As part of a new series to prepare for/coincide with UNCOVER happening at All Souls over this year, I did a talk on Sunday evening on the question of the historicity of the gospels. It’s a contentious issue, full of mantraps and perilousness, not least because of the short length of time available to address it. But I had a stab, and aimed to touch on what I sense are the key issues, in the hope that the serious inquirer or thinker will follow whichever (or all) of them is important to them. Read more
It has been a schoolboy dream to visit this place (yeah, I know; I was, and am still, a bit of a classics geek): the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion (the southern tip of Attica, just below Athens). There’s not a lot of it left sadly. But it is one of the most spectacular spots for any building, let alone one of such antiquity and distinction. Having had an action-packed but positive few days doing some Langham teaching in Athens, it was a joy to get out to the cape for Monday morning, followed by a great seafood lunch with good friends overlooking the Aegean. Read more
It seems that everyone’s joined in the cross-over craze. Rock stars are writing ballets and operas, chick-lit writers are getting elected to Parliament, and now a NT scholar has turned novelist. The point about Witherington’s very enjoyable new book, A Week In The Life Of Corinth, though, is it that it is entirely in keeping with his primary profession of opening modern eyes to an ancient and alien past. This explains the narrative’s regular interruption by text boxes providing historical background (covering topics such as slavery, the client/patron relationship, gladiators, the Roman legal system and a potted history of Roman as opposed to Greek Corinth). Read more
I had one day to sightsee in Turkey last week which was fabulous. I even came back a bit sunburnt (much to the chagrin of every rain-drenched colleague on my return). Quite fun to be able to say that I got a tan at Laodicea. So here are a few photographic highlights. For the full Flickr set, click here. Having been based in Antalya (ancient Attalia) had a chance to visit Perga and Aspendos (along the coast to the east), and then travelled inland to the north west to the Lycus Valley (where Hierapolis, Laodicea and Colossae are).
First a general map and few panoramas from the trip… Click on each image for a closer view. Read more
It is a privilege to spend time with friends in Antalya – right on the south Mediterranean coast of Turkey. (Incidentally, and quite interestingly, in Turkish, the Med is called ‘Akdeniz’ which means ‘the white sea’ in symmetry to ’Karadeniz’ (The Black Sea) at the other end of the Bosphorus). And Antalya was of course the ancient port city of Attalia in the apostle Paul’s day. Read more
So… you want to write a runaway bestseller in 2012? Hoping to fill the cabin luggage of air-travellers the world over? Well, here is just thing… it’s guaranteed to hit the headlines at the same time and thus rake in the cash. An ecclesiastical conspiracy theory novel, ‘based’ on matters of ‘historical’ record and archaeological ‘certainties’. It offers the lot: corruption, scheming, sexual deviancy, hypocrisy, ancient history, power, scandals, and above all, the unveiling of secrets.
You hooked yet? I was. And it seems that the book-buying travelling public never tire of a new conspiracy thriller. So… you’ve got it made. Read more
So at last, the time has come. The time for the announcement of the prizes. The Virtual Crunchie can be printed off and enjoyed at your leisure.
There were some excellent entries. And so I felt duty-bound to aware a number of prizes in two categories: Topical and Exegetical. Runners up are honour-bound to share their crunchie with someone else. I’ll know if you eat the whole thing yourself.
Am in Greece this weekend for the launch of Langham Greece. It’s gone really well so far – lots of great discussion. Around 35 attending the conference and around 15-20 watching streaming of it online. REALLY encouraging.
