Tuesday, 28 December 2010


Just before Christmas we had great footage of chaos in European airports as snowstorms left travellers stranded in mid-Christmas journey.  Yesterday we had a lucky escape from the Australian version as storms saw planes turned back from Brisbane airport all morning.  Fortunately we flew in the evening and were only an hour late, but there was chaos in Sydney airport as passengers queued for hours and airline staff desperately pleaded for Sydney residents to go home and try again the next day.

The British government is talking about whether it might have to upgrade its airports to make them snow-proof.  I don't think you can do the same for tropical storms.  There's no protection from wind, thunder and lightening except to stay indoors and wait it out.  If it blows hard enough even that doesn't help.

In any case, I wonder how temporary this will all be.  It's not too many years ago that we would spend 24 hours on a bus to Sydney because the plane was so expensive.  Now it's way cheaper by air and most of the bus companies have gone out of business.  Yet whenever I do one of those carbon footprint calculations, despite my frugal turning off of switches, cycling, public transport use and composting I'm in the exploitative zone as a result of frequent air travel.  I buy carbon offsets, but I doubt it's enough.

In any case, cheap air travel has to be on borrowed time.  As peak oil looms, airlines and their customers will just have to pay more - if the supply is even there.  Once again we'll think twice before we fly, holiday close to home like we did as kids, and take the bus more often.  We'll no longer be able to see some of those rellies we love quite so often and that will be a little sad.  But the National Broadband Network will make Skype even more lifelike.  Meanwhile, perhaps the airports will become scrapyards, a couple of terminals and runways in occasional use by those rich enough for the luxury while the rest sits deserted, summer and winter, storm and sunshine.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

A Family Christmas

It's nearly Christmas.  Most of us are getting ready to hang out with our extended family, while those of us who are a long way from family are most likely lining up surrogates to stave off the loneliness.  This has come to be what Christmas is about for most Australians.  So with that in mind, here's a little Christmas gem from Kenneth Bailey's marvellous book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.

In our traditional view of the Christmas story, based on Luke 2:1-7, Joseph and Mary set off for Bethelehem.  When they arrive, however, the inn is full and they are forced to sleep out in the stable, where Jesus is born.  The story has become a symbol of Jesus' poverty and his status as a social outcast.  In Bailey's view it is also very European, and is a very unlikely scenario in the context of Middle Eastern culture. 

Firstly, Joseph was a descendent of David, going to the City of David.  Hence he almost certainly had relatives in town and these would have been honour bound to give he and his heavily pregnant wife hospitality.

Secondly, even if Joseph had no relatives, the Middle Eastern norms of hospitality dictate that they would have been offered room in someone's house.  In fact, they would probably have been besieged with offers and the main risk would have been offending the wrong person.

Thirdly, should all this fail then Mary's relatives, Zacharias and Elizabeth, parents of John the Baptist, also lived in "the hill country of Judea" where Bethlehem is located - so why not go to them for shelter?

Here's Bailey's solution to the dilemma.  Most English translations say something along the lines of, "she wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."  Notice no mention of a stable, only a manger - i.e. a trough or container for animal feed.  He says there are two words in Greek which are translated as "inn".  The first, pandocheion means a commercial inn or hotel.  This is the term used for the place the good Samaritan took the wounded man.  Luke 2:7, on the other hand, uses the word katalyma, which is a more generic term for a "place to stay" and could be translated "guest room". 

The typical Middle Eastern village house of someone wealthy enough to have a guest room is built along the lines shown in Bailey's illustration below.

The guest room was kept for visitors, who in Middle Eastern society would be frequent.  The family would all sleep together in the main room.  Their animals would live outside in the daytime, but at night they would be brought into the "stable", open to the main living room but on a lower level so the animals couldn't actually climb up and sleep in the family bed.  Their food would be placed in the mangers dug into the floor of the family room as shown.  Their presence inside would keep them safe and help warm the house on those cold winter nights.  

So in saying "there was no room in the katalyma" Luke was saying that the family who offered hospitality to Joseph and Mary, whoever they were, already had another guest.  Perhaps this was someone of higher social standing than Joseph - say, an elder member of the family - or perhaps they just arrived first.  No matter, though, Joseph and Mary were welcome to stay in the family room.  No doubt when the actual labour took place, Joseph and the other men would have been shuffled off somewhere while the midwife and the village women helped Mary.  Then when Jesus was born he would have been wrapped up nice and warm and put in the soft straw of the manger at the end of the room, near the warmth of the livestock.

Jesus was not born in a palace, amidst splendour and fine living.  But he was born in the midst of a family, whether his own relatives or hospitable strangers.  He was surrounded by love and care, warmed by a press of people and livestock. 

May you experience the same this Christmas.  Livestock are optional.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Orwell on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

For my last birthday my daughter gave me a selection  of booklets from the Penguin "Great Ideas" series.  They're extended extracts (100 or so pages each) from great works of literature or philosophy.  In my little pile are extracts from Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, Fyodor Dostoevsky and this selection of essays by George Orwell.  Both Penguin and my daughter know me well - a full volume of Kant would wait on my shelf for years, but I can promise you the 100 page version will be read pretty soon.  They're also good for plane flights.  I read about half the Orwell on a flight to Sydney last week.  

