I’d heard good things of this book: Rowan Williams’ surprisingly readable appreciation of CS Lewis’ Narnia, The Lion’s World. It seemed appropriate to move on to this having relished Francis Spufford’s recreation of his childhood delight in Narnia. And there are loads of good things about it for he is simply seeking to be an exegete of Lewis’ creativity. I especially appreciated this comment on how the whole experiment works (and thus why it is inappropriate to squeeze details too much into an allegorical mould).
Every now and then a book comes along which demands serious attention. Ted Turnau’s Popologetics is just such a book. I should be up front at this stage and declare that he is a friend, so perhaps some will merely assume this is a question of mutual back-scratching. I can assure you it’s not (I’ve received no commissions… as yet). But still, this is a great book. For a whole range of reasons: it is very readable and lucid; it makes its case with wit and self-deprecating humour; it is a model of how to handle disagreement (theological and otherwise) with great grace and generosity; and it demonstrates extensive appreciation of the field and offers a rich mine of treasure to any reader. Read more
We’re back from a joyous couple of days in Oxford – including a happy return to the Museum of old Ashmole himself, stunningly redesigned and rebuilt. If you’re there before mid-Jan, check out the temporary exhibition of one my all time artistic heroes, Claude Lorrain.
But my purpose in posting today is a rather fun ad campaign around the streets of north Oxford. A pair of footprints… to begin with you’ve no idea what it’s on about. It could lead to a host of things. But like the best teaser campaigns, it works… you want to know more. Read more
The book that has occupied my thoughts for much of the summer is that almost hidden gem of the OT, the Book of Ruth. It was the focus of this year’s All Souls week away, and so my talks are issued as a free podcast. What blew me away is that of all the books in the OT, it is perhaps the most unrelentingly positive and inspiring. This is despite the fact that its dark historical and literary context was the Book of Judges, and that the suffering and vulnerability of 2 of the protagonists, Naomi and Ruth, were very real. Read more
It’s an ambiguous title. It can mean two very different things. Either I can’t stop myself (e.g.I have little self-control when it comes to resisting temptation, whatever that might be) or I can’t rescue myself (and I’m stuck). It seems to me that western culture is in denial about both. Control and autonomy are our post-Enlightenment mantras (in the name of personal freedom of course). And much to our frustration, neither are truly attainable. Read more
As Q regulars will know, Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book – The Art of Spiritual Reading is a favourite. As part of BibleFresh (the 400th Anniversary celebrations of the King James), we decided to devote the summer term’s studies for our Fellowship Groups to looking at passages inspired by the book. Each passage looks at how the Bible itself describes its impact on the believer’s life. 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
Having been dreaming, scheming and working on this little project for months with a couple of friends (the illustrious Tim Plyming and the multi-talented radio producer John Sugar), it is with great excitement that we can now announce the release of this new 30 minute radio-documentary style programme: Read more
While I think they are useful things, there is such a thing as too heavy a reliance on concordances. Too often people are far too quick to draw all kinds of conclusions about something on the flimsy basis of a few apparently parallel references. However, within certain parameters, they can really be helpful. As, I think, is the case here. Read more
Reductio ad absurdum: one of those nice little Latin phrases that comes in handy every now and then. It has a noble pedigree and describes an age-old form of argument designed to pick one’s opponent’s claims apart. It means ‘reduction to the absurd’, or ‘to the point of absurdity’. And it is definitely worth mastering. Read more
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been involved in a course considering precisely what the Bible is. In order to do this, we have had to examine what it means for God to reveal himself (if he is there, and if he does, that is). This was my overview of the different aspects of the claims for divine revelation.
There are a few key things that need a little unpacking:
- Incarnational revelation obviously takes supreme precedence over scriptural revelation – for all kinds of reasons. But I ran out of room on the slide! Otherwise, I would have found ways to show the difference.
- Scriptural revelation (with all its facets – eg reliability and sufficiency) entirely depends on inspiration for it to hold – hence its function on the diagram as a kind of bridge to the 5 facets
- Quite what status dreams and ‘words of knowledge‘ (etc) should have is clearly a controversial one – hence the question mark and the fence-sitting position that I’ve given them. I tend towards putting them in their own category of general revelation (hence the NT requirement to test and evaluate them – not something ever required of special revelation), following Jensen’s general line in The Revelation of God.
