Friday, October 30, 2009

Taking in vast quantities of sea air

Enjoying a few days in a fairly mild and unexpectedly pleasant Ilfracombe.

Went to see Up the other evening and last night went to a really excellent restaurant that we shall certainly be visiting again.

Internet cafes are sparse and connections a bit hit-and-miss, so I'll probably not be posting at length until we get home next week.

We had a very bracing walk up above Woolacombe bay this morning. Spectacular scenery and foaming seas - sublime....

Friday, October 23, 2009

How do we learn to trust?

I'm preaching about trust on Sunday morning and we're thinking about trust at St Arbuck's on Sunday afternoon - if you're passing the Market Square Starbucks on Sunday around 4pm, drop in, grab a coffee and a muffin and come up and join us.

So, I've been reading Anthony Seldon's new book, Trust: How we lost it and how to get it back, and so far, so good. I've only read the first two chapters but his analysis of why we are facing a problem with trust in our society seems to me to cover most of the bases.

In particular, he talks about the demise of organised religion as one of ten contributing factors - others being the speed of life, inequality, corporate greed, failing politicians, the media - and he does so in a way that recognises what he's saying will not be universally popular.

His argument is that the three monotheistic religions have at their core a call to service, as well as greed social and moral norms. And he quotes Demos' Geoff Mulgan who says that without the clear moral codes provided by organised religion 'it is much harder to understand your place in society; it is much harder to picture what is going on'. And for this reason trust is harder because it relies on agreed norms of behaviour.

It's an interesting thought. I wonder what others think?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Finding the economic middle

Well, I didn't get a lot written yesterday (about 2,000 words) but I did realise what it was that I had to write. So next time I have a writing day, I have a scheme to work to.

I spent a lot of time yesterday reading about income distribution in the early Roman Empire and how this affects our reading of the economic and physical location of the early communities of Jesus followers. The correlation is simple (in theory), namely if there are middling sorts of people in the communities, the likelihood is that the groups would have met in domus-style houses and could, therefore, have been larger than if the groups were mainly comprised of poor people from tenements. Furthermore, leadership in those groups would have come from the heads of the households in which they met.

Rodney Stark argues - on sociological grounds - that the key group attracted to the new movement (as to all new religious movements) were the aspiring but liminal middling sort of people that Justin Meggitt suggests did not really exist in the empire and were not in evidence in the Pauline communities.

The question I was investigating yesterday was whether the data as handled by Roman historians suggests the presence of a middling, aspiring group whose status was in transition (ie they were liminal in some way). I think the answer I found was on balance 'yes' and that gives me the framework for the chapter on economic location.

I think Graig (thanks for the comment) is right. I now have to write what I know and then go back and tidy it up.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Getting to grips with the ancient world

I spent yesterday afternoon grading papers from my students in Sri Lanka and was pleasantly surprised by the quality - especially from those on the MDiv course.

Many of them showed a really good grasp of the material and genuine creative thinking about how reading the New Testament with an eye on its social context can help apply its message creatively to their present mission context. It was quite gratifying.

Today, I'll be writing - I'm aiming to draft a chapter of my MA on the economic location of the early Jesus movement. My supervisor has recommended that I just write and then see where the gaps are. This is a new way of working for me, so it'll be interesting to see how it works out.

The other issue that I'm looking forward to delving into is just how good is the reading by NT scholars of Roman history. The reason for asking this is that one of the key voices in the current debate - Justin Meggitt - based his approach to exploring the social and economic location of the early Jesus movement on the history-from-below approach that flowered in George Rude and Eric Hobsbawm's Captain Swing in 1969.

I remember when I first read Meggitt's excellent Paul, Poverty and Survival I felt my heart sink that a generation after an approach blossomed in secular history, NT scholars had finally caught up with it. I felt it particularly because even when I read history at Manchester in the mid-1970s, the approach was already being questioned by scholars who argued that all Rude, Hobsbawn, Thompson et al did was read their own sociological and philosophical theories back into the past.

I wonder if NT scholars are at risk of doing this with their use of particularly sociological models in their reading of the NT and its context. It's just a question... The context group of NT scholars have produced some fascinating and worthwhile work, much of which has enriched my understanding of the world the first Christians lived in. So I'd hate to think people thought I was dismissing it out of hand - I am certainly not doing that.

But I do wonder what regular (if one can call them that) ancient historians make of all this. In particular, I'm interested to see whether the ancient historians so loved of NT scholars have the same reputation within their own field. I just need to find a way of analysing that!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Good day in London

Well, I had a really excellent time with my supervisor and am all set to start writing my review of the state of the debate about the location of the early Christians, with a deadline of the end of January to get a draft outline of the whole thing done (45,000 words). There'll be three substantial chapters dealing with social location, economic location and physical location with an intro and a conclusion. All I need now is a catchy title!

And I succumbed to a book in Church House Bookshop. It's Peter Oakes Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul's letter at Ground Level. I've been waiting for this since I heard Peter was writing it but thought it wasn't coming out until next year. I resisted everything else, though.

On my way from Victoria to Church house I went past people queuing to see pieces of a dead nun in Westminster Cathedral. And for those not willing to join the queue, the 'spectacle' inside was being beamed live to a giant screen in the square outside the Cathedral. There people were able to watch while consuming hot dogs and other fast food being sold from a range of stalls set up all around the square.

I have to say that it was all a bit surreal. I'm sure the nun in question would have been extremely embarrassed to be the centre of such a mawkish spectacle!

