Saturday, 31 December 2011

A new discovery

I was clearing out the allotment shed today, and somewhere down among the mouldering remains of old seed packets I found a book. It appears to be an account of how God gave an onerous list of rules to one of his prophets; the guy's name is unfortunately obscured by beetroot stains. If you keep the rules you'll live long and prosper, and become a rich banker. If you don't, and especially if you worship anyone else, you'll end your days as a homeless alcoholic living in a night shelter. If you escape being hit by a thunderbolt that is. Foreigners are to be exterminated without mercy. He claims to love us, but it it really the sweet scent of our whole burnt offerings he wants?

The big question is, do we bow down to this God, and keep all his rules in hope, or do we decide he's a psychopathic narcissist who probably runs a bank, and is unfit to be worshipped? Should I report my find to the government so they can put all the rules into law, or should I burn the thing before it can do any damage?

Happy New Year, by the way.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Felix Dies Natalis Solis Invicti

Happy Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun! Which, of course, happens to be 25 December, which was the shortest day of the year when Julius Caesar established his new calendar in 45 BC, though it's drifted a little since. The Romans had always worshipped the sun, alng with many other deities, but Aurelian made a new version, the worship of Sol Invictus, an official cult in 274 AD. It was popular with several succeeding emperors, and Constantine I, who legalised Christianity again after the pagan backlash of the Great Persecution, celebrated the god as his 'companion' until long after his supposed conversion to Christianity. Here he is, on a coin struck in Londinium, with Sol Invictus himself on the reverse.

Constantine favoured the church, and declared its tolerance in the Edict of Milan, issued with his co-emperor and rival Licinius in 313, but despite centuries of claims to the contrary, there's no clear evidence that he ever committed himself to Christianity. He issued two rescripts regarding working on 'the venerable day of the Sun', when he wanted people to abstain from any work apart from a few specific things like manumitting slaves. Neither, however, makes any reference to Christianity, which only became the official religion of the Empire in 380, under Theodosius I.

In the following century, Pope Leo I (reigned 440-461) said, in a sermon:

From such a system of teaching proceeds also the ungodly practice of certain foolish folk who worship the sun as it rises at the beginning of daylight from elevated positions: even some Christians think it is so proper to do this that, before entering the blessed Apostle Peter's basilica, which is dedicated to the One Living and true God, when they have mounted the steps which lead to the raised platform, they turn round and bow themselves towards the rising sun and with bent neck do homage to its brilliant orb. We are full of grief and vexation that this should happen, which is partly due to the fault of ignorance and partly to the spirit of heathenism: because although some of them do perhaps worship the Creator of that fair light rather than the Light itself, which is His creature, yet we must abstain even flora the appearance of this observance: for if one who has abandoned the worship of gods, finds it in our own worship, will he not hark back again to this fragment of his old superstition, as if it were allowable, when he sees it to be common both to Christians and to infidels? (

So it seems that some were mixing the worship of the Sun with that of the Son. It was an age when the old polytheistic religion of Rome was effectively dead, and people were experimenting with various monotheisms, dedicating themselves to an array of alternative gods. At the same time, there was no hostility beteen the cults, apart from Christianity and Judaism. People were fee to mix and match, and so syncretism within the church shouldn't be seen as surprising. Constantine I may have been such a syncretist, or he may just have found the church politically useful in reuniting the empire after a series of civil wars. As the first sole emperor in almost 40 years, he must have faced an uphill task, and probably needed all the help he could get.

It was in this context that the church adopted the midwinter festival as a celebration of Jesus' birth. It was the time when the days were darkest and shortest, the old year died, and the promise of its rebirth in the spring must have been uppermost in peoples' minds as they faced the long, cold winter, and the 'hungry gap' in early spring, before the first of the new season's crops came in to fill their bellies. Famine was never far away in a subsistence economy, and malnutrition and disease must have been  regular features of everyday life at this time of year. The further north you went, the longer and darker the winter, and the greater the likelihood of shortages. The midwinter festival seems to have been almost universal, attached to whatever gods were worshipped in a paricular culture. Essentially, it was cultural, rather than a feature of any specific religion, but in an age when religion permeated almost every act, it was inevitable that it would take a religious form. The Greeks celebrated is as Lenaia, a feast dedicated to Dionysios, when a bull, or originally a man, was sacrificed. The Romans had a tamer version, Brumalia, dedicated to Bacchus.

Decmber 25th is first mentioned as the date of Jesus' birth in 354. There was a belief that he was concieved on the same date as he died, and conception around April would obviously lead to a birth about December. It fitted the midwinter festival, though Christmas remained fairly low key for some centuries, only slowly gaining in importance.

How much was taken over from the pagan festivals of the time isn't known. One thing's certain, though; the religious aspects were rejected, and if anything was absorbed, it was what we nowadays recognise as cultural not religious. There's nothing particularly Christian - or unChristian for that matter - about having a feast in the darkest time of the year. Occasionally, we meet Christians of a rather narrow bent, who claim that we shouldn't observe Christmas or Easter because they're 'really' pagan observances in disguise. It's sheer nonsense. We don't know when Jesus was born, but obviously the even has to have happened. He can't have been resurrected without dying; he can't have died without being born. It's entirely appropriate that we should celebrate all three.

Happy Christmas, Holidays, Winterval, or whatever you want to call it!

Saturday, 10 December 2011

In the Beginning 3

We left Genesis at Chapter 1:19 (here; the first post in the series is here) ; God has brought forth order, and made land, sea and sky. He's created plants, immediately after separating land and sea, then put lights in the sky.

Genesis 1:9-19 And God said, "Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear." And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it." And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. And God said, "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth." And it was so. God made the two great lights-- the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night-- and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

Since the plants and animals which are brought forth are living beings, that implies that the heavenly bodies may well have been thought of as somehow belonging to the same order of things. To other peoples of the Ancient Near East, and evidently to many Israelites, the heavenly bodies were objects of worship; their cults are referred to in 2 Kings 23:5 and Amos 5:26. The fact that they're said to have been established within the royal temple in Jerusalem, and perhaps that at Bethel, points to their importance. Here, of course, they're relegated to the status of nameless created beings, but they're still beings, not inanimate objects. Even the word 'shemesh', meaning sun, is, however, closely related to the name of the sun god, Shamash. The divine association is still there, embedded in the language. The 'great lights', sun and moon, are given roles, to rule day and night, which they separate. So they have a specific function, upholding part of the order God has brought forth out of the primal chaos. They act, as it were, as God's viceroys, set over one aspect of creation.

Genesis 1:20-31 And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky." So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth." And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind." And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." God said, "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Birds and water organisms are brought forth, and told to be fruitful and multiply; fish are to 'fill' the waters, and birds are to multiply on the earth. Sea and sky are thus populated with animal life. v21 uses bara', to create, which hasn't been used since v1. The tannin, 'sea monsters', probably represent the chaos monster of myth, but God has got bigger, and the monster smaller. Now, the monsters are created in the same way as any other living being, and, like the rest of them, are subject to God's authority. In Ps 104, which contains similar language to Genesis 1, Leviathan is created to 'sport in the waters', a far cry from the Leviathan God destroys in Ps 74. The process reaches its climax in Jonah, where the monster, now a mere fish, proves to be a better servant of God than his recalcitrant prophet.

Then God authorises the earth to bring forth animals, but the earth isn't 'filled' with them. That is reserved for humans, who come next, and, like birds and fish, they are to be fruitful and multiply; like fish, they are to 'fill', but this time, the land. No doubt this is, as much as anything, a comment on what the authors could see around them; shallow seas, and lowland water courses, will indeed teem with life as long as they're not affected by pollution or overfishing. Similarly, a settled country would have been 'filled' with people, wherever there was agricultural land to support them.

When humans are made, we suddenly find that God isn't alone; he says 'Let us make...', though he alone gets credit for doing the making. The church likes to see the Trinity in this, but of course this was an idea which evolved after the New Testament was written, never mind Genesis. The first question has to be, what was in the minds of the authors? Nowadays, we come very close to absolute monotheism; we see God as a unique being, alone in his divinity, tempered only by the idea of his being three in one. the Israelites, however, believed in many divine beings, the Elohim.

Elohim is often used as a name for God, but it's also used for gods or angels (Ex 12:12, Ex 32:1, Deut 13:18, Ps 8:6, etc), or even the spirits of the dead (I Sam 28:13). God is the greatest of the Elohim, the one who is God, who alone may be worshipped, but he is surrounded by the heavenly host, and here, in the creation of humanity, we catch a glimpse of them at work. In this passage, creation  turns out to be a team effort.

