Thursday, August 31, 2006


Time for a break from the book reviews.

I hate adverts; I'm very glad I don't have a TV. Even so, I get bombarded by adverts for this and adverts for that through my door and by e-mail. When I had a landline phone, there too. I got to the point of hanging up whenever I heard an Indian-sounding voice at the end of the phone. Sorry, but it's true. I know there are much funnier things I could have done, but I didn't usually have the time. When I do watch TV, half the adverts seem designed specifically to annoy, to lodge the brand in my head. The kingdom of Bhutan has allegedly banned advertising, because they've twigged that trying to persuade people they want stuff they don't have and don't need actually makes people less happy. Who'd have thought it?

Who do I blame for all of this? Not the advertising companies - they are doing their job. Not the government - I guess they could regulate it, but I think they're better off keeping their hands off things than messing them up. No, I blame the population in general, because it's our fault that annoying advertising works.

Think about it. If no-one ever bought anything advertised by spam e-mail, then there would be no point in sending it. If credit card companies tried writing to people to offer them their latest card, and no-one took it up, then they wouldn't bother again. If companies tried using annoying TV adverts which lodged their brands in people's minds, and the people decided to avoid that company's products, they'd stop the annoying advertising and work on better stuff.

Consumers of the world - it's your fault. If enough of us change our habits [and ruthlessly mock those who don't ;)], we can stop annoying advertising!

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Ballard & Pritchard - Practical Theology in Action

I seem to have been reading a lot lately. Possible the book I least enjoyed reading was Ballard & Pritchard - Practical Theology in Action. I have written a much longer review, which you can find by following the link. The book has a few decent ideas, but in general it sucks big time.

Ballard & Pritchard - Practical Theology in Action

The reading list said "an excellent guide to the fundamental task of theological reflection". Hmmmm...

The first thing that annoyed me about the book was the way that it read like all that social sciences stuff and educational psychology I read during my teacher training.

As a physicist, I like to understand things using models - simplified versions of reality that might or might not bear any resemblence to what is actually going on, but which produce much the same answers. I have a very arrogant and hideously unfair model of how social-sciencey types work. Here is it...

When people don't understand something properly, we (as a group) have a tendancy to come up with lots of theories. What this will actually consist of in practice is usually lots of individual people having their own flawed ideas and insisting strongly on them. Because the ideas work, at least in part (like all convincing lies), there are some things about them that are valid and true. The people who push those ideas are quite often, but not always, arrogant.

But there are other people too in the "interpretative community". Usually these are the ones who aren't quite arrogant enough to insist that their own way is the only truth, but also aren't imaginative enough to think of a better explanation and aren't discerning enough to realise that all the other ideas are partly true and partly false rather than just true in some nebulous post-modern sense. On the other hand, they are well-read enough to be able to regurgitate half a dozen contradictory views on any given topic and believe all of them. In my (arrogantly conceived) little conceptual universe, it's people like those who write books like this one.

So this book spends a large portion of its length, mainly at the beginning and end, merrily prancing through all kinds of ideas - all with something slight to commend them and all either hopelessly arrogant, stupid or naive. Some of the ideas say that it's very important to realise that some of the ideas we're sampling from all over the place might not be Christian. Sometimes they remember that, sometimes they don't, never do they apply it to their owm methodology, even when their failure to do so means they end up denying the uniqueness of Christ (2nd ed, p154).

There's also an annoying flawed-ness to many of the arguments and appallingly naive stereotyping of more conversative arguments. Here's an example (the one which ends up implicitly denying the uniqueness of Christ).

There were, not unexpectedly, some, though only one or two who took an 'exclusivist' position, claiming that Christianity was the only true religion. It was certainly an attitude found strongly in the independent evangelical congregation and, in a pragmatic, less doctrinaire way, in the black-led church. Not was it a stance... that should be lightly dismissed. Christianity had always made universal claims for Christ as the revelation of God. But it had not, until the emergence of what has been called Christendom, been absolutely exclusivist, assuming, in the West at least, no salvation outside the Church. Rather, there had always been a strong strand that had recognised truth and wisdom in religious and philosophic traditions other than its own.

That is wrong, naive and stupid. It assumes that if I recognise a non-Christian to be right on anything, I must think they're going to heaven. I recognise that a lot of physics, even the majority, has been figured out well by non-Christians using the brains that God gave them. Does that mean that I think they're somehow saved? No.

Quite often, the chapters are full of annoying waffle and comparing different wrong views, concluding that they are all correct and then summing it up in something mind-numbingly obvious that I'd have been happy starting with as an assumption.

Take, for example, the Pastoral Cycle, which is the key idea in the book. It's quite sensible actually - the idea is that if you want to know how to respond to something, you look at the situation, look at the priniciples involved, think about it, do something about it, then reflect on whether or not it worked. It's not exactly rocket science, even though rocket science is easy. (It's rocket engineering that's difficult).

Now the book does spend quite a while explaining it and applying it usefully to, for example, learning from placements at theological college. That was far and away the best bit of the book.

Personally, I think the Pastoral Cycle is incredibly obvious and what I'd have done anyway without thinking about it. But sometimes it's useful to have the obvious spelled out. It's just a shame that the rest of the book is such utter rubbish.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Chris Wright - Deuteronomy

Finished working my way through this excellent commentary on Deuteronomy yesterday. He's very good on the structure and significance of the book, very good on the understanding the passage in the light of ancient treaty structures, chiasms, etc, etc.

Also very good on why Deuteronomy is probably a unity and pretty early.

Not great on application always, but he doesn't try to be.

I found it was very useful way to read Deuteronomy.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Zadie Smith - On Beauty

One of the most difficult novels I've read in a while. Although I overlapped with Zadie Smith at university, it was almost as if we were talking different languages. So her descriptions of people near the beginning often didn't make sense in the way that I usually speak and it took a lot longer than it often does for me to empathise with some of the characters.

The basic story is about a mixed-race family living in and around a university in New England, several members of which are going through various crises.

Quite a bit of stuff to think about, and some big themes raised, often to do with what beauty is, difficulties of racial tensions and stereotyping in modern America, mid-life crises and teenage rebellion. But I wouldn't class it as a great novel...

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Social Justice

It's striking that in different parts of the world, Christianity is seen as strongly associated with different political ideologies. In the US, it's usually seen as associated with right-wing republicanism. In South America, it's usually seen as associated with left-wing liberationism. In the UK, at least since WW2, it's often seen as associated with moderate socialism. Part of that of course, is to do with what the issues of the day are in those countries and what the traditions of Christianity that are dominant in those countries say on those issues.

So, in the US for example, the dominant issue often seems to be the Culture Wars – one group trying to liberalise culture in issues of homosexual rights, teaching of evolution, etc and the other side trying to make it more conservative on issues of abortion, etc. I do have things I think about that (and it is not the classic US Christian Right view), but they can with for another time. Instead, I'd like to give a quick outline on what I read the Bible as saying about social justice.

A large proportion of the Bible's teaching on this is aimed specifically at the context of Ancient Israel, which was an overwhelmingly subsistence-level agricultural Iron-Age society. But there are some good general principles.

For a start, all Israelites had land, which was seen as belonging to that family, in some sense, for ever. So they could sell the land, but it reverted back to them after a period. In essence, they had an inalienable and unsellable freehold on the land. If they went completely into debt, they could sell their land and even sell themselves into servitude, but in both cases they became free automatically (unless they ask not to!) and their land went back to their possession automatically. This meant that everyone who could work was able to work to produce their own food. It's not state handouts – it can't create a culture of dependency.

Because land was usually, but not always, held by the (male) heads of family, it was possible for people to “fall out” of the system – the widows, the fatherless, etc. There were therefore specific laws forbidding farmers from harvesting their own crops too thoroughly and giving the dispossessed the right to “clean up” after them. So even the least in society get provided with food, but need to work for it.

