Friday, July 29, 2011

It's lovely to be noticed

I came across the first review of my recent book, the World of the Early Church, yesterday. It's in the Theological Book Review, a twice-yearly publication from Liverpool Hope University - indeed it's one of the four books highlighted on the cover! It's written by Daniel Jeyaraj, the professor of World Christianity at the university and director of the Andrew Walls Centre for the study of African and Asian Christianity.And I think it's true to say that he liked it.

It's particularly gratifying to have one's work reviewed in places where a key target market for the book will be found. As professor Jeyaraj says: 'Every reader of this book, whether an expert or a beginner or a student, who wishes to better understand the socio-cultural world of the persons mentioned in the New Testament better, will gain new insights.' Well, that's precisely why I wrote it. I hope lots of people read and benefit from it in the way the reviewer suggests.

Here's hoping it gets reviewed elsewhere...

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Remembering John Stott

I never met John Stott but I heard him preach a few times in the 1970s and early 1980s. He was always clear and gracious and my dim memory of it is that he always pointed people to Jesus rather than to the Bible. So I am really pleased to see in an interview with Tim Stafford in Christianity Today (available here) that he says: 'the really distinctive emphasis is on Christ. I want to shift conviction from a book, if you like, to a person. As Jesus himself said, the Scriptures bear witness to me. Their main function is to witness to Christ.' That's well said.

Stott's greatest contribution to evangelicalism, I reckon, was that in the 1970s he was one of the key evangelical leaders who put us back in touch with the world and social action as a key part of the mission of the church. Through the first Lausanne Conference in 1974 - which he was instrumental in making happen - evangelicals rediscovered the core gospel truth that God loves the world and that his people are called to be active in that world bringing good news to all, especially the poor, the marginalised, the excluded, the suffering.

Stott wrote a seminal book (Issues Facing Christians Today) on the Christian response to social issues that informed a growing number of eager evangelicals that there was more to proclaiming Christ than just calling people to faith. It was a book that shaped my early thinking on social action and encouraged me to integrate my faith and my working life, my love of Jesus with my involvement in seeking justice for all and engaging in social and even political activity to further the coming of the Kingdom.

So, he was a towering figure who lived a good and fruitful life and has now - at a ripe old age - gone to his reward. The best memorial for him is that a new generation of Jesus followers will rise up to bring good news to the poor in our villages, towns and cities and create vibrant communities that embody the life and values of our Lord and his.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The passing of a great saint

News has come through that the great John Stott died this afternoon. He was a stalwart defender of the faith and an all round lovely Christian man. There are tributes here; I'm sure lots more will follow.

Reading scripture together

A while back I mused on how we communicate to our churches the developments happening in the world of theology, in my case New Testament studies.The issue came up again last night at our church Bible study when someone asked how they were supposed to keep up when the interpretations of the bible - we were looking at Romans 7-8 - keep changing. I've been troubled by this question most of the day.

Baptists have always believed that the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word. It is a key plank in baptist hermeneutics. But when it happens it can be unsettling. Are interpretations changing - meaning we have to forget old readings - or is our understanding deepening and broadening - meaning that we are grasping more of God's big picture?

I hope that the latter is happening. In relation to Romans I'd like to think that we are moving from a reading - popular among evangelicals for a long time - that the letter is just about justification by faith. Even more bluntly, many Christians have read the letter as being all about them, how God loves me and sent Jesus to die for my sins so I could be saved and go to heaven when I die.Now, of course, Romans has always been about more than that - even Luther, who stressed justification by faith, saw that - but that has been the central reading of it since the birth of evangelicalism.

I'd like to think that as we deepen our appreciation of the context in which Romans was written, the language used, the themes developed in what is a highly complex and magnificently written letter, so our understanding of the themes of the letter deepen and broaden. It seems to me that at the very least Romans is about God and Israel, about how God acts in covenant faithfulness to his people and through them to the rest of the world. Within that, of course, is an explanation of how I can be part of all that.

The issue that arose last night is two fold. The first has to do with the scope of scripture and the second is about the tools we need to understand an ancient text. They are closely related.

One of the great strengths of evangelicalism is that it has sought to put the Bible into the hands of ordinary Christians and encourage them to hear God speaking directly to them through it. It has always been a faith of the literate. This is a problem in contexts where rates of literacy are not high but that's an issue for a different post.

The trouble is that this has led to a focus in our reading of scripture that means we are always looking for what it is saying to me about me. We risk missing all the important things that scripture is telling us about God, the world around us and other people; worse, we see all those things only in relation in to me; I become the centre of attention. This is not helpful.

But this is allied to the second issue: namely, can anyone pick up an ancient text and expect to understand it without help? As we get further and further away from the work shops in Rome's back streets where this letter was first heard by a motley collection of craft workers and others, is it not the role of teachers in the church to help Christians understand the context in which this letter would have been heard and what the language would have meant to those first hearers?

Of course, to many this sounds elitist (maybe it is); worse, it sounds like an attempt to take the scriptures away from the ordinary believer and put them in the hands of an educated minority, indeed back into the hands of the 'priests' that the Reformation fought so hard to wrest them from all those years ago. The trouble is that this reading of the reformation misses the extent to which the movement across Europe in the sixteenth emptied the churches and appealed only to a literate minority of Christians, the very people who pored over books, discussed new ideas, listened to erudite sermons and asked searching questions of the preacher in a desire to greater understand the text under discussion (but that's a subject for a different post).

