Q regulars will be aware that issues related to depression come up here from time to time. One or two have encouraged me to be a bit more open about such things and to pick up a few things that others might find helpful, or at least a resonance.
So here are a couple of extended quotations from Walter Brueggemann’s most recent book, Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks. These paragraphs jumped out at me from his middle section on the need for prophetic grief in the face of contemporary suffering, In this he echoes the mourning of Jeremiah and Lamentations in particular. Read more
Well, I feel I rather drew the short straw at ASLP on Sunday with Joshua 11-12 as my passage – but then actually, each of the sections in the series has had its moments, so I realise I wasn’t alone! But this section provides a summary of Israel’s conquest of the Land in the preceding 10 chapters, concluding with its triumphant list of 31 indigenous kings beaten and executed. Not only that, but in passing it has all kinds of profoundly difficult lines, not least Joshua 11:6 and Joshua 11:20. Read more
Well, the boy’s done good again. For most of the weekend, Joshua (aka Bananamationman) worked on a very ambitious white-board stopmotion narrating the story of the Creation from Genesis 1-2. It’s frustratingly brief – but then when you realise it took around 11 hours of drawing and photographing each move, you can understand! There are some lovely touches – my particular highlights are the waves, the fish and the bird.
Awesome. Beams of paternal pride pour forth!
The book that has occupied my thoughts for much of the summer is that almost hidden gem of the OT, the Book of Ruth. It was the focus of this year’s All Souls week away, and so my talks are issued as a free podcast. What blew me away is that of all the books in the OT, it is perhaps the most unrelentingly positive and inspiring. This is despite the fact that its dark historical and literary context was the Book of Judges, and that the suffering and vulnerability of 2 of the protagonists, Naomi and Ruth, were very real. Read more
As Q regulars will know, Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book – The Art of Spiritual Reading is a favourite. As part of BibleFresh (the 400th Anniversary celebrations of the King James), we decided to devote the summer term’s studies for our Fellowship Groups to looking at passages inspired by the book. Each passage looks at how the Bible itself describes its impact on the believer’s life. 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
A gentle, initially distant, rhythm guitar draws us into this album Half You Half Me by New York duo Girls in Trouble. But when the gorgeously fluid voice of Alicia Jo Rabins begins, one is stopped short by the arresting incongruity of the opening line: We are androgynous, double-faced beings. Read more
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
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:
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.
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)
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
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.
Following yesterday’s review of Remaking A Broken World, those lovely chaps at 10ofThose have offered a once in a life time offer (well, for the time being, anyway)
£2 off the price – for 1 week only – and what’s more it’s already discounted.
Too good to miss
Make sure you add in promotional code: meynell200
Some years ago, I found myself in the middle of an awkward, and at bizarre moments heated, discussion. It was all to do with how one understands scriptural unity, and what the best way to articulate and summarise that unity. In other words, what’s the best way to do a bible overview? One side suggesting it didn’t really matter; the other side was strongly advocating that the only way was to follow the Graeme Goldsworthy Kingdom model (as articulated in his Gospel & Kingdom trilogy and According to Plan amongst others). I found myself more or less disagreeing with both, for different reasons. Read more
In early 2009, the then poet laureate, Andrew Motion gave an interview in the Guardian in which he lamented the pervasive ignorance about the Bible. He made it quite clear that he is not a believer; he is merely concerned about biblical illiteracy for cultural reasons. For such ignorance effectively closes the shutters on swathes of English literature, not to mention generations of western creativity. Consequently he calls on schools to teach the Bible with far greater rigour. That this is needed is not in doubt (as CODEC’s recent research in Durham demonstrates). Maggi Dawn’s new book, The Writing on the Wall, is one positive and timely response to this need, coming as it does in time for next year’s 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.
Maggi is both an accomplished professional musician and theologian – and she’s now a Cambridge college chaplain. As a result, she is eminently qualified to write a book designed to introduce people to the biblical moorings and roots of western culture. As she says in the preface, it comes as the result of undergraduates knocking on her door to ask about various biblical allusions. Her aim is thus to offer an all-too-brief introduction to the bible’s impact. This is clearly ambitious! After all, how on earth do you justice in 240 pages (with nicely spaced text) to a complex and ancient anthology (with 1500 double-columned and densely spaced pages)? And that’s before you even begin to think about 2000 years of cultural influences and trends. But she makes a really good stab at it – readable, informative, and, occasionally very illuminating. She covers the ground succinctly, from Genesis to Revelation, focusing a few pages on each major development or biblical genre. Inevitably, it is uneven in its treatment and the decisions on what to focus on will have been relatively subjective.
Pearls before swine?!
But it is important to recognise that this is no one-volume commentary, nor a comprehensive history of interpretation. Nor is it a history of western art and culture. Instead, it is in the business of making connections and touching on allusions, in everything from medieval frescoes to Led Zeppelin, via Jonathan Swift and Wilfred Owen, Rembrandt and Banksy, Handel’s Messiah & Daniel Lanois, and The Shawshank Redemption and CS Lewis’ Narnia. If anything, it felt as if there was more high art than popular culture, not that this mattered particularly. It would be interesting to know, however, whether or not that was as much a reflection of Maggi’s interests as of a declining influence of the Bible.
