Lead Balloons

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…

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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.

if you can’t live by Jesus’ teachings

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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.

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?

why I’m giving up on meeting one to one

Your standard one to one meeting

Meeting with people one to one — to chat about life, pray and read the Bible with the aim of growing as disciples of Jesus — is one of the more stable features the kind of university (aka ‘college’) student ministry I serve in.

But it’s become increasingly clear to me that I need to give it up.

Huh? Give up meeting one to one? What am I smoking?

Let me explain how I reached this conclusion.

To start with, there have been some pragmatic factors pushing me in this direction.

In particular, I’ve only been on campus two days/week for the second half of this year. But I’d already begun meeting with a bunch of students — some currently in leadership, some potential leaders, and some in particular need of pastoral care.

I didn’t want to stop meeting with any more of these people than I had to. But my time and resources were limited.

So I decided to try combining my one to ones into triplets.

After only one semester of trying it, the results are far from conclusive. But tentatively I can report that…

  1. I was able to keep regularly meeting up with almost all of the students I had been meeting with in first semester.
  2. I was forced to act on my conviction that ministry is as much caught as taught (instead of simply telling the student leaders to disciple someone else, I was able to work with them to do it).
  3. I am starting to re-examine the rationale for my pre-existing preference to do discipleship one to one.

I’ve barely even begun thinking through the third point. But I’ve been stimulated by a chapter from Transforming Discipleship by Greg Ogden, which someone recently pushed my way.

Ogden argues very strongly against our tendency to model discipling on the Paul-Timothy relationship. To his mind, this brings with it an unhelpfully asymmetrical expert-learner dynamic — something like which is perhaps encoded in the language of ‘investing in someone’ that I typically reach for to describe these meetings.

I’m not sure I’m entirely with him.

Theologically, I am drawn to the idea that we serve one another out of our shared weakness and interdependence (rather than me serving you out of my strength and independence).

The most deeply Christian way to serve is to help each other love and trust Jesus more. And anything that helps us actually live this has got to be a good thing.

But the New Testament does seem to grant the possibility that individuals will make an asymmetrical contribution to others — even if it also always recognises a degree of reciprocity. (I’m thinking here of passages like Romans 1.8-15.)

Equally, I don’t buy that switching to triplets will automatically address the more toxic aspects of this dynamic. A tendency to see yourself as God’s gift to another person (in a bad way) won’t necessarily be mitigated by adding an in extra person.

I am, however, inclined to agree that our theological rationale for privileging one to one as the context for discipleship is inadequate.

Or maybe I’ve just inadequately understood and digested it?

sex and the sound bite

CAD u37 Condenser Microphone

Conversations about sex and sexuality can get pretty heated. And more than a little awkward.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether they’re public conversations (online, on TV, or radio talk shows) or private conversations — with curious kids across the breakfast table, long-term friends over a meal, or near strangers at a party.

They just have a tendency to get very messy, very quickly.

Maybe it’s the nature of such feelingful conversations. Where people are deeply invested. Often in unforeseen and unforeseeable ways.

Such conversations are especially likely to explode when one or other party attempts to speak with a conservative Christian voice — especially on topics like homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

I’ve had conversations like this blow up in my face. And I’ve heard about it happening to people I know. Sometimes with tragic consequences.

In our culture of the sound bite and catchy slogan, you sometimes can’t even get past saying where you stand without being labelled and written off (one way or the other).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to play the victim here.

I’m just trying to think out loud about whether there’s anything to be done to facilitate better conversations — where we give each other enough airtime to communicate and learn.

One prominent Christian pastor I know of simply refuses to speak on such topics unless his conversation partners are willing to give him 3 hours to explain himself properly — setting his views in their wider biblical and theological context and addressing some of the often-unexamined ‘defeater beliefs’ thrown up by competing world-views.

Now there’s obvious wisdom in this. It isn’t necessarily an act of conversational cowardice.

Some things just take time to explain well. When I spoke about same-sex marriage recently, I took nearly an hour (including question time).

In addition, conservative Christians aren’t alone in needing to plead for time and sustained attention to explain themselves like this. Anyone who’s ever tried to answer a climate sceptic or explain some of the less ‘common sense’ examples of biological evolution can find themselves in a similar position.

But I doubt I’m alone in wanting something more. Something sharper.

