Articles By tim

Wise advice for Christians reading Scripture

View across the hills near Baguio - envy us!

As Peter Enns gets towards the end of the journey in his little book he moves beyond the strict topic to some wonderful advice for Christians reading the Bible, and how we should relate to other Christians who perhaps disagree with our interpretation. It is applicable to the global church, so to my current context about to teach to students from a wealth of different cultures none of them mine, but also to the local churches as NZ Baptists move towards an annual assembly with a contentious issue on the floor. For both I pray:

  • Humility on the part of scholars to be sensitive to how others will hear them and on the part of those
    whose preconceptions are being challenged.
  • Love that assumes the best of brothers and sisters in Christ. not that looks for any difference of
    opinion as an excuse to go on the attack.
  • Patience to know that no person or tradition is beyond correction. and therefore no one should jump
    to conclusions about another’s motives.1
  1. Peter Enns. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005, 164 []

Inspiration and Incarnation

Enns

For the Introduction to the Old Testament I am teaching at APTS one of the set books students must read is:

Peter Enns. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.

I do not intend to do a thorough review of this book here, not least because one of the assessments asks the students to  review it ;) But I do want to venture a few comments, and may add more as I read further.

First some general remarks: The book is clearly and simply written, Enns has taken trouble to make the material accessible to beginners. Yet his topic is useful to students further on in their serious study of Scripture. It shows some signs of haste in production, alongside the times when I am delighted by how well Enns has expressed some idea there are many places where it seems to me his expression has been careless and a more careful editing (by Enns or by his editor(s) could have strengthened his delivery of his message. Overall the “delighted” sections well outnumber and outweigh the “I wish he’d taken more care” ones. This is a book that would have been ideal for a proper electronic edition that enabled readers to question such places and enabled Enns to edit and improve the text!

Among the places where I have been saying “Amen” and singing (in my heart for my voice is not up to the task) praise to God for what he is saying – which seems to me so far (I am at p.102/172) to do for big picture practical biblical hermeneutics what Duval and Hays1 for small scale practical hermeneutics – that is, codify and explain the sort of practice and understanding most/many trained Bible readers have been doing (sometimes unconsciously) for years in useful and clear ways that a beginner can access, or help a more experienced student to develop.

My takeaway gem so far:

[t]here is a significant strand of contemporary Christian thinking on the Old Testament that feels that these sorts of things Just shouldn’t happen. And. if they do. they just appear to be a problem. You just need to read a bit more closely or do a little more research. and if you’re patient enough. you’ll get the right answer eventually. For others.however (including myself). such an approach comes close to intellectual dishonesty. To accept the diversity of the Old Testament is not to “cave in to liberalism,” nor is it to seek after novelty. It is.rather. to read the Old Testament quite honestly and seriously. And if diversity is such a prevalent phenomenon in the Old Testament. it would seem to be important to do more than simply take note of diversity and file it away for future reference. We must ask why God would do it this way. Why does God’s word look the way it does?2

Now there’s an important and potentially most productive question for everyone who desires to take the Bible seriously as Scripture. Especially it is a useful question for those of us in traditions that make the Bible the authority for faith and practice!

  1. J. Scott Duvall and J Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word : A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible Grand Rapids  MI.: Zondervan, 2001 and in a shorter version: J. Scott Duvall and J Daniel Hays, Journey into God’s Word : Your Guide to Understanding and Applying the Bible Grand Rapids  MI: Zondervan, 2008. []
  2. Enns, 102. []

“France at War” war journalism from 1915

Capture

Later today we head off for our big trip, back at the end of September. Before leaving as well as all the other things I got finished (or failed to do :( I finished reading Rudyard Kipling’s collection of war journalism from 1915 France at War: On the Frontier of Civilisation. The audio book is now ready at Librivox:

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SECTIONCHAPTERREADERTIME
Play00France (Introductory Poem)Tim Bulkeley00:05:07
Play01On the Frontier of CivilizationTim Bulkeley00:18:03
Play02The Nation’s Spirit and a New InheritanceTim Bulkeley00:15:44
Play03Battle Spectacle and a ReviewTim Bulkeley00:16:59
Play04The Spirit of the PeopleTim Bulkeley00:14:47
Play05Life in the Trenches on the MountainsideTim Bulkeley00:15:22
Play06The Common Task of a Great PeopleTim Bulkeley00:16:20


There I wrote this about Kipling’s work:There I wrote this about Kipling’s work from a century ago:
In 1915, as the “Great War” (World War 1) entered its second year Rudyard Kipling made a journalistic tour of the front, visiting French armed forces. By then he was already winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (the first writer in English to be so honoured). He published his observations in articles in the Daily Telegraph in England, and in the New York Sun. At that stage of the war nationalistic sentiments were running high but the true cost of war was beginning to be understood “at home”.

