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.
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?
We came to the end of a series on the life of Solomon on Sunday morning and I had the dubious honour of handling the last bit. It struck me that Solomon’s fall is one of the strangest and most alarming episodes in Israel’s history. Think of all that Solomon was and did:
- Chosen to be David’s anointed successor – over and above his older brothers (1Ki 1-2)
- Offered anything he wants from God (1Ki 3:5) – he asks for the greatest thing: wisdom, with the result that all other blessings were given him.
- Commissioned by God to build the temple, something his father wasn’t allowed to do (1Ki 6)
- Visited by the Queen of Sheba (1Ki 10) who is wowed by everything she witnesses… And gives credit where credit is due
Praise be to the LORD your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the LORD’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king, to maintain justice and righteousness. (1Ki 10:9)
This was the Mount Everest of the Bible – things never got better. In fact, things went dramatically downhill after this. In large part because things went dramatically downhill for Solomon. In fact, despite only seeing the king’s dark side in 1Kings 11, the passage for Sunday, the seeds were there for years.
- Overwhelming opulence – the catalogue of his wealth (esp 1Ki 10:14-29) is positively obscene.
- The Hugh Hefner of the ancient world? He had 1000 women in his official entourage – who knows how many ‘unofficial’ women there were.
But no doubt some contemporaries saw this as merely an ancient expression of divine blessing and national prestige.
The thing that haunts me is how on earth the man who sought God’s wisdom became such a fool. I’ve not been able to stop thinking about this since Sunday, and it strikes me that a couple of things are crucial – and very important lessons for us
- A Drifting Heart: throughout his work, the writer of 1 & 2 Kings is seeking to explain first the nation’s split (after Solomon died) and then ultimately how the 2 Israelite kingdoms ended up in destruction and exile. One of his key interpretative grids is formed by Deuteronomy 17‘s instructions for the king. And a central instruction is for the king to protect his heart. Notice how often we’re told in 1Ki11 that Solomon’s heart was affected: went astray (v3), turned and not fully devoted (v4), turned away (v9) – in contrast to his father David (v6). Ever so subtle, perhaps, but lethal nonetheless.
- An Unaccountable Authority: but there is another contrast with David, even more scary. Where were the Nathans in Solomon’s court, the prophets who would speak truth to power. David wasn’t perfect by any stretch. But he had faithful people who stepped up to challenge him, no doubt with knees knocking. And David turned back. There’s no record of anyone doing that. Perhaps some tried – there’s a hint that some might have done in v2, but the king was defiant and unassailable.
Woe to those of us who don’t watch their hearts, and who allow no one to question or challenge them. For the heart is deceitful above all things.
Some have asked for the C S Lewis quote that I used on Sunday, so here it is:
Every time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And, taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a Heaven creature or into a hellish creature — either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures and with itself.
To be the one kind of creature is Heaven: that is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other. (Mere Christianity, pp86-87)
To some (especially Canadians), this is sacrilege. And I’ve definitely got issues about tampering with genius (as I hope you have). Christians especially waste far too much time aping the world’s creativity and consequently only produce derivative pap. I particularly struggle with the tendency to add holy words to populist melodies (eg the Eastenders or Match of the Day signature tunes). Grghghh.
However, every now and then something surprises. Leonard Cohen’s titanic Hallelujah should by rights be left totally alone (especially by Simon Cowell). And it does deal with some pretty interesting themes – David & Bathsheba, Samson & Delilah. They’re even biblical, after all.
But one of this year’s apprentices working with the youth at All Souls, Rhys Owens, came up with his own rewrite to tell the gospel story, a kind of contemporary Philippians 2. We had a fantastic time on Sunday at our All-Age Christmas service, which had the theme of Christmas Around the World. Accompanied by an all-age band, we sang or heard songs in Malay, German & Slovak, Luganda and Zulu as well as English, had readings in English and Mandarin, and Christmas greetings in the above languages plus Spanish, Russian and Welsh. But a highlight was Rhys singing his Hallelujah (photo above). It was a brilliant job – impressive for 9.30 in the morning.
Particularly powerful was the way Rhys clearly sensed the song’s musical progression, managing to match his words and themes to the effortless crescendos and dynamics of the music (the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, and the major lift). Sing it and you’ll get the idea…
It won’t be to everyone’s taste, of course. But that’s irrelevant. I give it 10/10 for effort and effectiveness.
