Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Sacred texts in a secular world

Sacred Texts in a secular world: How should we teach sacred texts in a pluralistic, multi-faith, modern university?

(Full PDF is here)

Dr Stephen Garner from the University of Auckland (blog here) will give the 2011 Annual Theology lecture on Thursday 25 August at 8 pm, at Flinders University in North Lecture Theatre 2.

With a number of years teaching Bible and Popular Culture and various courses on ethics and spirituality, with a PhD in public theology, particularly the relationship between artificial intelligence and Christian understandings of being human, and given the complex contemporary relationship between sacred texts and religious expression, this promises to be a timely and important occasion.

Posted by steve at 09:06 PM

Thursday, July 28, 2011

a new reformation: the rort that is academic (biblical) publishing

I just got notice from an academic (Biblical) publishing house. A new book. Price $90.

What a rort.

What happened to the Reformation? Remember the people who died for the belief that the Bible belonged not to an exclusive elite, but to the whole people of God, who insisted that translation be in the vernacular, who fought for lay interpretation.

500 years later, we still have an elite, sustained by the academic publishing market, fused with the research academic. Here’s how it works.

Academics do research. They need to publish their research, so they write. What they write is quite elite, so only a few people read it. So not many books sell. So the price is expensive.

Yet other’s in the academic guild have to read what their peers write. So academic libraries still have to buy these books no matter how expensive. Which means a guaranteed market. And ensures little competitive pressure to make a book more accessible.

I know this happens in all academic disciplines. I know that “pure” research (cf applied research) is important. I know that there is an academic speak which is is an important shorthand (see my post – Can I swap your pliers for my Economic Trinity?)

But when books are priced at $90, the world of biblical scholarship has priced itself as an elitist occupation, affordable to a few, inaccessible to the many. Anyone for a new reformation?

Posted by steve at 04:56 PM

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Can there be good without God? an honest atheist response

Last week I was in a team of Christian theists, debating a team of atheists at Flinders University. The question was Can there be good without God? (Here is what I said and here are some reflections on the nature of a debate).

I realised over the weekend that I probably left my conclusion at home.  Here it is, part of an Easter sermon from 2009 – from an article, written for the UK Independent newspaper, by a man called Matthew Parris.  Titled As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.

The article tells the story, of how Matthew grew up in Africa, became a journalist, declared himself an atheist and became a well known gay rights activist.

In 2008, he was invited back to Africa by a charity.  This is what he wrote: 

“travelling in Malawi refreshed …[a]… belief … I’ve been trying to banish all my life …. an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God. Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced …. [that] In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”

Parris goes on to say how he used to accept Christian involvement in Africa only because it was practical.  Shame about the God stuff, the wierd Christian beliefs in things like resurrection.

Because at least Christians were doing something practical and useful. Let them carry on because they care for sick and teach people to read and write.

But, says Parris, he can no longer avoid the facts.  When you travel across Africa, says Parris, you I’m quoting again.

“Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers …  but more open … It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. [Yet t]heir work was … influenced by a conception of man’s place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.

Posted by steve at 08:58 AM

Saturday, June 11, 2011

my book of the month: The German Mujahid

The German Mujahid is beautifully written by Algerian author, Boualem Sansal.

Three of our globals more difficult conversations are engaged – the Holocaust, Islamic fundamentalism, and multi-culturalism in the West. The carrier of these conversations are two immigrant brothers, who discover that their father, brutally killed in his Algerian village by Islamic fundamentalists, was himself a SS officer at Auschwitz. The use of narrative, mixed with diary entries are used to explore the unfolding complexities of contemporary life and what it might mean to speak for peace in cultures of intolerance.

The writing is superb, a searing portrayal. The characters are believable, unfolding in their complexity. (If I was being critical, I’d comment on the male-centric nature of the book, in which the voices of woman are very much pushed to the margins.)