Orwell would have been a great blogger - he doesn't waste words, he draws you into the world he describes, he is prepared to live his art not just read about it, and he is interested in a wide range of things.   Here's something I thought was especially clever.  One of the essays is called The Art of Donald McGill.  McGill was a designer of comic postcards and the essay is an examination of the themes and ideas presented in those postcards - the kind of illustrated jokes you still see sometimes in tabloid papers or on comic blogs.

"I like seeing experienced girls home."
"But I'm not experienced!"
"You're not home yet!"

And so it goes on - you can see lots of examples here.  I love the fact that he takes an interest in this kind of popular culture.  I also love his explanation that these postcards "give expression to the Sancho Panza view of life."

If you look into your own mind, which are you, Don Quixote or Sancho Panza?  Almost certainly you are both.  There is one part of you that wishes to be a hero or a saint, but another part of you is a little fat man who sees very clearly the advantages of staying alive with a whole skin.  He is your unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul.  His tastes lie towards safety, soft beds, no work, pots of beer and women with "voluptuous" figures.  He it is who punctures your fine attitudes and urges you to look after Number One...

There is a constant, world-wide conspiracy to pretend that he is not there, or at least that he doesn't matter.  Codes of law and morals, or religious systems, never have much room in them for a humorous view of life....A dirty joke is not, of course, a serious attack upon morality, but it is a sort of mental rebellion, a momentary wish that things were otherwise.

Society has aways to demand a little more from human beings than it will get in practice....I never read the proclamations of generals before battle, the speeches of fuehrers and prime ministers, the solidarity songs of public schools and left-wing political parties, national anthems, Temperance tracts, papal encyclicals and sermons against gambling and contraception, without seeming to hear in the background a chorus of raspberries from all the millions of common men to whom these high sentiments make no appeal. 

Nevertheless, the high sentiments always win in the end, leaders who offer blood, toil, tears and sweat always get more out of their followers than those who offer safety and a good time.  When it comes to the pinch, human beings are heroic.  Women face childbed and the scrubbing brush, revolutionaries keep their mouths shut in the torture chamber, battleships go down with their guns still firing when their decks are awash.  It is only that the other element in man, the lazy, cowardly, debt-bilking adulterer who is inside all of us, can never be suppressed altogether and needs a hearing occasionally.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Leaking in the Facebook Age

Everyone who's on Facebook knows (I hope) that anything you post can become public property.  You may think that your privacy setting will protect you, but if you'd be embarassed to see that photo in your local newspaper, then don't post it.

What's clear from the unfolding Wikileaks saga is that the same applies to diplomatic correspondence.  You may think your cables are confidential and sent through a secure network, but electronic data is so easily transportable that you have to expect that sooner or later it will get out.

This is part of the reason why the focus on Julian Assange is misplaced.  You will have noticed that even though Assange is in prison, the leaks are still being published.  The internet is a dispersed medium, definitively a network, and if you cut off one person from it you damage that person, but the network just finds another pathway. 

In response to the push in the US and elsewhere to prosecute Assange, many jounalists have pointed out that leaking is a time-honoured practice in politics and media, and that it is so widespread that the ramifications of making it illegal would impact on every media outlet in the world and on much of the practice of politics.  Politicians regularly leak confidential documents for a whole variety of reasons - to undermine an opponent, to test an idea before officially putting their name to it, to create a media buzz about an upcoming announcement.  Sometimes confidential documents are leaked because public servants believe the information is being wrongly suppressed.  Sometimes people leak from noble motives, sometimes from base ones.

Two things are different about Wikileaks.  The first is the sheer volume of material.  This is not a single report or document, it's hundreds of thousands of them.  The net is cast widely and fairly indiscriminately.  Most leaks are strategic and purposeful in a specific way.  This one is more like an explosion in a paper factory - its purpose is the act of leaking itself.

The second is the control of the information.  Normally leaking is very selective.  The person with access to the information seeks out a sypathetic journalist or two, hands them a document or briefs them, and the journalist writes the story.  It's highly controlled, highly contained.  Wikileaks, in the other hand,  has posted the original documents on its website and anyone can google them and read every single document.  They encourage as many people as possible to mirror their site and to store the material.  Neither the leaker nor the publisher has any control over what will happen with this information.

What will happen after the initial flurry of outrage and scapegoating?  Well, the most likely short-term response will be to slam the door firmly shut on the empty stable - to boost computer security, reduce the number of officials with access to confidential information, create new laws to punish future leakers and those they inform.  It's human nature.  When you feel threatened, make a new rule.

And after the new rules have also been broken, or proved unworkable?  Perhaps our leaders, and those who serve them, might have to think about the relationship between their private and public behaviour.  Will what they say in private stand the cold light of publicity?  When they stand up in public, are they speaking the truth?  Are their private lives consistent with their public lives?  And if they are consistently honest and speak the same truth in private and in public, they might find that we are actually able to bear it.  They might find that an increasingly informed public will be able to make mature judgements even if the message is not what we want to hear.

