Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Archbishop Herft on women and the Bible

The Most Rev Roger Herft, Anglican Archbishop of Perth, made headlines in Australia a few weeks ago for likening the dominant view in the Sydney Diocese of women's ordination (i.e. against) with some widely reported controversial comments from Sheikh Taj El-Deen El-Hilali, Mufti of Australia. If you were disappointed with the Archbishop's actions a few weeks ago, it is worth reading his clarification and apology. Whether or not you agree with his comments about biblical interpretation, his initiatives towards reconciliation and ongoing dialogue with Sydney despite differences are commendable.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The End of Suburbia III

Peak Oil: Denial
As I mentioned recently, I've begun a short series to think theologically about at least one aspect of Peak Oil.
Another good introduction can be found here, and for an excellent and accessible introduction including some Christian reflections, see here.

In my previous post, I briefly laid out the problem - a huge global economic downturn. The assumption of infinite potential growth requires the possibility of ever expanding energy. While there may be many other sources of energy we haven't yet considered or discovered how best to harness,* part of the issue is that there may be insufficient time to develop these. And even if the more optimistic estimates of some oil companies are accurate, we have only a few decades left. Weaning the global economy off oil and changing our assumptions about the extravagant use of energy might take that long. So even if the dire predictions prove false, there are still good reasons to be thinking about this issue today.
*A number of celebrated alternative energy sources actually require more energy input than they yield! Even those that generate a net gain are nowehere near as efficient as oil. There is no silver bullet single solution.

There are many sites that summarise the arguments over this issue (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on),* and many more that make excellent suggestions about practical ways forward (Rev Sam recently composed a list of 11 pledges - worth a look).
*Let me know if I've missed your favourite site. There are many.

These discussions are important and I recommend gaining at least a little knowledge of the key factors involved. However, it is my contention that any 'solution' must first be theological because the problem first raised for most people when faced with some of the hard statistics is either denial or despair. I will deal with the latter in my next post. The former, when accompanied by a willingness to look closely at the arguments, is healthy up to a point, though becomes problematic when it reverts to blind faith in the market or some other talisman of protection.

For Christians, there is of course another kind of blind faith: that God would not let something so catastrophic occur. However, this too is blind faith without scriptural support. The fact is that God has and does allow civilisations to decline or self-destruct. Jeremiah warned against the blind faith of his compatriots in the temple, soon to be destroyed by the Babylonians, along with the nation itself. Jesus had a similar message for nationalists in his day. Many Christians in the time of Augustine believed that the "Christian" Roman Empire could not fail, so he spent much of City of God relativising the pretensions of Rome to immortality. After the fall of the Western empire, populations in many areas of Western Europe halved. The same area again lost between one and two thirds of its population during the Black Death, which was also accompanied by widespread social breakdown. To mention just one more example, perhaps a small-scale parable for Peak Oil can be found in the history of Easter Island. Ongoing de-forestation (amongst other factors) - at least partially to continue the production and installation of the enormous stone statues for which the island is famous - led to the collapse of a thriving civilisation and a population reduction of about 90% over a century.

Just as there is no reason the church ought to jump on the latest bandwagon and endorse every passing fad, there is also nothing pious about blind denial. If 'business as usual' is less the giddy sensation of flying through endless economic growth and more a deadly freefall, then the church ought not to ignore these issues. I am no expert and could be wrong, but I suspect the issues are worth more than a passing glance. Even if there are decades of cheap oil left, rather than years, our present energy-rich lifestyle is both unsustainable and unable to be extrapolated to the rest of the world. Wasteful excess may be passed off by the rich as a celebration of God's provision, but if the rich eat all the food before the poor arrive, then are we 'show[ing] contempt for the church of God and humiliat[ing] those who have nothing'? It is at least worth asking the question.

I have used this quote before, but it is worth repeating:

‘Eschatology is not a doctrine about history’s happy end…. No one can assure us that the worst will not happen. According to all the laws of experience: it will. We can only trust that even the end of the world hides a new beginning if we trust the God who calls into being the things that are not, and out of death creates new life.’

- Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God , 234.

Series so far: I; II; III, IV.
Ten points for the location of this sign.

Monday, November 27, 2006

In the image of God

Kim Fabricius is at it again. The ten point theologian who haunts Ben Myers's Faith and Theology has offered his most stimulating contribution to date: ten propositions on being human. Poetic and insightful, they are worth a read (although a warning that some of them assume some background in theology).
I was about to also make a few critical remarks in addition to one or two points I made in the comments, but have since realised that D. W. Congdon (from The Fire and the Rose) has already made them (here).

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Farewell to MTC

Finally divine
After four years, and roughly 80,000 words of assignments, 90 hours of exams, 300 hours of chapel, 600 hours of communal meals and 1,500 lectures, I am finally divine (I have always assumed that was the goal of a Bachelor of Divinity). Four years at Moore Theological College have brought many friends, much fun, more than a few tears, a few extra kilos, lots of great reading, and an ever growning awareness of how far there is to go in every conceivable direction.

