An intelligent designer

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I’ve commented before (on Facebook if not here) on how beautiful the “ordinary” North Island scenery on the road (whichever route we take) from Auckland to home1 is. We frequently try to explain to overseas visitors that NZ’s most spectacular scenery is mainly in the South Island. Yet the everyday beauty of the drive blows me away, every time.

As daybreak arrived this morning this was the view off to my left from the Matamata straights:

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The spectacular beauty of the sunrise was swiftly followed by the ordinary beauty of the fresh rounded NZ hills and paddocks (that Colin McCahon’s paintings teach us to appreciate). My response to such sights, for me, confirms my inability to believe that the world I inhabit is due to mere laws and random (or quasi-random) variability. I am forced to postulate an intelligent designer.2

Why can’t I believe in chance? Well aside from complexity and “fit” (which can, I guess, be explained away if you really want to explain them away) it seems to me that such random (or quasi-random) explanations do away with free will. And I simply cannot understand life, the Universe, and everything without positing that alongside all the powerful conditioning and predisposing my choices are indeed “mine”. Neither militant Atheists nor ardent Predestinarian Theists can convince me otherwise.

And now, after that spitritual interlude (provoked, like too many of my most profound spiritual interludes today, by driving a long way alone)3 back to normal life.

  1. In the hills between Tauranga and Rotorua, near Otanewainuku. []
  2. NB I do not mean the daft Six-Day-Creationist sort of designer, but that there is intelligence and in some sense personhood behind the beauty, as well as the terror, of the world. []
  3. I think the experience of driving alone for an hour or three provokes such experiences because as well as being alone one has little to focus on, except the mechanics of driving, and so the mind is freer than usual to freewheel, perhaps one of the few times it is really free. I must get out more, and go for more walks in the bush! []

Revelation and Donald Trump

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Recently my Facebook feed has repeatedly presented me with cartoon pictures that echo the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation, and apply that thinking to the rise and rise of Donald Trump on the US political scene. It is interesting how in even such a determinedly “secular” culture as NZ this biblical imagery still has power beyond the church.

However, some of the best sense I have read recently about Trump and Christians comes from Paul Windsor. In trump – again?! my Kiwi-American-Indian ex-boss neatly explains much of what most needs to be said about reading Revelation in the West, and about the unrecognised and so unacknowledged syncretism that continually trips us up. His scalpel is directed in this post at US Christians, but the message is for all. We build our belief systems, and so our lives, not only on the solid rock of the gospel but also on the shifting sand of the cultures we inhabit (and that possess us).

Do read his post.

Introversion, Shyness and/or Performance Anxiety

Performers

Over the years I have posted a few times about introversion. Every now and again someone tries to explain the the Extroverted how much and how deeply Western society is biased against Introverts. The older I have become the more aware of this bias I have become, though the experience of living and working cross culturally highlighted it. The cultures of the Congo (I think all, but certainly many of them) are biased the other way. For example, as with the culture of the ancient Hebrews, thinking before one speaks is seen as a sign of wisdom!

So I read with interest an article on Mind Shift, Strategies to Ensure Introverted Students Feel Valued at School, it has some sensible advice, as well as the standard assumption that Extroversion is normal and Introversion an abnormality. (We Introverts are used to such prejudice, and many will fail even to spot it!) But, the article made two assumptions that I would question.

Firstly, claims that introversion and shyness are different things. With shyness as she defines it being close to “modesty” in it’s meaning: “It’s a kind of self-consciousness and not wanting people to look at you and feeling easily embarrassed or easily shamed.” Beyond the assertion that Extroverts can also be shy, which is really interesting, a quick look on Google Scholar reveals little research that provides evidence, but quite a few claims for the theory.

I have earlier posted in Performers and audiences about my personal personality theory. In what is often lumped together as Introversion/Extroversion, I’d distinguish two distinct (perhaps even orthogonal) scales: I/E which speaks of factors like whether one is energised or exhausted by people contact, whether one speaks first or thinks  before speaking; and performance/modesty which would speak of whether one enjoys an audience, or wearing clothing in bright colours or that in some other way distinguishes the wearer from  the crowd. In many ways, as naming one of the poles “modesty” suggests this is similar to the shyness claim.

The two claims are clearly closely related, but I think are distinguishable in that the “shy” theory seems to make the other factor very close to anxiety, reading the material one could almost substitute anxious Extrovert for shy Extrovert. On the other hand the “performer” theory only relates to anxiety of a very particular sort, performance anxiety. A modest Extrovert would not be anxious about other things, only about performing, I know modest Extroverts, they are not anxious people, they just do not like being the centre of attention. I also know shy introverted Performers (like myself) who are not anxious (except about having to talk to strangers without a role to play), enjoy being the centre of attention, but hate meeting strangers (except when they have a role to perform).