We live in interesting times!

Monday, 6 December 2010

Leaking Crocodile Tears

On the ABC News this evening we heard the Republican leader in the US Senate declaring that Julian Assange is a "hi-tech terrorist" and should be treated as an "enemy combatant".  Of course since we've been fighting a "war on terror" it's become a lot easier to say such things.  But just who is Assange and his Wiki-leaks army terrorising?

Well, although new bombshells are exploding every day they seem to be entirely of the metaphorical sort, and I don't recall anyone ever being killed by a metaphor.  Of couse, it's possible that amongst the material there is confidential information which might compromise the safety of, say, an intelligence operative or informer, and this would be of some concern.  Australian Observer, a former senior Defence and Foreign Affairs official, strongly doubts it - the security of such contacts is much tighter than that.

It seems that the main people being terrorised are diplomats and politicians, quaking in their boots as they wait to see if that stupid thing they said or wrote will make the front page.  It's always embarassing when your dirty laundry is aired and people find out you're not exactly the person they thought you were.  Tiger Woods was certainly embarassed when his wholesome image was trashed by his wife trying brain him with a golf club after discovering his latest piece of infidelity.  Yet while we will never see him the same way again, he might actually become a better person as a result.

And this is the whole point.  In case you haven't noticed, things haven't been going too well lately on the international relations front.  The war in Afghanistan seems unwinnable, and we're pouring billions and sacrficing young lives to prop up a corrupt regime.  North and South Korea are on the brink of war, as are India and Pakistan.  International climate change negotiations are a farce. 

If things were going well, we might be inclined to trust our governments and leave their dirty secrets alone.  But this ain't working.  Maybe its better to get the whole sorry mess out in the open.  In the short term it will hurt.  We'll lose some credibility, some money and even a little skin.  Some people might lose their jobs.  But perhaps in the long term it can help get some things out into the open.  Jesus says:

There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.  What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.

Slightly out of context, but the revealing of everything is the beginning of salvation.  Perhaps once the torch is shone on the sorry mess that is international relations, we will be able to begin the heal it.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Searching for Certainty

I guess this is a kind of addendum to all those posts on biblical inerrancy.  It's also the 100th post on Painting Fakes which is more than any of the Australians managed in the first innings in Adelaide (cricket joke, for the Americans among you).  The more I do it, the more I love it.

Among the incredibly wide variety of types of people in the world, there are two that I'd like to mention in this post.  The first are "black and white people".  They like things to be clear.  It's right or it's wrong, it's true or it's false.  The second are "shades of grey" people.  They rarely see the world in absolute terms.  Something may be true in a certain sense and false in another sense.  It depends what you mean by "true".

This distinction is a matter of psychology, not belief.  For instance, both Ken Ham and Richard Dawkins are black and white people.  The content of their beliefs differs, but they have a similar approach to belief.  This may be why Ham serves as Dawkins' model for religion - it's the type of religion he can relate to, whereas he sees more subtle and nuanced versions as wishy washy cop-outs.

The authors of the Chicago Statement are also black and white people.  The Bible is either true, or it's not true.  When they felt the need to defend its truth, the only alternative they saw was to defend it in black and white terms. 

Which brings me back to the recollection from the post at the begining of the series, of Francis Schaeffer drawing circles on the beach, and his fear and anxiety that in our age we have replaced successive coherent world views with incoherence.  This is a view I often hear from the pulpit and read in various places - that post-modernism means loss of meaning.  Modernism - the idea that the universe is a predictable and, in principle, comprehensible place in which meaning is fixed and actions are governed by immutable laws - is paradise for black and white people.  It provides them with certainty.  Religious modernists, like Schaeffer or Ham, search for the same in the Bible, and see its absence as the absence of meaning and the loss of faith.  This is why they resist so fiercely.

Shades of grey people like me, on the other hand, tend to be baffled by this.  We see faith and uncertainty as natural partners.  A little uncertainty makes life more interesting, and makes faith necessary.  A variety of views means we can all learn and grow.  Post-modernism is liberating, opening up more possibilities, bringing more ideas into the tent, allowing us to ask new questions and to think new thoughts.  It also enables us to more fully appreciate difference, to see things from other people's points of view.  Differences of opinion are not aberrations to be corrected, they are a consequence of the way the world really is and opportunities to learn.  I don't need to convince or vanquish my opponents, but I enjoy robust discussions with them.

One of the fears black and white people have about this - and not without justification - is that it leads to an "anything goes" mentality.  "Is it wrong to carry out genocide in Sudan?"  "Well, maybe, it depends on your point of view...."  This is why we need black and white people.  We need people with the clarity of vision to stand up and say "this is wrong" loudly and clearly.  We need shades of grey people to say "there's a few different ways to solve this, have you thought about...?"  If shades of grey people had things all our way, nothing would ever get done.  If black and white people had things all their way, the world would be a rigid, unimaginative place.  We need each other to survive.

