Bible Reading Week 3 (Jan 17-23, 2022)

Week 1

Week 2

Old Testament (Genesis 17-23)

1. Genesis 17:1-23: What is the significance of the covenant of circumcision? Does it not constitute works righteousness and if not, why not? And why circumcision as a sign of the covenant?  

Since that’s not one question but three, let’s take each in turn. 

Genesis 17 refers to the giving (Hebrew: ntn) or confirming of the covenant. This covenant ratification follows on from the covenant inauguration (or “cutting of the covenant) in Genesis 15. The cutting of the covenant, with its strange ceremony with fire and divided animals stresses the chronological priority of God’s action which takes priority and pre-eminence over man’s. Genesis 17 majors on man’s response which ratifies and confirms the covenant already made by God’s divine initiative. 

Continue reading “Bible Reading Week 3 (Jan 17-23, 2022)”

Bible Reading Week 2 (Jan 10-16 2022)

For week 1, see here. For the lectionary I am using, see here.

Old Testament (Genesis 10-16)

1. Genesis 11:1-9: What’s the main point of the Babel story? 

At face value, the central thrust of the Babel narrative is that human hubris—symbolised in progressive attempts to build towards the heavens—leads to divine judgment, specifically taking the form of scattering the peoples and confusing their languages. 

Set against the literary and historical context of Genesis, though, the meaning becomes a bit clearer. There is anti-Babylonian streak to the story which I hadn’t noticed before but which makes sense in light of the near eastern parallels against which Genesis 1-11 is written. With this narrative there is no specific parallel but rather the use of motifs related to Babylonian religion—for instance, Babel literally means “gate of the god” . As Wenham writes (ECB, 37): “The ridiculing of Babylonian pretensions is even more apparent in the tower of Babel story. Far from its vaunted tower touching heaven and the name Babel (Babylon) meaning “gate of the god”, the Lord had to come down from heaven to see the skyscraper—so far short of his dwelling did it reach; and its name means ‘confusion’ or ‘folly’”. The Hebrew roots for the word “confuse” (“let us confuse”) and “folly” are almost the same. 

Continue reading “Bible Reading Week 2 (Jan 10-16 2022)”

CS Lewis on the Real

This week I became a father (so posts will be a bit sporadic for a while!). My experience as father of witnessing labour was incredibly intense and scary and, well, a bit surreal!

A friend reminded me of this wonderful passage from CS Lewis from The Screwtape Letters on the nature of the real. What struck me is how easy it is to focus on the blood and guts and gore (what is “real”) and thus dismiss the joy and emotion that comes with the gift of a new human life (“mere sentiment”). I was thankful for the reminder!

when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is “what the world is really like” and that all his religion has been a fantasy. You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word “real”‘. They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, “All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building”; here “Real” means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say “It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like”: here “real” is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness. Either application of the word could be defended; but our business is to keep the two going at once so that the emotional value of the word “real” can be placed now on one side of the account, now on the other, as it happens to suit us. The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are “Real” while the spiritual elements are “subjective”; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist. Thus in birth the blood and pain are “real”, the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view…Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment.

Photo by Jochen van Wylick on Unsplash

Bible Reading Week 1 (Jan 1-9 2022)

Last week, I began reading my yearly read through the bible using this lectionary (I’ve never actually read through the entire bible in one year and this plan will, in fact, take me two). As I did so, I found I had an accumulating set of questions related to various historical, literary and theological issues raised by the text. I hope to record these questions each week and try and provide ways of approaching and answering them briefly (some of which I hope to come back to over time). Perhaps these are questions that you’ve wrestled with, in which case, please do feel free to provide your noughts via a comment.

Since, I believe, we are not only encouraged to ask questions of the scriptures but also let it ask questions of us, I also aim to provide a brief reflection on a part of the week’s reading that struck a chord or challenged me in my discipleship. 

This first week features quite a few questions, most of which cluster around the Old Testament passages. A few are provided below (and a full list at the end). I haven’t had enough time to research these as I’d like owing to personal circumstances (I’ve just become a father!) so these are first stabs. 

Continue reading “Bible Reading Week 1 (Jan 1-9 2022)”

Christmas Digest

Happy Christmas to you and your loved ones from the Saeculum!

Tis’ the season for overconsumption! This obviously applies to food and drink at Christmas, but it can also be true of our media in-take as well. Whether it be films, radio programmes, music, periodicals or magazines, we are treated to a rich and overwhelming feast for the senses over the festive period. 

This sense of overconsumption can also seep into the Christmas story itself—an endless array of characters and perspectives to consider, carols to sing and insights to glean. 

Given all of this, I have felt the need to curate some of my reading this Christmas. In this piece, I offer a brief sample—a digest if you will—of Christmas reflections  from across the internet. I have divided these into two sections: Christmas History, which deals with the history of the accounts of the first Christmas in the gospels and Christmas Meanings, which draws out the broader cultural significance of the season. 

Continue reading “Christmas Digest”

Resting Well: Re-creation, Reorientation and Retreat

Over at the Undeceptions podcast, John Dickson has been hard at work looking at the value of resting well. Special guest Alex Pang (author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less) covers the science of rest and work. The discussion touches on Darwin and Lubbock, two nineteenth century polymaths with prolific literary outputs who both developed systems of rest that helped them produce more fruitfully. I came away more convinced than ever that rest is the fruitful partner of work.

