Articles for the Month of July 2012

TV on You Tube

Shine TV1 has a new series (starting tomorrow evening at 8pm) Just Thinking. It’s a bit different from much TV, as its aim is to get people thinking through big issues. It is also a bit different as Shine are putting key clips on You Tube in advance, and hoping that these will generate discussion and comment that can feed into the program.

[Declaration of Interest: I was interviewed for a later program on marriage.]

The first, tomorrow at 8pm is on secularism or is/should NZ be a “secular society” among the clips is an hour’s program from the University of Otago’s centre for Theology and Public Issues:

As well as shorter clips.

  1. Shine is available free-to-air in NZ on Freeview satellite, they say channel 24, but I found it on 129 ;) []

Different sorts of “humour” in the Hebrew Bible: Appeal for help

In my previous post I quoted a table from Fowler’s classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage1.

Device Motive Province Method Audience
Humour Discovery Human nature Observation The sympathetic
Wit Throwing light Words and ideas Surprise The intelligent
Satire Amendment Morals and manners Accentuation The self-satisfied
Sarcasm Inflicting pain Faults and foibles Inversion Victim and bystander
Invective Discredit Misconduct Direct statement The public
Irony Exclusiveness Statement of facts Mystification An inner circle
Cynicism Self-justification Morals Exposure of nakedness The respectable
Sardonic Self-relief Adversity Pessimism The self

In this post I’d like to add to Fowler’s table with some suggested (Hebrew) Bible passages that (I suggest) reflect that sort of humour:


Device Motive or aim Province Method or means Audience Bible example
Humour Discovery Human nature Observation The sympathetic Ruth 2
Wit Throwing light Words and ideas Surprise The intelligent Is 5:7
Satire Amendment Morals and manners Accentuation The self-satisfied Is 5:22
Sarcasm Inflicting pain Faults and foibles Inversion Victim and bystander Jer 22:14
Invective Discredit Misconduct Direct statement The public Judges 5?
Irony Exclusiveness Statement of facts Mystification An inner circle Jon 2 esp. v.8
Cynicism Self-justification Morals Exposure of nakedness The respectable XXX
Sardonic Self-relief Adversity Pessimism The self XXX

Some are fairly straightforward like Ruth 2 as I suggest in Humour in the Bible: 8 Ruth: Ruth is from Moab, Boaz is from Bethlehem. Here gentle pointing out of the social and cultural differences between semi-nomadic Ruth and peasant farmer Boaz leads to some smiles and a richer sense of the characters involved in the story. I think this example fits Fowler’s “humour” category neatly, through the observation of human nature our sympathy with the characters is enhanced.

But is Isaiah’s punning  “he expected justice (mishpat), but saw bloodshed (mispach); righteousness (sedaqah), but heard a cry (sea’qah)!” (Is 5:7 NRSV) wit, for there is certainly surprise and light thrown by words and ideas, but the aim is surely amendment (the goal of “satire”).

Though Is 5:22  “Ah, you who are heroes in drinking wine and valiant at mixing drink…” (Is 5:22 NRSV) is fairly straightforwardly satire.Yet goals are tricky, if the goal here is arguably change in Jer 22:15  “Are you a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him.” One doubts the intent is a change of behaviour, and so suspects sarcasm…

In Jonah’s psalm (Jonah 2)  there is plenty of irony, note especially “Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.” (Jon 2:8 NRSV) on the lips of a prophet fleeing God while pagan sailors offer sacrifices to Yahweh above him in the ship. But is there any exclusiveness or mystification here?

This post has taken too long, and anyway its goal is to encourage you to comment and enter a conversation on the topic so I will leave it to you to either propose answers to my questions, or candidates for cynicism and the sardonic (I suspect Job and Ecclesiastes might be fertile hunting grounds…).

My conclusion so far is that these characteristics of different varieties of humour will be helpful in discussing biblical humour, but that they are far from the neat and clear classification that they seemed at first glance!

Into what category though does something like the ironic presentation of Sisera’s mother and her ladies gloating over Sisera and his men enjoying the Israelite women they capture as booty in Judges 5 fall?2 There IS irony, since at the time elsewhere Sisera is lying dead struck through the head by a tent peg driven by Jael. Yet there is no mystification or exclusiveness to the telling… Nor does it fit “satire” since the goal is hardly amendment, or sarcasm since the Canaanites wil hardly hear the song… Perhaps “invective fits best?