Then I'm a shades of grey person so I would say that, wouldn't I?

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Inerrancy Part 6 - What I Think

During this series on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, some people have suggested to me (with greater or lesser degrees of subtlety) that I should maybe explain what I think, not just what I don't.  Of course, I've been doing that all along to some degree, but as a closer for the series I'd like to spell it out as clearly as I can.

Of course all along I've been using the Chigago Statements as a foil against which to work out what I think.  It's still developing.  Nor do I claim anything close to inerrancy for myself - I expect lots of people to disagree in various ways and I expect a lot of them will turn out to be right.  I'm no Bible scholar, and none of what I say here is original.  Still, here goes...

1. The Bible is the primary source for Christian belief
Everything important that we believe as Christians is ultimately sourced back to Bible.  It's where we learn about God and about Christ, it's where we learn how to pray and how to act, it guides our thinking and our doing.  No matter how much we argue about the Bible - its meaning, intention, the way we should read it - there would be no argument if the Bible wasn't there.

2. The Bible is the witness of human beings to God's actions in history
God is active and communicates to humans in and through history.  The Bible is what tells us about that.  However, there are two important caveats.  Firstly, by "witness" I don't mean "eye-witness".  There are very few eyewitness accounts in the Bible, and many of the books are written centuries after the events they describe are supposed to have taken place.  Secondly, these are the words of humans, inspired by God, not the words of God himself.  Humans are fallible, we make mistakes.

3. These accounts are what has been preserved while other writings were allowed to perish
The fact that these books were copied and recopied over centuries, and granted authority by generations of God's followers, both Jewish and Christian, indicates that they are special.  These books are judged by generations of believers to be the books which best communicate God's nature and his will for us.  It may not be inerrant, but its the best we have by a long stretch.

4. The Bible includes multiple points of view
The writers wrote in different times and places and had to address a diverse range of circumstances.  They also had different opinions.  These are often in tension with each other, not only on matters of detail such as that described in Part 2 of this series, but on huge questions, like whether or not non-Jews could be part of God's people.  Sometimes, as illustrated in Part 4, these differences appear side by side in the same book.  Different writers have different emphases and so present the same story in different ways, drawing different conclusions.  Sometimes one bit of the Bible contradicts another.  Our task, as God's people led by the Holy Spirit, is to figure out what we need to take from this in our time and place.  Sometimes we need to choose.  Sometimes, we need to learn from both points of view and keep them both clearly in view.  Sometimes we might need to just shrug our shoulders, say "I don't know" and move on.

5. The Bible is a book about God
As opposed to a book about science or,  Point 2 notwithstanding, a book about history.  If we try to read it looking for precise scientific or historical descriptions, we misuse it.  Every time we read a passage in the Bible we should be asking "what does this tell us about God, and about how we should act as his children?"

6. The Bible is a book of action
Not that there are no theoretical sections in the Bible - the book of Romans, for instance, contains a lot of philosphical thinking, as does the Gospel of John.  However, the Bible seeks to engage our whole being.  It asks for an emotional and practical response.  After reading it we should feel something, and we should do something.  This is why we have so many different literary forms employed.  The poetry and songs are there to stir our emotions, to open us up to joy and sorrow, anger and gratitude.  The proverbs and parables are there to stir us into action.  The narratives give us behaviour we can imitate, or avoid.  Intellectual assent without practical application is simply not an option.

I'm sure there's a lot more to say but that will do for this post.  Go read the Bible.  Believer or atheist, protestant or Catholic, fundamentalist or liberal, I promise you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Inerrancy Part 5 - Poetry

A couple of times in this series on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy I've mentioned poetry in the Bible and I'd like to deal with this question a little more fully.

Article VI of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics says

WE AFFIRM  that the Bible expresses God's truth in propositional statements, and we declare that biblical truth is both objective and absolute.

The problem with this affirmation is that it is simply and clearly wrong for large parts of the Bible.  Even the framers of the Statement on Inerrancy recognised this, saying in Article XVIII

WE AFFIRM  that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices....

They knew this to be the case, but they obviously didn't know what to do with it, or they couldn't have put their article about "propositional truth" in the follow-up statement.

So what's propositional truth?  Mr Google defines it as follows.

Truth which can be communicated in the form of a statement in which a predicate or object is affirmed or denied regarding a subject.

In other words, if I say "right now I'm writing on my blog", then I'm affirming the predicate (writing on the blog) about the subject (myself).  This statement is objectively verifiable - my wife could come into the room and would see that I'm writing my blog.  It is either true or false - either I'm writing my blog or I'm not. 

Some of the Bible is certainly like this.  When Paul says (in Romans 8:1), "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus", this is a propositional statement.  It's much more complex than the one about my act of writing, and there's lots of terms in it we would need to define carefully, but in theory it's the same kind of statement. 

