Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Good books: a meme

I've been memed again. This time Matthew Moffitt from Hebel has tagged me and given me a list of theological book categories. The instructions tell me to:

i. List the most helpful book you've read in this category;
ii. Describe why you found it helpful; and
iii. Tag five more friends and spread the meme love.
I am going to break the rules immediately and amend the first point to read "List the most a helpful book you've read in this category". Here are the categories and my answers:

1. Theology
• Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine
I take it that since "God" is listed (rather dubiously) at #3, this category is for books on the "method" or "how to" of theology. This wouldn't be the top book out of this list of 11, but it was one I enjoyed. I have reviewed it at length here.
Summary: All the world's a stage.

2. Biblical Theology
• Augustine, City of God
The first biblical theology. And the best. I received this as a 21st present from a far-sighted friend (thanks Ben!), who didn't realise that it would help send me to the other side of the world.
Summary: A tale of two cities.

3. God
• Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1
I never promised this would be an easy list. But if you want to get into glories of God, then there are few more profound guides than uncle Karl. Read this quote and then decide if you want to dive into the depths and discover that God is there too.
Summary: God is with us.

4. Jesus
• Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God
Although incomplete (and what account of Jesus isn't? Even John recognised as much), this book will push you to really think about what Jesus means for our understanding of God. ‘When the crucified Jesus is called the ‘image of the invisible God’, the meaning is that this is God, and God is like this. God is not greater than he is in this humiliation. God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in this humanity.’ (205)
Summary: God looks like this.

5. Old Testament
• Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall
A short little book based on lecture notes from students who listened to lectures Bonhoeffer gave on Genesis 1-3. In many ways, these lectures are a model of creative faithfulness to the text, theological exegesis that asks after God and humanity, not just about me or about historical debates or contemporary fads.
Summary: They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, through Eden took their solitary way.

6. New Testament
• N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (or for the attentionally challenged, The Challenge of Jesus)
The book that took all the fragments of Sunday School stories and sermon pieces into which the Gospels had shattered and pieced together a picture of a human saviour who wins God's victory for Israel and the world. It took me almost two years to read (in a group), but I am a different person for it.
Summary: God wins.

7. Morals
• Oliver O'Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order
How could I resist? Not an easy book, but one to chew over and digest slowly and repeatedly. It will nourish you for a long time if you are patient with it.
Summary: Ethics is good news and the resurrection is God's affirmation of creation and humanity.

8. (Church) History
• Meredith Lake, Proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord
So I thought I'd pick something a little more contemporary, since this is the (church) history section. Meredith (known to many though her wonderful, though now somewhat neglected blog Faith and Place. If you read the current post, you'll understand why; her love for it has run into some competition) put together a history of the first 75 years of the Sydney University Evangelical Union. Since this was the context in which I cut my theological, pastoral, ministry and leadership teeth, I found the book fascinating. Perhaps a little less riveting for those not from Sydney, but it will really help you understand where many Sydney University Christians (like myself) are coming from.
Summary: And now these three remain: object one, object two, object three...

9. Biography
• Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo.
I must say that I am not much into biographies for some reason, even though I know many people love them. I have enjoyed nearly all the ones I have read, but they have been few and far between. However, this is one that stands out for me because it is almost impossible to walk past Augustine for historical importance and Brown's biography is the definitive one against which others are judged. I read this book in fourth year while writing a thesis on Augustine in order to get some more context for his thought and found it fascinating. In particular, the evocation of the late Roman empire I found quite moving. Augustine lived in the dying days of the West and he knew it (and his greatest work, The City of God was written to address the issue). The image of Augustine dying as Hippo was under seige by barbarians and of his fellow monks smuggling his works out to save them from the destruction when the city fell will stay with me for a long time. In fact, it was a large part of the impetus behind my PhD project (outline coming soon).
Summary: Lord, make me pure, but not yet!

10. Evangelism
• John Dickson, Promoting the Gospel
Dickson combines deep historical knowledge, biblical deftness and theological nous with apparently effortless communication skills. This book will liberate you from the straightjacket of guilt that prevents you from promoting the gospel by showing you all the ways you are already involved in this great privilege. Shunned by some for rejecting the idea that every Christian is an evangelist, that is precisely why I recommend it since that is how the Bible pictures the church, in which each part does its work.
Summary: Not everyone is a mouth.

