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Saturday, 31 January 2009

Celebrating 100 years of the St John's MU

Current St John's MU members with Bishop & Mugisa Isingoma


This month we celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Mothers’ Union at St John’s Seven Kings.

Our celebrations will include a display of Flowers, a Mothers’ Union exhibition, a display of the St John's Mothers' Union archive, a National Marriage Week display, a Celebration Service, and an afternoon tea. We have invited many past members and friends of the MU and church to our celebrations on Saturday 14th February, where we will also be joined by representatives from Mothers’ Union in the Chelmsford Diocese. The displays and exhibitions can be viewed from 10.00am while the Celebration Service begins at 2.00pm and will be followed by Afternoon Tea.

Mothers' Union is a Christian organisation with more than 3.6 million members in 79 countries worldwide. The Mothers’ Union seeks to: promote and support married life; encourage parents in their role to develop the faith of their children; maintain a worldwide fellowship of Christians united in prayer, worship and service; promote conditions in society favourable to stable family life and the protection of children; and help those whose family life has met with adversity.

The backbone of Mothers' Union is its worldwide network of grassroots volunteers. Whatever their individual backgrounds, members are united in their commitment to supporting marriage and family life. They give their time to generously help others, whether by running local projects, supporting international campaigns, or fundraising.

That has certainly been the case here at St John’s with the Playgroup, Pram Club and Contact Centre all owing their origins to the Mothers’ Union and, in the case of the latter two, continuing to be run through the commitment of members. Other events such as the summer Tea Afternoons and the Book Stall have consistently raised significant funds for Mothers’ Union projects in the UK and overseas. We have also sustained a long-term partnership with the Mothers’ Union branch in Warradale, Australia which at one time involved a pan-continental pancake race. People will be able to find out much more about these and many other Mothers’ Union activities at St John’s by visiting the exhibition on 14th February.

Mothers’ Union has a wonderful vision of a world where God's love is shown through loving, respectful, and flourishing relationships. Its aim is to demonstrate the Christian faith in action by the transformation of communities worldwide through the nurture of the family in its many forms. This Anniversary is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate all that the Mothers' Union is and does both here at St John's and throughout the world.

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Mavis Staples - Hard Times Come Again No More.

Working on a dream

An interesting review of Bruce Springsteen's new album Working On A Dream has been posted on the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity's website.

Andrew Cupples concludes: "There is something profoundly biblical about Springsteen wrestling with life in all its complexity. Christians are not released from this struggle; rather, they are compelled to embrace it. To have life to the full means bringing the whole of life under the lordship of Christ now – this is our kingdom of days."

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Bruce Springsteen - Working On A Dream.

Friday, 30 January 2009

The meaning of Jesus (5)

These different approaches to sources lead to a different handling of the other key difference between Borg and Wright, their handling of story. There are two important aspects to story in relation to Jesus; the stories that we tell about him and the story that he told himself. The examples given earlier of the “many faces” of Jesus within twentieth century art are evidence of the multiplicity of stories currently told about Jesus.

In many respects, it is the quest for the Historical Jesus that has opened up the possibility of this multiplicity. This is ironic because the quest was an attempt to pin down the person of Jesus one way or the other. To demonstrate that the historical figure of Jesus either was just a man or was the Son of God as orthodox Christian belief states. Instead, far from establishing truth, it has led to pluralism of personal opinion about Jesus. As with all pluralism, the question is raised, are all stories/beliefs relative or is there a shared understanding to be gained? Both Wright and Borg would seem to argue for the latter. Wright argues for the centrality of the story that Jesus told, and within which he saw himself, as the common core to which we can turn. Borg, despite its ironic result, argues for identification of the actual words of Jesus through source criticism.

For Wright, human life can be seen “as grounded in and constituted by the implicit or explicit stories which humans tell themselves and one another”. Stories are “one key element within the total construction of a worldview”. Worldviews are a vital part of the historical hypothesis, both the worldview of the society/culture and the mindset of the individual within that culture. In searching for the aims of Jesus, Wright argues, “we are looking for a particular mindset within a particular worldview, quite possibly challenging that worldview in some ways, but with intentions that make sense in relation to it”. He sets Jesus and his mindset within the story of the coming kingdom of Israel’s God arguing that “the crucial element in his prophetic activity was the story, both implicit and explicit, that he was acting out”. This was “Israel’s story reaching its climax”.

Borg may accept the approach but not its conclusion. His reconstruction of Jesus’ mindset is built from a smaller pool of material than that of Wright. One effect of this approach is to divorce Jesus from much of the Gospel materials that explicitly link him to Israel’s meta-narrative, the story of salvation history. Borg views material from the Gospels that either makes an explicit reference to an Old Testament passage or prophecy, or material that is constructed to echo an Old Testament story, as history metaphorised. In this way, Borg isolates the historical Jesus from a key element in his context.

As well as taking this significant step away from the first-century context, Borg also sets the historical Jesus in the context of another story - the story of the history of religions. Aspects of this story could be told in terms of the first-century Jewish context. This would involve debates about syncretism, worship of idols and purity codes, but this is not the story that Borg tells. Instead Borg’s storybook is William James’ 1902 book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. The story within which Borg sets the historical Jesus is not a first-century one at all instead, it is a twentieth century history of religious experience. The categories that Borg uses to describe the historical Jesus are not first-century Jewish categories that Jesus and his contemporaries would have recognised and used. Instead, they are twentieth century categories used in academic cross-cultural religious studies.

In choosing, through his methodology, not to engage with Israel’s meta-narrative Borg loses not just valuable data for his hypothesis but two important dimensions of faith - revelation and relationship. Salvation history is where God communicates and interacts with human beings. The quest for the historical Jesus, like the history of religions, has a human starting point and is predicated on the basis of what is knowable through reason and empiricism. Salvation history, however, has a divine starting point and is predicated on the basis of God’s revelation of himself.

It is not a question of one being right and the other wrong, an either/or. That would be dualistic. It is a question of both/and. Without salvation history to provide its context, the quest for the historical Jesus is open to personal bias and restricted meanings. Without the kind of grounding in historical, cultural and psychological data that the quest for the historical Jesus has attempted to provide, salvation history exists solely as an internal hermeneutic and cannot effectively be communicated to those outside the Church.

We stand at a point in the history of Christianity where we no longer have to have the either/or, of saying either that it is all literally true or that none of it is literally true. We stand at a point in time where we can combine natural theology and revelation and where historical re-construction can be set within the meta-narrative of God’s acts in history. To do this, we need to examine all the source data with all the tools available, within the over-arching context of the story of God’s self-revelation within history. Only then will the radical Jesus emerge. The Jesus who “used the language of his time to give the old war cries a totally new and broader content”. The Jesus of God’s narrative, not the Jesus of our personal preferences.

The story that we tell about Jesus and the way in which we tell that story is vital because it is not simply about a theoretical set of our beliefs but about the story within which we will live out our lives. The story that Jesus told and within which he lived has to operate for us, as Christians, as a regulative narrative. We cannot do that if we extract Jesus from his context within the story of God’s dealings with the world in history through Israel (both the Jewish people and the Church). This is why Wright’s emphasis on the importance of faith knowledge in relationship with historical knowledge is spot on and to be defended against the arguments of Borg.

