An Enduring Voice

There is still an hour or two before the day ends: enough time to recall with gratitude, the life and legacy of Jane Austen – who died two hundred years ago on this date. Not that I can say much more than to what extent I appreciate her work. I am a fan and an admirer, not an expert.

Austen died on July 18 1817 at just forty-one years of age, after a year or more during which her health had been deteriorating. Her books, published anonymously during her lifetime, became amongst the most loved in English literature, and have enjoyed continual publication from the time they were first presented to the reading public until the present. They have also stimulated a raft of film adaptations, as well as a whole genre of Austen-knock-offs.

In some respects, Jane Austen has been viewed as writing simple romances, stories that tell a happy tale that ends with the heroine securing her husband and living happily ever after. More recent scholarship, however, insists that Austen’s novels

… are strategic critical analyses of the moral values and modes of behaviour through which a section of the ruling class was redefining itself … She writes, therefore, about femininity and about class: about forms of identity and about marriage as a political institution which reproduces – symbolically as well as literally – the social order. … So the power to motivate and reward change, both personal and social, lies with the woman. (See my post on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice)

Austen is very aware of the social, cultural and political factors at work in her world, as well as the hopes and sorrows, triumphs and pains, that attend daily affairs. She too, like her sister Cassandra, knew what it was to love and be loved, though neither ever married. Cassandra’s fiancé died in the West Indies when she was twenty-four. Her family said that Jane loved a young clergyman who also had died.

A couple of months ago I read Persuasion in part to recall this author whose legacy we honour. Toward the end of the book there is a spirited discussion between Anne Elliott and Captain Harville about whether men or women have the deeper feelings, more constant and faithful:

“Well, Miss Elliott, as I was saying, we shall never agree I suppose upon this point. No man and woman would, probably. But let me observe that all histories are against you, all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall.—Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands…”

This telling line provides a little window, perhaps, into what Jane Austen was about, when she took up the pen. And we are immeasurably the richer for it.

A Book for Baptists: Contesting Catholicity

I picked up one new book at the ANZATS Conference this year, which is something of a record (to buy only one…)! The book by Curtis Freeman is entitled, Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists. Freeman is Research Professor of Theology and Director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. The term “other Baptists” comes from a list of Baptist statistics, in which various Baptist denominations were named. The final category in the statistical list was “Other Baptist.” As he reflected on the list, he realised that he belonged to that category of “Other Baptists,” which he defines as neither conservative nor liberal. Here is a paragraph from the Preface of the volume:

This book offers a theology for other Other Baptists. It is part diagnostic and part therapeutic. The diagnosis is that many Baptists and other Free Church Christians are suffering from a condition that if left untreated results in death. This sickness did not happen all at once. It was gradual. Nor are the signs of its pathology obvious. They are silent and often unnoticed. Yet the result is deadly. The remedy for this sickness unto death (John 11:4) is the life that is really life (1 Tim 6:19). This life is not the product of human creativity. It is God’s own life, and its curative power is realized by participating in the fellowship of the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, with the saints. [What a great line; just sayin’…] This is the life of the world. In a word the cure lies in the rediscovery of catholicity. Baptist Christians are more familiar with dissent than catholicity, but, as I show, the way of recovery comes by embracing a mode of being in which contestation and catholicity are not opposites but are instead complementary and necessary for the church to be the church.

Freeman wants to chart a course between the Scylla of conservatism and the Charybdis of liberalism, “toward a generous orthodoxy,” along the way of postliberalism—Duke is not far from Yale after all, and Hauerwas is also at Duke! The chapter titles show the outline of his theology, especially in Part II. He deals with matters of the triune God, the priesthood of all believers, the gathering of the believers in Jesus’ name, light from Scripture, evangelical sacramentalism, and a final chapter entitled, “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.” His ultimate aim to be remain a Baptist Christian, but a Baptist within the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” I don’t know when I will have time to read this, but I am looking forward to doing so, and will blog it as I do.

A Prayer of Confession

I came across this prayer in Ray Anderson’s On Being Human. Then I prayed it as part of the congregation at Evensong in Adelaide last Sunday. It is the last line of the first stanza that grabs me: and there is no health in us. The prayer is from the Book of Common Prayer (1928), “Morning Prayer.”

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father;          
We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.          
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.    
We have offended against thy holy laws.        
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;
And there is no health in us.

But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.          
Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults.      
Restore thou those who are penitent, according to thy promises
declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord.         
And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake
that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life,          
To the glory of thy holy Name.           
Amen.

ANZATS 2017 – Lynn Cohick

The second international guest at this year’s ANZATS Conference was Lynn Cohick from Wheaton College in Illinois. Like Stephen Barton, Cohick is a New Testament scholar, but who is also very conversant with the life and circumstances of early Christianity in the first centuries of its history.

