For me, though, the standout of Francis Spufford’s reading memoir The Child That Books Built is the chapter entitled The Island. For it is here that he waxes lyrical about Narnia. It is not just because he chimes with the countless numbers who loved C S Lewis’ books (despite the likes of Philip Pullman and Polly Toynbee). It is the fact that he grasps something of their theological wonder (which will come as no surprise perhaps to those who have enjoyed his Unapologetic). Read more
We’re right in the midst of Advent now (i.e. it’s not officially Christmas yet): carol services by the tonne, twinkly lights passim (Oxford St lights brought to you courtesy of Marmite – you read that right – MARMITE = end of civilisation as we know it), consumerism at its peak. But we kicked off the month a few weeks back with an Advent carol service – taking the obvious theme of waiting. We tried to shake things up a little (in our somewhat amateurish way, trying various multimedia bits and bobs). Read more
I’ve been spending quite a bit of time recently with a dear friend, Malcolm, who is dying of cancer. In fact, he has already lasted a lot longer than many predicted, despite not having eaten anything for several weeks. He has been an inspiration to me and others, and so have his family. He came home from the hospice a few weeks ago or so, and has been hanging in there. Most striking has been his resilient faith in the face of his inescapable mortality (about which we talk often). Which has inevitably got me reflecting on the subject further. Read more
Yesterday was one that will be hard to forget: the funeral of an extraordinary man of God. It was an occasion full of gratitude and even joy, but also overwhelming at moments to say goodbye to Uncle John (or as we were reminded in the service, it is only Au Revoir). There was great pathos to think that, as his coffin was carried out, he was leaving All Souls for the last time. Read more
Last month’s Wired UK Carried a host of mini-articles by various techie, business gurus and Apple groupies about the phenomenon that is Steve Jobs. One of the standouts though was Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish, an account of his address at Stanford University in 2005. Read more
I’d never heard of Arthur Stace before a week ago. But that’s because I have never visited, let alone lived in, Sydney, Australia. But he left an extraordinary, even weird, but compelling legacy. For he was converted to Christianity as the result of walking into a Sydney church in 1930 and hearing a sermon by R. B. S. Hammond. Two years later he heard another sermon from John Ridley entitled “echoes of eternity”. Read more
A good friend of mine, Drew Wolff, has recently got back from a trip with his family to help on a Habitat building programme in Tijuana, Mexico. He sent these great pics. You’ll see at the centre of the first is a rather interesting biblical reference – which will be well known to U2 fans the world over.
Jeremiah 33:3 ‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.
For it superimposed onto the Gate number at CdeG Airport Paris on the cover of their 2001 album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. And it also gets a nod in one of the best songs of the last album (IMHO), No Line on the Horizon, Unknown Caller. It is particularly fitting for the latter because of the title (though note that the numbers are fiddled around a bit because obviously, there’s no 33 o’clock!).
I thought this one was pretty poignant, too. I struggle for ways to stretch my imagination but it seems to describe the Christian life. The bleakness of what is in the foreground is not changed. However, behind it all is the bright light that dominates the picture. It helped in trying to imagine the light that illuminates everything in the New Jerusalem as described in Revelation. And also in the foreground, is a group of believers helping build a house. A good metaphor for God’s answer to everything
I’ve enjoyed Oliver Sacks’ books before (especially his best, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat) and have got much out of Musicophilia. I wouldn’t say it was as good as some of the reviews made out – rather too bitty and uneven – but it is rescued by occasional flashes of his characteristic compassion and the ability to make fascinating connections.
I was profoundly affected, however, by his chapter on Music and Amnesia. His focus was almost entirely on English musician Clive Wearing, who found himself, as the result of a brain infection, with a completely destroyed memory. Consequently, he had a memory span of only a few seconds. He was the subject of a BBC documentary by Jonathan Miller, Prisoner of Consciousness, and his wife Deborah wrote a book about their life together. She describes the affliction:
His ability to perceive what he saw and heard was unimpaired. But he did not seem to be able to retain any impression of anything for more than a blink. Indeed, if he did blink, his eyelids parted to reveal a new scene. The view before the blink was utterly forgotten. Each blink, each glance away and back, brought him an entirely new view. I tried to imagine how it was for him… Something akin to a film with bad continuity, the glass half empty, then full, the cigarette suddenly longer, the actor’s hair now tousled, now smooth. But this was real life, a room changing in ways that were physically impossible.
