Tracing biblical melodic lines: Christopher Ash’s new overview ‘Remaking a Broken World’
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.
I do think that how you find thematic unity matters – any common melodic line must fit exegetically and naturally – so that once pointed out, one has the ‘aha’ moment of recognising what was there all along. That was certainly my experience 20 years ago when I first heard the Goldsworthy approach unpacked. It just made so much sense – and it is the basis of so much of what I’ve taught in overviews (I’ve lost count now of the number). If you’ve never read Goldsworthy, do so – or at least, start with Vaughan Roberts’ precis and popularisation of the approach in his God’s Big Picture. If there are any weaknesses (and aren’t there with everything?), they are far outweighed by the huge thrill of seeing the bible’s narrative develop in the way he describes. I owe a great deal to the Goldsworthy books.
But is it the only way?
Well, how can it be? For yes, I do honestly believe that the story of God’s Kingdom (whose prototype is revealed in Eden, and whose fulfilment is found in the new Jerusalem as a result of Christ’s victory) is foundational. But it can’t be the only way to cut the cake. Christopher Ash uses the analogy of camera angles near the start of his new book, Remaking a Broken World. He offers in it a fantastically creative but equally textual, alternative overview, not to replace the Kingdom paradigm, but actually to build on it (in fact he even recommends Vaughan Roberts’ as a good starting point).
Incidentally, this camera angle is not necessarily any better or worse than other camera angles. People sometimes ask how we can know whether a particular Bible overview is ‘the right one’. The answer is: they all are and none of them is, though some are more valuable than others. Imagine a photographer taking a photograph of a great sculpture for an illustrated book. No camera angle would be wrong, but some might show off the sculpture better than others. The test is whether or not a photo gives readers a good two-dimensional ‘feel’ for the majesty of the three-dimensional statue. (p xv)
Perhaps it’s because I’m reading about Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at the moment (incidentally, first performed in 1824, the year All Souls Langham Place was opened!), that it’s on my mind. But I do value the musical metaphor of listening out for melodic lines in texts. A symphony has great complexity – but a great symphony has means by which to bind them into a great and convincing unity, such as melodic lines. And so it is with the Bible.
A Provocative Melodic Line
The genius of Ash’s approach is to see God’s purposes expressed in the dual theme of his people being scattered and gathered. He bases this around a Bible tour of 9 places: Eden, Babel, Sinai, Jerusalem, Babylon, Golgotha, Pentecost, Church, & New Creation (see right). And once it’s pointed out, you see it everywhere – there’s a thrilling section, for example, in which Ash picks up the post-exilic context of prophetic hope (pp96-102). Prophet after prophet looks forward to the day of divine gathering and restoration. This isn’t simply the case of a concordance search for mentions of ‘gathering’. There are plenty of other passages that he could easily have quoted, all with a clear contextual appropriateness to the theme. It is clear: this is a genuinely biblical melodic line.
This alone makes this book an important contribution to growing library of popular level biblical theology. But it is no academic curiosity – it has huge pastoral significance, as Ash is well aware. In fact, I suspect that it was precisely this that motivated his research. Because it provocatively places the very idea of the community of God, and in particular the local church, centre stage.
If there is one thing that our African and Asian brothers and sisters berate the Western church for (quite apart from our materialism), it is our rampant individualism. And they are right to. It is such a blight – and it profoundly bleaches and diminishes the glories of God’s purposes, reducing them to a puny and pathetic Christian retirement package (rather like getting a gold watch for 50 years of service) – as if i was the centre of the cosmos. This is not to deny the wonders of what God does for individuals – it is merely to put it into its grandest perspective. As he says in section 8 on the Local Church (see the diagram):
The thesis of this chapter, indeed the theme of the book, is precisely this: the ordinary local church with all its imperfections, weakness, oddities and problems, has within it the seeds, the spiritual and relational blueprint, of a broken world remade… All over the world, we will see God rebuilding, repairing, remaking: and we see it in local churches. (p138)
And while the Goldsworthy Kingdom model is clearly corporate, it doesn’t really convey the startling centrality of the local church in God’s cosmic purposes as the Scattering/Gathering model does (while of course being entirely compatible with it).
A Dynamic Melodic Line
The other great asset of this overview is its dynamism. Perhaps it’s as simplistic a matter as having arrows on the diagram! But I gained a real sense of dynamic progress as read, as God’s purposes thrillingly sweep down the centuries. It is not that the kingdom model fails to do that – far from it.
- To my mind, grasping Goldsworthy’s kingdom model (click right to see it enlarged) is more like the completion of an eternal jigsaw puzzle – which is just as exciting when you first see the finished picture.
- But Ash’s Remaking a Broken World seemed more like music, a symphony with the ebbing and flowing of crescendos and diminuendos. And like the best of music, we get swept up into it, we get involved with it. Which is precisely what is meant to happen when we read the Bible – for we have our part to play in the Last Days Local Church Gathering of God’s people. Furthermore, it seemed to do greater justice to the reality of Christ’s mission in the gospels. It gives a cosmic perspective on why He was so magnetic and why people are still drawn to him.
On top of this, there were many fascinating insights (as with much of Ash’s writing). Here are just a few highlights:
- The analysis of the world’s attempts to remake a broken world in a post-Babel world was trenchant (from the horrors of apartheid and unity by brute force to the idealism of the United Nations – pp28-34)
- a very helpful analogy for idolatry from CS Lewis’ refuting the notion that the grief-stricken memory of a deceased loved one enables them to live on. (p59)
- his exposition of Psalm 122 with its joyful glorying in the joys of Jerusalem was a thrill (pp67-77)
- a very nice point about the inherent contradiction of saying that all religions are essentially the same and then claiming that religion is intrinsically divisive. (p166)
There were one or two points where I had questions – for example, I wondered, in the section on the Babylonian Exile, where passages like Jeremiah 29 would fit in? Because there the prophet calls on the exiles to pray for the shalom of the city (Jeremiah 29:7) – which in this instance is emphatically not Jerusalem, but Babylon. How one handles this has, i would suggest, implications for how we relate to the reality of the world in which we live in now, despite being in spiritual exile ourselves. However, this is a small quibble – and even in this part of Jeremiah, he encourages them with the promise of gathering in time.
All in all, this is a wonderful read – stimulating, engaging, passionate, credible. I’m going to be recommending it left right and centre.