Monday, October 16, 2017

Those who wait

My friend Tanya Marlow has written a book about waiting.  Waiting, which we're so bad at.  Waiting, which is just a part of life.  Waiting, which is essential to our faith.  Honestly, it's not the sort of book I normally read (it's all creative and stuff, and I usually take my theology straight up and a little more staid) - but I think you might benefit from reading it.  Yes, you.  Because you're waiting too, aren't you, for something?




The majority of the book is given over to re-tellings of the stories of four Biblical characters - Sarah, Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Mary.  The stories are narrated in the first person, and each split into five short chapters.  There is some great writing here, and a sense of immediacy which really pulls you into the world of the Bible.  Importantly, on only a few occasions (e.g. the first chapter of the Mary narrative) does the imaginative detail end up carrying the main point of the chapter - always a risk with these sorts of reconstructions!  The story-telling here is genuinely inviting us to look again at the Bible, without on the whole obscuring the Biblical narrative behind its own story-telling.  

And this may not be that exciting to many readers, but I was really pleased to have an appendix in which Tanya explains some of the interpretive choices she has made, and some of the ways in which she has avoided making interpretive choices (e.g. what exactly happened to Sarah in Egypt?)  Having that working on display is both a fascinating insight into the creative process, and a great reminder that Tanya is a responsible exegete and insightful theologian as well as a story-teller.

So, waiting.  How useful it is to be reminded that waiting for God to act has been a central experience of the fathers and mothers of our faith throughout the centuries!  Through the lenses of these stories we see different aspects of what waiting means: disappointment, delay, doubt, disgrace.  No doubt different stories will resonate with different people; perhaps listening to and engaging with the stories that resonate less immediately with us will help us to understand better the struggles of others.  But Tanya is not just reflecting on how hard it is to wait.  We are also reminded through these stories that we are waiting for someone - for God - to act: and we are reminded that he does indeed act, even when we don't see it.  It is worth it.

The book is rounded off by a fifth section, which moves away from story-telling to apply some of the insights we've hopefully picked up along the way into our own personal stories.  This section is brief but astute; I could have had more of it.  Then there is a second appendix with questions for group Bible study, which highlights that this book could be used in lots of different ways.  It would work really well as an advent course for homegroups, for example.

So, no, I wouldn't normally read this sort of book, but I'm glad I read this one.  The theme is important, and Tanya is just the person to tackle it.  And despite my general preference for a weighty theological tome, I wonder on reflection whether this isn't just the way to write about waiting - because after all, the wait isn't just a doctrine, but a lived experience of groaning and hoping.

As Tanya helps us to pray:


Lord Jesus,
Who waited for centuries in the light of heaven
Nine months in the warm darkness of a womb
And three days in a tomb

Be with us in the waiting, we pray.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Two books on truth

I had cause recently to do a bit of reading around the concept of truth, and two books in particular caught my eye.  This is not a review or even a detailed overview of either, but just some reflections on the different trajectories truth is taking at the moment in our culture.

Matthew D'Ancona is a political journalist, and his book Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back deals primarily with the apparent departure of truth from the public sphere in the UK and USA.  Most of his examples of post-truth are derived from the Donald or the Brexit Referendum.  The diagnosis of where we've got to, and the widespread loss of trust that follows a culture of pervasive lying, is good.  I think he doesn't go deep enough, philosophically, but maybe it's not that sort of book.  In particular, I think it would be worth spending more time pondering whether the practitioners of post-truth would see themselves as lying.  I think the situation is more like something 'beyond truth and falsehood' - the opposites of truth-telling and lying have both become outmoded as concepts, and instead we're left with politicians and other public figures telling stories for power.

The solution D'Ancona proposes is less good.  There is an alarming section where he seems very excited about the future potential to have AI weeding out 'fake news' from the internet.  Then there is a desperately naive attempt to return to modernity - he actually invokes the values of the Enlightenment a number of times.  We must demand that we be told the truth.  We must insist on facts.  But all this is to write as if the 19th and 20th centuries had never happened - as if Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud had never put pen to paper.  The insistence that there is a value-free, interpretation-free, straightforward truth to be had is really not going to get us out of this mess.  He seems to recognise this, because he also talks about the need for those who support Enlightenment values to work hard at telling a better story, constructing a more convincing narrative.  I'm afraid that within the framework of the book, this just comes across as a call for propaganda.  The 'new modernism' which D'Ancona appears to be advocating comes across as alarmingly totalitarian, for someone must surely be appointed to decide which truth is the real truth (at least until we can train the robots to do it for us!) and which narratives should be ruled out of court.