… It was as if every waking moment was the first waking moment. Clive was under the constant impression that he had just emerged from unconsciousness because he had no evidence in his own mind of ever being awake before… “I haven’t heard anything, seen anything, touched anything, smelled anything,” he would say. “It’s like being dead.” (pp 202-203)
As Sacks adds:
In addition to this inability to preserve new memories, Clive had a devastating retrograde amnesia, a deletion of virtually his entire past.
This can be seen in the devastating, eerie journal he kept (some of which is quoted on the Wiki entry on him). The reason that Sacks spends so much time reflecting on Clive’s tragic predicament is that the two things that made his life liveable were his wife and music. Somehow, he had a deep awareness (almost but not quite like a memory) of her and his dependence on her. He needed her. But music helped him too. He had been a conductor and expert on several composers, especially Lassus. And in fact when he performs or conducts, all his abilities and creative expression prove to be intact – and the music’s momentum will sustain him longer than his memory – for as longs as the piece lasts.
The momentum of the music carried Clive from bar to bar. Within the structure of the piece, he was held, as if the staves were tramlines and there was only one way to go. He knew exactly where he was becuause in every phase there is context implied, by rhythm, key, melody. It was marvellous to be free. When the music stopped Clive fell through to the lost place. But for those moments he was playing he seemed normal. (p 225)
Memory fascinates me. But the thought of not having it is truly haunting, unbearable even. Yet it strikes me that, as a culture, we have lost our memories. The causes are many and complex – shifts in hermeneutics and epistemology have had profound, debilitating effects as we no longer have any confidence that truth is knowable. As I’m fond of quoting in talks, Donald Drew of L’Abri once put it like this:
People today are dazzled by the last 24 hours, confused by the last 24 years, bemused by the last 24 centuries.
It strikes me, though, that we need to regroup. We need to regroup around the old music of the grandest story of them all. For we are all part of the greatest story – and this can give the momentum that an amnesiac desperately needs. It is no accident that as Moses speaks to Israel’s second generation on the verge of Canaan, in what would be his last will and testament (the Book of Deuteronomy), the little word Remember is repeated 16 times. Remember what came before you in the story – so that you can play your own part in the story.
If we don’t remember, we are condemned to be confused every time we blink.
You wouldn’t expect John Stott to change his tune in his 89th year. And of course he hasn’t. The Radical Disciple is his 51st book – and while his thinking has developed and deepened over the decades, he has never changed direction. He’s always faced Jesus – and he does so all the more eagerly in the twilight years before the eternal dawn.
Vintage Prose and Pithy Clarity
If you’re familiar with his writing and speaking, then you won’t find anything surprisingly innovative or any marked departures – and much of what this book contains he’s said before in other places. But that’s not the point. What matters is that he has picked these characteristics of Christian discipleship to expound – despite calling them ‘selective’ and ‘somewhat arbitrary’ (p137). Each is touched on lightly and briefly, but with all the hallmarks of Stott’s vintage prose and pithy clarity of thought still firmly in place:
- Non-Conformity: “we are neither to seek to preserve our holiness by escaping from the world nor to sacrifice our holiness by conforming to the world” (p19)
- Christlikeness: “we are to be like Christ in his incarnation, in his service, in his love, in his endurance, and in his mission” (p38)
- Maturity: “may God give us such a full, clear vision of Jesus Christ, first that we may grow into maturity ourselves, and secondly that, by faithful proclamation of Christ in his fullness to others, we may present others mature as well.” (p53)
- Creation-Care: “God intends our care of the creation to reflect our love for the Creator” (p65)
- Simplicity: “All Christians claim to have received a new life from Jesus Christ. What lifestyle, then, is appropriate for them? If the life is new, the lifestyle should be new also” (p71)
- Balance: “We are both individual disciples and church members, both worshippers and witnesses, both pilgrims and citizens. Nearly all our failures stem from the ease with which we forget our comprehensive identity as disciples.” (p102)
- Dependence: “We are all designed to be a burden to others… The life of the family, including the life of the local church family, should be one of ‘mutual burdensomeness.‘” (p113)
- Death: “If we want to live we must die. And we will be willing to die only when we see the glories of the life to which death leads. This is the radical, paradoxical Christian perspective.” (p135)
He chooses these because, as he reflects on western (which I suppose primarily means UK & USA Christian culture), he is anxious about their dwindling importance. We’d be utter fools to ignore the observations of so wise an elder statesman. Their challenge is straightforward and unavoidable – not least because John practises what he preaches. It is quite something, is it not, for a man in his 9th decade to be making an appeal for people to be radical?! Retirement is usually the time for conservatism and comfortable ease, not the prickly and disturbing calls for Christ-like discipleship.