The whole idea of land being tied to families also means that the idea of the family is very important. So if there were elderly people who could not work, or young children, or disabled people, etc, they were cared for primarily by their family – who they're less likely to take advantage of. There wasn't any concept of “state handouts”, but there was a lot of legal support and protection for the family, to the extent that crimes “against the family” were punished very severely.

It's interesting thinking about how this applies to modern systems of social security, for example. It puts a great ideal forwards – that everyone should be supported by their own work or by that of their family. All too often, left-wing systems emphasise that “everyone should be supported” and create a culture of sponging dependency, whereas right-wing systems emphasise that it should be “by their own work” and allow people to fall through the gaps. The system in ancient Israel (about 3000 years ago) seems to avoid both dangers.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Paul McKechnie - The First Christian Centuries

I recently read Paul McKechnie - The First Christian Centuries, which is a useful and interesting introduction to the history of the Church up to AD 313, when it was finally made legal under the Emperor Constantine.

It really is one of the great (true) stories - how Jesus' followers went from a group of scared, hopelessly compromised men and a few women whom the world ignored in AD 33, after being hunted down and killed by a succession of Jewish and Roman authorities, having their religion made officially illegal in AD 62, surrounded by people who kept trying to change the message, through persecutions approaching a census in their thoroughness, to the point where Christianity eventually conquered the Roman empire. That's amazing...

Especially since the message they were proclaiming was that their leader, who was executed before the Church started, had risen from the dead and was God.

There's a bit more of a review of the book here.

Friday, August 25, 2006

By this all men will know....

One topic which has come up on here a bit (and understandably so) is how people know, or come to know, that Jesus is God. And yes, there are plenty of intellectual arguments we could go down, and I've been down some of them on here and pointed people to others.

But what is striking in the Bible is that by and large, they aren't what persuades people. Yes, there's evidence that some of them were used (Acts 9:22, 18:28). It's not what persuades most people in real life either, because at the end of the day, I don't think we're very good at debating stuff that really matters in an abstract way. We want to see it affect us and affect other people.

Here's some of what Jesus said:

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
John 13:35, NIV

May they [Christians] be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you [God the Father] sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
John 17:23, NIV

In other words, the key evidence for the world that Jesus came from the Father, the key evidence that God loves people, the key evidence that "Christians" are following Jesus is that we (Christians) love one another.

That's not love in a sexual sense or in a "I love New York" sense. It's love in the sense of laying oneself down for another.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
1 John 4:10-11, NIV

Now I find this immensely challenging. So Christians, are you living in such a way that you are pointing people to Jesus? I think sometimes some of us get too complacent or too busy contending to be loving properly. Non-Christians, if you want evidence that Jesus is who he said he is, then look at the lives of Christians and at their attitude to other people.

[Yes, I accept there's an element of self-authentication - that Christians are those who love and that love in Christians is evidence for Jesus. But the point is that Jesus says there are Christians who love in a way that non-Christians, in general, do not. That's not because we're better than other people, it is because we have known God's love, which in't deserved and which transforms us.]

Thursday, August 24, 2006

GCSE Results

GCSE results came out today.

My class of 18 got 7A*, 9A, 2B, which is almost exactly what my GCSE classes always seem to get (except one time, with a not especially nice class). Of those, i think 13 or 14 got the same grade on the mock as on the real thing, which just goes to show that it's the people who put the work in year round (or get the answers right year round anyway) who do well in Physics. There's the occasional person who stops working after the mock and slips a grade, and the occasional person who really works very well to get up a grade or two.

What seemed to cause most difficulty was the borderline A/A* kids making it over the grade boundary. Really needs a lot of work, that one.

And on the subject of revision, there's an excellent cartoon here.

Boris Johnson on Physics

Here's a great (and characteristically funny) article by Boris Johnson, noted classicist, buffoon and shadow minister on Physics.

Here's a quick quote:

You can strain all your faculties until your brain feels as though it is about to give birth. You can take out your panga and hack hack hack through the dense undergrowth of your stupidity until - kazam! - you get it; for one brief, shining instant, you stumble into a clearing.

The clouds part and you can see straight up to the heavens and the fundamental facts of the universe, and, in that instant, you will look on your Physics teacher with new eyes and, instead of a torturing old pedant, you will see a prophet and a man blessed, like the first great atomist, because he was able to understand the Causes of Things.

For what it's worth, I largely agree with him, but think there's still too much elitism. Yes, I think a much smaller proportion of people probably could get an A in Physics than in Media Studies for the same amount of work. But that doesn't imply that people who get a D in Media Studies are worth less than people who get an A in Physics - it just means that they're probably not as good at academic stuff and would be best applying their talents and efforts elsewhere.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Interesting Stuff

A couple of interesting articles I've come across this morning:

  • An interview with Rowan Williams (slightly dodgily transcribed), largely about his views on the C of E. He shows, I think, that he understands the problems with the views and actions of both sides on the homosexuality debate.
  • How Not to Be a Charismatic Headcase is a good commentary on where a lot of modern charismaticism is messing up, written by a charismatic. I've got a lot of sympathy with charismatics, but do wish they wouldn't mess up so badly. Speaking of which, I was reading something interesting on the Montanists, who as far as I can tell seemed to be early (like AD 200) fairly extreme Charismatics...

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Paul McKechnie - The First Christian Centuries

This is a book basically covering Church history from Pentecost (circa AD 33) to Constantine making Christianity legal in AD 313.

McKechnie is generally coming from a background that I agree with - he says the New Testament is a good source for early church history, though he argues his case well rather than just assuming it.

McKechnie pays particular attention to the dating of the New Testament, the relationship between the Church and various heretical sects and other groups, as well as the role of women in the early church (which was jolly interesting). Where there's a debate on something, of course, he outlines the main positions and states and explains his own view, which I usually found persuasive.

I guess the area I'd most like to see strengthened in this book is the theology. Not that it's dodgy - just that there's not much of it and I'd have been interested in some of the theological discussions and relationships between groups, etc.

As fairly basic (250-odd pages) introductions go, it seems informative and very good. There are certainly issues I'd like to know more about, but at least I now know what the issues are and have a better general picture.


Two comments on my blog in the last day or so have used the word "theism". At face value, "theism" means the belief that there is a God, from the Greek theos meaning God. So a-theism is the belief that there isn't a God (though actually the word "atheism" was invented first. Before people started not believing in God, there wasn't really a reason to have a word that meant "the belief that God exists". Yes, it's a bit more complex than that, and we could have a discussion about how "atheism" in Ancient Greece meant something very different from the modern version so that Christians were counted as "atheists", but that's not the point of this post.

I don't like the word "theism", because I think it implies what can sometimes be a mistake in terms of how we know things. I'll try to explain.

I guess the way that a lot of people construct their views on questions like this is as follows:

If the answer is "yes", they'd then go on to another question about number of gods, leading to monotheism, polytheism, dualism or something like that. Monotheism would then split into Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism and maybe one or two others.

The reason I don't think that works is because the question "does God exist?" is the key question for atheists, but not for other groups. Buddhists, for example, regard the question as very much secondary - they are free to take any view on it.

I am not a Christian because I sat down and thought my way through a tree diagram and decided that yes, there is a God, that there's probably only one of them, etc. My Christianity is not a subset of my theism.

I am a Christian because I know, love and serve Jesus Christ as God. If he is God, then God exists. I am a theist because I am a Christian, not the other way round. I am a monotheist because I am a Christian - because I trust Jesus and he says there is only one God.

Another danger of taking theism as the dominiant category is that it groups very different things together as similar (e.g. Christianity and Islam) and similar things (e.g. liberal Judaism and moderate humanism) apart as different.

Monday, August 21, 2006


I had an interesting conversation on the train on Saturday with a couple of students, who knew each other vaguely. One of them revealed that their mother was suffering from cancer at a fairly young age (except like a lot of people these days, she couldn't bring herself to say the word "cancer").