However, large parts of the Bible aren't like this.  In particular, a lot of the Old Testament is poetry - not only the Psalms, Song of Solomon and Job, but also large slabs of the prophets are written in poetic form.  In addition, books like Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation are allegorical (in whole or in part), and of course Jesus spoke in parables.  These forms of writing do not contain propositional statements, they contain metaphors, symbols, images, hyperbole, personification - the whole range of tricks of the trade. 

For example, take a look at Psalm 57.

Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,
for in you I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings
until the disaster has passed.

I cry out to God Most High,
to God, who vindicates me. 
He sends from heaven and saves me,
rebuking those who hotly pursue me
God sends forth his love and his faithfulness. 

I am in the midst of lions;
I am forced to dwell among ravenous beasts—
men whose teeth are spears and arrows,
whose tongues are sharp swords.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens;
let your glory be over all the earth. 

They spread a net for my feet—
I was bowed down in distress.
They dug a pit in my path—
but they have fallen into it themselves. 

My heart, O God, is steadfast,
my heart is steadfast;
I will sing and make music. 

Awake, my soul!
Awake, harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn.

I will praise you, Lord, among the nations;
I will sing of you among the peoples. 
For great is your love, reaching to the heavens;
your faithfulness reaches to the skies.

Almost nothing in this song makes sense if you try to treat it as propositional truth.  Of course there are the obvious things - he is not surrounded by lions, these are a metaphor for people who want to kill him.  There are not literal nets or pits in his way - he just means people are trying to trap him.  But there's more to it than that.  For instance, look at the way he talks about love.  "God sends forth his love and his faithfulness".  These are not substances or beings that can be sent anywhere, they are actions.  What can this mean?  And at the end he says "great is your love, reaching to the heavens".  How does love reach up?  And what does he mean by saying "in you I take refuge"?  How can someone be "in" God?

The thing is, we know what he means,  He is celebrating how loving God is, and how God cares for him in the midst of troubles.  He uses a wide array of poetic tricks to make his point.  Those of us who have faith believe this to be true.  But it doesn't make any sense to talk about it as "inerrant" because it doesn't have that kind of precision.

You could try to say that you will interpret this "taking account of its literary forms and devices" - so you would recognise it as a poem, not try to insist on the literal truth of the images, and instead insist on the truth of the statement - God is loving, and protects his people or his king.  This statement (assuming you have interpreted correctly) is what is inerrant. 

This is fair enough as far as it goes, but to say this is to miss the point.  Why did David write a poem, with all this flowery language, when he could have just said it in one sentence and been a lot clearer?  It's because the central point of a poem or a song is not the "propositional truth" it expresses, it is the emotional impact of that truth.  David doesn't just want us to nod and say, "yes, that's objectively true".  He wants this truth to be subjective. He wants us to feel his agony and fear, to feel his relief at knowing God rescues him, to feel the sense of safety and protection of a chick being guarded by its mother hen.  He wants the temple singers to sing this so beautifully that the gathered worshippers leave with tears in their eyes at the depth of the love of God.

This is not inerrant.  It is so much more than that.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Dream Attic

After my brief mention of Richard Thompson's latest album, Dream Attic, in a recent article I received an e-mail from the man himself *.   He said

You little s***, how dare you blow me off like that?  You've got a hide, using me as a stepping stone to a review of an album by that young upstart Martha Tilston.  I was sharing stages with her dad when she was still in nappies.  I may even have changed her nappies myself - I can't be sure, there was a lot going on at the time.  Anyway, did you even @#$% listen to my album, you *&^%$?

I have to admit he has a point.  RT is one of my musical heroes.  And I had only listened to the cd a couple of times when I used it as a starting point for my review of Martha Tilston's beautiful album.  Kind of a march of the generations thing, you know.  So, with reverent apologies to the great man, here's a more mature reflection on his latest. 

Thompson is known for three things - his brilliant and unique guitar playing which mixes the folk styles of his Fairport Convention years with a strong rock sensibility; his prolific songwriting; and his acerbic and at times gloomy lyrics.  All three are in evidence on this album.  The acoustic demo disc that comes with the deluxe version shows he is quite capable of carrying a set of songs on his own, playing complex multiple acoustic guitar parts that drive the song along. 

The main album is recorded live in a number of small US venues, with the man himself on electric guitar backed by a band that includes bass, drums, violin and a choice of saxophones.  There's no studio trickery here, it's exactly what you would have heard if you were in the concert hall - a tight, well rehearsed and skilled set of musicians.  Having the band frees Thompson to let loose on guitar and there are some sizzling solos, but he also allows his band to shine, with lovely parts for the sax and violin. 

What made me initially dismissive?  A couple of times his bile goes over the edge; on the opener "The Money Shuffle" - did he lose money to a dodgy financial manager in the GFC? - and more particularly on "Here Comes Geordie" in which an unnamed but easily identifiable Newcastle-born superstar gets stung.  It's not funny or clever, it's just cruel, even if the man concerned is a bit of a prat.

