Again as part of our Uncover apologetics series, I looked at the issue of God and suffering on Sunday (my previous in the series was on the historicity of the gospels). For many, this really is the big one today. Belief in the divine seems palpably absurd in a suffering, chaotic, apparently uncontrollable world of forces, reactions and atoms. Read more
Just back from doing the All Souls week away in Bath – my first major thing for work since I was off from 1st Jan. All seemed to go smoothly and happily, which was rather a relief for all concerned. The focus this year was the grace-freedom we have in Christ – which Paul expounds so superbly through Galatians Read more
While I was in the States at the end of last month, I had an afternoon to kill in Philadelphia. So the completely obvious thing to do was record another Q conversation. This time I sat down to chat with Ruth Naomi Floyd, whom I’d met at the European Leadership Conference in Hungary a few years ago. It’s available on iTunes podcasts, or if you prefer a direct feed, here on Jellycast.
This is important. Bishop Zac Niringiye used to be my sort-of boss for the 4 years we worked in Uganda. He was the secretary of the trustees of the college I taught in and had actually been someone I consulted about life there before we moved in 2004. His advice to me was simple then. “Don’t try to be a Ugandan, Mark. You’re not. You’re a Brit.” Superb – of course cultural sensitivity is essential – but it is only works if it is accompanied by authenticity and integrity. Zac is a strong character with strong passions and a good mind (he was a Langham scholar, doing his theology PhD in Scotland). He’s not always easy! But he’s someone with real integrity and gospel concern. Read more
One or two have asked for this, so here it is: the first of 3 talks given in the gaudy riot of Pugin-inspired colour that is Parliament’s Undercroft Chapel. This is a group that meets mostly weekly under Christians in Parliament. The next two are on 15th and 29th November. We’d decided to do 3 sessions from the opening chapters of Paul’s extraordinary and thoroughly contemporary first letter to the Corinthian church. Read more
This is not hero-worship. Not only did Uncle John loathe the very idea of it, it is never constructive or edifying to indulge in it. Worshipped heroes always disappoint, like any idol. But it is not wrong to have our heroes: people we look up to, respect, seek to emulate. They are in perilously short supply in our world. It is about appreciating them, in spite of (and sometimes, because of) their foibles, eccentricities and flaws. There is something profoundly Christian about taking our heroes seriously.
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
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.
A very happy Christmas to all Q’s readers
The people living in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
Matthew 4:16 (& Isaiah 9:1-2)
Q’s Transmission will be intermittent (to say the last) over the next week or so. Have a restful time offline…!
A few years ago, I was staying with my wonderful godparents, Jim & Sallie, at their home in Philadelphia. We had a spare mo, one afternoon, and they took me to see the phenomenon that is the Wanamaker organ in what is now Macy’s. It is the largest pipe organ in the world and is wonderfully absurd. It is played twice a day, presumably as a not-so-subtle incentive to bring shoppers in and to lull them into false senses of secure profligacy.
Well, Jim emailed this link – filmed just over a week ago. Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah sung in the middle of the cosmetics department by a whole host of Philly choirs and organised by the Philadelphia Opera Company. What joy! It gave me goosebumps the first time I watched. I just love the sheer incongruity of it all. It was Halloween weekend, and so you have makeup artists wearing little devils’ horns wandering around the store while people sing this:
For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
The kingdom of this world
Is become the kingdom of our Lord,
And of His Christ, and of His Christ;
And He shall reign for ever and ever,
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Turn up the volume!! The sound quality is pretty good.
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:
Last Sunday, I was teaching on the last bit of Hebrews 12. I found it a hugely challenging passage, inevitably. But throughout my prep, my mind kept drifting back to one of my Turkey jaunts just over a year ago. I met with some believers in a small, very remote town – where they are of course vastly outnumbered in the local population. This is a shot of the small room where they meet.
It struck me that to understand how this passage works, we need to restore some vocabulary sadly fallen into disuse. I put it like this:
Now at the risk of sounding like I’ve just walked off the pages of a Jane Austen novel, I want to resurrect the old-fashioned use of two words: Sensible and Insensible. For the original meaning of sensible was not being all boring and level-headed. No – if something was sensible it could be sensed whether through sight, taste, hearing or touch. If something was insensible, it couldn’t. Simple as that.