Just as the sun and moon are to rule the heavens, so human beings are to have dominion over living things; over fish, birds and land animals, but not over the lights in the sky. Again, to some extent, this is a simple statement of observed fact; humanity was indeed the dominant species. It is also a commission from God; humanity is to rule as his viceroy on earth, just as sun and moon rule in the heavens. Human beings are thus put on a level with beings which, to any of the surrounding cultures, were mighty gods. It's a very different picture from the one painted by their myths.

In the story of Atrahasis, the lesser gods have to dig ditches, and they rebel because the work is so hard. So the great gods sacrifice one of the lesser, and mix his blood and flesh with clay, to make mankind. The men do the work, but they breed so much that the noise they make disturbs the gods. Eventually they make a flood to drown them, and only Atrahasis and his family, forwarned by one of the gods, escape with an ark full of animals. Of course, this is much earlier than Genesis; from the Babylon of the 18th Century BC, while Genesis 1 is 1st Milennium BC certainly, and probably post-exilic. Ideas have moved on, and now the Israelites are asserting a much higher role for humanity than that of a useful beast of burden which has to be culled now and then to keep the numbers down!

However, humanity isn't the centre of creation. The story is primarily one about God and his relationship with creation, rather than that of the creation of a single species. We may have dominion over the earth, but the sun and moon rule the sky. We may be told to multiply and fill the earth - without which, we cannot exercise dominion over it - but the fish are told to fill the sea. Rather, we're an important part of an interlocking system, not put there to dominate and destroy, but to act under God's authority, as his viceroy.

Right from the beginning, we're sexual beings, created as male and female, intended to multiply and breed. Unlike the story of Atrahasis, and its parallel in the Gilgamesh cycle, this breeding isn't seen as a threat. Nowadays, of course, we know that it can be, but we live in a very different age to the authors of Genesis. In those days, population levels were sustainable, and pollution remained within manageable limits. There's no hierarchy here, no hint of male superiority. The sexes are created side by side, and commanded to breed. The story of the Fall, if that's what it is, belongs to a different version of the creation story.

Genesis 2:1-3 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

The climax comes on the seventh day. God's finished the job, he has a nice lie in, and he blesses his work. Combined with the repeated statement that what God made was 'good', this affirms creation in a way we can't afford to forget. Sabbath is built into the fabric of the story in a way which provides a theological basis for the practice. The cycle of time which began with the first day ends in the rest of God.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Creation ex nihilo

Rabbi Michael Samuel suggests here that the idea of creation ex nihilo may be older than I thought. He hasn't got any clear statements of it though, only texts which might suggest some such idea at the back of their authors' minds. There's certainly nothing which would stretch it all the way back to Genesis!

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Wearing of the Red 3

Entirely predictably, the media have been assuring us that Remembrance Sunday is about servicepeople. Many churches, I hope most of them, make a point of saying that it's about all the victims of war, but as always, we're drowned out. To those outside the church, we seem to be supporting the official agenda, no matter what our motives, no matter why an individual chooses to wear a poppy. Everything else is drowned out.

So what do we do, pick another Sunday to remember the horrors of war, or try to redeem today? To do that would require rather more courage, a greater willingness to stand up and be awkward in public, than I think the church is capable of. But maybe I'm wrong. We're going to have a serious think about how we're going to handle it next year. Maybe other churches will as well.

Friday, 11 November 2011

The Wearing of the Red 2

Remembrance Sunday always gave me the creeps. We once - a long time ago - asked everyone at church what it meant to them. It didn't mean a thing to anyone. We thought about ceasing to observe it but the leadership we had at the time was too weak to tell the preachers they weren't to do it. We should ask again; it's the one church where I know I can say what I think about war, and all the claptrap we hear about it, and people are going to agree with me instead of getting upset.

For years, I tried to avoid Remembrance Sunday, and dreaded having to take a service that day. Then, in 1997, my girls were caught up in fighting after a coup in Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, just as we'd got clearance from Immigration to bring them over. All hell broke loose, and for three days we thought Kumbi, then 11, was on some rustbucket heading for Ghana. Then we found that the ship had fled without the refugees, and that she'd been rescued by the US navy, and put on a plane from Conakry, over the border in Guinea. She'd been in the fighting, arrived very badly traumatised, and she still suffers as a result of what she went through.

Mina, then 5, was taken up country. The phone lines were down, we knew cars were being stopped on that road, and the people killed, and you can imagine how we felt for the next six weeks before we managed to get in touch, and found that she was safe. It took another six weeks to get her put on a plane from Conakry, and shortly after, the rebels went and burnt the town where she'd been staying.

After that, I couldn't handle Remembrance Sunday at all for years. I still struggle; it strikes me as a thoroughly dishonest figleaf for war. We hear a great deal about the military, and next to nothing about civilians. I'm aware of one war memorial for civilians, in Birmingham. Does anyone know any others? That was fair enough when it started; the overwhelming majority of the dead in the Great War were military. Around half the bodies on the Western Front were never found - they're still turning up now, in significant numbers - and families were desperate for closure. However, these days, the overwhelming majority of the dead are civilians. When are we going to start remembering them?

In the Great War, people were suckered into volunteering on a wave of patriotism, or pressurised into doing so; those who didn't were liable to be abused on the streets. Later on, they were conscripted. They found themselves in a war the like of which the world had never seen. It wasn't the first industrialised slaughter; that took place in the US Civil War. It was, however, the first industrialised trench war, with human wave after human wave going to their deaths. British casualties alone on the first day of the Somme amounted to almost 20 000 dead and 40 000 injured. For what, since it was a war fought over nothing at all?

We hear all about Britain and Germany, not very much about France and Belgium, and it's easy to get the impression that it was a Western European conflict. It wasn't; it started over the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the  Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo, by a Serb nationalist. There was no diplomatic mechanism which might have defused things, and, led by a poisonous mix of pre-existing treaties, nationalism, jingoism, militarism and commercial rivalry, one imperial power after another was sucked in. We need to stop the rubbish about the victims' 'sacrifice', and admit that they were sacrificed, passive tense, as victims on the altar of sheer nonsense.

In the end, the war came down to a toss-up as to who collapsed first. It happened to be Germany; they got the blame, and had the punitive Treaty of Versailles imposed on them by the victors. The Weimar republic of the 1920's lacked legitimacy; it was imposed from without rather than being an organic development. It collapsed under the pressures of hyper-inflation, caused by the immense reparations imposed at Versailles. Hitler rose to power in the ensuing chaos, and doubtless appeared as a saviour; bringing order, restoring the country's pride and prosperity.

It's not good enough to say that all the bloodshed in the WW2 was justified because Hitler had to be stopped. We need to look deeper; every monster has his Viktor Frankenstein. The Second War was a consequence of the First, and the failure to establish a viable peace. It's all very well to say that Hitler should have been stopped at the Rhineland, but that had been part of Germany before 1918, as had the Sudetenland and East Prussia. It's hard to deny the legitimacy of Hitler's original territorial claims.

When it comes to modern wars, many of them have little or nothing to do with the interests of the nation. Sierra Leone at least had a clear moral imperative behind it; I know far too much about the rebels to criticise, but then I'm biased. At least British casualties were limited to one. Iraq was a straightforward war of aggression; a disaster for the Middle East, for which there was no excuse. I won't comment on what it supposedly did to Britain's moral standing; I don't think they ever had any outside their own vainglorious imagination. Afghanistan had the figleaf of a need to remove al-Qaida, but that withers before the conveniently unpublicised fact that the Taliban offered to put him on trial, and the US refused to negotiate. Again, it was essentially a war of aggression. One again, young men and women are being sacrificed for someone else's political agenda, and for the profits of the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about so long ago. Once again, it's being covered up with pious bullshit about 'their' sacrifice. And the church allows itself to be used to give added legitimacy to the slaughter, by unthinkingly participating in the cult of this modern version of Molech. Even worse in a way, we willingly spend the day ignoring the mass killings of civilians. You can't pretend they made a 'sacrifice for their country', so we ignore them altogether.

Remembrance Sunday could be made into something legitimate - I may try to do something with it at my church next year - but only if we resolutely turn our backs on the secular agenda underlying it, and make it into a genuine memorial for all the multifarious victims of mass murder by governments and their allies.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Reading the Bible

Great post from Derek Leman here on 'Reading the Bible Realistically'. It pretty well sums up my own approach. I encountered the Bible - or rather, selected bits thereof, well predigested - at Sunday School, and soon decided that as prople don't really walk on water and stuff like that, I wasn't going to believe any of it. I got bullied, which didn't help, and it wasn't very exciting either, but I've a very clear memory of rejecting the stories.

