Monday, September 29, 2014

Scarves, Stoles and Symbolism

Symbols change their meaning with time.

When I was growing up, one symbol that had a very clear meaning for me was whether ministers wore scarf or stole. (Scarves are black; stoles have the colour of the liturgical season – green, white, red or purple). If a vicar wore a black scarf, it showed that they understood that their role was primarily as a preacher of God's Word. If they wore a stole, it meant that they saw their ministry as being priests, re-sacrificing Jesus on the altar.

That understanding informed what I wore for my ordination. Lots of evangelical ordinands share that view and want to be given a black scarf at their ordination rather than a white stole, because it symbolises being given authority to preach rather than authority to re-enact the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The official rules of course say that it makes no doctrinal difference which you wear, but that just prompted a friend of mine to find out what the doctrinal difference was. He wore a scarf.

Years later, I found myself in a different part of the country, in a church where no-one would even dream of thinking that the minister re-enacted Jesus sacrifice of himself at communion, and everyone was clear that a big part of the vicar's role was preaching. When I asked them how they understood the difference between scarves and stoles, the only difference they could find was that stoles were colourful and showed that the minsters valued colour and symbols but that scarves showed the vicar was a bit old-fashioned.

Of course, if people understand the symbolism that way, then I'm not going to be so insistent on wearing a scarf rather than a stole... Symbols are flexible and can mean different things in different contexts. There is nothing inherent about a black scarf that means it's about preaching or about a coloured stole that means it carries a certain understanding of communion – those are labels that some people choose to attach to those items of clothing.

Now it seems that scarves are dying out altogether. Some bishops ban them at ordinations. I don't think that's usually because of theology; I suspect it's because it looks neater if everyone is wearing the same thing. But more evangelicals avoid robes as often as they possibly can, which again comes down to symbolism.

For some people, robes symbolise the church they of their parents stopped going to – the idea of a minister who is boring, old-fashioned and out of touch. (That's not always a bad thing; I wear robes every week for a service where it's a positively good thing.) For others, robes symbolise that the people wearing them are different from everyone else. Ironically, that's how robes came about, but in not the way that you'd expect.

In the 400s AD, some clergy had started dressing in a way that was designed to look impressive. Pope Celestine I objected strongly and wrote this:

We bishops must be distinguished from the people and others by our learning, not our dress, by our life not by our robes, by purity of heart not by elegance.
Quoted in Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, p.401

Shortly afterwards, to stop the clergy wearing fancy clothes that set them apart, the church introduced some rules about what clergy should wear. Ironically, it was those very rules that then stayed the same for centuries and resulted in clergy wearing different clothes from everyone else as fashion changed!

In the late Roman Empire, people who held an office (magistrates, etc) would wear a special scarf to identify themselves and to show the authority that had been given them to do their role. It's that scarf that is the ancestor of both the scarf and the stole.

People who think that robes make an important statement, and that clergy are more about preaching than presiding at communion are also likely to think that robes themselves communicate the wrong message to people, and so are more likely to avoid wearing them, except on special occasions.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Old Testament Source Criticism

I spend quite a bit of my life digging into details of the text of the Bible. I love doing it, but I didn't love studying large parts of the OT at university, and I don't like the way it's often taught today. The main reason comes down to two words: source criticism.

Source criticism is about trying to understand the history of a text. A source critic might read Lord of the Rings, for example, and try to work out how the text came to take the form it did. It's much easier if you've got copies of earlier versions, or of the author's working. We don't have those in the case of the Bible, though.

Source criticism can be a useful tool to have when studying the Old Testament. There are a few places where it produces helpful insights. For example, Psalm 89 seems to have been a Psalm about God's goodness in creation, to which someone has added a bit in a different style about God's goodness in making promises to David, to which someone else has added in another style a complaint that God isn't keeping those promises and prayer that he would. Or Amos 4 & 5 seem to be a speech Amos gives in the (Northern) temple, interspersed with some verses of a hymn that's being sung, creating an effect a bit like Simon & Garfunkel singing Silent Night over the evening news. Seeing those aspects of a passage actually help us to understand the meaning of the passage better.

Where Source Criticism gets annoying is when scholars treat it like the main tool they should be using to understand a passage. This is especially true in the Pentateuch, and especially with a theory called the Documentary Hypothesis (JEDP). In that theory, Genesis - Deuteronomy somehow contain the full text of four older documents, called J, E, D and P, and probably the majority of non-evangelical Pentateuch scholars seem to spend most of their time (and most of the space in commentaries) arguing about precisely which bit comes from which source. The result is rather as you'd expect if you read a novel with your main concern being trying to work out how the author had drafted it - you completely miss the point.

C.S. Lewis, who was both an author and an expert on old texts, writes this on Biblical source criticism:

This then is my first bleat. These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can't see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.


My impression is that in the whole of my experience, not one of these guesses [of reviews where others try to reconstruct how he wrote things] has on any point been right; that the method shows a record of one hundred per cent failure. You would expect by mere chance they would hit as often as they miss. But it is my impression that they do no such thing. I can't remember a single hit.


They assume that you wrote a story as they would try to write a story; the fact that they would so try explains why they have not produced any stories.