In Sophie’s World, the philosopher Alberto Knox hopes that Sophie’s religion teacher will “succeed in showing what a exceptional man Jesus was”. Knox’s letter continues:

“With Jesus we see how dangerous it can be to demand unconditional brotherly love and unconditional forgiveness. Even in the world of today we can see how mighty powers can come apart at the seams when confronted with simple demands for peace, love, food for the poor, and amnesty for enemies of the state.”

It is easy, in this debate over sources and story, historical knowledge and faith knowledge, understanding Jesus in context and Jesus’ self-understanding, to lose sight of the point that, in knowing not just the meaning of Jesus but the man himself, “Jesus [will] inspire us to prolong the logic of his own ministry in an imaginative and creative way amid changed historical circumstances." We must tell and act out our story within the story that Jesus told and lived, as opposed to telling the story of Jesus from within our story, our understanding and our sources.

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Gavin Bryars - Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet.

What faith communities offer

A government minister has highlighted the role of religion in building a ‘new politics’ based on hope. Stephen Timms, financial secretary to the Treasury, spoke of the challenges presented by the world economy, the conflict in the Middle East and last weekend’s attack on Stephen Lewis, who was stabbed leaving a church hall party in his East London constituency. Addressing the Institute of Public Policy Research, Mr Timms said it was the ‘calling’ of politicians to figure out how to tackle such challenges and that the religious groups of Britain were ‘crucial’ to this process. ‘Faith communities have a great deal to offer us, not least in their resource of hopefulness, as we build a new politics based on hope to respond effectively to the challenges we face,’ he said.

Source: The Times (29/1) http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article5614131.ece.

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Bruce Springsteen & Seeger Session Band - Jacobs Ladder.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Scenes of Redbridge


This photo taken in Seven Kings Park appears in the current edition of the Ilford Recorder as part of their Scenes of Redbridge series.
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Gordon Gano - Rejoice And Be Happy.

commission4mission Newsletter No. 1 – January 2009

Founding members – Jonathan Evens & Henry Shelton

Pentecost Festival logo

'Pieta' by Rosalind Hore


Our patron Bishop David, who will give the keynote speech at the launch of commission4mission

Welcome to the first commission4mission newsletter. Future newsletters will be a source of information for commission4mission members but this first edition is being widely distributed as part of our initial publicity leading up to our launch event on Saturday 7th March.

Information and updates about members can be included in future newsletters and should be sent to Jonathan Evens at: jonathan.evens@btinternet.com or 2 Regent Gardens, Ilford, IG3 8UL.

commission4mission launch event

commission4mission will be launched on Saturday 7th March with an exciting event to be held at St Alban’s Romford (Kings Road/Princes Road, Romford, RM1 2SR) beginning at 2.00pm.

Our patron Rt. Revd. David Hawkins, Bishop of Barking, will give the inaugural commission4mission address. Bishop David says: “I think there is a big need to re-engage with the Arts. I think that there is great scope in the Church encouraging creative expression in everyone as this is a way of helping us to be fully human. Where appropriate that flowering of artistic expression can be expressed in Church as, for example, an outflow of worship. We are fellow-creators with God and need to remember that he is creator as well as redeemer.”

St Albans Romford has been chosen as the venue for the launch of commission4mission on account of more than 20 separate commissions leading to twelve Diocesan Advisory Committee Design Awards. Among the most significant of these are fifteen Stations of the Cross by Charles Gurrey, a Christus Rex by Peter Eugene Ball, stained glass windows by Patrick Reyntiens and a chancel ceiling mural by Mark Cazalet. Fr. Roderick Hingley, the Parish Priest who has led the transformation of St Alban Protomartyr, Romford from being a modest suburban church into a place of beauty and excellence that can be seen as a centre for significant works of Ecclesiastical Art, will lead a tour of the artworks at St Albans.

Car Parking will be at Manor Primary School, Shaftesbury Road, Romford RM1 2PH. RSVP to Jonathan Evens (020 8599 2170 or jonathan.evens@btinternet.com).

Showcase Exhibition & Study Day
An week-long exhibition to showcase commission4mission artists and a Study Day on the commissioning process are being planned for Chelmsford Cathedral in November 2009.

The exhibition will open on Monday 2nd November and will continue until the Study Day on Saturday 7th November. Contributors to the Study Day will include our Patron, Bishop David, and the Cathedral Dean, Peter Judd.

Please put this date in your diaries. More information about exhibiting and the Study Day will be available soon.

Pentecost Festival Art Exhibition

The Pentecost Festival is a London weekend festival with hundreds of events celebrating diversity in the Christian faith: multi-culturalism, arts, politics, ecology, worship. Co-ordinated by Share Jesus International over the Pentecost weekend 26th - 31st May, the festival is highly visible and takes place in the parks, coffee shops, bars, churches, clubs and theatres of central London. In 2008, the festival's inaugural year, the capital saw 10,000 people enjoy over 150 events at more than 60 venues and outdoor spaces.

The Festival will include an art exhibition on Saturday 30th May at a Central London venue. commission4mission will have a section of this event for members to exhibit. There will also be space for members to carry out public demonstrations of their work. If you would be interested in being part of the exhibition and/or demonstrations, please contact Jonathan Evens on 020 8599 2170 or jonathan.evens@btinternet.com for more details. commission4mission will be profiled in the programme and on the Festival website, which will also be linked to web-based information about commission4mission. You will also have the opportunity to sell any of your resources.

Member profile: Rosalind Hore

“I am a sculptor and painter of Christian subject – Christ figures, nativity sets, Ecce Homo, Stations of the Cross etc. I work in clay, plaster, concrete (figures can also be bronze cast at the foundry). My paintings are mostly in acrylic of the events in the life of Christ.” Rosalind’s Pieta is currently on display at St Laurence’s Upminster.

Faith & Image

Faith & Image (FAIM) is a forum for all who have an interest in art as a medium of spiritual expression. The group seeks to gain insight and understanding from all art forms, all traditions and cultures. FAIM offers a programme of talks, discussions and visits. Speakers include a wide range of artists, architects, craft workers, art and design historians. FAIM and commission4mission plan to collaborate on a number of events and activities in future.

The next FAIM event will be an evening focussing on the current ‘Byzantium’ exhibition at the Royal Academy followed by a group visit to the exhibition on the following day. The ‘Byzantium’ evening will be on Thursday 19th February, 8.00pm, St Mary’s Woodford, Woodford High Road, London E18. The exhibition visit will be 10.00am on Friday 20th February at the Royal Academy. For more details and to book contact Mark Lewis at pharos@sketchbook.wanadoo.co.uk.

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Arcade Fire - Crown Of Love.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

John Updike RIP

Click here for an excellent post by Bishop Alan Wilson about John Updike, who died yesterday. Included are the poem Seven Stanzas for Easter and the following quote from John McTavish:

"[Updike was] a Christian, but not a Christian novelist in the sense that his work forces an explicitly Christian message onto the reader. On the contrary, precisely because Updike is a Christian he believes the novelist should portray the human condition with unsparing honesty, expressing his "basic duty to God" in writing "the most truthful and fullest books" he can."

