Monthly Archives: February 2014

This Week’s Web

The Benefits of Reading BooksReal Book or eBook – which do you prefer?
Info-graphic: Top Ten Reasons for Choosing a Paper Book over an eBook.
Is my bias showing?

More on The Benefits of Reading Books

 Postliberal or Post-Liberal?
An interesting post on a distinction I was unaware of.

Fringe Environmentalists Declare War on Humanity?
“Declaring war on humans won’t make for a cleaner planet. To the contrary, the green misanthropes harm the cause by undermining environmentalism’s good public standing. It’s time for responsible environmentalists to push the anti-humanists back to the movement’s fringe, where they belong.”

A Latin Poem & Natural Theology

the-name-of-the-roseI came across this in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (15):

“My good Adso,” my master said, “during our whole journey I have been teaching you to recognize the evidence through which the world speaks to us like a great book. Alanus de Insulis said that
      omnis mundi creatura
      quasi liber et pictura
      nobis est in speculum
and he was thinking of the endless array of symbols with which God, through His creatures speaks to us of the eternal life. But the universe is even more talkative than Alanus thought, and it speaks not only of the ultimate things (which it does always in an obscure fashion) but also of closer things, and then it speaks quite clearly.”

This little Latin poem is half of the first stanza of a longer medieval work. The whole stanza is:
      Omnis mundi creatura
      quasi liber et pictura
      nobis est in speculum:
      nostrae vitae, nostrae mortis,
      nostri status, nostrae sortis
      fidele signaculum,

which translates roughly as:

     All the world’s creatures
     As a book and a picture
     Are to us as a mirror;
     in it our life, our death,
     our present condition and our passing
     are faithfully signified.

The poem derives from twelfth century Christian theologian and neo-Platonist philosopher Alain de Lille, and makes the simple point that observation of the natural world can inform understanding of our own life. But it does so only up to a point. This poem is like the book of Ecclesiastes: it can see the reality and inevitability of death, but cannot see resurrection. This is the limitation of all forms of natural theology: it requires the revelation given in Jesus and attested in Scripture if it is to speak the truth of our existence. Umberto Eco rightly suggests that God indeed speaks to us through created things of the eternal life, but only obscurely.

See Psalm 19.

A Psalm for Sunday: Praying Psalms 1 & 2

To match Reuters Life! PHILIPPINES/DOOMSDAYOn May 21, 2011 my journal reads: “The world is supposed to end today, according to US preacher Howard Camping: but it’s a beautiful day!” There was a lot of media hype and ridicule around this announcement, which is to be expected. Ordinary people wonder how Christians can be so naive as to believe such nonsense. (I wonder why ordinary people would be so naive as to lump all Christians into one box. But that’s another story.)

At the time, I was meditating on Psalms 1 & 2 and discovered that many commentators link the two psalms together, believing that they form an introduction to the book as a whole, as well as a theological and devotional orientation for reading the Psalms. There are indeed a number of common elements which link the two psalms together. For example,
a) Psalm 1 begins with “How blessed” and Psalm 2 ends with it;
b) In both psalms “the way” of the wicked will “perish;”
c) In both psalms there is reference to “meditate” (in Psalm 2 the Hebrew word appears in verse 1 but is usually translated by a different English word, e.g. devise, plot, etc)
d) Both psalms speak of those who scoff or rebel against the way of the Lord.

Further, Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm which speaks of devotion to the Law; Psalm 2 is a prophetic psalm which speaks of devotion to the Lord and to his Anointed. Thus, in these two psalms we have the Law, the Prophets and Wisdom, as well as devotion to God, his Law and his Son. Both psalms portray the blessing of those who choose to ground their lives in the Lord: they shall be “happy.” In both also, there is peril for those who cast off the Lord and his ways: not just peril, but destruction.

In these two psalms, then,  we see the way of the righteous in the fear of the Lord. The correct attitude of the reader is set forth: one who delights in God’s law, who worships with reverence, who seeks refuge in God and walks in his ways. This God is Lord of history, enthroned in heaven, majestic in power, and judge of all. This God will not be mocked, but also invites all to a life which is blessed and full of promise.