It's a shame these appear early in the album, because it gets better as it goes on.  Later up-tempo numbers are more fun, including the eminently dancable "Demons in her Dancing Shoes" and the energising "Big Sun Falling in the River".  The band, including Thompson's guitar, get a great workout.

On this album, though, its the downbeat numbers that really shine.  The beautiful but desperately sad "Among the Gorse, Among the Grey", the enigmatic "Burning Man", the elegaic "Crimescene" and "A Brother Slips Away", and the scary "Sydney Wells" each has its impact, with thoughtful lyrics and beautiful arrangements . 

He saves the best for last, and even ends with a little hope in "If love whispers your name".

Next time I promise
I will be ready
Ready to move
When the clouds roll apart
Next time I promise
I will do it better
When the sun shines on me
And pierces my heart

If love whispers your name
Breathes in your ear
Sighs in the rain
Love is worth every fall
Even to beg, even to crawl

I won't act so cool
Won't be the fool
Next time
I won't quote the law
Won't be so sure
Next time

'Cause I once had it all and
I once lost it all and
I won't miss again
If the chance should come my way
If love should look my way

Love is worth every wound
Each lonely day
Each sleepless night
Love is worth every wound
The price that you pay
To live in the light

Almost cheerful for the King of Gloom!

* It's possible I only dreamt this.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Works of Belief?

A little while ago I wrote about the way we tend to substitute intellectual works for moral ones, insisting that assent to various doctrinal positions is essential to be considered a "Christian".  I just finished reading Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg and was delighted to find a very similar thought, although expressed much better than mine.  He talks about Jesus as a teacher of wisdom, and how his wisdom was opposed to the conventional wisdom of his day.  He then reflects on his own experience.

I grew up as a Lutheran, in a tradition that emphasised salvation by grace and not by "works of the law"....As Lutherans, we all knew that we weren't saved by "works". Rather, we were saved by "grace through faith".

Yet this strong emphasis on grace got transformed into a new system of conventional wisdom, not only in my mind but, I think, in the minds of many Lutherans, and many Christians generally.  The emphasis was placed upon faith rather than grace, and faith insidiously became the new requirement.  Faith (most often understood as belief) is what God required, and by a lack of faith/belief one risked the peril of eternal punishment.  The requirement of faith brought with it all of the anxiety and self-preoccupation that mark life in the world of conventional wisdom.  Was one's faith/belief real enough, stong enough?  Thus, for many of us latter-day Lutherans, the system of conventional wisdom remained.  Only the content of the requirement had changed - from good works to faith.

He repeats the point in a slightly different way later in the book.  He talks about what he sees as the three macro-stories of the Old Testament - the exodus, the exile and return, and the "priestly story" (ie the system of guilt and sacrifice).  Jesus and early Christianity, he says, reference all three.  However, he is concerned that the priestly image dominates the conventional view of Christianity.

The priestly story images God primarily as lawgiver and judge.  God's requirements must be met, and because we cannot meet them, God graciously provides the sacrifice that meets those requirements.  Yet the sacrifice generates a new requirement: God will forgive those who believe that Jesus was the sacrifice, and will not forgive those who do not believe.  God's forgiveness becomes contingent or conditional.  Not only is it only for those who believe, but it lasts only until sin is committed again, which can then be removed only by repentance.  Thus, although the priestly story speaks of God as gracious, it places the grace of God within a system of requirements.  The overarching image for God's relationship to us is a legal metaphor, which pictures God as the giver and enforcer of a set of requirements.

We subtly move from a theology of grace to a theology of works, all the while masking the fact in language that sounds like it's still a language of grace.  God loves us, but only if we love him.  As opposed to what Paul said on the subject in Romans 5:7-8.

Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Inerrancy Part 4 - Why didn't David build the temple?

My relative and fellow blogger Luke has also been blogging on inerrancy, coming from quite a different standpoint to me.  Most recently he pointed to Jesus' parable of the mustard seed, in which some of the botanical details are not quite correct.  This is a clear case where literal truth is beside the point - indeed, Jesus' "errors" of fact appear to be quite deliberate and are used to heighten his message.

I've been thinking about another Bible story this past week, in relation to the Chicago Statement's insistence on the absence of contradication in the Bible.  This is one of my favourite Old Testament stories - the story of David's desire to build the temple. 

The first part of this story is found in pretty much identical form in 2 Samuel 7, and in 1 Chronicles 17.  Quoting from the Chronicles version, here is what happens.

After David was settled in his palace, he said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of the covenant of the LORD is under a tent.”

Nathan replied to David, “Whatever you have in mind, do it, for God is with you.”

But that night the word of God came to Nathan, saying:

“Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the LORD says: You are not the one to build me a house to dwell in. I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought Israel up out of Egypt to this day. I have moved from one tent site to another, from one dwelling place to another. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their leaders whom I commanded to shepherd my people, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’ ....

“I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them so that they can have a home of their own and no longer be disturbed. Wicked people will not oppress them anymore, ...

“‘I declare to you that the LORD will build a house for you: When your days are over and you go to be with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever....’”