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10,000 Maniacs - Dust Bowl.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Critiquing demythologization (3)

The issues listed in my previous post should be sufficient to indicate that, viewed on its own terms, there are significant issues with Bultmann’s approach. This is implicitly recognised by the fact that Bultmann’s followers either draw back from his position by starting a new quest for the Historical Jesus or take demythologization to its logical extreme removing all distinctive features of Christianity altogether. In addition, Bultmann’s approach was a response to a particular set of historical circumstances which have now passed. Significant changes in human understanding of knowledge have occurred which make Bultmann’s programme of demythologization unnecessary in addition to providing a further critique of it:
  • Subjectivity and objectivity: The subjective nature of scientific knowledge is increasingly being recognised. Scientific methodology is based on assumptions that cannot be examined scientifically, reflects the perspective of the observer in experiment and observation and utilises metaphor and worldview in creating hypotheses. The divide between subjective and objective and between scientific and faith knowledge is increasingly redundant, with all knowledge beginning to be understood as involving both subjectivity and objectivity. Historical-criticism, therefore, can no longer be credibly viewed as objective while the assumptions that Bultmann and many New Testament scholars have made about the Early Church and the gospels are now open to question in a way that was not previously the case. As a result, scholars and theologians are increasingly working again with the whole received text of the Bible as opposed to a sole concentration on pericopes.
  • Metaphor and history: Bultmann’s view that myth equates to human imagery of the divine and must be interpreted to be acceptable to contemporary culture screens out knowledge. No longer is metaphor viewed as a pretty husk that can be discarded or interpreted, increasingly it is being recognised as a vital component in knowledge. In deconstructing to the nth degree, scientific methodology has been reductionist and has often lost from its reconstructions the subtlety and nuances of the metaphors and myths being deconstructed or interpreted. The combination of history and metaphor in the Bible, Christian doctrine and Church tradition can again be valued equally while there is now also awareness of the different ways in which both need to be handled in order to be understood. There is also an additional challenge to that of understanding the resonances of these original metaphors. That is, of creating contemporary metaphors or metaphor systems that communicate and resonate in the same way that the original metaphors did within their culture.
  • Worldview and knowledge: Worldviews are increasingly seen as the lens through which human beings view the world. As such, they are fundamental to human knowing. God’s self-revelation in history cannot be understood without understanding the worldviews within which God chose his self-revelation to occur. Nor can we truly know without an understanding of the worldview through which we view the forms and content of God’s self-revelation. However, worldviews are in dialogue with each other both within contemporary culture and throughout time and pose challenges to each other. For example, Lesslie Newbigin has argued that: “The community of faith makes the confession that God raised Jesus from the dead and that the tomb was empty thereafter … [and that this] statement … can be accepted as a fact only if the whole plausibility structure of contemporary Western culture is called into question”. Newbigin suggests that such “conflict between the two views will not be settled on the basis of logical argument [but on the basis of] [t]he view … that is seen to offer … the widest rationality, the greatest capacity to give meaning to the whole of experience”. It is this witness that is required of the Church within contemporary culture, not the acceptance of a contemporary worldview that underpins Bultmann’s demythologization programme.
  • Dialectical theology: For Bultmann and Karl Barth dialectical theology was about the gap between God and human beings. However, for a contemporary Old Testament scholar such as Walter Bruggemann, dialectical theology has become about traditions held together in tension. This can be understood as symptomatic of scriptures that are both human and divine – as containing both, at the same time, human understanding of God and God’s partial self-revelation. Both then being in conversation, in tension and in relation with the other. Within this understanding there is no need to screen out the dialogue with history and science in the way that Bultmann attempts through demythologization because the essence of scripture is relation. However, this does not mean that both human understanding and divine revelation co-exists without challenge. The counter-testimony of the Old Testament is eloquent witness to the way in which God encourages and engages in debate with human beings while revelation, by its holistic nature, challenges the partialities and limitations of human understandings of God and of being.
  • Whole and part: When the Bible is viewed as a whole and the form of this whole considered, it appears a very different document from that presented through form-criticism and demythologization. It can be seen as both a document formed through human historical, literary, sociological and theological processes and as the inspired, partial self-revelation of God. Seen as the former, it can be critiqued as can any human document. Seen as the latter it can be understood as normative, but normative in ways that respect its form. Its form can be understood from two perspectives. First, as a story moving through five acts – Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, and Church and second, as a series of fragments held in relation one to the other. The former provides a participatory fifth act in which we, the Church, continue the story within the parameters set by the previous four acts and at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The latter is indicative of the style or language in which God self-reveals. A language or style “by which apparent contradictions might be held … [being] elusive, allusive, not didactic”. A language or style reveling in unities within diversity, revealing connection and pattern as much through the gaps between stories, genres, metaphors and what is not said (thereby maintaining God’s otherness), as by what is actually said.

Ultimately, where Bultmann emphasises individual encounter with God only within the immediate present, these approaches envisage relation – within God, between God and human beings, between the varying voices and stories within Scripture, within the Church throughout the ages, between worldviews within time and history, and within the interpretive community. Foundational to these approaches is the idea of God in relation within himself as Trinity, the ‘ideas of ideas’ from which the transcendentals identified by Colin Gunton – relationality, substantiality and perichoresis – derive to underpin all pattern and connection within the created order. Jesus’ death and resurrection reverses separation of human beings from God, from each other and from the created order and sets up a new community able to begin exploring within the unfinished fifth act, the style and substance of the pattern and harmony that God originally set within the world in creation. As Jesus said and as the Early Church demonstrated such love is the true and effective testimony to the reality of the encounter with God.

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Bob Dylan - Sweetheart Like You.

Windows on the world (38)

Westminster, 2009
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The Scaffold - Thank You Very Much.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

The meaning of Jesus (4)

Interestingly, in their discussion of sources both Wright and Borg separate knowledge from history and knowledge from faith. Indeed, Borg is worried by Wright’s use of the term ‘faith’ at all and prefers to use the phrase ‘metahistorical factors’. By this he means initial presuppositions which, while they have a logical basis and can be evidenced up to a point, cannot be conclusively proved but do govern the researcher’s response to the historical data. Belief in God is one metahistorical factor. The separation between historical knowledge and faith (however labelled!) knowledge serves to suggest that historical knowledge is more objective and evidenced. This is still the popular view of knowledge that derives from scientific process and both maintain this view with their distinction. Both make a point of emphasising the extent to which non-historical factors influence historical knowledge, nevertheless both do make the distinction.

What this distinction masks is the extent to which historical knowledge (as with scientific knowledge) is faith knowledge. Philip Sherrard has given forceful expression to this view:

“Every thought, every observation, every judgement, every description whether of the modern scientist or of anyone else is soaked in a priori preconceived built-in value-judgements, assumptions and dogmas at least as rigid, if not more rigid (because they are so often unconsciously embraced) than those of any explicitly religious system. The very nature of human thought is such that it cannot operate independently of value-judgements, assumptions and dogmas. Even the assertion that it can constitutes a value-judgement and implies a whole philosophy, whether we are aware of it or not.”

Lesslie Newbigin highlights the work of Michael Polyani who argues that “the time has come for a shift in the balance between faith and doubt in the whole enterprise of understanding, a recognition that doubt – though always an essential ingredient – is always secondary and that faith is fundamental. His book [Personal Knowledge, 1958] is a massive attempt to demonstrate that all knowledge of reality rests upon faith commitments which cannot be demonstrated but are held by communities whose “conviviality” is a necessary factor in the enterprise of knowing”. Faith cannot be bracketed out of the historical equation in the way that Borg wants. It is fundamental to human knowing and needs to be recognised up front.

This has clear implications for Borg’s approach to the sources as it emphasises the extent to which his methodology depends on presuppositions. Each element of his methodology could be reversed or be used to extract a different understanding from the data. So, for example, a ‘late’ source could be a more accurate report of Jesus’ actual words than an ‘early’ source or multiple attestation could confirm agreement about an interpretation and not be a sign of historical factuality. No process for sifting historical information is objective, all represent interpretation of history.