While this book leaves you worldly wiser, it also leaves you none the wiser as to how then to live in cultures of intolerance. The worlds of Hitler and Islam fundamentalism are penned so strongly, that any green shoots of resistance and hope simply struggle for life.

Posted by steve at 11:56 AM

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

can there be good without God? here’s what I said

On Tuesday I was part of a team of 3, debating a team of 3 atheists, at Flinders University, between 3 -5 pm. According to one promotional flyer, “Come and watch a fantastic exchange on one of the most important questions ..The Atheist Foundation of Australia will be debating some of the State’s finest Christian thinkers.” (Finest! LOL)

Updated: entire debate, including all questions, is online here.

Each side had 10 minutes per speaker. Each side was then invited to ask one question per speaker. General questions were then invited for 45 minutes, followed by closing arguments of 10 minutes maximum. Here’s what I said in my 10 minutes. Tomorrow I’ll post a few post-debate reflections.

Can there be good without God? My interest is ethical. How should we live if God is good; How would we live if good and God are separated? (more…)

Posted by steve at 11:33 AM

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Revelation’s White Horse Warrior on Obama/Osama bin Laden?

Following on from what Augustine and Bono might say to Osama bin Laden, I think for the sake of honesty, Christians must also ask what Revelation’s White Horse Warrior might say to Osama/Obama?

The Bible book of Revelation ends with the Rider on the White horse, who comes to pour out God’s wrath (Revelation 19:15). In response, the saints gleefully cheer (Rev 18:20). It is easy to claim an Old Testament God of vengeance and a New Testament God of love. Revelation refuses to allow us this luxury.

What to do with these Bible texts in Revelation? What to do with those who suffer violence in the name of Divine? Miroslav Volf, theologian at Yale and native born Croatian, puts the question this way: “Why must God say the unrelenting “no” to a world of injustive, deception and violence in such a violent way?” (Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and ReconciliationChristianity Books) 296)

Volf argues that much talk of non-violence has “the sweet aroma of a suburban ideology” (296).

“A “nice” God is a figment of liberal imagination, a projection onto the sky of the inability to give up cherished illusions about goodness, freedom, and the rationality of social actors. (298)”

Ouch! Volf argues that in reality, patient appeals to reason do not always work. Thus the texts of Revelation are, in my words, reality texts. That some people and situations will not change. They refuse to “shy away from the unpleasant and deeply tragic possibility that there might be human beings, created in the image of God, who, through the practices of evil, have immunised themselves from all attempts at their redemption.” (297)

Obama and religious fundamentalism (of any persuasion) become contemporary examples of this.

In such reality, the White Rider in Revelation functions to keep open a God who is indignant at injustice, deception and violence. This does not mean that God is schizophrenic, a wierd mix of suffering Messiah and justice-seeker. Rather it is the preserver of true and radical human freedom, that people have the choice to say no to redemption and reconcilation – whether a fundamentalist or a Christian refusing to face their sin.

These are tough things to consider. But it does provide a way to understand what Volf calls “the symbolic portrayal of the final exclusion of everything that refuses to be redeemed by God’s suffering love … not because God is too eager to pull the trigger, but because every day of patience in a world of violence means more violence and every postponement of vindication means letting insult accompany injury.” (299)

To be honest, part of this makes my blood chill.

But another part warms toward a God who cares enough about justice to engage the world in reality, in truth, in freedom whether in good or bad.

Volf has not finished. He then asks “who” – who can enact such justice? Can Obama and a group of US Seals? Volf notes that in the New Testament, the “who” is the suffering God and the White horse rider, “partners in promoting nonviolence.” (302) Humans are freed to renounce violence because of future hope in God’s passionate justice.

“the only way in which nonviolence and forgiveness will be possible in a world of violence is through displacement or transference of violence, not through its complete relinquishment.” (302)

Further posts:
see Christian Jihad or what sort of God killed the Canaanites?