John Caputo's book Truth: The Search for Wisdom in the Postmodern Age is more philosophical, which is what you would expect from a professional philosopher.  It also takes a much longer historical view, dividing the story of Western culture into three periods - Ancient, Modern (Enlightenment), and Postmodern.  That perspective enables Caputo to see that something significant was lost at the Enlightenment.  For the Ancients, truth was something to be loved, something to be pursued, something that had a claim on us.  Truth was related to goodness and beauty and the good life.  The Moderns, on the other hand, separated truth out, made it just bare facts.  In Kant, truth is no longer something to be loved; 'truth' is just the label we give to whatever propositions and experiences come out when we make the right and appropriate use of our faculties.  Caputo uses religion as a test-case for how this view of truth works, and that enables him to show how much is lost.  For the Moderns, religion (along with most anything that gives life value) is excluded from the realm of truth, and therefore from having any real content at all.  Postmodernism is a response to this, an attempt to recover that sense of truth as something to be loved and lived.  But this not a return to the Ancient world; there is no going back.  Rather, this is living into an always-open future.  Caputo uses Derrida (whether accurately or not I couldn't say; Derrida is an unexplored land for me) to argue for a vision of truth that is closely related to whatever is open to the future.  That is true which will carry us into the future, which is open.  That is false which closes off the future.

So Caputo's response to the crisis of truth is to push deeper into Postmodernism.  From a Christian perspective, it's hard not to see this as some sort of eschatological project, but with an indefinitely delayed eschaton: the truth is always over the next hill.  Anyone who claims to have the truth is inherently proved wrong, because truth is always in the future.  There is, then, a criterion for deciding what is true and what is false - but it doesn't seem to have much to do with reality per se.

I think these are basically the two secular responses to the truth crisis: back to modernity or forward into deeper postmodernity.  The latter is more exciting and, to me at least, appealing.  But will it help us, really?  Won't we just end up with a series of competing eschatological visions, with their attendant narratives about the present?  When it hits the street, won't this just boil down to 'I have my truth and you have yours'?

Of course, I think the answer lies in the fact that the One who is the truth has been here amongst us - that one life amongst the many human lives of history is the truth to which every other life, every fact, every aspect of reality, is related.  But that is another story.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Feet of clay

In the last few weeks there has been a lot in the air about Karl Barth and his relationship to his 'secretary' Charlotte von Kirchsbaum.  It has long been known that this relationship created difficulty in Barth's marriage, and that Barth's decision to have von Kirchsbaum move into the family home was a source of great pain to his wife.  Of course there were rumours that this was a sexual affair.  Recently various private letters have been translated into English and published, which have effectively confirmed that this was indeed an illicit affair - whether sexual or not (I'm still not sure it's clear) - and represented a significant failure on Barth's side to keep his marriage vows.  To put it more bluntly, Barth's family life was characterised by his own sin, of which he never (it seems) repented.

I wasn't personally particularly rocked by these revelations; I think I'd always assumed that the rumours were true, so I've factored this in to my thinking about Barth already!  Others were really shaken.  The thing with Barth, for those of us who love his theology, is that he often feels like more than just a writer.  We feel like we've thought alongside him, grown up through his help.  It's tough to realise that this man who has meant so much to us was compromised so completely.

So what do you do when you are let down in this way?

1.  First, you check your heart.  Have I, in fact, made an idol of this person, of their teaching or their life?  Have they perhaps been exalted to a place that ought to be occupied only by the Lord Jesus?  It won't always be easy to tell - to be genuinely grieved and shaken by the defection of a mentor or the sin of a teacher is to a certain extent appropriate, and if that person has been particularly helpful to you the grief can be strong.  I've appreciated Bobby Grow's series of reflections on this in relation to Barth (first article linked, but read on through the next few posts on his blog to see the progression).  Working it through is fine, and indeed essential, but at the end of the day you weren't meant to be putting that much faith in this other human being; they were only the ones who pointed you to The Other Human Being.  Get your heart right.