I got involved in the church again in my late twenties, and soon, like a lot of people, came across fundamentalism. We'd looked at the Synoptic Problem briefly in RE lessons when I was 11, so I was well aware that different Gospels have different versions of the stories. So I wasn't very happy when I found that they read Matthew's version of one of the Beatitudes - 'Blessed are the poor in heart' - and I got jumped on when I quoted Luke's version, 'Blessed are the poor'. This is one of the problems with the way we read the Bible; we read one version of the story, and ignore another. Leman cites the story of the Gadarene demoniac; in Mark, the oldest version, the story takes place near Gerasa, not Gadara. Luke follows Mark; Matthew changed the city, and adds a second demoniac. So how is it we insist the story takes place near Gadara, and only mention one demoniac? We're not looking seriously at any of the three versions of the story.

This brings up another problem; harmonisation. The Christmas story is the classic example; we have two very different, irreconcilable, versions in Matthew and Luke. We take a bit from one, a bit from the other, patch them together with the odd bit from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas - there are no animals in Luke's stable - and by the time we've finished, we have a nice cosy tale which completely fails to take the text of either with the slightest seriousness. It's an old tradition, going back to the days before printing. A complete Bible was about seven years' work, give or take, for highly skilled craftsmen. Books were so expensive that even kings didn't have a complete set of Gospels. People used harmonies, which retold the story using bits from here, there and everywhere, sometimes from apocryphal material, and doubtless a good deal of interpretation thrown in.

And there we have yet another problem. We read the bits of the text with fit - or can be made to fit - our expectations; the nice bits about blessings, not the bits about curses (ever looked at the lectionary readings which miss out chunks of text?); the bits which can be made to affirm doctrines, not the bits which don't. We like the prologue to John's Gospel, for instance, which sounds a bit like trinitarian doctrine (it isn't), and we ignore Mark 13:32, which makes Jesus sound rather too human. The result of our highly selective approach is that we use the Bible to 'prove' docrinal positions which weren't invented until long after it was written, and at the same time, all too often, fail to see what's actually there.

I wiped the dust of conservative Christianity from my feet, and went looking for a healthier way to use the Bible. I've always felt that if we want to call it a holy book, we have to take what it says with the utmost seriousness; if one text disagrees with another, we have to be honest about it. If it contradicts our most precious doctrines, we have to be honest about that too. If it ends up looking like a very human collection of books, rather than something dictated by the Holy Spirit, then that's where we need to be. It doesn't stop God speaking through it, so what's the problem?

The Wearing of the Red 1

Brilliant article here from Robert Fisk, about wearing poppies for Remembrance Sunday. It's a theme I'll return to, but I have to go to a church meeting (when I ought to be on the allotment!) and I don't have time for a proper post.

Thursday, 3 November 2011


Liberals like me don't talk about this subject very often, but it's something I read quite a lot about way back before I wiped the dust of conservative theology from my feet. Even then, I felt there was something wrong.

Revival was constantly portrayed as a work of the Holy Spirit; we were just supposed to pray for it, and in God's good time, it would happen. They forgot that the church is also a thoroughly human community. From my reading of church history, I found that lots of people join churches - I think this is as good a definition of revival as we're likely to get - when they see those churches as offering something relevant to their needs. It's no good standing in the market place shouting about people needing to be saved from their sins, if those people don't feel themselves to be sinners. Not only that, I think the Gospel is rather more than justification alone. But that's another story.

Being a Methodist, I tend to think first of the Methodist Revival, as it's sometimes called today. It happened at a specific historical moment, like most of the things which happen to human beings. The old agricultural society, which had been based on access to land, rather than ownership of it, was collapsing. In modern terms, the land was being privatised. The process had been going on for several centuries, but now it accelerated, with the result that large numbers of people were forced off the land. Some of them ended up working in new industries, like the Kingswood miners John Wesley preached to. New communities sprang up, and there was an inevitable increase in poverty.

The Church of England wasn't able to adapt to population movements; it was extremely hard to change parish boundaries, and the normal rule was that there was only one church per parish. I used to live in an area of moorland near St Austell in Cornwall. There was nothing there except a few farms until the development of China clay mining in the 19th Century. The only Anglican church within reasonable walking distance was built in the mid-20th Century. Every village, however, had its Methodist church.

In the 18th Century, everyone, to all intents and purposes, believed the Christian message. They took it for granted in a way we don't today. The dominant Protestant theology was Calvinism. If you went to church, and followed the rules, there was at least a fair chance you were one of the elect. If you didn't - and if you lived too far away to get there, that wasn't your fault - they you were likely to be under the decree of reprobation, predestined from eternity for a one-way trip to the eternal gas chambers. There may well have been people going in real fear of hell. When the Wesleys and their friends went and preached to them, taking the church to the people rather than waiting for them to turn up at the door, then of course they responded.

But it didn't stop there. John Wesley was a thinker and a theologian as well as an evangelist. His theology was a response to the situation he found himself in, tailored to the needs of an age which needed to emphasise that everyone, including the reject, may be accepted by God. He did everything he could to meet the practical needs of the poor, and he developed the class system.

This fell apart in the 19th Century, but it provided a community structure for people who'd been displaced and lost their original communities. That may not have been the intention, but it provided something which had never been needed before. We let it die, but other churches have developed it into the house group. It also evolved in a secular direction, of course. Early trade unions grew from Primitive Methodist roots. There may be more radical offshoots as well; I don't know whether there was an organic link, but the class meeting looks rather like the cell structure developed by Victorian revolutionary movements like the Fenian Brotherhood.

Some things have changed; you'd go a very long way to find anyone outside the church thinking about eternal damnation these days. However, lack of community is at least as much a feature of modern life, and probably more so. We're far more mobile, and ever fewer people have extended families around to offer support. Nuclear families often don't cope, raising children who may well be unable to cope in their turn. There's an opportunity there, to offer people a place to go for support and companionship. The church is intended as a radical community, where anyone and everyone can find their place, and that's surely an essential element of the Gospel. I don't believe it can be reduced to a form of words!

There's another thing we can offer people. Value. We live in a world where people have none; where they're treated as commodities. Years ago, when black people came here in large numbers - often at the invitation of the government - they could only get the worst jobs and accommodation, and, all too often, they weren't made welcome in our churches. So they brought their own. I remember meeting an old guy who came here back then, as a missionary from Jamaica. They might be nobody all week, but on Sundays, they had a valued place in the church, and probably a vital job. They might be a bishop or an apostle. I remember a Nigerian woman who was an Archbishop, properly ordained in the Apostolic Succession. I wonder what the Pope would make of that? If we can get rid of our ingrained cliquiness, and put an end to the endless empire-building, we can offer the same. You don't need robes or a fancy title to find your place in God's church.

If we want to build our churches up again - or see revival, which means the same thing - then we've got some serious work to do.

Monday, 31 October 2011

In the Beginning 2

It's been a while since I posted on this subject (here). I had an appeal hearing over my sick benefit - which I won - but I got extremely stressed over it. Any time that happens, my CFS gets the better of me, and I find stuff like academic commentaries too much to handle. However, I'm more or less coping now.

I got as far as the third day, when God gathers the water together, leaving the dry land. There's no creation ex nihilo in this; we read that into the text from later tradition. As I mentioned before, creation out of nothing is a later idea; as far as I'm aware it's first mentioned by Tertullian, a century and a half or so after the Crucifixion. He rejects it; creation is from matter, which is assumed to be pre-existent.

There's a problem here; the church likes to claim that its ideas are based on the Bible, then it imposes its own ideas on the text. In one way, that's valid, or we'd still be stuck with a 1st Century mode of thought. On the other hand, I'm not comfortable with claims that those ideas are in the text. They're not; they're interpretations. When it comes to creation, science, of course, maintains that it wasn't ex nihilo. It was from whatever was there before the Big Bang, and being no sort of physicist (my background is in geology, biology and theology), I'm not going to attempt to describe it. Contra Tertullian, it wasn't matter. However, it was matter's precursor, so he wasn't far wrong.

What we have is a description of God bringing order out of chaos. First he divides the waters,  then he gathers together the waters below, and limits their extent. Something like the world we know appears, but it's still lifeless. There's light and darkness, but no sun, moon or stars.

But we haven't finished with the third day yet. Immediately after separating land and sea, God calls vegetation into exisence. Once again, he's not creating it out of nothing.

Genesis 1:11 Then God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it." And it was so.

The author's interest is in fruit trees and seed bearing plants; that is, plants which are useful for agriculture. The land is empowered to 'bring them forth' in a way which sounds very much like spontaneous generation. This is a very old idea; maggots, for instance, were believed to be generated in meat. This, of course, is the generation of the organic from the inorganic, but the difference is only one of degree, and I'm not sure whether people would have been aware of it when Genesis was written.

On the fourth day, we return to the heavens.