The collection of journalistic pieces is preceded by a poem, “France”, that had been published before the outbreak of war (in 1913) which has a more overblown jingoistic feel to it than the reflections on war itself. The poem does, though, show Kipling’s love of France, as well as his sense of the destiny of imperial dreams.

Kipling himself was an ardent and effective writer of propaganda directed primarily against German treatment of civilians. The “rape of Belgium” in 1914 and the sinking of the Lusitania earlier in 1915 were particularly shocking. In Kipling’s eyes such “total war” was a renunciation of civilisation. The heat of his reaction is associated with his militarism. Although not a soldier, Kipling was educated at the United Services College (a school for the sons of officers which prepared students to enter Sandhurst and Dartmouth – the British army and navy officers training establishments). His writing is deeply imbued with notions of military service as honorable and, among civilised people, restrained and governed by rules.

Kipling encouraged his son John to enlist, and perhaps used his connections to get John enlisted despite poor eyesight and two earlier refusals. John died on 27th September 1915, just ten days after these articles were published (6th -17th September 1915).

Thus Kipling’s account (not least in view of his reputation today as a supporter of British imperialism, and his jingoism) is still interesting one hundred years later as we try to understand our ancestors’ experience.

Without the help and careful work of Meta Coordinator:Sarah Jennings and Proof Listener:Kathrine Engan the project would not be of the same quality.

Why leaders fail, and what (not) to do

weeping-angel-statue-2

I could not think of a good title for this post, not least because it has no content except to link to Peter Morton’s excellent post: “When Leaders Fall“. In it, responding to the fall of another “successful” pastor, Peter with wisdom and grace suggests how such disasters can be reduced and how they should be dealt with. Every pastor and leadership team should read it.

Bibliophilia: the pastors’ besetting sin?

Too many books?

This networked socially-mediated world is fascinating. Despite all the shallowness (e.g. people “liking” a post that speaks of mass deaths of Rohingya refugees while knowing little of the horrific facts of their tragedy), I also get to see deeper inside friends and colleagues.

Some (of my friends at least) are grammar nazis, determined to keep us all on the linguistic straight and narrow. Many are incensed or delighted (or more often both in opposing turns) at the latest issue. But I discern a worrying trend among pastors and Bible teachers. Bibliophilia gone mad.

Pastors have always been bibliophiles, or at least have been since the adoption of moveable type (in the Guttenberg revolution) reduced the price of books. When I was a trainee pastor (back in the 1970s) we compared libraries, and eagerly debated which were the essential commentaries to buy on this or that Bible book.

The advent of e-texts and computer Bible software has, in some ways, had little overt impact as yet. Many pastors are innately conservative, and prefer the pleasures of a print book to the cheaper but less conspicuous e-texts. Many still brag about the physical endowment of their libraries. Size sometimes is everything!

Yet waiting on the margins is a slowly growing colossus. Top of the range deluxe Bible software (like Logos or Accordance) the array of reference works and secondary literature one can acquire for Logos is mind-blowing. Everything from the Patristic writers in original languages or translation to the latest “Christian classic”, alongside lexicons “for Africa” (as they say).

And there’s the rub, these goodies are NOT for Africa, or any other place that is poor but still perhaps (despite this fact) in need of the gospel and of good preaching. They resource only the rich and comfortable of the world. Still, forget the poor for a moment, there are base packages for everyone, for Baptists they range all the way up to the magnificent “Baptist diamond” package at just US$3,449.95 (don’t be put off by the price, it includes more than 2,500 “resources” and you can pay on the never never, just 24 payments of US$148.75 per month). Perhaps you are not a “platinum pastor”, you can always settle for three steps down and the measly “Silver” (at just US$999.95 it still has 700 resources to enliven and enrich your preaching, and it to can be acquired on tick, 18 payments of US$60.55 per month).