But yesterday we had a free morning and so headed off to Corinth (obviously). I’d no idea that it was only an hour or so from Athens, which was great. We clambered up the Akrocorinth, and wandered around the remains of Ancient Corinth – which are extensive but in parts hard to imagine as intact buildings. You can see the snaps here. Read more
I really don’t think this book lives up to its hype, but I did work my way through roughly 3/4 of Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s epic Jerusalem, The Biography. It is a very uneven and, at times, curiously flat read. It is also (perhaps inevitably) littered with sweeping statements and an over-reliance on just a few partisan scholarly perspectives. This was especially frustrating when it came to plumbing the huge depths and breadths of biblical and archaeological scholarship. But there were clearly some gems and insights. And so thought I’d share just one or two. Read more
It’s a word that gets used very lightly these days. It might be said that Djokovic triumphed over Nadal on Sunday at Wimbledon. Or that Obama triumphed in the last US Presidential election. Or that our school cricket team triumphed in the local derby. But overuse has obliterated the historical significance of the word. For in the Roman world (especially in the ‘good old days’ of the Roman republic), they were only awarded to a special few as the result of a full vote by the Senate, and only for those who had achieved an extraordinary military victory. Read more
Just 3 nights in Istanbul hasn’t given a huge amount of time to see sights but I’ve had a few hours in between meetings. Managed to get to the old Chora Monastery (the most important remaining Byzantine church in the city, after the Hagia Sophia) and the vast Basilica Cisterns. Read more
Having come up with a couple of other similar lists for Lars Dahle’s online culture project (20 Questions for Novels & 12 Questions for Albums), here is the latest, on one of my personal passions: history writing. Popular history books are big business. Which means that lots of people must be reading them… Which means they are definitely worth approaching with considerably more care and attention than many give them…
One of life’s joys is to be introduced to previously unknown works of art, whether they be graphic, musical, dramatic or literary. It doesn’t matter – there’s the simple thrill of discovery at something new. And occasionally, one gets this sneaking suspicion, not to say, hope, that this new discovery will stand the test of time in one’s affections.
Over the last month or so, I’m fortunate to have made two such discoveries – and interestingly, they are both superbly inventive hybrids of different art-forms. ‘Cross-over’ is such a pejorative term amongst music and other snobs – as if there is such a thing as pure artistic forms. Nonsense of course – human creativity is always a matter of rearranging pre-existant objects, ideas and forms in imaginative and new ways (in contrast to divine creativity, which is uniquely able to create something ex nihilo, out of nothing).
Being a bit of a musical snob myself, of course, my heart did slightly groan at the thought of a ‘folk opera’ when Hadestown was handed to me. But I was hooked the moment I pressed ‘play’. Like great works of art (and I really don’t think I’m exaggerating here), it is impossible to categorise. For a start it is a such wonderful concept – a vibrant and utterly convincing retelling of the classical myth of Orpheus & Eurydice. It’s a rich story anyway, which is why it has inspired so many (from the classical poets to renaissance painters to composers of operas – well over 70 at one count!).
The myth’s appeal is obvious. Orpheus is a musician whose lovely wife Eurydice dies and ends up in the underworld – the realm of Hades. When Orpheus discovers her, he is overwhelmed by grief, and he sings songs of such beauty that the nymphs and gods weep. He is then (uniquely) permitted to go down to the court of Hades and his wife Persephone, whom he then charms with his music. They allow him to lead Eurydice back to the land of the living on one fateful condition – he leads her all the way without looking back at her once, until they reach the upper world. When the time comes, and he reaches the open air, he tragically forgets that she has not herself reached it yet, and so he turns to look back at her – with the result that she slips from his grasp forever.
There are variations on this theme of course – but this is broadly the idea. So the story is a gift to musicians – but it surely raises the bar high for creativity. After all – it demands that you write music of such beauty that even gods would weep at it.
Anais Mitchell is not someone I’d encountered before. But she is supremely talented. She has written some truly beautiful songs – I don’t know what you call it really – folk opera I suppose does the job, but it somehow belittles the achievement. She has also gathered a remarkable group of musicians around her to join her in performing them (including Ani diFranco and Bon Iver). The musical styles are varied and each authentic and engaging in its own way. A very nice twist (which makes the musical atmosphere she creates all the more apt and poignant) is to place the mythical events in a sort of post-apocalyptic Depression era America. Hades himself is now some sort of despotic crime boss with the most wonderfully sinister and chilling bass voice you’ve ever heard (sung by a very gravelly Greg Brown). Check out Why We Build The Wall below. But that’s not the only stand out – there isn’t a dull moment and it demands repeated listening. Fabulous.
THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET – a children’s book for adults who dream
I was told about this book by an actor friend who has had a job as an extra on Martin Scorsese’s new film (which he’s been making in London over the last few months). And it is based on this 2007 book – the simple story of Hugo Cabret, an orphan living alone in the clock-custodian’s flat of a Parisian railway station in 1931. What makes so unusual is that half of its 530 pages are filled with the author’s own vivid drawings. Where images suffice, they propel the storyline (like storyboards directors use in the planning of a movie); where conversation and detail are required, words narrate in the usual way. So it shows where it can’t tell; and tells where it can’t really show. To that end it is actually a powerful reflection on the dynamic between words and images. I remember my brother in law Jem Hovil noting this interesting observation made by Isaac Asimov:
In a world where the image is in ascendancy, it is worth remembering the power of the word. Isaac Asimov, avowed atheist, attacked the myth of the image by saying:You may have heard the statement, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ Don’t you believe it. Consider, for instance, Hamlet’s great soliloquy that begins with ‘To be or not to be’, the poetic consideration of the pros and cons of suicide. It is 260 words long. Can you get across the essence of Hamlet’s thoughts in a quarter of a picture – or for that matter, in 260 pictures? Of course not.
We should of course stop playing words and images off against each other – they each have immense value. And that’s what is so refreshing about this book – both are equally essential. So Brian Selznick has produced a beautiful book with images that are utterly beguiling.
But it is far more than just a story in a beautiful form. It is about early creative dreams getting lost as a result of life’s brutalities – and whether or not they can be recaptured. Then there are curiosities and characters that keep one guessing all the way through. And as if that was not enough, the book unexpectedly opens a window on the early days of French cinema and the strange world of automata and magicians (about which I was totally ignorant). And so it is easy to see why Scorsese was so keen to film it. It is a directors’ dream – and I can’t wait to see what becomes of it on screen. My actor friend says that no expense has been spared in its realisation – recreating an entire station in a studio, with working steam engines and all.
Apparently, the BBC has received more positive feedback comments about the recent 4-part Nativity than any other broadcast in 2010.
And I’m not surprised at all. It was the best thing on at Christmas – and in fact all year. For the most surprising reasons.
If you’ve not listened to the extended interview with creator Tony Jordan, then you must – I did before watching any of the episodes and it certainly brought to life what he was seeking to do. (Alternatively, check out this interview in the Telegraph). What started out as a mickey-take evolved into the most theologically profound, provocative and moving piece of television I have seen in years. This was because he found himself swept up by the sheer drama of the narrative of the greatest story ever told. And he asked a dramatist’s (not a theologian’s, apologist’s or antagonist’s) questions of this all too familiar story. But he did it without iconoclasm or revisionism – he simply did it with a reverent curiosity.
As he says in the interview, it was hard to come up with 2 hours of television based on just a few lines of gospels’ text. Imagination was essential. But what was so stunning was that it never felt contrived. And I found myself reflecting on the theological significance of the drama all the more as the result.
Mary, as played by the wonderful Tatiana Maslany, is delightful, warm and loveable but never saccharine or goody-two-shoes. But most significantly, she’s just a girl. A teenager. And when Gabriel announces to her what God has in store for her, it’s hard not to imagine that God’s favour on her hardly seems a blessing to begin with.
Gabriel is in tears as he announces this news to her. Both, presumably, out of joy at what God is doing, but also deep sympathy at the great cost this will bring to Mary. For what Jordan’s screenplay does so powerfully is to show how isolated and vulnerable she was. A pregnant, unmarried but betrothed girl – whom nobody could possibly believe when she says she’s pregnant… by God. It’s highly plausible she’d be mobbed in the street as a whore. It’s highly plausible she’d be banned from Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem (it had never occurred to me before to ask why Joseph couldn’t find a room in his family town – Jordan’s speculation makes perfect sense). It’s highly plausible that the religious bigwigs in the Nazareth synagogue would shun her.