For those who’ve not discovered her stuff, my sis-in-law, Miriam Jones‘ latest album (Fire-Lives) is a treat and a great way in to her music. Have listened to it loads in the last couple of weeks but it now comes out on general release this week – she and Jez and the guys have done a fabulous job on producing an intense, multi-layered and fascinating anthology. This album sampler hints at its joys…
But the single, Wondrous Mysterious (now available from iTunes), is one she gave last year as a ‘Christmas card’. I’ve loved it from the get-go – it’s a superb antidote to the grimly commercialised, schmaltzy, trimmings-laden but emasculated Christmas that we get bombarded with from around August 23rd.
I turned on the tv and it suddenly was Christmas and I hollered at the advert that they wouldn’t get my money and I could not believe they honestly were trying to take my heart for Christmas. The airwaves jammed with snowmen and with santa claus and angels, and I do believe in angels, but not the kind that do not scare you and I prayed some kind of holy fear would find its way to me this Christmas.
‘Cause my heart is dying to prepare for something wondrous, and mysterious, but this world is ringing in my ears and it’s thunderous and delirious.
I walked into town and it was red and gold and sparkling and while I waited for my watch I hovered round the shiny shops, oh you who have no money come and buy, and fill your hearts full up this Christmas. Steering down the sidewalk I could hear a conversation ‘bout a boy who had a head they’d like to push under a faucet and I wondered are we saving up all our loving hearts for Christmas.
Part way through December I pulled out the wooden figures from their boxes and I placed them and I looked into their faces, wondering what they all were looking at…
The lyrics are evocative and concise, full of suggestion. But my standout that I particularly love is line about not believing in ‘the kind of angels that do not scare you‘. A hole in one methinks…
Have managed to get round to reading Carson’s 2010 book Scandalous – to great profit and provocation. Will get round to fuller comments in due course. But for now, I was very struck by this section, in which he ponders the significance of some historical revisionism in James Cameron’s film Titanic. In expounding the divine love that is the foundation of the gospel, he says this:
It was not nails that held Jesus to that wretched cross; it was his unqualified resolution, out of love for his Father, to do his Father’s will – and within that framework, it was his love for sinners like me. He really could not save himself.
Perhaps part of our slowness to come to grips with this truth lies in the way the notion of moral imperative has dissipated in much recent Western thought. Did you see the film Titanic that was screened about a dozen years ago? The great ship is full of the richest people in the world, and, according to the film, as the ship sinks, the rich men start to scramble for the few and inadequate lifeboats. British sailors draw handguns and fire into the air, crying “stand back! Stand back! Women and children first!” In reality, of course, nothing like that happened.
The universal testimony of the witnesses who survived the disaster is that the men hung back and urged the women and children into the lifeboats. John Jacob Astor, was there, at the time the richest man on earth, the Bill Gates of 1912. He dragged his wife to a boat, shoved her on, and stepped back. Someone urged him to get in, too. He refused: the boats are to few, and must be for the women and children first. He stepped back, and drowned. The philanthropist Benjamin Guggenheim was present. He was traveling with his mistress, but when he perceived that it was unlikely he would survive, he told one of his servants, ‘Tell my wife tha Benjamin Guggenheim knows his duty” – and he hung back, and drowned. There is not a single report of some rich man displacing women and children in the mad rush for survival.
When the film was reviewed in the New York Times, the reviewer asked why the producer and director of the film had distorted history so flagrantly in this regard. The scene as they depicted it was implausible from the beginning. British sailors drawing handguns? Most British police officers do not carry handguns; British sailors certainly do not. So why this wilful distortion of history? And then the reviewer answered his own question: if the producer and director had told the truth, he said, no one would have believed them.
I have seldom read a more damning indictment of the development of Western culture, especially Anglo-Saxon culture, in the last century. One hundred years ago, there remained in our culture enough residue of the Christian virtue of self-sacrifice for the sake of others, of the moral imperative that seeks the other’s good at personal expense, that Christians and non-Christians alike thought it noble, if unremarkable, to choose death for the sake of others. A mere century later, such a course is judged so unbelievable that the history is distorted. (pp30-31)
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.
One of my big tasks every summer is to do the talks for our church week away, usually all from one book. It’s a challenge, but one that is a joy because it is the only real opportunity for getting stuck into one book of the Bible. This year the focus was John’s gospel. One of the problems with the gospels is our over-familiarity. So to give it all a bit of a different spin, I took John’s bookends (his prologue (John 1:1-18) and closing summary statement (20:30-31) as our base of operations), with a view to seeing how they point to the book’s big themes.
