Biting satire or just a bit of fun?
How do full-time stipendiary ministers spend their “day off”? If Twitter is anything to go by, coffee shops feature heavily for some – a sentiment I share. For me, the issue was partially resolved in my curacy – I learned to snowboard and to ski.
This week’s Church Times has an interesting (to me at least) column on snowboarding by Neil Elliot, who has gained a PhD on the back of some research on the spirituality of snowboarding (wish I’d thought of that!). Sadly, the online version of the article lies behind the Church Times’ paywall, so no link – sorry, folks. In the article Neil relates how he resolved the “day off” issue by learning to snowboard at his local dry slope. Later, he progressed to real snow at the Snowdome at Tamworth before hitting real mountains in Europe and Canada, where it seems how now lives.
My own snow odyssey began when my lads – teenagers then – bought a Playstation with the snowboard game SSX. After a playing a few games of SSX, I got hooked on the snowboard fantasy at the tender age of 48. It was then that I noticed the sign to the Snowdome off the A5 (about 25 minutes away from our house then). Learning to snowboard was a painful process. I discovered muscles I never knew I had and ended every session with bruises in painful places. At one point I even had a small crack in my elbow – the nurses at the local A&E were impressed when I told then how I did it, the German doctor who treated me, less so. Still, “no pain, no gain,” as they say.
It was while recovering from this injury that I decided to learn to ski. And although I did complete my basic snowboard training, it was skiing that became my main focus on snow. A knee injury sustained a week before my son’s wedding in Canada kept me off the snow for a couple of years (the wedding photos show me on crutches, and I learned more about the Canadian healthcare system than I ever wanted to know). But now I’m back.
For me, skiing gives me some physical activity, plus the adrenalin rush of being able to travel at some speed over slidey stuff. Well, I’ll never make the World Cup circuit or the Winter Olympics (once described by Dara O’Briain as “40 different ways to slide”). But I have found something enjoyable and personally rewarding, which gets me out of the parish and diocese and gives me a few hours where I never even think of work issues. And on the occasion that I finally made it to a Canadian mountain, it was a great way to enjoy the Great Outdoors in winter.
So, and particularly if you are a stipendiary minister, how do you spend your free time?
One thing that I have heard a number of times from conservative evangelicals is the argument that, because Jesus apparently believed in the “literal truth” of the Hebrew scriptures, then we should too. They point to the various places in the Gospels where Jesus, in conversation with various groups and individuals, takes Old Testament passages at their face value to make a point. At first sight this seems like a reasonable argument. After all, Jesus was God, the second person of the Trinity. So he should know. Right?
I recently heard a version of this argument from the lips of Krish Kandiah at a seminar I attended at Spring Harvest 2011 in Skegness. I blogged about my (one day) attendance here. The occasion was a seminar on the Tough Texts of the Bible, in this case the Genocidal Texts particularly Deuteronomy 20, where God appears not only to sanction but to command the obliteration of the nations living in the Promised Land. Parts of the seminar were actually quite good, and the problems these texts present were well acknowledged. However I was disappointed to hear Krish bring up this argument to bolster his claim that we should not just conclude that the writers of these texts either misheard God or were pursuing their own agendas.
At the event there was not the opportunity or the time to argue the toss with Krish – there were several hundred people present, and judging by the nodding of heads when he said this, and the few responses that made it to the microphone, many of them were in agreement with him.
However, regardless of one’s view of the historicity of the Hebrew scriptures or of one’s position regarding infallibility or inerrancy, I think that there are a number of weaknesses with this argument. I would say that there are two broad areas where the argument falls down – the first theological, the second rhetorical.
Firstly, although I agree with Krish that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, he was also fully human. Paul in his letter to the Philippians outlines this process:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. (Philippians 2:5-7 NRSV, my emphasis)
Now I will be the first to admit that what this emptying exactly means in practice has been the subject of study, conversation and dispute among theologians and Bible scholars for centuries. But there is agreement that Jesus was in some way limited by becoming human. He learned his (Hebrew) Bible in a human way (we get a glimpse of this in the childhood incident recorded in Luke 2:421ff.). Jesus is nowhere presented as possessing the omniscience we often ascribe to God. Indeed, at the Ascension it appears that there may be things that even the post-resurrection Jesus may not know – the times and seasons that will bring in the fullness of the kingdom of God (Acts 1:7) – certainly things he is not at liberty to disclose to the disciples. Furthermore, in the Gospel narrative, what Jesus does know about other people (the secrets of human hearts) could easily be the result of a highly developed, Holy Spirit-guided intuition.
To argue then, as many do, that Jesus necessarily had a greater understanding of the historicity of the Hebrew scriptures than his contemporaries seems simply to ignore the kenosis involved in Jesus’ incarnation.