(from Fern Seed and Elephants)

Let's backtrack for a moment. The main reason that the JEDP hypothesis came about in the first place was because the Pentateuch really doesn't read like history as written by a modern westerner. Here's an example:

4 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. 5 On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.’

6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, ‘In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?’ 8 Moses also said, ‘You will know that it was the Lord when he gives you meat to eat in the evening and all the bread you want in the morning, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we? You are not grumbling against us, but against the Lord.’

9 Then Moses told Aaron, ‘Say to the entire Israelite community, “Come before the Lord, for he has heard your grumbling.”’

10 While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked towards the desert, and there was the glory of the Lord appearing in the cloud.

11 The Lord said to Moses, 12 ‘I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, “At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.”’

Exodus 16:4-12, NIV

The passage clearly says things more than once. It reads like there are two accounts of the same event with slight variations in the same passage. It does not read like it was written by a modern western historian. But there's a simple reason for that - it wasn't written by a modern western historian - it was written by an ancient Israelite, and they wrote rather differently from us.

Take the Psalms, for example. The basic literary technique in Psalms is that you say something, then you say it again using slightly different words - sometimes giving a little more information, sometimes not.

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song.

3 For the Lord is the great God,
the great King above all gods.
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
5 The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.

Psalm 95:1-5, NIV

No-one in their right mind would suggest that "the Lord is the great God" must have been written by a different person from "the great King above all gods". That's how Hebrew poetry works. So we shouldn't be surprised if Hebrew prose shows some of the same structures. There's often repetition; there's often clarification. It may well be linked to the fact it was originally written in a non-literate culture, so was written to be remembered easily.

But they don't just repeat randomly; there are all kinds of interesting structures in Hebrew prose. One of the most common is the chiasm, where the passage repeats itself in a mirror image around a central verse. Exodus 16 is one of those:

The whole section is exposing the fact that the Israelites are doubting that God is with them. The passage points to the fact that God will show his presence among them by providing them food. It's a carefully constructed work of literary art rather than a badly meshed together group of extracts from sources.

Now a decent commentary will spend more time on the important aspects of the structure rather than JEDP, but most won't. Decent teaching material on the Pentateuch will spend more time discussing structures like that than JEDP, but most doesn't. And that makes me sad.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Three Quick Book Reviews

It's been a while since I've posted on here – largely because of the summer. Here are some reviews of non-fiction books I've read recently...

Celebration of Discipline – Richard Foster

This book is far far better than its title! One of the huge dangers facing any book on spiritual disciplines is legalism, which Foster avoids well. It is easy to see how this book became a classic, and was one of the key influences in helping evangelicals learn from some of the riches of other traditions. Lots of wise practical advice about fasting and so on as well.

In some ways, Christian culture in the 2010s might be even more compromised by seeking after comfort than it was in the 1980s when the book was written, and hence even more in need of the spiritual disciplines.

There aren't many books which I'd say are a “must read” for modern Christians. This might well be one!

Liturgical Worship – Mark Earey

This is the recommended textbook for a course I'm teaching in the Autumn on liturgy. It's a really good book for giving an introduction to the shape and nature of Anglican liturgy.

There are a couple of places where I felt he missed important points – for example he sees the options with deciding what to preach on as either following a lectionary or having the danger of going for the preachers' pet topics – ignoring the pattern I've come across many times of systematic preaching through chunks of Scripture, but varying the genre regularly. But by and large, I thought that Earey gives a fair representation of most of the breadth of Anglican positions on various topics.

There are quite a few grand-sounding statements about liturgy – that it is the “Corporate drama of being the people of God” and “a public symbolic shaping of space and time in order that our hearts and lives might be shaped in the image of Christ”, but at times I felt it could do with a lot more fleshing out.

I don't think we covered liturgy very well at theological college at all. I'd have found this a really helpful introduction to the topic, but it's not more than that.

The Breeze of the Centuries – Michael Reeves

This is an introduction to a handful of great Christian thinkers from before the Reformation period – the Apostolic Fathers, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Anselm, Aquinas.

With each of them, Reeves gives a short biography, complete with humorous anecdotes, and a summary of their major works, theology and influence.

There's a lot of good stuff there. It's certainly helpful to see the people in their wider context. Reeves doesn't let people slip into their own stereotypes – he doesn't let them always be right and points out some of Anselm's theological weirdnesses (for example). It's certainly a good introduction to the theologians he covers, but it's the weakest of the three Michael Reeves books I've read.

Here's one of the high points of the book:

Augustine provides a prime example of what it is like to read a great theologian from the past: both grand and alien, both profoundly right and profoundly wrong (often in the same sentence), he challenges in every way. His great temporal distance from us dares our comfortable and well-worn formulas. Even the mistakes we recognise as characteristic of his age force us to ask what mistakes are characteristic of ours. (p.100)

There are a couple of things I found difficult or unhelpful. One is the selection of theologians – they're almost all Westerners (Justin Martyr and Athanasius are the only exceptions), and it seems odd not to mention Origen or the Cappadocians. Reeves also seems to say that there weren't any significant theologians between Augustine and Anselm, which seems a little unfair to John of Damascus and co. Maybe it would have been better as two books – one on patristic theologians and one on medieval ones, with people like Bernard of Clairvaux, Tauler, Catherine of Siena, etc.