That sucks. Jesus wept when a friend of his died young - I don't see any reason why we should do otherwise. It is horrible, it is painful, it is not the way things will be in eternity. With that in mind, I'm really sorry if what comes next upsets people. This isn't what I said; this is me looking at some of what was said in a detatched way. This is what I might have said to the student whose mum was not suffering like that, if I'd known him well, and if the other person hadn't been there.

He came up with various "consolations", which were pretty rubbish and didn't really help.

Everything happens for a reason.

It's true! I agree with it! Everything happens for a reason! But the only reason I can believe that is that I know there's a God who is in control, who knows what he's doing even when everything seems to be going wrong, who isn't sitting idly by when people suffer but who radically came into the world as a man, who suffered, bled and died and yet who was still in control then, who used that for good.

But I don't see any reason why someone who doesn't believe in a God like that should think that everything happens for a reason. As far as I can tell, without God, there is no real purpose to anything. Things happen. They cause other things to happen. People die. But there's no real point to any of it without God.

Whatever doesn't kill you can only make you stronger.

Yeah, right. Like cutting both your legs off and giving you a frontal lobotomy makes you stronger.

I'll be honest. I can't see what hope people who aren't Christians can have in this world. Several years ago, I got very depressed. I got to the point where I felt so down about my faith that I decided to stop being a Christian (not because I thought it was untrue, but because I thought it was too difficult psychologically). It took me about two or three minutes before I realised that life seemed completely pointless and futile and I changed my mind again.

Seriously, I know there are some very bright and seemingly pretty well-adjusted people who read this who aren't Christians. How do you cope? Where do you find your hope in life? All that I can see is something along the lines of it's probably pointless, but might as well enjoy it while it lasts.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Zwingli again

This morning, I was visiting a church which some friends go to, and it was communion.

The church was a Baptist church, and I was very encouraged that they allowed me to receive communion - there are some baptist churches which exclude me for reasons that seem spurious and unbiblical to say the least.

I was slightly less encouraged by the following:

Jesus took bread, and after breaking it, he gave you thanks and said "Take, eat, this is a symbol of my body, which is given for you."

It saddens me when evangelicals change what the Bible says to fit their preconceptions about communion (or anything else, for that matter!). It also saddens me at the huge loss in symbolism by using the word "symbol". If the bread is just a symbol, then we are not really participating in Jesus' sacrifice for us on the cross. If the wine is just a symbol of his blood, then how are we purified? It needs the sprinkling of blood....

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Stambaugh & Balch - The New Testament in Its Social Environment

Another book I've read and reviewed on my other blog is Stambaugh & Balch - The New Testament in Its Social Environment. It's basically a look at the social, political, economic and religious situation around the Eastern Med from about 300BC to AD150. Its pretty good at that. But they should have stuck to it and not bothered trying to think about theology.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Stambaugh & Balch - The New Testament in Its Social Environment

Another book on New Testament background...

This basically reads like a non-narrative history textbook, which is probably because it is. It seeks to describe the social, political and economic structures of the Eastern Roman Empire between about 300BC and 100AD, with particular attention to the situation in Palestine.

And they're pretty good at that. Where they get ropey is when they try dealing with the gospels or letters and getting theology or history out of them. They don't seem to be especially good at dealing with subtlety, and would be better sticking with ancient history.

Generally pretty interesting on the historical background front.

Driving - Random Thoughts

I've been spending quite a bit of the past week driving, and it got me thinking. Some of these thoughts have been developing for a while, through driving lessons and so on.

I guess my key thought is that a 2 second separation between cars isn't enough. That's not a reflection on my reaction time, but in terms of stress levels and also changing lanes, turning at junctions, etc.

I prefer to drive with a 5 or 10 second gap between me and the car in front. That gives enough room for people to pull in, or for the car in front to slow down and turn off without disrupting traffic flow much at all. The stop/start nature of driving in towns is largely because of people having to turn off. If we had bigger gaps between cars, it would be easier to turn through traffic and hence we wouldn't have to stop and start as much. I rather suspect many traffic lights would then become unneccessary.

Motorways also would benefit. If the distance between cars was increased to 10 seconds (for example), then accidents would be much less likely and it would be easier for lanes of traffic to merge. The resultant lane could have a temporarily reduced distance of 5 seconds, for example. It would also mean that the speed limit could be safely raised or even abolished.

I guess the difficulty would be that the capacity of the roads would therefore be decreased - some roads do usually have more than one car per 10 seconds per lane passing. Not many though, and it's usually only the roads where the number of turns has been greatly reduced to stop cars slowing to turn. Those roads could be kept at 2 second separation perhaps.

All just ideas, and there's probably a good reason they aren't being implemented. I just don't know what that reason is.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Middle East Mess

My sympathies in the Middle East are heavily with the Christians, both Arab and Israeli, who aren't wanting to perpetuate the bloodbath, but keep on getting caught up in it anyway.

As regards the various conflicts themsevles, I know both sides are to blame and do awful things, but what leanings I have are towards Israel, for the following reasons:

  • Israel seem as if they would be happy to live peacefully alongside the various Arabs. The Arabs who fight Israel (not all of them by any means) want nothing less than total eradication
  • When Israel kills civilians, it's an accident. Hezbollah, etc are happy hiding behind their own civilians and aiming to kill Israeli ones.
  • There seems to be a heck of a lot of anti-Semitism around, mostly in disguise in the West, though it's blatant in the Middle East
  • Israel seem at least halfway capable of making a decent job of running a country

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Random Things I Have Learnt

Just a few things I've learnt over the last 24 hours:

  • The Post Office (i.e. the shops rather than Royal Mail), is much worse off for being effectively state-run. I went to the nearest main Post Office yesterday, which is notorious for queues. I arrived 10 mins before it opened, so I was only the 13th in the queue. By the time it opened (5 mins late - real shops open earlier than advertised), I was still 13th, but that was near the front.
  • The Llama Song is funny, but gets repetitive after 20 mins or so.
  • Cheap power tools aren't worth the money. Yesterday, I bid farewell to my electric saw thing. It looked like the blade moved a lot, but it was slower and less efficient than using a hand saw. Oh, and two blades broke cutting through a bit of wood.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Mark Driscoll - Confessions of a Reformission Rev

Mark Driscoll is the senior pastor (and founder) of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. He is also one of the most gifted speakers I have ever heard at explaining the Bible to young adults. This book is basically the history of Mars Hill Church, from his point of view.

One of the things that is so refreshing about Driscoll is his complete and disarming honesty, often expressed with a great sense of humour. So when he's thinking about systems of church government, he is happy to say that after considering the congregationalist model, he sees slightly more Biblical justification for the government of church by unicorns. It's quite possible that some people would find his thoughts about them offensive. But he extends the same standards to himself - if he thinks he stuffed up badly, he'll say so.

What he doesn't do, though, is toe any party line. He doesn't seem to condemn ideas just because everyone else condemns them (drinking, smoking, tattoos). But neither does he go along with stuff unquestioningly - he tries to bring everything before God and measure it up against Scripture.

He is by no means perfect, and Mars Hill Church isn't perfect either. But God has used them both greatly, despite and sometimes even through their imperfections, and I thank God for that.

Borg & Wright - The Meaning of Jesus

A very interesting book, this one... Marcus Borg (about as liberal as a Christian can get, if not more so) and NT Wright (fairly conservative) discuss who Jesus was/is, who he thought he was, what he did, etc

In general, Borg takes the line that Jesus was a man (but not God) who in some sense after his death became "the Christ of faith", and that most of the gospel accounts are actually metaphors written back into the life of Jesus by the early church. This includes basically most of his teaching, miracles, birth, resurrection, etc. Wright takes a much more normal line - that Jesus was the Messiah, claiming to bring about God's kingdom and the true return from exile, that he was born of a virgin, raised from the dead, etc. He doesn't exactly follow the standard evangelical line, but I'd agree with everything he said, even though sometimes there's more to say as well. But you can't talk exhaustively about Jesus in one non especially large book.