Genesis 1:14-19 And God said, "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth." And it was so. God made the two great lights-- the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night-- and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

It's a long and elaborate description, suggesting that the 'lights' have a particular importance to the author. Sun and moon, of course, were important deities in the region; the difference here is that they are now created objects, and are not explicitly named, perhaps to avoid identification with their respective deities. Their purpose is to 'rule' over day and night, to divide them, and to give light. Once again, God is separating what had been confused, bringing order out of chaos. The lights are for 'seasons, days and years'; not hours, as these are a human invention which may not yet have raised its head, but the obvious, natural divisions of time. And, they are for 'signs'. The calendar is set by reference to the heavenly bodies; passover, for instance, takes place at the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

They can also be signs of other things. Matthew uses a star as a sign of Jesus' coming; Josephus mentions a 'star shaped like a sword' as one of the portents which presaged the outbreak of the First Revolt. Astrology may be seen as rather dodgy nowadays, but at the time, it was taken for granted.

The whole scenario is clearly geocentric. The heavenly bodies are there to serve earthly purposes. The ancients, or at least the educated minority, weren't as ignorant as often supposed; Eratosthenes measured the diameter of the Earth, accurately, around 200 BC, which rather gives the lie to the idea that they all thought it was flat. The heliocentric theory, which says that the Earth revolves around the sun, was first proposed by Aristarchus of Samos in the 3rd Century BC, but nobody believed him. Geocentricity, the idea that the Earth is the centre of the universe, was taken for granted until the early 16th Century, when Copernicus used observations of the movements of the planets to demonstrate mathematically that they orbit the Sun.

It's not surprising that the people who actually wrote Genesis would have taken a geocentric universe for granted; everyone did back then. The question is, what do we do with it now? Any 'literal' interpretatin goes out of the window once we start looking at the text seriously; not even the most extreme fundamentalist argues that the Earth is the centre of the universe. Tentatively, a theological geocentricity might be possible. Deuteronomy 7 maintains that God chose the Israelites, the weakest of peoples, because he loved them. Perhaps we could argue that he chose this insignificant planet as the centre of the cosmic drama, the bearer of his image, no less, because he, somehow, loved it? However, there's a gamble involved. If we then discover life elsewhere in the universe, we could be in trouble. Theologies are relative; they're produced by specific communities, in their specific times, places and cultures. None of them is ever fully satisfactory; no mere human can comprehend God in his fulness, after all. The trouble is, we then absolutise them, claim they apply universally, and, if we can, try to impose them on everyone. How exactly would we cope theologically with extraterrestrial life, I wonder? Is the alien in his flying saucer also made in God's image? Is a dalek of the Devil, or is he capable of redemption? Do bug-eyed monsters have souls? One day, we might seriously be looking for answers to qustions like this. It's possible that geocentricity in any form may prove to be mere hubris.

I think that's enough for one post; more later.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Who's the king of the castle?

We believe - formally at any rate - in a God who's omnipotent, onmiscient, and all the rest. He's the biggest the strongest, the king of the ubercastle. Yet we hear that it's possible for the human will to trump God's. God wills our salvation, yet we can resist it, and go marching off obstinately into hell. It's never made a lot of sense to me; I could easily have been a Calvinist - which at least makes logical sense - except I can't stomach a God who acts like a bigger and better version of Adolf Eichmann, sending people off to the eternal gas chambers.

Once you have the idea that God 'can't' do X, it's not a big step to say he 'can't' do Y either, and before long we have a God who can't do very much at all. Seriously, I've listened to preachers - fortunately not Methodist ones - who seemed to think that God couldn't do anything for us unless he was assisted by our faith. No salvation without our faith, no healing without our faith, and so on. It gets very Deuteronomic; if things aren't working out for you, it's your fault for not having faith.

That's a blatant example, but we meet a subtler one the whole time. All possibility of salvation ends if we die in our sins. Death is bigger than God. That's not what Paul thought, though, is it? I detest proof texts; you can prove anything by quoting half a dozen words out of context, buttressed by 'The Bible says'. Trouble is, what it says in one place, it often unsays in another. You want to promote infanticide? You'll find a nice quote in Psalm 137:9. But Paul undoubtedly does say 'The last enemy to be destroyed is death.' (1 Corinthians 15:25-26), so at least he thinks God is the stronger of the two. But if death can die, what price mercy after death? An omnipotent God surely isn't going to be beaten by the mere ending of bodily life.

I'm not going to pretend I know what happens after death; only God and the dead can answer that one. But all Christians agree that there's hope (one of the very few things they do all agree on!), and we may be mistaken in putting limits on that hope. I don't know whether everyone ends up being 'saved' or not, but if they are, that seems to me to make a lot more sense that the God who wants to save them all, but simply can't manage it.

Monday, 17 October 2011

God's will and ours

In Wesley's day, the dominant Protestant theology was Calvinism. Calvin didn't invent the idea of predestination; he inherited it from Augustine. Calvinists did, however, put a new emphasis on it. There was nothing good in humanity; we were, in Cranmer's phrase, 'vile earth and miserable sinners', totally dependent on God's grace for salvation. that grace was irresistible; if God had decided you were to be saved, you would infallibly be saved; if he had decided you were to be damned, you knew where you were going. Naturally; it wasn't God's fault if you went to hell; it was because of your own wretched sins, even if God had predestined them.

It doesn't add up. I get a picture of God sitting there in eternity, tossing dice. If he gets six sixes in a row, the soul goes to heaven. If he doesn't, it's fuel for the eternal fires somewhere down below.

The Wesleys were born into a world which was beginning to change; they lived through the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, and John was still alive when the Bastille fell. At the same time, they also saw Britain's last civil war, the Jacobite 'intestine jar' in 1745. Populations were beginning to shift; new mines were opened, and communities sprang up around them. Centres of industry began to grow. The Anglican parish system was unable to adapt, and people were living beyond the reach of the church. They were still essentially Christian, and with a bit of reading between the lines, it sounds as though some of them were going in real fear of hell fire. Not for the last time, it looked as though to be poor was, in many cases, to be damned as well.

The Wesleys and their friends found a practical answer; they went and preached to communities like the Kingswood miners, near Bristol, and they flocked to hear them. The theological answer came later, encapsulated in Wesley's 'alls'. All men (sic) need to be saved: All men can be saved: All men can know they are saved: All men can be saved to the uttermost. They only go back about a century, but they do sum up his message. God offered his free grace to everyone, and it was up to us whether we accepted it or not. Grace was resistable, and if we were sinful enough to do so, off we went to the eternal fires.

That's all right if everyone is, more or less, a believer. If anyone scoffs at the message, it's clearly because they choose to reject it. However, what of the person who's born in a village in Saudi Arabia, becomes a devout Muslim, and never meets a Christian? Or the one born to militant atheists, who never knowingly meets a Christian socially, and only encounters Jehovah's Witness types on the doorstep? They've never heard the message in any meaningful sense, so how can they be said to have rejected it? In a world which is essentially non-Christian, we're in trouble again.

I remember a particularly daft fundamentalist pastor who insisted that Methodists were hypocrites. He had all sorts of excuses for this claim, but the one that struck me was that we'd bury a 'sinner', who might not have gone to church, might have spent their evenings in the pub, and, horror of horrors, might even not have been officially married to their spouse (I've got particularly strong views on the latter nonsense, but that's a subject for another post), and we wouldn't mention at any point that they were going to hell. Well, how could we say that? I think most people can see that any such stuff would be fundamentally wrong.

I wonder how many Methodist preachers ever mention hell at all in their sermons? I remember one from years ago, with a habit of striking a pose and punching his Bible with vast emphasis whenever he wanted to condemn something he tought was terribly sinful. He did this in every sermon, and managed to look extremely silly in the process. But he was an exception. Hell has effectively disappeared from British Methodism, and no loss either in my view. I read my Bible, and it seems to me that judgement is followed by mercy. God gets terribly upset at the Israelites because they won't stop bowing down to the Baals, and sends them all off into exile. Then he calms down, and raises up Cyrus to let them go home again. Perhaps there's mercy for us after all, even after we die in our sins. If not, Heaven's going to be pretty empty.

That brings me back to grace. It's hard to see how a miserable human can resist God's mercy indefinitely, but maybe we can square the circle and suggest that he has eternity to work with. Death may be the last enemy, but he goes down before the divine legions in the end. Our obstinacy is merely human, and thus limited; God's patience is infinite.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Height of Goliath

When I was a kid, I was a militant atheist. I got bullied and bored at Sundays School, found the stories I was told somewhat implausible - even at that age I knew that people don't really walk on water - and when I was six I told my mother I didn't believe in God. So that was the end of religion, for many years.

