harry and Hermione read the tombstone of his parents, they discover 1 Corinthians 15.26: The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. Confused, and thinking it sounds like a Death Eater sentiment, Harry asks "Why is that here?" to which Hermione replies: "'It doesn't mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry. [...] It means ... you know ... living beyond death. Living after death." I've posted before on life after death, and how that's not what 'resurrection' means in the Bible. Resurrection is life after life after death, as N. T. Wright puts it. It is not life continuing despite death, a transition to another form of existence. It is life again and better.

Harry is no Christ, dying to save those he loves (what about dying for his enemies?) and rising triumphant. Of course, there are parallels and of course this story has been powerfully shaped by Christian archetypes. But if any are tempted to read the Gospel narrative in light of its portrayal of 'death and resurrection', they will be gravely misled.

I'd love to say much more, and perhaps I will continue these thoughts at some stage, but for the moment, I'll end with one final reflection.

Voldemort: his name means 'the flight of death', but I wonder whether it mightn't also mean 'flight from death'. "He fears the dead. He does not love." (577) Here, finally, is an insight more properly called Christian. It is the fear of death that drives Voldemort, that blinds him to love and the more powerful magic: "Of house-elves and children's tales, of love, loyalty and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped." (568) Death, though an enemy, is not to be feared. The hope of resurrection liberates us from obsessing about staying alive.
Ten points for the location of the picture.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The gospel: what is it? IV

Paul's gospel
Some scholars make a big deal of the differences between Paul and Jesus, claiming that the Pharisee from Tarsus perverted the original simple teaching of the Gallilean healer. Some even call Paul 'the founder of Christianity'. However, while the two came from different backgrounds, spoke to different audiences under quite different circumstances, and belonged to differing chapters of the unfolding story of salvation, nevertheless, their fundamental message is aligned. Jesus proclaimed the arrival of the reign of God in his appointed king. And we find the same story in Paul.

He too has the same gospel of a crucified and risen king bringing God’s peaceful reign. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul makes reference to an early Christian summary of the announcement he brought to Corinth about five years earlier:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:
       that the Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
       that he was buried,
       that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
       and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.
After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

- 1 Corinthians 15.1-8

Paul’s gospel, his good news, is also all about Jesus being king through death and resurrection. Remember, 'Christ' means king.

The gospel is the good news that the crucified and risen Jesus is God’s king, the Christ. To proclaim the gospel is to announce this reality, by telling his story.
Series so far: I; II; III; IV; V.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Bottled water

Do you drink bottled water? If so, why?

As an environmental issue, bottled water has not received as much attention as deforestation, climate change or mass extinction, but it did score a mention in today's SMH. I hadn't thought about it until I read a paper from Frank Emanuel outlining some of the problems it causes, such as:

• higher levels of bacteria than quality tap water;
• transfer of toxins from the plastic bottle to the water;
• the production of a plastic bottle creates 100 times more carbon emissions than making a glass bottle;
• 1.5 million tonnes of plastic water bottles are created each year, only a fraction of which are subsequently recycled;
• bottled water costs about 10,000 times as much as tap water;
• and perhaps worst of all, the privitisation of water amongst the rich removes the incentive for ensuring high quality tap water for all.
Speaking of Frank, here is another rant worth reading.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The gospel: what is it? III

Jesus and the kingdom of God
For Isaiah, the gospel (good news) was that Israel's God was to be king. And of course, the one with 'beautiful feet', the messenger announcing that God was becoming king, was Jesus himself:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come, he said. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.”

- Mark 1.14-15

Like Isaiah, the main theme of Jesus’ good news was the kingdom of God. When you hear "kingdom", don’t think place, a location, but simply the fact that God is king. God’s kingdom is his kingship, his reign, his rule. That this kingdom is "near" means God will soon be king. This was the heart of Jesus’ message. These are his first words in Mark’s account and set the trajectory of his public ministry, the focus of his work.

But how is God becoming king? Why is God’s rule now near? For Mark, the answer was at once simple and profound: God’s rule is expressed in his appointed king, the anointed one, the Messiah. It’s right there from his opening line: The beginning of the gospel about [or 'good news of'] Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1.1).

