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.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Original sin?

We all know the story. Adam and Eve got kicked out of the garden for being disobedient; maybe they'd eat the fruit of the other tree and become immortal, like gods. So either they got punished, or Daddy booted them out for their own good and told them to grow up - maybe a bit of both - and off they went. In the next generation, Cain was sent off after killing his brother, afraid of being killed by the people out there. What people? Then, it appears, he went on to marry a foreigner. What foreigner?

At the very least, we need to see that these stories aren't particularly consistent, and that we therefore shouldn't make a shibboleth out of them. They say that evil is there from the beginning, and attribute it to a breach of God's commandment. We soon find that sin isn't just individual. Adam and Eve sin together, as a couple - as the most basic community - but that's easily overlooked. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is probably the most obvious example of what I mean.

We're told how wicked the people of Sodom are, and God promises to spare them if he can only find ten righteous men there. They attack Lot and his family - it's not about homosexuality, but about the abuse of a guest - and God zaps the lot of them. It's not individual sin, it's systemic sin; they're all guilty. Somehow, though, the church has failed to see how a whole society can be guilty; it's individualised sin; for centuries, original sin was about Adam's guilt being passed from generation to generation in sperm, like eye colour.

Systemic sin is still with us, unfortunately, and one of its results is the riots of the last week. It's a recurring problem, which was with us before the present generation of rioters was born. The police are still making the same mistakes they made in the 1980's; the same deprivation is still with us, the rich are still getting richer, the poor, poorer, and another generation go out on the streets to express their frustration in the same old way. I'm not certain that it's best regarded as a consequence of original sin, but it's the best I can come up with at the moment.

Unfortunately, with our individualised, forensic approach to sin and salvation - about an endless string of individuals being found not guilty at the divine court - we don't currently have the tools to address evils of this sort properly. Perhaps the people who wrote the Bible did, in their own way. I think we've thrown out a great many babies over the centuries, along with the theological bathwater of a multitude of church reforms.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The Flesh

Richard Beck has a good post on sarx and soma here:

Can we do better?

I've been thinking back to the church's response to the riots in the 1980's. A lot happened that was good, but it was superficial. Most of it was minister-led, and the nature of the Methodist system ensures that this can never be the answer. Ministers move on, and nothing they run can ever last too long. That, I think, was the nature of the system back then. We were still living in the days when the slightest breath of criticism of a minister was always met by appalling patronising speeches about how wonderful everything in a dog-collar was, from officials who were, of course, 'nominated' to office by ministers, and probably lived up their backsides. Hopefully, the church has moved on a little.

Most of these ministers were perfectly well-meaning, though there were a few empire-builders involved. None, as far as I know, ever asked serious questions about systemic problems; mostly, they set up 'projects' designed to alleviate the situations they found in the inner city. Theological thinking, such as it was, was superficial, and soon sank without trace. Funding for projects ran out, ministers moved on, and everything came to a halt.

We can certainly build sustainable projects. We have a charity shop at my church which predates the riots. It's survived because we run it ourselves without outside money, paid workers, or significant minsterial involvement. So that's one thing we can do. Set things up which we can run ourselves, long-term. That, however, is still just sticking-plaster on the wound. It doesn't solve the problem.

We need some serious theological thinking. The church is a theological community, whose way of being is intimately involved with its theories about God, the universe, and itself. A hierarchical church will tend to develop a theology which makes hierarchy essential; look at the Roman Catholics. A church which is cosy with the political powers - as much of it has been for most of its history - fails to challenge them as it ought. We've developed a cosy doctrine of salvation which is about repentance from personal sin, and about 'souls', whatever they are, going to heaven after we die. That's obviously simplistic, but I think it sums up the position.

We've tended to emphasise the individual sins of the poor (why do we find it so much easier to condemn a rioter than a greedy banker?) at the expense of those of the rich, and particularly at the expense of the great social sins - poverty, injustice, and so on - which the Bible has rather a lot to say about. We've taken this to the point where it's possible for preachers to invent the 'prosperity gospel', castigate the poor, make the agenda of the greedy rich into the agenda for their churches, and still get away with calling themselves Christian. At best, we've patched up peoples' wounds, and helped alleviate the worst evils of an unjust system without calling its existence into question. We've accepted the increasing inequality in Britain with nothing more than an inaudible squeak.

The root of the problem is often that we fail to question tradition. We make a big noise about the Bible, but at the same time we accept a situation where it's normal to take a snippet here and a snippet there, rearrange them to suit ourselves, and use them uncritically to prop up doctrines and ideas which simply aren't there in the text. The 'prosperity gospel' is an obvious example, but I'm concerned about the stuff we accept without question. It's easy to find passages which condemn, for instance, adultery - plus the odd one which suggests that perhaps we shouldn't condemn it too hard - but how is it that significant sections of the church manage not to notice the stuff about poverty? Sexual behaviour, abortion, birth control, all become central to some sections of the church, while war or discrimination are treated as lesser evils, or even lauded as virtues. Something's rotten in the house of Denmark, and I think it's our understanding of salvation.