What I’m after is some kind of counter-sound bite. A conversational foot in the door.

How can we win a hearing for the good (and confronting) news of Jesus — including his vision for us and our sexuality — without compromising or selling out?

I have a few thoughts to share. But before I do, I’d love to hear if you have any ideas?

what if Mr Rudd was right after all?

I wrote this piece for the weekly bulletin at a Melbourne church that generously supports and prays for me in the work I do with the Christian Union at La Trobe University.

“The Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition.”

This is how our former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, responded to a question on Q&A just before the recent election.

Watch it in context here:

As you can see, Mr Rudd’s response was greeted with rapturous applause.

He went on to offer this justification: “Because St Paul said in the New Testament, ‘slaves be obedient to your masters’. And, therefore, we should have all fought for the Confederacy in the US war. I mean, for goodness sake, the human condition and social conditions change…”

Since then, his response has come in for serious (and much-deserved) questioning.

So was Mr Rudd right?

Was Mr Rudd right to equate the slavery spoken of in the Bible with slavery in pre-Civil War America?

Historians will tell you, the answer is ‘No’.

There were major differences. For example, slaves in the Roman Empire enjoyed many freedoms mostly because they weren’t obviously identified on the basis of their skin colour.

Was Mr Rudd on shaky ground when he took one of the specific biblical instructions to slaves and turned it into a general endorsement of the condition of slavery?

Absolutely!

The Bible speaks in some detail about what to do when someone is murdered. But it is not endorsing murder when it does so. It is attempting to retrieve some good from a tragic situation and avert a miscarriage of justice or full-scale blood feud.

Much the same could be said of slavery.

Did Mr Rudd get his ancient sources scrambled?

It’s possible. The Greek philosopher Aristotle explicitly calls it a natural condition.

But the Bible does actually say that slavery — of a certain kind — is a natural condition.

In fact, Jesus himself says it: “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8.34)!

According to Jesus, slavery — spiritual slavery — is the ‘natural condition’ of anyone who sins.

It wasn’t what God intended. It wasn’t how we were made. But it’s where we all find ourselves anyway.

Any yet it is precisely this ‘natural condition’ that Jesus came to free us from.

But Jesus goes on: “The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8.35-36)

Gloriously, Jesus came to free us from our spiritual slavery so we could become God’s children!

And it’s this message of liberation and adoption that shapes what St Paul says about economic slavery.

For example, speaking to Philemon about his runaway slave Onesimus (who’d become a Christian), Paul says: “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Philemon 15-16).

Ultimately, this basic biblical message of liberation and adoption in Jesus calls the entire institution of slavery into question. (And it was this, not a revisionist impulse to set aside the teaching of Scripture, that propelled the likes of Wilberforce to overthrow institutional slavery when they had opportunity.)

why I’m giving up on Q&A

I have a confession to make.

I’m giving up on Q&A.

Yes – I know it’s the ABC’s flagship talk show. I know it’s all about giving different views a hearing. About that all-Australian virtue of giving each other ‘a fair go’.

But it never fails to make me angry. And sick.

Q&A has this aura of respectability and seriousness. As its
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states, Q&A is hosted by one the ABC’s most respected journalists – Tony Jones.

But every time I watch it, I can’t get over how deliberately it’s been set up to amplify conflict. And ultimately how it plays to the worst elements in contemporary media culture.

All of which has got me thinking about the deep connections between our modern Western notions of fairness — the distinctively Australian “egalitarian and larrikin spirit” boasted of on Q&A’s About page — and the way we’re increasingly held hostage to the sound bit and the scandal.

The aspirations of ‘serious journalism’ are well-known — and easy enough to sympathise with: present both sides of the story, give everyone a hearing, don’t jump to conclusions.

And such aspirations have traditionally been opposed to the stomach-churning stuff that typically dominates the tabloids — manufactured drama and conflict, rumour and innuendo, or playing up anything that might give a hook for a story (‘Wow – does Celebrity X’s choice of loose-fitting clothes conceal a baby bump?’).

But Q&A manages to bring them both together.

In doing so, I wonder if it’s the perfect apotheosis of our media culture?

Does Q&A expose the inner unity of the journalistic drive towards ‘fairness’ and the tabloid impulse towards ratings?

And hold up a mirror to the ugliness in our hearts in the process?

