Dear Mr Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is visiting NZ currently, to preach to the faithless and rouse them to new heights of Atheist fervour.

Or should I call you Professor?

If you were here in NZ to talk about Biology then sure Dear Prof Dawkins would be appropriate and polite, but if I waded in to debate biology I would not expect you to call me Dr Bulkeley all the time. My PhD is not in your discipline, and my remarks would be expected to contain the sort of silly mistakes and probably egregious errors that amateurs often make. And that in a way is the point of this post. You make egregious errors and silly mistakes when you talk about my discipline. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll show my lack of respect for your lack of learning by calling you Mr.

One god less?

There’s an argument your followers like to use as a fine knock-down, I think of it as the one god less fallacy. You expressed it in A Devil’s Chaplain like this:

We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.1

Far from a knock down argument, this is egregious bunkum. You don’t disbelieve in one less god than me, we both fail to believe in the same number of gods. All of them!

God, the one and only, the maker of all, is simply the opposite of a god. The pernicious, fickle yet convenient powers that humans across the years have imagined and worshiped, and nearly as often used as excuses to force others to worship them (the priests and kings whose support and service these gods are claimed to need) are nothings. (Or more precisely and exactly are idols.)

Most intelligent Christians who think a little about their faith realise, sooner or later, that the maker of all cannot be like them. A being responsible for the almost incredible and literally unthinkable reaches of space and time, or even the mind-boggling complexity of the organisms you study professionally, Professor, cannot be cajoled or bribed in the way we both know the devotees of gods assume their creatures (for the gods are indeed made by human minds) can.

God, on the other hand, is wholly other — unknowable indeed. Except that God chose revelation, and is supremely found in the human life of Jesus, the man whom clever and powerful men nailed to a cross and executed. But God is not a god! God comes to us, not in power and might as befits a god, but as a victim as befits a non-god. Not with cleverness and ‘wisdom’, but in all the foolishness of a lover. And that, sadly, you have failed to discover for yourself.

I pray for you

So, Professor Dawkins (for your learning and research in biology deserves respect) I pray for you, that one day you will discover for yourself the one and only ground of all being because whatever you mistake God for (even a tinpot god) God loves you.


PS In discussion of this post on Facebook two things prompted me to add this postscriptum.  First comments about my tone in the presentation above (from an Atheist friend whom I respect) caused me to notice how I had fallen into the trap of fighting fire with fire. Then an enthusiastic Christian friend posting a video that used a mix of vox pop interviews with random passers-by, very short clips of scientists, and hectoring interventions by the makers of the video to pillory the notion of the evolution of species. That video and Dawkins present a picture of two Fundamentalists shouting at each other as mirror images. I have no wish to descend to that level. I therefore apologise to you for my tone and rhetoric above.

  1. Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (HMH, 2004), 150. []

Women should be seen and not heard!

The Bible says

Well actually, of course, it doesn’t. What it does say, at least in a couple of places is shocking enough:

…women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. (1 Cor 14:34 NRSV)

And as many famous US pastors with powerful ministries have noted and proclaimed:

I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. (1 Tim 2:12 NRSV)

Which, you have to admit, sounds pretty close to my deliberately inflammatory title!

At this point, if you are like me, all your hackles are rising and you are muttering to yourself: What about the gospel? What about Paul? Paul summed up the consequences of being baptised ‘into Christ’ and so being (each and together) ‘clothed in Christ:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28 ESV)

Indeed, if we just look at the question of women teaching men, what about Jesus’ conversation with the Canaanite woman who when he suggested that he should not offer her daughter the healing mercy that he was offering to proper Israelites, argued back against him and evoked the response:

“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matt 15:28 NRSV)

You are just twisting the Bible

Anyone who tries to explain how context, careful attention to the wording, and other cues might cause us to understand the two passages about women being silent differently from their literal surface meaning will have met the response: ‘You are just twisting the Bible to avoid its plain meaning.’

This sounds like a ‘nice knock down argument’,1 after all surely we must all prefer the plain obvious meaning?

But that is precisely the problem. By their focus on the plain, simple, obvious meaning of a couple of passages, and their staunch and principled refusal to consider revisionist readings of these passages, these teachers must twist the plain, simple, obvious meaning of the gospel and of loads of whole passages and stories from across the Bible from at least as early as Deborah (in Judges) to at least as late as Jesus and Paul (in the New Testament).