Pity about all the good those dollars could have done to support Christians were life is less good than here! Still they are used to hardship, they’ll cope. There is no choice, my congregation demands top notch preaching, and so I NEED those “resources”…

Well no, you don’t! Unless you are doing academic research for publication in esoteric journals the free Bible software STEP Bible has all the Bible texts and links to original languages (that probably you have not actually learned) that you need. It’s easy to use, and what’s more will not demand that you “upgrade” your hardware every couple of years like the “top notch” software does.

Commentaries? True STEP has no built in scholarly commentaries. But there are plenty available on Google books (as long as you can stand not having the “very best” in every case, but can settle for mere “jolly good scholarship”). Just think the $100 (or more?) you save on this not quite so essential Bible software might train a pastor, provide clean water for a village…

Why not explore STEP, it has more Bible study goodies than Calvin, Augustine, Paul or your favourite theologian or evangelist could begin to dream. Search Google Books for “commentary BIBLE BOOKNAME” with “preview available” under search tools/any books.

Deeper and more urgent than the fights over “gay marriage”

Discussion among Christians (especially Christians who found their faith on Scripture) of “gay marriage” have been bitter and acrimonious. This issue cuts deep. There are of course for some participants personal reasons why this issue is emotional. Yet it cuts so deep not only for that reason, I think, but also because it reveals a lack of coherent practical theology of marriage and sex. Thus in discussing this issue too often Christians have to fall back on tradition, or traditional understandings of Scripture.

Colleagues to whom over the years I have lamented our lack of such a practical theology of marriage and sex have often responded by denying that there is a lack. They seem to believe that the traditional standards are still being upheld. Yet, the acceptance of no fault divorce, uncertainty about what advice (except avoidance of full intercourse before marriage) to give to young people, the less than clear role of single adults in most churches… are just a few symptoms of the absence of such a theology of sex.

“Traditionally” Christians have held that marriage is a lifelong exclusive faithful sexual relationship between two people whose goal is to procreate and bring up the next generation. Yet little or none of that seems reflected in the ways churches behave today around marriage. Social changes like no fault divorce and contraception have altered our practice hugely, yet they are poorly integrated into our theology. In much of our talk about marriage companionship has replaced talk of procreation and child rearing. We have accepted our society’s definition of humans as sexual beings to such an extent that we have little or no place and certainly no clearly understood roles for single adults in church (except as in New Testament times “widows”).

Although (with the exception of the “wedding at Cana”, which contains no teaching about marriage)  there is little said in the Bible about marriage. Yet we are not left without resources, Genesis 1 and 2 provide two quite different and complementary possible starting places. Yet most conversations start with one or the other, seldom both. The core biblical virtue of faithfulness is clearly important, but how is it to be outworked today? In a traditional view sex outside marriage is wrong because it risked children outside marriage, how does widespread and usually effective contraception affect this? On what basis do we today advocate sexual exclusivity?

I have linked to it before, but Richard Beck’s post “The Icons of God in Marriage: Nature and Election” is a helpful thought starter, providing as he does at least a useful and deeply theological way of framing the questions.

Historical novel of love and early Christianity

CaptureI have been reading Bob MacDonald’s recently published novel Seen from the Street: A Love Story from the first century. It is a historical novel about love and the origins of Christianity within Judaism in the years around and after the life and death of Jesus. Bob describes the book like this:
I wrote ‘new’ recording – not new faith. In line with several post-Shoa scholars, I have examined the Jewish aspects of first century Christ-believers and I have portrayed the Gentile relationships to them in the areas of love and desire for intimacy. Writers who have seen some of my chapters delight in the gentleness of the dialogue.

The story is told through glimpses into the lives of a number of interrelated groups of characters. Until near the end Jesus does not appear directly “onstage” but through the responses of others to his person and to the gospel proclaimed particularly by Paul. The stories of each set of characters are interesting and lead the reader on. These stories interact, and so together weave a portrayal of Jesus and of early Christian life. I am not a specialist in the NT or in the Graeco-Roman world of the first century but the historical detail rang true for me, and more than just seeming without obvious errors (like those even a non-specialist can spot in many historical novels set in this period) created a series of believable “worlds”.

The writing is really good, though/and1 it sometimes seems to carry overtones that the mind chases beyond the words. The book (though not produced by a well-known publisher) is free from intrusive errors or infelicities, whether because of Bob’s care in composing the text or a skilled editor’s work.

Lest this review seem just a puff piece for a friend’s work I should note my problems and hesitations. I was reading an e-text and the limitations of my Reader were frustrating. Since the story is told through the intersection of a number of different (though related) stories I would have been helped by being able to skip easily between the page I was reading and the list of characters at the start. Since the story is not told chronologically, I would also have been helped by both more dating (this was provided for letters, but not always (I think) for non-epistolatry episodes) and although I have some idea of the sequence of Roman emperors of this period some modern BCE/CE dates would have helped.