Or maybe that’s too dramatic…

Christian readiness

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I’ve been meditating on the readiness the Apostle Peter summons Christians to in these famous words from 1 Peter 3.13-16:

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.

It’s breaking with the received wisdom on apologetics, but I seriously doubt that what Peter is after when he tells us to ‘always be ready to make a defence’ and give ‘an account of the hope that is in us’ is either dropping into exam-mode or playing amateur detective.

You’re probably familiar with exam-mode apologetics. They’re the conversational equivalent of the pat answers my Theological College study group and I used to memorise and trot out in exams — no doubt totally boring our markers with our blandly uniform responses and shared errors of fact.

You know you’re in the presence of exam-mode apologetics when statistics, incisive quotes (David Foster Wallace on worship is a favourite), and whole trains of thought get rehearsed with mechanical efficiency — and mechanical soullessness.

The amateur detective thing, by contrast, is the stock-in-trade of an apologetics that majors more on method than matter. Here it’s the sequence of incisive responses and well-chosen questions slowly but surely leading your conversation partner to the point of exposing their logical incoherence that give the game away.

Either way, I’m starting to chafe against any kind of ‘conversation on rails’ approach to apologetics. What you end up with hardly seems worthy to be called a conversation.

I’m increasingly convinced that genuine conversations that nevertheless display the readiness Peter calls for will be marked by the sort of ‘relaxed insistence’ of a parent recounting their child’s exploits.

That is to say, such conversations will ooze love with a kind of unsystematic combination of relaxed expansiveness (as a parent I’m well aware of my tendency to go on and on about my infant son) and thematic concentration and insistence (I’ll often return to the same territory over and over again, relating the stories that seem best to capture my son’s emerging character and personality).

We struggle to do this on the one hand because the Christian apologetics industry keeps promising — and the New Atheists et al seem to keep demanding — something more effective.

The hope here is for a neat apologetic equation. One we can plug every conversation into. Crank the handle. And watch a proof for God’s existence pop out.

This hope is vain because even the best equations keep either generating a puzzling remainder — like the troublesome persistence of gratuitous suffering in the world — or requiring us to supply some annoying and arbitrary-feeling ‘constant’ — a metaphysical fudge factor like the conflation of existence and essence in Anselm’s infamous ontological argument.

But the other — and perhaps deeper — reason we struggle to embrace the ‘relaxed insistence’ of a parent (or lover) is because it leaves us on the sidelines. Merely spectating. Like a parent watching their kids play sport.

There’s a confrontation to be sure. The imminence of an outcome can’t be doubted. Someone will win and someone lose.

But Christian readiness requires us to admit we aren’t competing. And be OK with that. Because we’re not players in this game. We’re not even fans — wielding our God like some talisman.

We’re just witnesses.

gratitude and gratification

I’ve often tripped over this verse from 1 Timothy 6:

17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

It’s not the warning to the rich that I catch my foot on. I get the idea that having stuff can lead us to haughtiness or an inclination to try to rest the weight of our hope for the future on the illusory solidity of stuff.

What gets me is the exhortation — or rather the reason for the exhortation to set our hope on God: because he “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment”.

I wouldn’t have chosen to dispense this as the remedy for proud, self-sufficient wealth-creation.

Maybe that’s because the leftist bent of my idealistic youth is enjoying something of a revival in my thinking of late.

Or maybe it’s because I need to inwardly digest the message Tim Keller recently got to broadcast on the NY Times website.

But ultimately I suspect it’s because my sense of enjoyment — as in “God richly provides … everything for our enjoyment” — is way too cramped and narrow.

Lingering beneath however I might like to define the word, for me ‘enjoyment’ always connotes something furtive. Stolen. Something I’ve gotten away with. Or jumped through the hoops of respectably delayed gratification to attain.

I guess I could stand to learn a thing or two from my sixteen month-old son, who clasps his hands repeatedly in a prayer of gratitude every meal time — especially when he’s served up his favourite foods (currently grapes, crackers, sultanas, and banana muffins).

For my son, the more he anticipates enjoying something, the more he is moved to express his thankfulness. So much so that it seems like thankfulness enhances his enjoyment of something.

Gratitude isn’t a necessary and more or less unpleasant prelude to gratification. It’s essential to it!

Oh, how I wish I could recapture that…