For the first time in twenty-three years, I will not be part of an educational institution (either studying or teaching). The dizzying open horizons and lack of little lunch scare me.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Hauerwas on just war and pacificism

While we think just warrior are wrong, they might not be - another way of saying that we think the just war position as articulated by an Augustine or a Paul Ramsey is a significant challenge to our own Christian pacificism and is theological to its core. Just warriors and pacificists within the Christian church must be committed to continued engagements that teach them not only to recognize their differences but also their similarities, similarities that make them far more like one another than the standard realists' accounts of war that rule our contemporary culture and that have taken a firm hold in the church.

- Stanley Hauerwas, 'Courage Exemplified' in The Hauerwas Reader, 303.

I thought Stanley might offer an apt reminder in these conflicts over how Christians can conflict. Keep it up everyone.

Heaven in the rear-view mirror: Links

As requested, here are all the links to the series on heaven.
I: Heaven: don't worry it's not the end of the world
II: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth
IIa: Life and afterlife: quote and reflections
III: God is in his heaven...
IV: Heaven help us!
V: Heavenly salvation: origin, not destination
VI: Citizens of heaven
VII: Heaven is a place on earth
VIII: New heavens and new earth
IX: The Christian hope: The Resurrection of the Dead
X: Images of the future
XI: The end of the world: replacement or renewal?
XII: Spirituality as groaning
XIII: Aliens and strangers
XIV: Seeing God
XV: Series summary
XVI: Implications, or why matter matters
A few people have asked about the intermediate state and pastoral questions frequently asked. I will try to post something of a postscript on such things soonishly. A friend at college (Tony) has recently completed 15,000 words on such things and so I'll go and have a read, now that I have finished college (as of today!).
Thanks to Matt for doing most of the legwork on these links.
UPDATE: I do still intend to write something about the intermediate state, but other circumstances have delayed me for the moment. I will come back to this.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Must Christians be pacifists? III

A series by Andrew Errington
III: The cross and the wrath of God
I have been arguing that governing authorities who “bear the sword” are a God-given provision for this age, servants of God who provisionally and imperfectly reflect his final judgment on the last day. This does not weaken Jesus’ ethic of non-resistance and nonviolence for the Christian community. “Judge not,” says our Lord; and we dare not disregard his warning. Yet it does mean that “within the New Testament the sphere of public judgment [that is, the determinations of right and wrong made and enforced by political authority] constitutes a carefully circumscribed and specially privileged exception to a general prohibition of judgment” (Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment, 99). Within this carefully circumscribed sphere the use of “violence” (in some sense) to forcefully enact judgments cannot be ruled out as categorically wrong.

A clear view of the wrath of God is central to this argument. Without it, Christian ethics are unintelligible. The wrath of God means Christians must not resist the evildoer, but instead love their enemies and overcome evil with good; and it means governing authorities must resist the evildoer, bearing the sword with justice.

This position remains deeply Christocentric. It is because Jesus himself will one day return to judge the living and the dead that we may contemplate the ways of judgment here and now. Yet it is perhaps a less cross-centred ethics than that advocated by Kim Fabricius (see Part I). Previously, Kim has described Jesus as “the hermeneutical criterion of all scripture” (Propositions on peace and war: a postscript Yet his arguments seem to go further and see the cross as the hermeneutical criterion for all that Jesus is, and so all that God is. A similar idea was hinted at by Ben Myers when, in his wonderful Theology for beginners series, he described Jesus’ resurrection in this way: “God took this dead man through death into new life, into the life of God’s future. Precisely as a dead man, he lived! Precisely as the Crucified One, he became the Risen One!” (Theology for beginners (7): Resurrection, my italics). What does this mean? Does it imply that the death of Jesus is the definitive moment in God such that anything that cannot be said of God at this moment cannot rightly be said at all?

The not-quite-pacifist position diverges at this point because of the conviction that the death of Jesus is not the final thing to say about God. The one who was crucified is now exalted as Lord and will return. To be sure, he still bears the marks of the nails in his hands, but these now show not only his surrender to death but his defeat of it. Now Jesus reigns, and he must do so “until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:24). If what we have to say about God is at odds with this Jesus, then, too, we may end up with a “decaf theology” (see Propositions on peace and war: a postscript). "As the cross is not the sum of how Jesus 'went about doing good,' so neither is the command 'follow me' exhaustively accounted for by the words: 'when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.'" (O’Donovan, The Just War Revisited, 11).
I’d like to thank Kim for this opportunity to enter into conversation with one whose knowledge and imagination far exceeds my own. I hope some of my thoughts have been half as interesting as his have been for me. Series: I; II; III.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Heaven: not the end of the World XVI

Implications, or why matter matters
Going to heaven when you die is not the biblical Christian hope. Instead, in the light of Jesus' resurrection, Christians are to hope for the transforming presence of God that brings new life to the dead and an end to all that is wrong and warped in creation.