My prayer on May 21, 2011 was:

“Father, help me to be a person who delights in your word and your will, who trusts you and takes refuge in you. Keep me from the corrosive effects of secular scorn and modern doubt, international power-games and personal mischief. Lead me rather to your Son; Lead me rather in worship and study, meditation and mission; for your Name’s sake.”

Heated Rhetoric

AP Summer 2013AP ramped up the rhetoric for the cover of a recent edition of their magazine. “New Battle for the Bible” and “Hymn Wars” were advertised as two of the feature articles in the issue. The byline for the main article was even more dramatic: “Battle for the Bible: Christians Must Defend Inerrancy or Watch the Church Die.”

This kind of language is a call to arms, a rallying cry to gather the faithful remnant in the face of an apparently devastating threat. It plays to the anxieties and insecurities of the target audience, and also suggests the anxieties and insecurity of those making the call. Its aggression issues perhaps from the dictum that the best form of defence is attack. But it goes on the attack by simplifying and polarising the issue and the communities involved in it. One is either on our side or they are an enemy. One either agrees with our analysis of the situation or they are enemies of Christ.

I am troubled that our politicians so readily use this kind of argument; more troubling yet is that it is fostered in the church. While it may “work” in the short term, I doubt the long term fruitfulness of such an approach. When one has an argument to make, inflated rhetoric becomes unnecessary. Gordon Coleman’s article in the magazine is a case in point. Entitled “Out of Tune: Why a Debate Over a Hymn Proves Central to Christianity,” his essay is calm and measured, firmly presenting his case with clarity and good grace. The rhetorical inflation on the cover to “Hymn Wars” was simply unnecessary and inflammatory.

I think we can do better than this.

Diaspora Judaism: Analogy for the Post-Christendom Church? Part 2

"Leaving Zion" Detail from the Arch of TitusYesterday I posted a piece on Diaspora Judaism, and asked whether patterns of life in Diaspora Judaism might serve as an analogy for being the church in a post-Christian environment? There are obvious differences between the contemporary church and Diaspora Judaism, especially the fact that Diaspora Judaism was at its core, an ethnic community with common ancestry, custom and heritage. Perhaps, though, the contemporary church might learn from the success of Diaspora communities which managed to maintain their distinctive identity and faithfulness, sometimes for centuries, in the midst of a foreign and sometimes hostile environment.

Paul Trebilco identified several key features which sustained Diaspora Judaism, including their legal status within the Roman world, which offered some degree of protection from local persecution. Other features identified may offer some insight into how the church might retain its unique and distinct identity and ethos…

1. The local community
The community itself was central to life in the Diaspora. It was here that ethnic Jews found the acceptance, identity, value, friendship and support they needed to live faithfully in foreign and sometimes hostile environments. Community life included weekly gatherings, regular feast and fast days, and financial contributions, all of which helped reinforce their distinctive identity and lifestyle, and bond them together in solidarity.

Trebilco emphasises the social significance of the local community and weekly gatherings. It is, perhaps, this aspect of community life which is more difficult to nurture in a post-Christian context. Majority-culture Christians are typically highly assimilated with so many relational opportunities, that participation in the local Christian community loses its impetus and value. We simply do not need the community the way the Diaspora Jews often did. One strategy to alter this circumstance is to intentionally nurture the relational and social aspects of community life, so that genuine friendships and supportive relationships might occur. More important is the fundamental shift of one’s core identity to being essentially Christian. If being a Christian is our core identity, we will more naturally gravitate toward and value the community.

2. Endogamous Marriage, Parenting and Re-socialisation
Diaspora Jews by and large married within their own ethnic group, and raised their children as Jews, passing on Jewish traditions and heritage from generation to generation. Proselytes and others seeking entry into the community were re-socialised, learning the ways of the community and adopting them as their own.

I don’t know how easily these could inform contemporary Christianity. When I married it was almost assumed that a Christian would marry another similar-brand Christian. I am not sure that is still the case, especially for Christian women, for whom the options are often quite limited. This key feature of Diaspora Judaism points to the necessity of ministries that support and nurture marriage and family life, including the raising of children in an environment of active faithfulness. I suspect this will become increasingly important as marriages and families continue to suffer the stress and breakdown which characterises the contemporary West. I suspect that it will also become an important aspect of Christian witness.

