the McSweeney’s of the Old Testament?

Deck chairs on the top of Mt Pilatus, high in the Swiss Alps

I’ve had the opportunity to speak on the Psalms a bit lately. And I’ve been doing some obligatory puzzling about the authorship and ascription of the whole Psalter.

David’s authorship or influence towers over the Psalter. Many of the Psalms are labelled with the Hebrew for ‘of David’ (or possibly ‘for David’).

And even though a good number are ascribed to other authors, there’s a sense in which the Psalms are still overwhelmingly ‘Davidish’ — if not Davidic.

While ancient composers may not have had the same scruples as we tend to about plagiarism, I’m beginning to wonder whether the Davidic ascription is less about authorship and more about style and voice.

Kind of like the indie publisher, McSweeney’s.

A host of authors (and aspiring authors) write for McSweeney’s.

They write in different genres, about different subjects, and for different purposes.

And yet there’s a striking similarity — of style (casual, observational, shoot from the hip), tone (usually ironic), stock literary devices, etc — across them all.

A McSweeney’s piece is always recognisably a … McSweeney’s piece!

It’s like the literary version of the hipster dress code.

None of which is meant as a criticism. The highly conventional — even stylised — feel of things that are published in McSweeney’s can mean they come off as hollow and unoriginal. But they don’t have to.

In fact, sometimes the very same conventions of style and tone can become vehicles for brilliance — substantial, personal, transcendent and unique.

In doing this, the recognisable conventions also seem to help us find ourselves in the pieces published by McSweeney’s.

And my hunch is that the Davidic/Davidish ascription of the Psalms — as the tip of the iceberg for the collection of conventions that make up the poetry of the Psalter — may be part of what lets us take them on our lips as our own songs and prayers…

how to give grace to whoever you’re talking with

AFES Chappo Interview

How do you give grace to whoever you’re talking with?

This is the question that’s been circling inside since I preached on Ephesians 4.17-5.2 a couple of weeks back.

It’s a challenging passage. It draws a sharp line between our old identity — our old humanity, mangled as it is by our futile and corrupting desires — and the new identity we’re given in Christ — a humanity made new in the image of our Creator.

But one thing that really leapt out at me as I sat with this passage is the sheer emphasis on how we speak.

It’s there at every turn.

But it’s verse 29 that’s really got a grip on me:

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.

So that your words may give grace to those who hear.

Wow!

That is an amazing possibility. Isn’t it?

That the things that come out of our mouths could not only enrich, build up, comfort, encourage, advise — and all those other good human things.

But that we could somehow give grace to whoever you’re talking with.

Astonishing, right? It’s almost hard to picture how that could be.

Except that I’ve seen it.

At the 1 hour and 13 minute mark in this video, Australian evangelist John Chapman was asked if there was a period of his life he looked back on as the happiest.

I was in the room when this question was asked. And I remember the tremendous sense of gratitude that flooded me as it was asked: ‘That was such a kind thing to ask…’

I doubt there was a dry eye in the room by the time Chappo had finished answering.

That question gave grace to John Chapman — and to all of us who listened. Tangibly so.

It did this through it’s beautiful combination of specificity and other-centredness.

Specificity because it forced us to pay attention to particulars rather than just skate across the surface of generality.

Other-centredness because it wasn’t chiefly designed to wrest some wisdom for us from Chappo’s memories — although it did that in spades.

(In fact, this combination seems to be the key to all good questions.)

So it’s with that memory burning in my heart that I’m committing myself to learning to ask the kind of questions that give grace to those who hear.

sharpen your conversations in Lewis’s toolshed

This post first appeared as part of the ‘On holiday with C.S. Lewis’ section of the latest issue of CASE Magazine.

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Imagine this:

You get talking with a friend about their objections to Christian faith. The conversation starts to gather momentum. You seem to be getting more and more opportunity to speak personally about Jesus and about the reasons for your trust in him.

But suddenly there’s a metaphorical screeching of the wheels. Then a sickening jolt.

Perhaps you’ve struck a fissure in the conversational rails. Colliding with some unforeseen personal investments around an issue like same-sex marriage.

Or perhaps something you’ve rounded a corner too quickly, barrelling at speed into some aspect of apologetics that you expected to bluff your way through using second-hand facts and figures (about the fine tuning constants in the universe or whatever).

