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. 

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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. 

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Paul Marshall on Classical Liberalism

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Paul Marshall, British investor and one-time MP candidate for the SDP/Liberal Alliance, has provided a spirited defence of classical liberalism over at Unherd.

The title of Marshall’s article, “Progressives have sacrificed liberalism”, gives one the false impression that this is purely a pugilistic piece pointed at an imprecisely defined progressivism. This notion is wrong on three counts: 

  • first, the argument is positive and constructive as well as apologetic 
  • second, insofar as the author’s aim is pugilistic (which it undoubtedly is), he targets three rival ideologies: not only progressivism but post-liberalism and libertarianism. (In fact, he takes aim at a further philosophy which lies behind progressivism and libertarianism: the 18th century so-called Enlightenment).
  • And third, on progressivism, the author carefully defines this creed as the conceit that humankind’s moral and epistemological progress is “on a perpetual upward curve in parallel with technological progress”.  

The author’s main contention, in many ways complementary to John Gray’s Two Faces of Liberalism, is that classical liberalism has “lost its moorings”. More specifically (and unlike Gray), he contends that classical liberalism has lost its deep Christian (more particularly still its Protestant) faith revealed in an assumed anthropology (a shared understanding of human nature wherein we possess inherent dignity but are also fallen creatures), a common epistemology (theory of human knowledge where, because of our fallenness we empirically test our hypotheses), and ethics, wherein we pursue virtue and good in light of God’s decrees. 

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How Important is the History of Biblical Interpretation to New Testament Interpretation?

I’ve a new book chapter coming out in Studies in the History of Exegesis (History of Biblical Exegesis 2: 12, ed. Mark W. Elliott, Raleigh C. Heth, and Angela Zautcke; Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2022). The book features essays from various meetings of the SBL History of Interpretation section (led by Mark Elliott and Michael Legaspi) and divides into four sections: Matters of Approach, Early Exegetical Cases, Luther’s Exegesis 500 Years On and Early Modern Concurrences and Tensions in Exegesis.

My chapter sits in section 2. I employ the famous command to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” as a case study for answering the question set for the section: how important is the history of biblical interpretation (Auslegungsgeschichte) for the understanding of a New Testament text?

My argument is, in short, twofold: first, that at the exegetical level, the history of New Testament interpretation provides mixed results for New Testament interpretation. Second, at the hermeneutical level, that history offers richer benefits by raising questions about the parallels and discontinuities in the methods and motivations of ancient and modern reading cultures. To illustrate this second point, I provide an enlightening (for me at least) comparison of the exegesis of this command by Origen and Tertullian and by the renowned NT scholar Adela Yarbro Collins. The book will hopefully appear sometime in 2022.

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

The Rightful Place of Emotion in Human Decision-Making: Lockdown Debates as a Case Study

Reason and emotion both have a place in moral decision-making. And yet, as we’ve seen in recent lockdown debates in the UK, the important place of emotion in argumentation has been downplayed, even as it has dominated discussion in the background.*

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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. 

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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”.

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In Praise of Escapism

“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” (J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’).* 

The escapist gets a bad name. 

In our wisdom, we consider those who seek to escape “real life” as doubly cursed: first, as deserters, because they make the attempt to abandon reality, and second, as idealists, because they think such flight from the facts of life is at all possible. 

Among the Reformed traditions in which I find my home, I suspect that some view escapism with this kind of suspicion. Reformed theologians are forever talking about the necessity of engaging with real life, the significance of engagement with culture, engaging with this and that issue related to the public sphere.**

And, closer to home, I see this suspicion, or blind spot, with regards to “escape” in my own thinking. The aim of this blog, after all, is to provide a “refreshingly realistic take on Christianity and politics”. And, in re-reading my own most recent reflections (here and here), I find that it’s almost as if I am making excuses for retreating from the world.

But what if retreat, or escape, or whatever we want to call it, is at times—I do not say always—necessary? What if the world out there, and in here, is so dark, that we ought to escape, ought to take refuge elsewhere?

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Quietness, not Quietism: The Prayer Book on Finding Rest in God

The Book of Common Prayer on at least three occasions makes reference to quietness in its collective prayers, or collects:

“…that we may pass our time in rest and quietness…” (Second Collect, Evening Prayer)

“grant…that thy Church may joyfully serve thee in all godly quietness…” (Trinity 5)

“grant…to thy faithful people…that…they may serve thee with a quiet mind” (Trinity 21)

Quietness is not the same as quietism, however. Quietism broadly speaking refers to a variety of religious and political philosophies characterised by permanent withdrawal from the world. Worldly events mean less, and perhaps are even meaningless, as one seeks truth in spiritual events and internal experiences. 

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