The gospel, the good news, has everything to do with Jesus and consists in the claim that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who represents, brings and executes God’s redeeming rule. 'Christ' is not Jesus’ surname, it is his most common title and basically means ‘king’. The Gospel of Mark records God’s kingdom, God’s rule, appearing in the life of a humble Jewish teacher. Jesus healed the sick, welcomed the outcast and the socially irrelevant, banished the dark things that shrink and poison life. This was God's rule breaking in to our world; this was how God was reclaiming his rebellious creation. By the end of Mark's account of the good news, Jesus has been crowned as king with a crown of thorns, dressed in a royal robe and lifted up with his royal title nailed above his head on the cross. Strangely, shockingly, God became king, and it looked like that!

This is the gospel: that the crucified Jesus is God’s king. But it doesn’t end there.

This rule, this kingdom, this king, doesn’t take opposition lying down. The Gospel doesn’t end with a dead king on a cross, but with an empty tomb and the promise of a living king. The enemies of God’s rule don’t get the last word. The crucified Jesus is alive again.
I've seen some odd images of Jesus, and this one is up there. Fifteen points for guessing the location of this piece and up to twenty for the link to the best/strangest/most intriguing image of Jesus.
Series so far: I; II; III; IV; V.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Proverb of the week I

Like a maniac who shoots deadly
         firebrands and arrows,
so is one who decieves a neighbour
     and says, "I am only joking!"
                                 - Proverbs 26.18-19

The gospel: what is it? II

Your God reigns!
Yesterday I began a new series about the gospel, the good news, that lies at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus, what it means to be his church. The attempt to articulate this message to a changing world is one of the chief occupations of the Christian community. It has taken many forms. But each generation must return to the Scriptures to discover it again.

There is one image that consistently comes up when biblical authors speak of 'good news' or 'gospel'. Here’s a classic example in the prophet Isaiah hundreds of years before the time of Jesus:

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news [or 'who tell the gospel'], who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings [or 'who tell the gospel'], who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”

-Isaiah 52.7

Bringing good news, telling the gospel, is here parallelled with proclaiming peace or proclaiming salvation. But what is the message that promises peace? What is the announcement that will mean salvation? It’s there at the end of the verse: “Your God reigns!” The God of Israel reigns as king. This was the newsflash, the glad tidings, the joyful announcement that, according to Isaiah, lay at the heart of any hope for peace or salvation

God is king. God in charge. This was Isaiah's gospel. In our suspicious and democratic age, we mightn’t think of a power claim as good news. In fact, it might seem like bad news. Another attempt to take control, more fighting. Don’t we need less of this, not more? How can this mean peace?

In fact, the Roman emperors would send out their ‘gospel’ when they won a battle or fathered an heir: “Good news – there will be peace because I have secured my reign!” But, of course, it was only good news to some. Although Caesar may have been better than anarchy (and whenever the Empire dissolved into civil war, everyone remembered how much better Caesar was), God isn’t like Caesar, squashing all opposition into submission. His rule is not built on the edge of a sword.

Nevertheless, we're suspicious of power, having seen it all-too-often misused. Indeed, we're especially suspicious of religious people talking about power at the moment. Fundamentalism, whether Islamic or Christian, is the new 'f' word.

But we need to ask how God reigns. What kind of a king is he? How does he use his power? How did he rise to power? This good news, this gospel isn’t simply a general principle, always and everywhere true. It’s a specific and disputable claim. It is news, an announcement of a new state of affairs. Neither Isaiah (nor Christians) are simply saying: “Hey God is the king - accept it!”
Speaking of beauty and mountains, five points for each link to other pictures of beautiful mountains on this blog. No more than one attempt per person.
Series so far: I; II; III; IV; V.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

On prayer

Prayer begins in silence. This is because we do not know God unless he speaks first. There can only be a conversation because he has taken the initiative. Left to ourselves, we invent gods of our own wishes and fears, but the good news is that God has spoken to us in his Son. We are not left in the dark, but can respond to his gracious invitation to relationship with him as our heavenly Father. If he had not reached out to us in our need, then we would be ignorant of both the true nature and depth of our need and the identity of the one whom we might call upon to help.

Of course, sometimes our needs are so pressing that all we can do is cry that most basic of prayers: ‘Save me, Lord!’ And the Scriptures promise that ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (Joel 2.32; Acts 2.21; Romans 10.13). Yet it is not just any lord to whom we fly in our distress, but to the God and Father of Jesus. As we come to know him, we also grow in our understanding of ourselves and the depth of our dependence upon him.