And we are so indoctrinated in our culture to believe that if something is not sensible (in the old sense), it’s not real. But that’s nonsense. We all know that human senses are too weak and limited to notice all kinds of things. Just try looking for butter in the fridge just by standing in front of it. But still the idea persists. And it is something that we must reject. If I can put it like this, we most open our eyes to the invisible.
The room doesn’t seat more than perhaps 25 or 30 – it no doubt gets pretty cosy in summer when they all come. And when they meet, they can still hear the sound of the imams’ call to prayer echoing around the city. And I tried to imagine something of the feelings and thoughts of the huddle of believers when they meet. Which is not perhaps that different from how many of the Jewish Christians might have felt back in the 1st Century: surrounded, perhaps even hunted down; pressured to return to the Jewish faith culture of their childhood and families.
And so I imagined how Hebrews might have sought to encourage them, using particularly the words of 12:22-24.
- You walk into this unassuming Turkish house. But you’ve actually come to Mount Zion: the rock on which the Jerusalem Temple was built – but not an earthly city, a heavenly city.
But it doesn’t look like it, does it?
- When you sing the opening song with your 15 out of tune friends in that room, you’re actually joined by 1000s of 1000s joyful angels in heaven.
But it doesn’t sound like it, does it?
- When your small group meets, you actually join the church of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven. In other words, the billions of fellow believers living around the world.
But it doesn’t feel like it, does it?
- You recall risks you took to get to church in the first place, but remember: you’ve also come to To God, the judge of all. He knows it all and will do something about it.
But it doesn’t seem likely does it?
- But in case you pay the ultimate price, remember that many others have and are cheering you on – they’ve gone ahead of you and are with you, those are the spirits of the righteous already made perfect.
But that doesn’t look possible, does it?
- But what makes it possible, worth it, above all, real? Well, when you meet, you come To Jesus and his precious blood shed on the cross. This blood brings forgiveness, it brings hope and it brings reality.
And supremely, it convinces us that this is no fairy story – but the reality and truth. It convinces us that the insensible is as real as the insensible. So much more is happening when we meet together than meets the eye. So in a way, yes, we are in heaven. Wherever we meet…
Am a very excited geek today as I’ve just discovered how to embed a Scribd document in WordPress. You can even click on the page numbers in the table of contents to get to relevant bits. Groovy. So here it is… the transcripts from the 3 Resurrection talks from this month. But now they are all in one downloadable document.
Have already drawn from Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places – and I think I will do so a few more times. One striking motif from the book is the way in which the natural world, and especially wild places, puts us and our lives into perspective.
I picked this up in his previously quoted experience of inverted vertigo – but he sums the whole phenomenon characteristically well: “To reach a wild place was, for me, to step outside human history.” (p7) A few aspects of this struck me. This image below is of another place in Scotland Macfarlane visited.
1. Wild Time
So, here he is in the same valley of Loch Coruisk on Skye:
As we were walking the final miles back down the side of the loch, the weak sun seething in the water drops still on our skin, and the river beside us shaking out its own light, I saw that a rainbow had formed in the sky over the valley below us, joining both sides of the sanctuary. We walked on towards the rainbow, and as we advanced, it seemed always to retreat, keeping the same patient distance from us. I recalled a quotation I had once written down in a notebook, but for which I had lost the source: ‘Landscape was here long before we were even dreamed. It watched us arrive.’ (p59)
Then I just love this idea of wild time:
To be in the Basin, even briefly, is to be reminded of the narrow limits of human perception, of the provisionality of your assumptions about the world. In such a place, your conventional units of chronology (the century, the life-span, the decade, the year, the day, the heartbeat) become all but imperceptible, and your individual gestures and impulses (the lift of a hand, the swimming stroke taken within water, the flash of anger, a turn of speech or thought) acquired an eerie quickness. The larger impulses of the human world – its wars, civilisations, eras – seem remote. Time in the Basin moves both too fast and too slowly for you to comprehend, and it has no interest in conforming to any human schedules. The Basin keeps wild time. (p61)
2. Wild Scales
But it is not just the perspective of time that is important – it is also the way the wild pierces the pride of our autonomy.
[Wallace] Stegner argued that a wild place was worth much more than could ever be revealed by a cost benefit analysis of its recreational economic value, or its minerals and resources. No, he explained, we need wild places because they remind us of a world beyond the human. Forests, plains, prairies, deserts, mountains: the experience of these landscapes can give people ‘a sense of bigness outside themselves that has now in some way been lost.’