Posted by steve at 12:53 PM

Monday, February 21, 2011

Bono on justice, mercy, faith and narcissism

U2 are currently touring South Africa. It brings their work on behalf of Africa into particular focus, especially when they face the media in Africa. A few days ago, Bono was interviewed by Redi Tlabi on Talk Radio 702 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The interview ran for about 35 mins. It is a wide-ranging interview that covers music, marriage, justice, mercy, faith and narcissism.

There are some great quotes (transcribed by me, but I’d suggest if you want to use the quotes, then do check the sound recording for yourself):

On justice vs charity:

When it comes to One and Data, people see us as bleeding hearts. We do have hearts, but we’re very tough minded people. Justice matters, not charity. These are monies owed by the poorest to the richest. The grand children are held to ransom.

On the fight for justice:

The World Bank just put out figures that African leaders who qualified for debt cancellation. Between 2005 and 2011, there are an extra 44 million children going to school as a result of debt cancellation. These are World Bank figures.

On his relationship with Africa:

Africa seemed a long way away for a boy growing up in Dublin. Our music has always been influenced by social justice. It was while working in Africa that you start to think about the structural issues of poverty. We raised 200 million (in Bandaid) and then we realised Africa spends that much on debt repayment a month.

On himself:

I am definitely capable of narcissism. I’m a rock star.

On whether aid to Africa positions them as victims:

We all needed aid. Ireland did. Germany did. Get over it. We are thinking what are the obstacles in the way of justice, equality and freedom.

On whether Bono is religious:

I’m a believer. I have a deep faith but I am deeply suspicious of people who talk about their faith all the time. It is utterly a part of my life. I try to read the Scriptures.

On his upbringing:

My upbringing made me suspicious. Faith is a very beautiful thing but religion can be a very ugly thing. My faith has helped me in that struggle.

For the full interview as a sound file, go here.

Posted by steve at 06:00 PM

Thursday, September 09, 2010

tricky theology question from a 10 year old

A delightfully agile 10 year old threw me this question last week.

How do you know that God is the most powerful one? What if there was someone more powerful, but they have been keeping that hidden?

I’d be grateful for any insights, ponderings and musings from you, my intelligent readers.

Posted by steve at 04:22 PM

Sunday, September 05, 2010

being church in an earthquake zone

Given that only a few months ago, I was pastoring in Christchurch, my thoughts in the last 24 hours have revolved around wondered what I’d do if I was pastoring, being church in the midst of such destruction.

My current thoughts (and I’m at distance, so might be way of beam) revolve around creating some sort of communal drop-in point for at least the next 7 days. Open the foyer from 9 am-3 pm. Provide hot soup. Set up some breadmakers and get a lovely warm, home smell into the place. Since schools are being closed, set up an area for kids to play, with a range of games. My hunch is that people will want ways to be together, to share, laugh, cry. So tables with food allow that to happen naturally.

Some people might want a more focused listening ear, so I’d set up some “sharing couches” and have some designated “listeners” who would simply be there to listen. I’d tell them to keep an ear out for those who might need more focused help, 50+ after shocks and counting might led to trauma for some.

I’d set up a range of prayer stations, that would allow people to engage with God. Words are hard to find in the midst of shock, so I’d focus on simple, tactile ways to pray.

“Oh help” station – with candles and sand trays to lit in memory of things that are lost, broken, damaged, missing. Simply helping people name the grief and the shock.

“Whew, that was close” station – post-it notes or clothes line prayers (string and some pegs), in which people could give thanks for what they still have – life, food, neighbours, friends, a professional Civil Defence … and so on. Simply helping people pay attention to moments of grace.

“Seeking beauty” station – a sort of craft table, in which people could make something of beauty. For some this would be facile. For others, it’s a part of being human and it can be a way of helping people focus beyond themselves. I’d make it communal and expect that lots of healing chat would happen.