The ancient church had a strong tradition of re-socialisation: new converts received extensive mentoring and catechesis before finally being baptised and accepted into the full life of the community. This period of instruction and training was designed to help converts learn and adopt the beliefs and practices which sustained the community in the midst of the hostile Roman empire. Many voices are calling for a restoration of such practices in the church today.

3. The Torah
Regular instruction in the Law was a key element in the weekly synagogue and laid the foundations of Diaspora identity. Trebilco makes the interesting observation that Moses was seen as a “skilful lawgiver, a profound philosopher, a noble king, a supreme military commander, miracle worker and priest” (298). This indicates to some degree, the assimilation of teaching to categories of thought common in the surrounding culture.

The more important observation, of course, concerns the centrality of Scripture to identity, community and life formation. Personal and communal transformation requires extensive and intensive engagement with the texts of Scripture, learning together to inhabit the world of the biblical text, and to embody that world in the daily realities of life.

4. Visible Practices
Trebilco identifies the importance of Jewish dietary laws, Sabbath-keeping and  circumcision as “key boundary markers of Jewish identity, with great social significance” (298). The first two, in particular, were highly visible commitments which distinguished Diaspora Jews from their countrymen, and reinforced their distinctive identity. The third, perhaps visible in the context of public baths, constituted, says Trebilco, a strong affirmation of Jewish identity for men. I find the visibility of the Diaspora community intriguing.

Perhaps the closest analogue to these practices for the contemporary church is gathering for public worship, followed closely by practices of gathering for common meals. Other practices could be such things as serving the poor or other good works in the public sphere. In any event, visible identification with the cause of Christ will effectively enhance one’s core sense of Christian identity.

5. The Fundamental Commitment
Finally, Trebilco notes the fundamental belief which underlies the entire structure of Diaspora Judaism, including even the core reality of ethnicity: monotheist belief in the one God of Israel, whose people they are. Belief that this God was the “God of Israel” implicated them ethnically. Belief in the one God entailed the rejection of all other so-called gods, idols and cults.

In the post-Christian environment in which we now live the church will continue so long as there are people whose identity is grounded in the reality of the divine grace by which we have been chosen and called, that is, those whose our existence is a response to this God who has given himself to us in Jesus Christ. An essential difference also emerges here: Diaspora Judaism was inherently an ethnic community; with the revelation of God in Christ, we understand God in universal terms and not simply as God of the Jews only. Diaspora Judaism grew by procreation and occasional proselytes. The Christian community is commanded to make disciples and so to grow by conversion as well as by procreation. It is a Diaspora community characterised by mission.

Diaspora Judaism: Analogy for the Post-Christendom Church?


"Leaving Zion" Detail from the Arch of Titus
“Leaving Zion” Detail from the Arch of Titus

The term “Diaspora” became almost a technical term in the first century to identify those Jews who were “scattered” all around the Middle East and the Mediterranean. The term was quickly applied to Christian Jews and perhaps Christians more generally, by some early New Testament writers. For example, James addresses his letter to the “twelve tribes who are scattered abroad [diaspora]” (1:1). Luke refers to those “scattered” [diaspora] by the persecution that arose after the death of Stephen (Acts 8:1, 4; 11:19). Nevertheless, the term is used especially of Diaspora Judaism – those Jews who lived amongst the gentiles, outside their ancestral homeland. This phenomenon started in the centuries before Christ as a result of conquest: foreign powers took many prisoners into captivity. But many of these refused to assimilate to the culture of their new masters. Rather they clung tenaciously to their Jewish identity even in the midst of foreign and hostile environments.

P. R. Trebilco’s article on Diaspora Judaism (Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments, 287-300) distinguishes between the assimilation, acculturation and accommodation of Diaspora communities. Assimilation refers to the degree of social contact and interaction Jews had with their new gentile neighbours. Acculturation refers to the degree to which they adopted gentile culture and practices, including language and education, ideology and worldview. Accommodation refers to the use they made of Hellenistic culture.

