Thursday, November 27, 2008

1 Peter, end times thinking and Christian ethics

One of the things that I noticed - not for the first time - as I was preparing for last night is the innate conservatism and parochialism of much current end-times thinking.

The rapture is all about rescuing me from nasty world rulers and the events they unleash (though God hasn't seen fit to rescue any other generation of believers who must be equally deserving, I'd have thought...) And the perceived threat from heavily armed nations with evil intent just seems to be an excuse for upping military budgets at home and imposing our will on weaker nations abroad.

But having just finished our series on 1 Peter, a little part of me wonders whether being a follower of Jesus inclines us towards conservatism. Now not for a minute do I feel drawn to start supporting conservative causes or parties. I remain instinctively and sentimentally pink. But I found Volf's analysis of Peter's social ethics and its implications for us profoundly plausible - and therefore quite a challenge.

I think the New Testament shares a lot of its social ethics with the surrounding culture. In many ways Peter and Paul, James and John want the same thing as Greco-Roman social philosophers. But they believe that the only way to achieve them is in the power of the Spirit who is given by God in response to our faith in Jesus. This would appear to be a key plank in Paul's argument in Titus (yes, I believe he wrote it)

But at the same time, there is something profoundly egalitarian about Christian ethics - the fact that we are all siblings in the faith regardless of our social position, that the rich are expected to share their goods with the poor, that slaves and women could lead the gathering of believers: all these things point to an upsidedownness to Christian social ethics that is anything but conservative.

And if my reading of Revelation is right, it points to a strong streak of social resistance at the core of Christian ethics. John urges his hearers to see that loyalty to Jesus as king means that we cannot be wholeheartedly loyal to Caesar; we cannot join in economic and social practices that empower Rome at the expense of everyone else, that exalt Caesar as god over the claims of the true creator God and his chosen king, Jesus.

So christian ethics are at once conservative and communitarian, quietist and loudly destabilising of social inequities. Does that sound like a contradiction in terms?

More reflecting to follow...

Apocalyptic reflections

We had the second of our two mid-week gatherings devoted to the Apocalypse and end times stuff yesterday evening. It seemed to go well - people were engaged and asked intelligent questions afterwards.

Given that I was offering a somewhat different take to the one many of my hearers grew up with, some of the questions were about trust and change. They were along the lines of 'why was I to be trusted when what I was saying was different from some great preachers of the past?' and 'how hard it is to make the changes required in one's thinking when what I'm saying is so different from what people have believed up till now.'

I was reminded of the wonderful BBC film shown last weekend about Einstein and Eddington and Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. For some people moving from the dispensationalist paradigm (which still shapes most popular end times thinking even if no one reckons they're a dispensationalist anymore) to something different is as enormous a step as moving from the Newtonian paradigm to Einstein's theory of relativity (so brilliantly conveyed in the BBC film).

Such revolutions happen because evidence piles up that questions the veracity of the previous paradigm. It doesn't happen overnight. Little pieces of evidence relating to one aspect of current thinking change our view of that aspect. This change has an influence over another aspect related to the first one. So if we change our minds about the synoptic apocalypse and see that some of it relates to the fall of Jerusalem, how does that change the way we read other apocalyptic material in the New Testament? Bit by bit our position shifts.

I was also reminded of that fairly naff hymn that contains the great line 'the Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his word.' That remains a fantastic and seminal Baptist principle, it seems to me. we are all still lurking in the shadows hoping the Lord shines a little more light on us as we read, reflect and pray.

Well, we upped the wattage a little last night.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Endings are always beginnings

We reached the end of our journey through Christian Hope yesterday morning. And I think it's fair to say that I've never had such a response to a teaching series. Overwhelmingly, people have talked about how the series has 'put the lights on', connected things they didn't realise were connected and opened vistas of the future that have a profound influence on the present.

Apart from basking in the glow of a well-received series - always nice! - more importantly, it suggests to me that there is a appetite for serious, applied Bible teaching. There are lots of people who want to think about their faith, think about how Christian teaching as well as our experience of Christ impacts our daily living and conversation. This is hugely encouraging to a minister!