The chapters are not even, in the sense of being similarly structured or equally expository:
- the Christlikeness chapter takes a topical approach, touching on various aspects of Christ’s life and character we should emulate;
- the Non-Conformity and Creation-Care chapters are also topical, but show a sustained awareness of contemporary issues: hence his helpful articulation of 4 challenging trends in the former (pluralism, materialism, ethical relativism and narcissism) and 4 ingredients of the current ecological crisis (population growth, depletion of earth’s resources, waste disposal and climate change). Not bad going for someone who’s 89 in April.
- the Simplicity chapter is essentially a publication of a statement issued after a Lausanne consultation led by John and Ron Sider in 1980. The whole statement plus commentary is online: An evangelical commitment to a simple lifestyle. I’d not come across it before and was profoundly challenged by it.
- the Balance chapter is somewhat unexpectedly an involved exposition of 1 Peter 2:1-17 – but I’d never quite seen before the way Peter mixes his metaphors in the chapter and this was illuminating (as newborn babies we are called to growth, as living stones to fellowship, as holy priests to worship, as God’s own people to witness, as aliens and strangers to holiness and as servants of God to citizenship).
Pastoral Reality with Personal Candour
But despite the chapters’ varieties of style or approach, they are always biblical and theological, and yet also pastoral and real. It is so helpful to have thumbnail sketches of people he’s been challenged or influenced by, some widely known, others not so, some British, most not. These ground the book.
What is new, perhaps, is that as the book draws to a close, Uncle John becomes increasingly candid. He’s always been an honest and humble man, but no one could remain unaffected by the poignancy of the last 2 chapters particularly. I well remember that Sunday morning in 2006 (described in chapter 7) when he was getting ready to preach at All Souls, but tripped in his flat and broke his hip, which resulted in an emergency hip replacement operation. We were involved in the All Souls week away down in Devon that weekend, but heard about it very quickly and we were all shocked. But it still didn’t prepare me to read his own agonising account of that morning:
I knew at once that I had broken or dislocated my hip, for I could not move, let alone get up. I was able, however, to push the panic button I was wearing and kind friends immediately came to my rescue…
… as this chapter progresses please do not forget my earlier experiences, spreadeagled on the floor, completely dependent on others. For this is where, from time to time, the radical disciple needs to be. I believe that dependence involved in these experiences can be used by God to bring about greater maturity in us.
…There is another aspect of the dependence which I experienced which was new to me, which I am tempted to gloss over, but which my trusted friends have urged me not to conceal. It is the emotional weakness which physical infirmity sometimes brings to the surface and which finds expression in weeping. (pp104-105)
There are few who would be prepared to turn so private and painful an experience into so public and challenging a lesson.
This really is John’s last book! His previous one – The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor – was heralded by some as his last but he seems to have known that he had one more in him. But there really are no more – and he concludes the Radical Disciple with a poignant farewell to his readers.
However, it is fitting, I think, to see these last two books as of a piece. They have a neat symmetry to them, as he concludes a long ministry.
- In The Living Church, he expounds the key hallmarks of what constitutes Church life, in all its diversity, challenges and joys.
- In The Radical Disciple, he expounds the key hallmarks of a Christian’s life, again in all its diversity, challenges and joys.
Of course, there will be things that people disagree with, no doubt. Some of the areas in the books are hot topics (e.g. Christians and the environment). And some have criticised what is seen as an obsession with balance when things are supposedly more complex or wrinkled. In neither of these books will we find in-depth analysis or argumentation to make his case.
But then why should we?! John has spent a lifetime doing just that, thinking, teaching and writing, often at great length and with great care (see this non-exhaustive bibliography). But these two books are more a summation, a last will and testament. They form a fitting conclusion to his legacy, one which it will probably take decades fully to appreciate.