Borg’s methodology also betrays a lack of understanding of literary and linguistic process. He argues that “Metaphorical language is intrinsically nonliteral”. This is true, but inadequate. Metaphorical language is nonliteral but the object the metaphor relates to can be literal. One strand of literary criticism, for example, focuses on the extent to which biographical data features in an author’s fictional work. This strand recognises the extent to which fictional material can contain a historically factual event. As a creative writer, I can recognise the way in which all historical factual events recorded in writing (whether fictional or not) are altered in the process. All writers select, emphasise and metaphorise in recording or re-creating historically factual events. This is precisely what we should expect to find when examining any document of any era. In addition, metaphor can focus on other aspects of the events (i.e. emotional or relational) rather than the historically factual aspects. None of this invalidates the reality of the historically factual event that is being re-presented or that underlies the re-presentation, even when this is set in an entirely fictional context. Borg’s inclination, however, is to assume that all metaphorical narratives in the Gospels are not historically factual and contain only metaphorical truth.

Borg’s methodology risks the bracketing out of valid evidence and the misinterpretation of evidence that it retains. Jesus portraits produced by those advocating the quest for the historical Jesus have often been ones in which he is a vastly reduced figure from that found in the orthodox tradition, and often accord with the authors’ other interests.

Borg’s methodology derives from the Enlightenment thinking that produced modernism. As such it displays both modernism’s belief in the objectivity of its methods and the tendency towards deconstruction and specialisation that is a key characteristic. While Borg personally rejects some of the restrictions of modernist thought, his methodology exhibits the dualism inherent in modernism. Newbigin has noted modernism’s separation of facts from values and it’s assignation of facts to a public sphere of objectively verifiable data and faith to a private sphere of personal values. Borg’s acceptance of a split between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith is a sign of the extent to which his methodology derives from modernism's dualism.

The alternative, taken by Wright, is to see a continuity between the pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus and to include all the evidence within the hypothesis before making distinctions between data. Borg thinks that source criticism and redaction criticism, do not allow us to state that Jesus understood himself to be the Messiah. He argues that Wright is setting aside two hundred years of scholarship on the sources but this alternative does not set aside source criticism. Rather, use is made of it at a different point in the process of forming an hypothesis. Instead of it being fundamental to the process, it is used as one of many tools necessary for the examination of all the evidence. This wider ranging toolkit includes tools that Scot McKnight thinks he and fellow historians (such as Borg and Wright) have put to one side, such as: etymology; linguistics; hermeneutics; and narrative. Having used these tools which, taken together, point towards Jesus understanding himself to be the Messiah, the arguments that Jesus did in word and action claim to be the Messiah look less unlikely. Using the historico-critical approach is not an argument for removing all other tools from the toolkit. That this is sometimes done is not a sign of historical rigorism but of personal agendas.

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Violent Femmes - Jesus Walking On Water.

Windows on the world - Millbank & Westminster

Millbank, 2009

Milbank, 2009


Westminster, 2009

Westminster, 2009

Westminster, 2009

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Lou Reed - Perfect Day.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

The Black Rain (5)

The Cialdini effect takes its name from Robert Cialdini, a American psychology professor who wrote a groundbreaking book called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. A Dutch study has recently shown that the Cialdini effect is only the start of our troubles, claims an article in The Times:

"People can actually be steered into criminal behaviour, such as stealing, simply by tinkering with their environment. In fact, the scientists claim, if you know what psychological buttons to press, you can make antisocial behaviour spread like a contagious disease."

Cialdini's argument that "people do what they see others doing, even when they know they shouldn't" would seem to support Tom Davies' assertion that people seeing anti-social activities through the media can then become involved in copy-cat activities. The Times article includes an example of just this phenomenon:

"The looting of the MSC Napoli off the coast of Devon two years ago is a perfect example. Media coverage showing people walking off with items washed ashore emboldened others to try their luck, culminating in “looting mayhem”, in the words of an inquiry into the incident published this week."

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Jeff Buckley - Everybody Here Wants You.

Peak ecological water

The Times had an article earlier in the week suggesting that world is in danger of running out of 'sustainably managed water'. 'Peak ecological water' is the point where, like the concept of 'peak oil', the world has to confront a natural limit on something once considered virtually infinite.

The article notes that there are concerns that water will increasingly be the cause of violence and even war:

"Dan Smith, the Secretary-General of the British-based peacebuilding organisation International Alert, said: “Water is a basic condition for life. Its availability and quality is fundamental for all societies, especially in relation to agriculture and health. There are places — West Africa today, the Ganges-Brahmaputra river system in Nepal, Bangladesh and India, and Peru within ten years — where major changes in the rivers generate a significant risk of violent conflict. Good water management is part of peacebuilding.”

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Violent Femmes - No Killing.

Critiquing demythologization (2)

Before moving on to critique demythologization, it is again worthwhile to pause and focus on the positive aspects of Bultmann’s aim and programme. What Bultmann wants to do through demythologization is to clear the ground for encounter with God in the present. He is aiming to enable contemporary people to actually experience God in the here and now. While this emphasis on experience is another aspect of his thought that clearly derives from Liberal Protestantism and from Schleiermacher in particular it is, nevertheless, an emphasis that he shares in the twentieth century with the very different traditions of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements and also with the long history of Christian mysticism. This is a vital emphasis and one that must not be lost sight of in all the talk of history, metaphor and worldview that follows as part of the critique and conclusion to this essay. The arguments that will be made are made not for their own sake but to ground the very real encounter with the person of Jesus through the Holy Spirit in the present.

Conservative critiques of Bultmann have commonly started from the view that Bultmann is fitting Christianity to Existentialism and, therefore, allowing contemporary philosophy to shape Christianity rather than releasing Christianity to shape or challenge contemporary thought. This argument completely misunderstands Bultmann’s intention (whatever one thinks of the results) and therefore is not a useful place from which to begin a critique. An examination of Bultmann’s forms is a more constructive (and unusual) place from which to begin such a critique. Form-criticism tends to be an approach applied to texts or traditions other than those of the author and, therefore, those using it as part of their argument are commonly unaware of the contradictions inherent within the forms they themselves use.