  1. H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition. Oxford University Press, 2009. []
  2. I address the passage here  Humour in the Bible Book 7 Judges: Gender Bending. []

Humour and its relatives

A post on True Paradigm titled Humour, wit, satire,… drew my attention to this fine quote from Fowler’s classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. (My citation is from the 2009 edition by David Crystal that reproduces the 1926 first edition.)1

humour, n., makes humorous, but hunmourist; see -OUR- & -OR-. Humour is still often or usually pronounced without the h sound ; the derivatives now being rarely without it, hum0ur- itself will probably follow suit. The spelling -our is better than -or; but see -OUR & -OH.
humour. wit. satire, sarcasm, invective, irony, cynicism, the sardonic. So much has been written upon the nature of some of these words, & upon the distinctions between pairs or trios among them (wit & humour, sarcasm & irony & satire), that it would be both presumptuous & unnecessary to attempt a further disquisition. But a sort of tabular statement may be of service against some popular misconceptions. No definition of the words is offered, but for each its motive or aim, its province, its method or means, & its proper audience, are specified. The constant confusion between sarcasm, satire, & irony, as well as that now less common between wit & humour, seems to justify this mechanical device of parallel classification; but it will be of use only to those who wish for help in determining which is the word that they really want.

Device Motive or aim Province Method or means Audience
Humour Discovery Human nature Observation The sympathetic
Wit Throwing light Words and ideas Surprise The intelligent
Satire Amendment Morals and manners Accentuation The self-satisfied
Sarcasm Inflicting pain Faults and foibles Inversion Victim and bystander
Invective Discredit Misconduct Direct statement The public
Irony Exclusiveness Statement of facts Mystification An inner circle
Cynicism Self-justification Morals Exposure of nakedness The respectable
Sardonic Self-relief Adversity Pessimism The self

If I were to adopt Fowler’s classification for my humour in every book of the Hebrew Bible project (and the idea is tempting) I should need to add a prior meaning of “humour” before Fowler’s to include all (or at least most?) of his categories insofar as their goal is laughter or smiles.

I wonder too by what criteria one might (when studying ancient written texts) distinguish some of these pairs, e.g. “cynicism” from the “sardonic” in the prophets…

  1. H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition. Oxford University Press, 2009. []

Now to organise sending review copies…

At last the paperback copies of Not Only a Father, and not only the online edition, are available. Now the hard work of getting it reviewed and even harder work of getting people to discuss the online discussable edition remain :)

The book traces the biblical and theological reasons why we need to talk of God in motherly alongside fatherly terms, and begins to suggest some ways this could enrich our spirituality. I know that such talk has become less rare (even occasional in less conservative circles) but it is still not a commonplace. A gendered  god is not the God of Scripture, and it’s time we acted on this truth!

Why Marry?

Why Marry? There is strength in numbers, two are stronger than one!

The Fellowship of the Ring by Dunechaser

My previous post Why Marriage? addressed the more personal question Why Marry? only in passing. Let’s think a little more about the reasons for getting married, rather than other forms of close ongoing relationship for a couple living together. Why do, or “should” a couple prefer marriage to e.g. a civil union, or simply doing their own thing?

In purely instrumental practical terms the evidence is strong. Married people are healthier and happier. Yet it is seldom such pragmatism that drives people to “pop the question” or respond “I do” in a formal ceremony. Marriage is a matter of the heart, they say, yet the alternative forms of cohabitation allow just as much romance, so why would someone choose to marry?


The key perceived1 difference between marriage and other forms of cohabitation (e.g. civil unions and “living together”) is the level of commitment. Cohabitation (without some form of “contract”, other than the promises and hopes each partner may make to the other) is by its nature impermanent, while it may last “until death do us part” there is no formal or structural reason why it should. Marriage, by contrast, makes a central feature of the promises made by the couple to each other, but in public with a written record (in the form of the marriage certificate).