And worst of all, she has the agony of a man she has grown to love (despite being an arranged marriage) unable to believe her. Why should he believe her, after all? It is extraordinary that almost the first words we hear her say in the first episode is ‘Joseph, please don’t hate me‘. This is not highfalutin Authorised version language, thank goodness – but it is real, mundane, recognisable. People talk like this. Which is one reason this worked.
Her suffering will not cease of course. The birth of this child, Jesus, as well as the complexities of raising a family with all Jesus’ brothers and sisters, long after being widowed, will create all kinds of heartache – not to mention the agony of seeing Jesus executed a criminal’s death. How extraordinary that God should choose to use what appears the worst to do the greatest. For it seems that Mary had to become pregnant before her marriage – otherwise everyone would have immediately assumed it was Joseph’s. In God’s strange purposes it had to happen like this. For Mary to be most favoured by God meant having to endure the most terrible anguish. Which is a reflection of the suffering her son himself would endure. The path to glory truly is marked by pain.
Joseph’s Agony of Confusion
In many ways, though, the epicentre of The Nativity’s narrative arc is Joseph. He is the one who starts with an arranged marriage, albeit one that he seems keen to have. He is enchanted by Mary – their love is touching and not too Mills&Boon-ish – so his shock, disappointment and anger when she returns from Elizabeth are total. We have to wait for all four episodes to find out how he comes to terms with it all – we know of course that he will, but such is the dramatist’s art that we are nevertheless on the edge of our seats. Jordan speculates that Joseph is still in two minds even after his dream from Gabriel – perhaps a speculation too far. But it’s not a problem. For it merely conveys how counter-intuitive it all was. And he seems to need every nudge in the book to accept this really is a divine plan.
It is not until all the pieces of the puzzle all fall into place at the end that he can join hands with his wife-to-be in the wonder of it all. It is a breathtaking moment, one that we’ve been yearning for. But this creative tension is important and entirely legitimate. For it brilliantly conveys how hard it was for Joseph to go through with the marriage, precisely because he was a righteous man (cf Matthew 1:18-20).
The Power of A Divine Plan
The first time we see the planets moving (and stunningly beautiful it all is), with a sound effect rather resembling heavy machinery manoeuvring in a steelworks, it’s rather a shock. But this motif serves to illustrate the extraordinary forces at work – and consequently the juxtaposition of planets, stars, wise-men and shepherds converging on a cowshed seems all the more remarkable. It’s striking to see how the wise-men leave Babylon months before the child is born, and perhaps even before his conception has occurred – which reinforces the point still further. So how extraordinary to have such creative expertise serving a theological purpose.
And then when the magi appear, their language (in the mouth of Wycliffe himself!) is pure Johannine Christology. For while John doesn’t have a birth narrative, his is the most extensive and profound theological reflection on the incarnation. And to have these words spoken to a newborn in a cowshed made it even more strange. And strangeness is surely precisely what we need to recover, for all the Christmas schmaltz of ‘snow falling on snow’.
For by using a powerful creative imagination within the bounds of being thoroughly faithful to the structure, theology and essence of the texts, Jordan has made something that goes far beyond the likes of Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth or the Jesus Film. He has made the people and world into which God’s son come thoroughly recognisable and normal – which in turn has made the miracle of the Incarnation seem far more wonderful and… well… miraculous.
Who’d have thought it on BBC 1 prime time?
Sunday morning brought the not entirely straightforward prospect of starting our series on the life of Solomon from 1 Kings, and doing it on Remembrance Sunday. The passage (1 Kings 1-2) is certainly a tricky one – an account of ancient realpolitik with all kinds of court machinations and skullduggery.