Using this approach, Bultmann’s demythologization programme can be critiqued in the following ways:
  • Acceptance of scientific methodology: Bultmann’s desire is to free the Word of God from scientific investigation yet his use of form-criticism, in understanding the Bible, is firmly grounded in this methodology. Science maintains that nothing can be accepted as true unless it is clearly and distinctly perceived. To achieve this perception what is being examined must be broken down into the smallest possible component parts. Science then reconstructs from the basis of the simplest idea. Form-criticism breaks down the whole text of the gospels into their smallest units (pericopes) examining each in the context of the Early Church in order to identify those considered original to Jesus. From the relatively small number considered original a picture of the Jesus of History is reconstructed. It is on the basis of such historical inquiry that Bultmann argues that little can be said about the Jesus of History. There is then a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Bultmann’s approach. He wants to maintain both the priority of God’s Word over scientific methodology and the value of scientific methodology in the understanding of God’s Word.
  • Subjective versus objective: The above contradiction came be seen most clearly when Bultmann’s approach is considered in terms of subjectivity and objectivity. On the basis of objective historical-criticism Bultmann considers the gospels subjective (i.e. the interpretations of the Early Church, not historical fact). As a result, the gospels do not communicate clearly to a contemporary culture that accepts as objective scientific methodology. But when Bultmann selects what he considers to be an appropriate methodology for communicating the Gospel within contemporary culture he does not select an objective methodology. Instead, in selecting Existentialism he selects a subjective methodology. If objectivity is the issue then why is Bultmann selecting Existentialism for his approach and, if subjectivity is a meaningful means of encounter for contemporary culture, why are the gospels being discounted?
  • Whole versus part: Form-criticism works with the smallest component parts of the text and, in doing so, categorises some pericopes as authentic and others as inauthentic to Jesus. Therefore, the form-critic is unable to approach the actual received text as a whole and there must, as a result, be a significant question mark over the extent to which the form-critic actually engages with the received text at all. This tendency is also apparent in demythologization where by interpreting the text in existential terms both the history and imagery in the received text are removed. As a result, the text that is encountered is not the whole received text but something less.
  • Mythology and worldview: Mythology is a notoriously difficult term to define and, therefore, there is no real agreement about the extent to which the Bible contains mythology or is mythological. Bultmann defines mythology as “the use of imagery to express the otherworldly in terms of this world and the divine in terms of human life, the other side in terms of this side”. However, this definition can be challenged by other approaches and Bultmann, himself, is not consistent in his use of the term. As a result, there is no agreement on what needs to be demythologized or on how far demythologization should go. In addition, Bultmann has an implicit, uncritical and unexamined acceptance of the contemporary Modernist worldview which then leads him to an arrogant dismissal of the first century Jewish worldview. A dismissal which is actually based on two naïve assumptions. First, that he, himself, can stand outside a worldview altogether and second, that first century Jewish metaphor was understood literally.
  • Visual versus lingual: In interpreting the text in existential terms Bultmann is converting images and metaphors that work visually into non-visual explanations. Metaphors work by analogy. They hold disparate objects or ideas together in order to reveal connections. As a result, ambiguity is necessarily built into metaphor. The connection or comparison between objects or ideas must be close enough to be meaningful but not so close as to be exact or the objects/ideas would be the same. This ambiguity is the creative core of metaphor maintaining the otherness of the objects/ideas and teasing the viewer with the possible extent of connection. However, when visual imagery is interpreted through language it is precisely this ambiguity that is lost. In interpretation meanings are closed down through definition instead of being opened up through relation.

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King Crimson - 21st Century Schizoid Man.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Learn for Lent (and Eastertide)!

Philip Ritchie has posted a timely reminder of the Diocese of Chelmsford Lent & Eastertide Schools 2009. Information about the courses on offer can be found at Lent Schools 2009 and Eastertide Schools 2009.

Courses on offer cover subjects including: The ministry of the Evangelist; Dance and worship; The faith we share; Churches together today; Children, community and church; The Reformation in Essex and East London; Is the Old Testament Christian? Mission shaped ministry; Walk thru' the Bible; Christian poetry; Old Testament lucky dip; Signposts into life (vocation); Pastoral care; Christian art; Myers Briggs refresher; Prayer workshop.

I and some of my blogging colleagues are also running courses. These are:

The Lent and Eastertide Schools are a collection of education, training and skills events across the Diocese of Chelmsford during Lent and Eastertide each year. The courses are open to all.

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Innocence Mission - Black Sheep Wall.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Critiquing demythologization (1)

Rudolf Bultmann was an influential twentieth century New Testament scholar and a pioneer in the use of the form-critical method but is most well known for the programme of demythologization that he began in his 1941 essay New Testament and Mythology.

In his work Bultmann had two main concerns. The first was to let God be God and the second was to allow the Word and scandal of the cross to be experienced and known in twentieth century Western culture. In critiquing Bultmann’s ideas it is necessary to keep his positive aims at the forefront of our thinking, in order not to demonize a man who genuinely wished to see Christ preached and received by faith in his time.

Bultmann saw the damage that scientific methodology as applied in the historical-critical method had done to faith in the Christian God during the nineteenth century. The search for the Historical Jesus had eventually led to a position in which, because the gospels were considered primarily the interpretive work of the Early Church, the Bible (the authoritative word of God) was viewed as historically inaccurate.

Bultmann accepted, as a New Testament historian, historical-critical methods and, therefore, the position that very little could be said about the Jesus of History. In addition, he understood that, as a result, many did (or would) view Christianity as essentially disproved by a combination of science and history. Viewing this methodology as correct but also wishing to defend Christianity and to present the Word and the cross to his contemporaries with power, he faced a considerable dilemma.

Liberal Protestantism supplied him with an answer to his dilemma. This was, that the Bible contained a timeless message concealed under the cloak of a time-bound worldview. However, Liberal Protestantism had tied this idea to the Quest for the Historical Jesus. The Quest, it had been thought, in uncovering the Jesus of History would also clarify the timeless message of Christianity that had been obscured by the mythology the Early Church had created about Jesus. Bultmann now considered that this was not possible for the reasons noted above. Therefore, what he needed to do was to detach this timeless message from the Quest and from all historical inquiry in order to reveal its timeless nature and through this, the transcendence of God. God, he needed to argue, cannot be investigated by historical or scientific methods. In fact, this Word calls science itself into question by calling man out of all man-made security.

He found the means to do this in Existential philosophy. Existentialism emphasises the extent to which human knowing is conditioned by personal participation in being and argues that, as human beings are the only creatures to possess self-understanding, knowledge of being must begin with personal being. The effect is an emphasis on subjectivity and personal encounter within time. On this basis, science and historical-criticism (based on scientific methodology) cannot be a starting point for knowledge of being. Bultmann, therefore, can argue not only that nothing significant can be known of the Jesus of History but also that this does not matter because knowledge of being does not come through objective analysis of history but instead through personal encounter with God in time. For Bultmann, this personal encounter comes through the contemporary preaching of the Word.

What is needed then, Bultmann argues, is for the kernel of the gospel to be clearly preached in such a way that the scandal of the cross challenges individuals to personal encounter with God. To do this the husk has to be cleared away but need not be simply discarded as Liberal Protestantism aimed to do. Instead the husk needs to be interpreted in existential terms so that once this is done no hint of mythology remains. This is, then, Bultmann’s programme of demythologization.

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Woody Guthrie - Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The meaning of Jesus (3)

Borg and Wright begin by debating how and how much we can know about Jesus. Their arguments focus on what sources we can use and the way in which it is legitimate to use them. This debate is foundational to discussion about Jesus. Decisions made here either open up or close off sections of the New Testament as canonically received and radically alter what can confidently be said about Jesus historically. Borg and Wright make different decisions and the differing amounts of New Testament data drawn on, as a result, affect the Jesus portraits they paint. One significant difference in their respective portraits is that of Jesus’ self-understanding.

Wright suggests that the different types of knowledge of Jesus gained through history and faith, need to be brought together. In the historical field, his argument is that as much material as possible should be brought into play without preconception. From examination of this material a hypothesis is developed. This is tested against the criteria “of getting in the data, doing so with appropriate simplicity, and shedding light on other areas of research”. In relation to Jesus’ self-understanding, Wright’s hypothesis is that Jesus’ beliefs were those of a first-century Jew i.e. he was “committed to the coming kingdom of Israel’s god”. However, Jesus differed from most first-century Jews in believing that the kingdom of Israel’s God was “coming in and through his own work”. Examining all of Jesus’ implicit and explicit statements, stories and acts in the context of first-century Israel leads to this hypothesis.