11. Prayer
• Rowan Williams, Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another
Perhaps a surprising book to recommend on prayer, since it primarily addresses those familiar with meditative prayer. However, it is not limited to this audience, since its foundational message - that we discover Christ through loving our neighbour and prayer is what helps us pay attention - is universally applicable. Perhaps it sounds trite as I explain it there, but this little book is anything but.
Summary: "Everything begins with this vision and hope: to put the neighbour in touch with God in Christ."

I would provide links to each of these books at their various publishers, but I'm lazy. You have fingers. Google hasn't crashed. Do it yourself. I tag the first five people to read this post (which probably means you, unless the comments are filled with people saying that they have completed the task).

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fish on Eagleton on Ditchkins

In the opening sentence of the last chapter of his new book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution,” the British critic Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed. “What other symbolic form,” he queries, “has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?”

- Stanley Fish, "God Talk".

Michael Jensen has also been reading Eagleton's new book, in which he defends the intellectual complexity and importance of Christian theology, belief and practice (or aspects of them at least) against the new atheism of Dawkins and Hitchens (to whom he refers collectively as "Ditchkins"). Sounds like an interesting book. But I mainly put up this post for the title.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Praying for kings and rulers: civic order and the good news of Jesus

A guest post by Ruth Brigden
Ruth is a missionary working with CMS Australia and serving in Numbulwar, a remote indigenous community in the Northern Territory.

“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

- 1 Timothy 2:1-2.

This is Kathy-Anne. She is our church treasurer.
Kathy-Anne is also an elected Councillor on the Roper Gulf Shire, which oversees service provision in Numbulwar.

I was challenged by Kathy-Anne recently when she told me that she prays everyday for Numbulwar’s police, school, credit union, and her employer, the Roper Gulf Shire.

Numbulwar’s police station is only a few years old. Before it was built, intervention into domestic disputes, and fights between tribal groups was done by individuals (including Yulki, our church deacon), and they often got hurt in the process. In the event of an emergency, the nearest police came by plane from Groote Eylandt, and by the time they got here, the damage was usually done. A permanent police presence has helped Numbulwar community live more peacefully, and it has helped people like Yulki devote more time to the Ministry of the Word, rather than spending her time breaking up fights.

When Kathy-Anne prays for the police and other local institutions, she is putting 1 Timothy 2:1-2 into practice. I’m sure we can think of many good reasons why well-functioning institutions that promote public order are desirable. But it seems that from a spiritual point of view, this kind of stability is good for Christians who want to proclaim the gospel of peace.

It is in the interests of Christians to pray for “kings” and “all those in authority”, because if under God those in authority govern well, Christians will be freed-up to live out their faith before outsiders, “in all godliness and holiness”.

Living in a small community helps Kathy-Anne to see how integral institutions that maintain the good order of society really are – she has got it right in praying regularly for those in authority in Numbulwar, and she has challenged me by her example to pray more in line with 1 Timothy 2:1-2.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Multiplying fears: Islam and the demographic freedom of the church

I saw this video a few weeks ago and was shocked. Not so much at the demographic claims (which have been around for a while), but at the manipulative attempt to scare Christians/Americans (the groups are treated as almost synonymous) into reproductive action. This video is little different from the tactics used to perpetuate the White Australia policy during the first three-quarters of last century, in which the fear of Chinese or Indonesian hordes descending onto our country to fill our wide open spaces was the justification for encouraging a higher birthrate and restricting immigration from those outside of the preferred race.

I am all for married people having children where possible and think that the loving and sensitive evangelisation of Muslims (and western nationalists) is a duty and a privilege of the church. But I found this video disturbing in its implicit theology and its barely concealed racism.

Christian honouring of the gift of singleness (based in Jesus' own life and the teaching of 1 Corinthians 7) is, amongst other things, an affirmation that the church is not reliant upon biological reproduction for the gospel to be passed on from generation to generation. As a missionary faith, it is not the natural children but the spiritual children who are our next generation. Of course, being raised in a nurturing Christian family is a great way of passing on the faith, but our hope is not in demographic trends. Children are a wonderful blessing and gift from God, but they are not a strategy that we employ in order to preserve a culture.

