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