Just answer the question!

Well, I had a call from my local Christian bookshop yesterday that my copy of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins has finally arrived, so later today I shall go to pick it up and read it – at last! It seems as though the controversy surrounding this book is now very old news in blogosphere terms, but it will be good to read what Bell actually says, rather than what others impute to him.

H/T to @Bruxy Cavey whose tweet brought to my attention a very gentle review of the book in RELEVANT magazine. The reviewer welcomed the book and the questions it raises but also raised some questions of their own as to how the view of hell expressed by Bell squares with the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels. To me it seemed the model of a good critical review.

However some of the comments following the review, while fairly good-natured in tone, seemed to me to demonstrate a mindset that I find rather unhelpful. One commenter responded to another’s comments with this:

I don’t disagree with your opinions, just with the tone of your last opinion. To state “keep your opinions to yourself unless asked” is, in and of itself, an opinion of how one should respond to Rob Bell’s book. Being open is not closing the door to criticism or to false doctrine or negative comments. It’s hearing everyone and everything out and stating why that person is wrong. [my emphasis]

I wonder whether we  need to “state why that person is wrong”? What if the person is right? Maybe they are on to something that demands closer examination? And are we absolutely sure that we are in the right? And what is our real concern here? Can we bring ourselves to acknowledge points on which we can agree or which bring a different perspective? Are we coming with a humble attitude or are we seeking to score debating points?

Another commenter writes:

Rob Bell brilliantly and artistically, writes nothing, answers questions with questions, goes in circles, and dodges flat out saying what he makes obvious that he is flat out thinking…I prefer a more straight forward approach. It is a tedious task to follow his overly complex journeys through the scriptures. That interview on msnbc says it all. Just answer the question. [my emphasis, and some typos and grammar tidied up]

Hmm. “Just answer the question” is usually the cry of the frustrated interviewer. While it may be caused by, say, a politician’s desire to evade giving an an answer  that might be politically and electorally disastrous, it may equally be the result of the questioner trying to force words into another person’s mouth. I surmise that the MSNBC interview referred to above was this one, rather than this. In the former, the interviewer does seem to be trying hard to make Bell say something using categories that Bell does not accept. Whereas in the latter the interviewer responds to what Rob is actually saying, rather than coming with their own set agenda.

“Just answer the question” sounds like a reasonable request. But suppose the question being asked is not capable of being answered in the terms in which it is set? Or suppose the underlying premises of the question are to some degree at fault? Or that the questioner’s premises are being challeneged? Or suppose that one needs to take a complex path through the scriptural material to come to a proper understanding of where scripture might be leading us (as opposed to taking a few proof texts)? “Just answer the question” may not help us get anywhere nearer the truth.

Reading the Gospels over the past few years has brought home to me just how often Jesus’ questioners must have wanted to yell, “Just answer the question!” Yet so often Jesus responds (just as many accuse Bell of doing) by asking another question. It is a not uncommon device in Jewish debate, and it forces us to clarify the terms on which we deal with one another. “You know the scriptures. How do you read?” says Jesus on a number of occasions. This then allows for follow-up questions that are far more profitable than simply “answering the question.” And notice too, if you will, how often Jesus responds with a parable; parables which, Jesus himself tells us (quoting Isaiah), are intended to distinguish those who will “get it” from those who won’t, those who are genuinely open and those who are pursuing a fixed agenda. It seems that Jesus rarely did “straightforward”.

In the same tweet, Bruxy linked to a post on The Rabbit Room blog concerning the tone of language used in the Love Wins and other debates, which notes the combination of aggresion and defensiveness which sometimes pervades. I have posted on this subject before, but it is good to find someone else concerned about this. It is almost 20 years since I began to question the fact that the tone of much evangelical debate seems to be intent on defending a particular position from all comers. A re-reading of the gospels convinced me that this was far from Jesus’ own normal modus operandi. He seems to have been far more open to the people who came to him – except for those who were convinced they already had their doctrine sewn up.

I will comment on the book itself in a few days once I have read it.

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Getting around to it

As someone who ought to qualify for a PhD in procrastination – if I could ever get round to it – I was grateful to Maggi Dawn for providing this link to an article with ideas on how to overcome this unfortunate trait. How far this self-help will do the trick will remain to be seen.