2.  Second, you check their doctrine.  If a teacher has fallen into gross sin, that does not necessarily imply anything about their teaching - but on the other hand, it might.  Was there always some idea, some misconception or untruth, lurking in this teacher's theology which proved to be the doorway, or the justification, for wickedness?  With regard to Barth, I'm not convinced there was.  The one spot where I want to do some more thinking is around whether Barth took seriously enough not only God's wrath - this he treated very seriously! - but the possibility of this wrath being visited on actual unrepentant sinners.  Is it possible that Barth's wide hope for salvation was connected to his own moral failure?  There's no real way to know, but it bears some scrutiny.

3.  Third, you acknowledge that every human teacher is a two-way signpost.  A Christian teacher, if they understand what they are about at all, seeks to be a signpost to Christ - a finger pointing in his direction.  But all Christian teachers are also sinful human beings, and so there will always be something in their teaching or life which points the other way.  Where sin is exposed, and it becomes apparent in exactly what ways a particular person has pointed away from Jesus, we can use even those failures as warning signs.  For me, Barth is both the person who has taught me more about Jesus than any other uninspired author, and the person who has shown me that everything can so easily be undermined by sin.  That latter can be as useful to me as the former if I take notice of it.

4.  Fourth, you say 'there but for the grace of God...' - and you pray.  "Watch your life and doctrine closely", says the apostle.  When we see a hero fail, whether in an area of life or doctrine, there is a temptation to become bitter - see how I have been failed!  But we know - surely we know - that there is nothing in us that makes us better.  This doesn't mean that we have to brush over the hero's failure; we ought to take it seriously.  We ought to condemn it strongly.  It is no false moralism to condemn what God condemns.  But at the same time, we need to acknowledge that unless God keeps us, we too will fail and fall.  And then we need to ask him to keep us.  Keep us from sin that will undermine our teaching.  Keep us from error that will point others away from Christ.  Keep us, keep us, keep us.

I will keep reading Karl Barth and benefiting from his insight.  I am determined also to benefit from his failure, as odd as that sounds.  I will be redoubling the watch on my life and doctrine, and I would encourage you to do the same.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

The pure original

Last week, the theologian Peter Enns tweeted this:
 Now, I have a lot of issues with Enns.  He is pretty much the embodiment of the slippery slope argument which prevents many evangelicals from engaging creatively with the doctrine of Scripture, and that's a shame.  In many ways this particular tweet captures the nature of most of my concerns with him: at one level, he is so obviously right, but where is he going with it?

In what sense is this tweet obviously true?  Well, it is true that the history of Christianity (I feel unqualified to speak to Judaism) is a history of theological adjustment.  Doctrine develops, course corrections are made, different emphases are brought to the forefront at different times.  And I think it is also (more or less) true that Christianity would cease to exist if this process ceased.  I don't mean that Christianity as a world religion would roll up and disappear - and I suspect Enns doesn't mean that either.  I mean that Christianity would cease to be a vital force.  At the very least, different cultures and philosophies mean that the core gospel message has to be expressed and re-expressed.  Theological concepts which were an adequate sign-post to the gospel at one time may communicate falsehood after a couple of centuries.  So, yes, theological adjustment is vital to the existence of Christianity.

It's the last bit, though, that is troubling.  Again, to some extent it's true.  There is no point in history where the theological consensus of the church could be held up as the perfection of theology - no, not even the immediate post-apostolic period.  After all, you'd rather have an explicit Nicene doctrine of the Trinity, wouldn't you?  I would.

But the direction of travel causes me anxiety.  The last clause - the absence of a pure original - makes me ask: what, then, controls the 'adjustments' that must be made to theology over time?  What should drive and motivate those adjustments?  How will we know if the right adjustments are being made?