Secondly, we come to the rhetorical point: namely, what was it that Jesus was trying to communicate to his contemporaries? Even if we were to allow that Jesus DID know that much more about the historicity of the Hebrew scriptures, would it have been helpful or profitable for him to begin arguing this particular point with the Jewish people (whether the intellectuals or the common people) of his day? Would this not have been a distraction to his primary teaching and purposes which was to give them a clearer understanding and experience of the Kingdom of God/Heaven? Given the reluctance of some to embrace what he did say, wouldn’t teaching that the Hebrew scriptures were not what they appeared and were understood to be have given the excuse for more widespread rejection of the core of his teaching?
When Jesus teaches, he does so from what he and his interlocutors have in common. The wise Christian missionary has always worked in this way. Within the NT writings, Paul looks for things he has in common with his audience – the Hebrew scriptures with his Jewish and “God-fearing” audiences, pagan philosophers and poets with Gentile intellectuals, creation with the populations of Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. Today, it would be unwise for, say, a missionary to Muslims to begin by attacking their understanding of the Qur’an. There are far more important issues at stake. So with Jesus, the historicity of the OT is not an issue germane to his purposes. Indeed, it is unlikely that his audience could have understood him at all had he approached the issue the way we might do so in the early twenty-first century.
Nor, to my mind, does it make a significant difference to the points he does make. Take, for instance, his use of the story of Jonah. Does it make a difference to his point if the story is not history? Preachers often use imaginary stories without an historical foundation to convey truth, indeed Jesus’ own parables are prime examples. Jesus’ reference to the story of Jonah to draw parallels with his own suffering, death and resurrection do not rely on the story’s historicity but takes something that is well known and uses it to illuminate their understanding and expectation of what being Messiah actually involves.
So can we, perhaps, agree to stop trying to use this as a killer argument? The premise may or may not be a valid one, but if it is, it is so on quite other grounds and this argument does little or nothing to advance our understanding of the Hebrew scriptures.
So yesterday was the big day and, as promised here, I went to cast my vote in favour of changing the UK election system to Alternative Vote rather than keep with First Past the Post. Sadly, only 31.9999% (approx.) of the UK population agreed with me, and so things will remain as they were.
I was interested to see the Daily Telegraph’s map of the voting in the referendum. Zoom in on the map using the helpful buttons in the top left hand corner, and among the vast swathes of the rather sickly yellowy colour that represented the areas that votes “No”, you will find a tiny handful of purplish areas that voted “Yes” (by a relatively small margin in each case). These are : Cambridge, Oxford, Glasgow (Kelvin), Edinburgh Central, and six London boroughs. Hmm.
The result seems to have been influenced by a number of factors, not the least being that electoral reform is widely seen as a LibDem issue, despite having the support of Ed Milliband and a significant number of senior Labour Party people. Yesterday was the day that many of the British electorate took the opportunity to take a kick at the LibDems in general, and at their leader, Nick Clegg, in particular. As the weather was good, the turnout was a relatively high one for a local election. Another factor was that the change on offer was to the Alternative Vote system which is widely recognised as giving preferential rather than proportional representation. It therefore does not meet the aspirations of many who nevertheless want a reform that delivers PR.
For myself, amid the disappointment and frustration with the result, I have found myself becoming increasingly an advocate of AV rather than PR (which was my preferred choice at the start of the campaign). One advantage of AV is that it still retains the personal link of the MP with the constituency in a way that STV and list systems do not. One is still voting for people rather than for rather anonymous yes-men and women chosen according to a party’s dictates. This means it is possible to vote for someone you know will do a good job and give their best efforts to representing their constituents, even if you don’t particularly care for aspects of their party’s policies. One also continues to have input into the decision-making process on an equal footing with everyone else even if one’s first preference candidate enjoys only minority support. These, I have come to think, are features worth having, even though it is obvious most other people think otherwise.
So for now, it seems, electoral reform has been kicked into the long grass and we will be left with FPTP for at least the next few years. Indeed some are saying that that is it for another generation. Yesterday seemed on the surface to be a return to the old two-party politics we have known so well. But the local government elections that ran concurrently with the referendum I think showed a great deal of dissatisfaction with current government policies. Yesterday it was Nick Clegg and the LibDems that bore the brunt of this, but in due course I believe that David Cameron and the Tories will come in for their fair share of criticism and blame too.
So I expect to see a continuing fragmentation of British politics and growing support for parties other than Tory and Labour. The thirst for “a new kind of politics”, one that is less confrontational, that showed itself at the general election last year is, I think, still there even though it has received a bit of a knock. And if I’m right, then I think we might find that electoral reform comes back onto the agenda rather more quickly than many people expect just now. And when it does, I suspect that a wider range of options, including forms of proportional representation, might then be on offer.
