Friday, August 31, 2007

Grappling with Colossians

My daughter was three hours late. I hit rush hour traffic on the way home. So half a day at the airport lasted 10 hours! Ah well...

Andy asks why Colossians Remixed is irritating - which is a fair question. The first thing to say is that if you haven't read it, you should. It is passionate, well-informed and full of insights into the text that you won't find anywhere else.

My irritation with it is that in places it seems very laboured. This is especially the case in the targums that litter the exposition. I know what they're trying to do but I'm not sure they pull it off and I find myself skipping pages which I don't like because I fear I might miss something helpful. And I found their reconstruction of Nympha's life a tad twee - I know how hard it is to do this kind of thing convincingly because I tried something similar in the second chapter of A Rough Guide to the New Testament, a story that didn't make it into the second, enlarged edition of that book, Discovering the New Testament!

But it's also the case where the authors allow themselves to be interrupted by someone with questions. For example, the chapter on truth is cast this way (p115ff in my edition). The exchange could actually have been dealt with a well-footnoted half a page rather than a 15 page chapter. I find it distracting rather than illuminating. And I felt it repeated a load of stuff they covered in a dialogue about targums in chapter 2. Walsh makes the point about truth brilliantly with his co-author, J Richard Middleton, in the incomparable guide to to modern thinking and living, Truth is Stranger than it used to be.

It could just be me - and I'll happily be put right on this(!) - but I felt that if Walsh and Keesmaat had focused more closely on the text of Colossians and helped the reader to make the connections with the world they evoke so brilliantly in the first couple of chapters, it would have been a storming book.

Harry O Maier does this in part in his essay 'A sly civility: Colossians and Empire' in JSNT 27.3 2005. He shows how the language of empire pervades the letter to the Colossians and how the author subtly undermines and subverts it for his own ends.

That being said, I do still think Colossians Remixed is a very good and will be urging people in my church to read it.

Beating the airport blues

Well, here I am at the airport. Haven't blogged for a while because I've been rushed off my feet - something Christians the world over feel apparently, according to new research brought to my attention this morning by Christian Research.

I'm sitting in an airport waiting for my daughter to arrive back from her holiday. I knew I was in trouble when she sent a text saying that she wasn't now due to take off for half an hour ,five minutes after she was supposed to have landed here. Ah the joys of international travel!

So, a chance to catch up. I've been reading quite a lot about the link between the New Testament and the Roman Empire. This is partly in preparation for a series we're doing in Colossians this month - based on Walsh and Keesmaat's Colossians Remixed (a book by turns brilliant and irritating) - and partly to clear the ground ahead of my meeting next week with my MA supervisor.

So, I've read papers by Harry Maier on imperial language in Colossians and by Justin Meggitt on the influence of imperial rhetoric and imagery on the New Testament. Maier's piece is fascinating and well written but he holds to a view of the authorship of Colossians that seems a tad unnecessary, not to say contradictory. He argues that it's pseudonymous (that is, not written by Paul but by someone else in his name), along with lots of scholars. The particular view of the letter's origins that he holds to is that of 'pseudonymous co-authorship with Paul in the early 60s' (a case first made by Eduard Schweizer). How can it be pseudonymous if Paul was at least its co-author? Isn't that what it says at the beginning of the letter, that it comes from Paul and Timothy? Might not Timothy have had a significant role in shaping the letter in co-operation and consultation with the imprisoned apostle?

I'm becoming increasingly interested in the power of images in the empire and in particular the kind of art that adorned the walls of the homes in which the early followers of Jesus met. This feeds into my desire to grapple with the effect of domestic space and arrangements on the shape of the early Jesus movement - not just its social shape but also its theological shape.

I've also begun reading Ian McEwan's Atonement - I know I should have read it long before the film came out but I just haven't got round to it.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Planning ahead

Finished Galatians yesterday with a sense of some satisfaction that it was worthwhile series from which we all learned a great deal.

Today I've been plotting the programme for the next year. We'll be spending a long time with Matthew, looking at Ephesians, 1 Peter and the life of David as told in 1 and 2 Samuel, as well as spending some time working on the Search for Significance material, thinking about clustering from 1 Corinthians 11-14, wallowing in art for advent and reminding ourselves of the meaning of the sacraments. It's varied and promises to be engaging and stimulating.

I've also been thinking about my MA ahead of my first meeting with my supervisor (who might expect me to have thought about this rather more). I want to explore the influence of domestic space on the shape and thinking of the early church. Where did the first generation of Christians meet, how many gathered, when and how often? What social grouping did they come from?What effect did the location have on the shape the early communities took on - meals, art (I've just started reading a fascinating account of non-elite art in the Roman empire on the back of reading a very suggestive essay by David Balch). So if anyone has any pointers, suggestions, leads, help they'd like to offer, I'm all ears.

I'm listening to the bonus CD that came with Bonobo's latest album Days to Come - which is the songs from the album without the vocals and is wonderfully chilled for a Monday afternoon.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

In a galaxy so close to home...