Here is the outline of the talks
- The Beginning: THE WORD OF LIFE (John 1:1-18)
- The Revelation: SIGNS OF GOD (John 8:31-59)
- The Gospel: LOVE FOR THE UNLOVELY (John 3:1-21)
- The Battle: LIGHT vs DARKNESS (John 9)
- The Family: LIFE ON THE VINE (John 13:1-17)
- The Privilege: TRUST & LIVE – ALL-AGE TALK (John 20:24-31)
- Seminar: CAN WE TRUST JOHN’S GOSPEL?
In case it is of interest and use, there are various means for getting hold of some of this material. The talks are available as an iTunes podcast (click on the image). If you don’t have iTunes, you can get hold of them thru Jellycast.
Handouts are available for download from Scribd.
For those who prefer the printed word, here are the transcripts:
Some time back, I was asked by the guys at ELF to write a brief paper on the continued relevance of scriptural authority for these crazy days. So here it is – now available on Theology Network, where it can be downloaded as a pdf.
- Having mentioned last month that a chapter from Don Carson’s new book The God Who Is There is available online, it now transpires that you can download the 14 original talks on which the book is based (each is an hour – accompanied by a 10 min video preview).
- I’ve loved the recent BBC series REV. – and here’s a great, all too brief, interview with James Wood, co-creator with Tom Hollander of the series, on Ship of Fools.
- Paxman issues national appeal: Read the classics and the bible!
- The lengths to go to translate the bible! A very old friend of ours is an MAF pilot in Uganda – check out this Sudanese ‘international airport’ that he had to land at the other day.
- I’d not spotted this until the other day – the Telegraph has produced an interactive timeline of the House of Commons from 1885 to the present day. Really interesting – especially to see how many Irish Nationalist/Sinn Fein members there were in the years before Irish partition.
- The power of philanthropic billionaires in The Giving Pledge. Remarkable (HT Simple Pastor)
- Now I want one of these… draw a straight line every time.
- Well, here’s a thing. In the west, for every text sent by adults, teenage boys send 3 and teenage girls send 10! So no surprises there, I guess
- I’ve no intention of seeing the movie – but i quite enjoyed this:
Following yesterday’s review of Remaking A Broken World, those lovely chaps at 10ofThose have offered a once in a life time offer (well, for the time being, anyway)
£2 off the price – for 1 week only – and what’s more it’s already discounted.
Too good to miss
Make sure you add in promotional code: meynell200
Some years ago, I found myself in the middle of an awkward, and at bizarre moments heated, discussion. It was all to do with how one understands scriptural unity, and what the best way to articulate and summarise that unity. In other words, what’s the best way to do a bible overview? One side suggesting it didn’t really matter; the other side was strongly advocating that the only way was to follow the Graeme Goldsworthy Kingdom model (as articulated in his Gospel & Kingdom trilogy and According to Plan amongst others). I found myself more or less disagreeing with both, for different reasons. Read more
In early 2009, the then poet laureate, Andrew Motion gave an interview in the Guardian in which he lamented the pervasive ignorance about the Bible. He made it quite clear that he is not a believer; he is merely concerned about biblical illiteracy for cultural reasons. For such ignorance effectively closes the shutters on swathes of English literature, not to mention generations of western creativity. Consequently he calls on schools to teach the Bible with far greater rigour. That this is needed is not in doubt (as CODEC’s recent research in Durham demonstrates). Maggi Dawn’s new book, The Writing on the Wall, is one positive and timely response to this need, coming as it does in time for next year’s 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.
Maggi is both an accomplished professional musician and theologian – and she’s now a Cambridge college chaplain. As a result, she is eminently qualified to write a book designed to introduce people to the biblical moorings and roots of western culture. As she says in the preface, it comes as the result of undergraduates knocking on her door to ask about various biblical allusions. Her aim is thus to offer an all-too-brief introduction to the bible’s impact. This is clearly ambitious! After all, how on earth do you justice in 240 pages (with nicely spaced text) to a complex and ancient anthology (with 1500 double-columned and densely spaced pages)? And that’s before you even begin to think about 2000 years of cultural influences and trends. But she makes a really good stab at it – readable, informative, and, occasionally very illuminating. She covers the ground succinctly, from Genesis to Revelation, focusing a few pages on each major development or biblical genre. Inevitably, it is uneven in its treatment and the decisions on what to focus on will have been relatively subjective.
Pearls before swine?!
But it is important to recognise that this is no one-volume commentary, nor a comprehensive history of interpretation. Nor is it a history of western art and culture. Instead, it is in the business of making connections and touching on allusions, in everything from medieval frescoes to Led Zeppelin, via Jonathan Swift and Wilfred Owen, Rembrandt and Banksy, Handel’s Messiah & Daniel Lanois, and The Shawshank Redemption and CS Lewis’ Narnia. If anything, it felt as if there was more high art than popular culture, not that this mattered particularly. It would be interesting to know, however, whether or not that was as much a reflection of Maggi’s interests as of a declining influence of the Bible.