One of the stories I objected to was that of David and Goliath. Come off it, people don't really grow to six cubits and a span, or about nine feet nine inches (1 Samuel 17:4). I've occasionally heard fundamentalist preachers tying themselves in knots with dubious attempts to convince congregations that this was possible, but one of the advantages of being a Methodist is that people are far too sensible to take any notice of the nonsense they hear from preachers. I am a preacher, so I can say what I like about them!

Then there's a different story in 2 Samuel 21:19, where Goliath is killed by a man named Elhanan. There's no detail, it contradicts the well-known, romantic version of his demise, and anyway we all know that the Bible can't possibly contradict itself, or the sky will fall. So it gets ignored.

I never took much notice of the tale till I got a copy of 'The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible' (Abegg, Flint & Ulrich, 1999). It gives a translation of the Biblical material from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Hebrew manuscripts traditionally used as the basis for our translations are medieval; the earliest complete copy of the Old Testament is 9th Century. The DSS are from around the 1st or 2nd Century BC, and get us far closer to the 'original' text. It gives Goliath's height as 'Four cubits and a span' or about six feet nine inches. This is massive, especially for a time when people were far less well-nourished than today, but not beyond reasonable bounds. Men of similar size are reported from the ancient world; according to the Historia Augusta, for instance, the Roman emperor Maximinus Thrax was well over eight feet high. It's not a reliable source, but no doubt he was extremely large. When 'Little John's grave' at Hathersage in the Peak district, was opened in 1784, they apparently found a human thigh bone 32 inches long, which would make the occupant at least seven feet tall. I say nothing about the historicity of the Goliath story.

Of course, the Hebrew wasn't the only version of the Hebrew Scriptures circulating in the ancient world. There's also the Septuagint, a Greek version produced some time after Alexander conquered the world, or at least the bit of it known to the Greeks. The earliest manuscripts, from the 2nd or 3rd Century AD, make Goliath four cubits and a span, the same as the DSS. Manuscripts from a little later make him five cubits, and medival ones, six cubits and a span. You couldn't have a better example of copyists 'improving' a text.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Why nobody really takes every word of the Bible literally

Good post here from Randall Rauser. I've met a good many people over the years who honestly thought they belived every word of the Bible literally, but I doubt whether I'll ever come across anyone who really does. How do they manage to kid themselves?

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Changing the church, or changing ourselves

This post with its quote from his - um - holiness annoyed me this morning. I've heard the like so often, from conservatives on both Catholic and Protestant wings of the church. As John Donne said though, no man [add women here] is an island. We're designed to work in community, and the church is precisely that; a community of people trying to follow Jesus together. We work out our salvation in fear and trembling together (Philippians 2:12; I don't like quoting little out-of-context snippets, but Paul uses the plural 'you', and illustrates the point perfectly. The Philippians were advised to do exactly what I'm describing).

So it's not a matter of retreating into my closet or wherever, and trying to change me, or even trying to get God to change me. It's a question of advancing - or not - together, with the community's support, and their wisdom to keep us on the straight and narrow. Individualism is a modern invention, it destroys community, and it paralyses the church. Everything is narrowed down to me and my Jesus, me and my salvation, and there's no concept of church or community at all. It challenges nothing, changes nothing, and that, of course, is the point when we hear rubbish like this from church leaders. It prevents any challenge to them and their ideas. If you persist, you probably find - as I have - that there's something wrong with you, not them. In their own opinion anyway.

Surely Wesley had it right in emphasising both faith and works. It's in our deeds, in changing the church, and building it anew for this generation, not the last, that we're changed ouselves. Together, not separately, we become - perhaps - more what God intended us to be. You can keep the Beatific Vision; I'd rather feed the hungry, and try to make the church something people are going to want to belong to. It's not either/or, it's both/and. You won't change on your own, and we won't build the church unless we change, together. Even the pillar saints were still part of a community; the emperor himself visited St Simeon Stylites, and apparently went away most impressed.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Martyn Atkins podcast

I don't usually watch podcasts much as I find it far easier to absorb the written word. This one Methodist Preacher has posted from Martyn Atkins, General Secretary of the Methodist Church, is worth watching, though, as it pretty much sums up where my church is trying to be.

Friday, 30 September 2011

The Rage of God

Good post here from Richard Beck. He's quite right, Revelation is a text about martyrdom. We really need to take it seriously, rather than leaving it to the nutcases! My interest is a little different from Richard's; he ignores the angelic struggle, which echoes the angelic revolt in 1 Enoch. I get fascinated by stuff like that. But never mind; on other aspects of the book we sing from the same hymn sheet.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

An immoral trade

I don't use the word 'immoral' lightly; it brings back memories of Mary Whitehouse and 'My Ding-a-Ling', and I wonder how much meaning it still retains. I don't know what other word to use of the arms trade, though, and the emerging scandal over illegal munitions and shackling equipment on sale at the DSEi fair in London. It's not even the first time such stuff has been on offer.

There have been times - Sierra Leone (I declare an interest here; it's where my wife and kids come from), probably Libya, where the UK armed forces have done real good. There have been too many occasions when they've been nothing but a bloody disaster; the only unique aspect of Bloody Sunday was the publicity it gained. Behind it all, though, lies the murky world of arms dealing, in which Britain is an international leader. Again, I have an interest; the civil wars in Sierra Leone and so many other places would never have been possible without Europeans eager to buy smuggled diamonds or whatever, and snaffle up the cash in return for weapons.

It's easy to justify a small arms industry, producing weapons for national self-defence. A multinational juggernaut manufacturing machinery designed wholly and solely for killing human beings in all sorts of ingenious ways, and selling it to all comers with as few questions asked as possible, however, is something else. I wonder how many deaths the British arms industry has been responsible for over the last decade?

Surely there's an answer. Over a decade, say, we could retool the vast majority of those factories, and employ the skilled workers there to produce something useful. British industry has been hollowed out over a generation by turning asset stripping into a national pastime. Who knows; there may be a chance here to rebuild some of it, given sufficient ingenuity. We need a government with the guts to bite the bullet, preferably before it's fired.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Synagogue Visit

I had an interesting morning with a church group at the Progressive Synagogue down the road, after having gone to the wrong synagogue by mistake. Quite a few of us managed that.

The service was mostly in Hebrew, and very hard to follow, though I did catch the odd word. That being said, it was no harder than the time I visited the Coptic Orthodox Church, where they use a somewhat Hellenised version of the language of the Pharaohs. It was very liturgical, following the book throughout, and the combination of prayers, hymns and readings was familiar. The one element which was new to me was short readings interspersed with commentary from the book, which seemed to replace the sermon. There's nothing surprising here; our church liturgies are descended from the synagogue service, and still follow the same overall pattern. Even some of our traditional prayers are recognisably Jewish, with phrases like 'walk in [God's] way, borrowed from the Hebrew, and doubtless a complete mystery to any non-churchgoing Gentile.

Someone had his bar Mitzvah, which I haven't seen before. The phrase means 'son of the commandment', and it marks the point where the boy is starting to develop into an adult, and is considered able to follow the commandments on his own initiative. Our nearest equivalent would be confirmation, but this is a lot more demanding, as the lad had to read a passage of Torah in Hebrew, which would be more than enough to boggle most Christian minds. The service ended with the congregation pelting him with sweets; I should have asked someone what the significance was, but didn't think of it. We stayed for kiddush, a blessing said over bread and wine on the Sabbath. I don't know whether there's any conection with Christian communion or not, but it's something to look into.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Thursday, 8 September 2011

In the Beginning...

The creation accounts (plural) in Genesis have always been of interest to me; I suppose it comes of having a degree in geology. Not long after I became a Christian, a fundamentalist girlfriend pressurised me into reading a couple of creationist books. I checked out everything I read - none of it sounded remotely right - and hit the roof. The books were a mass of halftruths, larded out with plain porkies. Worse, they had to have been written by someone who knew exactly what he was doing. One thing I never could stand is the person who earns money as a religious charlatan.

Despite all the arguing about the first few chapters of Genesis, it's not often they get read for what's really there in the text. People tend to bring their preconcieved ideas - this is a regular problem when it comes to reading the Bible - and of course they find what they expect to find.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.

On the face of it, Genesis 1 verse 1 is simple enough. In the beginning - as a first act - God created everything there is. Genesis 1 uses the same word for God - Elohim, which can be used of any divine being, as well as being a name for God - throughout. The word used for the creative act; BARA', is used elsewhere in the passage, in 1:21, 1:27 and 2:3. So it's reasonable to suppose it was all produced at pretty much the same time, by the same group of people. Whoever put the Bookof Genesis together placed it at the beginning; whoever compiled the Hebrew canon - the official list of holy books making up the Hebrew Scriptures - placed it in pole position, right at the start. The placing of the text privileges it, forces us to read it as making an important statement about God and his creation.