Cohick’s first lecture was entitled “What’s Love Got to Do with It? Marriage in First-Century Families.” Her second lecture addressed “Inheritance and Worthiness: What Children in First Century Families Reveal about the Message of the Gospel.” Both lectures used early Christian and ancient secular sources in addition to the New Testament to provide a vivid account of the life and times of families and children in the world of the New Testament, in both its Jewish and Hellenistic contexts.

Marriage in the first-century Greco-Roman world was highly regulated in terms of social class and custom. Polygamy was forbidden, concubinage allowed, and prostitution and other forms of sexual allowance for men was accepted as normal. Slaves, both male and female, could be used routinely for sex, though only a woman could be a concubine. A concubine had a status somewhere between a wife and a slave. Most marriages were contracted with the hope of love, or at least harmony, and some evidently attained it. But remarriage was common on account of both the death of one’s spouse, or divorce.

The forms of marriage, and power within marriage, were very patriarchal. A good wife was one who maintained a good reputation, bringing honour to the family name, undertook the duties of motherhood, was submissive to her husband’s authority, and modest, chaste and industrious in character. Cohick argues that Paul’s instructions to married couples in the New Testament were audacious and counter-cultural, introducing a strong note of mutuality and equality into the marital relations, challenging the male privilege of the Roman world, including the “natural social right” of the husband to use prostitutes. His vision of love demands self-sacrifice and honour of the other, making demands, especially on the husband.

With respect to children, Cohick acknowledges the difficulty of obtaining and interpreting sound data on the status and life-experiences of children in the ancient world. In fact, the concept of child does not really have an ancient analogue. Childhood was not sentimentalised in the ancient world where child mortality could run as high as 35% in the first year of life, and up to 50% by age ten. Life was harsh and work was rough, existence was brutal, even—especially?—for children.

Perhaps the enduring image Cohick’s lecture left for me was of the instrumentalising of children. Children were for work, for family support and honour, for sex. Children were like unformed clay, and needed education and a strong hand to cause them to grow and mature.  Cohick spent a good deal of time distinguishing between free and slave children, and between Roman and non-Roman children, and how these distinctions played out in society.

The image of children in the New Testament challenges the instrumentalising of children, and the central role of the Roman family in society. They were to be nurtured and educated in the “new family” which was the church, with a primary allegiance not to their earthly paterfamilias, but to God. Cohick used the story of Perpetua and Felicitas to great effect here. So, too, the adults in the church were to serve as surrogate mothers and fathers for all the children in the church, whether slave or free, Roman or otherwise.

Cohick’s lectures provided a “thick” descriptive account of family in the first century world. It was like seeing a full-colour picture after having only seen black-and-white and blurred images previously. It was easy to visualise the impact of the gospel message of hope, in a world of such high mortality. It was challenging to see the commitment the early Christians had to a devotional and moral existence that challenged the life and culture around them in fundamental ways.

ANZATS 2017 – Stephen Barton

This week I have been at the 2017 ANZATS Conference in Adelaide. The theme this year has been “Kinship & Family in Contemporary Australia and New Zealand.” The two international guests have given excellent plenary addresses, and the elective sessions that I have attended have been good. Of course, one of the best things about Conferences is catching up with peers from around the country—and from New Zealand, and meeting new friends.

Stephen Barton from Durham, UK has given two addresses on the topic of marriage, the first providing a biblical perspective and the second, an historical perspective from the Christian tradition. Both accounts were descriptive rather than prescriptive, and portrayed the complexity and plurality of images and approaches in both the Bible and the Christian tradition. Several things stood out to me:

  1. Barton rejects a “sola scriptura” approach to the question of a Christian ethic of marriage and family. Several statements in the lecture make his position clear: “‘The Bible says’ is no way to establish a ‘biblical’ understanding of ‘family.’” He prefers a more “Anglican” approach—Lex orandi, lex credendi (which translates roughly as “the law of praying [is] the law of believing” and means that prayer and worship lead to belief and theology)—“the Bible released from rationalism opens a depth of biblical resources for prayer and moral reflection.” And again, “sola scriptura is too narrow a foundation for a full doctrine or ethic of marriage and family.” Barton views marriage as a complex, many-layered phenomenon with natural, spiritual, legal, social, cultural, and sacramental aspects. He eschews reductionist approaches which would reduce marriage to just one thing. Thus while scripture is an indispensable source for a Christian ethic of marriage and family, other sources of moral reflection must also be consulted, including an understanding of natural law, the history of development of concepts and practices of marriage, cultural forms and traditions, philosophical reflection on the “goods” of marriage, etc.
  2. Barton views marriage primarily through an eschatological lens: a wise reading of Scripture adopts a prophetic-eschatological perspective that disrupts cultural values in the light of the coming kingdom. I found this intriguing, especially since biblically, it appears grounded more in creational frame of reference. Nevertheless, his treatment of the biblical vision was very insightful and challenging.
  3. His recounting of the development of marriage in historical and ecclesial perspective was incredibly interesting and illuminating. The lecture was peppered with such gems as “the [medieval] Roman Catholics understood marriage a natural origin, a legal form, and a spiritual significance.” Or, the Roman Catholic understanding of marriage as a sacrament was transformed in Protestantism: Luther viewed it as a “social estate,” Calvin in terms of a “covenant,” and Anglicanism as a “little commonwealth.” Barton’s discussion of each of these was rich in detail and insight.