Because it is aimed at biblical novice, it is excellent that the various scriptural passages are quoted in full, and sometimes at length. People do then actually read the texts themselves. And because the precise phrasing of early English versions (such as Tyndale’s, Coverdale’s or the King James) is what Shakespeare (for example) alludes to, she helpfully places them side by side relevant passages. So as a provocation for getting people to read the BIble for themselves, this book is a useful resource.
There were many pearls, too:
- I’d no idea, for instance, about the suffragette origins of Hubert Parry’s setting of Blake’s Jerusalem (and remember singing it lustily, but obliviously, in the last chapel of every term at my straight-laced all-boys school!) (p238). The irony is rather delicious!
- It was also very moving to read of John Coltrane’s appropriation of Nunc Dimittis (p163) and heart-breaking to reflect on the misappropriation of Mary Magdalene’s name in the so-called Magdalene laundries (p191).
- It was good to find a fellow-enthusiast of van Gogh’s colours (p183) which I’ve raved about before,
- and to discover the patristic origins of the common misconception of there being 3 kings visiting the infant Christ (rather than an unspecified number of astrologers) (p159).
So for all these and many other reasons, this is a very enjoyable book indeed.
Any quibbles, I suspect, derive from Maggi’s sheer ambition with the book. I felt that there were moments when the lines between literary context, textual interpretation, and subsequent artists’ creative licence got blurred. For instance, in a fascinating, extended section on Handel’s Messiah, one could be forgiven for concluding that the notion of Jesus’ royal identity was contrived by the librettist Charles Jennens to suit his controversial non-juror political views (p138). Of course, I’m sure that’s not what is intended – messianic expectation is consistent in the OT and Jesus’ Davidic credentials is a pervasive NT motif. Monarchy is not just Jennens’ preoccupation (intriguing though it was to learn about his views) but the Bible’s too. And one might expect an entire work called Messiah to have such a royal preoccupation!
Secondly, because the book is aimed at the uninitiated, I felt that there was a bit of an opportunity missed to offer a theological framework for the actual nature of the Bible. I know space, readability and trade descriptions are all issues here. But what is it that holds the controversial and difficult elements together with the more beloved and comforting aspects? Is there an overarching, binding narrative? And how does that affect the way the Bible itself treats previous texts? Furthermore, there is a tendency to accepting a more historically sceptical view, especially of the OT (although there were exceptions such as the sections on the Genesis flood (p39) and the fall of Jericho (p75)). Compounded with the sometimes anthropocentric handling of stories (I was mildly surprised to see the story of David & Bathsheba without mentioning God or the courageous intervention of Nathan (p96)), one could be forgiven for concluding that the Bible is merely a collection of stories and responses to the human search for the divine. For there is enough within the texts themselves that has caused believers for millennia to see that there is more to these writings than that. Such an approach is perhaps the reason for some of the hardest aspects of the Bible being avoided – the section on eschatology at the end was notable for not having any bible texts quoted but dismissed as a result of the so-called “kinder theology” of F D Maurice (p233). This was a shame because the handling of the similarly tough Egyptian Plagues earlier was sensitive to their appropriation by victims of injustice like the African-American slaves (p70). Working as I do now with many who were, or are, victims of religious persecution, I’m not sure they would be as quick to define the dismissal of future justice as ‘kinder’.
A guide for further discoveries
Having said all this, though, these do not undermine the value of the book – especially because it is arguable that they go beyond its inevitably limited scope. I enjoyed and learned a great deal from The Writing on the Wall. I found myself regularly underlining and making notes of things to follow up. I guess for those who are familiar with the Bible, this will be a useful guide to extra-biblical paths not yet travelled. And for those familiar with western culture, vice versa! It was a huge shame (and perhaps frustration to Maggi herself) that it wasn’t lavishly illustrated (I guess copyright nightmares made that prohibitive) – and I didn’t always have the patience to look up things she discussed. But I have started working through a few of the pieces that I didn’t previously know. (For those interested in going even further, below are one or two other more specific sources that some might want to use). As a readable introduction, this is a really helpful addition to any bookshelf (and even more so when it comes out in paperback!). It takes us on a thrilling cultural adventure.
It is one of the easiest things in the world: making a parent feel guilty. Well this one, at any rate. There’s always something one’s done wrong, or haven’t done, or overdone or underdone. And the myriad numbers of books that remind / correct / reevaluate / deconstruct parenting methods is overwhelming. I’m not sure where he got this from, but my boss Hugh was speaking on a parenting course at All Souls last month, and he mentioned that 75,000 books on parenting have been published in the last 10 years!! Yikes.