Aniconic Stories and Reading the Bible

By Kelly Sikkema on Flickr

Back since before we produced PodBible 1 I have been concerned with falling rates of Bible reading among Christians in the Western World.

Among the churches I have most contact with, NZ Baptist and occasionally other Charismatic and/or Evangelical churches, there has also been a slow but marked decline in the public reading of Scripture. Often now I can attend a 90-120 minute service of which less than 1% is spent reading the Bible, and it is never normally over 10% (including the sermon, where sometimes only a collection of small fragments is actually read and not merely referenced).

Yet, it is precisely in these churches, where our faith and practice are founded and built on Scripture.

That’s the first point: We read Scripture less, yet we claim it is the basis for our faith – we have a problem!

Now something that seems, at first brush, unrelated. I record (among other things) readings of children’s stories. Recently different people, referencing different ages of child, have mentioned that the Beatrix Potter stories are preferred over Winnie-the-Pooh. The reason given is that Potter’s are illustrated and so the child has a video to watch, while Pooh is just audio. This makes a priori sense since children get to see so much video today, and recent children’s books are usually illustrated with copious colour images, where a generation ago only a few line drawings often sufficed.

For me, this recognition was confirmed by the experience of reading Paddington Bear to my grandson. At 5 and a bit, he is a good reader, enjoys reading and also loves having stories read to him. He had watched several episodes of a video version of Paddington (not true video but like my Beatrix Potter produced zooming and panning over simple colour images). He was “getting”  the humour and chuckling away. So, later that day I got out the copy of a Paddington omnibus edition we used to read to our children. I was only a couple of pages into the first story, when he complained: “Where are the pictures?” I showed him the few line drawings, and he chose another book to have read.

The rising generations2 are simply less able to enjoy aniconic stories.

We have a second problem to compound the first: We are becoming less interested in, and even less able to ‘read’ aniconic stories.

There have been attempts to address this. As well as the ‘biblical’ blockbusters, which attempt to ‘retell’ the Bible stories as engaging cinema, people have produced visual Bibles (or at least episodes or whole books from the Bible). Some are extremely expensive and use the full range of the actor’s and videographer’s crafts (notable among these are the Jesus Film 3 and the project known as The Visual Bible).4 Distant Shores Open Bible Stories has gone the opposite route and used a crowd-sourced open and free approach.

There is however a significant issue with such visualisations, the biblical text is inherently aniconic, not only is the text itself consistently unimaged (at least for the first many centuries of its transmission) but beyond that we have very few indeed pictures of its characters from their own lifetimes. Most of those are foreigners on the periphery of the story, none of the major characters was5 imaged in from life.

If the ‘visual Bible’ approach is fraught with theological and practical difficulties, are there other approaches to cope with these issues?
Even if small children are more resistant to stories without pictures, most become capable of attending to such stories, and many learn to love them. Reading the Bible aloud in church is more, and not less, vital than it was in less visual times.

Children seem more able to concentrate in the absence of images when other stimuli are reduced (e.g. listening to stories through earphones on car journeys or to an adult reading in a darkened room). Perhaps, in church, we could dim the lights for the reading of Scripture!

This post is very much an exploratory musing, so (if you have the attention span to have read this far ;) do please contribute to my thinking by voicing concerns, ideas, hopes, … in the comments!

  1. The idea for PodBible was stimulated by a desire to help a generation who read little, but listened to MP3s a lot, to “read” the Bible. []
  2. Remember this process did not begin with ubiquitous video on phones, but broadcast video on TV, or even earlier with film, photography and printing advances making images cheaper and very much more widespread, already a century ago before my father’s birth! []
  3. Not quite a visual Bible, but closely based on Luke’s gospel. []
  4. Which perhaps in ways not unrelated to the amounts of money involved has been mired in controversy and strife. []
  5. So far as we know. []

The Anointed Son

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When I was a child, well not a child exactly but when I had enjoyed less than half the lifespan I now look back on, I thought as a child, and I dreamed of being a systematic theologian. But (through a series of ‘accidents’) God called me to be a teacher of the Bible, and I am delighted with that calling. In this video fragment Myk Habets (talking about his book The Anointed Son1 reminds me why systematic theology matters. There is a horrible moment when Myk is in full flood, and the director interrupts2 but hang in there because the next question is a ripper!

