Month: January 2010

stuff to click

  1. Andrew shares some thoughts on infant baptism — coming down in its favour without once mentioning covenant! He doesn’t answer every question you may have (and the Comments open up even more). But it gets my hearty ‘Amen’.
  2. Stuart takes on one of our holy cows about Christian ministry — the conventional wisdom that pastors should be ‘talent scouts’ on the look out for People Worth Watching. For me it raises some interesting questions about leadership
  3. Michael Bird responds to J. Mack Stiles’ article, “What’s Happening to InterVarsity”. It has the distinct feel of birdge-burning to it. But you’ve got to give it to him — Bird is unafraid to call it like he sees it.
  4. Tim Chester insists that ‘Mission is central to the Bible and central to our identity’, tracing the universal appeal to worship God throughout Old and New Testaments. (Although, perhaps it underestimates the difference between the ‘You come to us’ approach of the OT and the ‘We go to you’ in the NT.)
  5. I wonder how you feel about Seth’s claim that too much data crowds out faith. It may look like a simple faith v reason thing, but it made me think hard about whether Christian responses to the New Atheism have let the demand for ‘proof’ (of a very particular kind) distract us from our real goal.
  6. And there’s a great article on the Ekklesia Project blog about love and virtue. Here’s a teaser: ‘The “return to virtue” has been helping some of us late modern folk get beyond the unattached (“Teflon”) self of an “efficient” way of life by reminding us of ways that our actions presuppose a political (communal) setting’.

help me prepare a course about Jesus

I’ve mentioned that I’m slated to run a six week course on the person and work of Jesus at La Trobe. Here’s my brief:

  • Who? Christian university students attending a weekly training evening.
  • How? Run six 1 hour seminars (with a mix of learning modes — small group discussion, brainstorming, etc)
  • Why? To help them develop in theological maturity and be better equipped to share the good news about Jesus with others.

I’m not quite sure how I want to tackle it at this stage. I’m currently tossing up a couple of different options:

Option 1: explore a variety of different ‘angles’ and emphases

This would (presumably) involve spending some time on the expectations raised in the OT that are picked up and related to Jesus in the New Testament — and possibly exploring how they’re refracted in 1st Century Judaism. I would then plan to move through the different ‘portraits’ of Jesus painted in different New Testament writings (e.g., Paul’s letters, one the Synoptic Gospels — probably Luke — John’s Gospel, and the Book of Revelation).

Option 2: systematically examine one New Testament ‘statement of belief’ about Jesus

I’m thinking either Philippians 2.5-11 or Romans 1.1-5. We’d take whichever one of these statements I settle on one clause at a time, using each one as a springboard into the broader topic. This would cover a lot of the same territory as in Option 1, but may help limit any arbitrariness in the selection of topics and overall order we follow.

The way I see it, the pros and cons of each approach look a little bit like this:

I’d love to hear what you think about the strengths (and weaknesses) of these different approaches.

a resolution

We cleaned our house from top to toe yesterday. Thank God for public holidays just before you need to move!

The real estate agent is bringing people to inspect it today. We love the landlords and want to make sure someone falls in love with the place.

Whatever the outcome, it feels great. We are resolved to work this hard in our new home in Melbourne so we can enjoy it (not just to impress other people)…

the virtue of gazing into the middle distance

And here you were thinking it was a vice!

By Henningklevjer (from Wikimedia Commons)

Apparently, far from being vicious the ‘middle distance perspective’ is used in the New Testament to render both the life of Jesus (in the Gospels) and that of ordinary Christians (in letters like Ephesians). At least, that’s what David F Ford reckons.

Check out what he says in his essay, ‘System, Story, Performance: A Proposal about the Role of Narrative in Christian Systematic Theology’ (from Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology, p 195):

The middle distance is that focus which best does justice to the ordinary social world of people in interaction. It portrays them acting, talking, suffering, thinking, and involved in institutions, societies, and networks of relationships over time; in general this perspective renders … “the detail of how things are”. The perspective and the content go together. If one moves too close and allows the dominant perspective to become, for example, one person’s inner world or stream of consciousness, then the middle distance has been supplanted. Likewise, if one takes too broad an overview and subsumes the particular people, words, and actions into a generalization, a trend, or a theory, the middle distance loses its own integrity and becomes, at best, evidence or a supportive illustration.

I guess this is something like the tension many people experience in preaching — or otherwise trying to present the good news of Jesus. It’s easy to fall into the trap of either over-familiar, confessional, ‘look at me’-ism or of trotting out pithy-sounding but bland platitudes and hastily formulated generalisations about ‘society’ or ‘the world’.