According to what records we have, Jesus didn't come telling us to go to heaven. He proclaimed a much worldlier salvation, to do with the coming Rule of God, and this rule was to be established in this world, not the next. The dead may rise to be judged, but there's no radical discontinuity involved. Rather, it's a question of one age - the age of the sinful, man-made world order which creates so much suffering - passing into the next, the age of the Rule of God. Somehow, we manage to ignore the apocalyptic dimension of the New Testament. The fact that the authors concerned were wrong in believing that Jesus' return was imminent doesn't mean they were wrong in everything except the bits we happen to find convenient!

Then again, salvation in the Bible is never individual. In the Old Testament, it's about the salvation of Israel, or at the very least, of the righteous remnant who remain faithful to its vision. Or maybe they're actually developing a new vision, leading it out of paganism towards the worship of one God, but whatever, they're faithful. In the New Testament, it's about the church, the new community which, again, is groping its way towards something, trying to live as though the Rule of God was already established. Perhaps we could describe it as an outpost of the Kingdom (more familiar, but it doesn't get the sense so well), attempting to be obedient to the risen and exalted Christ, rather than to the powers and principalities of this world.

And what of those powers and principalities? The people who wrote the Bible thought in terms of angelic powers lurking behind political structures; once, each people had its own god, now they each had their own angel. The absolute monotheism we're used to didn't exist at the time, boundaries were a lot fuzzier, and angels tend to look rather like lesser gods by any other name. Satan doesn't sit on a red-hot throne nursing his burnt bum and dreaming of cosmic revolution, or murmering sweet nothings into the ears of those he tempts; he appoints the one who rules over all the kingdoms of the earth, and anyone in the ancient Mediterranean world could have told you who did that. The job has to be in his gift, or how can he offer it to Jesus?

So often, Biblical powers and principalities seem to have political and economic dimensions. That's what we need to grapple with; we need to reclaim these areas of the New Testament from the lunatic fringe, grapple with them seriously, and develop something which isn't spiritualied out of sight, and can address the real problems of the real world. I think Marxism could be described as a secular apocalyptic, and it certainly recognised its equivalent of demonic powers. So what would a 21st Century apocalyptic look like? Somehow, we need to rework our whole understanding of the faith, and turn it into something which puts engagement with the world around us at its core, rather than running away, or becomeing the polite end of an unjust system.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Looting aftermath

This was the view from the flat at 1.30 last night; the family were panicking, wouldn't let me put a light on, and didn't want me to call the fire brigade in case we got targeted. It took ages to get through to them, but they came very fast. It was a car which had been dumped and set on fire.

I went into town this afternoon to do some shopping; a lot of places were closed, only the vegetable end of the markets was open, and shops were closing early. Shop workers I spoke to were really scared. Bad as it was, damage was being fixed at a rate of knots, and it was nothing like the looting I saw in Soho Road in 1993. That time, there was a power cut across Handsworth, and people descended from all over the West Midlands to fill up their cars. Every shop window in the entire road was smashed, every shop emptied - even the shoe shop and the butcher's - and a police car toipped onto its roof and completely wrecked. That, in turn, was nothing like the 1985 riots.

I don't know what happened here; nobody was killed that I'm aware of.

The glaziers must be making a fortune.

Monday, 8 August 2011


I spoke to my daughter in Hackney earlier; she's OK, but they're rioting round her way and she couldn't get to her placement. She's horrified by what she's seeing; as she said, the damage will only make things worse. After rioting here in 1985, and looting in 1993, I'm a bit more used to it, but destroying your own community isn't going to solve anything.

It seems to be the old problems all over again; police behaviour towards black people, plus deprivation. There was hope in the air in the late 1980's, with both the government and the church taking an interest in the inner cities. That evaporated, and history is repeating itself. This time, we need to avoid dependence on outside funding - that runs out and whatever you're doing evaporates - and build sustainable projects which can last, and give people real help. Our church shop is one; we run it outrselves and it's been going for about thirty years, and the food bank we're planning may be another. Trouble is, these only put sticking plaster on the wound.

We need to build a society where people are treated properly, have real opportunities, and when things go wrong, redress is available to all, not just to those who can afford legal fees. That's going to take a better response from the church than the superficialities of last time.

Correction: the looting in Handsworth occurred on 2 September 1991, after a fire led to a power cut across the entire area. I'll never forget walking down Soho Road through the middle of it. I never felt threatened, despite the fact that every shop in the entire road was being looted all around me. Another thing I'll never forget is the patronising attitude of one or two ministers who thought it was all right for them to check out what was going on, but not for me to do the same thing!