Having recently summarised the main points of this series, I wanted to suggest a few reasons why it is important. What difference does this make? To get us started, I'd like to suggest seven. I'd love to hear more.

1. Creation and redemption are not fundamentally opposed
The same God who made the world has acted in Christ and the Spirit to save it. The world was made through Christ and was redeemed through that same Christ (Colossians 1.15-20). We must reject any gnostic or Marcionite division between Creator and Redeemer. The church is not the opposite of the world; it is the imperfect foretaste of the world's true destiny.

2. God has not abandoned his good creation
If we await our redemption from the world, rather than the redemption of the world, then it would appear that God, having called his creation 'good, very good', has given up and is ready to consign it to the garbage. God's power and faithfulness are called into question by any escapist eschatology. However, the God with the power to call things which are not into existence is the same God who raises the dead (Rom 4.17).

3. God says 'yes' to life
His 'no' of judgement is only to be understood within an overarching 'yes' to Christ, to humanity, to his world, to life. God is unashamedly positive about all that is good in the world: 'yes' to love, to laughter, to sharing, to sex, to food, to fun, to music, to matter. It is because he loves the world that he will not put up with its present disfigurements.

4. What we do with our bodies and the planet matters
Not because we can create the kingdom of God or sculpt our resurrection bodies now, but because God cares for them. Bodies and the broader environment in which they find their place are good gifts, worth caring for. Just as our obedience will never be complete in this age, yet we keep thanking, trusting and loving God, so our care for creation is presently an imperfectible, yet unavoidable, responsibility and privilege. We must therefore also reject any dualism that opposes 'spiritual' with 'physical'. To be truly spiritual is to be enlivened, empowered, cleansed and directed by the Holy Spirit of life, who is the midwife our birth (Job 33.4) and our rebirth (Tit 3.5), and the midwife of the world's birth (Gen 1.2) and rebirth (Rom 8.22-23).

5. Humanity as humanity matters
When the Word took flesh, he came as one of us. He remains one of us. We are not saved from our humanity, but are made more fully human. We await resurrection as humans. Nothing that is truly human is to finally perish (though all must be transformed). This makes human endeavour and relationships noble, even while they remain tragically flawed. Christians remain humans first, giving us much still in common with our neighbours. 'Secular' work in God's good world is not to be despised or treated merely instrumentally. Neither is art, or education, or healthcare, or agriculture, or science, or industry, or government. There is much about these activities that will not endure, and much that requires reform; yet these tasks all participate as part of what it is to be a human creature.

6. Difference is not necessarily sin
The Neoplatonic vision of creation and redemption is one in which an original unity degenerates into plurality before returning back to the source, the One. Not only does the doctrine of the Trinity undermine such a way of thinking about the world, but the fact that we await the resurrection of ourselves and our world in all its/our wonderful diversity and beauty also involves the rejection of this common assumption. We do not need to all be the same.

7. Our knowledge of God is not otherworldly
However hidden, confused, partial and dim it might presently be, one day creation 'will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.' (Isa 11.9; cf. Hab 2.14). The fullness of God's deity dwells bodily in Christ (Col 2.9). The home of God is to be with humans (Rev 21.3). Having a body, using language, being situated in a specific cultural context, being gendered: none of these are barriers to the knowledge of God. While each has been problematised by sin in various ways, we must not confuse finitude with fallenness. To seek knowledge of God, one does not need to transcend creaturehood.
Aside: Maybe the prohibition against visual images under the old covenant was not because the God of Israel was simply an idea, or simply invisible, but to prevent the pre-emptive summons of his presence through a human re-presentation. God is not at our beck and call, but sovereignly presents himself in his own good time through his Word and Spirit - which blows where it will.

So much more could be said about each of these points, and perhaps there are some more series to come here. But for now, I will draw this series to a close. To be a friend of God is to be a friend of creation, of humanity, of life - the kind of friend that hates what is evil, clings to what is good, that is not overcome by evil, but overcomes evil with good (Rom 12.9, 21).
Series: I; II; IIa; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X; XI; XII; XIII; XIV; XV; XVI.
Ten points for the first to link back to the post that pictured the same structure as above.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Must Christians be pacifists? II

A series by Andrew Errington
II: Violence and the judgment of God
The argument for Christian pacifism finds its basis in the nonviolence of God: “unless the opponents of pacifism can demonstrate a violent streak in Jesus himself… their case is like espresso without caffeine – it lacks the essential ingredient.” (Propositions on peace and war: a postscript)

But is there violence in Jesus? The suggestion seems repellent; yet we must remember that there are New Testament texts which seem to say exactly that. The Lord Jesus will be “revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not obey the gospel…” (2 Thess 1:7-8). And the idea of the wrath of God is central to New Testament discussion of God’s future, providing the rationale for Christian non-resistance: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (Rom 12:19).