Trebilco argues that most Jews had “medium” levels of assimilation; that is, they had significant social ties with their non-Jewish environment, but still retained their Jewish identity, and remained faithful to their Jewish traditions. Some Jews, usually those seeking social acceptance or upward mobility, assimilated so completely into their new environment that they lost or even forsook their Jewish heritage. At the other end of the scale, some Jews remained aloof from their new environment, keeping their own company and carefully preserving their own traditions. Most Jews, however, “were neither socially and culturally isolated nor simply blended into some social amalgam. While their boundaries may have been defined variously in differing circumstances, it was precisely the ability to maintain these boundaries while continuing everyday social contacts with non-Jews that was the peculiar achievement of the successful Diaspora communities” (295).

According to Trebilco, the core of Diaspora identity was ethnicity: the combination of Jewish ancestry and custom that could be voluntarily adopted or abandoned (297). He identifies a variety of commitments which supported and sustained this identity: (a) modes of marriage and parenting, kinship and re-socialisation for outsiders joining the community; (b) the centrality of the local Jewish community in the life of individual Jews, and the links of particular Diaspora communities with other communities; (c) the Torah as key text for nurturing identity and life; and (d) beliefs and practices which reinforced identity, distinguished Jews from their surrounding culture, and facilitated continuing identity formation in the community. These included such things as a commitment to monotheism, adherence to the dietary rules of Torah, which also facilitated common meals, the practices of circumcision and Sabbath. These practices were key boundary markers with great social significance, which set the Diaspora communities apart from their neighbours, though without leading the communities into isolationist modes of life.

I read Trebilco’s article in the context of other work, but it got me thinking about the present state and context of the church. The question is: might patterns of life in Diaspora Judaism serve as an analogy for being the church in a post-Christian environment, in which the church is a minority community in a disinterested, sometimes hostile environment? Or put differently, how might the church retain and sustain its distinctive identity and ethos in this environment, and communicate it across generations?

I will post some further reflections on this tomorrow.

A Psalm for Sunday – Psalm 2

Psalm 2 in HebrewRead Psalm 2

Historically, it is possible that this psalm was used in coronation ceremonies for the installation of a new king. In the psalm itself, the king (David?) is recalling his own coronation, perhaps in a time of trouble.

In verses 1-3 he reports and questions the posture of the surrounding nations and their rulers, who want their liberty from Israel’s rule. But the Lord mocks their pretensions for he has installed his own king upon Zion (vv. 4-6). We should note that verse 4 can be read as a human reflection on the divine response rather than God’s actual attitude toward these foreign rulers. The suggestion of verse 6 is that this is God’s own speech. Verses 7-9 continue this assertion with the direct claim that “He said to me…” The claims of this text are astounding: divine sonship and authority. Such claims were not unusual in the ancient world, and indeed have not been unusual in modern times either: kings not infrequently claim some kind of divine right to establish their rule. In this context, Israel’s king reminds the kings of the nations that he has supremacy by divine right and command, and so warns them to pay homage both to the Lord and to himself (vv. 10-12).

Thus at the historical level, the king reminds himself of the word of promise given to him at his coronation, and rests his assurance in that word. Those who rise up against him challenge the Lord who installed him as king. Surely this is in vain.

This remarkable psalm requires interpretation not only at the historical level, but also as prophetic. Since the earliest days of the church, the psalm has been read as referring to Christ, God’s Anointed, his Messiah (v. 2). In Acts 4:25ff. David is attributed authorship, and Herod and Pilate and even the people of Israel are seen as the nations who rage against God and against his Christ. Acts 13:33, Mark 1:11 and 9:7, and 2 Peter 1:17 all apply verse 7 to Jesus specifically. Revelation 12:5 and 19:15 apply verse 9 to Christ, and in Revelation 2:27, the ascended Jesus promises that his faithful followers will share in his rule of the nations.

It is really not surprising that the early church read verse 7 especially, as a prophetic text with an ultimate reference to Jesus, the divine Son. At the historical level ‘divine sonship’ applied to Israel’s king only metaphorically; to Jesus, it is a description of his true being and relation to God: to the very depths of his being he is the Son.  A number of modern translations render verse 12 as “Do homage to the Son,” or “Kiss the Son.” This is an unlikely but perhaps unsurprising translation.