But such landscapes, Stegner wrote, were diminishing in number. The ‘remnants of the natural world’ were ‘being progressively eroded.’ The cost of this erosion was incalculable. For if the wild places were all to be lost, we would never again ‘have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.’ We would be ‘committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New world of a completely man-controlled environment.’ (p82)
3. Wild Life
But what of the animals that fill these wild landscapes? They remind us of our reality as well…
So few wild creatures, relatively, remain in Britain and Ireland: so few, relatively in the world. Pursuing our project of civilisation, we have pushed thousands of species towards the bring of disappearance and many thousands more over the edge. The loss, after it is theirs, is ours. Wild animals, like wild places, are invaluable to us precisely because they are not us. They are uncompromisingly different. The paths they follow, the impulses that guide them, are of other orders. The seal’s holding gaze, before it flukes to push another tunnel through the sea, the hare’s run, the hawk’s high gyres: such things are wild. Seeing them, you are made briefly aware of a world at work around and beside our own, a world operating in patterns and purposes that you do not share. These are creatures, you realise, that live by voices inaudible to you. (p306-7)
Correctives and Convictions, Grandeur and Grace
I write this post, having read this book, in the heart of London W1 – an area that has been a thoroughly urban environment for centuries. You will hardly find a more ‘man-controlled environment’ on the planet. Which is why I love the stature and dignity of the trees growing in the grand Georgian squares; which is why I love the early-morning cries of gulls gathering on local rooftops; which is why I love to escape London from time to time (despite it being my home, my birthplace and my roots). And through this book, I can imagine being away from it all. Without these reminders and correctives, I will easily fall into the trap of thinking that I, a mere human being, might just be the master of all I survey. What nonsense… This is reason enough, surely, for doing all that we can to preserve the world’s wildness…?
But there is a flip side. We mustn’t fall into the opposite danger: of thinking that we are therefore irrelevant, helpless and hopeless, infinitesimal specks in the overwhelming, unfeeling grandeur of the cosmos. For the wonder of believing in a created order and a divinely imagined and imaged humanity is that we are both profoundly connected to the natural world while still, in essential ways, separate from it. We are neither indistinct from it nor independent of it. The miracle of grace is that we matter in this cosmos because we matter to the one who made it.
To be cut off from the wild and natural is to be insulated from the scale, grandeur, provision and power of God’s world. To be cut off from the wonders of divine grace in Christ is to be insulated from the meaning, purpose and sense of place within it. Which is why insulation is so dangerous…
When the Mayor of London starts writing about aliens, as Boris Johnson did in yesterday’s Telegraph, you know that something rather extraordinary has happened. (Incidentally, politics aside, Boris’ column is a wonderful guilty pleasure!) But it seems that he and I were provoked to scribble having both seen the biggest grossing movie of the aeon this weekend (what enlightened company Q seems to keep).
Now this is by no means going to be a thorough-going analysis. Loads of people have been doing that. Even the Vatican has weighed in. Here are just a few bullet-pointed thoughts that occurred to me. BUT BEWARE – one or two PLOT-SPOILERS AHEAD!
- The Beauties of the Beast: There is no doubting the film is a beast – its creation demanded the sort of megalomania only normally associated with Field-Marshals. But since the greatest efforts were applied to Avatar’s visual conception and execution, it is no surpirse that the greatest impression is effected by its look. And wow! It has to be one of the most staggeringly beautiful cinematic experiences ever created. Pandora, the world inhabited by the Na’vi, is a sight for sore eyes, an Edenic paradise. I still find my mind’s eye frequently drifting back to the fluorescent wonders of its nighttime forests (and to a lesser extent to the floating mountains which, being a bit picky, I found less convincing). No wonder people find the drab beiges and greys of the real world less beguiling. Though I’m not sure I could ever come to love the appearance of the Na’vi – or is that me simply expressing grotesque alienist prejudices?
- Full Fantasy Immersion: neither is there doubting the immersive effect of the action (we saw it in 3D, but i grew less aware of that as the movie progressed). It is bombastic, overwhelming and emotive: in other words everything you pay for in an escapist blockbuster. The whole point is to escape – in this case light-years away – so no wonder people have struggled to come back to earth. But it explains why I thoroughly enjoyed it – as did my 11-year old son Joshua.