I also spent some time in the National Gallery. In particular I stood for quite a while in front of Pieter Bruegel's adoration of the Kings- a spectacular work up close; and Piero della Francesca's The Baptism of Christ - also quite magical. I also sauntered round a few other rooms and drank deeply of the atmosphere. Lovely. I must do it more often.

A day out in London

Listening to a great episode of In Our Time on the death of Elizabeth 1 with the peerless John Guy as well as two other really interesting historians. This is Radio 4 at its best.

Last night we continued our reading John's Apocalypse, tackling chapters 12-14. It seemed to go well - one or two making really positive noises afterwards. I have really enjoyed getting stuck into this book and think I might try to write something about it when I've finished.

But today I'm off to see my MA supervisor. Yes, my on/off on/off studies are back on because Lambeth will allow me to do a review MA on the social location of the early Christians. This dovetails nicely with the book I'm writing for Lion, so I hope to kill two birds with one stone without killing myself in the process!

Anyway, heading for St John's Wood means that I'll get a chance to stop off at a gallery or two on the way, as well as drop into my favourite bookshops. I still love browsing bookshops despite the fact that I can get all I need at much better prices from Amazon (and particularly Amazon Marketplace). There's nothing like actually fondling books in the hushed environment of a bookshop. The end result, of course, is that I normally buy things - but I will be resisting that today!

Part of the reason for that is that I have plenty to read already. I'm still working through Hirsch's excellent The Forgotten Ways and this week I took delivery of Allen Brent's A Political History of Early Christianity which looks interesting. Brent is a a bit of a maverick, a patristics scholar who has written widely about the influence of the imperial cult on the shape of early Christianity.

I'm also working through some excellent papers on Roman economic history and poverty in Paul's churches. Yes, I know, I need to get out more....

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Good listening

Ok, I'm persuaded, the new Editors album is their best yet.

Brooding, wonderfully tuneful, lyrically intriguing, In this Light and On this Evening is finely crafted - almost machine music recalling Joy Division and New Order - yet deeply emotional.

It's a great listen. I'll ponder what it adds up to over the next few days.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Picking up the threads

Spent the day recovering from my weekend away and feeling as though I'm going down with a cold. Ah well.

The weekend was excellent. The group was very responsive and joined in well - especially on Sunday morning when we did something quite fluid, moving around the space and thinking about what it means to shine where we are.

As those who've commented on the previous post have noted, it is now up to the church itself to earth what was learned, sift what was useful, debate it back in their everyday context. I quite like the idea of a follow-up day (I'll suggest it to my mate).

I also think it would be great if our church organised a weekend away. I'll have to find out whether there's any tradition of it. We've had a couple of day conferences that have gone well. But there's nothing like going away together and spending quality time eating and playing as well as learning together.

The thought of organising it makes me lose the will to live, however!

I'm listening to the new Editors' album In this Light and On this Evening but it's too early to tell whether it's a cracker or not. There's certainly some good tunes on it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A weekend conversation in the autumn sunshine

I'm mid-way through a weekend conference with a church that is pastored by a friend from way back. It's going well.:Nnce people, good atmosphere, lively conversations - and the sun's shone today!

One of the most impressive things this church does is a Wednesday evening congregation with a group of mainly young homeless people. They seem to have created something that enables these guys to connect with each other and with God. To hear their stories is really moving.

The great thing about weekends like this is that we can spend a concentrated time looking at a particular issue. In this case, it's how we'll be missional disciples. It works better than trying to do this kind of thing over a number of weeks at church for two reasons.

The first is that everyone has come away from the daily grind and have relaxed. They are open to thinking new thoughts and seeing life from a different perspective - and have a whole weekend to think about it, talk it over, thrash it out - in between bouts of playing, laughing, eating and talking about all kinds of stuff.

The second is that the speaker - on this occasion, me - is able to deliver a sustained case for something without a week at work intervening between each episode so that the audience has forgotten three-quarters of what was said last week when they turn up this week.

The key, of course, to such an event being beneficial long term is follow-up. How do you do that? Answers on a postcard, please...

Thursday, October 08, 2009

We are the Hollow men, after all

Well, well, T S Eliot has been named the nation's favourite poet in a BBC poll. The news report on it, however, said it was unclear whether this was because people loved The Waste Land or Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (the inspiration for the long-running musical)!

It's a problem with a poet of such breadth and development, I guess. I have to confess that I've never read Possum. but I do read Ash Wednesday (baffling but beautiful), The Waste Land and Four Quartets fairly frequently.

And The Hollow Men always resonates:

Between the idea
and the reality
between the motion
and the act
falls the shadow

For thine is the kingdom

between the conception
and the creation
between the emotion
and the response
falls the shadow

Life is very long

between the desire
and the spasm
between the potency
and the existence
between the essence
and the descent
falls the shadow

For thine is the Kingdom

For thine is
Life is
For thine is the

this is the way the world ends
this is the way the world ends
this is the way the world ends
not with a bang but a whimper

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Telling the story of God's mission

Like Jim over at living wittily, I was at an induction yesterday. And I would endorse everything he says about the service for Catriona at Hillhead.

My mate Richard was being inducted to the pastorate at Upminster. I had the privilege of preaching on the theme - chosen by him - of 'the church has left the building', reflecting on the crucial missional call of God's people.

The service was a joyous mix of worship and story-telling, encouragement and challenge. And, of course, it was followed by fantastic church buffet, canapes and conversation over endless cups of tea.

It reminded me why I do this, because in the story-telling there was a profound sense of the God who leads us on, urging to step out together into this adventure of mission he's been on forever. And looking round the congregation, I had a wonderful sense of the potential of these ordinary people to be extraordinary in their acts of simple kindness that could change the world.