This public vow is one of the strongest forms of voluntary commitment which people can make. It is all encompassing: “for richer for poorer”, “in sickness and in health”, and permanent: “until death parts us”. Whatever the legal niceties, and in fact in most Western countries today marriages can be dissolved pretty much at will and for no other reason than “we want to separate”, this publicly vowed commitment is perceived as being stronger in marriage than in a civil union.


This near absolute commitment one to another may be the ideal of friendship and family, it is the dream on which communes are often founded, and yet it is seldom found to such a degree except in the family relationships of parents and children, sometimes siblings, and marriage partners. When it is found elsewhere we celebrate it as a rare and wonderful thing. The story in Scripture that best expresses this commitment (which is the heart of marriage) is interestingly not of a marriage relationship2 but that or Ruth and Naomi (her mother-in-law)3 see esp. Ruth 1:16-17.

Humans “do” poorly in isolation, on our own we are weak and fragile. Mutual support enables us to exceed our normal capacities. It is not strange that war stories and indeed much other fiction often revolves around tales of deep companionship. Marriage offers such mutual support and commitment that is not attenuated (at least in intent and ideal) by time and distance (as most sibling relationships are) nor dependent on some exterior goal (as most “fellowships” are) but thrives on difference and demands to be unconditional.

“Unconditional positive regard” may be an ideal of therapy, though surely few therapists manage more than a pretense, and it is indeed probably an impossible ideal. Yet of all human relationships marriage comes closest to offering us this benefit, and thus the way in which our husband or wife “loves, honours and cherishes” us despite being well aware of our weaknesses and failings comes as close as is humanly possible (along with the parent child relationship?) to mirroring our relationship to God. Truely, marriage is a spiritual phenomenon. And the answer to the question: Why marry? is that we want to give and receive this level of commitment.4


  1. I write “perceived” because as will become apparent at least in formal and legal terms the difference may not be enforceable! []
  2. A reminder that commitment is not unique to marriage. []
  3. So produced by a marriage relationship. []
  4. BTW in Hebrew this voluntary yet unbreakable  “commitment” is called hesed. A word with only poor glosses in English. []

Why Marriage?

Why marriage? Why leave the chairs empty on a lovely beach?

The Odd Couple
© Copyright Martin Addison and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

Why marriage? According to the research evidence marriage leads to greater health, wealth, and happiness! Marriage has so many positive outcomes for married people, as almost all studies report.

After the question What is marriage? another good place to start laying foundations for discussion of marriage is: Why marriage?

Negative answers

It’s a question that apparently many people today in Western societies (at least) ask. In NZ (as in most Western countries) the marriage rate1 has been declining almost every year since 1970. The introduction of “Civil Unions” has had little effect on this trend (there were only 301 civil unions registered last year, including both same sex and heterosexual unions, while there were 20,231 marriages).2

This suggests that over the last four decades people have increasingly been unconvinced that “Why marry?” has a good positive answer.

Positive answers

Yet the evidence seems clear. On almost all mental and many physical health statistics those who are married do “better” even when other factors like income and profession are factored out.3 There is even evidence that married people are wealthier, though whether the impact of bringing up children (a very expensive hobby ;) was taken into account I am not sure! Children are, of course, the other (and probably much more significant) reason people should marry. Again the statistics seem clear, children born and raised by a married couple do better on almost every measure.

If, even only for the sake of argument, we accept that marriage has great benefits for the individual and for society, then an interesting slant on the demand for “gay marriage” is suggested. If marriage has such obvious benefits, surely it would be wrong to deny those benefits to all who desire them?

However, if (again even if only for the sake of argument) we accept that “gay marriage” is socially desirable, and even ethically desirable.(For even if homosexuality is morally wrong, it would still be morally wrong to deny the health benefits of marriage to a homosexual couple.) There remain two major problems to discuss. One is theological and only concerns Christians except insofar as it might impinge of religious liberty. The other is social and should concern everyone.


Taking the social issue first. Marriage normally implies bringing up children. Society encourages couples who are unable to conceive and so produce and bring up children to adopt. Should we extend this “right”4 also to Gay Marriages? There seems to be evidence5 that children are “best” brought up in a stable married relationship where both male and female partners are present as objects of attachment and as role-models. If (again for the sake of argument)6 this is likely to be true, then perhaps even if the right to gay marriage is allowed the “right” to adopt of such gay couples might need to be restricted (compared to otherwise similar hetero-sexual couples). For there is a clear and stronger right. All children have a right to an upbringing that is as “good”, and likely to achieve good outcomes, as we can reasonably offer them. This right (of a relatively helpless child) is a higher obligation on society than any right of an adult couple.