Here is a rule you can trust

Whenever the plain, simple, obvious meaning of a few passages seems to conflict with, contradict, or merely seems uncomfortable alongside the great truths of the gospel that are proclaimed across the whole of Scripture then we have somehow misunderstood those passages!

  1. This phrase was chosen because it echoes Humpty Dumpty, because I believe these famous pastors with the powerful ministries are followers of Dumpyites. []

King David as a terrible warning

Poster for the film 'David and Bathsheba'.

The old film, David and Bathsheba, may have been nominated for Oscars, but there is no indication in the Bible text that the start of this story was a ‘love affair’, watch how David and Bathsheba interact and draw your own conclusions.

I’ve recently been watching students discuss the story of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah in 2 Sam 11-12. I have also been watching the Christian media in the USA discuss Bill Hybels and how the Willow Creek organisation has responded to accusations against him.

In some ways the two stories seem not at all alike. It sounds as if Hybels is not accused of adultery, still less of the level of abuse of power that the quasi-rape of Bathsheba revealed in the king after God’s own heart. Hybels has not organised a death to cover up his sin.

There is, however, a similarity at the heart of the two stories. In Samuel, Saul, for all his failings, remained a king in name, but with few of the trappings of kingship as the ancient Near East understood them, while David accumulates the toys that went with royal status: palace and palace guard, courtiers and advisors, and even leisure-time…

This is what leads him into temptation and disastrous  failure (notice what he is doing at the start of 1 Sam 11). I could not, therefore, help noticing this sentence in the report about Hybels:

That meant a number of one-on-one meetings: often at his beach home in Michigan, on his yacht, on his jet, or at restaurants near Hybels’s summer home.

We can argue forcefully that some of these things are potentially quite harmless, restaurant meals for example. Some of us may have a family bach or even ‘beach home’. Yet the sum total speaks of the sort of privilege our culture sees as the ‘right’ of k̶i̶n̶g̶s powerful leaders.

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

In these glorious Antipodes a storm has blown up in the conventional and the social media — not the series of sub-tropical storms that have been wreaking havoc with our homes and power poles, but a storm of opprobrium. It concerns (as you might expect)1 a rugby player. This rugby player expressed a theological opinion concerning the eternal destiny of some other people. Since rugby players are quasi-divine, naturally, his opinion on this matter is of huge importance….

Many of my Christian friends are (rightly) concerned about issues of tolerance and the possible suppression of religious views that dissent from the majority opinion (especially when those dissenting views are our own). In this respect several decades of liberalism have made us unprepared for such a resurgence of the Spanish Inquisition. But then no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

I am more interested in the theological question, is Israel Folau correct that gays are going to hell?

On what grounds might we say this with theological authority? If sin alone is the grounds then we are all doomed, if unrepented sin, I suspect likewise… Or is there a scale of sins with some (mine and your’s perhaps?) being venial and others (on whose unacceptability to God we agree) being mortal – ah, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

  1. You might expect this since rugby players here play the quasi-divine role that billionaires and film stars play in the USA, or royalty in some more conservative places. []

TMT: is it killing our churches?

At SCBC we’ve been studying the material that came from the Fuller Youth Institute study on churches that are doing well with young people: Growing Young. We need to, we are mainly an ‘older’ congregation! One chapter suggests empathising with young people. It mentions ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ as a common feature of ‘Christian’ youth in the USA. The ugly descriptor comes out of Smith and Denton’s broad study of youth and religion in the USA.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

MTD starts with the ‘golden rule’, and thus places stress on doing good. If the beginning is at least biblical. After all it was Jesus who taught ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Mat 7:12; Luke 6:31) and Paul continued this teaching (Gal 5:14). MTD soon absorbs a strong dose of the American Dream: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And the greatest of these is happiness. On this view, God’s primary business is not enforcing morality, but making things comfortable for us. Aside from this function as supernatural Valium, God might almost as well not exist. Thus their choice of ‘deism’ rather than ‘theism’, although the degree of activity this view allows to God is greater than in classical deism.

I think however, that as I listen to students, and on Facebook, or even in church, whether or not the descriptor works well for young people in the USA it is wrongly worded for NZ.