But does this entail violence? The imagery in 2 Thessalonians is certainly powerful. Yet there are reasons to hesitate. As many have pointed out, when we look at the images of God’s judgment in the Apocalypse they are often ironic and self-defeating. The Lion of Judah goes Baa! The army of conquest is led by the Prince of martyrs! The rider on the white horse strikes with a sword, but it is a sword that comes (as a word) from his mouth! Will God’s vengeance be violent? Perhaps we are best to remain agnostic at this point. It is perilous to speak too concretely about realities that are more than a little beyond us.

Does this mean that a firm argument against pacifism is impossible? Not necessarily. Contrary to Kim’s assertion, those who argue against absolute pacifism do not need to demonstrate that there is violence in God, but only that the identity of God in the final judgment is not incompatible with some forms of human violence in the present. The not-quite-pacifist believes that the execution of judgments by force in this present age is a necessary reflection of God’s final judgment, albeit a reflection as in a glass darkly. The return of Christ may not involve violence per se; but it will involve the wrath of God; and this is the basis for the fearful task of provisionally and imperfectly executing judgments by force. This is the lot of the governing authority, who “does not bear the sword in vain,” but is “the minister of God to execute his [i.e. God’s] wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4). The ruler who thinks she can execute God’s wrath in this age without some kind of forceful punishment has, perhaps, too lofty a view of her capabilities.
Series: I; II; III. Ten points for guessing who is depicted in this relief.

The End of Suburbia II

Peak Oil: the problem
Last night I went to a screening of the Peak Oil documentary The End of Suburbia held by Barneys. If the calculations of many experts are right, somewhere in the next 5 to 10 years (or perhaps it is happening even now), the world will reach and pass maximum oil production.* The economic consequences of this could well be devastating, since increasing demand meeting dwindling supply means rapidly rising prices. This doesn't just mean it costs more and more to run your car (today's prices will be remembered as cheap), but it costs more and more to run everything.
*Two sobering points: the 'peak' of oil discovery came in the 1960s and every year since the early 80s the world has used more oil than it has discovered.

In particular, the documentary focussed on the Western world's short-sighted decision after WWII to invest gigantic amounts of wealth into the task of suburbanisation: the construction of a way of life built around the private automobile. Many aspects of this investment are now looking highly problematic.

But it's not just the suburban middle class who will feel the pinch. In fact, the entire global economy as we know it is based on the assumption of cheap access to energy. For example, most of our food is grown, processed, stored and transported using energy from oil, not to mention all the petrochemicals used in pesticides and fertilisers. And before we start talking about alternative sources of energy, it is worth noting that nothing that we now have, or will have in the next decade (new technologies take time to research and implement, even where a 'market adjustment' in the price of oil makes research increasingly attractive) comes close to the efficiency and ubiquity of oil. Blind faith in the market's ability to cope misses the huge amounts of energy required to keep the various 'stalls' of the market open.

So what are we to do?
This is the first in a series of four or five posts of my reflections upon both the film and the issues it raises. I realise there are many great sites out there, including many Christans writing about it (more links to come). However, I will seek to give a theological analysis of the problem and its possible 'solutions'. Ten points for the artist and title. Series so far: I; II; III, IV.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Who am I?

I'm a scribbling, cigar-smoking, wine-drinking, Bible-reading band man. A show off who loves to paint pictures of what I can't see. A husband, father, friend of the poor and sometimes the rich. An activist travelling salesman of ideas. Chess player, part-time rock star, opera singer, in the loudest folk group in the world.
Ten points for guessing who said this in an interview in response to being asked 'who are you?'. Whether you love him or hate him, check this out.
UPDATE: Seems like he's got something new to add to his self-description. H/T Elwyn.

Must Christians be pacifists? I

A new series by Andrew Errington
I: The Shalomite position
In a number of recent posts (1, 2, 3) on Ben Myers’ superb Faith and Theology, Kim Fabricius has argued clearly and forcefully that Christians ought to be pacifists, or what he has recently called Shalomites. The reasoning for this position should be read in Kim’s original stimulating posts; but briefly, his argument runs along the following lines.

Christian ethics flow from our understanding of who God is; and we know who God is above all through the cross. There we see God not ruling with a rod of iron, but humbling himself unto death. Therefore, nonviolence is essential to Christian discipleship, because, “it is the very heart of our understanding of God.” (Stanley Hauerwas, quoted in Why I am a Shalomite). As Kim himself puts it: “You see I am a Shalomite – and I believe that at least all Christians and, in principle, all people should be Shalomites… because of something I know about Jesus’ (William Willimon) and because of something Jesus knows about God: namely, that God is a God of Shalom, that (to adapt what St John says about God and light and darkness) God is non-violent and in him there is no violence at all.” (Why I am a Shalomite).

Thus, “[T]he Christian pacifist argument turns on the nature of the triune God; and the normative criterion of the nature of the triune God is the Christ event… If there is violence in this God – in this Jesus – the case for pacifism falls.” (Propositions on peace and war: a postscript).