What I found most interesting about the book was the difference in approach taken by Borg and Wright. Borg's liberal position is the one that traditionally is seen as more "scientific", but time and again the only arguments he uses for his position are "I think that..." and "It looks suspect to me...". They're almost all subjective. By contrast, Wright's approach is heavily evidence-based, looking at how first century Jews would have understood what Jesus was doing, examining evidence for how oral tradition works, etc.

It's also interesting looking at Borg's presuppositions - some of them are fairly clear in what he writes. He presupposes, for example, that God doesn't or can't act in the world, as he cannot see any explanation for the Holocaust otherwise. But his argument then hinges upon Jesus as a mystic, who experienced God within the world. If God cannot or does not act in the world, we cannot experience him in the world. Borg's approach is logically inconsistent.

Another example would be Borg's assumption that if something has a metaphorical meaning as well as a literal meaning, it was probably written only because the metaphorical meaning was true, rather than both being true. So, for example, Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey fulfils promises about what God's king would do from hundreds of years before. So Borg seems to argue that the early Christians saw Jesus as God's king, so wrote that he had fulfilled this prophecy (even though he hadn't) as a way of pointing to his identity. Which does rather raise the question, as Wright points out, of how on earth they came to believe that Jesus was God's king if he didn't fulfil the prophecy.

Borg also makes strange assumptions which almost seem designed to reinforce his position. For example, he assumes that if three gospels carry very similar stories, that one of them was written first, that the other two copied the story and made up their extra details, only leaving one source. Which makes me wonder then how anything could ever be attested by more than one source...

In some circles, the controversy over this book was because Wright acknowledges that Borg is a Christian. I don't know Borg; Tom Wright does. I'm glad it's God making the call, not me.

All in all, an interesting read and a good introduction to the whole "historical Jesus" debate. Whether that debate is worth bothering with, except to refute the sceptics, is a different question altogether.

Borg & Wright - The Meaning of Jesus

I've read and written a review of Borg & Wright - The Meaning of Jesus. It's a debate between two prominent scholars who profess to be Christians, one of whom doubts most of the Biblical accounts of Jesus and one of whom thinks they're true. It's pretty interesting - I've said a lot more in the full review.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


When I was (quite a bit) younger, I used to think that if something was true, that was it. A different statement about the same facts couldn't be true as well.

And I read someone else summarising Hegel, with his ideas about one person coming up with an idea - a thesis, then someone else reacting to that with an opposite idea - an antithesis, and then eventually the two end up coming together - a synthesis. I don't know how much of that is actually what Hegel said or wrote, but it's what I understood this person who was trying to summarise Hegel to be saying. I guess reading Hegel is one of the things I'll do some other time.

Anyway, Hegel is obviously wrong in some respects. Either 2+2=4 (in Euclidean space) or it isn't. You can't have someone coming up with the thesis "2+2=4", then someone else coming up with the antithesis "2+2<>4" and then them somehow working that into a synthesis. It's rubbish - it doesn't work.

But some of the time, especially when we are using metaphors and discussing ideas and stuff, Hegel has a point. Take, for example, these ideas:

  1. Jesus died on the cross to take the punishment that we deserve for our sins.
  2. Jesus died on the cross so that Christians, who are united with him through faith, can die to sin but rise to new life
  3. Jesus died on the cross to defeat Satan
  4. Jesus died on the cross as an example for us of what it means to lay down our lives in following God
  5. Jesus died on the cross to incorporate Christians into God's covenant community

Now, as far as I can tell, all of those are taught by the Bible, and all are true. The actual true and complete reason Jesus died on the cross is kind of a synthesis of all of those (and more). That's not to say that any of those explanations isn't true, nor is it to say that any of them is more true than the others. One of them might be a lot more useful than the others, or a lot more relevant than the others to a particular situation, but all are true.

So why am I saying this? Because I can see two opposite dangers that people seem to fall into. One is to say that all truth is like that - that, for example, Jews and Christians and Muslims and Zoroastrians and whatever are all following the same God and that they are all just different aspects of the same truth. But that doesn't work, because it comes down to the question of who Jesus is. He can't be both God (as the Christians say) and not God (as the rest say).

On the other hand, some people say that Hegel's idea never works. So they'll say that Jesus dying for our sins is the only true explanation of why he died. That's also a load of rubbish - the Bible teaches all of those.

I think this is at the root of some of the arguments over NT Wright (and others). He tends to emphasise the last one of those explanations, whereas a lot of conservative Christians tend to emphasise the first one (and FWIW, I think the second is probably the dominant idea in Biblical thought). So people disagree with him. But at the end of the day, a lot of what he says is just a different way of looking at the same truths.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Teaching Deficiencies

Reflecting on my teaching career, I think there were quite a few thigs I got right. One of the things I think I probably should have done much better is use positive feedback towards the kids / young people - encouraging then when they're doing stuff well, etc.

There are many and complex reasons for it, largely tied in with stuff like self-esteem, perfectionism, wanting to be honest, etc. But I guess it raises a difficult question. Given that most of these people are mixed up, suffering from low self-esteem and so on, how can I be communicating to them a healthy self acceptance?

Given that they aren't Christians, to what extent should I be shoring up their falsely placed self acceptance that's always going to be too fragile? Yes, the ideal psychologically is that they come to see themselves as God sees them, as more wicked than they'd ever feared but more loved that they'd ever dreamed. But if they aren't going to come to that stage, where's the best place for me to leave them? Where they're comparatively safe, or where they are staring into the brink?

It's something I never really got to grips with, and I ended up with some kind of compromise. Do I go down the whole making them feel good about themselves line, because I care about them and want them to be able to function effectively in society? Do I push them nearer the edge and hope and pray that they will see that their position isn't tenable and that their only hope is Christ, because I care about them and don't want them to face judgement for their pride?

What I ended up doing was encouraging people that they could do the subject, but also pointing out that being good at Physics or maths doesn't make you any more (or less) valuable as a person.

When I was doing teacher training, I joined the Association of Christian Teachers. I quit as soon as I could, because they obviously weren't even beginning to realise that kind of question existed. I wish I'd had a good chance to chat through that sort of thing beforehand with more experienced, more thoughtful, Christian teachers. Ho hum - guess that means I should be thinking through it and supporting Christians I know in teaching now.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Michael Crichton - Prey

Nano-robots go wild and kill people. Written by Michael Crichton, hence:

  • the science is ok but implausible in parts
  • you can see the twists coming at the first hint
  • the story still hangs together pretty well
  • it's very readable

Very much in the Andromeda Strain / Jurassic Park genre.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Kierkegaard - Scheming

Here's a great quote from Kierkegaard, quoted at Thinklings.

“The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”

Soren Kierkegaard

Wow, that is so relevant to some of the stuff I'm reading at the moment...

Comment Spam - Bah!

I've been getting quite a bit of comment spam on this blog over the past few days. As a result, I've had to reintroduce the word verification thingy for comments. Annoying, I know, but less annoying than comment spam.

I think the purpose of comment spam is to push Google rankings up. If there are lots of links to a page, Google thinks the page is more popular and hence better.

But what really gets to me is the way that so much comment spam is appallingly written. Did these people not go to school? Well, I guess if they'd gone to a decent school then hopefully they wouldn't be trying to make a living by spamming people. Hopefully...

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Opposing People

I just read this really interesting article about why Tom (NT) Wright is so often opposed by Reformed types. FWIW, I think there's a lot of truth in it and that all too often it's to do with pride.

I haven't read enough Wright (yet) to fully understand all of his controversial positions. But, for example, the stuff I've read about the tenses of justification seemed perfectly sensible and I've seen that grossly misunderstood and misrepresented by Christians who should know better. I commented on that a bit more here.