Therefore: we need research reports, carefully compiled and debated by both professionals and the community at large to determine whether children do have such a “need” for both male and female parental figures. And, Christians of all people should not be distracted from this fundamental question of the rights of children (the powerless on this issue), by debate over mere sexual morality!

Gay marriage in Church:

Returning to the less important question, if a society introduces Gay Marriage should churches be compelled to celebrate such marriages. Here the clear answer in any open society is, no! Each church (and, of course, other community) should have the right not to recognise or celebrate such marriages. Anything else would be the imposition of religious rules by the state in a case where there is no clear obligation on the state to do so.

We have come a long and winding way from the apparently simple question: Why marriage? This is because like: What is marriage? it is a very good question. It is one that should be near the forefront of the coming discussions!

  1. I.e. the number of marriages per 1000 unmarried people aged 16 and over. []
  2. All statistics, unless otherwise mentioned, are drawn from the government’s Statistics New Zealand website mainly around this page. []
  3. See for example “Marriage and men’s health” summary report from Harvard Medical School. []
  4. I have used inverted commas to signal that I am far from convinced that there IS such a “right”, but the discussion is often phrased that way. []
  5. I confess I have not yet studied the evidence enough to have my own opinion, hence “seems”. []
  6. And, as with the other suppositions,  until or unless evidence suggests the contrary. []

Donate your desktop?

If you live in NZ.

AndIf you don’t make a lot of use of your desktop to store working projects.

Then DonateYourDesktop would be an easy way to contribute a little to charity at no cost to you.

OrIf you have a product or service (especially a date sensitive one) to advertise to Kiwis.

Then DonateYourDesktop could be a cool way to target identity building and incidentally contribute a little to charity too :)

It’s such a neat idea, and depending on the data they take targeted, but even with no user data just the factor timing could make it highly effective.

Mamma Mia: delicious degustation at the Mount

We bought a GrabOne voucher for a five course degustation menu at Mamma Mia an Italian restaurant at the Mount.

Unprepossessing exterior of Mamma Mia (ex-Vivo)

Mamma Mia Ristorante Italiano
14B Pacific Ave
Mt Maunganui

07 575 8245

It doesn’t look like much and has recently changed hands (and name), but the degustation menu looked interesting. The regular menu does not look exciting but contains some gems.

We had:

Thin slices of orange with toasted fennel seeds, watercress and an olive oil dressing. The orange and fennel worked beautifully. The sprig of watercress added a nice peppery bite. (Barbara loved the olive oil dressing, I’d have liked to add some vinegary sharpness.)  [From regular menu.]

Carpaccio with incredibly thinly sliced eye fillet1 seasoned with lemon juice, olive oil topped with capers and parmesan, then served with wild rocket and fried bread.2 This was just delicious and beautifully presented, the meat so thin and tender.

Gnocchi “Mare”: Homemade Gnocchi with garlic, fresh tomato, chilli, prawns, shrimps
& herbs topped with Pecorino cheese. The gnocchi were beautiful, tender but firm, and the sauce (in which the chilli was barely noticeable but added just a touch of warmth) was simple but worked well with the seafood and the gnocchi. This was one of the highlights of a delightful meal. (From regular menu.)

Another highlight followed (not from the regular menu) dried salted catfish poached in milk and wine on mash with a lightly creamy sauce and a cherry tomato. The flavours blended beautifully and the use of salted dried fish, and the tasty sauce, lifted this way above “poached white fish and mash”!

For dessert we had iced zabbaglione, a slice of rice pudding flavoured with coconut and a “Soupa Inglezi” concoction of custard3 sponge, chocolate and fruit flavours with desert wine softening the sponge. Each was delicious, but together they almost persuaded two diners who usually pass on desserts that they were the best course of a superb meal.

I have dined as well (or even better?) in France, Thailand, at a few of the best restaurants in Auckland, but this was by far the best meal, and several of the best dishes, we’ve had in the Bay of Plenty.