Another REALLY helpful place to turn on all this (though it is not the easiest of reads, unfortunately) is Tim Ward’s excellent 2009 book, Words of Life
After years of literary restraint – during which he has knuckled down with study, ministry and planting – Tim Keller now seems to be on a roll. Every 12 months or so, he produces a new distillation of some aspect of his teaching. And in some ways, the latest, King’s Cross, lies at the heart of it all. A portrait of Jesus – or as the subtitle has it, ‘The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus’.
Keller has always sought to get people into the text of the Bible. And in that aim, he is by no means alone. But at the same time, he tries to remain sensitive to cultural shifts and the complexities of individual personalities. Thus, he has always had an evangelistic edge. It is this combination of concerns (ie biblical exposition, cultural appreciation/analysis, popular psychology and Christian apologetics) that has made him such a unique and powerful voice in the contemporary scene. It is not (entirely) hyperbolic for Newsweek to dub him ‘The C S Lewis of the 21st Century‘. So having covered different ground around the ministry in his previous books (see below), this book perhaps most closely reflects his weekly preaching ministry. It is a journey through one book of the Bible (Mark’s gospel), full of reflections and insights from the surrounding territory en route.
Thrilling news drawn from an old friend
I enjoyed reading King’s Cross immensely – it had me underlining, reflecting, muttering ‘aha’ and pausing for thought with the best of them. But them I’m definitely a Keller fan – I always find so much to learn and be stretched by in his writing. He is refreshingly circumspect, avoids being shrill (unlike some of the other contemporary, transatlantic Christian gurus we shan’t name) and has a breadth of reading that clearly proves he’s not living in some fundie ghetto. What’s more, any book that seeks to draw water from the biblical text, but do it in a lively and contemporary way, will always be a winner for me. I’ve preached through the whole of Mark’s gospel once, and drawn from it many times. Furthermore, for the 4 years we were in Kampala, I taught an annual lecture course on Mark. So the book is like a dear old friend – which made discovering fresh and interesting takes on familiar texts in King’s Cross all the more of a thrill.
And if there is a phrase to sum up this take, it is this one:
The essence of other religions is advice; Christianity is essentially news. (p15)
That is spot on – and characteristically, brilliantly put. What’s more, it perfectly does justice to Mark’s one-line intro to his whole book: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1) And there are many other great lines throughout which help nail the general points. Here are a few that stood out for me:
- If this world was made by a triune God, relationships of love are what life is really all about. (p9)
- Jesus claimed to be able to forgive sins, and the religious leaders called that blasphemy. But Jesus goes on to make a claim so outrageous that leaders don’t have a word for it. Jesus declares not that he has come to reform religion but that he’s here to end religion and to replace it with himself. (p37)
- In Western cosmopolitan culture there’s an enormous amount of self-righteousness about self-righteousness. We progressive urbanites are so much better than people who think they’re better than other people. We disdain those moralistic types who look down on others. Do you see the irony, how the way of self-discovery leads to as much superiority and self-righteousness as religion does? (p46)
- Why in the world would the sacrifice of a woolly little quadruped exempt you from justice? (p164)
- The problem is that if you want a loving God, you have to have an angry God. Please think about it. Loving people can get angry, not in spite of their love, but because of it. (p176)
- Often what seem to be our deepest desires are really just our loudest desires. (p180)
- The resurrection was as inconceivable for the first disciples, as impossible for them to believe, as it is for many of us today. (p216)
And there’s much more where this came from. I found his insights and connections very refreshing – eg the really helpful contrasting of Jesus’ calming of the storm with the experience of the prophet Jonah (p57), or his explanation of the importance of what he calls ‘the mealness’ of the Last Supper (p170f). It was also good to be reminded of a classic Dick Lucas illustration (p48).
So this is a book to heartily recommend. Especially because it creates an appetite for knowing more about Mark’s gospel – and more importantly, offers a powerful exposure to the sheer magnetism of Jesus himself.
Pedantic quibbles offered by a friend
And yet… and yet… I couldn’t help feeling from time to time that the great strengths of Keller’s range and passions had its flip-sides. This is a book that is essentially the transcripts of talks, on which two of his colleagues, Scott Kauffmann and Sam Shammas, clearly worked hard to transform into a more literary style. They do succeed – but of all Keller’s books, this feels the least like a constructed argument or consolidated whole. But that’s fair enough, I guess, if we appreciate what the starting point was.
It’s just that I’m not quite sure what the book is aiming to be nor who it is always for. It is bigger than many straight evangelistic books (it would require a dedicated inquirer to work through it – but they would do so with great benefit) – I would encourage people to start with one of his other recent books. But it is much shorter than a full study of Mark. A book this size could never be a comprehensive exposition of Mark (and, to be fair, nor does it ever pretend to be). We can only be taken to some of the key moments in the narrative; but even when we are, the pace is relentless. Huge chunks of biblical text are pasted in, on which it’s only possible to make some passing comments at best. This is always readable, of course. And full of pertinent comments. So it is valuable. But frustrating because I kept feeling i wanted to hear more from both Mark and his preacher!