In light of all this, the final verses of the psalm become an invitation to recognise God’s King, the true ruler of the nations to whom all authority has been given, and to submit to his authority with reverence and joy, that is, to Jesus Christ. This is not so much a threat as an opportunity: blessed are all who take refuge in him!

This Week’s Web

The Shortest Commentary Ever on the Whole Bible

Ben Myer’s recently wrote the shortest commentary ever on the whole bible: one tweet for every book of the Bible, including the Deutero-canonicals. It’s fun and quirkly, and sometimes just hits the spot. For example:

Ruth: He wakes Bluebird Cartoonin the night to find a woman, a foreigner, touching his feet. He rubs his eyes. He had been dreaming of kings.

3 John: Oh my dear friend, I need to see you face to face to tell you what love means. Love can’t be sent by mail.



The Art of Confession

Michael Jensen has an interesting post on Confession at the ABC’s Religion and Ethics blog. Here is an excerpt:

“The second observation is this: because we hate to confess what are really like and to admit to what we have done, we live in a kind of inauthentic state. We perform our lives in public as carefully edited versions of our true selves. Partly this is because, at times, even we are at a loss to fathom our own actions. We feel that we sometimes are not truly ourselves, so we say “I was drunk” or “I was in a fit of rage” or “I was seduced” or “I am addicted” – which are all ways in which we separate ourselves, ever so slightly, from our actions. But who are we if we are not what we have done?”

Important Advice from Scot McKnight for this Time of Year

Roger Olson identifies The Most Pernicious and Pervasive Heresy in [Western] Christianity

Science, Creation and Genesis

BILL NYELast week’s “Great Debate” on the origins of life, the universe and everything has generated a small flurry of interest in evangelical circles. The Sydney Morning Herald, though, did not think much of the debate.

RJS (sorry, I don’t know her name, but she writes the science and faith posts over at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed) has provided a useful annotated bibliography and some videos, for those interested in this debate and the authority of Scripture question that underlies it.

More on Psalm 1

Yesterday I posted a short exposition of Psalm 1 which celebrates the blessed life of those who devote themselves to the love of God. But there is more to be said if we want to read the psalm well as a Christian.

tree-river_500561The psalm contrasts, as we noted, the two ways of the righteous and the wicked, and counsels the righteous not to “walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of the scornful’ (verse 1). The “walk, stand, sit” imagery is instructive, and may be understood in terms of a process of falling away from our delight in God.

It is also an implicit warning that the company we keep influences the direction and destiny of our lives. Care is needed here, however, for the psalm could become the basis of a completely unchristian form of life. Should believers separate themselves from all others they consider to be headed in the wrong direction? Should they have no relationship at all with the so-called wicked?

In today’s world that is probably impossible apart from a complete withdrawal into some kind of gated Christian sub-culture. This approach to Christian life has several fatal problems including (a) such Christian sub-cultures are often if not always sub-Christian; (b) it ignores the nature of psalm as a wisdom text, which portrays the truth it seeks to communicate in a boiled down and simple manner, rather than in a comprehensive and analytical manner. That is, the distinction between righteous and wicked portrayed here is not easily applied in the complexities of real life: the line of good and evil runs through every human heart, ourselves included. We simply cannot judge ourselves as righteous and others as wicked in black and white terms.

The truth the psalm communicates concerns the fundamental orientation and allegiance of our lives. The steadfast orientation of the righteous is toward God, even in the midst of a dark and hostile world, and in spite of our own continuing wickedness from which we must turn again and again.

Jesus is our guide here, for he managed to hold together love for God and love for the world. He was 100% in his devotion to God and he dined with tax collectors and sinners. He longed for the Pharisees to learn that God desires mercy and not sacrifice (Matthew 9:13; 12:7; cf. Hosea 6:6). A genuinely Christian approach to relationships will learn to love real people as Christ loved real people, though without walking in the ways of the fallen world.

The psalm is not so much a call for separation from the wicked as a picture of the blessing that accompanies those who choose the love of God. When we love God rightly and as the first object of our devotion, we may learn also to love the world as he does, and so follow in the path of the only one who is truly righteous – Jesus Christ, the friend of sinners.