Our prayers are profoundly shaped by our conception of God. If God is a cosmic Santa Claus, we will bring our shopping list. If he is a harsh and distant judge, then our pleas will be fearful, brief and infrequent. And so to grow in prayer, it is important to remember again the good news about Jesus and allow our prayers to be moulded by God as he truly is.

First, God is the creator to whom we owe our existence and all we have. Every good thing comes from him, and so it is right that our prayers be filled with adoration. And not just when things are good. The Psalms are filled with examples of David and others continuing to praise God in the midst of danger and suffering (Psalms 5, 73, 77, 86 and many others).

When we face our own strife and failure it is usually partially self-caused and partially the result of circumstances outside our control. To the extent that we are at fault for our own pain, it is God whom we have ultimately offended and so it is also right that we confess our errors in our prayers: whether large or small, public or private, in word or deed – or even through not doing what we ought to have done. At this point, knowing the heart of God to whom we confess makes all the difference. This is the one who is ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Exodus 34.6), the one whose Son lived, died and rose to secure our forgiveness.

Not only has God given us life and all the good things we enjoy, but in Jesus he has also brought new life to all of us living in the shadow of death. This includes both release from guilt and the gift of the Spirit to set us free from the compulsion to do evil. In Christ, we are adopted as God’s children and let in on God’s plan to set everything right through Christ. We have so much for which to give thanks in our prayers and so it is no surprise that Paul tells the Thessalonians to ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’ (1 Thessalonians 5.16-18)

Yet we know that everything is not yet right. Jesus has risen from the dead and we follow his path with the help of the Spirit, but death still interrupts, sins still entangle. Paul told the Christians in Rome that the whole world groans for the day when what was begun at Easter for Jesus is finished for all creation (Romans 8.18-23). And we also groan, yearning for the day when Jesus will return to bring life and peace once and for all to his dying and war-torn world. Such prayers might consist of ‘sighs too deep for words’ (Romans 8.26-27) or they might simply cry ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ (Revelation 22.20)

And so that leaves us today, cleansed from our past, eagerly waiting for the future, and living each day relying on God for all our needs. Consequently, we ask for daily bread from the one who fed Israel in the wilderness and who gives good things abundantly even to those who ignore him (Matthew 5.45). We need not be embarrassed about asking from one who loves to give. But neither ought we fear asking: ‘Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.’ (Psalm 37.4) If our delight is in God, the desires of our heart will be shaped to be his desires and so he will satisfy them with more than we can ask or imagine.

There is power in prayer, but it is not ours; it is God’s. Prayer is not a magic formula giving us access to a secret and mysterious force. Prayer is an admission of our impotence and need, and of God’s generosity and strength. The more we know him as we hear and obey the good news about Jesus, the more our prayers will be filled with adoration, confession, thanksgiving, groaning and requests.

And the more we will pray.
Twelve points for the first to correctly name the location of the each photo.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The gospel: what is it? I

What are Christians trying to say?
The good news (or 'gospel') about Jesus is foundational to the life of the Christian community and determines what it means to be his disciple. Yet like many other crucial terms ('love', 'faith', even 'God') we can feel stuck when asked to define it. But attempting to do so explicitly can be a good exercise, even if you're not sure you believe it - or are sure that you don't! If you don't feel confident enough to hazard an attempt in the comments, try to write down on paper in a sentence or two what you think the heart of the Christian message is.

Of course, there are many ways of summarising the gospel, but the term doesn't refer to everything that is taught in the Bible or accepted as Christian tradition. It has specific content. There are many implications and applications flowing from it, but what is the basic claim that forms the core of what Christians are on about?

This is the start of a new series based on a sermon I gave on Sunday titled 'Words of Love'.* It will be structured around three questions: (a) what is the gospel? (b) how is it good news? and (c) how is it good news?
*This sermon was itself was the first of a four-week series on 'our mission'. You can listen to the mp3 if you'd rather not read the rest of these posts, or if you want to get a head start on thinking about comments!
Twelve points for the first to correctly guess the English location. Series so far: I; II; III; IV; V.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Living Out Scripture meme

I've been tagged by Jason and Frank to post "that verse or story of scripture which is important to you, which you find yourself re-visiting time after time". This meme was started by andygoodliff, and was inspired by an interesting quote from David Ford that he records.

