Month: January 2011

the all-purpose theological trump card (ii)

Late last week I dared to suggest that we can make too much of the story of Israel — particularly if we imagine that it can unravel every theological tangle.

Understandably, I was pinned in the comments for failing to specify how and where this might happen. So I’m going to try to make good my negligence.

Before I do, though, let me give just two examples of how and where I find the story of Israel theologically illuminating.

To begin with, I feel it sheds light on many details of exegesis — especially in the Gospels.

For instance, I was recently reading about how to understand the request we make in the Lord’s prayer for God to give us our ‘daily bread’. Commentators apparently argue over how best to translate the word behind ‘daily’.

It can get quite involved. But, as Halden has recently argued, the debate is thoroughly recast when we pay the probable reference to God’s provision of manna in the desert:

When Jesus then instructs his disciples to pray for “our daily bread” ought we not … realize that in calling his followers to pray in this way Jesus is calling us back into the desert with Israel. Out of the security of land, possessions, cultural production and into a life of sojourning in which we, once again, are given to depend, quite literally on God for the essentials of survival?

Likewise, I find that proper attention to the story of Israel puts a whole new spin on some classical bigger picture problems.

Take the problem of evil, for example. Rather than an abstract equation to be balanced, the goodness and all-powerfulness of God collides with the evil reality of evil in Israel’s concrete historical experience.

In the face of evil, the Old Testament points relentlessly forward to the (eschatological) future instead of backward in the manner typical of theodicy (e.g., to human free will or an angelic rebellion).

This response gathers momentum as it bounces around what Richard Hays calls ‘the prophetic sounding chamber’ of Israel’s exile. A momentum thoroughly alien to the environment of an air-conditioned tutorial room…

how to write a better-than-average media release

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the last few months brushing up on my copy writing and ‘content marketing’ technique. And I’m loving Copyblogger more and more.

They’ve just published ‘The 6 Essential Steps to Writing a Killer Press Release’. And it’s brilliant!

Writing media releases is something people involved in Christian mission and church leadership sometimes need to do. Which means it’s definitely worth paying attention to.

To whet your appetite here are the subheadings:

  1. Craft a hook
  2. Add a great headline
  3. Avoid jargon
  4. Provide resources
  5. Proofread
  6. Share your news

Better still, now that Copyblogger have gone on the record, I don’t have to rely soley on this excellent article from St Eutychus.

I’m no longer locked into plagiarising. Now I can call it research!

the all-purpose theological trump card?

I used to think the story of Israel was the all-purpose theological trump card.

But now I’m having second thoughts.

You see, I’ve signed up for a reading group tackling the whole New Perspective on Paul issue — focussing on the in-print tussle between John Piper and N. T. Wright.

I’m excited about sinking my teeth into it. And I’m especially looking forward to getting our Bibles open so we can weigh up what we read — whichever highly respected teacher and pastor penned it.

But I’ve just finished reading the (extended) introduction to Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. Towards the end, he caps off a discussion of the representative role stitched into Israel’s expectations about the Messiah like this (page 84):

Once we grasp the essentially Jewish categories of thought with which Paul is working, many problems in a de-Judaised systematic theology are transcended.

Wright’s point here is well made — particularly in relation to the mistaken attempt to play off representation against substitution. And I can’t help but sympathise with him.

I’ve long felt that many of the knots we tie ourselves in when it comes to Christian doctrine and ethics can be significantly slackened by attending to the story of Israel, God’s faithfulness to his promises to Abraham, and the overarching biblical narrative.

I don’t doubt that reference to the story of God’s dealings with Israel (which reaches its climax with Jesus) can throw fresh light on old questions.

But I’m starting to wonder if we might be overplaying it.

What’s your sense? What issues has Israel — and the overall plot-line of Scripture — illuminated for you? And where has it been less helpful than you imagined?

why hospitality is such a big deal in the New Testament

Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. (1 Tim 3.2-3)

A bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain; but he must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled. He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it. (Titus 1.7-9)

Does it surprise you that hospitality is right up there in the qualifications for ‘bishops’ (overseers)?

It’s not the only qualification of course. But it’s clearly a big deal. Big enough to make Paul’s list (when I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have made mine).

Why is hospitality such a big deal?

In her extremely helpful book, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (pages 29-33), Christine D. Pohl attempts to explain its prominence in the New Testament.

To begin with, Pohl points to the overarching storyline of Old and New Testaments and observing how much emphasis is placed on the fact that God’s people either are or had once been strangers in need of hospitality and welcome.