God cannot be other than who he is in Jesus Christ. Since there is no violence in Jesus, there is no violence in God. Old Testament references to a violent deity must therefore be viewed in a new light, and cannot be made to prop up an ethic which lacks the essential ingredient: a Christological basis. In the light of the nonviolence of God in Jesus, Christians are compelled to be nonviolent themselves.

But is it true to say that there is no violence in God? Does the pacifist position innevitably end up with a Jesus who dies but is not then exalted? This is where we are headed.
Andrew is an old uni friend of mine. He will continue this series over the coming days in between whatever else I manage to post while preparing for my final exam. As mentioned earlier, I remain fascinatedly undecided on these issues. Ten points for the city in which this statue can be found. Series: I; II; III.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


I lately lost a preposition;
It hid, I thought, beneath my chair,
And angrily I cried, "Perdition!
Up from out of in under there."
Correctness is my vade mecum,
And straggling phrases I abhor,
And yet I wondered, "What should he come
Up from out of in under there for?"
You may have seen this before, but I enjoyed it. Anyone know who wrote it?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

O'Donovan on the church's role in society

An effective church with an effective ministry, in holding out the word of life, than which there is no other human good within the world or outside it, will render assistance to the political functions in societry by forwarding the social good which they exist to defend. But that is to take the very longest view of the relationship. In holding out the word of life, an effective church with an effective ministry issues the call "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!" And so in the short, the medium, and even the penultimate term the presence of the church in political society can be a disturbing factor, as those who first thought Christianity worth persecuting understood quite well. It presents a counter-political moment in social existence; it restrains the thirst for judgment; it points beyond the boundaries of political identity; it undermines received traditions of representation; it utters truths that question unchallenged public doctrines. It does all these things because it represents God's kingdom, before which the authorities and powers of this world must cast down their crowns, never to pick them up again.

- Oliver O'Donovan, Ways of Judgment, 292.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Beyond duty: the rewards of obedience

Is being good worth it?
I have recently had an experience that brought home to me very powerfully one of the main points of a college course I took last year in ethics. Broadly speaking, there are two ways of thinking about ethics: duty ethics and reward ethics (technically, these are called deontological ethics and teleological ethics).* Duty ethics says "I do it because it's right." Reward ethics says "I do it because I will be rewarded." Christians often think that the former is a better way of thinking than the latter. However, I want to suggest that while duty ethics can be useful when you are in a tight spot and don't have time to think (e.g. in the pressure of the moment, you remember that it is wrong to lie and so you tell the truth, even though you didn't have time to think about the consequences), that Christian ethics is actually closer to reward ethics.
*I realise that some thinkers distinguish between teleogical ethics and consequentialism and that what I have called reward ethics is closer to the latter. I'm going to skate right over that for now.

If God made the world, and made the world good, and if sin has not detroyed that goodness, though it might have scrambled it and hidden it somewhat, then obeying God is not simply a matter of "God said it, I believe it". It will also work. The 'reward' of obedience is to not be fighting against the good world, but 'going with the flow'. There is no need to justify obedience, you are simply lining up with reality, doing what is in one sense 'easiest' and 'normal'. Of course, our grasp on these concepts can be more than a little shaky at times because of the confusion that sin brings. Nonetheless, to obey is to work with the grain of the universe, not against it. Therefore, I don't simply obey because it is right (though that is also true), but because it is good, very good.

This may seem somewhat counterintuitive, but the important thing is to grasp the nature of the rewards I'm talking about. In the experience I mentioned earlier, a friend was struggling with two problems. The first was how to deal with someone who had repeatedly lied to him. The second was whether (in an unrelated context) to be honest. I tried to highlight the connections between these two situations. My friend knew what the right thing to do was, but knew that honesty would be very costly financially and possibly relationally (at least in the short term).

As I spoke to him, it came home powerfully to me that one of the blessings you get from being honest is being the kind of person who can tell the truth. A reward of faithfulness is becoming a trustworthy person. These are great blessings, rich rewards. No amount of money can buy them.
Ten points for naming the artist (correctly).

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


This is the most linked video today. And I can see why. Check it out.

Changing the wind: elections and social change

Why elections don't really matter

In our idolization of modern secular democracy we have imagined that, provided our leaders attain power by a popular vote, that’s all that matters, and that the only possible critique is to vote them out again next time round. The early Christians, and their Jewish contemporaries, weren’t particularly concerned with how people in power came to be in power; they were extremely concerned with speaking the truth to power, with calling the principalities and powers to account and reminding them that they hold power as a trust from the God who made the world and before whom they must stand to explain themselves.

-N. T. Wright, Where is God in 'the War on Terror'? H/T Hebel.

