Revelation and Donald Trump

Trump

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.

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! []

Tulips and Dandelions

dandelions-in-crack-wr

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?

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.

Another must-read

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41mJsqaskSL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_Yesterday I was given two books, both of which I really want to read (neither biblical or theological). Today I read Scott McKnight’s review of Brian Harris’ new book The Big Picture: Building Blocks of a Christian World View (Paternoster, 2015). Brian is a lovely person, an effective pastor, but I have not yet got a copy of his book, Scott McK’s glowing review adds it to my growing list of must-read serious non-fiction that does not relate to biblical studies. He wrote:.

One of the least known and most insightful theologians and Christian leaders I have met is Brian Harris, at Vose Theological Seminary in Perth, Western Australia. He’s not only a delightful person and Christian, not only a President of a seminary, but he established a flourishing church that encompasses far more than the typical come-to-our-church kind of ministry. In short, when Brian speaks, I listen.

41JItDqo5xL._SX279_BO1,204,203,200_517TWMZEEBL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_PS Those who know me will know I mean no disrespect, indeed the opposite by mentioning Brian’s book alongside Pooh and the Philosophers, recognising my affection for the “Great Bear”, Rendering unto Caesar, described by Amazon as “An intimate look into the private and public lives of 50 years of Sri Lankan presidents and prime ministers is provided in this memoir by a long time advisor to Sri Lanka’s highest government officials.” which as well as it’s content is recommended to me by reviewers who praise its self-effacing wit, feeling and concern for people.

 

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.

The Tri-une God and Motherhood

I have not yet pointed to the series of posts on The Tri-une God and Motherhood by kbonikowsky at The Happy Surprise, I should. They are very good, offering a careful, gentle presentation of the topic. .One of the things I like is that she approaches the theology simply, yet insists on a Trinitarian understanding. So many people thinking about emotive topics, like gender or like God, let alone when we mix echoes of our relationships with parents into the mix, seem swiftly to lose  their sense of proportion and theological “niceities” get thrown to the winds. I saw this years ago when I briefly explored Catholic theologians treatment of Mary when preparing my thesis. Catholic dogma concerning Mary is careful (to a lifelong Protestant it is odd, but it is careful), yet once these otherwise sensible theologians started to write about Mary the mother they seemed to lose all the restrictions their tradition had put in place to ensure that Mary did not seem to enter the Godhead. kbonikowsky avoids such emotion-driven excess in her talk of the Tri-une God and Motherhood, so far it is good stuff!