There is a danger here that we fall into a fully post-modern theology.  Post-modernism makes truth an eschatological thing, but with an indefinitely postponed eschaton.  Truth is always in the future.  At best we are always inclining toward truth, but we never reach it.  In a sense, truth could be defined as that which has a future, which remains open to the future.  Now, I accept that there is an eschatological element to truth.  I accept that theology is always, or ought always to be, theologia viatorum, theology on the way.  We never have the finished product.

But...

The last word, the eschatological Word, has actually been spoken.  There is a pure original.  His name is Jesus Christ, and we know him through his commissioned witnesses, the prophets and apostles.  This does not preclude the constant adjustment; in fact, it necessitates it.  The final Word having been spoken, we have to continually ask whether we have heard it, and whether what we are saying conforms to it.  Yes, there is an openness to the future here: to future correction, to the ultimate future of the eschaton.  But that ultimate future is none other than Jesus Christ - the one who will be is the one who was (and who is).  Adjustment to our theology must therefore come from him.  Maybe that's what Enns meant.  But I fear not.

Friday, September 29, 2017

War in heaven

The Biblical record suggests that Satan has three broad powers: the power to tempt (of course archetypically in Genesis 3); the power to trouble and oppress (as we see in the gospel accounts of demonic oppression - the explicit link to Satan is made in Luke 10); and finally the power to accuse.

From Scripture it seems clear that, as terrible as Satan's power to tempt and trouble certainly is, it is his power to accuse which is most terrible.  Zechariah 3 contains a powerful vision of Joshua the High Priest standing before the LORD's angel and being subjected to the accusatory force of Satan.  The terrifying thing about the vision is that Joshua is dressed in filthy rags.  That is to say, Joshua - the High Priest, the one who is to represent Israel before the thrice-holy God, the holy pinnacle of the people - is besmeared with sin and guilt, presumably both his own and the representative guilt of the nation.  Satan accuses him before God, and look: his guilt is apparent.  He is literally wearing his guilt.  The accusation surely must stick.

The terrifying thing about Satan's power to accuse is that it is really just a species of telling the truth.

In the vision, God and his angel (!) intervene: not to deny the truth of Satan's accusation, but to take away Joshua's guilt.  That's the only way he can be a "brand plucked from the fire".  He needs, and gets, new clothes: righteousness, salvation.

The logic of how that happens - and how it can be right - is not explored in Zechariah, except to demonstrate that God is free to be merciful.  In Revelation 12 I think we do see some of the logic, albeit wrapped in apocalyptic.  Here we see war in heaven: Michael and his angels versus "that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan" with his angels.  Michael is triumphant, the devil is cast down.  There is no room in heaven any longer for Satan.



Lest we be tempted to see this as a representation of a primeval fall of the devil, the context is clearly the birth of Israel's Child, the one who is born to rule all the nations, who is caught up to God and his throne.  Here in a couple of verses we have the whole career of Christ, and it is the completion of his great work which leads to the successful assault of Michael and his cohorts on the forces of Satan.

When Jesus went up to his throne, having conquered sin and death, Michael arose (see Daniel 12!) and made war on Satan, casting him down.  Satan can't appear in heaven anymore.

In Revelation, the saints who see this sight rejoice over Satan, and in particular they name him "the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them day and night before our God".  But he no longer has access to our God.  His power to accuse is taken away.

Satan's power to accuse me always rested on my objective guilt.  But my guilt is taken away by the Lord Jesus.  So what accusation can he bring?  The military victory of Michael rests on the sacrificial victory of the Lord Jesus Christ.  And it is a complete victory.

Satan can still tempt and trouble, and he will do so.  But his power to accuse is taken away.  He can act against us on earth, but Michael and all the hosts of heaven stand armed with the proclamation of Christ's victory to prevent him from ever acting against us in heaven.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Daniel 10-12

This past Sunday we finished up a series on the book of Daniel at CCC, with a foolish but (I like to think) valiant attempt to cover the last three chapters in half an hour.  I've really enjoyed the series, both preaching it and hearing it preached.  When we started, I assumed that the really useful stuff would be the reflections on living as an exile from the early chapters - and that we would only persevere into the weird apocalyptic stuff in the second half of the book in order to avoid the charge of cowardice.