Therapeutic Moralistic Theism

In reordering the terms (as well as reclaiming ‘theism’) TMT changes the equations significantly. Listen to people’s prayers! Whether intercession for others or supplication for themselves, God is always asked to ‘put things right’ and remove the sources of our discomfort. Rarely, if ever, is God asked to pardon our sin, and only the extremists request divine vengeance on the persistently immoral. No, the key term is ‘therapeutic’ — indeed, if one ever hears attempts at apologetics in everyday life they are couched in terms of God the omnipotent Valium. Believe and pray and your life will be smooth and pleasant, as well as long and peaceful.

Though this is where morals come in, because we recognise that God does have some interest in ‘good behaviour’. If someone is ‘bad’ then God is hardly free to reward them with the promised pleasant life. So, since morality is almost exclusively understood in terms of sex, stop sleeping around, get married, and above all do not have sex with someone of the same gender, and you’ll be right!

Of course the ‘theism’ in my revised descriptor is no more like traditional theism than the deism in Smith and Denton’s was like traditional deism. For though this god is highly involved in everyday life, guiding surgeon’s hands and offering divine diagnostic skills to physicians, as well as changing traffic lights on prayer requested schedules and providing parking spots almost whenever they are required, this god has no real eternal significance — for everyone goes to heaven, even puppies and kittens (though not nasty snakes or mosquitoes).

How TMT is killing Christianity

If TMT sounds horribly like the Christianity you hear too often, beware. Since it is so ‘nice’ TMT provides no challenge. The supernatural welfare state, with a sugar coating of benign liberal capitalism, can never call us far from our ‘comfort zones’. Though [w]rapt in cotton wool as we are these zones seem as tightly restricting as swaddling cloths the call to transcend them usually requires little more than smiling at a stranger, or eating some strange foreign food (though, naturally, nothing really extreme).

TMT is theism, since god is present and active. (Oh, so active coordinating all those surgeons and traffic lights!) Yet it is theism-lite, since this god is merely concerned with this world and its quotidian concerns. It is as god whose kingdom is no wider than our horizons.

What the young want and older people need

What the young want, somewhere sometimes deep beneath the cotton wool, is to be challenged, to be invited to live a life less ordinary — is this all there is? The daily round, the common task, the nine to five treadmill, ending in death or retirement (which is like heaven, but with less health and energy, so perhaps death is preferable).

Older people by contrast have usually had time to experience the deception that follows when even supernatural Valium fails. Long ago when they prayed and prayed for someone’s mental unbalance to be righted, or for a child’s disability to be cured… or more recently when they asked for the latest draught to be sweetened in the bitter cup of life…. They need to learn that God’s interventions are mysterious and wonderful, but not a daily command performance. That God is not a convenient god to be ordered to provide comfort and restoration on our schedule.

TMT is killing the church because it fails to inspire the young, and it fails to comfort the old, and if it cannot do those things then it is ultimately useless.

Coherence and the limits on interpretation

Clearly texts do mean what their authors intend them to mean, but it also seems evident that texts (and especially texts within a highly intertextual canon, like the Bible) can also mean more. Once one allows this, what are the limits on such interpretations? My suggestions revolve around the notion of coherence, a text that holds together and makes sense is coherent, a text that is too fragmented or that does not make sense is incoherent.

Since the Bible is a canonical collection, it seems reasonable to expect its parts to be coherent. This does not mean that each part necessarily agrees with every other, or that there are no contradictions between parts. To claim that would be to deny to Scripture the sort of freedom of ideas and opinions that we take for granted in community life. For example in a Baptist Church we meet together to try to discover ‘the mind of Christ’ on matters that concern us, by listening to the Spirit speaking through the Scriptures and through our fellow believers. We do not expect that we will all think alike, but we hope and pray that out of our listening the mind of Christ will emerge.

Yet, if the parts do not ‘fit’ one with another, and thus appear incoherent, this is surely an indication that we have understood one or both wrongly. How might coherent disagreement work?