If the hypothesis stands up historically, then it also needs to be tested against the knowledge that comes by faith. Wright believes that, as Christians, we are in a continuing relationship with the person of Jesus. The test is then, to what extent does the person that emerges from the hypothesis accord with the person known through faith.

Wright supports this approach on the basis that:
  • it protects against undue distortion of the hypothesis by personal preconceptions. The inclusion of all the available data introduces more puzzles or alternative theories into the process. The difficulty of developing a hypothesis that genuinely addresses these issues is likely to ensure that easy conclusions on the basis of preconceptions are not made. Developing a hypothesis that includes all the evidence also means that problems cannot be solved in advance by bracketing out data on the basis of pre-determined assumptions;
  • it applies the method of hypothesis and verification that is considered valid within scientific research; and
  • bringing the two fields of knowledge together counters the split world of Enlightenment thought in a way that is consistent with the unity of Biblical thought.

Borg cannot accept this position. He argues that Wright is “setting aside two hundred years of scholarly work on the sources” in arguing for the inclusion of all the data, and risking the incorporation of data that is not evidence. He claims to be worried by Wright’s use of faith knowledge but also argues that truth cannot be reduced to factuality and views modernity as narrow for holding this to be the case.

Borg views many of the Gospel stories as history metaphorised. That is, these stories are not historically factual reports but, as metaphors, they tell do us what Jesus is like, and this information is true. Therefore, it is not essential for the gospel stories to be grounded in particular historical events for them to be true. Nor is it essential whether or not Jesus thought he was the Messiah. For Borg, in his context of higher education and cross-cultural studies, this understanding of the gospel materials represents an intellectually credible approach to which his audience can relate. Borg argues that the “older tradition of Christianity has ceased to be compelling for millions of people … They find that if they must take the Bible literally, they cannot take it at all”.

Borg argues that the Gospels require us to read them in this way. They are part of a developing tradition about Jesus within the early church and contain early and late material, which can be identified and separated. Early material gets us closer to the historically factual words and actions of Jesus. Early materials found in more than one source are more reliable still. Using this core of reliable materials, a hypothesis can be built against which the remaining material can be sifted. Later material or material from one source can only be considered as historically factual if it fits the hypothesis. All other material must be viewed as history metaphorised.

Wright argues against this approach in two main ways. First, it doesn’t work. There is no unanimity among scholars about which material is reliable. Proponents of this approach produce very different portraits precisely because they do not agree which material is to be included in the controlling hypothesis. Second, the approach makes assumptions about the outcome of the investigation before considering any of the evidence. The assumption is made that much of the material is later than Jesus’ lifetime and an unnecessary methodology (which doesn’t work) created to identify and extract these materials from the equation.

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Johnny Cash - Personal Jesus.

Happy 20th birthday to 'Image'

Image issue 60 is a bumper edition in honour of the journal's twentieth anniversary and featuring extra pages and special visual art features.

There is new work from twelve of their favorite artists who have appeared in Image in the past, including Mary McCleary, Tim Hawkinson, Joel Sheesley, Alfonse Borysewicz, Lynn Aldrich, and others, and an essay by Ted Prescott on the variety of art represented in Image. There's also a quartet of short essays from four very different contemporary painters - Cathy Prescott, Tim Rollins, Alfonse Borysewicz, and Wayne Adams -reflecting on the state of their medium.

A special symposium on art and the religious sense, "Fully Human," collects nine statements on the connection between art and a full expression of our humanity. Contributors range from theologian Stanley Hauerwas to poet Robert Cording, whose essay about the importance of "craving reality" can be read online. The symposium also includes contributions from Ena Heller of the Museum of Biblical Art, Ron Austin on film, Valerie Sayers, Mako Fujimura, and more.

Issue 60 also includes fiction by Ron Hansen, poems by Scott Cairns and Franz Wright, an interview with singer-songwriter Sam Phillips, an essay by Poetry magazine editor Christian Wiman, and more.

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Sam Phillips - Reflecting Light.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Windows on the world (37)


Villamartin, 2008

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Madeleine Peyroux - The Summer Wind.

The meaning of Jesus (2)

In 1973 Larry Norman released The Outlaw, a song summarising fashionable twentieth century portraits of Jesus. These portraits - Outlaw, Poet, Sorcerer, and Politician – are, essentially, four separate stories. Different aspects of Jesus’ character, sayings and actions are selected and presented from four different narrative perspectives. The four portraits or stories have, therefore, significant differences. Norman rejects all four as partial and concludes:

“some say he was the son of god a man above all men
but he came to be a servant and to set us free from sin
and that’s who i believe he was cause that’s who i believe
and i think we should get ready cause it’s time for us to leave.”

The twentieth century has been unlike other historical ages in producing a multiplicity of images and stories of Jesus, images and stories which are often a complete reversal of the orthodoxy endorsed by Norman.

Peggy Rosenthal described this phenomenon well when she wrote the following about the ways in which poets have described Christ over the centuries:

“Reviewing how the figure of Jesus has looked to twenty centuries of poets is like watching the Gospels’ central character change costume and reinterpret his part on the changing stage of successive cultures’ construction of life’s meaning. First we see a glorious Christ the King who is all at once every good figure, from Cultivator to protective Wing to celestial Milk out-pressed from a young bride’s fragrant breasts. Then the fourth-century East produces the mind-bending figure of the Creator tucking himself into his creature’s womb, while the West shows us the Virgilian Shepherd moving through sylvan mazes to recover his lost sheep. The Middle Ages develop the typological figure who redeems every detail of past history, culminating in a Christ as Celestial Center from whom all meaning radiates through an allegorical system of correspondences, over a stage swelled to cosmic size. With the Renaissance and the Reformation, the figure of Jesus comes down to earth, indeed into each human being’s individual core, where meaning is now seen to reside. On the stage of the individual heart, the Baroque drama of anguished love between God and the unworthy human lover is played out. Jesus’ own human feelings take center stage for Romantic poets; without losing his divinity, Jesus becomes a Romantic hero, sadly alienated from society but moved by a sympathetic nature. With modernism, Jesus is no longer God but merely human, a shrunken yellowed body hanging purposelessly on a dim stage, where the light of trust in any transcendent meaning has gone out.

But along with this diminished figure, the twentieth century produces many other figures of Jesus as well, so that the century’s stage shows us simultaneously a variety of different characters, some playing off each other, some acting in worlds of their own – indeed as in a postmodern drama. So we see one Jesus at the very edge of the stage, moved to the margins of his own story, pondered by poets suspicious that he or anything else can be known. Elsewhere Jesus is actually pushed offstage altogether, though his place can be taken by a humanity now itself possessing divine creative potential. Or, absent, Jesus can be searched for, sensed, or in an unexpected spot suddenly seen. In other places, Jesus is not only present but is an imposing archetypal figure: as political symbol of a nation’s sacrificial suffering or of its resurrecting power, he can appear dressed as the divinity of another religion or be made to join the native dance in one spot and to contend against native gods in another …

The drama goes on. Poets, whose vocation it is to give voice to their culture’s deepest perceptions, show no signs of losing interest in the challenge posed by the Gospels’ central figure.”