Or perhaps you were too well-prepared, and allowed your ability to speak at length and in details on your personal field of expertise hijack your desire to talk about Jesus.

Whichever way it happened, your once pleasant and apparently promising conversation has been derailed — and may even be careening out of control towards some ominously looming interpersonal cliffs…

If you’ve ever found yourself in this situation then maybe, like me, you have something to learn from C.S. Lewis’s famous ‘Meditation in a Toolshed’.

Lewis introduces his meditation by recounting his experience of standing in a darkened toolshed. A single sunbeam, originating from a crack at the top of the door, cuts across the shed.

After describing the difference between his experience of looking at the sunbeam and looking along it to see the scene outside, he generalises this to two approaches to knowledge: the ‘external account’ of something, and knowing about something ‘from inside’.

For Lewis, this important distinction was itself an apologetic tool. It helped him challenge the hubris of the ‘scientific’, modernist approach to knowledge — especially its inveterate insistence on the absolute superiority of the ‘external account’.

But for me, it’s more significant as a way to sharpen my sense of how to answer questions.

To begin with, it helps me ask myself questions about how well my responses ‘look along’ my faith towards the One who is its object. A classic biblical passage about this is 1 Peter 3:15:

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…

In these terms, does my response move out of my reverence for Jesus? Or is it shaped by other forces (like my desire to win the argument or gain approval)?

Likewise, I’m learning that it’s one thing to launch a battery of apologetic arguments or draw on conversational tactics that I’ve carefully gathered and memorized, but it’s something quite different to give the reason for my hope in Christ.

For, ultimately, giving the reason for my hope is something that, if I were to do it, might possibly help my conversation partner look along my testimony to see Jesus, rather than simply looking at it to see how intelligent (or well-rehearsed) I am.

pray your way to the good life

Where then does wisdom come from,
and where is understanding located?
It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing
and concealed from the birds of the sky.
Abaddon and Death say,
“We have heard news of it with our ears.”
But God understands the way to wisdom,
and He knows its location.
For He looks to the ends of the earth
and sees everything under the heavens.
– Job 28.20-24 (HCSB)

I find limestone caves absolutely captivating.

I love the way they display the power of gradual and cumulative forces to carve out something beautiful. Dissolving and depositing. Accidentally extruding baroque cathedrals. And secreting them away in the dark. For millennia.

What’s more, they stand as eloquent testimony to the formative power of the slow drip.

For their subterranean minarets and elaborate hanging monuments to erosion didn’t just appear overnight.

Mostly, they’re the product of thousands of years of constant repetition. Slowly eating away at and reconfiguring the rock. Day after day.

Occasionally staining it with a shock of ocre from some rich metallic seam above. Sometimes bleaching away the colours locked within by even older processes.

And the picture the Bible paints of human beings is no different.

I’ve come to be persuaded that the slow drip of habit and repetition is at least as significant for us as is the explosive power of a ‘decisive moment’.

This is one of the reasons why I so much appreciate my friend Andrew’s take on the Lord’s Prayer.

One of the best lessons (and gifts) of the Lord’s prayer is that prayer is not learnt by grasping abstract principles that you take away and apply.

Rather, it’s learnt by practice. By being tried on and ‘worn in’ like a pair of shoes you hope to walk in for years.

Yes — in one sense, it is a template for prayer. But the careful preservation of almost identical wording in both Matthew and Luke suggests that Jesus’ disciples saw it as a prayer to be learnt (not just learnt from).

And Matthew’s careful placement of this prayer to be learnt at the apex of the Sermon on the Mount — Jesus’ most famous announcement of his radical vision of the good life — hints at the fact that you pray your way to the good life.

You pray your way to the good life because we’re so much like limestone caves. We’re profoundly formed and shaped by the almost imperceptible forces of habit.

As our settled inclination to prioritise our reputation, kingdom and glory is dissolved and gradually realigned with God’s priorities.

Or as our seemingly rock-solid devotion to our own independence, superiority and invulnerability is worn away and slowly (painfully slowly!) replaced by an instinctual desire to walk God’s way.

By our looking to him to meet our material and spiritual needs.

By our extending the same forgiveness we enjoy.