My fear is that the church like the rest of the culture has dumbed down somewhat, settled for a lowest common denominator equality that means anyone can read an ancient text and instruct others on its meaning. we only have to look at some churches to see where that leads us!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Thoughts about Amy

I was was going to post some thoughts on the death of Amy Winehouse but Jim Gordon over at Living Wittily has said it so much better than I ever could. So go and check it out.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

When the news drives you to your knees

Words cannot do justice to the horror that visited Norway yesterday. Let's pray for the country, especially those caught up in this ghastly event. It is heart-breaking that the perpetrator is associated with the Christian faith. His action is in no way motivated by Jesus of Nazareth and his followers need to stress this in the days to come as we pray for him and his victims.

And I've just heard that Amy Winehouse has been found dead. What a shame! Such a talented singer, such a troubled soul. The former prime minister's wife Sarah Brown speaks for us all when she tweeted "Sad sad news of Amy Winehouse - great talent, extraordinary voice, and tragic death, condolences to her family." 

So much to pray about

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Hacking is not just the province of newspapers

There's a good piece by my friend Steve in today's Society section of the Guardian. He's a bit of an expert on keeping young people safe on line and has some important things to say about how young people without good literacy skills and supportive adults are at some risk of finding themselves 'hacked' and their futures left in threads.

I particularly liked his image of the social web created by new mobile media as an incubator rather than merely a platform. 'It is a place where communication is captured, aggregated, added to, morphed, changed and rehatched as a new broadcast or "ping"'. His article is based on an extensive report he's written on the subject for the government's training and development agency.

Check it out here. And you can download the full report here.

It is a reminder that information is currency, often highly sought-after, not just for those seeking to grab better headlines than their rivals. Perhaps it's yet another reason why what's happened at News International over the past years has affected the environment in which all of us live.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Riding the roller coaster

It's been a busy, roller coaster of a week. On Friday I took the funeral of my sister-in-law, Trish, who finally succumbed to cancer after a five year battle. On Sunday, my youngest daughter, Olivia, got engaged to Joe. So the Jones household has run the gamut of emotions!

Trish's funeral went as well as these things can. the chapel was full to hear moving tributes from both her boys and a poem/prayer from one of her oldest friends. What struck me was that there were people from all aspects of her life present in good numbers to mark her passing. It is testament to her ability to make friends and keep them. She'll be missed.

Olivia's news was not unexpected as Joe had given us a heads-up ahead of popping the question and we are thrilled and delighted for them both. They are a great couple and wonderful parents to Sophia. 

While all this was going on, we had the biggest Messy Church of the year (when we were expecting people to be away). We had first-timers and returners who've not been for a while. Messy Talk also went really well - the final instalment of how we experience God. In the autumn we're trialling another Ugly Duckling Company tool which includes DVD material. We're looking forward to it.

Maybe this week will give me chance to pause and catch my breath.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

The place of faith in public life

Two great pieces in today's papers about religion in public life. There's a superb interview with Rowan Williams in the guardian magazine conducted by David Hare which is online here and there's a great piece on Maurice Glassman, the man behind Blue Labour in the Times. It is on-line but behind the Murdoch pay wall.

Both make a strong case for the involvement of Christians - and religion more generally - in public life. Williams is very moving on his recent visit to Congo and Kenya and the vital role that the church plays in creating civil society and safe places for those caught up in the horrors of violence in those countries.

In his speech to General Synod last week, reflecting on that trip, he said: ‘If it wasn’t for the Church, no-one, absolutely no-one, would have cared, and they would be lost still.  It was almost a fierce sense, almost an angry feeling, this knowledge that the Church mattered so intensely.' (you can read the whole speech here).

Glassman is an orthodox Jew and stresses in the interview in the Times how important religion is in shaping his life and in shaping the labour party. We all knew the latter but he goes on to say that religion is vital for reshaping and renewing the Labour Party now. It's a bold thing for a man of the left (even the centre left where he is) to say but it's really good to hear it being said. More power to his elbow, I say

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Lancing the boil?

So, the Murdochs have decided that the solution to the News of the World phone hacking horror is to close the newspaper. So, lots of people are going to lose their jobs while the people responsible for the culture at the paper make the announcement in sackcloth and ashes, assuming that sweeping away the title gets rid of the problem.

Astonishingly, the Government thinks it's the right decision. Hopefully, it won't dissuade the government from holding the enquiries that David Cameron promised yesterday.

What we've seen today is the combined effect of advertisers, figures from public life and even outraged readers attacking Murdoch's bottom line. His response is to remove the running sore. But it doesn't do anything to deal with the infection at the heart of this company. The boil is still waiting to be lanced.

At the very least all those who have had editorial control of the paper in the last decade should be sacked - whatever job they currently hold - and investigated by the police as part of their wide-ranging enquiry. After all, it is they, not the News of the World's current staff, who bear responsibility for dragging the paper into the sewer and beyond.

And surely no one can now think Murdoch is fit and proper person to run yet more of Britain's media. The company's desire to control all of BSkyB must be thwarted. It's turnover makes that of the News of the World look like petty cash. Over to you Jeremy Hunt; try to do the right thing; seek help if you're not sure what that is.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Refreshed, relaxed and returned

Gramping's quite good fun, all things considered. We had a great time with the grandchildren, children and partners in Hope Cove. The best thing about it was that we no internet access (unless we went to the nearby hotel for cream teas - tough!) and no mobile phone signal. So we had to talk to each other and make our own entertainment. Fab.

We swam in the sea and walked on the beach. Hope Cove is one of my most favourite places on planet earth. I've had some good times there with God and at least one blazing row with him on a damp October morning. This time, in the sunshine and warmth, it was good to soak up the wonder of his creation and the company of my family.

Tomorrow it's back to work with a church meeting and a service saying farewell to our GB captain. Should be a good day - not as good as swimming in sea and going back to the house for a barbie - ah well!