Leading up to the recent US mid-term elections, I noticed a number of insightful posts. This, combined with continuing to read Oliver O'Donovan has led me to realise that elections are quite peripheral to a well-functioning society. Democracy is a procedural system to ensure some measure of respresentation (which for O'Donovan has more to do with the populus seeing themselves in their leader than any idea of congruent proportions of genders, races, backgrounds, religions, etc), but the real heart of our political system ought to be free and open parliamentary debate, informed by a broader public debate, over the imperfectible task of pursuing the common good. Elections can actually impede this through emphasising partisanship at the expense of genuine inquiry into the common good.

Jim Wallis makes a similar point with less nuance (but more memorably) with his image of 'changing the wind' - elections simply exchange one set of politicians waving their fingers around in the air to see which way the wind is blowing for another. Changing the politicians doesn't make much difference. The point is to change the wind.

Actually, now I think of it, I've realised the fairly obvious point that Wallis and O'Donovan are both limiting the importance of elections but for quite different reasons. For Wallis, it's a pragmatic one: popular opinion is more important than the (nearly always derivative) opinions of politicians. This is a cynical admission that few politicians are willing to step out in front of the electorate and lead. For O'Donovan, it's because the pursuit of the common good is more important than the process used to select leaders to take us there. Less important than who is how they interact with each other and their constituents. O'Donovan therefore claims that it's not the ballot box that represents a free society, but parliamentary debate.
Ten points for naming specifically where I was standing to take this photo ('London' is not good enough - and is technically incorrect since this is part of the city of Westminster anyway).

Monday, November 13, 2006

The widow's mite (Mark 12.41-44)

An uncomfortable passage

And Jesus sat down opposite the temple treasury and watched the people throwing money into the treasury. Many rich people threw in large sums. And a poor widow came and threw in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, "Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has thrown in more than all those who are throwing into the treasury. For they all threw in of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has thrown in everything she had, her entire life." (Mark 12.41-44)
How many times have you heard a sermon extolling generosity based on this passage? If this poor little widow could give her little bit, though it cost her so much, how can we who are so wealthy not be giving more?

Now generosity is crucial and even giving till it hurts can be commendable (2 Cor 8.1-5), but I'm not convinced that this has very much to do with this passage. In fact, I wonder whether it mightn't be to turn the passage almost on its head!

The context of the passage is a section of Mark that begins with Jesus' triumphant arrival in Jerusalem in chapter 11 and which leads into his trial, passion and death. One of the major themes of this section, culminating in the temple veil being torn in two (Mark 15.38), is of a confrontation between Jesus and the Temple in Jerusalem. In particular, chapters 11 and 12 are filled with direct and indirect conflict. Jesus arrives with a bang, but having got to the temple, where we might expect fireworks, he almost dismisses it and goes home (11.1-11). The cursing of the fig tree (11.12-14, 20-24) is an image of the fruitless Temple, facing its own destruction, as is clear from the incident sandwiched in the middle: Jesus' dramatic actions in the Temple which disrupted the regular sacrifice (11.15-19). I suspect that this is more an enacted parable of destruction than a 'cleansing', but that is a discussion for another day. The next day, Jesus is again in the Temple, and there is a showdown with the Temple authorities ('the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders') over the source of his authority (11.27-33). Having evaded their question with one of his own, he then goes on the offensive, telling a biting parable about some tenants, which they correctly understand is about, and against, them (12.1-12). Their counteroffensive is a cunning trap of a question about taxes, which Jesus again uses to turn the tables on them (12.13-17). That Jesus asks them for a coin shows that they carry and use the idolatrous coins that bear the 'image' of a hated pagan deity (the emperor). The puny little 'image' of the emperor, the emperor can keep; but the image of God is to be given to God. The next round comes from the Sadducees and again Jesus emerges victorious while they are shown to be 'quite wrong' (12.18-27). After a brief rapprochement with one scribe, who is starting to get it (12.28-34), Jesus pushes forward the heart of his claim about the superiority of the messiah with a riddle from Psalm 110 (12.35-37). Throughout Mark 11 and 12, Jesus has been at the throat of the temple, revealing the corruption, impending judgment and subsequent obsolescence of the temple regime.

And so we come to our passage: not just Mark 12.41-44, but 12.38-44 since verses 38-40 are crucial for understanding the widow:
And in his teaching he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
When Jesus immediately then goes to watch what happens at the temple treasury (v.41), we have been prepared to see this for what it is: an illustration of how the scribes who run the temple are devouring the house of a widow, all she had to live on, indeed literally, 'her entire life'. Whether or not this was a 'freewill' offering or a compulsory payment, this temple system has eaten another widow. She has not just given until it hurts, but the temple has taken away her very life. There is no criticism of the widow, but neither is there simple commendation of her as an example of generosity. She is an innocent bystander, a casualty of the temple, pointlessly sacrificed by the very scribes who will soon go on to devour Jesus' life too.

Is it any wonder that having seen this heartwrenching scene of oppression, Jesus immediately lauches into his most furious and sustained attack on the temple, openly predicting its very destruction:
And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!" 2And Jesus said to him, "Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down."