Definitely one to recommend. And both the chef who helped a busy service by bringing some dishes to the table, and waitress, used a charming mix of Italian and English :)

  1. The chef must have superb knife skills as the meat was really paper thin! []
  2. The “fried bread” was also wafer thin and crisp. []
  3. Yes, real egg custard :) []

How English-speakers misunderstand the gender of God

English uses natural gender, inanimate objects are neuter “it” while animals and humans are gendered along the lines of the individual’s sex (except for some dialects)1 where the sex of the individual is unknown a guess is made (with e.g. cats being often assumed female and dogs male) rather than the neuter used. This usage means that many English-speakers have difficulty understanding languages that use grammatical gender. Since Hebrew is such a language, with only two genders “masculine” and “feminine”, this creates problems for discussions of the gender of God.

English-speakers, based on how their language treats sexual identity, and surprised by the novel idea of this being attributed to inanimate objects,2 assume that, where language refers to people, “gender” in some way correlates with identity. And, of course, if we are talking correlations, it does. Men are usually “he” and women “she”. Except, not always. In French3 if one speaks of a woman (f)4 who is a government minister (m)5 then the grammatical gender one uses, and hence the pronouns used to refer to her, will depend on whether the reference is to her name:Marie would be referred to later as elle (she), or her function: le ministre will be referred to later as il (he).

In Hebrew the word for God ‘elohim is masculine, as is God’s name yhwh. But what does this imply about God’s sexual identity (or indeed gender in whatever non-grammatical sense)?

Tony Reinke in an article Our Mother Who Art In Heaven? on John Piper’s Desiring God website argues that this data implies that God is in some sense masculine.

His argument is based on work by John Cooper whose book Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God, [amtap book:isbn=080102188X] whom he quotes:

Linguistically, all the clear and plausible instances of feminine reference to God are imagery or figures of speech: similes, analogies, metaphors, and personification. . . . there are no cases in which feminine terms are used as names, titles, or invocations of God, and thus there are no feminine pronouns for God. There are no instances where God is directly identified by a feminine term, even a metaphorical predicate noun. In other words, God is never directly said to be a mother, mistress, or female bird in the way he is said to be a father, king, judge, or shepherd.6

Notice that Cooper’s argument is not merely the crude misunderstanding I have outlined above. Though he seems to give weight to this misunderstanding :( “There are no instances where God is directly identified by a feminine term,” his more significant claim is that: “God is never directly said to be a mother, mistress, or female bird in the way he is said to be a father, king, judge, or shepherd.”

I challenged this argument in chapter 5 section 4 of my book Not Only a Father. There I engaged with Elizabeth Achtemeier as a strong representative of the claim that masculine and feminine imagery for God works in different ways. She had used more traditional language to express the argument, father language about God is metaphorical while mother language is merely comparison (simile).

Basically I have two problems with Achtemeier’s and Cooper’s argument:

  1. I am not convinced that the neat distinction of how metaphor and simile (direct identification and comparison)  operate in Biblical Hebrew can be sustained. When God is described as “being” a father or the rock (m) of our salvation (Ps 95:1) always only some aspects of rocks and of fathers are in view in any place. Just as is the case also when God is described as like a mother, or indeed as “being” the rock (f) of Israel (Gen 49:24).7
  2. I am however convinced that to call God father in ways which are significantly different from the ways one refers to “him” as mother is idolatry. Such talk (whether indulged in by Achtemeier, a biblical scholar, or Cooper, a philosophical theologian) makes God a member of one class of beings (male or masculine) and not a member of another (female or feminine). Such a partial8 god, one who is precisely a god and not a goddess, is not the God of Scripture.

For more on this see my book Not Only a Father.

  1. In some dialects of English, especially in the westcountry, inanimate objects have gender, a wardrobe is “he”, a fork “she” and so on. []
  2. With only two grammatical genders every noun must be “gendered” []
  3. Another language with two grammatical genders. []
  4. I’ll identify feminine words as (f) and masculine ones as (m). Since she is a woman this ascription of feminine gender to her does seem natural. []
  5. The word ministre is masculine. []
  6. John Cooper, Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God (Baker, 1998), 89. []
  7. Incidentally, I must sometime check Cooper’s book to see how he deals with that last case… []
  8. Pun intended []