In the Old Testament it’s encoded in constant reminders of Israel’s slavery in Egypt. In the New Testament it’s bound up with the pilgrim status of the church, which ‘is nothing if it is not an assembly of migrants, answerable finally to the law of another city’ — to use Rowan Williams’ memorable phrase (Why Study the Past, page 41).

Pohl then identifies three aspects of early Christian life that converged to make hospitality central:

  • The ongoing tussle in the early church over precisely who was to benefit from the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel through Jesus. Who you extended hospitality to (or accepted hospitality from) gave a very concrete answer to this question.
  • The way the initial spread of the message about Jesus depended on travelling Christians — whether itinerant evangelists, ‘economic’ migrants who took the message with them or believers fleeing persecution.
  • The importance of the family household as the typical context for Christian gatherings.

For Pohl, then, hospitality is a big deal because of the interplay between the theological identity of God’s people and the particular circumstances (at once theological and cultural) the early Christians found themselves in.

If she’s right, then I wonder where that leaves hospitality today?

and so it begins…

Today is the start of enrolment week at La Trobe Uni — where I work with the Christian Union.

Thousands of incoming students will hit the campus this week to sign up for classes and to wander around and get a feel for the place.

We’ll be there too. Meeting people. Welcoming them to campus. And asking everyone to help us with our survey about students’ cultural and spiritual backgrounds. We want to crack the ‘cultural code’ of La Trobe Uni — and I’m confident this will help. (More on this anon.)

If you’d like to the inside running on this and other personal news from me and Natalie, you can join our prayer partners mailing list.

By signing up, you’ll get a short email about once a month and we’ll get your prayerful concern and support (as well as that warm, fuzzy feeling of knowing there are people cheering us on.)

We really would be delighted to have your prayer and support!

trending … this past decade

I’m not sure who’s responsible for introducing the word ‘trending’ into the English language. If I was interested in blaming someone, my hunch is it was Twitter. But, in fact, I quite like it.

Something else I like is Andy Crouch’s article on the ‘Top Trends of the 2000s’ — the decade we all came to know and love as ‘the Noughties’. (As a side note, does anyone know what we’re supposed to call the decade we’re now inhabiting? ‘The Noughteens’ or something?)

Here’s his top 10 trends of the past decade:

  1. Connection — the explosion of information and communication technologies have extended and reinforced our embodied relationships in myriad ways.
  2. Place — there’s been a renewed emphasis on the importance of sinking local roots even as we’re connecting more globally (or perhaps because we’re doing that).
  3. Cities — they’ve made a comeback especially as sites where ‘connection and local presence can thrive simultaneously’.
  4. The End of the Majority — maybe this one’s a US-specific thing (but one Australia would be much further advanced on), but Crouch reckons ‘we’re all minorities now’.
  5. Polarities — spinning out of the previous trend (or is it driving it?), we’ve become more and more fiercely tribal.
  6. The Self Shot — digital cameras made it possible; but what it’s made possible is for us to see ourselves as other people see us (which is even unlike looking at ourselves in a mirror).
  7. Pornography — together with its ‘close cousins, advertising and popular culture’, porn has become almost omnipresent.
  8. Informality — as an indicator of privilege and status, informal has become the new formal.
  9. Liquidity — the focus of global markets shifted more and more from real goods and assets to ‘futures’ and ‘derivatives’.
  10. Complexity — all the the above combined to thwart every attempt to change the world by seizing the classic levers of power or gaining entry into traditionally influential circles.

I’m convinced that responding to these trends will be an integral part of Christian mission. Better still would be getting ahead of the curve for the next decade!

So I’d love to know how you react to this list.

What does your gut say? Do you agree? Disagree? Which ones would you want to qualify? Which ones would you take further? (You may need to dig deeper into the original article if my summaries are too thin).

‘situational leakage’

If I have a very minor superpower, it’s an uncanny ability to focus.

Whether I’m writing a sermon or studying for an exam, I can block pretty much everything out and work solidly for hours at a time.

(I suppose this is proof positive that I’m a nerd — as if there was any proof needed! It’s my equivalent of the hoodie Rands talks about in this article.)

My ability to focus is pretty handy when it comes to studying or that last minute rush to pull a project together.

But there are dangers too. One big danger is that I block out stuff that actually has a valid claim on my attention. Things — or people — in my situation that I ought to at least notice, get totally sidelined.

So much so that I’ve been known to forget to eat.