Watch it here, and buy the book!

 

  1. A mere few dollars for users of Amazon Kindle, is there an ePub version? []
  2. And I could happly have strangled her, well not really but metaphorically? You bet! []

What SBL (apparently) doesn’t “get”

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I have been forwarded a copy of the email the Society for Biblical Literature sent to its members about moving the Review of Biblical Literature into its members-only space.1 I will comment on that email here, trying to point out why I see this as a significant and retrograde move.

But first some background. I have been an SBL member since the early 80s, I retained membership for a few years after I retired from Carey thanks to the generosity of SBL who allowed me to pay as a Student Member. I recently allowed that membership to lapse, though if the new means-tested membership fees had been announced at that time I would probably have renewed. I have attended a number of International (since 1986) and annual meetings of the Society (since the mid-90s), usually giving papers. I stopped attending after retiring from Carey because of the cost of airfares. (I never used the official expensive hotels). I greatly value the Society for its role as the largest and often the most innovative scholarly society in the discipline of biblical studies.

The email opens “In order to solidify RBL’s status as a valuable resource produced primarily by SBL members for SBL members, we will be moving RBL behind the SBL member login.” The heart of this sentence is largely true. RBL is “a valuable resource produced primarily by SBL members for SBL members”. However, the key word is the adverb. Since RBL moved to free open publication on the web it has not been  used exclusively by SBL members. Biblical scholars in majority world contexts, who cannot afford to attend the Society’s meetings, or even perhaps membership in the society, used the resource. Students, at least the good clever sensible students we all love to teach, used it. (How better to evaluate, and get a feel for, a new area of study than to read a few reviews of key texts?)

Such users are now banned and access is only for those willing and able to pay for SBL membership. 2

Apparently the reason for the move is to increase funding for RBL. “Our hope is that, after this period,3 these individuals will join the SBL at least at the public membership level, if not full membership. In addition to significant investment from SBL, the increased financial support thus provided will help fund a number of highly desired upgrades to and expansions of the RBL architecture.

I doubt those students I mentioned, or indeed many of the majority world scholars will follow this perhaps wise hope. I wonder if SBL is measuring the flood of new memberships? A question on the application form would be informative!

Yet my core objection is not that the move will probably fail to achieve its stated objective, but rather what such a move says about the Society which makes it. What shall it profit a scholarly society if it gain the whole Google, but lose its soul?4 If “scholarly information exchange” continues to be privatised with ownership increasingly divided between big international publishing companies5 and scholarly societies then those societies that get in on that act will have lost their raison d’être and may as well shut up shop. If learning is privatised they become mere secret societies for rich-world bible scholars (with a few charity cases on the margins).

Meanwhile biblical scholarship in the two-thirds world will become more and more indebted to the Fundamentalists or dilettantes :(

  1. I have not seen any explanation for the new closed status of RBL on the RBL’s website, though I did not hunt for it when I was refused entry. []
  2. In other news the membership fee has been scaled according to reduced income and is only US$45 for those earning $10,000-25,000. This reduction does allow more majority world scholars to join the society and is a welcome move.  []
  3. Of continued access for individuals who subscribed to the RBL email newsletter but are not SBL members. []
  4. If, in the interests of literary allusion, my non-religious readers will permit this word, if not just read “spirit”. []
  5. I note the recently announced closure of Sheffield Phoenix Press []

Tulips and Dandelions

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tulipnegrita_2899511bI have many friends (and respect their theological accumen) who are calvinist (some with bigger some with smaller Cs). For me two of the main foundations of my theology forbid me the comfort of that neat system:

  • The experience of total depravity – which since my life includes living ten years in Congo (Kinshasa) as well as teaching in a refugee camp on the Thai Burma Border seems to me a mere fact of life, not a theory.
  • My trust in the Sovereignty of God – for in the face of human depravity nothing less than irresistible grace is sufficient to make sense of this world.

But you see precisely because these two things seem to me foundational, the other planks that comprise of the calvinist theology seem to me suspect. Total depravity – obviously, irresistible grace – hopefully, but limited atonement – sorry I believe in the sovereignty of God, and if God is to be God, only God knows whether or not love wins by Universalism or in some other way, and as for the perseverance of the saints – I am sorry but as well as total depravity I also believe in human agency, people are guilty of the crimes they commit and unless somehow (through their choice to be united with Christ, however that works, and however it is expressed) someone chooses salvation, they are dead in their sin.

So, you see no TULIPs for me, but just the slender hope of a dandelion pushing its way up through the concrete pavements of the (all too) human world.