Take the examples of Dt 23 and Ruth. Deuteronomy 23 seeks to preserve the holiness of the ‘assembly of the Lord‘, it therefore warns that Moabites should be among the groups of people excluded from the assembly, in the light of the history of Moabite interaction with the chosen people. By contrast Ruth tells the story of a Moabite woman (and her ethnicity is stressed by being mentioned seven times, more than half the total biblical usage of the word) who displays (by contrast) unusual and praiseworthy faithful commitment to a Bethlehemite family. These two passages argue in strikingly opposite ways, yet they are not incoherent, but can be thought of as two aspects for Israel to consider when thinking of relationships with Moabites.

By contrast, 1 Tim 2:12 appears (especially as it is rendered in most English translations) at the least to deny that women should speak in the church community.1 However,  1 Cor 11:5 presumes that women pray and prophesy in the assembly and in Acts 21:9 the gift of prophecy shown by Philip’s four daughters seems to be approved. Such an apparent incoherence might in this case lead us to examine the texts more closely, and perhaps suspect some contextual situation that has provoked the advice in Timothy (the comment in 2 Tim 3:6 may hint at such a situation).

There is however a second sort of coherence which may prove even more useful. Any Christian reading of the Bible claims that in some sense the Old Testament texts are preparing for or looking forward to the coming of Christ, which fulfills them (or reveals their full meaning). Equally, the New Testament texts look back on Jesus life, death, resurrection, and rule at the Father’s right hand. Therefore, our reading of any Bible passage should cohere with what we know of God in Christ.

People often present this criterion in terms of cruciformity (our readings of Scripture should reveal the crucified God) however, despite the centrality and importance of the cross it is not the whole of the story of Jesus Christ thus I prefer the broader version.

Our readings should cohere with how we understand other parts of the Bible, and also they should cohere with what we know of the God who is supremely revealed in Jesus the Christ. Readings which by these standards are incoherent are suspect and need further investigation.

  1. Leaving aside the debates surrounding the meaning of authenteo. []

Limits to Christian Bible reading

Once upon a time, roughly between the full flowering of the blooms of enlightenment some time in the 19th century and loss of confidence in the whole project induced in Westerners by two World Wars in the 20th, Western readers lost their trust in those who claim that ‘texts mean what they say, no more and no less’. This more open and creative attitude entered the church, ushered in enthusiastically by pious readers of the Bible who expect to find God’s message for them writ loud on every page, and Charismatic preachers who rejoice in finding meaning in all those details of the design of the temple that take up much of Exodus. Approaches that claim that like with Humpty Dumpty’s relationship to words (‘when I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean’)1 biblical texts mean what they the reader say they mean. Such a reading is not authenticated by the text but rather by direct revelation to the person who makes it. Others accept (or reject) the understanding  as they accept or reject the spiritual authority of that interpreter. Meaning in this postmodern world is personal. This free allocation of meaning to the reader is effectively the end of the Bible as an authoritative text — for the (human visible)  authority is not the Bible but the interpreter, or the interpreter’s community of support.

Understandably this approach has been resisted (rather piecemeal since it is highly attractive to ‘authoritative’ readers, such as pastors, or a fortiori televangelists)  by Fundamentalists and others conservative enough to wish to retain the Bible as genuine authority and not a mere mystifying symbol disguising human authority. Our/their response has been an appeal to authorial intent — an approach that is reasonable, but restrictive. After all surely, pace Humpty, a text’s meaning is related to what its author intended it to mean?! Yet all texts mean more than this. In one direction all human texts communicate messages the author did not (at least consciously) intend, think of the sexist and racist messages that even a text the speaker/writer believes quite innocuous can carry.2

Texts also often say more than their authors intend in more positive ways. Biblical texts, in particular, may be heard as being ‘fulfilled’ in Christ, as types of the coming gospel. Limiting meaning only to what the author may reasonably be supposed to have meant is therefore too restrictive.

[ In the next post I will propose an approach to limiting meaning that is less restrictive, and yet provides reasonable and theologically defensible limits to creative rereadings of Scripture. This post and the planned next one were stimulated by my friend Jonathan Robinson who has been reading Peter J Leithart Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, Baylor 2009. Heard at second hand, filtered by Jonathan, this book seems to beg this question of limits on reading. The previous post where I distinguish two ways God communicates through Scripture may also be helpful. ]

  1. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass: And What Alice Found There. London: Macmillan & Company, 1875, 124. []
  2. The recent kerfuffle over remarks by Mary Beard may be taken as an example, but my readers will need to pick their own, because in the nature of things we are each more or less sensitive to some sorts of ‘…ist’ remarks. []

Phone call or broadcast

God uses Scripture in two quite different ways. I think of them as the phone call and the broadcast. Each works quite differently from the other, and mixing them up is a serious mistake.