I don't know Wright's opinions on a lot of things. Where I do know his opinions, I don't always agree with him. I do know that he is probably the most important living theologian, that he has done probably more than anyone else in recent years in moving the direction of the doctrine of a lot of the C of E towards a more evangelical position and that if he expresses an opinion it is at least worth thinking seriously about.

I've downloaded a talk by Don Carson (whom I also respect hugely) about some of Wright's views, and will listen to that they probably report back here.

Why Doesn't God Make Himself Clearer?

This is a question I've struggled with over the years. Not so much on my behalf - from where I'm standing it's pretty obvious that Jesus is God (but hasn't always been this way) - but from friends I have spoken to and so on. Why doesn't God make himself clearer?

I wouldn't say I've got to the bottom of it yet, but I've got some pointers. My own response to the question is that I trust that God knows what he is doing. But I appreciate for those "on the outside", that's a little trickier. And at the end of the day, there is a big element of "God knows best, not us". Of course, that doesn't stop us trying to figure out how God's way is better than ours in this case. I'm aware there are some wise people reading the blog - if you've got any thoughts on this, feel free to share them.

Here are some of the comments that prompted me to write this:

I am not saying that we should disbelieve all claims of a religious nature, only that there are so many of them and one *cannot* be sure of which one message is true. God/Christ could solve this by telling each of us individually His message, yet he chooses not to. Why?

My problem is not to so much that this isn't 'fair', but that rational people could choose to believe in any one of a number of Faiths. Why doesn't God/Christ just tell us directly, and hence this confusion would be resolved?

A personal message from God would be more likely to produce a successul outcome (i.e. on average individuals would be more likely to follow His message) than what we have at the moment.

I should quickly add that the response I hear most often from Christians is that if God made himself clearer, it would violate our freedom. That's rubbish.

1. We Have No Excuse

When the Bible talks about this, it tends to talk about ideas like who is accountable for what, and whether we have any excuse. And it's quite clear that none of us has any excuse for failing to follow God.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Romans 1:18-23, NIV

I don't think this is saying specifically that it's obvious to everyone that Christianity is true. What it's saying is that there is some stuff about God that is obvious, and we all respond so badly to that that we don't have any excuse.

[Christians, in case there's any doubt, aren't people who haven't stuffed up. We're people who have realised that we have stuffed up, but who have repented (turned around), who keep on repenting when we keep on stuffing up, and we have been forgiven in Jesus. That means that when God considers how badly I've ignored him, because I'm somehow united with Jesus, he actually treats me as being in Jesus, who has already suffered God's punishment for sin and been raised to life. Which is very cool.]

Back to the point. If, by the way that we live, we reject the very idea that there is an all-powerful God who can do whatever he wants and claims authority over us (as we all do), then we aren't going to take much notice if he tells us more detail either.

2. God Making Himself Even Clearer Didn't Help

And that's exactly what we see in history. The nation of Israel, when they came out of Egypt, saw all kinds of spectacular miracles - the plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, God guiding them with a pillar of fire and of cloud, God speaking to them as a nation and telling them in detail what he wanted them to do. And how did they respond? They rebelled, time and again. And it wasn't just some of them - it was all of them except two, out of a whole nation.

It's easy, I think, sometimes, to kid ourselves that we are perfectly rational. But experience shows that we are motivated more by pride and by not wanting to lose face than by the evidence. Why else do people take such entrenched (and opposite) positions on issues such as global warming, Israel, religion, politics?

It's worth adding a personal story here. At university, one of my best friends was really interested in Christianity. He came along to dozens of talks and so on, and we had long conversations going into the night. Towards the end of our time there, we got chatting about why he didn't believe. This is roughly how a bit of the conversation went.

[Me] I get the feeling that the reason you aren't a Christian isn't anything to do with evidence. I think it's because you want to keep being the person who decides what's right and what's wrong and you don't want to let go of it.

[Him] Yes, I think you're right.

And he was one of the most "rational" few people I have ever met.

3. God Chooses to Use People

Another reason - and this is really striking - is that God has decided that the main way he is going to show himself to the world today is through people, specifically the Church. (big C in this context means it's all Christians everywhere). St Paul wrote this:

Although I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ... His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known...
Ephesians 3:8,10, NIV

Why does God use normal people rather than angels or whatever? One of the themes in the Bible is that God often uses surprising ways of doing things, to show the world's priorities are wrong - changed lives are far more important than signs and wonders. So we get Paul in 1 Corinthians talking about how God's "foolishness" shows the world how foolish its "wisdom" really is. God chooses to use the weak people, the people who aren't that impressive, because that way his power is evident all the more and it is all the clearer that he can change people, transform people and use them for his glory.

I don't pretend to understand all of this completely, but I'm profoundly grateful for it. Which is better: to take sinful, mixed up people and save them or to take sinful, mixed up people and save them, change them and then use them to change the world and to declare to all the world how amazing God is?

4. God is Still Fair

It's also worth adding that God is still fair. Yes, some people (like me) get much better opportunities to hear about Jesus than other people. That's partly my fault - part of what we're meant to be doing as Christians is telling other people. So if they're not hearing because we're not telling them, we're accountable for it (e.g. Ezekiel 3).

But the Bible is also clear that if we get better opportunities, more is expected of us. And if we don't get such good opportunities, God isn't as harsh with us. Here are some quotes to back that up.

Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.
Jesus, speaking to some of the towns he had worked in, in Matthew 11:21-24, NIV

That servant who knows his master's will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
Luke 12:47-48, NIV

As I said, there's still stuff here I need to think more about. In terms of explaining it, I think my third point needs some more work. If I have more thoughts, I might well post them on here. Feel free to contribute if you have any wisdom on the issue....

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Orson Scott Card - Xenocide

While I'm busy doing book reviews, I might as well mention Xenocide, by Orson Scott Card, which I read last week as a treat just after I passed my driving test.

It's book 3 in one of the best sci-fi series I've ever read - the Ender Saga. I don't think I've written reviews of any of the others, so I'll quickly outline what happens.

In book 1 - Ender's Game, Earth is recovering from a devastating attack by an alien fleet, who they narrowly beat off. To make sure that it doesn't happen again, they are finding (and even genetically engineering) exceptionally talented children and training them in space tactics, warfare, etc. Ender is one of them, and this book basically goes through his childhood, especially his time in Battle School. It's pretty violent in places (read kids occasionally beating each other to death, general warfare stuff). What the book is especially good at is portraying what life is like for exceptionally bright young people (especially Ender, his gentler sister and his more ruthless brother) surrounded by less capable older people.

Book 2 - Speaker for the Dead - takes place thousands of years later (Earth time), with some of the same characters having been kept alive by virtue of being on ships travelling at nearly the speed of light (the physics of it is fine). It's mainly set on a planet where the human colonists are struggling to come to terms with a local intelligent species known as "the piggies". It's an excellent exploration of what it means to know other people and to understand other people.

Book 3 - Xenocide - is set on the same planet a few decades later. They are faced with the very real possibility that of the 4 (or indeed 5) known intelligent species, all might be killed in a forthcoming war, unless one is destroyed sooner. In writing this, Card includes one of the great discussions of what it means to be free, albeit by invoking some weird sciencey stuff. But that's allowed for SF writers, as long as they are clear what they are doing, and that they are using it to explore real issues. And OSC does that very well indeed.

Dale Ralph Davis - 2 Kings

Another book I just finished reading, but not for my course, is Dale Ralph Davis's commentary on 2 Kings.

As commentaries on OT narrative go, it's pretty good - it's probably the way he'd preach it at a guess. It's very accessible, there are lots of American analogies and illustrations, he finds his way into the passage, explains what it means, and comes out with some decent points of application.

Some bits I think were done very well, some were less good, but still ok. Having now read Provan, Longman and Long's treatment of OT History, I think there might well be a lot more that could be got out of the passages, but this is an excellent place to start thinking through 2 Kings.