Natalie, by contrast, seems highly attuned to what’s going on around her.

We particularly noticed this when we when were travelling together last year. The stuff in our situation that I’d automatically be inclined to block out, ‘leaked’ into Natalie’s field of attention.

And she promptly pointed it out to me. (I guess that’s why she’s the anthropologist and I’m … whatever I am.)

At first I got annoyed at this constant ‘situational leakage’. But as I reflected on it I realised that it was actually a chance to make me more ethical — or if that’s too grandiose at least more observant.

When I’m getting absorbed and lost in a detail of some piece of architecture — or, more likely, when I’m lost in some train of thought that bears little resemblance to the world we’re in (but which I’m convinced is the most exciting thing since sliced bread) — Natalie’s sensitivity to situational leakage can pull me back.

All of which is to say that an amazing ability to focus can be overrated…

keen to explore alternatives to the New Atheism?

This one’s for my Melbourne friends.

Late last week, an email landed in my inbox telling me that the Hegel Summer School this year is offering a one-day exploration of ‘non-Deist alternatives’ to the kind of atheism Dawkins and Hitchens et al are serving up.

It’s called ‘The New Atheism: Just Another Dogma?’

So if anyone’s keen to explore alternatives to the New Atheism, I’m thinking about heading along!

news of spirituality’s demise has been greatly exaggerated

“More and more people are noticing how their digital lives are inhibiting their face-to-face relationships.”

— Luke Gilkerson, ‘Family Unplugged – How technology disconnects us from deep relationships’

It’s a familiar refrain.

Two of the most common complaints Christians voice about contemporary information and communication technologies are:

  1. They foster skin-deep connections — with thousands of ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ — in place of the genuine relationships face-to-face communication supposedly delivers.
  2. They teache everyone ‘continuous partial attention’ rather than full and focussed attention.

Maybe it’s just me, but this feels a bit like Life Was Better And We Were All More Godly In The Fifties reactionism.

And yet I’m in no hurry to endorse the equal and opposite adulation with which some greet every new technological development. (I fear the authors of The Church of Facebook may succumb to this.)

Of course technology can be harnessed to sidetrack us spiritually. And of course it makes certain particularly noxious distractions more readily available.

But even frequent abuse doesn’t render proper use impossible.

In fact, the very technology that creates the distractions is also providing us with some means to combat them — as for example with the incorporation of a Readability-style feature in the latest version of Safari or the promising programme Freedom.

I’m not trying to suggest that new developments in technology haven’t resulted in changes or that they should be above suspicion.

It’s just that from what I can see, most of the claims made about their effects tend to be overstated — for better and for worse. (For a cautious example of ‘better’ check out this and for ‘worse’ check this out).

In reality, things are just way more complicated.

Some of the complexity we’re experiencing is captured well by this recent article on Wired. It suggests that the rise of Twitter and Facebook is not destroying so much as relocating long-range analytical thought.

Just as with analytical thought, I feel news of spirituality’s demise has been greatly exaggerated.

I’d love to explore this further. But I’m not sure if anyone has done any sustained studies (based on more than anecdote and instinct).

Any suggestions?

how do we ‘show up’ for those who are suffering?

It’s the obvious question that follows on from my post yesterday. And I have all sorts of thoughts swirling around in my head in response:

  • I want to point to Job’s friends — whose mute presence was so much more powerful and right than any of the words they went on to speak.
  • I want to dwell on some of the things they teach you in Clinical Pastoral Education about the need to ‘ventilate’, ‘differentiate’ and only then attempt to ‘integrate’ that those who are suffering experience.
  • I want to echo what Dan’s been saying recently about grief, expectation, comfort and disappointment (as well as his older but equally profound reflection on the importance of small talk for signalling that someone who’s suffering isn’t wholly determined by their suffering).
  • And, above all, I want to interrogate my own internal monologue when it runs along these lines: When I say ‘show up’ for those suffering, I don’t mean literally go and be there and try to help

Of course, a Christian response will be interested primarily in God showing up.

So our first duty and privilege has to do with our prayers — our prayers that God would in fact show up and do something (even now, before Christ’s return).

But learning to pray such prayers shouldn’t be where ‘showing up’ ceases. It should bind us to those who are suffering.

And it should stir up in us an urgent desire to be present ourselves. For even if this isn’t practical — and, as I’ve already indicated, I’m aware there’s a danger of too easily excusing ourselves here — our desire should express itself concretely in word and in what we send (just as Paul reports it did in relation to the fledgling Thessalonian church).