But the real highlight for me was the discussion of rest in the Hebrew and Christian traditions, including Dickson’s 5 Minute Jesus on rest in the Gospels and the Letter to the Hebrews, and his interview with Rabbi Elton. We appear to owe the concept of the weekend, in large part, to the Jewish Sabbath, which seems to represent the first attempt in human civilisation to offer a day of rest to everyone—including servants and animals—living within a given locale. Dickson and Elton also cover the relationship between rest and redemption, with the great prelude to the Sabbath command outlining the rationale for rest: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”.

Continue reading “Resting Well: Re-creation, Reorientation and Retreat”

What is Real in this Life?: Christian Realism and Christian Mysticism

The observant reader of this blog will notice its strapline: “a realistic take on Christianity and politics”. It’s no doubt a tagline that I fail to live up to perfectly and it would be unrealistic to expect to be realistic one hundred percent of the time.

Nevertheless, what this strapline is getting at, is my desire to pursue the unvarnished truth of the Christian faith and the cultures in which it resides. Or to define the goal negatively, I wish to move away from idealistic and utopian—that is unrealistic or not-true-to-life—analyses of the Christian tradition and its engagement with cultural issues.

It’s why I tackle issues that are messy and complex—vaccines, war, sex, freedom, tribalism, the role of the state and so on. These are all issues that are in the headlines and which reverberate throughout the corridors of power. 

What could be more real than that? 

For Advent this year, I’ve been reading the Archbishop of York’s book for the season, The Music of Eternity: Meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill, edited by Robyn Wrigley-Carr. It features reflections appropriate for the season from Anglican mystic and spiritual writer, Evelyn Underhill. I first came across Underhill via Jane Williams who quoted her in an episode of Godpod: “God is the interesting thing about religion”. And I find myself turning to Underhill’s reflections each day for the same reason: her unrelenting attempt to get herself, and to get her reader, out of the way, and place God at the centre of human existence, of human reality.  

Augustine, whom Underhill quotes, makes this point with maximal brevity: “God is the only Reality and we are only real insofar as we are in him and he in us”. 

How do we relate the work of mystics like Evelyn Underhill to the cultural analysis of Christian Realists? 

Continue reading “What is Real in this Life?: Christian Realism and Christian Mysticism”

Why do we have the Creeds?

Over on GodPod, Jane Williams, Graham Tomlin and Michael Lloyd have begun a new series on the Nicene Creed. In the first episode in the series, they discuss the question, Why do we have the Creeds? It’s well worth a listen. Particular highlights, for me, included the following insights:

Continue reading “Why do we have the Creeds?”

NT Wright on Prayer and the Saints

With All Saints’ Day fast approaching, I’ve found myself getting into discussions with Orthodox and Roman Catholic brothers and sisters about what we’re doing as we celebrate this important day in the church calendar.

I’ve found myself returning to NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope, a book which re-lit the smouldering embers of my faith back in 2013. 

Continue reading “NT Wright on Prayer and the Saints”

Sojourner Patriotism: What Rich Mullins Teaches Us About National Belonging

24 years following Rich Mullins’ death, what can we learn from him about national belonging?

The Appalachian Mountains, “waking with the innocence of children”

“And I’ll call you my country, and be lonely for my home”

***

On this day in 1997, Rich Mullins was killed following a car accident in rural Illinois. He was 41. The news sent shockwaves across the Christian music scene, the English-speaking church, and beyond. 

I grew up listening to Rich Mullins through my Dad, right around the time of Rich’s death. I’m not sure what album he bought first, but I remember The Jesus Record, Songs and Brother’s Keeper being played on our living room CD / Vinyl turntable, and via the CD player on caravan trips through France. Before university, I remember branching out and listening to A Liturgy, A Legacy & A Ragamuffin Band. And only in recent weeks, at the instigation of a fellow pilgrim, have I picked up the two volumes of The World as I Remember It

It was Rich’s heartfelt passion and honesty that made the first and lasting impression. These hallmark qualities of Rich’s faith have brought me back to his music time and again. As Hannah Rich has recently argued, such genuine faith has often put Rich at odds with the mainstream Christian music industry of his day, and ours. For Mullins, faith had to be “active” to be truly alive (as Rich commented upon moving to the Navajo reservation on the Arizona border: “I can make records for the rest of my life and talk about love, but it won’t mean anything until I love somebody”. Faith spoke truth to power. It was not personal and private but political. It was honest to God about its doubts (the demo version of Hard to Get was a dear friend to me through many a long, dark night of the soul at university). It was also honest to God about its joys. This faith challenges our many false dichotomies, all of our “vain imaginations / and misguided pieties”. 

On the 24th anniversary of Rich Mullins’ passing, I want to focus on a slightly different paradox within his music. This is the curiously neglected theme that I consider to be a leitmotif running throughout his works—the experience of home. For Rich, the theme of home relates deeply, though not straightforwardly, to experiences of national belonging, since both have to do with one’s roots, the stuff of which we are made. In what follows, I want to briefly consider the following question: what might Rich Mullins have to teach us about national belonging and patriotism, about belonging to home and, conversely, the experience of homesickness? I will suggest that there are two animating experiences which exist in tension within Rich’s account of home: the first is the passionate desire of the lover who celebrates the particular place to which she belongs; and the second is the homesick longing of the sojourner who is lonely for his true home with God. 

Continue reading “Sojourner Patriotism: What Rich Mullins Teaches Us About National Belonging”