We also came to the end of our series on 1 Peter yesterday. As part of an evening service during which we commissioned Clare, our new youth worker, we reflected on what lessons we've learned from reading Peter's wonderful letter. Preparing this series has certainly opened my eyes afresh to how the followers of Jesus relate to one another and the society in which we live. It's left me with lots of things to reflect on regarding social ethics and community life.

I'll probably blog on it at some point. As someone who writes as well as preaches, I think there are books, study guides or something in both these series. I'm sure there are lots of others out there producing good teaching that leaves a mark on its audience that would benefit from wider distribution. Sadly, the publishers seem less interested in such material these days. Am I the only one who has noted that good Bible study material is getting harder to come by? (Or is this just me slipping effortlessly into grumpy old mandom?!)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Welcome to Mali

Amadou et Mariam's Welcome to Mali arrived this morning. And lovely it is too.

It picks up from where the hugely accomplished Dimanche à Bamako left off. But it also represents a big step up.

If you like great songs and fluent African blues guitar, check it out, you'll love it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

More light on the Apocalypse

Well, there's no shortage of interest in Revelation! A big thank you to all who've commented - very helpful suggestions.

I remember looking at the spine of a CUP monograph that read 'The sayings of Jesus Boring'. It is the spine of Eugene Boring's book on the synoptic gospels but it's a tad unfortunate that a designer didn't notice! I've not read Boring on Revelation. I have read Bauckham - both his books are indeed excellent, as is Petersen's Reversed Thunder (though it is currently out of print).

I guess my recommendations are for easily accessible books for church members who will want to read Revelation after our two studies. My concern is that they read John's text with a good, reliable tour guide.

The Apocalypse, it seems to me, is one of those books where the gulf between the academy and the pew is as wide as it gets. Scholars debate the finer points of Revelation's literary structure and highlight the social background of John's original hearers. Meanwhile people in the pews either ignore the book altogether (apart from reading the letters to the seven churches) or fall prey to the lurid speculations of Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye et al.

It's possible that next year we'll tackle Revelation as a church, probably in a series of mid-week Bible studies. so, if anyone has pointers on how to do this well; or notes that they can email me, I'd be grateful...

More great music

I've been listening to Nitin Sawney's London Underground, another strong contender for album of the year.

The record is a series of collaborations loosely based around the theme of how London has changed since the 7/7 attacks. Tracks with Natty, Imogen Heap and Aruba Red stand out but it's all very accomplished and thought-provoking.

I particularly like the way that it drifts from West to East, with Asian musical influences becoming stronger as the album unfolds - like the journey the title suggests - ending with a lovely sitar piece featuring Anoushka Shankar (who I'm guessing might be Ravi's daughter).

The album highlights the international nature of the London music scene. Is there anywhere else on the planet quite so cosmopolitan, offering opportunities for collaboration and cross-over of ideas?

With Amadou et Mariam's new album Welcome to Mali (a record that features various cross-cultural collaborations, including a beautiful track with Damon Albarn) winging its way to me, selecting album of the year promises to be an enjoyable if tricky task. I might have to introduce various categories so that I can have more than one winner!

Getting to grips with the Apocalypse

As part of our series on Christian hope I am doing two mid-week Bible study sessions on issues popularly connected with the so-called 'end times'.

In ten days time I'm tackling the tribulation, rapture, the anti-Christ, the future of geographical Israel and the like, all beliefs that I associate with dispensational premillennialism but continue to exercise quite an influence over people's thinking.

Last week I tackled 'reading Revelation without going nuts', offering some reading strategies and a little New Testament social history to help folk get a handle on this difficult, demanding but fabulous book.

I've had one or two people saying how helpful it was, that for the first time they didn't feel afraid of the Apocalypse. We'll see if the positive response continues through the next session!

In preparing for the evening on Revelation, I found Simon Woodman's new volume The Book of Revelation (in the SCM core texts series) quite helpful - I've only been able to dip into it and haven't read it from cover-to-cover, but I shall keep it close to hand. Simon Ponsonby's And the Lamb wins is also helpful, well written and comprehensive - though I don't agree with all his conclusions. And Stephen Sizer's two books on Christian zionism are utterly indispensable for the historical context within people read Revelation these days.