It remains to be said that if this legacy is to be sustained and grow, then people need to give themselves to it deliberately. One way is for people to pray for and give to the Langham Partnership – for which he appeals at the end of the Radical Disciple – you can do that here.
But the best way is surely for us to live just as we are called to in these two books… just as, in fact, he himself has sought to live.
This is quite simply the strangest, most provocative, beguiling and fascinating book I’ve read in a long time. In fact, EVER. SUM: Forty Tales from the Afterlives does exactly what it claims. It’s about death – and what happens after death. In just 100 pages, we’re offered 40 versions – parallel universes, parallel narratives, parallel afterlives. It has the wit and deep ingenuity of a Douglas Adams (every now and then, I was reminded of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe), a relentless logic and above all a fearless creativity. It is certainly not derivative (even if the odd one of these tales evokes some sort of precedent) and crams an extraordinary diversity into a very small space. A bit like the Tardis I suppose. It’s captured the imagination of countless people – and perhaps inevitably, when Stephen Fry twittered approvingly, amazon sales went through the roof (and as a direct result, Radio 4′s Today programme did a piece on it).
David Eagleman is an American neuroscientist who studied literature as an undergraduate. A powerful and unusual combination – I guess that makes him a scientist who is as articulate with words as he is with equations (which you don’t find very often in my limited experience). He crashes up against the walls of human creativity and imagination – and that’s one of the most fascinating things about. Because in the end, it seems that one of his principle reasons for cynicism about orthodox convictions about eternity is that it is impossible to imagine.
Anyway, read it! I thoroughly recommend it if you’re after something short but mind-bogglingly mind-bending.
If you want a bit more of an in-depth reflection, then check out the article I’ve just written for Damaris:
This is how I broke it up (and gave it cringingly contrived alliterative headings):
- Acts 1: Mission Momentum
- Acts 2-6: Bound Believers
- Acts 7: Heinous Hostility
- Acts 8-15: Aliens Accepted
- Acts 16-20: Gospel Guardians
- Acts 28: The Story Doesn’t End Here… (an all age talk for the final morning, not recorded)
There was also an optional evening seminar on Acts & The Holy Spirit. The aim of Cornerstone is both to be a chance to go more in-depth than is ever possible back at All Souls, as well as to have a holiday. So we have an intense start to the day – each session is 50-60 minutes long, followed by 30 minutes of small group discussions – then the rest of the day is for fun and jollity.
For those who are have been asking, the most helpful book in preparation was Chris Green’s brilliant guide to teaching Acts, The Word of His Grace. It’s one of those books to sell your shirt for (though Amazon currently says its temp. out of stoke – I do hope that’s not a bad sign). What I particularly valued in Chris’s stuff was his big picture approach (invaluable for what we were trying to do this summer). He’s plugged away at Luke’s overall structure and purpose and seen how that works out along the way. Because my brain is especially prone to working that way, I particularly found his tables helpful – some of which i nicked, adapted or developed for the handouts.
These are available here:
A few months back, I was asked by the folks at NUCLEUS, the CMF student magazine, to write up an overview of the Bible for them, on the back of having done the Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Bible at this year’s New Word Alive.
So now the latest edition has come out, and if you’re interested, you can check it out here:
If you want the original talks free, you can get them from iTunes here.
Have been fascinated by Anneke Kaai’s paintings for a while, faithfully published by Pieter Kwant (of Piquant Publishing – cool name, don’t you think?) over the last few years. She is a Dutch artist inspired in her art by a clear Christian faith and the images she creates are often very striking and have both an ethereal and sometimes monumental quality.
So far, four books have been produced of her work, each of them inspired by biblical or theological themes:
- 10 Commandments
- The Creed
- Apocalypse (inspired by the Book of Revelation)
The great thing, and the reason for posting this, is that the images are now available for use in presentations in church on CD-Rom. Check it out – it’s only £10 +p&p. Bargain! And well worth it. Here is a bit of a flavour from her website:
At last got round to watching Charlie Wilson’s War the other night, having had it on my list for ages. A mixed film – wasn’t 100% convinced that Tom Hanks could be a hard drinking, womanising southern politician on a supposedly moral crusade – but the script was sparkling. Well, one would expect nothing less from its writer, the master of political dialogue himself, Aaron Sorkin. There was lots in there to relish. But this little exchange was a brilliant gem amongst many.