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Benjamin on progress

"A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."
- Walter Benjamin, 'Theses on the philosophy of history' in Illuminations.
Image: Klee's Angelus Novus.

Friday, November 10, 2006

End of week links again

If you're a nerdy biblical studies type, then this has to be one of the funniest exchanges I've seen in a while. Read all the comments.

After a round of bookish theological influences (started by Ben here; mine; links to others), and then some novels, Aaron raised the bar, posting on his top 20 theological experiences. Ben followed suit, as did Frank.

Aaron also offers some Kids books for Christmas. Don't forget Billy the Punk - thoroughly recommended and a classic from 1996.

Great post from Ben Witherington on the recent election and Christian political responsibilities. I might get round to posting on this myself soon.

Free things in Sydney
The Other Inconvenient Truth - free screening at Barneys on Monday week (20th Nov; 7 for 7.30 screening). See also here. St Barnabas Church Offices (4/173-179 Broadway; enter from Mountain Street) Bring your own popcorn/snacks. All welcome.

Another great free activity, Sculpture by the Sea is always fun.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Where do all the teaspoons go?

Check it out: a longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute. Australian science at its best. I think I've just been converted to 'counterphenomenological resistentialism'.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Heaven: not the end of the World XV

Series summary
[Photo by Adrian Smith]
This series began by raising the question: "what does heaven have to do with the Christian hope?" Although many Christians think of going to heaven when you die, I suggested this is to significantly misunderstand the scriptural witness. 'Heaven' most frequently simply means that part of God's creation located physically above us; this is then often extended to refer symbolically to the location of God, and then to be a kind of reverential shorthand for 'God'. In this last sense, 'heaven' (i.e. God) is the origin or agent of our hope, but 'heaven' (as other or extra-worldly location) is not our destination. This, I suggested, might be what Paul meant when he called Christians citizens of heaven. The final chapters of the Bible picture heaven coming to earth, that is, God coming to live with us, rather than vice versa. For this to happen, the entire created order needs some drastic renovation. In particular, our physical bodies will be raised from the dead and transformed. This image (resurrection) - while not the only one - is, I think, the most important because this is what happened to Jesus. By it, we can understand 'new heavens and new earth' as new in quality, not in number. This means that we are left eagerly waiting for this future, groaning for and with a world in which everything falls apart. We are aliens in such a world, not because we belong elsewhere, but because we belong to its future. In that future, perhaps it will be through and in a raised body/renewed creation that we will see God, as Augustine once suggested.

What does this matter? What difference does it make? Why should we care? There is still more to come...
Series: I; II; IIa; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X; XI; XII; XIII; XIV; XV; XVI.
Ten points for the first to link to the other post on this blog with a photo by the same artist as this one.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Twenty novels that made me cry

After top twenty theology influences and going to see Moby Dick by John Bell, thought I'd do another top twenty.
Rules: Must be novels. Ranked by recommendation, not amount of crying. One per author. Sometimes the crying was from laughter.

1. Ulysses by James Joyce
2. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
3. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Lawrence Sterne
4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
5. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
6. The Outsider by Albert Camus
7. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
8. Cloudstreet by Tim Winton
9. Nineteen eighty-four by George Orwell
10. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
11. Bliss by Peter Carey
12. Catch-22 by Jospeh Heller
13. The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis
14. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula le Guin
15. The Old Man and the Sea Ernest Hemmingway
16. The Waves by Virginia Woolf
17. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
18. Alice in Wonderland Lewis Carroll
19. Bridge to Terebithia by Katherine Paterson
20. Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander
What about you?

UPDATE: Check out Aaron's Top 20 theological experiences.
Ten points available in comments.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Moby Dick

For those who bother to check profiles, you'd realise that Moby Dick by Herman Melville is high on my list of all-time favourite novels. So much more than an adventure story (indeed, it is easily condensed into less than hundred pages if you just want the guts of the action), it is both an encyclopaedia of everything about whales and whaling (Did you realise that in the mid-19thC whaling contributed something like 1/4 of US GDP? Or that 19thC American whaling vessels killed around 15,000 right whales each year?), as well as a philosophical reflection upon many of today's issues: American identity in an age of agressive expansion (the US had recently annexed more land from Mexico when Melville sat down to write), battles over (whale) oil, racism, conflicts over truth and meaning, and more and more. I could write essays on it (and did).

Anyway, last night I saw a one man performance/interpretation of Moby Dick on stage by John Bell. Bell is Australia's leading Shakespearean actor and director and has been obsessed with this project for years. It was magnificent. Unfortunately, it's only on for a very short time (might have now already finished), but if this production pops up anywhere near you (it ran in Tasmania a year or two ago), don't miss it. Or better yet, read the book. You'll be surprised, but not disappointed.

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.

- Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chapter 104.

For fifteen points, name the (ex-)whaling station from which this picture was taken. Hint: Australian.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Augustine and Beckett on dying

'For from the very beginning of our existence in this dying body, there is never a moment when death is not at work in us. ... Certainly there is no one who is not closer to it this year than he was last year, and tomorrow than today, and today than yesterday, and a little while hence than now, and now than a little while ago.'