But I found myself coming back to and recommending people get hold of and use Michael Wilcock's Bible Speaks Today volume and Paul Barnett's Revelation: Apocalypse Now and Then which is equally excellent. If Christians immersed themselves in the text of Revelation and these two reliable guides, they wouldn't go far wrong in understanding what John was and is saying.

I look forward to our next session.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Well, it's been a frantic round here - generally in a good way. Catching up with myself I discover I've been tagged by Catriona with the most complex meme I've ever come across!

Anyway the rules are - you need to pay attention here because you might be tagged at the end of this...

1. Link to the person who tagged you. [done that - see above]
2. Post the rules on your blog. [done that - you're reading them]
3. Write six random things about yourself. [see below]
4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them. [see even further below]
5. Let each person know they've been tagged and leave a comment on their blog. [good grief, I have places to be, people to see... ok, I'll do it]
6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up. [done]

So, six random things

1. I've just a wonderful day walking on the beach in Whitstable with Linda, my wife. we had fish and chips and mooched in arty shops and spent very little money

2. I was the under-11 record holder for the Leicester Schools 50metres breaststroke, achieved in 1967. Actually, for all I know my record might still stand!

3. When I a financial journalist I interview Alan Clark (of the famous diaries) about import controls (which he was in favour of) and Mrs Thatcher (who we was very much in favour of)

4. I think the Smiths are still England's greatest pop act (apart from the Beetles, of course). 'will the world end in the night time, I really don't know or will the world end in the day time, I don't know...all I do know we're here and it's now, so stretch out and wait' could have been the theme of a presentation I did at church on how to read Revelation without going nuts.

5. I am negotiating with a publisher to write a book on the social history of the New Testament - lots of colour and lovely pictures accompanying text about where the early believers met, what they ate and what the plumbing might have been like in Erastus' house in Corinth. I hope it gets the go-ahead...

6. I discovered the depth of the divide between Brits and folk from the Southern States of the USA, when in an editorial office in Ashville, North Carolina, I was introduced to an eager, young woman feature writer as the editor of a Christian monthly magazine from England; and she replied 'Oh are there are any Christians in England?' I wasn't sure whether this was American irony - which I was sure up to that point didn't exist - or blissful ignorance of anything beyond the Blue Ridge Parkway. The jury is still out.

That wasn't as hard as it might be. The next bit is the hard bit. As Simon and Catriona have tagged almost everyone I know in the blogosphere, I'm going to have to stretch things a bit and tag one or two people whose blog I visit and comment on but who actually don't know me from Adam (sorry guys... No i really am sorry)

So I tag the following Jim Gordon, Stuart Blythe, Jonathan Somerville (who has a great music track posted at the moment), over the hedge and across the pond, Chris Tilling (at the always wonderful christendom blog - I'd love to know six random things about him!) and Sean (I feel we ought to know random things about him to treasure as he disappears to the other side of the world).

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Telling the story of hope

To my mind the most remarkable passage in Obama's post-election speech (well, it had me weeping into my first coffee of the day) was towards the end and featured the story of a 106 year old black woman voter. It's still on the BBC website

It has not featured on any of the news coverage I've seen today which I find surprising because the media has been talking about not only historic the victory is but how close historically Obama is to the days of the civil rights movement and before that the voter rights legislation and before that emancipation, etc..

Anyway, this is what he said:

'This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that's on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She's a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing - Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons - because she was a woman and because of the colour of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America - the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

At a time when women's voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.
When the bombs fell on our harbour and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "We Shall Overcome". Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.'

Amazing - as I said, it had me in tears. As he also said 'while we breathe, we hope' and we hope because sometimes extraordinary things happen.

What an extraordinary day

What an extraordinary night. A mixed race man, born at a time when such unions were constitutionally illegal in many American States, has become the 44th president of the USA.

And as Simon Shama noted in extraordinarily religious language, Obama's election atones for the sin of the founding fathers of the that nation who declared all men equal but owned black men and women as property.