In the last post, I looked at certain things I believe the Bible is not. Some of it was probably uncontroversial, other parts possibly less so. In this post I shall continue this via negativa by looking at a couple more things I believe the Bible is not.
The Bible is not meant to be taken literally
…or at least, not all of it. Much of it certainly is intended to be taken literally, but determining which bits those are is not always as straightforward as is assumed by some. Here we come to issues of genre and rhetorical style, and for most of us, issues of translation too.
Firstly, the Bible contains writing in a wide variety of genres. Some of us will be familiar with this, but awareness is not as widespread as it should be. We have writing that is certainly poetry, other parts that are historical (though we need to be careful about imposing our 21st century Western notions about history on these). There are letters, some personal, some for community consumption. There are codes that we might recognise as law, there are proverbs, there is prophecy, there are collections of wisdom and advice. Some of these may be intended to be taken “literally”. But others certainly aren’t. The whole point of poetry, for example, is to use language in a non-literal way – not just simile but metaphor too. We don’t expect a literal description of the world – what is being conveyed is the author’s reaction to, and feeling about, the world, relationships, God etc. So trying to base a cosmology on the Psalms, for instance, should not be attempted.
Similarly, we have parables. Jesus tells a lot of these, though there are other parts of the Bible, even in the Hebrew scriptures, that have them. When we read or hear Jesus parables, we do not imagine that there was literally a specific Samaritan who rescued a half-dead man on the Jericho road; or a specific king who went on a journey giving his stewards large sums of money to invest until his return; or a specific landowner whose crops were vandalised by a specific enemy who sowed weeds. We know that these stories are made to convey certain points in Jesus teaching. Whether or not they represent a literal, physical reality is beside the point and nothing detracts from the point if the stories are fictional in the literal sense.
Incidentally, we should also note that, if this is the case, then we should be wary of trying to make these stories tell us things they are not meant to. For example, is the story about the rich man and Lazarus really designed to give us a topography of the after-life? Or is it more about how we should take particular notice of the things and people around us we would rather ignore?
These questions follow us back into the Hebrew scriptures, the Christian Old Testament. Though far fewer in number, there are parables here also. Nathan the prophet takes a huge risk by telling a (fictional) story about a rich man who steals a lamb from a poor man to provide for his guest. the story, of course, catches out King David, who is thereby forced to confront the fact that he has behaved as unjustly and sinfully as the fictional rich man. This is one obvious example of an OT parable.
But are there not other writings that might equally well be considered to be parables – stories told to illustrate theological or moral truth while not necessarily being literally true? How about Job? Here we have a story set in a distant time and a distant place. In our own culture it might well begin, “Once upon a time…” We find a man to whom multiple extreme disasters happen, a glimpse of the “heavenly court” where God and Satan confront one another, comforters who represent a variety of (worryingly familiar) theological responses to Job’s suffering, and finally a kind of “happy ending” that seems rather at odds with what precedes it. And the purpose of the narrative is to expose these positions for the facile shams they really are, to declare that ultimately we humans cannot now have a fully satisfactory understanding of the place of suffering in the purposes of God in our universe.
And the early chapters of Genesis? There is no genre within the Bible of “scientific text”. So, to me, these texts are not trying to give the definitive account of how creation happened, but they are trying to teach us something about why we are here, about our human nature and about the nature of the God who creates and sustains not just us but the entire universe.
So it is important to recognise the genre of the particular writing we read. But we need also to take account of the rhetorical intentions of the speaker/author. There are a number of places in the Gospels especially where very few Christians take the words of Jesus at face value. take, for example, Jesus instruction that “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away” and “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matthew 5:29,30 NRSV). Most commentators will agree that Jesus did not intend these words to be taken literally, but that he was using the rhetorical device known as hyperbole – using exaggerated language to stress a point. I have yet to visit a church where the congregation consists largely of partially sighted amputees.
Finally on this section, most of us primarily read the Bible in translation, even those who also read Greek and/or Hebrew. This means we are reliant on the decisions others make about how thoughts and stories expressed in one language are rendered in a language which uses different ways to express these things (if indeed they can be directly expressed). This is particularly difficult to do with Hebrew, which effectively uses just two tenses to express actions, and whose words tend to express a field of meaning which is rather less precise than English or most other modern European languages. And this is without considering issues like idiom and figures of speech.
The Bible is not a book of moral philosophy
Over the past few years I have had a kind of love-hate relationship with Giles Fraser’s writing for the Church Times and his Thought for the Day pieces on Radio 4. At times I agree wholeheartedly with something he says; at other times I just want to shout, “No!!!” Recently, he responded to the publication of The Good Book by the humanist philosopher A. C. Grayling on Radio 4’s Today programme and this definitely falls into the former category. “I think the Bible’s not about being good…for the Christian, it’s about being saved, which is a different category…It’s not a work of morality, it’s actually a work of something deeper.” (from about 4:55 onwards in the clip).