Indeed, the church is not bound to any single culture (whether European, American or Australian) and if it diminishes amongst some groups during the next few decades, that would be sad, but not the end of the world. This century the church will be far more African, Asian and South American than European or North American, and perhaps God may use this to bless the church and the world through fresh vigour and creativity in obedience and love.

I love the Australian cultural heritage in which I have grown up, but it is not sacred. It has its own many blind-spots and weaknessess. May God use our brothers and sisters around the world to help us notice and repent of the cultural sins that we drink in with our mother's milk.

One of those sins is a deep fear of those who are not like us, whose beliefs, habits and loves differ from our own. We are right to love what is good in the familiar arena of our own history and current society. And when something we love seems threatened, it can be right and good for some concern to be part of our response. But may God teach us also to love the alien and the stranger in our midst, for we too are aliens and strangers.
UPDATE: This post by Matt also seems highly relevant to this discussion.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Take and read: O'Donovan on reading Scripture

"No collective spiritual exercise, no sacrament, no act of praise or prayer is so primary to the catholic identity of the church gathered as the reading and recitation of Scripture."

- Oliver O'Donovan, "The Reading Church:
Scriptural Authority in Practice"

This morning I had a supervision meeting with Professor O'Donovan that was (largely due to his graciousness) not the train-wreck I had been somewhat anxiously anticipating (this in itself was quite ironic, since the topic at hand was some of my work on, well, anxiety - more on that soon).

During the course of our meeting, he mentioned somewhat dismissively a lecture he gave recently, and which I had heard about, but not read. It is a lecture reflecting upon the "Scripture" clause of the recent Jerusalem Declaration delivered at GAFCON (and partially composed by some of my former teachers at MTC):
We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God written and to contain all things necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading.
The lecture is itself an exercise in careful attention to this text, but becomes far more than simply another comment on a recent highly publicised declaration. Having now read his lecture, I can assure you that his estimation of its worth is as far off the mark as my anticipation of our meeting this morning. Take and read. Not just the lecture, but, of course, the Scriptures which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
NB Reading will take time, but that is the point: "Acts of reading that refuse the text patience invariably miscarry."

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Audrey Alice Momsen (26th August 1919 - 19th May 2009)

"But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died."

-1 Thessalonians 4.13-14.

My grandmother fell asleep in Christ today. She was eighty-nine and leaves five children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I thank God for her life of loving service and for her trust in Jesus. I will miss her. But I grieve with hope because at Jesus' return God will bring with him those who have died, including her. May she rest until the day when death is no more. Come, Lord Jesus.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

New book(let): Can we trust what the Gospels say about Jesus?

Christians place great weight on the stories about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. There are four accounts of his life that are universally accepted by the church across the ages, named after the four figures traditionally considered to be the authors: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These are known as the Gospels, since they present the "good news" (gospel) about Jesus.

However, a spate of recent popular documentaries and publications have thrown up all kinds of questions about these writings and others like them which are much less well known. For many people, the appearance of contradictory viewpoints is enough to provide an excuse to avoid the whole deal, since what can we really know anyway? Can we trust what the gospels say about Jesus?

Andrew Errington thinks that we can. He has written a very useful little introduction to the historical issues around the Gospels. At 32 pages long, it is very readable for the non-expert and yet avoids gross oversimplification. You can order it here.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Ethics as vulnerability

