So I should be upfront about this one. It’s a cheat – because I’m not the instigator of this particular combination – the poet was. And it’s one of his best-loved – although the subject matter is not cheering, it’s certainly all too real. Despite being inspired by a renaissance painting of a greek myth! 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
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
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.
I read this book very quickly, while away on half term last week. It is a brilliantly researched and well-written account of a world-changing tragedy – and there is no small, grim irony that this is the week in which the Porguguese island of Madeira has suffered more natural disaster.
That Lisbon 1755 was a terrible moment (earthquake followed by rampant fires followed by tsunami) is not in doubt and simply as a human story, it is entirely deserving of study. Indeed, it was such a huge event that the impact was felt 100s of miles away, and the sea was affected on the other side of the Atlantic (in the Caribbean). It thus qualified as one of only two ‘teletsunami‘ (a tsunami that has travelled over 1000km) ever recorded in the Caribbean.
But its wider importance cannot be underestimated either, because of the philosophical and moral repercussions it had on European thought. As Paice describes Voltaire’s brilliant deconstruction of prevailing ideas:
In Voltaire’s deft hands the Lisbon earthquake became the vehicle for an assault on optimism and the orthodox view of divine Providence which would change the way people thought for ever; and it in turn it arguably became the last disaster in which God held centre stage. (p195)
The reasons are many – but if a city could ever have claimed to have been ‘Christian’ Lisbon was one that would have tried (although many Protestants at the time including the likes of Wesley and Whitefield would have disputed it). It’s Catholicism was very strong – perhaps 1/6th of the population were so called ‘religioso‘ – but its forms were (even by many european Catholics’ admissions) rampantly corrupt and hypocritical. Worse, though, was that the first big quake struck at 10am on Saturday 1st November 1755 – which was at precisely the moment that many of Lisbon’s citizens would have been in church. For 1st November is also All Saints’ Day, and this was a huge feast day in the life of the city. Was this God’s judgment on their sham piety? Or some grim divine error? Or did it in fact have anything to do with God at all?
Paice has gathered an impressive range of sources, mainly from visiting English traders or resident English merchants, or from aristocrats passing through on their European Grand Tours. These bring the event home, steering us clear of the history of hollow statistics. He manages regularly to find the ‘mot juste‘ from one source or another, and thus creates what is a very readable account. This is no small feat in itself.
Another, very positive feature is the introductory section (pp1-64 – entitled A Gilt-Edged Empire). This is excellent in setting up the drama of the tragedy – it puts into perspective so much of why people could reach such harsh and grim conclusions about Lisbon’s suffering, as well as why it took so long to recover.
My only criticisms are slight (and they are slight, because i was thoroughly gripped by the book):
- the impact on European philosophy and thinking is not greatly developed (although the short chapters that engage with Voltaire and his Poeme & [[ASIN:0140455108 Candide]] are clear and helpful). The philosophical aftershocks of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake are still felt today, long after the physical event has disappeared from memory. It was fascinating (in a chilling kind of way) to hear echoes in the book of some remarks made about the 2010 Haiti earthquake – their seeds had sown in the response to Lisbon. Of course, this book was written in 2008, but the modern resonances in the aftermath to the Indian Ocean tsunami, for example, could have been drawn in more. The book’s title is certainly accurate because earthquakes were clearly seen as caused directly by God’s judgment. But it would be interesting to see further how this interpretation has been relentlessly and deliberately challenged since, not least by Voltaire’s heirs.
- Maps! There is a simple map at the start of the book – but because this book is so focused on a whole city and its environs (one I’ve never visited), it would have been greatly improved by better maps so that the relentless accounts of the disasters spreading through the town could be more easily followed. As someone who does not speak Portuguese and who does not know the city, I was confused on several occasions (but my hunch is that better maps would have helped). To my mind, history books can never have enough maps!
However, despite these minor gripes, this is an excellent book. Fascinating, informative and provocative. As it was one of those events that made us what we are in contemporary, secularised Europe, this is a book that deserves a wide readership. How we handle these challenges, which were so well formulated by the likes of Voltaire, continues to this day for those wanting to uphold an orthodox understanding of divine providence. But it has arguably got harder – for not only have natural disasters ratcheted up in their horror, so too has the depth and extent of man’s inhumanity to man (e.g. the Holocaust).
But if you could get up close and personal, you’d see that this is in fact the entire response that God gives to Habakkuk’s second complaint against him.
The reason I photoshopped this, however, was to make a point in yesterday’s sermon on the next installment of our Habakkuk. Because at the start of his response, God says (in Hab 2:2):
Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it.
But evocatively, the NRSV puts like this:
Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.
Which is what gave me the idea. And if Habakkuk had to put a summary of this chapter on a motorway sign, I have a hunch that it might have looked a bit like this:
Having had the chance to publish John Stott’s 1952 Parochial Evangelism online, back in January, here is another next instalment from the archives. I was sorting out my bookshelves (at last) and came across his little booklet called “Why Do The Innocent Suffer? The Message of Job” (from 1956). Once again Uncle John has given his permission to have this released in this way, so that we can see what he was up to over 50 years ago!
How this came about:
- It started life as a talk given at the All Souls Doctors’ service (in 1955): because All Souls sits in the heart of London’s medical fraternity (Wigmore St & Harley St are in the parish), this service used to be a regular occurrence.
- Then it was written up for the the Evangelical Alliance’s national magazine
- Then it was published as a small booklet (for all of 6d!) and re-released several times
As with the 1952 booklet, all the hallmarks of Stott’s writing are already clearly evident:
- a thorough, detailed grasp of the text in hand
- a crystal clarity and succinctness
- nice symmetry in the headings (but shock horror – 4 points here not 3!)
- apt (if brief) pastoral applications
There are some brilliant moments. I was particularly struck by the beauty as well as the profound challenge of this paragraph on the 4th comforter, Elihu:
Do not the buds of Christlikeness break into their finest blossom during or after a period of trial? Do not the flowers of faith and fortitude grow best in a sickroom? Does not the Lord Jesus become more real and precious when we lie on our back and are forced to look up into His face? Does not our moral and spiritual perspective become adjusted when we are snatched from the fevered rush of life and are transferred into the seclusion and the tranquillity of illness? Do we not come to value our heavenly treasure more highly when we have lost our earthly health or possessions, relatives or friends? God’s purpose is to transform us into the beautiful image of His Son Jesus, and one of His methods is to allow us to suffer. Elihu has a real contribution to make in this debate. But his is not the last word.
Read the whole thing to see what the last word is!