Gerd Theissen - The Shadow of the Galilean

A quick mention that I've reviewed Gerd Theissen - The Shadow of the Galilean on my other blog. It's a pretty readable introduction to the socio-political situation in Israel at the time of Jesus and to liberal "historical" criticism of Jesus' life and ministry.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Why I Am a Christian

It’s a question I’m often asked, so here are six quick reasons that I’m a Christian.

I think it's important right at the start to say that I probably believe the one thing that people aren't allowed to believe these days. I believe that there is such a thing as true truth.

You see, we like to say that people can believe whatever they want, as long as it's true for them. But there's a big difference between knowing that some things work, and that some things are true.

Let me give an example. You know trashy horror movies? You know there's always someone who doesn't think there's any danger? And for quite a bit of the film, it tends to work for them. They don't get all stupidly panicky like everyone else in the film; they get on fine. But in those films, although that belief might work for a bit, it doesn't tend to be true, and it doesn't tend to work for the whole film.

I am more than happy to let people believe whatever they want to believe, but that doesn't stop me from thinking that if I am right, then they are wrong. Sometimes they are sincerely wrong, sometimes they make a much better job of being wrong than I do of being right, but I'm still sure that only one view can be right. So I thought I'd explain why I'm a Christian. There's loads and loads of reasons, but here's 6 of them.

Reason 1 - Science

First reason, I'm a Christian because I think believing in God is the only way to understand science. Science, especially physics, is all about explaining what goes on in the real world by breaking it down into rules. So we can explain a whole load of stuff about motion using Newton's 3 laws of motion. Well, if you do this right through physics, you end up with a handful of theories. Some of them, like one called quantum electrodynamics, are well understood. Some, like quantum gravity, aren't. But it doesn't explain how those theories actually work. Take an example - why do like charges repel? I could say that in QED, the energy of the particle interchange is positive and decreases with distance. But that doesn't really answer the question - it just says what they do in more complicated language. Why do the basic laws work the way they do? Physics can't ever tell us, and that's deeply annoying for physicists. But if God makes the laws, then it all fits together nicely and makes sense.

Reason 2 - Self-worth

Second, I think it's the only answer to self-worth.

What makes you worth anything as a person? Sense of humour, strength, intelligence, how well you do at school, which football team you support, the fact that you're a nice person? What makes you worth it? To be honest, a lot of the time we kid ourselves that we're better than we are. So what happens if your results go wrong and you find you aren't bright as you thought? What happens when that relationship you rely on falls apart? What happens when you realise that you actually aren't a nice person? If I think I'm worth something coz I'm good at sport, what does that mean about someone who isn't?

As a Christian, my self worth is based on the fact that I know God loves me no matter what I'm like. There's this great quote that says "We are more wicked than we ever feared, and more loved than we ever dreamed."

So if I do really badly on an exam, that doesn't make me worth any less. If everyone I know says they hate me, that doesn't make me worth any less. If I'm in a car crash and end up paralysed and with severe brain damage and everyone I know has forgotten me, I know I'm still going to be worth something because God still loves me.

Reason 3 - Revelation

Third reason I'm a Christian - I think the only way we can know God is it he tells us. You see, we can't do experiments on God. He is a lot bigger than us, and a lot cleverer than us. So the only way we can know about him is if he tells us about himself. There's lots of religions that are basically people figuring out how to get to God. I couldn't do that, coz I know I'd get nowhere. But God has told us about himself, and he did that supremely in one man who lived 2000 years ago - Jesus.

Reason 4 - Sin

Fourth reason I'm a Christian - I think it's the only way of making sense of what's wrong with the world. The Bible tells us that God made the world (it doesn't worry too much about how) it tells us God made us and he gave us all the abilities we have. But it also tells us that we decided that wasn't enough - that we want to say what's right and wrong for ourselves, and that we have tried to set ourselves up against God. And because of that, we'll always end up being frustrated.

Look at history. Hitler only lasted so long because most of the people went along with what he was doing. Ditto Stalin. With all the progress we've made in technology, we're no happier than we were beforehand, and we're still no better as people either. One of the things that really shocked me when I was about 16 was that I read an interview with a serial murderer and rapist on Death Row in the US, and I realised that I could have gone that way easily. And that fits exactly with what the Bible says. All of us try to set ourselves up against God.

Reason 5 - Guilt

Fifth reason - I think the Christian message is the only way of dealing with the fact that we do stuff wrong.

Did you know that in surveys, 90% of drivers rate themselves as "above average" or better? We do the same when it comes to how we live. We like to think we are better than other people, or at least good enough to get through whatever standard there is for heaven. The problem is that I'm not. Neither are you. The standard for getting into heaven, says God, is perfection. Nothing less. That means that every moment of our lives, we need to be living in a way that is totally grateful to God for everything he has given us. And we all stuff up. We all go against our consciences. No-one is good enough to get to heaven on the basis of how they live. No-one ever will be, and no-one ever has been. Except Jesus. The brilliant thing about being a Christian is that I know that Jesus offers to swap places with me. You see, Jesus lived the perfect life, then he died even though he didn't deserve it. So he offers the chance for us to swap places with him. If we want, we can take the place in heaven that he deserves, and we can know that he has already taken the punishment that we deserve for the way we ignore God.

Reason 6 - The Resurrection

Sixth reason - being a Christian is the only way to understand Jesus' resurrection. If you look at the historical evidence, it's actually pretty conclusive that Jesus rose from the dead.

Think about it. The Romans beat him pretty horribly, then executed him. They were good at that. The tomb was guarded. A few days later, the tomb was empty and hundreds of people were claiming they had seen Jesus alive afterwards. These same people were so convinced about it, they gave their entire lives to telling people about it, and a fair proportion of them were executed for saying so. Yet still they kept on telling people.

So I'm a Christian because it works for me, but also because I am convinced that it is really true.

Gerd Theissen - The Shadow of the Galilean

Onto New Testament background now...

Imagine a liberal socialist theologian, of the kind who might write this about the Resurrection:

There can be no doubt about the subjective authenticity of the appearances tradition.

Imagine him writing a novel to introduce people to the idea of the quest for the historical Jesus and the background to the gospels.

This is that novel. It follows a character who is give the task of investigating Jesus (and some others) to see to what extent they pose a threat to the Romans.

As an introduction to the social background, it's pretty good. I think it assumes too much on a liberal and anti-miraculous front, too much in terms of the extent of socialist theory and too much in terms of which liberal theories of what actually happened were circulating that early.

It also has the advantage that it's short and easy to read...

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Discussion about inerrancy and stuff

I'm involved in an interesting (for some people) discussion with some interesting guys over here. Timothy Davis, who seems a nice and well-meaning bloke, and is a fair bit more conservative than me (yes, that is possible) seems to be asserting that infallibility and inerrancy are true and also that it's essential to believe them for salvation. He's therefore saying that Rowan Williams is apostate, etc.

I used to be strong on inerrancy and infallibility and stuff. I now think they're too weak in some ways (they don't require that the Bible is optimally worded, for example), too strong in some ways (cue some US fundamentalists taking poetry literally) and very vulnerable to postmodern criticism. I think Rowan Williams is a Christian who has swallowed a bit too much postmodernism and can't communicate clearly enough, but he says a lot of wise stuff.

Anyhow, thought I'd flag the debate up in case anyone wants to watch (or contribute).

Provan, Long & Longman - A Biblical History of Israel

I recently finished another book I was trying to read for my course. The full review can be found on my other blog.

It's basically a book by three Christian experts on the Old Testament, discussing how we can know about things in history, then working through what the Bible says about the history of Israel in the Old Testament andseeing how that fits in with other people's ideas, with archaeology, with other documents, etc.

It's very very good - a bit heavy going when it's discussing how we can know stuff about history, but generally an interesting and helpful read (and one I largely agree with).

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Who To Trust?

