Saturday, August 08, 2015

Enjoying our rare privileges

The deed is done. We are booked to travel to and from France in September. And we have booked our last night in Amiens (our favourite city) to have a final meal sitting by the river in the late summer sunshine.

All that's left is to decide our route to and from the South West - we have a gite between Toulouse and Carcassonne - but we're pondering twenty-four hours in Bordeaux.

Holidays are a wonderful thing. We tend to take for granted our ability to take off for a couple of weeks, secure in the knowledge that we'll have money in the bank to spend on our travels and a home to return to (that friends will have kept an eye on in our absence).

I was reminded of this privilege as I read Giles Fraser reflecting in today's Guardian on his trip St Michael's church in the jungle at Calais. He marvelled at the luck/grace of God that put him in possession of the little red book that enables us to freely cross borders, while so many of our brothers and sisters - with whom he prayed on Thursday (I think) - do not.

It is not a reason not to take holidays. But it is a reason to reflect on what we can do to correct an injustice that is visited on too many of our brothers and sisters.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Hearing the full NT choir

Today I have been mostly sorting out the New Testament Theology unit I teach at Spurgeon's. I've delivered it four times now (I think) and it is in need of a bit of a refreshment. I am also revisiting the essay questions in a bid to weed out the ones that don't really reflect the current unit content.

The whole exercise has got me thinking about how we handle NT theology in our churches. Do our teaching programmes reflect an understanding of the joined-up nature of the New Testament or do we just create sermon series as discrete entities with no reference to how to they relate to other series? I realise that in any well-rounded teaching programme in a church, there'll be attention paid to Old Testament texts as well as NT ones.

The grand daddy of NT theology - Johan Philip Gabler - argued that we pursue the discipline in order to renew the doctrines of the church in every generation. His discipline has developed in a variety of ways but two strong strands lead from him to the current world of scholarship. One is increasingly concerned with the early church as a historical phenomenon to be studied as we would study any other movement in history. The modern champion of this position is Heikki Raisanen who, building on Wrede, has produced some interesting historical studies but nothing to equip the church for its mission in the twenty-first century.

The other strand continues to look for ways of reading and understanding the New Testament in the contemporary world in a way that equips the church to bear witness to its central figure. There are many champions of this approach - among those with recent books covering the territory are Howard Marshall and Frank Matera, and from the recent past, the wonderful George Caird.

As I tweak the approach this unit takes to NT theology, I have two aims. The first is that I want to help students grasp the breadth and diversity of the NT witness to Jesus, to gain the ability to read each text on its own merits before trying to see how it agrees (or otherwise) with other texts. In particular, I am keen to encourage students not to read everything through Pauline eyes! So we look at 1 Peter and James and assess their unique voice before adding it to the NT choir.

The second is that I want to encourage everyone who takes this class, and who is headed into pastoral or teaching ministry of some kind (an overwhelming majority), to think about how they will structure their approach to preaching the NT in the light of this unit. I think this particularly applies when we are thinking of doing some kind of primer in Christian basics. Do we just lift something off the shelf or do we try to create our own in the light of what the likes of Marshall, Matera, Caird and others are saying about New Testament theology?

But I believe it applies more generally. Is our version of the Christian faith simply Pauline or do we read the gospels on their own merits, hear the voices of the other writers with equal clarity to that of Paul. Now, don't get me wrong, I am pursuing detailed study of Paul; I continue to find him an intriguing, restless witness to a transforming encounter with Jesus, a man who wanted whole communities to experience what he had.

But he is not the entirety of the New Testament; and the other writers must not be assumed to be in agreement with him. They deserve at least to be heard in their own terms. The author of 1 Peter is an extraordinary voice, James a wonderful, simple purveyor of an intriguing view of Jesus, Revelation a roller coaster of missional engagement with an oppressive empire, and so on...

The question, I guess, is how do we ensure our churches get to hear the full NT choir? And does the unit I teach offer any help to some fledgling preachers, teachers and church leaders?

Still waiting for the debate to start...

Several of my Facebook friends have been posting about the Labour leadership election, saying that we need someone who can win. It's not enough to have good ideas, we need power, hey write; and therefore we need to elect the candidate who will repeat the Blair marvel.

I agree we need a government that is not run by Cameron and Osborne in the interests of the haves at the expense of the have nots. But booting out the Tories is not an end in itself. They need to be replaced by a government that stands for something; better still, that stands for someone, namely the poorest and most vulnerable in a way that ensures work, education, healthcare and housing is evenly spread across society.

I haven't finally decided who I am voting for in the Labour leadership contest. But I have decided to rule out those candidates who seem to spend their time attacking other labour figures rather than the government; and those candidates who do nothing to foster a genuine debate on the kind of world we want for our children - and how we might achieve it.

So, how do the various candidates think we will achieve a more equal society? Do they think that there's an alternative to the view that markets solve every problem from industrial innovation to distributing healthcare? How are they actually going to solve the housing crisis? And do we really think that all our defence eggs should be in the nuclear deterrent basket?

Now the questions make me sound like a Corbynite. But actually, they are the questions that we should have been asking for years because the current answers we have to those questions are clearly not delivering equality, good services, peace and all the other things we want for our children. The current answers have delivered at least three UK recessions and one major global financial meltdown, the fallout from which we are still living with. Maybe those answers need to be revisited?

So, when are going to start the debate on these vital issues?