I've been discovering Battlestar Galactica (not the dire 1970s Star Wars rip off but the new Sci Fi/Sky TV series) and it's riveting stuff.

I've read a couple of pieces on this series - which hasn't made it to terrestrial TV over here yet - which whetted my appetite so when I found the whole of season 1 ridiculously cheap in the HMV sale, I thought 'why not'.

The guy behind this revival cut his teeth on Star Trek - so the space sequences and battles are well done. But nothing prepares you for the politics of it. Here is mainstream US TV addressing issues of war with unseen enemies, suicide bombings, how much civil liberties can be sacrificed in the name of security, etc. One episode takes place on a prison ship where all the inmates are in cages wearing orange boiler suits. The scripts are sharp and the characters are pretty well drawn - at least they seem to be people of depth and contradiction.

Oh and everyone's religious. The humans worship a pantheon of gods, the cylons, who have now evolved 'human' characteristics, are fundamentalist monotheists. So, in the midst of battle, theological discussion ensures, people pray for deliverance, others stress that everything that happens is willed by God or the gods.

If you've not seen it, it's worth checking out.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Making sense of the text

It's good to be back on the sermon treadmill! There's something about the weekly discipline of having a text that you must make sense of and find a message in for an expectant congregation.

We're still working our way through Galatians and one of the problems of having written about it is that I tend to assume preparing sermons on any passage will be relatively straightforward. If only!

This Sunday I'm preaching on 6:1-10 - often seen as a pot pouri of ethical advice with no coherent thread of thought. Working with it though once more, I wonder if I might have discerned a strand of Paul's thought that unifies these verses into a clarion call to build community by walking in the Spirit in the light of the coming judgment - and thus provide a fitting climax to his whole argument.

The thread runs as follows: having appealed to his hearers to keep in step with the Spirit since we have crucified our old natures and been made alive by the Spirit (5:24-26), we need to help each other walk the line the Spirit lays out for us (6:1-2). This means we have to be realistic about ourselves (3-5), recognise that we're as prone to fail as anyone and that we need one another.

In particular we need our teachers (6 - always a good thing for a preacher to come across!). So we bear one another's burdens - possibly focused on the causes and consequences of sin and failure that we help one another with) but we each carry our own load - which is what exactly?

The harvest we have sown (7-10). The load is what we carry into the presence of God on the day of judgment and can take justifiable pride in (as Paul was often saying - see Phil 2:16 and Rom 15:17 for example).

And what is that harvest? it's the result of doing good to one another and in the wider world (10). Making the most of every kairos (10 - opportunities) because the kairos (9 - proper time) is coming when we'll have to account for what we've done, who we've lived for and why.

And so the argument comes full circle. It starts with Paul telling us to look out for one another, bear the burdens that sin lays on us from time to time and it ends by telling us to be on the look out for opportunities to do good to one another - which I take to mean encourage, support, help, be there for our brothers and sisters in a way that means they are less likely to be overtaken by a sin (the word suggests an ambush).

Does that make sense? If so, then it seems to me that these verses give us a coherent picture of life in the Spirit in the community of Jesus' followers.

Living it's the thing, of course, though knowing what God wants of us is a good start.

Friday, August 10, 2007

New books

My copy of Dick France's commentary on Matthew in the NICNT series arrived yesterday. Dick was one of my NT lecturers at LBC and an inspiring and godly exegete, so I'm looking to getting stuck in to his 1000+ page tome.

Matthew will form the basis of the church's teaching programme from October to Easter, so it's good to have such a substantial dialogue partner with which to launch into the text. He will be supplemented with Luz (his slim Cambridge introduction) and Stanley Hauerwas' theological commentary which is full of spikey and suggestive stuff.

I also received L Anne Jervis' At the Heart of the Gospel: suffering in the earliest Christian message, a book that explores Paul's reflection on suffering in 1 Thessalonians, Philippians and Romans. A first glance suggests it's going to be very helpful.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Back from hols

I'm back from la belle France - and what a fab holiday we had: warm sunshine, great food, wonderful scenery, historic sites and not a phone call for a fortnight!

I read some books (as you do) - in particular Cormac McCarthy's truly stunning novel The Road. I read it in two sittings. It's an amazing portrait of the redemptive power of a father's love for his son set against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic America. The prose is spare and tight and the characterisation utterly convincing. It's a novel that lingers long after the final page has been turned.

I also read Dennis E Smith's From Symposium to Eucharist: the banquet in the early Christian world. Compared to McCarthy, this was like wading through treacle. There's lots of good stuff on Paul but his Jesus Seminar fixation made reading the section on the gospels utterly unrewarding.

We also listened to the Cherry Ghost album Thirst for Romance lots of times. It's lovely - what the Smiths would have sounded like if they'd grown up (Simon Aldred who is Cherry Ghost is in his mid-30s). Songs full of sharp observation and witty one-liners. Well worth checking out.