Charlie Wilson is a Democrat congressman from Texas who in the 80s champions the cause of the Afghanistan Mujahideen in their war against Soviet invasion. Avrakotos is his man on the inside of the CIA (brilliantly realised by Seymour Hoffman).
Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman): There’s a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse… and everybody in the village says, “How wonderful! The boy got a horse.” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, “How terrible!” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight… except the boy can’t cause his leg’s all messed up. And everybody in the village says, “How wonderful!”
Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks): Now the Zen master says, “We’ll see.”
There is a great patience about history in Eastern worldviews, even in the more secular, modernist ones. There is a legend about the Chinese Premier under Mao, Zhou Enlai, who was asked in the 1950s about the impact of the French Revolution (back in 1789). He supposedly replied with the classic response:
It’s too early to tell.
Well, even if it isn’t true, it both fits with him, his culture and reality. And if that is the case for human life and history in general, how much more for the cosmos in which God is at work? For God, 1000 years are like a day & 1 day is like 1000 years (2Pet 3:8) SO… no wonder:
- Abraham had to wait till he was about 75 before God lured him away from Ur (Gen 11:31-12:1)
- Joseph spent many years first as Potiphar’s slave and then in prison (incl 2 years after helping the chief cup-bearer – Gen 41:1)
- Moses spent 40 years as a shepherd before the time was right to lead God’s people (Exod 2:23-25, 7:7)
- The Period of Judges (i.e. from Joshua to Samuel) lasted ca 400 years before God was ‘ready’ to raise up a king.
- In Exile, Jeremiah tells the people that they should build homes and plant gardens in Babylon because they’re going to be there a while – a whole generation in fact (Jer 29:5ff) – in fact, they were to pray for the prosperity, not of Jerusalem, but BABYLON! (Jer 29:7-8) Patience was the order of the day.
- After Nehemiah, it would be another 450 years or so before John the Baptist hit the religion scene!
We may think that 2000 years is a long time. But then of course, the period between us and Jesus is almost identical to the period it took God to prepare the world for Jesus from first announcing his covenant promises to Abraham.
Amidst our instant gratification obsessions, our culture has a LOT to learn about patience (and I’m referring to our Christian culture there). And, of course, I speak entirely for myself in that…
Had some fun with this title for a guest service talk on Sunday night. No, this was not an excuse to play Belinda Carlisle’s less than fabulous 80s hit. But it did mean I could play this promo for Richard Branson’s Necker Island resort (starting price is £16,000 per couple per week).
You can hear the justification for using the whole thing in church (!) and rest of the talk here. And remember, what we’re offered is ∞% BETTER!!
The chaps at New Word Alive Media have been slaving away to get all the talks and seminars from both New Word Alive weeks available online. At only £1 per mp3 download they are certainly more reasonable than some pay per download sites.
They even have 2 downloads for free, which are not to be missed: Q&A with Don Carson from week 1, and Richard Cunningham’s Bible Reading from the start of week 2. Hopefully the Carson Q&A will be available at some point in the future.
Wasn’t at week 1, so don’t know the highlights. But from week 2, by all accounts, check out:
- Liam Golligher on Jonah
- Garry Williams on some key figures from history (esp Anne Bradstreet)
- Graham Beynon on the Shape of Things to Come (an excellent intro to all things eschatological)
Plus lots lots more (you might even find a bible overview by yours truly, if you look hard enough – but then it has been free on iTunes for a while).
It came up in a question at NWA last week after one of my talks. And it’s important. Because it marks the fundamental difference between what happened to Lazarus and what happened to Jesus. Lazarus was rescusitated, only to die again; Jesus was raised, never to die again. To illustrate, here is the relevant bit from Cross-Examined. Hope it’s helpful.
It is not enough for Jesus simply to have returned to life. If I ran out on to the main road near my home and was knocked down by the Number 60 bus, I hope I would be missed. If I came back to life a few days later, people would no doubt be astounded and also, I hope, pleased! But that would not make me divine. God may well have been involved, and there would be all kinds of explanatory theories, but few (if any) people would spontaneously think I was God incarnate!