And by our seeking his deliverance and protection from the evil within and without…

theological instincts

weights

I’ve been thinking a bit about our instincts — and what place (if any) they have in Christian living and thinking.

How are our theological instincts formed (and re-formed)?

I guess that almost by definition instincts are hard to bring into the cold, rational light of conscious thought.

This isn’t necessarily a drawback. I’m post-modern enough to be suspicious of pretty much every aspect of cold, rational conscious thought.

But it is something to factor in when it comes to trying to get a grip on our theological instincts — and potentially work at developing and honing them.

Something I find helpful is picturing instincts as more like muscle groups that you isolate, exercise and work on than like ideas you research (read: ‘Google’), weigh up the arguments for and against, then assimilate more or less directly.

That said, I think I have begun to become aware of some of my own theological instincts.

To begin with, I have long noticed how I start to squirm internally when some other Christian I’m listening to starts talking about how they’d answer a question about their faith — perhaps cataloging the evidence for Intelligent Design but not once mentioning or even getting close to talking about Jesus.

In contrast, I instinctively find myself wanting to start with and talk a lot about Jesus.

It just feels more ‘natural’ for me to adopt an approach that says, ‘Hey – I know this whole Christianity thing seems foreign and strange. But most worthwhile things take time understanding and becoming familiar with. Why not come in, take a look around, try out the furniture in here? You know, give Jesus a chance…’

Likewise, I’ve recently been struck by the way my theological instincts were on display in this article I wrote about guidance for the Bible Society.

The article began life as a pretty raw blog post, where I tried to put something I’d noticed about my own prayer life into words.

But when I was invited to expand it, I realised I needed to say more about the vision of Christian ‘adulthood’ I was fumbling towards — inexpertly in my original post, and (hopefully) slightly less inexpertly in my article.

And this is where my theological instincts kicked in. Because almost before I knew it, I’d reached for Galatians 5 and Ephesians 4.

The first is a passage about the work of the Spirit in creating Christian character. And the second is a passage about the work of the risen Christ (by his Spirit) in creating Christian community.

Pneumatology and ecclesiology. The Spirit and the Church. These weren’t so much carefully considered topics — calculated for maximum punch and polemical usefulness — as they were just the things I instinctively reached for when asked to flesh out my vision of Christian growth and maturity.

So I’ve isolated Jesus (and the Trinity and union with Christ), the Spirit and the Church as a few of things I instinctively turn to when I’m asked to approach something as a Christian.

The challenge is now to figure out how to exercise and work on them. (Or maybe to compensate for any lop-sidedness by working on some other theological ‘muscle groups’.)

if you can’t live by Jesus’ teachings

B069_Rembrandt

I have heard pious people say, Well, you can’t live by Jesus’ teachings in this complex modern world. Fine, but then they might as well call themselves the Manichean Right or the Zoroastrian Right and not live by those teachings. If an economic imperative trumps a commandment of Jesus, they should just say so and drop these pretensions towards particular holiness — which, while we are no the subject of divine abhorrence, God, as I recall, does not view much more kindly than he does neglect of the poor. In fact, the two are often condemned together.
– Marilynne Robinson, ‘Family’ (The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, page 102)

That is how you lay the smack-down on people who want to claim the name ‘Christian’ but systematically strip out its substantive content.

the theology of open access

At least since Natalie stirred the hornets’ nest about plagiarism before Christmas (first HERE and then HERE), I’ve been thinking about open access.

The ethical stance and in-principle commitment it embodies has long attracted me.

It’s why I love this piece (warning: it’s long, but oh so worth it!) by Katharine Viner the Editor In Chief of the Guardian Australia. (Together with The Newsroom, she has me absolutely convinced I want to become a journalist when I grow up!)

Although, even more attractive is the way open access seems to be an ethical position begging for a theological treatment.

Not because it can’t exist without a theological treatment. And not because it’s somehow incoherent or logically inadequate without one.

But because I feel that a theological treatment of the cluster of issues around open access (and intellectual property) could unlock its sense and significance even more powerfully.

Without trying to do too much with thoughts that are still undercooked, let me gesture in the direction I want to move in.