Then if Keller’s commentary is more extended, it is usually not about the text as much as it is on wider, and nearly always fascinating, cultural phenomena or challenges. This what gives the book it’s great apologetic power. But it is not always nuanced by the finer details of the gospel narrative – which leads to some missed tricks. For example, in his treatment of Mk 1:35-38 (p26ff), we don’t have time for perhaps the key surprise – Jesus’ determination to leave for another area despite the crowds desperate for healing ‘so I can preach there also. That is why I have come‘. Which is then, curiously enough, immediately followed by a unique healing (the man lowered through the roof). My hunch is that a bit more textual detail such as this might have lent itself even more powerfully the precisely the points being made. It might also have helped to avoid one or two surprising lapses into what Carson calls ‘root fallacies’ in his Exegetical Fallacies (eg picking up derivations of ‘dynamite‘ (p61) and ‘psychology‘ (p104)).
Which brings me to my main, albeit pedantic, concern. For at points, I felt the text was primarily a springboard into something else: whether it be an explanation of some systematic theology (eg Jesus’ baptism is a launchpad into a helpful, but not exactly Markan, apologetic for the Trinity) or apologetics (eg some of the strongest sections are those that relate to the equivalent sections in his previous books, such as his explanations of human sin (ch8) and divine justice (ch9).) It’s all good stuff – but it’s not always expository. There are times when it feels that we’re sitting at the feet of the great Christian fiction-writers like C S Lewis and Tolkein as much as Mark the Evangelist (and that is not necessarily wrong!). Just as long as we appreciate that this is what we have, that’s fine and enjoyable. But it’s not always a model to follow, nor necessarily a model that’s possible to follow (simply because most of us don’t have breadth of Keller’s learning).
Now, it is by no means false modesty when I say that I’m by far Keller’s junior when it comes to preaching and pastoral experience, intellectual grasp and insight. And precious few preachers can bear the scrutiny of a pedant’s nitpicking. I certainly couldn’t. The range and depth of these talks are remarkable and do hold up. So as I say, this is a book hugely to profit from – and I’d always encourage people to read it. I’m merely offering the quibbles of a mildly frustrated friend rather than the critical assault of a hostile sceptic!
So Tolle, Lege! It’s worth it. (And if you’re reading this before 22.3.11, use the code in the box above to get a discount at 10ofthose.com)
The next in the Keller line
As mentioned above, King’s Cross comes as the latest in a number of books published in recent years. Each makes a unique contribution. If I can hazard an overview of them, it might go something like this. The book’s subtitles are revealing in themselves.
- The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Scepticism (2008) Constantly open to questions, this is an overview of Keller’s responses to the big ones – contemporary apologetics for a metropolitan educated world – and very effective it is too.
- The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (2009) This articulates the key gospel insight to which Keller constantly returns: the notion that the Prodigal Son parable is a template for how we relate to God. It is most striking for helping us to see the need to speak into 3 situations: The Religious, The Rebellious and The Redeemed.
- Counterfeit Gods: When the Empty Promises of Love, Money, and Power Let You Down (2009) In this book, Keller unpacks why there is a need for the gospel in the first place – both for the unbeliever and the believer alike. A more trenchant and persuasive articulation of contemporary idolatry it is not possible to find.
- Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (2010) Some years back, Keller wrote Ministries of Mercy, and in some ways this is an updating of that book – a key explanation for why mercy ministry (for want of a better term) lies at the forefront of the work of Manhattan’s Redeemer church. It is a clarion call for believers to love the city.
This is building into a very valuable and positive library. And i’m looking forward immensely to see what comes next… I’d love him to produce something on a theology of the creative arts…
Hebrews 3 has always held a fascination for me because of the way that the writer skillfully weaves 3 or even four (if you assume he had future generations like ours in mind) together to understand the way God speaks. So it was great to get the chance to delve a little deeper in my prep for our BibleFresh sunday at the weekend. It is one of those striking passages where the tense of one word profoundly shapes our understanding of a whole chapter.