However, it did get me thinking about the role of procrastination in the blogosphere. On some days other people’s blogs can be a great distraction from getting other stuff done. Last year a number of clergy bloggers underwent a temporary fast from blogging for Lent. For few this became permanent, and for them that will have been the right decision.

On the other hand, reading and commenting on others’ blogs can sometimes be a distraction from the hard work of posting on one’s own blog. After all, these things take thought and work to produce, no? In my head there are a couple of series of posts I have never even started because the amount of time and effort they will require have seemed too daunting.

Must go back to read those tips – in just a moment!

Tribalism, martyrdom and Christian response

Over on the Heathen Hub, Gurdur has an atheist take on Christian tribalism as it is manifest in the English church, and particularly as it relates to the response (or lack of it) to the assassinations of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti in Pakistan. It is often painful to get a glimpse of how others see us, but rather than go all defensive, we ought to ask ourselves how much is justified (and I think in this case almost all of it is) and what we can learn from the experience.

Just in case any of you are thinking that Gurdur has it in for Christians, I have to say that I am glad that I am a Christian, because Gurdur has also written:

And if you think I am being too heavy on Christians, wait till tomorrow when I get stuck into atheists. Because as an atheist I am going then to be ever so undiplomatic.

Glad that’s not me, then.

My inital response to the tribalism post can be found under the comments on Gurdur’s blog. I think that English Christianity does suffer from tribalism, both within the church and towards those outside it. there are a host of reasons why this may be so, but I particularly wanted to talk about our response to situations such as that in Pakistan.

My own, admittedly brief, researches bear out Gurdur’s finding – that apart from a couple of honourable exceptions English Chritians have been more concerned with the fate of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, than that of Salman Taseer, a Muslim who campaigned for the abolition of the now infamous blasphemy law that allowed a Christian woman, Asai Bibi, to be put to death on the say-so of a couple of witnesses who had personal reasons for wishing harm to her. Shahbaz Bhatti has been rightly hailed as a martyr (in the Christian sense) whereas Salman Taseer’s death has been generally ignored in the Christian blogosphere.

Such selectivity is unworthy of Christians. The injustices of the current situation in Pakistan do not only affect Christians, but those of other minority faiths and atheists as well. It is good to see that there are members of the majority Muslim faith who also see the injustice and work to do something about it – people like Marvi Memon and her co-signatories of this resolution. They must be acknowledged, applauded, strengthened,  encouraged and supported by Christians in the West, not just so that Pakistani Christians may benefit but because it is the right thing to do to bring justice for ALL Pakistanis regardless of their religious affiliation. Furthermore, when we see our Christian sisters and brothers perpetrating injustices and inhumane acts we must not remain silent.

Whilst Jesus did command Christians to love one another, he also commanded them to love their neighbour as themselves (with no qualification). Indeed he chose to illustrate this teaching with a story about two people from opposite sides of a religious divide. So let’s have some even-handedness in our reporting and in our reaction to what we see and hear going on around us.

Five books in translation and another guilty pleasure

In my previous post I listed my choice of five books after the manner of the “My Life in Books” programme on the BBC. Afterwards it struck me that all the books I listed there were written first in English. However, I greatly enjoy books written by non-English authors which have been translated from their original languages. So (just too late for World Book Day) here are five books I have enjoyed in translation, with a sixth “guilty pleasure.”

1. Emil and the Detectives by Eric Kaestner. It’s probably around 47 years since I read this, but I still remember the effect it had on me then. Emil is a young boy sent to Berlin alone by train. While asleep on the train some money he has been given is stolen, and on arrival in Berlin, Emil is determined to find the thief and get the money back. He falls in with a small band of other children who are the “detectives” of the title. It was old when I read it – first published in 1931 – but the illustrations and the text gave the impression of a foreign culture, but with characters with whom I could identify.

2. Les Chouans by Honore de Balzac. Although I studied French to A level, afterwards I didn’t have the patience to read and translate this tour de force myself. The novel tells the story of an group of Bretons who organise to defeat the French revolutionary forces in Brittany. It is a large 19th century novel, and although written several decades after the era it portrays, conveys a real sense of time and place. One day I may try to read the original.