Last night, there got to be several interesting discussions going on on the comments here. One very interesting question was asked, which I'm going to have a go at beginning to answer. I've edited the question heavily, and the setter can feel free to have a go at me about that.

With all the different mutually contradictory faiths in the world, why should one trust Jesus (for example) rather than anyone else? Isn't it simpler simply to say that none of these extraordinary claims are true?

Why does God/Jesus not just speak to each of us individually at a certain point in our lives, or maybe at a number of points, and explain the 'rules of the game'? God doesn't seem to do this, so surely it's not fair to expect people to follow what the Bible says if they don't know it's the truth.

I think it's worth being clear, first up, that the key issue here is trust, and how we decide who we trust. Christianity isn't about doing the right thing and helping old ladies across the street and whatever. It's about trusting Jesus. And yes, trusting Jesus should then make a difference in the way that we live, but it's the trust that makes the difference between someone who is a Christian and someone who isn't.

I think there are a couple of things to look for when deciding who to trust. Sorry folks if this sounds obvious at times...

1. Are They Trustworthy? - Motivation

How do we assess whether people are trustworthy? One important way is to look at what their possible motivations were for saying what they said and doing what they did. If there's a good chance they were motivated by something other than truth, then it makes it less likely they were actually telling the truth.

For example, L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, is quoted as saying (many times, variations, etc) "The best way to get rich is to start a religion." He started a religion; he got rich. Is it a trustworthy religion? Probably not.

Mohammed was a great military leader. Islam served very well to unite his followers, give them something to fight for and a passion to fight for it. Mohammed did very well out of it and conquered a large chunk of the Middle East. Is what he said to unite the people trustworthy? Probably not.

David Berg founded a (pseudo-)Christian sect called "The Family" aka "The Children of God". One of their core doctrines was that since everyone was united with everyone else, any two members could have sex (with permission of the leaders) and the leaders could have sex with anyone they wanted to, with or without permission. After he died, there were a huge number of accusations of sexual molestation against him. Was his teaching trustworthy? Probably not.

Jesus Christ's teaching centred on the importance of his death. During his ministry, he lived as a homeless guy (though sometimes staying with friends and followers). Then he was betrayed, beaten and horribly executed. On a human level, what did he have to gain from it, unless he believed that what he was saying was true? His key followers, likewise, gave up their (in some cases very profitable) livelihoods, travelled around the world telling people, and in most cases were also horribly executed. What motivation could they have had, unless what they were saying was the truth?

I'd strongly strongly recommend that anyone looking at whether Jesus can be trusted should read one of the contemporary accounts of his life in a modern translation. Here's an online one.

2. Are They Trustworthy? - Consistency

If there is a "true religion", then we'd expect the beliefs to be both internally consistent and consistent with other truths about the world. So if a religion taught that the earth was formed from the head of a dead giant (Roman paganism, IIRC), then it's probably not true. If in the past the scriptures said that the Holy Land was Tennessee, and then when it became illegal there, they were changed to say Utah (Mormonism, IIRC), it's probably not true.

Note that this doesn't affect claims to miraculous events where gods are involved. After all, if a being exists who is so powerful that science just describes the normal way he runs the universe (which is the proper Christian belief), then they can do things which science would normally forbid. It does, however, affect miracle claim where there is no mechanism proposed, and no gods involved to do the miracles (as in Buddhism, for example).

3. Are They Trustworthy? - testable predictions / claims

Some religions make testable predictions or claims. For example, the offical body of Jehovah's Witnesses, which they believe always to be correct, has often predicted the end of the world in specific years or on specific dates (details here). They've always been wrong. Are they trustworthy?

Of course, if a religion predicts or claims obvious or easy things, or things that are so vague they could mean anything, then that doesn't help with testability.

Christianity does make a few about the future. It could certainly be well argued that Jesus (died c. AD33) predicted the destruction of the Temple in AD70. It also makes the remarkable claim that Jesus rose bodily from the dead on the Sunday after he was killed. There's plenty of evidence for it, and I've never seen an even vaguely plausible argument against it. There's a useful quick summary of the arguments for it here - it's something you can look into.

4. Are They Trustworthy? - worth trusting?

Another question is of course whether it's worth trusting them at all. What do you stand to gain or lose?

For example, I have trouble understanding Hinduism and Buddhism. Part of the problem is that they're never actually explained in English - it's always things with stupidly long non-English words in. Even when Wycliffe was translating the Bible into English and the right word didn't exist, at least he made up words that made sense from the root langauges. But one thing I do understand about Hinduism and Buddhism is that there seems to be very little to gain if they are true. I enjoy life. By God's grace, I rejoice even when stuff hurts and people die, even when there's pain, I enjoy knowing who God is and I'd rather be alive than not. So a religion than aspires to nothingness, or that says you get an unlimited number of other goes anyway somehow just doesn't seem worth following.

I think that's more than enough writing from me for now, and I still haven't answered about whether it's fair. But I hope I've had a go at the first few questions.

Provan, Long & Longman - A Biblical History of Israel

Continuing in the reading stuff about the OT theme, this is a good attempt by three scholars to put together a Biblical history of Israel, interacting heavily with the Biblical text, modern criticism, archaeology and other ancient sources.

What stood out for me was their honesty. There's none of the "sweeping this under the mat" that you often find with other scholars. When the data seem inconclusive, they say so. When they don't understand something, they say so. If the archaeology supports the existence of a king called David in roughly the area of Judah, but doesn't tell us anything else about him, when he reigned, what he was like or whatever, they say so. They don't stretch the evidence beyond what it will cover and they do a pretty good job of avoiding inconsistency.

They start by discussing the "liberal critics" I read about last time, specifically the consistency of their reasons for accepting some bits of the Bible as historical but denying others. The basic conclusion seemed to be that there were two possible consistent positions for historians (without assuming infallibility) - either to doubt absolutely everything, which means you can't really know anything about history (or much else for that matter) - or to take the Biblical text as one "testimony" about the past, trust it conditionally, and see how it fits in with other pieces of evidence.

They then go through Old Testament history from Genesis 12 to Ezra and Nehemiah, discussing different interpretations of the text, which bit have been confirmed by archaeology or other texts, where it is more difficult to reconcile, etc. There's a lot of stuff on the background to the texts, and a lot of stuff on the nature of Old Testament narrative as literature, how to understand the theological themes, etc. It definitely made me think that I'm going to try and get hold of Provan's commentary on Kings if and when I preach through it.

All in all, I thought it was an excellent read and a very good treatment of the material. If I was going to be critical, I'd say some of the earlier sections assume a fair bit of technical vocabulary, but mostly (and especially in the historical sections) it is explained very well.

They say early on that they think it should be applied, but don't think that book is the place to do it. I think I agree, but with that level of understanding of the text, some hard work on application would be greatly appreciated. They also tend to ignore the typological themes in the text (i.e. the way it points forwards to Jesus and the Church and so on), which is again a weakness, but completely understandable since they're aiming to put together a history of Israel from the OT, not to apply it or explain why it's about Jesus.

What is Faith?

I was going to use today's post to display some more of my "heretical leanings", but I won't - that can wait for another day. In a couple of places over the last day or so, I've been prompted to think about the question of what faith actually is.

I guess there are two common misconceptions going round today as to what faith is. One view says that "faith" just means "thinking that something is true". The other view says that "faith" is a kind of existential leap that some people take - that they just decided to "have faith" that aliens exist or something, done despite absence of evidence.

The word translated "faith" in the New Testament is πιστις (pistis), which can also mean "faithfulness". It's closely linked to words like "trust" and so on. The idea of "faith" is that it's trusting God. It's not just believing facts about God; it's not some kind of groundless leap in the dark. It is taking what we know about God and trusting him.

The analogy I tend to use when talking to people about this is that of a chair. I can look at a chair, I can shake it a bit, whatever. I can say that I think it will take my weight. But faith is sitting on it.