To begin with, you could argue that IP has an antitheological origin. Carla Hesse begins her history of IP, ’The rise of intellectual property: 700 B.C. – A.D. 2000: an idea in the balance’ by noting this:

The concept of intellectual property — the idea that an idea can be owned — is a child of the European Enlightenment. It was only when people began to believe that knowledge came from the human mind working upon the senses — rather than through divine revelation, assisted by the study of ancient texts — that it became possible to imagine humans as creators, and hence owners, of new ideas rather than as mere transmitters of eternal verities.

While I’d want to do more with the very brief caricature of pre-Enlightenment thinking about knowledge and ownership (was there no understanding of authorship in the premodern world?), Hesse’s portrait does remind me of Tolkien’s notion of humans as ‘subcreators’.

According to Tolkien, as creatures, the strongest thing we can say about our human ‘world-making’ potential is that we are subcreators rather than full-blown creators (for only God is the Creator).

As a result, it would certainly be fascinating — not to mention possibly explosive — to follow through the implications of embracing some kind of principled theological refusal to identify human beings as creators in a strong sense.

What would this mean for our sense of authorship?

What about for ownership of ideas (or anything we might fashion)?

And how would this impact the people trying to make a living out of what they fashion — intellectually or physically?

Of course, this would need to be worked out within the bounds of a robust theological account of our creaturely agency — alongside and undergirded by God’s sovereign agency…

I sense a major — and no doubt collaborative — undertaking coming on!

(Or someone could pay me to write a PhD on it.)

so you want to get prophetic at Christmas, huh?

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Yes. It’s that time of year again…

My newsfeed is filling up with photos of over-the-top Christmas parties, food, and presents in counterpoint to anti-Christmas jibes, rants or links to fuller rants.

I’m not talking about the Santa = Satan variety of rant (along the lines of “Oooh! Look — you can rearrange the letters … and they’re THE SAME!!!”).

I’m talking about rants that are equal parts anti-Pagan Hijacking Of A Christian Holy Day and anti-consumerist.

(OK. So given the political tilt of many of my Facebook friends, the distance between these two things is sometimes thin to vanishing.)

It seems like everyone either wants to get paralytic or prophetic at Christmas time.

Who knows? Maybe this is a throwback to the early days of biblical prophecy, when it seems like the two came as a package deal.

And hey — I can sympathise with the sentiment here.

I used to be animated by something very similar to it. I would wallow in resentful misery. And, if given the chance, I’d wax wrathful at the whole pseudospiritual-capitalist complex that obscured ’the real meaning of Christmas’.

It would have been like a annual possession, except for the fact that I used to be about as much fun to hang out with all year around!

(Oddly enough, I think the period of my Grinch-y gloom began at roughly the same point in my life at which I had to take responsibility for buying/making presents for other people.)

But then I got Christmas — or rather it got me.

These days, I find myself less in the mood for grim prophecy and more in the mood to celebrate the glory of what Christmas is all about.

Although I can still happily live without the ubiquitous reindeer antlers, I’ve even started to enjoy Christmas carols.

When else does the Australian general public verbally exult in the Incarnation?

And when else do parents and children together rehearse the earth-shattering news of God the Son becoming a flesh-and-blood human being and embarking on the road into the far country as he pours himself out and is crowned with glory and honour for us and for our salvation?

Sure — there’s plenty more thought that people could put into it. And lots of ways in which we could resist the insidious consumerisation of every aspect of Christmas (if I’d had time or been better-planned this year, I would have loved to make more of the presents I’m giving).

I’m not suggesting it’s enough simply to sing songs, give gifts, and dispense Hallmark-ised ‘Season’s Greetings’.

But I do wonder if we’d win more of a hearing if we visibly enjoyed (rather than merely endured) this culturally-sanctioned opportunity to retell and reflect on the story of our Saviour’s birth?

plagiarism and sin redux

A guest post by Natalie Swann.

I freaked out a bit after my more-provocative-than-I-had-intended post on plagiarism and sin. More people than I expected read the post and some people I respect have had some contrary things to say.

So, while I freaked out, I Googled “plagiarism is not sin”. Mostly, I got articles about plagiarism being sin. Oops. But on page 2 of the results I came across this NYT article by Stanley Fish, ‘Plagiarism is not a big moral deal’.

It’s a really good article and you should go and read it. I did. 3 years ago.