Like everyone else, I could have listed many passages: Psalm 1; 23; 27; 40; 137; Isaiah 40-44.8; Ezekiel 37.1-14; Daniel 7.1-14; Matthew 5.3-10; Mark 16.1-8; John 1.1-18; Romans 5.12-21; 1 Corinthians 15 (esp vv. 21-28); Philippians 2.5-11; Colossians 1.15-20; Revelation 21.1-5 - and if I kept thinking, I'm sure there would quickly be more. But anyone who has been reading this blog for a while will probably not be surprised that I have picked this one:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

- Romans 8.18-24

Hope, suffering, groaning, resurrection, the liberation and renewal of creation: these themes have helped structure this blog (to the extent that a slowly growing collection of thoughts with an eschatological flavour has structure). I have discussed this passage at length and it has often been near at hand. Amongst other things this passage reminds us that there is more to God's world than us (grounding a form of evangelical environmentalism), that suffering for now is normal (undermining any idea of a prosperity gospel, yet giving a solid basis to perseverence), that hope means groaning and yearning (contra apathy or any form of quietism), that resurrection is the content of our -and creation's - hope (affirming the goodness of the created order and yet the necessity for transformative renewal), that the Spirit also groans (overturning some common ideas about God) and that freedom and glory lie in the future (overcoming despair).

I tag:
Andrew (= John 11), Benjamin, Craig, Drew (= Mark 9.24), Mandy (= Romans 5.1-11), Michael (= Colossians 1.15-20) and Rachel (= Revelation 21.1-5).
Eight points for guessing the body of water.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Transformers: substantially less than meets the eye

Speaking of films, on Friday night I saw Transformers. A mistake, I confess.

I was all ready to find references to the energy crisis in the Allspark (powerful forces pursuing a huge energy source to a distant land and turning it into a battle ground), or perhaps a Christ-figure in Optimus Prime (one of the cooler names from my childhood spent watching animations). But instead we had the usual advertisement for the military (Hollywood directors get to use expensive toys if they they let the US military turn the script into a recruitment drive) and yet another make-your-enemies-pay account of redemptive violence.

A friend with whom I saw the film (who shall retain his anonymitiy until I need a chance to name and shame) dared me to write a blog post titled "Transformers: fact or fiction?" and pose the question whether there might not actually be robots in disguise amongst us. But there's no need for discussion. The Allspark is not buried in Hoover Dam; he walks amongst us (or, more usually, flies above us). More commonly known as Steven Spielberg, his touch can instantly turn two hours of slush into a millions of dollars.
Fifteen points for the first to correctly name all three locations in the linked pictures.

Amazing Grace: now I see

On Thursday night, I went with a group from church to see Amazing Grace, the new-ish film about William Wilberforce and the abolition of the British slave trade around the turn of the 19th century. I'd read a number of lukewarm reviews and so my expectations were suitably dimmed. But it was good. Twenty years of parliamentary debate may not be everyone's idea of a thrilling plot, but the figure of Wilberforce holds it together. At age 21, he was the youngest ever MP and until his retirement 45 years later he never lost an election. During that time, he was involved in penal reform, helped secure better working better conditions for child labourers in England’s mills and factories, was active in setting up orphanages and worked for the welfare of single mothers, sailors, and soldiers. He helped found (what later became) the RSPCA, the Bible Society, National Gallery, Royal Institution for the Pursuit of Science and the Church Missionary Society. He helped abolish the religious test keeping Roman Catholics, nonconformists and Jews out of parliament and universities. He intervened to ensure there was a chaplain, Richard Johnson, on the First Fleet to Australia in 1788 (see Meredith's blog for much more discussion of Richard Johnson). And he regularly gave away an estimated one quarter of his considerable annual income to around 69 philanthropic causes.

But he is best remembered for his long campaign against British transatlantic slavery, a struggle in which he fought against the economic prosperity and military security of the empire, and which pioneered many tactics now familiar to contemporary political campaigners for swaying public opinion. During it all, and facing powerful opponents, death threats, chronic ill-health and accusations of sedition (advocating for the downtrodden was dangerous when revolution was in the air in France and elsewhere), he was inspired and sustained by his faith in Christ.

Wilberforce was an evangelical, a term much used and abused today. But traditional doctrines such as the corruption of humanity, the atoning work of Jesus and the transforming power of the Spirit were crucial in his motivation and goals.