This explosion of imagery and narrative has resulted from a loosening of Biblical bonds brought about by the quest for the historical Jesus. By questioning whether the Jesus portraits painted by the Church were accurate representations of the historical Jesus, artists and writers were released to re-create Jesus in a thousand different images or stories (often in their own or their cultures’ image). The quests, and the resultant reaction, produced a divide between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith, opening up the possibility that the Jesus of History could be the reverse of the Christ of Faith. Equally simplistic, came the fundamentalist reaction seen in The Outlaw: “that’s who I believe he was cause that’s who I believe”.

This opposed opinion and the issues emerging from it, form the background against which Wright and Borg write. In this context, they are to be applauded for conducting a debate and producing a book, in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding while still clearly staking out alternative positions. Underpinning their positions are two key areas – sources and story - where decisions are made which significantly alter the Jesus portraits drawn.

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Larry Norman - The Outlaw.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Conversations enlarging understanding

The two stories in today's lectionary readings (1 Samuel 3: 1-10 & John 1: 43-end) are linked by the idea that conversations can surprise us and enlarge our understanding of life.

Samuel is surprised by the voice that he hears in the night. At first he can only think of it in terms of his known frame of reference and therefore he thinks that the voice he is hearing must be that of Eli, the Temple Priest, although Eli assures him that this is not the case. After hearing the voice three times his world is enlarged by the understanding that God can and wants to speak to him. What a revelation! His whole world is changed in a moment and the direction of his life shifts in that moment. He goes on to listen to and talk with God throughout his life and becomes one of the greatest leaders in Israel as a result.

In our gospel reading, Nathaniel has a conversation with Jesus which begins with Nathaniel closing down possibilities – “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” – but ends with him acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God and King of Israel. What a transformation brought about through a brief conversation.

Just think for a moment about what happens when we are in conversation with other people. First, we have to become aware of someone other than ourselves. Jonathan Sacks says, “we must learn to listen and be prepared to be surprised by others … make ourselves open to their stories, which may profoundly conflict with ours … we must learn the art of conversation, from which truth emerges … by the … process of letting our world be enlarged by the presence of others who think, act, and interpret reality in ways radically different from our own.”

Second, by these conversations we become aware of ourselves. As people, we are not autonomous constructions. Instead, our individual identities are gifted to us by the people, events, stories and histories that we encounter as we go through life. If there was no one and nothing outside of ourselves we would have no reference points in life, no way of knowing what is unique and special about ourselves. In conversations we become aware of how we differ from others and therefore what is unique about ourselves.

Finally, in conversations we also become aware of what we have in common with others. Conversation is something that you can only do with someone else. Therefore, Charles Taylor has argued that, opening a conversation is to inaugurate a common action. A conversation is ‘our’ action, something we are both involved in together. In this way, conversation reminds us of those things that “we can only value or enjoy together” and is, as Rowan Williams has said, “an acknowledgement that someone else’s welfare is actually constitutive of my own.”

Conversation with others can enlarge our understanding of reality, help us come to know ourselves better and make us aware of all that we share with others. It is perhaps because of these possibilities that the Bible is full of conversations and that God appears to want to draw us into conversation with himself. The philosopher, Martin Buber, has argued that “God is not met by turning away from the world or by making God into an object of contemplation, a “being” whose existence can be proved and whose attributes can be demonstrated.” Instead, I know God only in dialogue with him and this dialogue goes on moment by moment in each new situation as I respond with my whole being to the unforeseen and the unique.

This way of thinking about life as a constant conversation with God, I think, makes sense of St Paul’s statement that we should pray without ceasing. If we talk to God about all that we encounter and feel in our daily lives and if we constantly look to hear from and encounter God in the ordinary, everyday things, people and situations around us, then we will be in a constant conversation with God. Life itself will be a conversation and that enlargement of understanding, increased self-knowledge and awareness of what we share with others will become our reality.

These are particularly valuable reflections for us at the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Some measure of unity will only come as we engage in and remain in conversation with each other. Often the issues that divide us seem to push us towards the breaking off of conversation but, if we are serious, about the unity of the Body of Christ and about the importance that the Bible places on conversation then ending conversations should be the last thing that we consider.

So, in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity let us enter into prayer as a lifelong constant conversation with God and let us enter into conversation with others as a means of affirming what we share despite our differences.

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Philip Bailey - Make Us One.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Baxter & McCahon: New Zealand's finest!

Blogging about Australia's religious art has reminded me of two fascinating New Zealand artists; one, James K. Baxter, a poet and the other, Colin McCahon, a painter.

James K. Baxter, to quote from his Collected Poems:

"was a man of contradictions: a fine poet who spent much of his time exercising a concern for society's outcasts; a man with intense loyalty to his country who frequently condemned its institutions; a devout convert to Roman Catholicism whose life did not follow many of the usual practices of the Church. But whether he is remembered as the charismatic figure who founded a community for young people among the Maoris at Jerusalem or as the gifted and complex poet, he is certain to be remembered as a man whose life and work was central to New Zealand experience."

Baxter wrote that:

"Writing, in my case, has proceeded entirely from Lower Learning, learning who one is. And this is not learnt in a lecture-room or library, but in the jails and torture rooms of a private destiny, or conceivably planting potatoes, or conceivably kneeling blindly at the Mass."

God first revealed himself to him, "one day when I had reached the middle of a disused railway tunnel, in the grip of a brutal hangover." He confessed that his own conversion:

"controlled by the Spirit of Love who kindles where he desires to kindle, was founded on the natural ground of that utter lack of credulity, that abyss of scepticism which makes me call myself a modern man. Because I doubted all substantial good, it became possible for me to believe in the Unknown God who is also the son of man ..."

To read a small selection of Baxter's Autumn Testament sonnets, click here.

McCahon is considered New Zealand's greatest artist. This brief description of his life and work comes from the introduction to A Question of Faith, a 2003 retrospective held at the National Gallery of Victoria:

"Colin McCahon was born in Timaru, New Zealand in 1919 and died in Auckland in 1987. Particularly since his death, his activities as a teacher and museum curator have become the subject of much discussion. Central to McCahon’s oeuvre is the investigation of the true nature of faith and his own spiritual experience and development. He was deeply committed to the environment and entered into an engagement with Maori culture. Landscape and religion, in particular the language of the bible, are constant factors in his work."

McCahon's work developed from the early figurative styles of the 1940s to the later abstract works as he sought to give visual representation to the existential issues of the human condition by using and modernising the Western Judeo-Christian artistic tradition. To see a wide selection of McCahon's work, click here.

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Steve Taylor - Jim Morrison's Grave.

The meaning of Jesus (1)

Marcus Borg and Tom Wright, together with their mentor George Caird, represent an important strand in thinking about the Historical Jesus. Their national and political approaches criticise earlier schools of thought such as: the eschatological orientation of Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer; the Protestant liberalism of Adolf von Harnack and his followers; and the German existentialism of Rudolf Bultmann, Günther Bornkamm and Hans Conzelmann. Their jointly authored book, The meaning of Jesus, is a readable and stimulating introduction to their shared approach and to the wider debate.