Why was it any different with Jesus? The clue comes from the events preceding our respective resurrections. Suppose that before my accident, I had made speciﬁc claims about my identity and future. If I had predicted that I would rise again, everything would then be very different. My resurrection would suddenly take on supreme importance: it would vindicate any other claims that I had made, however preposterous they might ﬁrst have appeared. That is precisely what happened with Jesus. On a number of occasions he speciﬁcally predicted that his death would be followed by a return to life. See, for instance, Mark 8:31; 9:32; 10:33 – 34. When it actually came true all his other claims about himself were thoroughly vindicated. Everything he was seeking to achieve through his death would be endorsed. His mission would truly be seen to be ‘ﬁnished’ when he beat death at its own game by rising back to life.
Human death had never been part of God’s original design for people made in his image. Jesus’ resurrection changed everything. Death has at last been overcome; it no longer has the last word, and life is no longer as meaningless as it sometimes feels. Jesus has been the trailblazer, breaking a way through the ultimate barrier for all time. To grasp precisely what that means, we must distinguish resurrection from resuscitation. It is possible for someone to be at death’s door, and even be deemed dead according to certain medical criteria, but then breathe again. That is resuscitation, because death will still come again. It is as if the person has entered the tunnel of death only to re-emerge through its entrance (Figure A).
The time will inevitably come, however, when they will re-enter it, as death is still the ‘dead end’ that it always was (Figure B). That was true for all the people whom Jesus raised from physical death during his lifetime, including Lazarus in John 11 and Jairus’s daughter in Mark 5. Jesus’ resurrection was fundamentally different: he broke through the tunnel, never to die again. By emerging from the other end he achieved what no-one before or since has ever achieved (Figure C).
Jesus’ resurrection overcame the final consequence of sin, therefore. Paul ties this to the Christian believer in startling ways. He states that those who put their trust in Jesus are united to him. Where he goes, they go. It is as if we are pulled through the tunnel of death by our trailblazer, Jesus. This unity with him is in fact so close that Paul can even talk about us being ‘in Christ’. Our ‘participation’ in him is what gives us our unshakeable confidence: we know that death will not be the end. (Cross-Examined, IVP, 2005, ch9)
Christ is risen!
He is Risen indeed!
To coincide with EA’s Slipstream co-ordinated blogathon for Easter, here are a few random bullets on Jesus’ Resurrection. And because i feel in the mood for some alliteration, here is some alliteration…
The attractions of accepting it
One could mention a zillion things – but here a few of the big ones:
- JESUS: Jesus is who he claimed to be – it’s one thing to claim to be sent from God (anyone can do that, as history has proved); it’s quite another to predict the circumstances of one’s death AND then resurrection (cf. Mark 8:34-38, 9:31, 10:32-34). By the same token, it endorses his fulfilment of OT expectation (cf. 1 Cor 15:4)
- DEATH: Death is not the end – he has beaten death at its own game. Therefore he goes through death in order, for example, to prepare a place in the Father’s house for his people. (John 14:1-6)
- FALL: The serpent will be crushed (cf. Gen 3:15, Rom 16:20, Rev 20:10) so that the effects of the fall are completely reversed. That is why Rev 21-22 speaks of a heavenly garden city in Jerusalem where there will be eternal access to the Tree of Life (Rev 22:1-5)
- RELIGION: Because of the resurrection, we discover that physical temples and religious shrines are no longer necessary. Jesus IS the Temple - i.e. the meeting place with God. The resurrection endorses his credentials as the greatest mediating point between God and humanity. (cf. John 2:19 & Acts 17:24-25)
- JUSTICE: The world is not hopeless because evil doesn’t get away with murder. There will be a reckoning, and that is profoundly GOOD news. See Paul’s sermon in Acts 17, where he argues that the resurrection demonstrates ultimate authority and right to be the judge. (cf. Acts 17:31)
- TRAILS BLAZED: Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection, a metaphor from the world of farming and harvests. The firstfruits indicates the quality of the rest of the year’s crop – and would be dedicated to God. Jesus is the first, the trailblazer, the pioneer – and all who follow and trust in him, will revel in the fact of being part of the great resurrection harvest. (1 Cor 15:20, 23)
- GRIEF: The resurrection doesn’t remove human grief – it is only the super-spiritual who pretend that it does. Paul for one would have been deeply affected had his dear friend, the Philippian Epaphroditus, have died (cf. Phil 2:27). But what the resurrection does do is profoundly to CHANGE grief for those who have died in the Lord – hence his encouragements to the Thessalonian Christians (cf. 1 Thes 4:13).