3. Father Arseny 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father. I was recommended this book by a Russian Orthodox priest who was studying on the same MA course as me several years ago. It has a somewhat hagiographic style, but tells the true story of a Russian Orthodox priest who lived through most of the Soviet era and was sent several times to the Gulag camps. Throughout, his faith in God remained intact and even in extreme adversity he found opportunities to minister, often in very unexected places and with unexpected people. Inspiring.

4. The Dream Life of Sukharov by Olga Grushin. A recent discovery and another Russian nove, set this time in the mid 1980s, the period of glasnost and perestroika. Anatoly Sukharov, the title character, is an art critic who has built his career writing criticism that is favourable to the Party line. However, secretly he wonders whether it would have been better to remain true to his youthful ideals as an underground artist. Issues of identity in a changing world are skilfully explored.

5. Snow by Orhan Pamuk. Another fairly recent discovery. Pamuk, a Turkish author, creates a very claustrophobic atmosphere in this novel set in a town near the eastern Turkish border. The town is snowed in for a few days, trapping a Turk who has returned from Germany where he works. The town has a high suicide rate among its young women and the local head of the security police is ruthlessly efficient at his job. Through the story Pamuk expresses something about modern Turkish society, torn between a desire to embrace Western values and a desire to reject those values and pursue its own Islamic path.

My “Guilty Pleasure” in translation are the highly popular but controversial Millenium novels of Steig Larsson, beginning with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The original Swedish title of this book was Men Who Hate Women, which reflects one of the main themes of Larsson’s writing. The controversy arises from the feeling of voyeurism that pervades some of the scenes in the books and whether this itself is not exploitative. Like Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo and other writers, Larsson exposes the dark underside of the Scandinavian Social Democratic dream. And the fact that this is a fast-paced  thriller does not detract from the fact that it explores sociological, psychological and political themes among the action.

What books have you enjoyed in translation?

Five books and a guilty pleasure

Today in the UK and Ireland it is World Book Day. Tree is in favour, having been something of a book worm for as long as he can remember. At the age of four he managed to fool a neighbour that he could read because he had memorised the contents of a book, complete with when to turn the page. Fortunately, within a few months this deception became unnecessary, and a lifetime of reading began.

Over the past couple of weeks, the BBC has been running a series “My Life in Books” where celebrities have been interviewed by Anne Robinson about how books have influenced them at different stages of life. Each celebrity has chosen five books to illustrate this; in addition, a further book has been chosen as a “guilty pleasure” or “beach read.” Some of the choices have been very interesting, particularly Jeanette Winterson’s choice of the Authorised (King James) Version of the Bible – a choice applauded by her co-guest Alistair Campbell (the one who famously replied on Tony Blair’s behalf that the previous Labour government didn’t “do God”).

Anyway, although not of celebrity status, Tree thought he’d like a go at choosing five plus one books. It isn’t as easy as it might seem to choose between the various candidates,and in Desert Island Discs fashion, I’m taking the Bible and Shakespeare as read. So here goes:

1. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, which I read at a fairly early age (can’t remember exactly). I enjoyed the humour, the camaraderie an the glimpses it gave into the Victorian culture – a kind of 19th century travelogue.

2. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. I was introduced to Thomas Hardy in the Lower Sixth and quickly devoured many of his novels. Perhaps it was the Wessex locations, or the details of a way of life that was past, or Hardy’s pessimism that appealed to the adolescent me. At any rate, this tale of a young man desperate to fulfil his academic potential, yet doomed to fail, resonated with me and made me glad for the opportunities available to many of us in the 1970s.

3. Winter by Len Deighton. Deighton hasn’t weathered so well as John Le Carre as a spy novelist in a post-Cold War world. But as well as the spy novels, Deighton wrote excellent military history of the Second World War. In Winter, he combined his skills as a novelist and as historian by providing a fictionalised account of several generations of a German family living through the first half of the twentieth century. It also serves as background to his trilogy of spy trilogies that began with Berlin Game, Mexico Set and Paris Match.

4. Glittering Images by Susan Howatch. This and the subsequent Starbridge novels helped me to appreciate the breadth of the Church of England and gave a different perspective from the solid evangelical circles in which I had been moving for a couple of decades. In this well-researched novel we are introduced to the core of a cast of clerical characters whom we follow through a series of personal crises. Susan Howatch is comfortable with using both spiritual and psychological language to describe the issues faced by the characters. The novel presents clergy as flawed human beings who are nevertheless trying to follow the call to service in the church.