In a phone call someone is talking to one other person (or at most a few other people). In a phone call we shape the communication for each person. Sam likes cooking, Jo loves jokes… We know God sometimes  communicates like this, by ‘phone call’, from Jer 1:11-12. God asks Jeremiah what he sees, apparently ‘an almond tree’, this (somehow, and I’ll explain the ‘how’ below) tells Jeremiah that God message is: “I am watching over my word to perform it.” Reading this in English we certainly do not get what is going on in this phone call from God to Jeremiah. That’s because we are not in on the joke! The Hebrew words for ‘almond tree’ shaqad and ‘watching over’ shoqed make a pun. Since Jeremiah loved bad puns (we know because he makes them all the time, and they are often important to his preaching, like my pastor making bad jokes) God chose an appropriate ‘code’ for his phone message.

When we were suddenly evacuated out from Kinshasa in Congo, and cut off from our friends, closest colleagues, work, and church, God used the story of Jonah to send a phone message to Barbara and me. God chose Jonah because we both love the story. (Barbara even does the actions as she sings it with children!) The message God gave us has nothing to do with the message of the book. Jonah is not about God leading people to move on to (what eventually, and cutting a long story very short turned out to be) New Zealand!

By contrast anyone making a radio broadcast needs to remember that anyone might ‘tune in’, and they need to ensure their message is suitable for public consumption. Not knowing the mic is live and continuing a private conversation can be very embarrassing:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama have come under fire after they were overheard talking rudely about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the G-20 summit.
Sarkozy was overheard telling Obama: “I can’t stand him. He’s a liar,” according to French website Arret Sur Images.1
Bible passages are broadcast messages. They have meaning for everyone who tunes in.
  1. From CNN. []

Finishing well: conclusions

It is astonishing how often we (preachers, students, writers…) put more effort into openings than conclusions. Of course openings matter. If this opening is too dull you will slick on to another site and I’ll have no readers.

BUT, conclusions also matter, if a reader/listener has made it all the way to the end of your 40 minute sermon, your 2,000 word essay, or even just your 300 word blog post, they deserve a reward!

Currently I am again finishing marking and also moderating student assignments (from the Summer Session). At least 9 out of 10 essays end badly. It is not that they are tragedies (stories whose plotline goes like this ∩)1 but it is a tragedy. Apart from the pictures, or illustrative stories, the concluding words are what people are most likely to remember.

We should always end with a clear strong statement of the thing that matters most about our sermon, essay, or blog post. Failure to do this cheats your reader — worse it cheats precisely those readers who have stuck it out to the end — of what they most need, a clear memorable summary of what you were saying.

[By the way that means that, cinema conventions being different, the ending of those old Loony Tunes cartoons is not at all the way we should end written work! Don’t just say ‘that’s all folks!’ rather sum up your main point, simply and clearly.]

So, end your blog post, essay, sermon… well, give a clear simple summary. Like this!

  1. As opposed to comedies that go like this U :) []

Peace and refreshment among the suburban bricks and concrete

This is the land we have bought to build our church on. Currently it is an Avocado and Kiwi orchard. Just about everyone who visits speaks of green, of orchards or an oasis amid the suburban bricks and concrete.

Already the land on two sides has been bulldozed flat, building has even begun on Kiwi dream big one story homes on 600m² sections. They are lovely houses, but they hardly have gardens or ‘yards’. Soon the third side (they have already cleared the Kiwi and begun the earthworks) will become a primary school – one of the biggest ‘green’ splashes among the houses.

We see our site on the roundabout next to the school as Te Oro (The Orchard) with some of these trees perhaps making a processional entrance to one of the sacred spaces (church, outdoor sanctuary/cinema/BBQ area?). I’d love to keep not only some trees, but also some Kiwi, perhaps as a pergola over the outdoor sanctuary/cinema seating.

But we want to build other spaces where people can come for peace, refreshment… to be equipped for life… maybe a pre-school…