However, there are debates about its exact meaning. Should it be translated 'In the beginning God created', or, as the NRSV has it, 'In the beginning when God created...'? Is it part of a continuous narrative, a title, or perhaps an independent creation story? Let's not forget that the Bible has several accounts of creation, and they're all different. Whatever the author's intention, the narrative moves on to God's interaction with things he doesn't appear to have created. The waters, the deep, the darkness; where did they come from? We're used to the idea of creation ex nihilo - out of nothing - but this is a much later idea. As far as I can make out, it's first mentioned by Tertullian, writing at the end of the 2nd Century AD. He rejects it, insisting that God created out of something, namely matter.

In the Ancient Near East, it was assumed that the god, whoever the individual worshipped, had created the world out of a pre-existing, watery, chaos. This was ruled over by a monstrous deity, whom the god defeated in a primal battle. In the Babylonian Enuma Elish, there's a long and elaborate acocunt of how the god Marduk fought against the armies of his mother Tiamat, and killed her after a titanic struggle. Having done so, he then built the world out of her corpse. There's only the faintest generic resemblence to Genesis 1, but we do find the chaos monster and the primal battle elsewhere in the Old Testament.

Psalm 74:10-17:

How long, O God, is the foe to scoff?
Is the enemy to revile your name forever?
Why do you hold back your hand; why do you keep your hand in your bosom?
Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the earth.
You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
You cut openings for springs and torrents; you dried up ever-flowing streams.
Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun.
You have fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter.

The sanctary of Zion - or Jerusalem - has been destroyed; Judah's enemies are triumphant, and the psalmist reminds God - or his people - of his mighty power. He rules everything; he destroyed Leviathan; he can deal with Babylon as well. In the midst of it all, we find the primal battle clearly, though briefly, described. God crushed the heads of the dragons (TANIN: sea-monsters) in the waters; he crushed Leviathan's heads and fed him to carrion beasts. Leviathan (LWTN in the original; vowels are a medieval addition to the text) derives from the Canaanite Latan (LTN), a seven-headed water monster who features in a poem found on a clay tablet at Ugarit, in modern Syria. There, Baal slays Sea, dragons (TANIN again), and Latan. Lingustically,  Hebrew is a late dialect of Canaanite, so the resemblances aren't surprising.

We find the battle again in Psalm 89, which celebrates god's covenant with the house of David, and sings of his might:

Psalm 89:9-12

You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.
You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.
The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it-- you have founded them.
The north and the south-- you created them; Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name.

The name Rahab is sometimes used of Egypt, but the primary reference is to the chaos battle. Perhaps we're justified in hearing an echo of the destruction of Pharaoh as well, since the story of his end in the waters of the Red Sea parallels it so neatly. In Isaiah 27:1, Leviathan and the primal battle appear again, this time as a metaphor for evil:

Isaiah 26:20 - 27:1 Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the wrath is past. For the LORD comes out from his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity; the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no longer cover its slain. On that day the LORD with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.

Over time, the Israelites' idea evolved. God gets bigger, and the monsters smaller. In Genesis 1, the monster appears in v21, as something created by God. In Psalm 104:26, Leviathan is said to have been created by God, to play in the sea. The monster makes a final appearance in Jonah, in the form of a great fish which turns out to be a more faithful servant of God than his wretched prophet.

The chaos battle, then, has disappeared in Genesis 1, which presents a God who is clearly in control of the creation. Even he, however, doesn't seem to find it easy to get the primal waters under control. On the forst day, he calls light into being, and separates it from dark; on the second, he makes a dome (RIQQUA - something beaten or stamped out, an expanded plate). He doesn't call it into being, he gets his hands dirty, and he uses it to split the waters horizontally, into waters above and below. The expanse is called 'sky'. In the story of the flood, we gain an extra detail; the expanse contains sluices or floodgates - there are various translations to be found, but this is the only one which makes sense in this context - which God opens to let the waters through. The waters above make good sense in a pre-scientific society; large quantities of water regularly fall from the sky, so there must be a great deal of it up there somewhere. God is seen to control the weather thoughout the Old Testament, in, to give one example, the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, who was another, rival, weather god.

On the third day, once more, God is at work, commanding the waters to be gathered together in the sea. Thus the dry land appears. There's a pattern here; heavens (light and dark) - sea/air - land, which is found repeated in the rest of the six days of creation; with the creation, first, of the heavenly bodies, then of fish and birds, and finally of land animals and human beings.

I think that's enough for one post, but this stuff fascinates me, as you've probably gathered. I'll continue in a couple of days.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Dealing with the sinner

We were discussing part of yesterday's lectionary reading, Matthew 18:15-17, in the prayer meeting this morning. It's the section about how to deal with another church member who's sinned against you:

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

I think this is something the church as a whole fails to get right. At one time, a significant number of our ladies had been drummed out of other churches, for getting pregnant and/or being in relationships with men they weren't officially married to. All of them were in committed relationships, some of which had lasted for many years. There has to be something wrong here; our view is that the church should celebrate such relationships, regardless of whether or not the couple have paid for a ceremony and a legal ticket. The problem doesn't lie with such couples, but with a culture which has developed a historically narrow understanding of marriage.

Coming back to Matthew, this is an area where the Methodist Church has a real problem. Some of us were discussing our experiences round the country, and between us we covered quite a number of Districts. In every one, we'd all found the identical problem. Cliques and little tinpot dictators. Nobody wants to start expelling church members, but we go to the opposite extreme of allowing small numbers of people to alienate potential church members, or drive existing members away, in large numbers, for the sake of childish ego games. Anything rather than challenge these people, and sort the problems out. My view is that we should sometimes be willing to vote people out of office, but even this seems to be too difficult. Once someone's elected, an office all too often becomes a lifetime appointment, and if the church has appointed the wrong person, it's in trouble.

I don't pretend to have instant solutions, but a denomination which is in long-term decline can't afford not to tackle its awkward squad.

Luke's Infancy Gospel

Luke's narrative is considerably longer than Matthew's. He begins with a brief introduction, dedicating the book to 'Theophilus', whoever he was. I don't see much point speculating. He makes it clear that he's not an eyewitness (despite subsequent claims, no gospel author says anything which would clearly indicate that he was present at any of the events described), and that he's using sources. He's not too impressed with them, and writes an 'accurate account'. One of his sources has to be Mark, since a lot of material is transcribed verbatim, and, like Matthew, he re-orders the material, in his own way. I rather think that he also has a copy of Matthew, but if so, he rejects Matthew's infancy gospel, and writes his own.

He begins with Gabriel's appearance to Zechariah, promising the miraculous birth of a son, John the Baptist. Gabriel then goes off and appears to Mary to announce the coming birth of Jesus; she's most upset since she's too young. Unlike Matthew, there's no explicit virgin birth. So here we have two angelic visions, two miraculous births, and Gabriel appears, not to Joseph, but to Mary. The unborn John is made to bear witness to the unborn Jesus, as a way of emphasising that Jesus is superior. All four Gospels take up this theme in their different ways; Jesus seems to have joined John's movement at some time - this  is implied by his baptism - and that would imply that John was superior.

The magnificat - Mary's psalm in 1:46-55 - brings in one of Luke's favourite themes; wealth and poverty. The humble shall be raised up, the hungry filled with good things; the proud are scattered, the mighty torn from their thrones and the rich sent empty away. It's traditional OT language, expressing a thoroughly Jewish vision of salvation. Luke's concern for the poor is established as being in line with traditional Jewish expectations. There's an eschatological meaning here; Jesus comes to bring the new age of the Kingdom - not immediately, but within the lifetime of at least some of his hearers (9:27) - and the 'mighty' who are to be torn down aren't specific rulers, but all rulers who stand in opposition to the rule of God. The just society is coming, and the church should embody it in microcosm (Acts 4:34-7), but it's the work of God, despite the church's role in subverting the present order. The remainder of the chapter is concerned with John's birth, and Zechariah's prophecy, which promises that a Davidic saviour (literally a 'horn of salvation') is coming, and that John will be a prophet. We've spiritualised the concept of 'saviour' until we've lost touch with the meaning it held at the time, but it was a royal title, often taken by the founder of a dynasty. One of Alexander's generals, for instance, a man named Ptolemy, seized power in Egypt after Alexander's death, and called himself Ptolemy Soter; Ptolemy the Saviour. The implication was that he had 'saved' the Egyptians from the dreadful rule of the previous dynasty. A horn was a Jewish symbol of military power; we're still in a world where the mighty are liable to be torn from their thrones, and it's clearly the power of God which is behind it. At the same time, obviously, we have a second figure, Jesus, who somehow embodies or possesses that power. We're still in a thoroughly Jewish world, but that is about to change.