“Where is God” station – a thinking station. Often at times like this God’s name get’s used in some pretty naive ways. Quietly ignored for years while the good times roll, yet suddenly named in the midst of devastation. In all sorts of ways – judgement for sin or suddenly micro-manager of the world. At this station, I’d probably put up some prayers prayed by those who throughout history have experienced tragedy. Perhaps blow them up big ie A2 size, with pens, and expect people to engage in response. Some examples might be Psalms of lament of which there is a huge range. Without checking them all for suitability:

  • some Community Psalms of lament include 12, 44, 58, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 89, 90, 94, 123, 126, 129; while
  • some Individual Psalms of lament include 3, 4, 5, 7, 9-10, 13, 14, 17, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 31, 36, 39, 40:12-17, 41, 42-43, 52*, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 61, 64, 70, 71, 77, 86, 89, 120, 139, 141, 142. Yes, heaps, because unexpected tragedy and pain is part of being human.
  • here is a sermon I preached, using one particular Psalm (69), after the Mangatepopo River tragedy plus some words and liturgical ideas we used at the time
  • a pile of other prayers in disaster are here (textweek.com),

I’m not sure whether I’d have a station in relation to giving aid – whether practical or financial. My hunch is that at least for the first few days, the most important thing is simply space to pray and most of all, ways to naturally be together, eat together, laugh together.  But again, I’m miles away, so might be really out of touch.

Posted by steve at 02:46 PM

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Ascension day and emerging worship with Paul Kelly

I spent some time in preparation for leading (Wednesday chapel) worship, playing with Ascension Day, which the church affirms, as it says in the Apostles Creed:

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord …
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

Tall skinny kiwi engages with Jeremy Begbie concerned that the emerging church doesn’t engage with Ascension Day. Well, Jeremy obviously doesn’t read this emergent/ing blog, like back in 2007 when I noted what Ascension day means for Christian faith. (Get with the internet Jeremy) and when I noted the following points about Ascension Day.

  • God in Jesus is present through all time and space.
  • A human body now live with God.
  • Faith without sight is now the normal way to follow Jesus.
  • God’s people are the primary hermeneneutic of the Gospel.

Anyhow, back to my emerging worship, with me making random connections, humming the Paul Kelly song, “Meet me in the middle of the air”, which was played in my recent Sociology for Ministry class. (Here’s a cover, the actual song I was thinking about was Paul at the bushfire concert.

In the midst of all that bushfire pain, Paul sings acapella a song that seems to claim outrageous hope in the world beyond. Was it inappropriate? Pietistic? Or is there more going on in the music and life of Paul Kelly, that lets him slap a form of eschatalogical, Ascension-like hope on the bushfire table?

Is this why Ascension Day is important for the church – in Creed, worship and theology – because it keeps alive a note of outrageous hope? If so, when, how, in the midst of a broken world, to name it? Not sure if such thoughts will be woven into Wednesday worship, but writing them helps me process them.

Posted by steve at 09:40 AM

Sunday, January 10, 2010

atheist delusions. part 3. so how might Christianity live in times of “new atheism”

Christianity offers values of compassion, truth, justice, beauty. It has a wise understanding of human nature, as capable of reflecting the divine and of cruelty.

The question is what world new atheism will offer. What values will it draw from, and how might these nurture a more just and humane society? Hart notes that ““memes” like “human rights” and “human dignity” may not indefinitely continue replicating themselves once the Christian “infinite value of every life” meme has died out.” (237) While we await, Christianity can, for Hart, set about the following.

1. Be accurate apart our history. “Christians ought not to surrender the past but should instead deepen their own collective memory of what the gospel has been in human history.” (17)

2. Make our whole concern the simplicity of love God, love neighbour.

3. Take hope from monasticism

“Even so, it may be the case that Christians who live amid the ruins of the old Christendom – perhaps dwelling on the far-flung frontiers of a Christian civilization taking shape in other lands – will have to learn to continue the mission of their ancient revolution in the desert, to which faith has often found its necessary, at various times, to retreat.” (241)

Posted by steve at 04:49 PM

Saturday, January 09, 2010

atheist delusions. part 2. assessing Christian impact

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies calls attention to peculiar and radical nature of Christian faith in first four or five centuries, the liberation it offered and dignity it gave the human person. Christianity was, in the truest sense of the word, a revolution (xi), the like of which has never been seen before or since in the history of the West. By implication, this becomes a rejection of modernity’s myth of progress and the triumph of reason over faith.