This is a poem which Garry Williams quoted this week at New Word Alive 2 in his seminar on the English Puritan emigrant to America, Anne Bradstreet. (Tim Chester blogged the seminar). She wrote a number of remarkable poems. This one was written after her 3 year old granddaughter had died:
With troubled heart and trembling hand I write,
The Heavens have chang’d to sorrow my delight.
How oft with disappointment have I met,
When I on fading things my hopes have set?…
Farewel dear child, thou ne’re shall come to me,
But yet a while, and I shall go to thee;
Mean time my throbbing heart’s chear’d up with this
Thou with thy Saviour art in endless bliss.
The barriers to believing it
- Scientific Materialism: the supernatural simply doesn’t exist. Remember Dawkins damning, patronising remarks at the close of his debate with John Lennox (after Lennox had hurriedly concluded with his confidence in God on the basis of Jesus’ resurrection):
Yes, well that concluding bit rather gives the game away, doesn’t it? All that stuff about science and physics, and the complications of physics and things, what it really comes down to is the resurrection of Jesus. There is a fundamental incompatibility between the sophisticated scientist which we hear part of the time from John Lennox – and it’s impressive and we are interested in the argument about multiverses and things, and then having produced some sort of a case for a deistic god perhaps, some god that the great physicist who adjusted the laws and constants of the universe – that’s all very grand and wonderful, and then suddenly we come down to the resurrection of Jesus. It’s so petty, it’s so trivial, it’s so local, it’s so earth-bound, it’s so unworthy of the universe.
- Deism: there is a divine creator, but he’s moved on. He has little or nothing to do with his universe now, and certainly wouldn’t have any interest in intervening within it.
- Presumption: dead people don’t rise therefore Jesus didn’t rise.
- Platonism (of sorts): the material world is evil and the spiritual is, well, spiritual. So Jesus couldn’t have risen with a heavenly body because why would God want to have a body anyway? Though of course, that would probably have ruled out the Incarnation as well…
The consequences of the con
But just suppose that the resurrection DIDN’T happen. Suppose it’s all one big con. Where would we be without the resurrection of Jesus? Well, the interesting thing is that the Apostle Paul was himself acutely aware of the fall-out if the resurrection was not true. He was quite upfront about it – for the entire Christian gospel is at stake here. He spells out a number of consequences in 1 Corinthians 15: 12-18 (for fun, here adapted from Eugene Peterson’s The Message), namely:
- Our message (of the resurrection) is essentially just a matter of smoke and mirrors
- We (the messengers of that resurrection) are ourselves just groping in the dark, lost and hopeless.
- We Christians are a pretty sorry lot because all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few short years but not for eternity. We might enjoy the delusion of being forgiven but we really are not.
But Paul didn’t think it was a con – and nor do I. At the very least, there is evidence the points in this direction.
Yes, I realise that was a pretty contrived heading – it’s pretty late as I write this. And indeed, loads of different folks spell out the evidence for the resurrection. It did happen in history. Here are the main bullet points. For detail, check out Frank Morrison’s Who Moved The Stone? And N T Wright’s Who Was Jesus?
- The Cross: perhaps he didn’t die or just swooned? But then, crucifixion was pretty barbaric and Roman soldiers would be unlikely to make mistakes in doing their duty. What motive could they possibly have for letting him be substituted or endure only half-measures?
- The Empty Tomb: otherwise, it would been a synch for the Roman/Jewish authorities to have produced the body. It was the very thing they most feared (hence what was probably the only guarded tomb in Jerusalem!) (cf. Matt 28:11-15). It couldn’t have been the wrong tomb (body would have been produced; right tomb would have been quickly identified) Why else was no tomb ever venerated by anybody?
- The Appearances: incl 500+ at one time (1Cor 15:6) – therefore, can’t be hallucinatory? If it had been, it would still require some sort of ‘supernatural’ explanation.