The technique of telling about Jesus, rather than telling Jesus, was so effective for me that when he finally appeared “onstage” it was something of an anti-climax. But then I suppose (since Christian dogma and the conventions of the historical novel both suggest he should be portrayed as fully human) perhaps that is inevitable. How would you portray a man whom people come to recognise as God incarnate, rather than the easy task of presenting a docetist God dressed up like a human?

The guiding theme of love, and the mores of the Graeco-Roman world, intersect powerfully in the story. This intersection in the area of sexuality means that the story has its effect on how one responds to contemporary debates in this area. This also leads to perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the book. I am unsure how I feel about Gaius (a/the major character) and though perhaps intended, this uncertainty is difficult – as sexual relationships in the first century (even more than in our time and place) were necessarily implicated in relationships of power.

At just US$3 – 4 this is a book anyone interested in the origins of Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean of the first century, perhaps especially those with a fondness for Johannine styles of thought, will read with pleasure and profit, but which also may/should leave them unsettled.

The Kindle link is here:  https://www.amazon.com/author/drmacdonald for epub and other formats: https://payhip.com/b/Jea4.

  1. I am really not sure which is the better conjunction, on the one hand the almost mystical tone is one I do not relate to easily, on the other it fits the content and ideas well, and contributes to the overall “Johannine” feel of the book. []

I was a refugee (for a couple of days, in law not fact)

congo

Refugee for a day (or two)

When Mobutu’s tyrannical kleptocracy in Zaire (now again Congo) began to fall apart, when people were desperate because they could not buy medicines or schooling for their children, the parachute regiment captured the airport and marched into Kinshasa. They and many of the civilian population  began to loot the city, while Mobutu’s Presidential Guard fought back. After a day or two the French and Belgians sent their own paratroops to oversee the evacuation of foreigners. The British (this was before we became NZ citizens) embassy arranged for Brits to go on a South African refugee plane that was able to land at the airport after it had been recaptured. Our passports were in a Zairean government office to get residence visas. So we traveled on temporary refugee papers issued by the embassy.

In just hours we were separated from colleagues and friends, not knowing nor able to find out what had happened to them. But fearing the worst. We shared some of the fear, shock and pain of leaving “home” that real refugees feel, but only some, because we had been people with two homes, and we still had resources of citizenship to protect us and open possibilities of a new life to us.1

img_3212Real refugees

We’ve also experienced life in a refugee camp, teaching courses on two occasions in a camp on the Thai-Burma border. During those months we saw second hand what it is like to be a real refugee. We heard stories of horrific experiences at the hands of the government forces. We met students who had never experienced a free life outside the wire boundaries of the camp. People with no papers (except the document that entitles them to a small food ration) and little hope.

Because these, real, refugees are members of an ethnic minority at war with the national government many of them do not seek UN refugee status, preferring to dream of the day when they can return home and rebuild. But for many after all that time the grinding dullness of life on the edge, whose purpose is merely to wait, prompts them to seek “resettlement” (see Resettlement and repatriation seem such gentle words). This means giving up the old hope (of return home to live with dignity in peace) and making tenuous ties to family and friends who make us who we are. Yet it offers a different hope: a new life. That’s what it means to be a refugee, to have lost all hope in your old life, and to seek a new one.

Land of opportunity

In the colonial period Europeans came to New Zealand seeking a new life, in a land of opportunity. They forged their new lives usually successfully, often at the expense (sometimes at the barrel of a gun, directly through land confiscations, dubious “deals”, or less directly) of the Maori who already inhabited the land. But by and large New Zealand now is a peaceful land, underpopulated full of wide open spaces. We have low unemployment and because of that history opportunities for trade and industry that are surprising in a place so far from anywhere. We even have a record of race relations that is less bad than many similar places.

How come we do not welcome more refugees? Refugees are people with “get up and go” both literally and metaphorically. They have drive and initiative. They are good at looking after themselves. Usually they are unusually socially responsible. With all that space and all those opportunities, why do we not welcome more new New Zealanders?

  1. We even had the hope of returning soon. For we assumed that Mobutu would leave or be killed and the coup would install a new (and therefore better) government. In fact two decades of civil wars have made Congo a byword. []