But all of this also explains my tolerance at the time with the film’s:
- ultra-shallow characterisation – each is a mere cipher:
- crippled ex-marine gets legs (!) so goes native on ethically dubious undercover mission (Sully);
- military commander sees no shades of grey (Col Quaritch);
- determined female scientist (Augustine) battles those male bastions of military might and of corporate greed (personified by Selfridge (no doubt a descendant of the department store family)), to protect the precious objects of her study (Sigourney in Gorillas in the Mist, anyone);
- feisty female helicopter pilot suddenly disobeys orders and nobly sacrifices self for new cause (Chacone) etc etc),
- derivative plot
- ham-fisted moralising.
In fact, it’s rather ironic, is it not, how often 3D films have such 1D characters and plot. I can’t help but feel a degree of frustration that the decade+ amount of work invested in the incredible visuals and technology wasn’t ALSO applied to the traditional virtues of story, dialogue and character. Technology can never dispense with them. Cinema is merely a newly mediated advance on the Homeric bard telling stories of ancient heroes and wars. Which brings me to the next point
- Ancient Derivations: It’s always intrigued me how often science fiction reaches back to ancient history for templates – the Star Wars saga has always had resonances for classicists who studied the volatile power transfer from the senate of the Roman Republic to the imperial throne of the Augustan ‘Golden’ Age. And Avatar does something similar, despite the façade of extreme technological advance. It is that old archetype of more technologically advanced and aggressive power seeks to overcome the weaker but infinitely more noble savage society. The things said by the corporation miners about the Na’vi echo what has been said by imperialists down the ages – for instance, the Romans said some pretty rum things about the ancient Britons’ habits and fashion sense and about the virtues of the civilisation they were bringing (aka imposing). And then when it was our turn in the empire queue, the British had some pretty excruciating things to say about Africans and Asians. Etc etc. Now – to be clear, the virtues of the greatest science fiction is that it helps us to see present fact more clearly. But there are ways of doing this well, and not so well…
- Clod-Hopping Morality: but the biggest waves made by Avatar are surely political and religious. You have to be deliberately trying to ignore the point to miss them. Resonances with the invasion of Iraq are blatant (hey, look! – they invade to get hold of a precious raw material, and the offensive is even called ‘shock and awe’!!). And in the movie humans with their raw materialism (both philosophical and economic) and destructive, forest-raping and life-crushing technology (boys with their toys) are BAD (got that?); Na’vi with their Gaia-goddess tree-hugging spirituality (it’s raw pantheism and animism, in case you’re interested) and peace-loving (huh? sorry that should be peace-defending) bows & arrows are GOOD (got that too?). In fact, knowing that a war was coming (I’d checked it out to see whether this 12A film would be OK for an 11 year old boy – apart from a few scary monsters near the start, it basically is), I guessed almost immediately after meeting all the different protagonists, that the uber-baddy (Quaritch) would never be protected by his awesome techie toys but would end up at the uncomfortable end of a spear. Ha! That’ll learn him! That’s what comes of those who meddle with forces they could never understand!
Now, I don’t mind if movies have worldviews and messages that differ from mine. That’s expected and sometimes, even the point – and part of the function of good and great art is to help me experience someone else’s shoes for a time, to be immersed in another’s world. That’s why, for example, I love Homer (the poet not the Simpson – tho I enjoy him too) – I’m fascinated by the polytheism of ancient Greece not threatened by it. It’s why I love historical novels, why I’m enthralled by the Turkey of Orhan Pamuk’s books, the Baltimore of The Wire and the philosophical intelligence of Andrew Niccol’s science fiction films. Of course, it is brilliant if a Christian worldview can be convincingly and honestly articulated artistically (all too rare, sadly). But that’s not why I’m passionate about the arts.
So for all my enjoyment of Avatar — and yes, I would like to see it again (in 3D, preferably at an Imax!) because seeing it is its greatest asset — Avatar doesn’t really succeed. It is an incredibly sophisticated sledgehammer to crack the ecological nut (which is, of course, not to say that we shouldn’t find ways to get the human race to be good stewards of the planet). And sadly it will have absurd cultural effects (no doubt, just as Boris Johnson predicted), not least because we’re apparently in store for 2 sequels (I can’t wait!).
And after all… you know what happened when Pandora’s box got opened…