Despite their commonalities, Borg and Wright take sufficiently different stances for there to be a genuine debate covering many of the issues raised by the search for the historical Jesus. Their differences arise from their methods, personal interests, work contexts and faith journeys. Borg divides the Gospel materials into history remembered and history metaphorised while Wright argues for the basic factuality of the Gospels. Wright approaches the historical materials on the basis of hypothesis and verification: the most satisfactory hypothesis being the one that incorporates the most data. Borg operates on the basis of source criticism, constructing his hypothesis from the sources considered to be earliest. Borg teaches comparative religion in secular institutions and so his portrait of Jesus is painted in language that is not exclusively Christian and emphasises features common to cross-cultural religious experience. Wright is a Church of England Bishop with a fascination for first-century Judaism so, in describing Jesus uses Judeo-Christian terminology and sets him emphatically within his context. Borg’s faith journey has involved rejection first of an undiscriminating Christianity that says it is all true, then of a narrow modernism that says none of it is literally true, so it is not true at all. His approach, therefore, is concerned to make intellectual distinctions between literal and metaphorical truth. Wright’s faith journey, however, has seen his historical debate contained within a continuing, though at times troubling, walk with God. His approach, therefore, is inclusive of that knowledge which comes through relationship.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is their unresolved debate with post-modernism and relativism. Both are at pains to flag up the provisional nature of the conclusions that they draw, influenced, as they understand themselves to be, by the factors noted above. Yet neither can abandon the belief that objective truth can be attained through the application of scientific methodology to historical evidence.

That their debate with post-modernism is unresolved and that they clearly believe in the validity of the quest for the historical Jesus means that they do not fully engage with other approaches to the Gospels. Scot McKnight made a telling comment when he said that: “Historical Jesus study today is actually the place many of us who were once Gospel students belong, since we were more often than not concerned with history than with the literary and narrative shapes.”

Borg and Wright, while the comparison of their differing perceptions does genuinely open up debate, do not engage in this book with other approaches to the Gospels such as the literary and narrative approaches that McKnight mentions. Interpretive thinking often occurs within specialist and developmental streams and, as a result, individual interpreters do not engage fully with the range of insights available across the specialisms and within less contemporary aspects of the interpretive tradition.

The result is that the title of their book cannot be fully accurate. ‘The Meaning of Jesus’ cannot be fully identified through the historical approach alone or by the political and national approach that Borg and Wright share or through their particular enthusiasms. The meaning of Jesus will only become fully apparent through a broader, less partisan endeavour.

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Steve Taylor - Jesus Is For Losers.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Beyond Belief: Modern Art & the Religious Imagination

Rosemary Crumlin's Beyond Belief: Modern Art and the Religious Imagination, the catalogue from a 1998 exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, is the first book I have found that gives a reasonably broad account of the religious influence on twentieth century art.

While not being "a survey of religious and spiritual images of the century," the works included and the accompanying essays do nevertheless span the twentieth century. The earliest, Maurice Denis' The Catholic Mystery and James Ensor's Christ calming the storm "hover at the edges of a century of revolutions, wars and new beginnings" while "at the other end of the century, and of the exhibition, are Francesco Clemente's meditations on his journey up Mount Abu in India and Audrey Flack's huge head of the goddess Daphne, with fruit and branches for hair and, on her forehead, a skull, a reminder and warning of the destruction of war."

The foreword by Timothy Potts contains a particularly focussed summary of religious and spiritual influences on twentieth century art:

"The pervasiveness of broadly religious and spiritual themes in twentieth-century Western art may at first seem to stand in contradiction to the secularization of so many aspects of life and culture during our times. The religious underpinnings of so much Western art before this century - from its subject matter to its sources of patronage and its devotional purposes - are obvious and uncontentious. With the art of our own century, however, the religious dimension is altogether more subtle, often more abstract and inevitably more personal. From images created with a clear message and usage in mind, we move nto a world of individual spiritual discovery, personal visual languages and images which seek to explore and evoke rather than to define and prescribe. Some artists employ familiar religious iconography as convenient signifiers of an earlier culture and mind set - artifacts to be used in a quintessentially modern image-making of juxtaposition, anomaly and incongruity. Others eschew icons altogether to explore more mystical spiritual concerns in images of diffuse abstraction. The visual languages, the spiritual purposes and the artistic results are infinitely varied, but all are united by an absorption in the confrontation between art and religious experience. In this exhibition, these pervasive currents of religious experience and thinking can be traced running through the work of many of the twentieth-century's most important artists and schools."

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Marvin Gaye - God Is Love.

The Black Rain (4)

The following, which is taken from 'Signs of hope and some positive proposals in the global financial crisis' by Rev. Robert Morrison and which I understand to have been issued by the Christian Association of Business Executives (CABE), has some interesting resonances with my earlier posts in this series; here, here and here:

"There is a great difference between our times and the great civilisations of the past. Economic cause and effect is now linked at the speed of fibre optics, fuelling feedback loops of spin and commentary, not least in the hothouse of 24 hour media expectations. They are constantly turning bad news into head lines news and that just undermines confidence across the globe. It creates a profound sense of despair and despondency or just denial and disbelief. But there is no point in pretending it’s not as bad as it really is. It would be unethical for governments to cover up the truth and no one wants to live in a dictatorship like contemporary Zimbabwe or Stalinism, where the truth is constantly denied and the press controlled or suppressed. But even in a free press environment, news is a commodity that makes some people rich and others poorer. The commodity of information is owned by someone and serves their ends and self interest. This is not conspiracy theory, but a fact. Public watchdogs are needed to challenge the distortion and exaggeration of particular stories or just lazy journalism which uses the defence that good news doesn’t sell newspapers. What kind of society would not want to report and celebrate good news and success as an encouragement to others and to rejoice the heart? What kind of journalist is incapable of turning good news stories into commercial successes?"

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Delirious? - Kingdom Of Comfort.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Australian Anglican Art Archive

The Anglican Church of Australia has an interesting archive of images which show many of the art works made for its churches in stained glass, metals, timbers, fabrics and textiles. It is designed to be of general interest, but it is particularly intended for use by those studying the fine arts, and architectural and liturgical history.

Australia has regularly taken a varied and innovative approach to modern and contemporary religious art, including the establishment of an annual prize. The Blake Prize for Religious Art is one of the more prestigious art prizes in Australia. For 55 years it has been awarding a prize for works of art that explore the subject of religious awareness and spirituality.

First awarded in 1951 it has brought to the attention of the art world new and emerging artist as well as allowing for innovation and experimentation of expression. Senior artists like John Coburn, Eric Smith and Rod Milgate first came to attention through their winning entries for the Prize. In more recent years, the Blake has seen something of a revival of interest with increasing numbers of entries and a diversity of ideas being expressed in the works. Recent winners have included George Gittoes, Hilarie Mais and Rachel Ellis.

Rosemary Crumlin, who in 2002 curated a retropective of the Blake Prize, has been described as being "Australia's version of Sister Wendy Beckett:"

"Like Beckett, Crumlin discovered she had two callings - her faith and her love of art. For the past 10 years, she has been a full-time curator and art historian specialising in modern art and spirituality. Among her books are Aboriginal Art and Spirituality, Images of Religion in Australian Art and Beyond Belief: Modern Art and the Religious Imagination.

Her main purpose in the retrospective was to show, through the paintings, how society's views on spirituality had changed over half a century:

"Initially, she says, "artists - and the Blake committee - took it for granted that 'religious' meant 'Christian' and that 'Christian' was to be equated with scriptural narratives". Today, artists and judges have a less restricted view of spirituality, encompassing not just other religions such as Judaism, Buddhism and Islam, but alternative faith systems, everything from "New Agism" to Aboriginality."

Such profound changes were reflected in the art with the first winners being essentially figurative works and later winers gradually becoming more abstract.

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Midnight Oil - King Of The Mountain.