5. The Cruellest Month by Louise Penny. I have always liked crime fiction, from Sherlock Holmes to my latest discovery – the novels of the Norwegian author Jo Nesbo. Nevertheless, Louise Penny was a good discovery and little out of the ordinary run of crime novelists. Although an Anglophone, Penny lives in and writes about Francophone Quebec. The Cruellest Month is set in Three Pines, a small country hamlet in Quebec and is the third in a series of novels featuring Armand Gamache, an Inspector in the Surete de Quebec. both the plot and the characterisations are well done. I picked this one simply because it was the first novel of the series that I read, not long before my son moved to Canada (Ontario) to marry a Canadian girl.

Finally, the guilty pleasures are the Jack Reacher novels of Lee Child, featuring a character who is a loner with a background in the US military police. He is a rootless wanderer who prefers his own company on the open road, but who has a knack of wandering into situations which his sense of justice won;t let him leave alone.

So, what does this list say about me? Perhaps a fascination with other times, places and cultures? A sense of being an outsider looking in? A desire to gain insights into the human condition from different viewpoints?

What books would you choose?

Preaching, hypocrisy and triteness

It was a bit of a shock to see myself described as a “more experienced priest” by Lesley on Lesley’s Blog, even though she qualified it with “than me.” Even after 10 years in ordained ministry I still feel like a newbie! Mind you, six years ago when I first moved to the Forest, several things happened that even my area dean with 25 years experience had never come across before. There is always something new, however long we have been at it.

However, I digress. The subject of Lesley’s post was “Anxiety, preaching and hypocrisy,” and in the course of comments she asked me:

“…as a more experienced priest than me, how do you deal with knowing the tremendous grief and pain that some of the lovely people that you preach to week by week carry? And what words are there to say at tragic funerals? ‘Do not worry’ seems trite at a Sunday service…”

After some thought, my response included the following:

“Preaching week by week is an enormous privilege and often one is aware of the pain and difficulties that some members of your congregation suffer. At the same time, there are other people and situations which call for celebration and rejoicing. Keeping the balance between these two aspects is necessary, and I think it is important not to let your awareness of either dominate in preaching and leading of worship. Not for nothing does the writer to the Ephesians (4:11 – my evangelical slip is showing!) link the roles of pastor and teacher. Preaching and teaching are very pastoral acts.

I am always amazed when people give me feedback to find exactly what has spoken to them individually. Often it is something that I thought was only a throwaway comment (so be careful with these); sometimes it wasn’t even anything I actually said, but something that sparked a connection with something else in the hearer’s mind. So I try to approach the task of preaching in a prayerful attitude, and trust that the Holy Spirit will use whatever I say in a positive and constructive manner.

I try never to be glib or to give trite answers. I don’t know to what extent I succeed. It doesn’t hurt to be honest and to admit occasionally that you struggle with something in a passage; indeed it can be quite encouraging for some to know they are not alone in this. However, I think it needs to be done sparingly. If it happens too frequently otherwise it leads to discouragement in the congregation. I am not here just to share my own angst, and if I have a lot of big issues then there are other, more appropriate places and people to deal with them (spiritual director, chapter if yours is one that takes the mutual support role seriously, close colleagues and friends).

There is no “one size fits all” approach to tragic funerals. Each one is different depending on the exact circumstances, the background of the family etc. Sometimes there are no words to say, and what is required is simply to be present. It seems to me that the biblical writers struggle with the issue of suffering and theodicy. And none of the texts gives a clear, coherent answer, simply pointers to aspects of the problem. For me, as I deal with these situations, the incarnation and passion of Jesus are key. God is not an onlooker, but present alongside and within the situation to support and empathise. I am also glad that the book of Job is in the Hebrew bible, as it knocks on the head any idea that pain and suffering are part of some cosmic reward and punishment system (which I hear expressed quite often).”

I don’t know quite what type of response Lesley was expecting. I wanted to do justice to her question but I don’t know if I have done really. It is just one priest’s attempt to make a bit of sense of it all. But I would be very interested to know what others think and how they approach these situations.

How do you preach without triteness or hypocrisy?