In the end, says Barton, marriage is indeed a complex institution, essential for personal flourishing and familial and societal well-being. He understands it especially in terms of a practise of life-long openness to the other, in a context of deepening hospitality and self-giving.

An Ode to Learning German

The Guardian had this piece  “Why We Should Learn German” from novelist John le Carré. Once again, I am stirred to renew my study of German and gain a renewed competence in the language.

You can have a lot of fun with the German language, as we all know. You can tease it, play with it, send it up. You can invent huge words of your own – but real words all the same, just for the hell of it. Google gave me Donaudamp-fschiffsfahrtsgessellschaftskapitän.

You’ve probably heard the Mark Twain gag: “Some German words are so long they have a perspective.” You can make up crazy adjectives like “my-recently-by-my-parents-thrown-out-of- the-window PlayStation”. And when you’re tired of floundering with nouns and participles strung together in a compound, you can turn for relief to the pristine poems of a Hölderlin, or a Goethe, or a Heine, and remind yourself that the German language can attain heights of simplicity and beauty that make it, for many of us, a language of the gods.

To quote Charlemagne: “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” He might have added that to teach another language is to implant a second soul.

New Barth Books

Two new Barth books arrived in the post this week, all the more exciting because they are primary documents rather than new books about Barth.

The first A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons contains thirteen sermons preached by Barth to his small congregation at Safenwil from July 26 through November 1, 1914 – the first three months of the war. Here is the young pastor Karl Barth, twenty-eight years of age, wrestling with the meaning of the war in the light of Scripture and theology. Nine of the sermons are based on New Testament texts, and four on the Old Testament. This is the first time these sermons have been translated for an English audience, and I am very much looking forward to reading this volume, together with its introductory essay by Canadian translator and editor William Klempa.

The second volume is also early Barth. The Epistle to the Ephesians were amongst the first lectures given by Professor Barth in the winter semester at Göttingen, 1921-1922, just months after Barth had ended his pastorate at Safenwil and finished the second edition of his Romans commentary. It seems Barth spent most of the course exegeting his way through the first chapter of the epistle, and then devoted the final lesson to chapters two through six! This volume also comes with introductory essays by Francis Watson and the late John Webster.

I have dipped at random into A Unique Time and present a brief excerpt (pp. 112-113):

So war, even this terrible war, has its place in God’s purposeful design of peace for us. Hence, for us men and women, what matters is that we have a living experience of the wrath and of the unspeakable grace of God, to which the European nations now tread so near. Nothing else will help us. In this time, victory and defeat can again be quickly reversed. For thousands of years the history of humanity has simply been a story of alternating victories and defeats. God has permitted time and again that humanity would go its way and on its way find only misery. Victory and success should no longer be what they want; what do they get out of them? Surely, we should all let God speak to us through the present storm, for which human beings are at fault. This will pass away, but you remain! As long as we keep on praying only for victory and success, God will not hear us, and we will continue to be confronted by new storms through our own fault.

Moveover, we Swiss should not think and pray in this manner. Yes, we want to pray for our beloved country, but not to a god of war and victory, in accordance with the practice of the ancient Jews and the pagans. Nor are we to pray that narrow-minded selfish prayer: “Spare our house; instead, burn down someone else’s!” Yes, and if the situation were to become serious, in no way could we boast about our just cause! Nor could we at all demand without question that the good Lord stand right behind our soldiers and cannons. We also are culpable in our whole being for the present world’s situation. Rather, we must pray as Jesus taught us: “Your kingdom come! Your will be done! And forgive us our sins! And deliver us from evil!”

Lord, set us free, not from the enemies but from the powers of darkness that are in and around us, from falsehood and arrogance, meanness and thoughtlessness. Lord, let us be victorious, not over foreign nations but over ourselves, over our selfishness. Lord, let us triumph, not in outward success but in letting ourselves be filled and empowered with your love, freedom, and justice. Dear friends, let this be our war prayer, the war prayer of a neutral nation. . . .  May God grant this. If we so pray, God hears us. 

New Issue of Crucible Available

The new issue of Crucible has just been published online and is available here.

The issue is focused on the theme of  migration. The editorial states that “one of the most
pressing issues facing our world today is mass migration. From the “boat people” debate in Australia to the refugee crisis in the Middle-east and Europe, the world is struggling with some of the biggest mass migrations in history.” There are several peer-reviewed articles addressing this matter, some other articles and resources, plus book reviews including my own review on Frank Macchia’s Baptized in the Spirit.