And it's the fulfilment of Martin Luther King's dream that one day Americans would be judged on the quality of their character rather than the colour of their skin.

What an extraordinary night indeed.

Of course, obama is taking on the world's worst job, steering a country that's divided, bankrupt, sliding into recession and fighting unpopular wars in two countries. He needs to build a coalition of all the talents who will address the problems at home and reach out to allies and enemies alike across the world.

But it is a day of hope. Let's pray that those hopes are realised.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

God speaks - are we listening?

It's true all sorts of people claim to have heard God speaking. Lots of them are nutters - the overwhelming majority utterly harmless but a few quite dangerous. But that doesn't mean God doesn't speak.

I believe God speaks in and through the Bible, that it is his Word and in it we encounter his mind. The trouble is that as readers tend to be selective - after all, there's a lot to select from and some bits are more conducive to our way of thinking than others.

I think the Goldingay point that I was drawing attention to in the last post was simply this: everything in the Bible is God's word and we need to read it as such. Some of it comforts us and warms the cockles of our hearts. Some of it lances the puss out of us like a needle in a boil. Some of it keeps us awake nights thinking, processing, wondering.

It'd probably be good if people read more, thought more, processed more and spoke less. James had quite a bit to say about that.

We've all received words in church that frankly weren't worth the breath they took to exhale. I've laughed a good many off and moved on. But occasionally we receive a word that stops us in our tracks because it comes from someone who has listened and thought, read and pondered and only spoken at the end of that long silence. What they have said has been like God speaking directly to us.

I'd love everyone to have that experience. I'd love the church to be a place where it happens more often. because in my experience, when it does happen, it results in churches doing stuff out in the world and not just talking to each other about singing and dancing.

If we read the Bible, do we want God to speak to us?

I came across this thought-provoking quote from John Goldingay about how we read the Bible:

If there are no aspects of scripture that they do not like and do not have to wrestle with, then they are kidding themselves. It means that they have bracketed them out or reinterpreted them. That is what as evangelicals we have to do. We know we have to accept all of scripture, so we make it mean something else so we can accept it. As a Bible teacher one of my basic concerns has become simply to get people to read the Bible with open eyes. Some people learn to, others do not. I want people to read the Bible, to be open to finding there things that they had not realized were there, to be enthralled and dazzled and appalled and infuriated and puzzled and worried and stimulated and kept awake at night by these extraordinary words from God, to let their mind and heart and imagination and will be provoked and astonished by them.
(John Goldingay, To the Usual Suspects: One Word Questions (Paternoster, 1998), 153-4)

The truth is that we don't want the Bible to make us feel uncomfortable. We want God's word to come in sugar-coated little gobbets that make us feel fuzzy, warm and loved.

The trouble is that the Bible is not an easy book and God - as CS Lewis - reminds us is a lion and when asked whether that lion is safe, the faun in narnia exclaimed: 'no, of course, he isn't safe. But he is good.'

Sometimes I wonder whether we really want God to speak to us - especially when what he says so often challenges deeply held beliefs. We're not sure that he has the right to correct what we've decided is true of him.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Mixing with the undead

It was cold and dry on the streets of Bromley last night. We had a good time - only five of us due to illness and busy-ness - giving out tons of sweets.

The streets were, of course, thronged with the legions of the undead (it being Halloween and all), so we passed comments on costumes and gave prizes in the form of sweets (to everyone). Jelly babies, it seems, are the preferred sweet of girl revellers, while the boys go for fruit pastilles. Not sure how scientific that is - maybe other Street Pastors would like to research their patches.

We had a stack of good conversations, calmed a few situations, sat with lone women at bus stops and chewed the fat with folk smoking outside their favourite hostelry. Generally the atmosphere was good. Two people said they'd come to church on Sunday evening (not because we invited them but because they said they wanted to continue chatting and asked if they could come - we'll see).

Walked for about four hours by which time our blood was approaching freezing and we were at risk of joining the undead, so we came in and slept.

It continues to be a high point of our month. Maybe we'll volunteer for extra duties...