But part of the challenge from the passage was simply the problem of OT narrative. There are many things we need to be aware of when tackling it, as well as a number of good books to help get into it. A good start is the classic Fee & Stuart How to read the bible for all its worth. But two things in particular struck me as requiring clarity. With OT history, we must:
- Remember to draw our own conclusions – the writers tend to offer minimal editorial comment, let alone divine comment. This is partly a matter of style; partly because of what is assumed. They assume that the Torah is known and the basis for interpretation of events. Therefore we are invited to apply what we know from that to what we read in the narrative. Of course, that is a problem in a biblically illiterate age such as our own, and so it is one of the reasons people are so quick to dismiss or condemn such narratives. The job of the teacher today then is in part to fill in those gaps, to explain the moral benchmarks we should be working with.
- Remember it’s grey and not always black and white – this follows on. We are not to assume that the protagonists can always claim the moral high ground. In fact, often they do terrible things which must, rightly, be condemned (e.g. raping a sister, fratricide, coups d’état etc etc). When it comes to human politics, there are always problematic decisions are at best somewhere on the sliding scale of shades of grey. And the Israelite monarchy is no exception, even at its best. In fact, the only king and ruler who can truly be said to make clear cut, black and white decisions, is Great David’s Greater Son, King Jesus.
These then provided a methodology for expounding these two big chapters. The two big ideas are relatively easy to dig out because of the repeated phrases, so these formed the two main sections of the talk.
- 1 Kings 1: one phrase is repeated 9 times (1:13, 1:17, 1:20, 1:24, 1:27, 1:30, 1:35, 1:46, 1:48), of which the first example is – “Surely Solomon your son shall be king after me, and he will sit on my throne“.
- 1 Kings 2: one phrase is repeated 4 times (2:12, 2:24, 2:45, 2:46), of which the last closes the chapter – “The kingdom was now firmly established in Solomon’s hands.”
The other problem with these chapters is the blizzard of names, unfamiliar to most. So I took that ultimate expression of Court Politics and rivalries, the game of chess, to illustrate it. So here is the outline:
Click here to download the talk.
Was in Istanbul last week doing some Langham training each evening. Which meant that I never got back to my B&B until quite late. Which also meant that I was able to pass some of the great sights after dark and when there were very few people around. Wonderful. Here are a few snaps.
- Top: Ataturk monument (Taksim Square); Blue Mosque exterior
- Bottom: Sultan Mausoleum (Hagia Sofia); Blue Mosque exterior
Most of the time i was in meetings – but I did have one free morning. So I was able to visit a couple of museums, the incomparable Istanbul Archaeological Museum and an Islamic Art Exhibition. Saw all kinds of things famous to those with an ancient historical bent. From the top:
- Statue of Shalmaneser III (Assyrian King, 858-824 BC); Bust of Augustus Caesar
- The Fountain of Life (in the Tiled Kiosk -Archaeological museum); Qu’ran calligraphy from AD1432 (Islamic Art exhibition)
It was just a few years ago. 1966 in fact. An Albanian (Vangjel Toçi) living in Durrës (the country’s largest port and site of the ancient Roman city of Dyrrachium), noticed that a fig tree in his garden had suddenly sunk a few feet into the ground. All very weird. Read more
Some good friends have been involved in this great project, a 30 minute documentary called The Jesus Accounts. Filmed in Istanbul and in the UK, it is designed to help those who are sceptical about the NT documents (especially those from a muslim background). It draws on the expertise of a number of excellent NT scholars. It helpfully explains the background to the spread of the first manuscripts, giving details of the creation of papyrus and vellum parchment. Real highlights include the John Rylands fragment in Manchester, and footage of St Catherine’s monastery at Sinai in Egypt, where the Codex Sinaiticus originated.
The production values are excellent and the content stimulating. It is thoroughly recommended. Here is a 90 second trailer to whet appetites.
It’s coming out soon, so click here to register interest in getting hold of it.