And in this case it is the tense of the word “says” (3:7 – λεγει). As the English translation correctly has it, it is present tense – despite the fact that the writer immediately goes on to quote an ancient psalm, which is itself a reflection on an ancient event. It thus offers a template for how God speaks through ancient texts… and is therefore quite an significant passage for a whole host of reasons…
Anyway, here’s the talk and my overview of the passage’s levels:
As part of our BibleFresh events, I put this little presentation together to gather thoughts from Psalm 119.
This one was a sweat, if I’m honest. But last sunday, we recommenced our Galatians series after a 2 month break (the result of that little inconvenience alternatively known as Christmas and New Year). And the passage felt a bit like a minefield because it includes Paul’s notorious figurative use of the 2 families descended from Abraham. I think too many come down far too hard on Paul’s OT handling here – for he is completely open about what he is doing and his points made are entirely valid.
It struck me forcibly again that, in his disputes with the Judaizers, the key issue is the relationship between Abraham and Moses. It was only after I started to build a passage summary table (below) that the full shock of Paul’s shocking (and even apparently mistaken) inclusion of Mount Sinai in the ‘red’ Hagar column became apparent. If Moses is a biological descendent of Sarah & Isaac’s line (which he was), the God-ordained leader of God’s people (which he was), and he received the God-given law on Mt Sinai (which he did), then surely Sinai should be in the green column.
But this is Paul’s point – being a child of Abraham depends not on bloodline and being descended by race (and figuratively, by depending on law); it depends on trusting God (having faith) and being dependent on grace (and thus figuratively, depending on promise). As he says earlier in the letter:
Consider Abraham: “He believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then that those who believe are children of Abraham. (Gal 3:6, quoting Genesis 15:6)
Anyway – here is the talk, such as it is. I was certainly glad to have it over with! Am posting the table because a number of people asked for it after seeing it on Sunday. Hope it’s of use to a few.
Our small groups are studying the book of Hosea this term and so last week I had the job of giving an overview and providing background for it.
In my prep, I was particularly struck by the effect of reading the relevant chapters of 2 Kings (ch 13-17) alongside Hosea, because these give the historian’s verdict on each of the Israelite kings who were Hosea’s contemporaries. I also found it very helpful having preached on the life of Solomon last term (see post last Dec) because that puts everything into perspective.
You can download the talk here (you may have to get a free login to get it – and beware – the sound quality is pretty rubbish for some reason). Here is the accompanying handout and talk outline.
Following up last Friday’s post on Eugene Peterson and the King James Bible, my colleague Roger Salisbury reminded me of the ethos that lay behind J B Phillips‘ pioneering modern English translation of the New Testament. He started it during the Second World War, culminating in the publication of the New Testament in Modern English in 1958. It’s hard to imagine nowadays (what with the plethora of English translations – an embarrassment of riches to be sure) – but then the King James ruled supreme (although it was beginning to face challenges from the American Standard and Revised Standard versions).
So in the light of what Peterson said about his translation The Message, it’s fascinating to see Phillips’ own thoughts. This is the preface to the Pocket Edition of his NT in Modern English, published in 1960, quoted in full:
For some time I have been working on further revisions to The New Testament in Modern English and all these have now been embodied in the following text. They are mainly concerned with the Epistles (“Letters to Young Churches”), which I first translated fifteen years ago. I have since been able to make use of the latest and most accurate Greek text. I have also had access to works of critical scholarship which were not available to me in the immediate post-war years.
During my work on these revisions I have come to realise more than ever the strength of view I have held for many years. It is not enough simply to replace outmoded words with their modern equivalents; the result is liable to be a strange and unlovely hybrid language. We must be much more fundamental than that. We have to go right back to the comparatively workaday Greek of the New Testament documents themselves and translate them afresh, not into slang, but into vigorous contemporary English. It has never been my object to denigrate the majesty and beauty of the Authorised Version, which is indeed incomparable. I have rather sought to rescue tremendous and inspiring truths from what is sometimes a familiar prison of traditional beauty.
Fifteen years have proved to me that this is an exceedingly difficult task. I do not myself believe that there is any such thing as ‘timeless English’,a nd the very best that a translator can do is to make the message and burden of what he translates urgent and contemporary to his own generation. And in attempting to do this I have of course had far more information and scholarship available to me than the translators of 1611 ever possessed.
Once more I should like to thank the many people all over the world who have been kind enough to write suggesting emendations. Even if I have not always felt able to accept all of them, they have been most helpful to me in my work of revision.
J.B.P. (Swanage, December 1960)
The whole text of Phillips’ translation is online here…
The Word is God
One of the most intriguing developments has been the way that the media has taken up the cause – Radio 4 had a day of readings last Sunday with famous actors doing their bit (you can get them as a podcast here). And then Shakespeare’s Globe is going to have cover-to-cover readings of the KJV over the Easter weekend. And this is all great. The word will go out and not return empty, whoever reads it and for whatever purpose.