Faith in Jesus means trusting him with all our weight - with all the weight of our lives, our hopes, our fears. It's not necessarily a leap in the dark. It can be based on good evidence and investigation. But, like sitting on a chair, I don't think you can ever be completely confident until after you put your trust there.

[I've now got all distracted wondering what would happen if πιστις only means "faithfulness" in the NT... There's an interesting article on the translation of the word here.]

Friday, August 04, 2006

Mark Haddon - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

I'm a bit behind on writing book reviews, so I'd better write one quickly. On the other hand, some of you are slow readers, so I'd better type at a slightly more leisurely pace...

What a great book this is! It's a first person narrative from the point of view of a child with Asperger's, who spends a good fraction of the book trying to investigate how the neighbour's dog died and ends up discovering all kinds of stuff.

It's done very well of course and you really end up understanding and sympathising with the kid in a lot of ways. Well, I did anyway. It's also quite amusing which details he picks to explain in any given situation, or the random maths puzzles that he just puts into chapters. They're fun.

One of the things that was interesting to my twisted and self-obsessed mind was the ways that how he thought resonated a lot with how I think (or in some cases used to think). For example, I remember stopping trusting people completely on the basis of one lie. I do the whole noticing ridiculous amounts of detail thing, but I've learnt to filter and forget most of what isn't useful. But I still find it really tiring being a passenger in a car partly because of the detail thing - it's much easier if I close my eyes. Oh yeah, and he's good at maths and stuff like that too...

When I was little, people used to say that looking at the Sun could make you go blind. I caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye, and didn't go blind. So I assumed it didn't apply to me. I used to stare at the Sun a fair bit, and damaged my eyesight as a result. I still think it's the fault of the people who told me that it could make me go blind - they should have said that looking at the Sun damages your eyes, then I'd have paid attention.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Seminal Semantics

Were I in the USA, a fairly normal description for what I'm doing in September would be attending seminary, which would make me a seminarian. I'm glad I'm not in the USA. For one thing, if asked how a seminarian becomes a member of a seminary, I suppose the obvious answer would be insemination, and that's not really on my list of things I want to happen to me (or indeed to do, unless I get married, which would probably be nice but for which I have no immediate plans). Besides that, I don't know what a narian is, so I wouldn't really want to be half of one. An Arian is something different, I'm not half of one of those either and I doubt it's one of those "a napron" / "an apron" things anyway.

There are three similar semantemes (which apparently means basic element of meaning in a word) here.

Sema is the Greek for "sign or mark".

Semen, seminis is the Latin for "seed". Apparently seminaries were seen as "seed beds"...

Semi is the Latin for "half".

And on a non-entirely unrelated note, I got an excellent card from one of my sisters congratulating me on passing my driving test.

The company that did it can be found here if that's your sort of thing. I reckon that counts as "fair use" - let me know if you disagree...

Oh yes, and thank you also for the other congratulations, etc on the driving test.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Mel Gibson

I was going to do a different post today, but it's worth being reactive as well as proactive every once in a while.

Apparently, Mel Gibson, an ex-alcoholic, got himself very drunk, went for a drive (with a bottle), got arrested and came out with a bit of a tirade against Jews. This is the same Mel Gibson who rose to prominence in that violent and not especially happy film Mad Max, but who more recently has turned back to his Roman Catholicism and directed The Passion of the Christ, which also annoyed the Jews.

Quick diversion - was The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic? Well, it strongly suggests that when God became man, that man was Jewish. And it says that the people around him killed him. Some of those people were Jews, but not all the Jews were guilty. Some of those people were Romans. In fact, it's the Romans who dish out almost all of the violence. Who actually nails Jesus to the cross? Actually, in the film, it's Mel Gibson. The film is significantly less anti-Semitic than, say, The Life of Brian. It certainly doesn't go beyond what the Bible says in terms of anti-Semitism. I do see NT Wright's point (I think it was him), who said that the word "Jew" in the New Testament might be better translated "Judean" to make it clear that these were people 2000 years ago, and it wasn't the current Jews who did it, just like it wasn't the current Italians.

Mel Gibson then. What he did was wrong. Well, duh. But I don't recall him ever claiming to be perfect. What I recall is a recovering alcoholic (always at risk of falling backwards again) who seemed to have found that although he was guilty as anything, although in a sense he was the one who crucified Jesus, that Jesus could forgive him.

I don't know exactly where Mel Gibson stands with Jesus. But I do know that Christians aren't perfect people - we're forgiven people. And that isn't because we're better than anyone else; it's because God is a very gracious and forgiving God, who has dealt with the fact we always mess up by sending Jesus to die in our place.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

All Change!

Yesterday was the last day in my diary. Teachers' diaries, sensibly, tend to go from August to July. So new diary today.

Yesterday I accepted an offer on my house. It was maybe a bit lower than I'd been wanting, but it was a lot more than I paid for the house and I was fairly confident that it was only greed that wanted more. Besides, I always try to do what I'll regret least, and I'd have regretted failing to sell my house hugely whereas I'd only regret getting an extra % or so slightly.

Yesterday, I also passed my driving test, much to the surprise of my instructor. I wasn't really surprised at all. Not because I'm a good driver (I know I'm not an especially good driver and I picked up a huge number of minor faults); I was confident because I've been writing this post in my head for a few days and because I knew I needed to. That doesn't mean I know my driving suddenly improves when I'm being assessed - I don't think it did. It's coz I know that at the moment, I'm doing what God wants me to be doing, so he will sort out the logistics. And being able to drive seemed to be a fairly important part of the logistics.

Here are some quotes from my driving test. They aren't exact verbatim quotes, but you get the general idea:

[Examiner] Do you understand what we're going to do?
[Me] Yes, we're going to get in the car and drive round for a bit. And if you tell me to jump over the gaps in any half-built bridges or anything, I'm going to try to do that

(in heavy rain)
[Me] I know this is probably the sort of question I shouldn't ask on a driving test, but I'd quite like some air circulation, but I've closed my window because I don't want my arm to get wet. Do you mind if I open yours?

Slightly more seriously, I hear that people find change very stressful, and the more things you change at once the more stressful you find it. That was one of the reasons I was actually really grateful that my first proper teaching job was at the same place that I'd been to school. So today, as I prepare to move house, as I get ready for changing subject to one which I haven't formally studied and am about to do a 3-year Oxford degree in in 2 years, as I start being able to drive round on my own after 28 years of walking and cycling, as I prepare for next term being in a city where I know like 3 people (all of whom are very nice and I look forwards to catching up with), it seems like there isn't much that stays the same.

I think one bit of the Bible that gets this really well - the tension between life being so short and changing so much and us being so weak, and at the same time God being so trustworthy and providing solutions to our problems of ephemerality, pain and guilt is Psalm 90.

Lord, through all the generations
you have been our home!
Before the mountains were created,
before you made the earth and the world,
you are God, without beginning or end.
You turn people back to dust, saying,
"Return to dust!"
For you, a thousand years are as yesterday!
They are like a few hours!
You sweep people away like dreams that disappear
or like grass that springs up in the morning.
In the morning it blooms and flourishes,
but by evening it is dry and withered.
We wither beneath your anger;
we are overwhelmed by your fury.
You spread out our sins before you--
our secret sins--and you see them all.
We live our lives beneath your wrath.
We end our lives with a groan.
Seventy years are given to us!
Some may even reach eighty.
But even the best of these years are filled with pain and trouble;
soon they disappear, and we are gone.
Who can comprehend the power of your anger?
Your wrath is as awesome as the fear you deserve.
Teach us to make the most of our time,
so that we may grow in wisdom.
O LORD, come back to us!
How long will you delay?
Take pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
so we may sing for joy to the end of our lives.
Give us gladness in proportion to our former misery!
Replace the evil years with good.
Let us see your miracles again;
let our children see your glory at work.
And may the Lord our God show us his approval
and make our efforts successful.
Yes, make our efforts successful!

Psalm 90, NLT