Chapter 2 puts us straight into the Roman world. It begins with a reference to a census, allegedly ordered by Augustus, across the entire oikumenon, the inhabited world, or in other words, the Roman empire. We're not yet in the era of the world-empire on which the sun literally never rose, but the attitude is the same. There is, of course, no evidence that Augustus ever ordered any such thing, and it's hard to see why he would wish to go to the trouble and expense of doing so. It's possible that this might be a reference to a general policy of carrying out periodic censuses. A census was a local thing, ordered to determine what sums could be expected in taxation from a specific province. In this case, Judea and Samaria had been ruled for ten years or so by Archelaus, the eldest surviving son of Herod I, the 'King Herod' of Matthew 2. Archelaus was not a success as a ruler, and after a series of complaints from the Jews, Augustus sent him into exile, and imposed direct rule over his domain, while his younger brothers were left in place over the parts of their fathers' kingdom they had inherited.

Quirinius, the Syrian Legate, was the most important Roman official of the day, after the Emperor, with responsibility for the defence of the entire eastern frontier as far as the border of Egypt. The area had been conquered by Pompeius Magnus - the 'Pompey' under whose statue Caesar fell - in the previous century, and the administration had always been extremely lightweight. Wherever possible, it was ruled via native princes like the Herods. Judea was set up as a sort of sub-province, governed by an equestrian - a member of the lower aristocracy - with a small policing force of auxiliaries. His function was to keep order, with the aid of the native elite, which had to be kept in line, and to collect taxes. In the event of serious trouble, the Syrian Legate, a senior Senator, usually an ex-Consul, with major military and political experience, would have to intervene with his legions. This arrangement wasn't unique; the Decapolis was run on a similar basis.

One of the first tasks was to carry out a census, in order to establish the taxation base, which took place in late 6 or early 7 AD. Taxes would be farmed out; rich men would pay the money up front, and then had to collect the money, plus their take. Judging by the number of complaints, the latter was often excessive. Normal practice, understandably, was to assess households in their place of residence. Forcing everyone to return to their place of birth would be disruptive, administratively complex - I wonder how well modern states would cope with it? - and pointless. To make Luke's story yet more implausible, Joseph and his family are apparently living in Nazareth, in Galilee. This was under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, Tetrarch (a title given to a minor native prince) of Galilee and Perea, an area on the East Bank of the Jordan. Antipas, of course, raised the taxes there, and then made his own payment to the Romans. So Luke would have us believe that Joseph travelled from one jurisdiction into another, to register for a tax he wasn't liable for. It's not impossible that Herod held a census for his own purposes, and Luke rejigged the story, but if so, we have no record of it. If Joseph was only temporarily absent from Bethlehem, and had a regular home there, it's strange that he should end up sleeping in an inn stable. The answer, of course, is that Luke's writing, not history, but theology.

The point is, of course, that Jesus was known to have been from Nazareth. His followers, however, were convinced, brobably on the basis of Micah 5:2, that the Messiah had to come from Bethlehem, like David. Matthew and Luke deal with the difficulty in quite different ways. Matthew starts the story in Bethlehem; Joseph and Mary appear to be living there. They become refugees in Egypt, and eventually, after the death of Herod, move to Galilee. His son Archelaus is ruling Judea - there's no mention of Antipas, ruler of Galilee - and Bethlehem isn't safe for the family. Luke starts with the family in Nazareth, and concocts the census story to account for a visit to Bethlehem, and at the same time to emphasise that Jesus is born under Roman rule.

Here, of course, we find a major contradiction between the two versions. Matthew, writing for Jews, has Jesus born in a thoroughly Jewish context under Herod I, who died in 4BC. Luke's Jesus is born ten years or so later. He, of course, writes for Gentiles, and wants to convince his audience that Christianity is perfectly compatible with the Roman order. So he places the birth in a Roman context; his Jesus is born in the civilised world, not under some exotic eastern ally of Rome.

Fundamentalists will sometimes claim that 'there is evidence', or some such expression, that Quirinius had been Syrian Legate before, and that the two accounts are therefore not incompatible. The 'evidence', however, consists of a mistranslation of a partial inscription which doesn't contain the name of the governor it refers to. All we know about Quirinius' previous career is that he had held office in the east; the rest of it is ideological wishful thinking.

Luke's date is almost certainly too late. Pilate was Prefect of Judea from 26 to 36 AD. That would make Jesus about thirty when he was dismissed, and in his mid to late twenties at the accepted time of his death. It's rather too young to make him a plausible leader for a religious movement. Matthew's date is more likely, but it's perfectly possible that neither author knew the correct date. It was an agricultural society, with a low literacy rate, and in such cultures, people often don't know own their birth dates.

Luke's Jesus is born in a stable, and his first visitors are shepherds, not Gentiles as in Matthew. Luke's interests are different; he writes for Gentiles, who need no reminder that they need to be included in the church. He's always concerned about the poor, and so his Jesus comes into the world in conditions of poverty, attended only by ordinary people. Gabriel appears, not to Mary of Joseph, but to the shepherds, announcing a saviour, who is Messiah and Lord, of the house of David. Despite the humble circumstances, these are more resonant titles than Matthew uses; he only calls Jesus 'Messiah' in his infancy gospel. A saviour is one who rescues the people from tyranny; a Messiah is an eschatological ruler sent from God, and 'Lord' can mean anything form 'Sir' to the Most High God himself in person. Jesus isn't being identified with God, but he is being set up as his plenipotentiary.

There's an echo of the claims made for Augustus; an inscription from Priene reads: 'Providence … has brought into the world Augustus and filled him with a hero’s soul for the benefit of mankind. A Savior for us and our descendents, he will make wars to cease and order all things well. The epiphany of Caesar has brought to fulfillment past hopes and dreams.' This sort of language isn't unique to Augustus. It's not necessarily a direct reference, but Jesus is being placed on a level with the emperor. The difference is that Jesus is sent from God himself, while Augustus or his flatterers is content with his being the epiphany of his adoptive father, the divine Julius.

Jesus is circumcised, taken to the Temple, and a sacrifice made, as Torah demanded. The turtledoves or pigeons of v24 are from Leviticus 12:8, which specifies them as a poor woman's offering for purification after childbirth. She's considered to be unclean for a period - seven days for a male child, fourteen for a girl - then there's a period of blood purification; thirty-three days for a boy or sixty-six for a girl. At that point, she makes the offering, and is considered clean. After the seven or fourteen days, she's technically clean, but has to stay at home for the further period, and avoid contact with anything holy. It's a long way from anything in modern European culture, but there is a hangover from it still with us; some of the more deeply misogynistic Anglo-Catholics I've come across have worried about the mere possibility of a menstruating woman entering the sanctuary of a church, let alone administering Communion. Luke's point, however, is that Jesus is a Jew, brought up as a Jew, and that his family are devout observers of Torah.

The Angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds, the glory of the Lord shines around, and they react with the fear which Luke considers appropriate to divine manifestations. There are a number of places in the OT where the distinction between God and angel becomes blurred; in Genesis 16:7, the Angel of the Lord appears to Hagar; in v13, she addresses him as God himself; in Exodus 3:2-6, the apparition  in the burning bush is both the Angel of the Lord and God. And so on. This is an acceptable way to describe a theophany; the message is to be understood as coming from God. The angel announces the coming of a saviour, who is Messiah and the Lord, and the heavenly host appears around him. Quite a vision, but described in such a way as to be compatible with the idea that it was impossible to see God and survive the experience. This puts Luke around the midpoint on a sliding scale; at one end we have John, who insists that nobody has ever seen God at any time; at the other we have a full-frontal vision of God in Revelation 4 - and, of course, several more in the OT. Luke manages to maintain a degree of ambiguity in the shepherds' vision. What really matters is the overwhelming majesty of the vision, not so much the precise - and necessarily inadequate - theological language used to describe it.

The shepherds rush off to see Jesus - rather than Gentiles being the first, as in Matthew's account, it is now the poor who have priority - and the baby is taken to the Temple for the appointed sacrifice. While there, Simeon and Anna offer messianic prophecies over him. Simeone is an old man who's been promised a sight of the Messiah before he dies, by no less than the Holy Spirit. The Jews thought in terms of 'extensions' of God; God himself was 'out there', and inaccessible, but his Spirit, his Word, his Wisdom, his mighty arm, his angels, all served to mediate his presence within creation. The New Testament adds his Son to the catalogue, but remains essentially within Jewish tradition. Simeon prophesies that Jesus will be a 'sign' for the falling and rising of many in Israel - no mention of the Gentiles, in keeping with Luke's idea of 'the Jews first, then the Gentiles'. He goes on to say that Jesus will be opposed, and that a sword will pierce Mary's heart, an early indication of trouble to come.