I suspect that were he around today he would be told to keep his faith out of politics.
For those who want a good lecture on Wilberforce, try Sandy Grant's recent talk.
Points hint: this is the same Sydney suburb as this picture. I'm sure that will be very helpful.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Aliases, or being gross on the net

Perhaps it has been a failure of this blog that I haven't seemed to have attracted much noisy opposition. Otherwise I might have commented earlier on the phenomenon of people using anonymity or an alias to launch a virtual attack on a blog or discussion board, taking the opportunity to say things they would never say face to face, or if their names were going to be attached to the comment. There are occasional circumstances in which the anonymity of the internet allows positive interactions which might not otherwise take place, but in general, the discipline of being held accountable for my words is a positive restraint. Similarly, although I enjoy the creative images people often use on their profile, offering a face to a name is a further incentive to align behaviour on the net with the rest of life.*
*On this final point, I make an exception for the ever-gracious Ben Myers, who, after years of consumption, does actually look like a cup of fine coffee.
Fifteen points for the city in which this delightfully-named establishment can be found.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

August points table

Starting back in June and continuing in July, I have been keeping a monthly points tally in addition to the overall scoreboard. I'll again award bonus prizes for those who topped the month. So ten points to Jonathan, five to Matthew Moffitt, three to Andrew and one to JRS. Overall leader Anthony also picks up another eight for correctly guessing the winner at the eleventh hour.

The competition for August is now officially open complete:

43: Hecta
24: Poncho
23: Donna
15: Dave Saxey, Matthew Moffitt
13: Martin Kemp
12: Michael Canaris, Michael Jensen
8: James
5: Anthony, Tiger
2: Lara
There are, at this point, over 300 points already available for the taking, plus many more to be offered in the coming weeks.
Eight points for the first to predict correctly the ultimate winner of the August points table. One guess per person. You may not nominate yourself. Five more points for correctly naming the building in the above image.

Hurtado on early devotion to Jesus

How did Jesus become a god?
Last night I went to Macquarie University with some friends from church to hear Professor Larry Hurtado from the University of Edinburgh offer a one-off seminar on Early devotion to Jesus. It was an excellent summary of reams of material from his enormous Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (2003) and his more recent popularisation How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus.

The key claim put forward during the evening was that astonishing devotion to Jesus started almost immediately amongst Jewish believers in Jerusalem, rather than being a later development of more Hellenized Gentile converts from, say, Antioch. Hurtado claimed that more christological innovations occurred within the first handful of years after Jesus' death than in the subsequent seven centuries of theological debate during which orthodoxy was hammered out. Saul of Tarsus, for instance, was already persecuting followers of the Way for their deviant devotion to Jesus by the mid-30s.

Such devotion was not restricted to theological affirmations holding Jesus to be Israel's Messiah (and more), but was also expressed in a range of devotional practices unique amongst the Judaism of the time, such as singing hymns about Jesus, the invocation and confession of his name, prayer through and in the name of Jesus (and even occasionally to Jesus), the ritual use of his name in baptism, the sacred common meal at which Jesus was believed to preside ('the Lord's table') and prophecy in the name of Jesus (cf. Deuteronomy 13 and 17 on what to do with prophets who speak in the name anyone other than YHWH). The inclusion of Jesus with God in such corporate devotional practices was the largest discontinuity with contemporary Jewish worship for the nascent Messianic fellowship. Examples abound of second temple texts in which angelic beings eschew worship (including, for example, Revelation 19.10), so the fact that the Lamb receives it (Revelation 5.13) distinguished him from all other divine agents for the early Christians.

Yet this was no Greco-Roman apotheiosis of an outstanding individual, no addition to a pantheon of gods, since Jesus was worshipped by monotheists who continued to claim the label. Jesus was not to be worshipped apart from the Father, he had no special times or places, no separate altars or cultus, and his titles place him in reference to the Father: Son, Word, Image. Indeed, the claim of early Christians was that offering worship to Jesus was the new divinely-mandated way of worshipping aright the one God (cf. John 5.23).

At the same time, the form and focus of the canonical Gospels emphase that the one receiving the worship is the same human figure who was put to death by Pilate. This is in contrast with, for example, the Gospel of Thomas, which shows almost no interest in Jesus' historical setting and experience.

After some discussion of the social and political implications of devotion to Jesus for the early Christians (a topic overlooked in his 2003 tome, but which the shorter book treats briefly), Professor Hurtado finished his presentation with an extended discussion of Christian iconography in the second and early third century. This was both the most novel and most speculative aspect of the seminar, being only distantly related chronologically and thematically to the rest of his material. I might post more on it later.
Five points for the name of the building in the top image and its (tenuous) link to 'early' Christian devotion. Second photo by HCS.