While we can derive morals and ethics from the Bible’s pages that is not its primary purpose, and this is something else we must come back to in a later post.
After another brief excursus, we shall begin to look more positively at what the Bible is, and how we can interpret it to be relevant to our life today.
In the dim and distant 80s I worked in the IT industry. At the time it was rumoured that the dominant supplier of computers had adopted a marketing strategy aimed at the senior managers of the organisations they supplied or wished to supply. It was simple, salespeople were allegedly directed – sow the seeds of FUD. FUD stood for fear, uncertainty and doubt. What would be the consequences for a manager of going to a different manufacturer? “No one has ever been sacked for buying…” was the message – with the implication that your job might be on the line if you you didn’t sign on the dotted line (or signed someone else’s dotted line).
As I listened to David Cameron in the Today programme this morning I was reminded of this blast from my past. It has seemed to me that much of the No campaign for the Alternative Vote has been based on the worst aspects of our political culture by sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt – those things beloved by “small c” conservatives when faced with the possibility of change. And given the opportunity to distance himself from some of these negative tactics, Cameron refused to do so. Furthermore, he contemptuously accused his interviewer of not understanding the AV system, when it was clear that, unless he was being deliberately misleading, he did not understand the system himself.
So why shall I be voting “yes” on Thursday? Well on one level my intention is driven by almost a lifetime of dissatisfaction with First Past the Post. It has always seemed to me that the results of this unduly favour the two big parties. In the modernist world of the 1950s and 60s this may have made sense. There were two very distinct and competing visions of society, though neither particularly appealed to me, based as they both seemed to be on class conflict. The only time in my life when it seemed that my vote truly mattered was when we moved to Crosby, Merseyside soon after Shirley Williams’ election as MP for the then Social Democratic Party. Sadly, this optimism was misplaced. The Boundaries Commission decreed that the constituency boundaries should be redrawn, leaving our area to go to the solidly Labour seat of Bootle, while the rest of the constituency reverted to being solidly Conservative. The other time my vote seemed to matter was when I voted against my usual party preference to ensure that a highly unpopular government was not re-elected.
In our post-modern times though, when people are increasingly mistrustful of big, all-encompassing stories and visions, these political meta-narratives do not work. Though there are differences of emphasis, neither of the major parties currently offer distinctive, clearly thought-through philosophies of government.
FPTP is NOT simple unless you are a supporter of the dominant party in a safe seat, and it is not fair, despite the claims of the No sloganeers. The overt process may seem simple, but the reality for millions of us means having to weigh up whether our preferred candidate stands any credible chance of election at all; and if not, then we vote in the way we feel will give us the least worst option reasonably on offer. A couple of elections ago there was even talk of voters in different constituencies offering to swap votes in order to make an impact (frowned on, of course, by the major parties at the time). Tactical voting of this kind provides wonderful speculation for the media pundits, but is no way to gauge the will of the electorate. I am tired of the major parties telling me that a vote for my preferred candidate is a “wasted vote (so vote for us)”. If that is true, then our voting system is sick, and it is no wonder that so many people are disillusioned not only with politicians but with the political process as a whole.
AV should actually reduce the amount of negative voting by allowing us to express our first preference without surrendering the right to influence the outcome should that candidate be placed low in the polls. In his interview this morning Cameron repeated the canard that it gives some people – and not others – more than one vote (and he even accused the interviewer of not understanding AV!!). The short answer is that everyone gets exactly the same number of votes in each “round” of counting, unless they vote only for minority candidates. If one’s first preference candidate makes it through the early rounds, then the first preference vote continues to have its effect, otherwise lower preferences are taken unto consideration (see cartoon above) – i.e. everyone gets exactly the same number of potential votes. How else do you explain why the major parties actually use a form of AV (and NOT FPTP) to elect their leaders? All the proposed system does is to extend this principle to parliamentary constituencies, while collapsing the process into a couple of days rather than extending it over several weeks.
And the third plank of the Cameron campaign – that FPTP is decisive – has surely been discredited by the fact that he is only where he is (under FPTP!) because the Liberal Democrats chose to support him rather than either form a coalition with an unpopular minority governing party or subject the country to another immediate general election.
AV is not the perfect voting system. It does not deliver proportional representation, but it does deliver a single, accountable member of parliament for each constituency. And it does it with a fairness and an honesty that cannot be achieved under FPTP.
So I am refusing to be swayed by FUD, and on Thursday I shall be voting “Yes to AV” and if you are a UK voter I urge you to do the same.