"Now, you could say that ethics is essentially about how we negotiate our own and other people's vulnerabilities. The sort of behaviour we recognise as unethical is very frequently something to do with the misuse of power and the range of wrong or corrupt responses to power – with the ways in which fear or envy or admiration can skew our perception of what the situation truly demands of us. Instead of estimating what it is that we owe to truth or to reality or to God as the source of truth, we calculate what we need to do so as to acquire, retain or at best placate power (and there is of course a style of supposedly religious morality that works in just such an unethical way). But when we begin to think seriously about ethics, about how our life is to reflect truth, we do not consider what is owed to power; indeed, we consider what is owed to weakness, to powerlessness. Our ethical seriousness is tested by how we behave towards those whose goodwill or influence is of no 'use' to us. Hence the frequently repeated claim that the moral depth of a society can be assessed by how it treats its children – or, one might add, its disabled, its elderly or its terminally ill. Ethical behaviour is behaviour that respects what is at risk in the life of another and works on behalf of the other's need. To be an ethical agent is thus to be aware of human frailty, material and mental; and so, by extension, it is to be aware of your own frailty. And for a specifically Christian ethic, the duty of care for the neighbour as for oneself is bound up with the injunction to forgive as one hopes to be forgiven; basic to this whole perspective is the recognition both that I may fail or be wounded and that I may be guilty of error and damage to another."

- Rowan Williams, Ethics, Economics and Global Justice

I think this comment is very important for understanding Williams' whole ethical approach. He is deeply aware of the frailties and limitations of human potency. But these are not simply obstacles to be overcome in order for us to get on with what we ought to be doing; they are the very essence of what it means to be human, to be a creature of God. And so a correct (ethical) human response to this reality is the acknowledgement of the truth of our existence and a learning to live joyfully and humbly within our own skin.
Image by Steve Chong.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Are you spiritual?

Dave posts some excellent reflections on our (mis)use of the term spiritual(ity) and suggests that all of life is spiritual.

"And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." - Colossians 3.17

The choice we face: Woody Allen

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." - Woody Allen.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Factionalism: why we love it

Andrew Errington has a very interesting post about the motives behind factionalism.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

No divine guarantees

There is no guarantee that the world we live in will 'tolerate' us indefinitely if we prove ourselves unable to live within its constraints. Is this – as some would claim – a failure to trust God, who has promised faithfulness to what he has made? I think that to suggest that God might intervene to protect us from the corporate folly of our practices is as unchristian and unbiblical as to suggest that he protects us from the results of our individual folly or sin. This is not a creation in which there are no real risks; our faith has always held that the inexhaustible love of God cannot compel justice or virtue; we are capable of doing immeasurable damage to ourselves as individuals, and it seems clear that we have the same terrible freedom as a human race. God's faithfulness stands, assuring us that even in the most appalling disaster love will not let us go; but it will not be a safety net that guarantees a happy ending in this world. Any religious language that implies this is making a nonsense of the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament and the urgency of the preaching of Jesus.

- Rowan Williams, "Renewing the Face of the Earth:
Human Responsibility and the Environment"

This claim is central to my project. That we can destroy ourselves. Suicide is possible. Sadly, and all too frequently, as individuals. Perhaps not so easily as a race (though I wouldn't rule it out). But certainly as a society. There is no divine guarantee of civilisational continuity. And so there is no short-circuiting the debate over whether this might not in fact be our present trajectory through an appeal to God's sovereignty.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Why I am not a conservationist

The 'redemption' of people and material life in general is not a matter of resigning from the business of labour and of transformation – as if we could – but the search for a form of action that will preserve and nourish an interconnected development of humanity and its environment. In some contexts, this will be the deliberate protection of the environment from harm: in a world where exploitative and aggressive behaviour is commonplace, one of the 'providential' tasks of human beings must be to limit damage and to secure space for the natural order to exist unharmed. In others, the question is rather how to use the natural order for the sake of human nourishment and security without pillaging its resources and so damaging its inner mechanisms for self-healing or self-correction. In both, the fundamental requirement is to discern enough of what the processes of nature truly are to be able to engage intelligently with them.

- Rowan Williams, "Renewing the Face of the Earth:
Human Responsibility and the Environment"

This quote is an important corrective to romantic notions of conservationism that imply that humanity per se is the problem and that we ought to absent ourselves as much as possible from "the environment" because we only cause harm. Such an approach is disastrous for two reasons. First, it closes the possibility of positive action through which careful human attention and understanding enables us to participate in and focus the flourishing of the created order. Second, it ends up justifying the exploitation of the created order outside of certain "protected areas", or if not, then it implies that human self-destruction is necessary for the good of the planet.
Image by Brennan Jacoby.