But as I pointed out in my thought at our Prayer Gathering on Tuesday, all is not exactly as it might seem. Initially, I was quite impressed that the Globe’s effort is called ‘The Word is God‘. But then you realise that, in fact, their whole season carries that banner – and it is a season that also includes Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Much Ado etc, Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, and Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn. It’s a clever punning title. For it is not actually claiming these words have inspiration in the theological sense. Merely that there is a profound glory to the language. It seems that it is following the old Romantic notions of extolling the power of language, and indeed all human creativity, to lift us to some higher place. So in fact, it’s arguable that the season’s title is making language (even the language of a famous biblical translation) into some sort of idol.
But this reflects the argument given by the BBC and others for giving what the National Secular Society whinges as ‘unfair religious privilege’. The defence is the language. The beauty and influence of the language. And that’s it. And fair enough at one level. There is something genuinely wonderful about Elizabethan and Jacobean English.
And so, while we have reasons to cheer at the 400th celebrations, we mustn’t get carried away. I was very struck by Wycliffe Bible Translators boss Eddie Arthur (on his Kouya Chronicle) pointing out a number of what he calls Authorised Myths (part 1 here and a follow up here). Here he clarifies a few misconceptions about the King James. Most notable amongst a number of really helpful points are these:
- it is not the first translation into English
- it is not necessarily the best (ie most accurate) translation
- it is not necessarily the most culturally valuable translation
- english speakers are not necessarily as important as we like to think we are.
Now be clear – this is not to devalue the KJV or to underestimate the influence it most certainly has had – it is merely to put it into some sort of perspective. For if the Bible is truly living and active and a double edged sword, then it doesn’t necessarily matter what translation one uses, as long as it is faithful and readable.
So it was very refreshing to hear Rhidian Brook bringing some sense to the airwaves in his Radio 4 Thought for the Day. It’s worth listening to in full (it’s only about 90 seconds). But here’s an excerpt:
We need to be careful that by paying homage to the literary excellence and influence of The King James Bible we don’t become like the Pharisees, getting lost in the wordy woods and missing the tree altogether. Like the little girl who, after being read the story of the feeding of the five thousand, asked if is was true and her Father said “perhaps, but don’t you think it’s a nice story?” To which she replied: “Yes, but it’s a much better story if it’s true.”
Throughout the last few weeks, I’ve kept on being reminded of something Eugene Peterson wrote five years ago in his excellent Eat This Book. In his chapter explaining his philosophy behind his contemporary version, The Message, he notes:
But despite and in contrast to the pioneering and language-renewing colloquial translations of Luther in German and Tyndale in English, the King James translation with its smooth, majestic sonorities – an English least representative of the kind of language in which the Bible was first spoken and heart and written – continues after nearly four hundred years to be the most frequently purchased and widely distributed translation in the English-speaking world. The King James translators used Tyndale’s text as their baseline, taking over approximately three-quarters of its essentially unchanged. But what they did with that plagiarized text amounted to a violation of it – they put lace cuffs on Tyndale’s sentences. To use my earlier phrase, they ‘desecrated upward.’ They skillfully and thoroughly shifted the tone of the language from the roughness of Tyndale’s plowboy to the smooth speech of the royal court. Most of the translators, after all, were part of the ‘old boy’ network of King James, many of them bishops who lived in a comfortable and protected life among the elite of the age. Adam Nicholson, author of a thorough study of the King James translators and an extravagant of their work, is also explicit that
the King James Bible… is not the English you would have heard on the street, then or ever… These scholars were not putting the language of the scriptures into the English they knew and used at home. The words of the King James Bible are just as much English pushed towards the condition of a foreign language as a foreign language translated into English. It was, in other words, more important to make English godly than to make the words of God into the sort of prose that any Englishman would have written… Tyndale had produced a simple and plain man’s translation to be slapped in the face of the medieval church and its power-protective elite… [He was] looking for immediacy and clarity in scripture which would shake off the thick and heavy layers of medieval scholasticism and centuries of accumulated dust.
Eat This Book, (p161-162) – my emphasis
Now I’m not wanting to be churlish. 2011 presents us with many many opportunities. BibleFresh is a fantastic initiative – and we are doing a whole series of things throughout the year to make the most of it at All Souls. But let’s be realistic – thankful for what we should rightly be thankful for, and discerning about what we should be discerning about.