Because it is aimed at biblical novice, it is excellent that the various scriptural passages are quoted in full, and sometimes at length. People do then actually read the texts themselves. And because the precise phrasing of early English versions (such as Tyndale’s, Coverdale’s or the King James) is what Shakespeare (for example) alludes to, she helpfully places them side by side relevant passages. So as a provocation for getting people to read the BIble for themselves, this book is a useful resource.
There were many pearls, too:
- I’d no idea, for instance, about the suffragette origins of Hubert Parry’s setting of Blake’s Jerusalem (and remember singing it lustily, but obliviously, in the last chapel of every term at my straight-laced all-boys school!) (p238). The irony is rather delicious!
- It was also very moving to read of John Coltrane’s appropriation of Nunc Dimittis (p163) and heart-breaking to reflect on the misappropriation of Mary Magdalene’s name in the so-called Magdalene laundries (p191).
- It was good to find a fellow-enthusiast of van Gogh’s colours (p183) which I’ve raved about before,
- and to discover the patristic origins of the common misconception of there being 3 kings visiting the infant Christ (rather than an unspecified number of astrologers) (p159).
So for all these and many other reasons, this is a very enjoyable book indeed.
Any quibbles, I suspect, derive from Maggi’s sheer ambition with the book. I felt that there were moments when the lines between literary context, textual interpretation, and subsequent artists’ creative licence got blurred. For instance, in a fascinating, extended section on Handel’s Messiah, one could be forgiven for concluding that the notion of Jesus’ royal identity was contrived by the librettist Charles Jennens to suit his controversial non-juror political views (p138). Of course, I’m sure that’s not what is intended – messianic expectation is consistent in the OT and Jesus’ Davidic credentials is a pervasive NT motif. Monarchy is not just Jennens’ preoccupation (intriguing though it was to learn about his views) but the Bible’s too. And one might expect an entire work called Messiah to have such a royal preoccupation!
Secondly, because the book is aimed at the uninitiated, I felt that there was a bit of an opportunity missed to offer a theological framework for the actual nature of the Bible. I know space, readability and trade descriptions are all issues here. But what is it that holds the controversial and difficult elements together with the more beloved and comforting aspects? Is there an overarching, binding narrative? And how does that affect the way the Bible itself treats previous texts? Furthermore, there is a tendency to accepting a more historically sceptical view, especially of the OT (although there were exceptions such as the sections on the Genesis flood (p39) and the fall of Jericho (p75)). Compounded with the sometimes anthropocentric handling of stories (I was mildly surprised to see the story of David & Bathsheba without mentioning God or the courageous intervention of Nathan (p96)), one could be forgiven for concluding that the Bible is merely a collection of stories and responses to the human search for the divine. For there is enough within the texts themselves that has caused believers for millennia to see that there is more to these writings than that. Such an approach is perhaps the reason for some of the hardest aspects of the Bible being avoided – the section on eschatology at the end was notable for not having any bible texts quoted but dismissed as a result of the so-called “kinder theology” of F D Maurice (p233). This was a shame because the handling of the similarly tough Egyptian Plagues earlier was sensitive to their appropriation by victims of injustice like the African-American slaves (p70). Working as I do now with many who were, or are, victims of religious persecution, I’m not sure they would be as quick to define the dismissal of future justice as ‘kinder’.
A guide for further discoveries
Having said all this, though, these do not undermine the value of the book – especially because it is arguable that they go beyond its inevitably limited scope. I enjoyed and learned a great deal from The Writing on the Wall. I found myself regularly underlining and making notes of things to follow up. I guess for those who are familiar with the Bible, this will be a useful guide to extra-biblical paths not yet travelled. And for those familiar with western culture, vice versa! It was a huge shame (and perhaps frustration to Maggi herself) that it wasn’t lavishly illustrated (I guess copyright nightmares made that prohibitive) – and I didn’t always have the patience to look up things she discussed. But I have started working through a few of the pieces that I didn’t previously know. (For those interested in going even further, below are one or two other more specific sources that some might want to use). As a readable introduction, this is a really helpful addition to any bookshelf (and even more so when it comes out in paperback!). It takes us on a thrilling cultural adventure.
Staying with the folks in Norfolk again for half term. In a nearby village, a friend of theirs (Lorie Lain-Rogers – see below) is part of a group (Call2Prayer) that has set up a 1:1 scale reconstruction of the OT Tabernacle. I don’t know much about this group, but recreating the Tabernacle is a fascinating idea. It travels the country apparently – so I suppose you can book it if you want to.
They’ve tried to do everything as authentically and faithfully as possible (from the clear and explicit instructions in the Pentateuch) – though I’m not 100% clear about whether or not the original had provisions for parking
Most striking to me was its size – despite not being in a desert but enjoying glorious Norfolk sunshine in a fabulous garden, one could well imagine the tribal elders gathering in the space within the linen walls. Anyway, here are a few pics – click to get to the rest…
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.