Hart is not concerned to advocacy, (“there are numerous forms of Christian belief and practice for which I would be hard pressed to muster a kind word” (x)), merely for accuracy.

Myth: the intolerance of Christianity

  1. The Roman empire accepted a diversity of cults, but not a diversity of religions. “It was tolerant, that is to say, of what it found tolerable.” (118).
  2. Pagan cultures marked by disease, poverty, starvation, homelessness, gladiatorial spectacle, crucifixion, depravity and cruelty.
  3. Gnostics were “marginal, eccentric, and novel.” (135)

Why did Christianity spread across the empire and through social classes?

  1. Christianity welcomed both sexes and all classes. “This was, in many ways, the most radical novelty of their community: that it transcended and so, in an ultimate sense, annulled “natural” human divisions.” (158)
  2. Women found Christianity immensely attractive. Christianity forbade killing female babies and offered care to widows. It demanded loyalty from Christian husbands.
  3. Legal reforms instituted by Christian emperors included greater rights for women in divorce (Theodosius), for slaves (Justinian).
  4. Pagan critics were astonished at Christianity. “[O]ne finds nothing in pagan society remotely comparable in magnitude to the Christian willingness to provide continuously for persons in need, male and female, young and old, free and bound alike.” (163)
  5. Christian theology gave hope in a world of love, over against capricious fatalism. It gave human body dignity, a life here as well as eternal hope.

Part 1 the myths of new atheism here

Posted by steve at 04:36 PM

Friday, January 08, 2010

atheist delusions. part 1. the myths of new atheism

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies is an erudite response to new atheism. The aim is not advocacy (for Hart “there are numerous forms of Christian belief and practice for which I would be hard pressed to muster a kind word” (x)). Rather, the aim is accuracy, to call attention to peculiar and radical nature of Christian faith in first four or five centuries, the liberation it offered and dignity it gave the human person.

The book is written given that for Hart: “new atheism” lacks historical insight and intellectual honesty, and comes as “attitudes masquerading as ideas, emotional commitments disguised as intellectual honesty.” (19)!!

Hart names, and then dissects, the myths of new atheism.

Myth: religion is violent

  1. But to be honest, the reality is that wars, bigotry and religious persecution are peculiar to humanity, not simply to monotheistic faiths.
  2. Christianity actually forbids violence. Should incorrect practice of a faith by it’s followers mean the faith is at fault.
  3. What evidence is there that secular, atheistic society would be less violent than religious societies, especially given the track record of social eugenics movement, including the Nazi movement as it’s offspring?

Myth: religion is baseless.

  1. Reality, for a “baseless” religion, Christianity has had an ENORMOUS impact on making world a more humane, charitable and compassionate place.
  2. Intellectual honesty demands that a religion be assessed on it’s actual particularities, rather than pushed into a category called ‘religion.’
  3. Just because the reasons for faith do not impress a skeptic does not make them irrational. “More to the point, it is bizarre for anyone to think he or she can judge the nature and credibility of another’s experiences from the outside.” (11)

Myth: that humanity has emerged from the dark ages (an age of faith) into a new age of enlightenment (an age of reason)

  1. Isn’t calling something the “Dark Ages” in fact an act of bigotry in it’s assumption that our times are more enlightened than other times (and other cultures?)
  2. In reality, the Middle Ages were marked by dynamism in many fields, like the plow, armor, horse shoe, waterwheels, wrought iron, practical inventions driven by developing scientific theory.