This is a fascinating and beautifully constructed conversation between God and David, with Nathan as messenger.  David proposes to build a house for the Lord.  This seems like a pious thing to do and Nathan agrees it's a good idea.  God disagrees.  It's not particularly that he objects to the idea of a temple - he's happy for David's son to build one - but he rebukes David for his idea.  Why?  The answer seems to be that David is underestimating God. 

God has lived in a tent since the Exodus and is not unhappy with this arrangement.  He doesn't need anyone to build him a house.  In fact, if there's any house building to be done, God will do it.  First, he will "provide a place for (his) people Israel and will plant them so they will have a home of their own".   Second, he will do something similar for David - "The Lord will build a house for you".  In other words, he will establish David's dynasty, starting with the son mentioned here. 

One of the key dangers with established religion is that God comes to be seen as belonging to the people, not the other way around.  God will not be domesticated.  David should remember who is God around here.

This is also a comforting message for the original exilic and/or post-exilic readership of these books.  The Babylonians could destroy the temple, but they could not destroy God.

In Samuel, this is the end of the story.  However, 1 Chronicles 22 has a second bite of the cherry.  Here, David is shown appointing workmen and stockpiling materials for the temple God has told him not to build.  Then he summons his son and heir Solomon.  Here's what he says.

My son, I had it in my heart to build a house for the Name of the LORD my God. But this word of the LORD came to me: ‘You have shed much blood and have fought many wars. You are not to build a house for my Name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in my sight. But you will have a son who will be a man of peace and rest, and I will give him rest from all his enemies on every side. His name will be Solomon, and I will grant Israel peace and quiet during his reign. He is the one who will build a house for my Name.’

You will notice that the words of the Lord reported by David are very different to those quoted in Chapter 17.  In the earlier chapter, the reason David is not to build God a house is because God doesn't need one.  In Chapter 22 it's because David is a man of war. 

If you were determined you could harmonise these accounts.  You could say that Chapter 17 doesn't report the full words of God's message, and that in Chapter 22 David reports a bit that was left out earlier.  You could say that David is lying, or making a mistake.  None of these explanations is in the Bible, though.  They are explanations forced by a prior view of inerrancy. 

My understanding is that we are reading two different versions of  the same story.  You see this a lot in the Old Testament.  The authors and editors didn't share our love for consistency.  When they had two versions of the same story, rather than choosing between them or combining them they often just included both. 

The second story has a different message to the first, but one that is just as pertinent.  While wars and bloodshed may sometimes be necessary, God does not love them.  The development of his temple is a work of peace, not of war. 

The details of these two stories are contradictory.  They can't both be true in a literal sense.  Perhaps neither of them are.  The messages they bring, while also different, are complementary.  God is bigger than any temple, dynasty or nation, and rules over these things.  God loves peace and rest far more than war and bloodshed.  Each of these messages brings comfort and encouragement in a different way.  We can learn from both of them.  They should not be minimised or explained away in the name of a narrow view of inerrancy.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Budget Cuts

We're having a lot of sound and fury about bank regulations at the moment, but I've been noticing another debate that's been going just a fiercely, although with slightly fewer headlines.  It's the debate about cutting spending.

Apparently, in the "little red book" of briefings provided by Treasury and Finance to the incoming Labor government, they recommended substantial cuts to government spending.  This was needed, they said, to prevent the economy from growing too fast and putting upward pressure on inflation and interest rates.

What occurred to me (and I'm sure I'm not the first person to think of this) is that Keynesian economics has left us with an inbuilt tension in the way we think about Government spending.  After the Great Depression governments in the developed world adopted Keynes' idea that government spending should be used to smooth out fluctuations in the market economy.  When there was a downturn, governments should increase their spending to boost employment and keep the economy moving.  In boom times, governments should decrease their spending to avoid the economy reaching the limits of its capacity and inflation running out of control.

Cue the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, and governments around the world rapidly poured billions into propping up their economies.  In Australia we had capital works sprouting like mushrooms - free insulation for householders, school halls and tuckshops, and a large public housing construction program.   Now in Australia things seem to be recovering and interest rates are going up, so economists are saying its time to wind back the spending.

The trouble with this is that it conflicts with the other - most of us would probably say main - reason for government spending, which is to deliver services.  The task of delivering quality education, health care, income security, housing and so forth requires carefully considered, well planned and consistent programs funded to a level that meets the needs.  It's very difficult for governments to do this while at the same time increasing and decreasing their spending in response to fluctuations in the global economy.

Housing researchers have been documenting high levels of housing need for decades.  Issues include a large number of households paying over 50% of their income on their housing (400,000 households and more since the early 1990's), an increasing gap between average incomes and average house prices, and the disappearance of rental housing at the bottom end of the market.  A key way to respond to this is to provide public and community housing to people on low incomes, giving them security and affordability while taking stress off the private rental market.  It's not just bleeding heart social workers like me saying this, it's people from all across the spectrum - housing industry organisations, trade unions, urban economists, planning professionals.