Eucharist: when Fundamentalists fail to read Scripture literally

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I love old hymns. They are so often full of such deep theology.  I love the eucharist, I need the grace that this sacrament transmits. A couple of us had a stimulating Facebook conversation about the riches of those old hymns. For me “old” here means before the invention of printing, not the 18th and 19th centuries ;)  I said in passing that two of my all-time favourites are Thomas Aquinas’ “Pange Lingua” and Fortunatus’ hymn of the same name – perhaps it is no accident that they start with the same exhortation Aquinas seems to have shared my delight in Fortunatus’ fine hymn. My liking for Aquinas hymn, though, shocked my interlocutor, unused (as they were) to high-church Baptists.

Actually I am more shocked by all those low-church Baptists, who persist in praying lengthily over the bread and wine carefully informing God, and through him the assembled people, that whatever Jesus may have meant by the simple words “this is my body given for you” he did not mean them to be taken seriously, let alone literally.

It’s funny how these words, so important in our regular celebration of the story of Jesus (I’d say “worship” but today worship means singing I’m told), are read paradoxically differently by “Fundamentalists” and Catholics. Catholics read the Bible (at least these words) over-literally. For it seems quite clear to me that, whatever Jesus meant, he did not intend to be understood literally. Just imagine his disciples’ reactions: “But the law forbids us to consume blood!” (Lev 17:14) On the other hand for my Fundamentalist friends, not only did Jesus not mean these words literally (however keen they would be to read other words – like the “days” in Gen 1 – literally), he hardly meant them at all! (Though for such low Baptists Jesus words about remembering seem for some reason to be less overlooked. Perhaps because they hold to the doctrine of the real absence of the risen Christ they are keen that communion should remember Jesus’ death.)

“This is my body, broken for you.” surely means, in some sense (though not a literal one), that the bread of the eucharist is the broken body of the Son of God who died for us. If we can believe in two-a-penny miracles, like healings and gems or gold teeth from heaven, what is so hard about the promise of the real presence of Jesus in the bread of the Lord’s Supper?

Excluding people from the Church

Photo by unaesthetic

food-23453_1280A couple of issues recently have raised the question of when and why Christians might exclude others from the Church.

One issue arose when I was to address a combined churches group (in an overseas context) and one or two influential people looked at my 5 minute Bible site and (as far as I can tell without actually listening to the “offending” podcast) decided that I sounded as if I might deny the (according to their understanding) biblical truth that hell is a place of eternal horrible punishment. If true, this for them would exclude me from speaking in such a setting. So, is denying the doctrine that hell is eternal horrible punishment, or alternatively holding that view, a good and proper reason to exclude someone from the Church? I can understand that either might be sufficient reason for someone to cease to have desire to fellowship with the person who holds the view. But should that lack of desire for fellowship translate into exclusion for Church?

The other issue concerns attitudes to homosexuality, and in particular to the marrying of homosexual couples, some among NZ Baptists today certainly see a difference of opinion on this issue as grounds for exclusion from the fellowship of NZ Baptist churches, if perhaps not from the Church.

In both cases the potential excluder sees the issue as the “offender” being unfaithful to Scripture. In both cases the “offender” claims that their understanding of Scripture is different. In one case the disagreement is around the meaning of words and whether certain phrases are to be understood as literal or metaphorical, in the other case (while this sort of issue is in play) the main issue is more around the relative priority of different aspects of the teaching of Scripture and ways our social setting differs from the original contexts of Scripture.

My take is that neither issue is sufficient grounds for exclusion from the Church, and that the second (at least) ought not to be grounds for exclusion from the fellowship of Baptist churches in NZ. So, what sort of issue might give such grounds?

Asking the question in reverse, i.e. on what grounds do we include people in the fellowship of the church. We include people in the fellowship of communion, very commonly in NZ Baptist churches, by an invitation like “those who love the Lord Jesus Christ and seek to be his true disciples”. If that is sufficient grounds for inclusion in Communion, why is it not sufficient grounds for inclusion in the Church? Or what is the Church except the community of those who share communion in Christ?

I also wonder what Paul, in the light of his comments about the relative merits of theological truth and salvation, in relation to the issue of food offered to idols (1 Cor 8, esp. vv.1-2), would say.

New blog well worth adding to your lists

While I have been away fromn home, and so busier than usual, Brian Harris has started a blog. Since Brian is a clear, creative thinker with a sense of humour his blog is well worth following. I have not read all his posts – I’m sure I could find something to disagree with if I did/when I do, I’ve read enough to know it’s an exciting addition to the blogsphere, with already lots of solid content.