In fact, although the early chapters were indeed helpful for thinking through living for Christ in a world that doesn't know him, it has been the later chapters that have had the most impact on me.  We live in turbulent times, and the book of Daniel reflects and speaks into turbulent times.  Here are the three points I made from chapters 10-12:

In chapter 10, we see that there is more going on than we see.  Daniel prays, and an angelic messenger is dispatched.  But the messenger is held up, detained in conflict with another spiritual being, who seems to represent the interests of the Persian empire.  The message does not get through until archangelic reinforcement arrives in the person of Michael.  What are we, readers in the twenty-first century West, meant to make of all this?  Let's face it, if we stripped the chapter of all the features which make it unacceptable to a modern mindset, there wouldn't be much left.  Instead I think we need to recognise that there just is a whole world of spiritual being about which we know very little, but with which we are able to interact (e.g. in prayer).  There are angels out there, folks.

As an aside, one almost instinctive reaction to this which I have is to feel hard done by that I have never seen any angels.  But that is daft.  We Christians have been given knowledge of things which the men of the OT (like Daniel) longed to see, and which even the very angels themselves long to understand as we do.

In chapter 11, we see that most of what we do see is not (ultimately) important.  The chapter rehearses the long, back-and-forth conflict between the Hellenistic dynasties of the Ptolemies and the Seleucids.  Assuming, as I think I do, that this is seen in prospect rather than retrospect, two things are proved.  Firstly, from the fact that the angel can tell Daniel exactly what will happen, we see that God is genuinely sovereign over the affairs of nations - nothing surprises him.  But secondly, from the way that the report is given, it is clear that the affairs of nations are really of significance only as the backdrop against which God's people can be faithful or not.  The tale as told signifies nothing, despite all its sound and fury - and comes to nothing in the end.  We need to worry less about the news and think more about what it means to know God.

In chapter 12, we see that there is real hope for those who persevere.  The corporate hope presented in the chapter is that Michael the archangel will lead the forces of heaven to a triumph which will vindicate Israel; and the individual hope is that even if you die before that happens, you will be raised from the dust.  Revelation 12 tells us that this victory of Michael's has occurred - and it is because of the work of Christ.  Humanity is in principle (and in first-fruits-actuality) raised from the dead, because Jesus is raised.  The hope is real.  We can persevere.

One thing I take away from all this is that we can relax.  We don't have to change the course of the world.  We just have to know God, be faithful in our little bit of allotted time, and look with calm faith to see the things unseen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Irreversible and Victorious

The eschatological climax of God's historical self-communication, in which this self-communication becomes manifest as irreversible and victorious, is called Jesus Christ. Karl Rahner
The Israelite of the Old Testament lives with a certain fear that perhaps the favour of God will be withdrawn.  You can see it in the people removing their ornaments and mourning at the prospect of Canaan without Yahweh.  You can see it in David, pleading that God's Holy Spirit not be taken from him.  You can see it in the final words of Lamentations.

In each case, the fear relates to human sin.  The dreadful thought is two-fold: firstly, that the patience of God might be exhausted, and that this last sin might be the one which causes him to finally turn away in disgust; secondly, that the evil of humanity - my evil - might prove to be invincible, and that even if God continues to be patient, all his patience might be in vain, because I will not be changed.

Might God walk back on his covenant promise?  Surely he would be justified.

Might my sin be such that his grace will find no foothold in me?  Surely that fits with what I know of myself.

But in Jesus Christ, God shows himself absolutely committed to communicating himself to us in grace and mercy, and absolutely powerful to overcome our opposition to that grace and mercy.  God has taken humanity to himself in his Son, uniting himself to us forever.  Moreover, the Son has endured everything that this 'uniting' means for him: the death of the cross.  And he has been raised, living again.

In the being of Jesus Christ, as it was lived out in Palestine two thousand years ago, we see God walking a path which is irreversible, committed to the point of death and beyond.  Just as nobody can reverse the resurrection and the cross, so nobody can undo God's great love.

And we see God walking a path which is victorious.  Just as nobody could keep Christ in the grave when his Father called him out, so nobody can prevent God's work in the lives even of dead-in-sin human beings.