Myth: A golden age of Hellenistic science was killed by Christianity

  1. Copernicus was heir to an extended tradition of Christian scholarship.
  2. Science – its methods, controls and guiding principles – were birthed “within Christendom, and under the hands of believing Christians.” (63) due in large degree to the development known as the medieval Christian university.
  3. Galileo was supported by Archbishops and Cardinals, but refused to acknowledge that his model had flaws and was simply a hypothesis.
  4. Galileo appealed to Augustine and church fathers, who always saw the Bible as not providing scientific descriptions of reality.

Myth: cruelty of religious intolerance (Crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts) in Christendom

  1. In times of witch hunts, the church played a key role by introducing courts to channel mob hysteria.
  2. “[I]n lands where the authority of the church and its inquisitions were strong – especially during the high tide of witch-hunting – convictions were extremely rare.” (80) Eg. Only two convictions went to trial in Spain in all of 13th and 14th centuries.
  3. The fascination with witchcraft was part of a society freeing itself from authority of the church, and thus a manifestation (a fruit?) of the dawn of modernity.
  4. Spanish Inquisition was an office of the state, not the church. It was driven by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who needed an instrument to enforce national unity. As such, the Inquisition serves an object lesson in “the inherence violence of the state.” (85).
  5. History shows us not a decline in church violence as the secular state gained power, but that “violence increased in proportion to the degree of sovereignty claimed by the state.” (86)

Myth: “wars of religion”

  1. Are in reality the first wars of the modern nation-state, with the role of establishing power of state over church.
  2. The crusades began as indignant response to the tales of brutality against Christian pilgrims.
  3. “They certainly had no basis in any Christian tradition of holy war. They [became] the last gaudy flourish of Western barbarian culture, embellished by the winsome ceremonies of chivalry.” (89)
  4. The wars of Christendom pale into insignificance when laid alongside the wars of the 20th century.

Part 2 here

Posted by steve at 04:31 PM

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

is God holding a white-y Bible? (chapter four)

This continues a review of Mark Brett’s Decolonizing God: The Bible in the Tides of Empire and the question of whether God’s book, the Bible, really is an instrument that increases the power of white-y/Western cultures. For me, such conversations are essential to whether an emerging church can get beyond a stylistic makeover, and actually be part of a post- world in which the Bible can have a liberating, rather than enslaving, place in the task of being Christian and being church.

Chapter four. Pigs, Pots and Cultural Hybrids.

There is a convergence between the biblical narrative and archaeological reconstructions, not in terms of an exodus of hundreds of thousands of people from Egypt that in one swoop defeated Canaan, but in terms of a developing unique identity among indigenous Canaanites, evolving over time, in negotiated contact with neighbours. This includes contact with refugees from Egypt, bringing the name Yahweh to Canaan.

Archaeological evidence suggests some hundreds of new settlements in the hill country around the 12th century BCE. (Of course, more evidence might be discovered in the future, but this is an argument from silence).

Biblical evidence includes the fact that Bible book of Joshua only mentions the burning of three Canaanite cities (Jericho, Ai and Hazor) and of these, only Jericho enacts the “holy Jihad” of Deuteronomy 20:16. It also includes the fact that Amos 9:7 describes multiple Exodus narratives. (This reminds Israel that their landrights are not exclusive. More, if they do not act justly, they will forfeit their land.)

“In the course of time, and especially with the rise of urban centres, one group within Israel developed an understanding of El-Yahweh that made the worship of other gods incompatible with Israelite identity, even though many aspects of culture continued to be shared with Indigenous neighbours. In principle, there is nothing problematic with this development, since no ethnic group is static.” (Brett, Decolonizing God, 77, 78)

For discussion: What are the implications of ethnic identity is framed as ‘part of a continuum of ethnic groups with overlapping borders … held together by a founding … set of … narratives about how this particular group came into being’ (70)? Is God any less powerful if he is part of such an evolving story?

For all the posts relating to this book/blog review go here.

Posted by steve at 09:30 PM