Perhaps it’s time to rehabilitate the virtue of gazing into the middle distance…

some thoughts on John’s presentation of Jesus

I’m mulling over the way Jesus is presented in John’s Gospel — and especially how he’s presented in relation to God. Let’s start with the following points culled from Dunn’s Christology in the Making (pp 258-265):

  • Jesus’ designation as the Word and Wisdom (and Shekinah) of God in 1.1-18 adds depth to his portrayal as the Son of God and Son of Man in the rest of the book.
  • Despite its very ‘Greek’-sounding cadences, John’s presentation of Jesus is not entirely unJewish, bouncing off the ways First Century Jews already spoke of God as both near and far, immanent and transcendent.
  • At the same time, John constantly foregrounds the relation between Father and Son in a manner that almost suggests we’re dealing with two beings here.

Placing all these things side by side results in a variety of apparent anticipations of later orthodox confession about Jesus and his identity of being and activity with God the Father. Such is the sophistication and clarity of John’s presentation of Jesus.

All of which is more or less uncontroversial. But I keep wanting to ask: What about the elusiveness of Jesus? The lack of recognition he constantly meets, the hostility and division his arrival produces?

Sunrise over Mt Sinai

Now I suppose we probably persist in privileging John like this because it seems to tell us what the other Gospels merely show us. But I suspect we’re in danger of forgetting that John’s language only sounds explicit (and compelling and powerful) from the perspective of later orthodoxy.

What’s more, we’re in danger of underplaying the shock and difficulty — even the mind-bending paradox — of what has become so comfortable and familiar to us: speaking of Jesus as the ‘Word become flesh’, etc.

We just need to do better at reckoning with the fact that almost every time it looks like we get something approaching the high formulations of later orthodoxy Jesus sidesteps any unambiguous identification with God (which is what happens in John 5.16-30 for example).

John may pose the question with unusual directness and clarity (to our ears). But rarely are his answers as cut and dried as we might imagine.

speaking of God in Christ

I’m preparing a six-week course on Christology (expect more on this in coming weeks). For the moment, I’m doing some background reading. Where I came across this fascinating attempt to come to grips with (i) what’s going on in John’s Gospel as it speaks about God and Jesus, and (ii) why the Fourth Gospel was more readily received on early Christianity’s speculative fringe than at its ‘orthodox’ core:

[P]erhaps what we see in John is the clarification of the nature and character of God which Christ afforded brought to the point where the available categories of human language are in danger of simplifying the conception both of God and of Christ too much. It is a danger inherent in any writing which can speak so effectively to the simple believer and yet in the same words provide such resonant symbols and images as to exhaust the perception of the most sophisticated intelligence and religious imagination. Indeed, it is a danger inherent in any talk of God: in order to be understood one must run the risk of being misunderstood; in order to open windows of insight in the understanding and awareness of others one must often use language which causes the hearer to blink and question.

(Christology in the Making, Second Edition, p 264)

There’s a lot to like about Dunn’s magisterial study. And there’s obviously a lot underlying what he says here. Not least being his reconstruction of a gradual evolution of the language of ‘God incarnate’ — with John’s Gospel at the conclusion of this process.

But I’m not entirely sure how this sits with me. I wonder whether the (risky) stretching of language in order to speak of God in Christ might actually be a feature of every New Testament writing about Jesus. That is, couldn’t what Dunn says about John just as well be said about Paul and the synoptic Gospels (and the letter of Hebrews, etc) — with appropriate variations of accent and nuance?

ease your way in…

If you’re anything like me, you need to ease your way into the week. You know, cast your net wide before you can narrow in and begin focus on the tasks at hand. (That’s what I keep telling myself anyway). See if these help:

  • On Faith and Theology, theologian George Hunsinger responds to an inquiry about the reliability of what the New Testament says about Jesus.
  • Sam launches a promising-looking new series about the quotations of the Old Testament in the New (based on the findings of his College project).
  • Dan delivers a characteristically lyrical and insightful reflection on camping. Love it.
  • Seth explains how to complain well, giving concrete form to an important relational/communication principle.
  • A timely word about that overused excuse line: “I’ve just been so busy lately”. Cutting. But manages to offer some positive help.
  • For a cool, web-based mailing list tool (which we’ve just built our new supporters mailing list on) check out MailChimp. It’s free if your list has fewer than 500 subscribers and you’re sending under 3000 emails a month.
  • And, for the true distraction-seeker, you can’t go past this clip. It brings together so many of my favourite (outrageous) things!

what novels you need to read

OK. That’s probably a little grandiose — and imperatival. Rather than a list of novels that you need to read this is the Top 5 novels (each) Natalie and I have read in the past twelve months…

My Top 5 are:

  1. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I’ve heard it said that nothing much seems to happen in this novel. But I tell you, it happens so lyrically — and is rendered with such affection — that it’s worth it. Totally.
  2. Hey Nostrodamus! by Douglas Coupland. Coupland always delivers an absurd but oddly familiar take on contemporary life. Wrapped in caustic one-liners. But this anatomy of a tragedy and its effects — especially in terms of the faith of those involved — is stunning.
  3. What Is The What by Dave Eggers. If there’s one book you read this year, make it this novelised oral history of the Sudanese ‘lost boys’ generation. I’m not kidding.
  4. Breath by Tim Winton. You’re probably told too much way too much about sexual deviancy in this novel. But you also get the exhilarating experience of learning to surf (without leaving the comfort of your hammock!).
  5. The Pages by Murray Bail. Although I’m not sure Bail ends as strongly as he begins, or is particularly fair to his female protagonists, the prose is quite something — so … sparse and vigourous.

Natalie’s Top 5 are:

  1. Death of a River Guide by Richard Flanagan. I’ve blogged about this before.
  2. The Deportees and Other Stories by Roddy Doyle. Ireland has typically been a country of emigration — but joining the EU has made them a destination country. Doyle provocatively and hilariously takes a look at race relations in these short stories.
  3. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Ok — so I read this more than 12 months ago … but this book still lingers with me in a way I’ve only ever before experienced with Jane Eyre.
  4. Generation A by Douglas Coupland. Ok — so I read this last week. But it was a birthday present in ’09, so it kind of counts. What Anne Lamott tells you about the autobiographical nature of storytelling Bird by Bird, Coupland shows you in Generation A.
  5. On Beauty by Zadie Smith. This book convinced me of something of the universality of human experience. I was amazed at how much of my reality this young English-Jamaican author could capture.

Your Top 5s go here:

you need to read novels

Michael has recently picked up on Justin’s suggestion that you need to read poetry to become a better Bible reader — and proclaimer. I whole-heartedly agree.

But the flip-side to being able to feel your way into God’s word, is a kind of prophetic ability to get under the skin of those you’re serving and speaking to. I want to suggest that reading novels can help us with this. Big time.

On the one hand, a typical trashy airport novel reveals loads about the fears and aspirations of … well, most of us!

It does so largely by the assumptions it makes. Assumptions you’re invited to share (at least for the duration of your reading experience). Assumptions about what’s valuable, exciting, significant, etc. And, best of all, assumptions that come packaged in a more or less gripping plot.

Reading trashy novels gives you practice decoding such assumptions. Identifying the desires (and anxieties) they tap in to. And feeling their pull for yourself. It’ll help you ‘exegete your audience’, as they say.

Great novels, on the other hand, do a lot of this work for you.

They go about this in various ways. Producing the effect that the amusingly-named Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky has dubbed ‘defamiliarisation’.

According to Shklovsky, ‘The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar”, to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged’. That is, it’s about slowing you down and making you pay attention to what you’d otherwise rush past and take for granted.

Which is why a great novel is typically more demanding than an airport novel. But it’s worth it because of the questions it raises, the light it sheds on human behaviour and motivation, and the stunning vistas it opens up on life.

That is why you need to read novels.

what’s happening in 2010?

People all over the web are posting their plans for 2010. So Natalie and I thought we’d join the club.

These are our real world plans:

  1. Natalie’s starting a PhD at Melbourne Uni. She’ll be getting acquainted with the School of Philosophy, Anthropology and Social Inquiry there as she begins her investigation of the interplay between faith identity, culture and national identity among migrant Christian communities. As part of this, Natalie’s preparing to launch a new blog On the Way Home as an experiment in what she likes to call ‘open source research’.
  2. I’m talking to AFES about working with them in partnership with evangelical student groups at a couple of university campuses. Things are beginning to firm up and I’m already champing at the bit to get out there! [They’ve already set me up with my very own profile page.] Obviously, this will require quite a bit of prayer and financial support. We’d love to have your prayers — please sign up to our mailing list to get regular updates.
  3. Before getting stuck in to either of those things, we’re going to do some travel. New York and the UK are currently on the drawing board. It’s kind of a universities tour: we hope to visit friends and family at Princeton, Cambridge and Oxford as well as taking in a couple of conferences in London and Newcastle.

No doubt we’ll be blogging about all this as it unfolds. But you can stay connected with our more personal news by signing up to our mailing list.

In the virtual world the plan is to stick with many of our familiar themes…

…but with a twist. In particular, I’m keen to return to the emphasis on the church and Christian living that I started out with. I want my experiences on the ground (and attempts to ‘road test’ some of the stuff I’ve had my head in for the last four years) to bring a new focus to my musings.