Anna is a devout old woman who never leaves the Temple. She tells everyone who is looking for 'the redemption of Jerusalem' about the baby. The phrase parallels the inscriptions on First Revolt coinage; the first rebel government was run by priests, and one of their early acts was to issue shekels - providing the pure silver required for the Temple tax - which bore no image, unlike the shekels of Tyre used earlier, and bore the Hebrew inscription 'Shekel of Israel' on the obverse, with the date 'Year 1', and on the reverse, the inscription 'Jerusalem the Holy'. The following year, a less aristocratic regime brought in small copper coins, with the inscription 'The Freedom of Zion'. By the fourth year of the revolt, the government was run by radicals who freed slaves, redistributed property, and appear to have been attempting to enact the Law of Jubilee in Leviticus 25. (Obscure stuff here, so I'd better give some references. Josephus, War, 4:508; Neil Faulkner, Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt against Rome AD 66-73, Tempus, 2002, p288; Ya'akov Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coins, Amphora, 2001, p115ff).

Luke's intention is to show that Jesus' movement is compatible with Roman rule, while the 'freedom' or 'redemption' of Zion on the coinage is principally freedom from Roman rule. However, nobody picks up a term from the surrounding culture, and instantly uses it in a radically new sense. Meanings and interpretatioins evolve with time, and in some cases - Paul's ideas about the salvation of the Gentiles, for instance - we can watch ideas developing within the NT. When Jesus or his diciples first used messianic language, they must have been thinking about political liberation; these ideas changed later, as the movement developed within a Roman context, and realised that, contrary to what Paul and his people believed, Jesus wasn't going to return to sweep the existing world order away in the next five minutes. The crucifixion has to have begun a process of reassessment; by the time we get to Paul, we've moved beyond the vision of the messiah as an earthly king to something more akin to the angelic Son of Man of Daniel 7; Jesus is raised up, set over all, appointed to be Son of God with power at his resurrection. By the time we get to Luke, writing a generation after Paul, we find a concern to live alongside political structures which is just barely there in Paul, who doesn't really think such things matter. In his view, Jesus is due to return any moment, so it's not even worth marrying, let alone worrying too much about the Romans!

After this, the family return to Nazareth, until Jesus is twelve. At that age, a Jew would have been growing up, but not yet an adult. He goes to Jerusalem whith his family, to celebrate Passover, and stays behind, vastly impressing everyone who heard him. Various figures of the ancient world - Samuel, Cyrus, Epicurus, and so on - were said to have made a great impression at this age, so Jesus falls into a known pattern here. When his parents come looking for him, Jesus tells them that they should have expected to find him in his father's house. The relationship with God is to the fore here, and while we may well be expected to see the  divine Wisdom at work in Jesus here, it isn't made explicit at this point. He then goes home with his parents, and obeys them like a good lad, increasing in wisdom, and in divine and human favour, while he gets older. So if he had enough wisdom to impress people at twelve, we should expect something tremendous as he grows up!

Luke's infancy gospel ends at this point, and chapter 3, where the main text begins, looks very much like another beginning to the Gospel. This has taken me far too long to write, and I don't intend to attempt to cover two chapters in a single post again!

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Church barbeque

I had to take a service, rush back to the barbeque, see a sick friend, and then dash down to the allotment. In the process I forgot the camera, so no pics. Never mind. We'd never had a barbeque before, but we decided to have one over tea after a service a few weeks ago. One of our members brought her barbeque, and the Super, who took the service, brought his. Everyone mucked in - that's the important thing at these events - and it was a great success.

I've found before that if you start with the little things - helping at something like this, leading choruses, whatever - then it isn't long before some of them start developing roles in the church. That's the dangerous phase; sometimes people begin to feel threatened, and try to squash whatever's going on. Deal with that, support people in what they're doing, and maybe the church can flourish in other areas as well. Church is a community, and it's only as it learns to function as a healthy community, with everyone finding their role, that it can grow.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

C K Barrett

I've just heard about the passing of C K Barrett, former Professor of Divinity at Durham. I only met him once, but he was a notable preacher as well as a great scholar. Twenty years ago, when I realised I needed to grapple with academic works on the Bible, his commentary on John was the first I bought. I'm still using it, and his work on 1 Corinthians. He'll be sadly missed.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Reworking Jesus

Jesus Creed has a review of what sounds like an interesting book here: Jesus in our Own Image. It's a sickening story I came across long since, and it's not unique; there have been many other perversions of the Gospel over the centuries. The really worrying thing is that it's only an extreme version of what we all do. We all filter out the stuff we don't like, read stuff into the text which isn't there, and so on. 'German Christianity' and apartheid theology were rejected as heresies, but the dangerous stuff is the nonsense going round right now. Can anyone, for instance, see the connection between the stuff quoted here and Christianity? James Robinson, Wayne Grudem

Coming back to home, what about our own sermons? Was Jesus really as tame, as easy to fit into British culture, as we make him out to be? Where are we sliding off into error?

Monday, 15 August 2011

Matthew's Infancy Narrative

There's an interesting post about Matthew 2:13-15 here in the Naked Bible: . I like a lot of what he says, but I differ on one point; I don't think Matthew got the story from Mary. I think he made it up.

There's a progression in the New Testament writers. Paul thinks that Jesus is 'declared to be son of God with power' at his resurrection (Romans 1:4); he's exalted and given the 'name above all names', ie God's name (Philippians 2:9), and he really isn't interested in the unexalted, unresurrected Jesus who the disciples knew. Mark is, however. He thinks Jesus was adopted as God's son at his baptism (Mark 1:11), and he's not interested in his life before this event. Matthew, however, thought he was God's son from birth. He probably didn't know anything about his early years - he and Luke tell incompatible stories, and manage to come up with dates ten years or so apart for the Nativity - and the story he does tell is essentially theological. It wasn't, of course, a particularly literate society, and peasants have often been vague about exactly when they were born.

Jesus is born miraculously, like Isaac or Samuel, except that this time the birth happens to a young woman, not an old one. Doubtless Mary was known to have been young at the time; we don't know when she died, but her son James ran the Jerusalem church for a generation. The rough outline, at least, would have been known. Jesus' Messiahship is testified to by the star, based on Balaam's star prophecy in Numbers 24.

Matthew is writing for devout Jews, who don't like the Pharisees - his Jesus slags them off a lot more than anyone else's - but seem to have followed their interpretations of the Law. He's keen to emphasise that Gentiles have their place in the Kingdom, and so the first people to honour the infant Messiah are, of course, some rather learned Gentiles. The Jews reject Jesus, and Matthew blames them for his death (27:23; this isn't antisemitic, since it's written by a Jew. It has, of course, been used in an antisemitic way subsequently). So Jesus is on the recieving end of an assassination attempt by a sort-of-Jewish king.

Matthew wants to portray Jesus, among other things, as the prophet like Moses promised in Deuteronomy 18:15-19. This becomes most obvious when he has Jesus stand on a mountain to deliver his interpretation of the Law. Here, he takes the opportunity to place him in Egypt - doubtless he has in mind that Moses was himself a refugee, though it was in Midian not Egypt - and then has God call him back to his own people. No doubt the thought that God's son Israel also came out of Egypt wasn't far from the back of his mind; why confine yourself to one implied reference when you can manage two at once?

What we have here is a narrative which foreshadows the story Matthew is about to tell, and which at the same time lets us know who he believes Jesus to have been.

Gehenna and the State

Good post here from Andrew Perriman: .

And one here from Micheal Bird about Romans 13: .

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Peace rally

I've just been at the rally in Summerfield Park - sorry, there are no pics because I dashed there from organising a vegetable show, and by that time I was so shattered I forgot I had the camera. It was good to see people getting together from all the main faiths; that's something we need more of. Maybe we can build on it somehow. Naturally no awkward questions were asked; it wasn't the time for it so soon after three deaths, though I wasn't too comfortable with the Chief Constable making a complacent speech about how wonderful his officers are, when I know too many people locally whose kids get hassled regularly by those same officers. I think we all realise that the police played a role in triggering the trouble off, just as they did back in the 1980's.

We've got a systemic problem in society, and it's not going to be solved by speeches from 'leaders'; it needs work at grassroots level, to start building a better society. If we want Britain to be a place where every kid has a future, and a stake in their community, and everyone can expect to be treated with respect, then we need to do something about it. If people see us making things better in a sustainable way, without depending on leadership from ministers and similar people, who move on after a few years, or on funding which soon runs out, then sooner or later the politicians and the country will have to follow.

PS I've known Dudley Road for many years; I think this article is pretty fair.