It shaped my consciousness for tutoring students about the rules of the citation and referencing game. And then life happened and I forgot the article, but remembered its lesson.

And I didn’t acknowledge it in my previous post.

So I’m on the fine edge of what my own university would call plagiarism — although I’m not sure Prof Fish would mind.

In light of the conversations I’ve had on- and off-line (I’m looking at you Hugh, Simon, Jo, Heather, Marty, Toby, and Rob), I need to make a concession: theft is always socially constructed.

In some places it is OK to help yourself to veggies on a public plot, or a deer from crown land. In other times or places it is not.

And so, because of contemporary understandings of Intellectual Property, plagiarism constitutes theft and it is probably rightly called a sin.

Prof Fish puts it like this:

“Of course every sin is learned. Very young children do not distinguish between themselves and the world; they assume that everything belongs to them; only in time and through the conditioning of experience do they learn the distinction between mine and thine and so come to acquire the concept of stealing. The concept of plagiarism, however,  is learned in more specialized contexts of practice entered into only by a  few; it’s hard to get from the notion that you shouldn’t appropriate your neighbor’s car to the notion that you should not repeat his words without citing him.”

But I want to stick to my guns for two reasons.

First, what does (and does not) count as plagiarism isn’t self-evident.

All this talk of plagiarism as a sin makes it seem like the ‘rules’ are obvious when really they are actually quite complicated:

“If you’re a professional journalist, or an academic historian, or a philosopher, or a social scientist or a scientist, the game  you play for a living is underwritten by the assumed value of originality and failure properly to credit the work of others is a big and obvious no-no. But if you’re a musician or a novelist, the boundary lines are less clear (although there certainly are some) and if you’re a politician it may not occur to you … that you’re doing anything wrong when you appropriate the speech of a revered statesman.”

My own University, the University of Melbourne, provides guidelines for students here. According to these guidelines, plagiarism included “copying ideas, concepts” (like I perhaps have done by not citing Prof Fish earlier) and “presenting as independent, work done in collaboration with other people (eg, another student, a tutor)” which seem to me about as clear as mud.

For example, I have never cited — and I have never seen anyone else cite — a tutorial conversation in an essay. And yet the purpose of a tutorial (at least, in the social sciences) is to collaborate and help students learn to think in disciplinarily acceptable ways. So shouldn’t our students be citing their tutorials?

Ultimately, if the church writ large is going to cry ‘Plagiarism!’, I think we need to be more explicit about what is and isn’t considered OK.

Is it OK to use someone else’s ideas uncredited in your sermons? It would certainly break the flow. Are preachers more like politicians or academics in Prof Fish’s example above?

Is it OK for a pastor’s partner — let alone research assistants and ghost writers (who at least get paid!) — to make significant uncredited input to sermons or written work?

Second, Intellectual Property (as we know it) is a relatively new invention and not necessarily the way things must be.

Calling plagiarism a sin threatens to blind us to this — and stop us imagining other ways of doing it.

Maybe IP is a really great idea. But maybe there are alternatives that the church should be championing.

There is certainly movement in some academic circles to make research open access. Surely it’s even more important that good theology gets out there?

Beyond that, maybe we should ask ourselves: Do Christians really think knowledge belongs to individuals?

I can’t help but feel it’s a perfect example of the interdependence of the church as a body.

And I would be excited if, in light of Pastor Driscoll’s transgression, we could have a conversation about the theological imperative for something like Creative Commons licencing and Open Access.

Admittedly, both Creative Commons and Open Access still value appropriate attribution. But both movements point us towards more collaborative and interdependent models for sharing knowledge. And I find that attractive.

what do the Virgin birth and the empty tomb have in common?

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“The Virgin birth at the opening and the empty tomb at the close of Jesus’ life bear witness that this life is a fact marked off from all the rest of human life, and marked off in the first instance, not by our understanding or our interpretation, but by itself. Marked off in regard to its origin: it is free of the arbitrariness which underlies all our existences. And marked off in regard to its goal: it is victorious over the death to which we are all liable. Only within these limits is it what it is and is it correctly understood, as the mystery of the revelation of God. It is to that mystery that these limits point — he who ignores them or wishes them away must see to it that he is not thinking of something quite different from this.”
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2: page 182.