I’ve certainly not read that many. I’ve in fact only read a handful – but most of the time, my experience has been the same: a sense of guilty failure. And too often, I’m actually talking about those written from a Christian perspective.
So I picked up Nicky & Sila Lee’s with a small sense of foreboding. And I have to say I was slightly put off by the rather grandiose title (‘The’ Parenting Book??) & Nicky Gumbel’s somewhat overblown preface. But I suppose that’s all part of the marketing strategy. Still, once I started the book proper, I was gripped – throughout all 500 pages of it – and hugely encouraged. It was full of things that we could start doing or do differently – and every now and then, I found that we were sort of on the right lines already.
Why every parent should read it
There are a number of aspects of the book that make it so good:
- They are not afraid to acknowledge their own mistakes – nor to allow their 4 children (now all grown-up) to mention their own frustrations and regrets about how they were parented (as well as the joys). They come across as thoroughly human and down-to-earth. As does the whole book. This was very refreshing.
- They have gathered ideas and principles from a wide range of research, at the level of both popular pastoral books and some more in-depth psychological stuff (more often than not gleaned from newspaper articles – I would imagine their clippings files are bulging). But this is worn lightly – and nearly always relevant and to the point.
- They are not afraid to be counter-cultural, but at the same time, their advice is very wise and common sensical (drawing the best of traditional wisdom and integrating it with new discoveries and developments as well as their own experiences).
- Big picture principles are covered, as well as chapters addressing specific issues related to age groups. While the toddler and young children sections are no longer directly relevant to us, I certainly found myself looking back and thinking that it made sense, or wishing we’d read the book back when it would have been.
- Every principle is well explained and illustrated with practical examples. It is littered with personal experiences (of their own, of their own children and of people they have encountered along the way). These ground the book. Furthermore, each chapter ends with questions to reflect on – all the time encouraging a conscious and deliberate (but never heavy-handed) approach to parenting.
- They do attempt to engage with the challenges arising from single-parent families, or step-families – though my guess is that many struggling with these issues will find this more of a springboard to other resources than a comprehensive aid. The book concludes with a number of suggestions for reading and online help, however.
- The book is clearly coming from a Christian worldview perspective, as becomes increasingly evident towards the end. But again, it never feels heavy-handed nor pushy. This makes the book supremely lendable to anyone (which of course reflects the origins of the book: both their HTB Marriage and Parenting Courses are designed as entry points to Alpha). There could perhaps be more here – a comment I’ve heard more than once about the courses is that they are perhaps a bit too ‘Christian-lite’ – but in terms of what they are seeking to achieve, the balance struck seems perfectly reasonable to me, even if I might have done some of this slightly differently.
Aspects I was especially helped by
There are a number of gems in the book – I found myself underlining and copying various things out (not just because they will become useful as illustrations one day!), especially since we are on the cusp of teenagerdom in our family. I especially found helpful:
- the HALT acronym (p189) for dealing with tantrums and anger (especially in us as parents as much as in our children). Before reacting, HALT, and ask yourself if you or they are Hungry, Anxious, Lonely or Tired? So often the child simply needs some food – or to get some sleep – or to talk. So lay off them! Or we need to delay our response while we catch our breath if we can.
- the Alarm Clock gag: for teenagers going out to parties, set an alarm clock for the deadline when they must be in and place outside your bedroom door. That way you can go to sleep in peace knowing you’ll be woken up if they don’t come back – and they have an incentive to get home on time!
- Some really good suggestions for how to talk with your children about sex, drugs and rock and roll – well, the first two anyway.
So the book is pretty comprehensive on the whole. Which I suppose means that it really does warrant its title after all. I know that I will be returning to it again and again.
Staying with the folks in Norfolk again for half term. In a nearby village, a friend of theirs (Lorie Lain-Rogers – see below) is part of a group (Call2Prayer) that has set up a 1:1 scale reconstruction of the OT Tabernacle. I don’t know much about this group, but recreating the Tabernacle is a fascinating idea. It travels the country apparently – so I suppose you can book it if you want to.
They’ve tried to do everything as authentically and faithfully as possible (from the clear and explicit instructions in the Pentateuch) – though I’m not 100% clear about whether or not the original had provisions for parking
Most striking to me was its size – despite not being in a desert but enjoying glorious Norfolk sunshine in a fabulous garden, one could well imagine the tribal elders gathering in the space within the linen walls. Anyway, here are a few pics – click to get to the rest…