- The Early Church: for the church to have come into existence out of the embers of the crushed and fearful faith of the first disciples (cf. John 20:19-23), something must have happened! How else did they endure persecution? Why else change the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday?
Here are some more random thoughts.
In tone, this is the most explicitly biblical song on the album. It is a psalm, nothing less. Beth has a nice observation on how Bono sings this, contra those who are perceive it as really arrogant. But taken in its biblical context, it is clear that when Bono sings I was born to sing for you, he can’t be referring to the U2 fanclub. He is singing primarily for an audience of one: God. It’s a song of throbbing praise, driven mainly by an insistent rhythm section (Adam seems to be working really hard on this album!). But despite the stadium feel of the song (which was evident when they sang it on the BBC roof last week), it remains intensely personal. That’s not to say it is exclusive though: it draws those close by to join in the magnifying at the end (the ‘you’ in the final choruses seems to be different from the object of praise – it is a fellow worshipper being drawn in to join the praise of ‘the Magnificent’).
I was born to be with you;… to sing for you… this is the heart of existence and purpose. How can this be anything other than God? ≈ (amongst many) Psalm 139 (esp vv13-16); Psalm 61:8: I will sing praise to your name and fulfil my vows day after day.
in this space and time, after that and ever after I haven’t had a clue it’s about life in the here and now – and beyond. But there are limits to how much we know about that ≈ Ps 61:8 again; note that in John 17:2-3 eternal life starts now…
Only love can leave such a mark But only love can heal such a scar living a life of love for God IS costly – it leaves a heart black and blue (and looks & feels like foolishness at times) – but God’s love can heal that – which reminds me of one of my favourite books on ministry by our dear friend Marjorie Foyle: Honourably Wounded. ≈ Proverbs 10:12; 1 Peter 4:8.
i didn’t have a choice but to lift you up and sing whatever song youw anted me to - now that is clearly psalmic - ≈ Psalm 63:4 & Psalm 134:2. and then there’s the first bit – is that what it looks like? Surely not? Election perhaps?!
I give you back my voice – the archetypal response of the one who knows from where we have everything in the first place ≈ King David’s response to God in 1 Chronicles 29:14.
From the womb my first cry it was a joyful noise - it’s that birth theme again – Bono gets born a lot on this album. But the cry of a new life is wonderfully, one of joy! ≈ the King James version of Psalm 66:1; 98:4, 100:1 (etc).
Justified till we die, you and I will magnify oh, the magnificent - justification! it’s everywhere in Paul – but it’s also everywhere in Psalms (i.e. righteousness language) ≈ so how about Psalm 35:27 (in KJV); cf. Psalm 64:10, 97:12, 140:13 etc etc
There is something reminiscent of the good old days of October in this song – Gloria anyone?
This is a suggestive song but seems quite opaque and nebulous. Being in Fez, the ancient pre-colonial capital of Morocco, of course rebooted the album writing process. It seems that the band went there after Bono was invited to be involved in a world festival of sacred music that takes place there. That in itself is intriguing – and there is a sense of slightly (Sufi?) trancelike meandering as the song opens – which gets interrupted a couple of times by a couple of abrupt reboots. But somehow, these interruptions never allow the building pace to be derailed. (I couldn’t help be reminded of a faux-James Bond mission soundtrack in the introduction – a bit derivative perhaps – but that is wiped away once the song proper gets under way).
During the intro, we hear echoes of a north african market square, mixed in with the final refrain from Get on your boots (let me in the sound). If i’m right about this being a resonance of the sound of amazing, divine grace, then it is interesting to find that even in Fez.
Bono’s singing is drawn out and even – almost a trance in itself – each word getting equal weight, as he makes the journey home across the Straights of Gibraltar and the Atlantic until reaching Africa’s shores. As far as I can tell, this is the only Africa moment on the album. Is it about setting sail leaving cars and engines behind, reaching Africa which is the true home of the heart. Having lived in East Africa, i can relate to that a bit – there is something elemental about the continent.
But as you can tell, i’m groping in the dark on this one – but gripped by the song.
Great having a brother-in-law, Jem, who’s in the same line of business. Except unlike Nestle South Africa, we don’t simply offer celestial short-stays – the deal we hold out includes the whole of eternity as part of our package.
A Very Happy New Year to all our readers!