- Augustine, City of God XIII.10.

A cheery thought for a Friday afternoon. Won't you all be glad when I stop reading Augustine? To stay in theme, here's another favourite quote:
Pozzo: (suddenly furious). Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It's abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we'll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer.) They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.
Vladimir: Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps.

- Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, Act II

Links and links

Indiana Jones's request for tenure denied
Single issue voting, or why everyone is soft on terrorism
A Young Illegal Immigrant's Tale
What if Estragon had had a mobile?

Videos (also fun)
A genius behind the stupidity: Harlan McCraney Presidential Specialist
You don't see this everyday: how many bruises?
The real state of the union

A touch more serious
A pacificst hymn by Kim Fabicius
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front: a poem by Wendell Berry
Discipling the imagination by Rev Sam

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Heaven: not the end of the World XIV

Seeing GodAugustine concludes his massive City of God with a discussion of those wonderful biblical promises that we will see God: 'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.' Although our knowledge of God is presently like looking through a dim mirror,* in the resurrection it will have the clarity and certainty of knowing 'face to face'. But how can we see God? God is invisible. Could it be that we will 'see' God in the same way that we can 'see' that two and two are four? Perhaps, but Augustine doesn't think this is adequate, especially since last time God showed himself, he looked more like a Galilean peasant than a mathematical equation.
*First century mirrors were polished metal, and thus only gave a dim and somewhat hazy image.

That God raised Jesus from the dead means that God thinks bodies are important. He made a good world, and Jesus resurrection is the firstfruits of its redemption. It is not simply a disembodied soul that God is interested in, but our full corporeal and corporate life. Indeed, Augustine links these two - having a body means being part of a body. When the physical body of Christ rose, it was also a sign that the community known as the body of Christ is also to be redeemed. Salvation is personal, but not individualistic. We are saved into and for a community. Our destiny is social.

What does this have to do with seeing God? Here's how Augustine links them:

It may well be, then – indeed, this is entirely credible – that, in the world to come, we shall see the bodily forms of the new heaven and the new earth in such a way as to perceive God with total clarity and distinctness, everywhere present and governing all things, both material and spiritual. In this life, we understand the invisible things of God by the things which are made, and we see Him darkly and in part, as in a glass, and by faith rather than by perceiving corporeal appearance with our bodily eyes. In the life to come, however, it may be that we shall see Him by means of the bodies which we shall then wear, and wherever we shall turn our eyes. In this life, after all, as soon as we become aware of the men among whom we live, we do not merely believe that they are alive and displaying vital motion: we see it, beyond any doubt, by means of our bodies, though we are not able to see their life without their bodies. By the same token, in the world to come, wherever we shall look with the spiritual eyes of our bodies, we shall then, by means of our bodies, behold the incorporeal God ruling all things.

- Augustine, City of God 22.29.

Augustine thinks that as we look around ourselves, and particularly as we look at our redeemed community centred around the risen Christ, that through all and in all and over all we will truly see God.

Perhaps this is how we might understand Paul's comment in 1 Corinthians 15 when he says that after the resurrection, God will be all in all. I realise, as did Augustine, that this is a suggestion of how things might be, and not necessarily the only way of understanding these promises. However, to me, it draws together so many threads and makes good sense of the God who thought it was not good for the man to be alone, who speaks of his salvation as being like a city, and whose son died and rose in a body so that the body of Christ might live.
Series: I; II; IIa; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X; XI; XII; XIII; XIV; XV; XVI.
Ten points for guessing the artist in the above pic.

Top 20 books that have influenced me theologically

Ben Myers over at Faith and Theology has put together a list of his top twenty books that have influenced him theologically. Although these top twenty things are always somewhat arbitrary (especially the order!), and my most powerful theological influences have been personal relationships with mentors, teachers and lecturers, I've still tried taking up his challenge in the following list. Following Ben's lead, the list excludes books from other disciplines (more or less, though such lines can be hazy; I've included a Nietzsche) and is limited to one volume per author.

20. Karl Rahner, The Trinity
19. Merold Westphal, Overcoming Onto-theology
18. Irenaeus, Against Heresies
17. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
16. T. F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith
15. Richard Bauckham, God Crucified
14. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace
13. Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order
12. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
11. Athanasius, On the Incarnation
10. Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God
10. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
9. John Stott, The Cross of Christ
8. Colin Gunton, The Triune Creator
7. N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God
6. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1
5. Augustine, The City of God
4. Martin Luther, The Freedom of the Christian
3. J. Calvin, Institutes
2. Thomas Cranmer, Book of Common Prayer
1. Holy Scriptures
Have I forgotten something obvious? I'd love to hear which books or people have influenced you. And before I sound too pretentious (or heterodox!), a number of these books have influenced me as I've reacted against them and many remain as yet unfinished but have still been important.