However, governments of both persuasions, in the grip of a desire to reduce government debt, have ignored this advice and run down the public housing system.  Then along comes the global financial crisis, and suddenly there is money to build 20,000 new public housing dwellings as well as repairing thousands more right now.

Unfortunately, after decades of neglect the capacity of State and Territory housing departments to deliver this housing is almost zero.  Organisations that have rolled along building a few hundred dwelling units a year, disposing of their land banks to keep up with repairs and maintenance, suddenly had to produce thousands in the space of 18 months.  The result - poor planning, dwellings in less than ideal locations, a scramble to sort out management arrangements. 

Then, after two or three years of effort, it will be over.  The crisis is passed, the Treasury boffins say it's time to cut spending.  Housing departments will have learnt lessons from the process and will be able to do better next time - except that next time won't be any time soon and most of the people involved will be elsewhere.  20,000 households will be moderately happy to be in reasonable and affordable housing although they will complain about construction flaws and lack of public transport.  Meanwhile, the other 380,000 will go on paying their 50% of income on rent and wait forlornly for the next economic downturn.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Inerrancy Part 3 - Young Earth Creationism

I have to confess that I have a soft spot for Ken Ham, a local boy who made it to the big stage.  He grew up in the same Brisbane suburb as me.  I had a slight friendship with his younger brother in my early teens, and Ken himself taught biology at the high school I attended.  In the year I graduated, he quit teaching to start the Creation Science Foundation here in Queensland, and a few years later joined forces with his friend and mentor Henry Morris to spread the idea of young earth creationism in the USA.  He is still doing it to this day.

In my early 20s I went to a Creation Science event at which Ken shared the platform with an American biologist.  At the time I was very receptive to creationism and was impressed by the American's presentation on the mathematical improbability of evolution.  I remember being less impressed with Ken's presentation, but in hindsight it was probably more to the point.  The Book of Genesis, he said, is a cornerstone of Scripture.  It is quoted and referred to throughout the Old and New Testaments.  If we take away the truth of Genesis, the whole fabric of the Bible unravels and we are left with no Christian faith.  Because of this, true Christians have no alternative but to believe in the literal truth of the early chapters of Genesis. 

It took me a few years to understand what this meant about Creation Science - that it is not science at all, it is the selection and arrangement of pieces of scientific information to bolster a pre-determined view of the Bible.  It is a piece of apologetics, albeit not a very good one.

He clearly had in mind a view of inerrancy pretty much the same as that propounded in the Chicago Statement.  Ken himself wasn't at the original 1978 Summit - he was still teaching - but Henry Morris's name appears on the attendance list.  Sure enough, this is what Article 12 says.

WE AFFIRM that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.

WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

Article 22 of the Statement on Hermeneutics reiterates the point. 

WE AFFIRM that Genesis 1-11 is factual, as is the rest of the book.

WE DENY that the teachings of Genesis 1-11 are mythical and that scientific hypotheses about earth history or the origin of humanity may be invoked to overthrow what Scripture teaches about creation.

This Article is the only specific Scripture reference I can find in any of the three statements produced by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.  Why was this particular part of the Bible singled out?  Why, for instance, did the authors not defend the factuality of the accounts of Jesus' birth, death and resurrection - surely a subject more central to the Christian faith?  I suspect it has more to do with the culture wars in the US education system than with any sense of theological priority. 

What's sad about this is that it is quite unnecessary.  There are plenty of alternative views, and some of them don't even require you to deny the inerrancy of the Bible.

The most conservative alternative is to maintain that the Bible is inerrant, but that the first chapters of Genesis are not intended to be literal accounts.  The first chapter is a poem in praise of the Creator, describing with poetic imagination his actions in bringing the world into being.  The subsequent chapters are a parable illustrating the temptation and fall of humanity. 

This would be at least partly consistent with Article 18 of the original statement.

WE AFFIRM  that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices...

The question of the age of the earth could then have been a legitimate question of interpretation.  Evangelical readers would be allowed to debate and discuss the age of the earth without being told they were betraying their faith.  The next 30 years of battles over science curricula could have been avoided. 

Instead, the authors took a literalist position.  Their followers were left with no room to move - they had to choose between Christianity and science.  Many chose science.  Scientific atheists have been dining out on the results ever since.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Christmas songs

A bit of cross posting here because I'm feeling self-satisfied.  Pride comes before a fall but I just finished writing some new Christmas songs that I'm feeling proud of.  Check them out over at my song site.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Biblical Inerrancy Part 2

Some further thoughts on the Chicago Statement on Biblical InerrancyFour years after the original Chicago Statement, the same group of conservative theologians had a follow-up summit and issued a second statement, the Chicago Statement on Biblical HermeneuticsThis statement aimed to clarify some of the content of the original, and to explain a little more carefully how the participants meant the bible to be interpreted.

Once again, the core of the statement is a series of affirmations and denials and each would be worthy of some comment.  I'd just like to highlight a couple.  Firstly from Article VI

WE AFFIRM that the Bible expresses God's truth in propositional statements, and we declare that biblical truth is both objective and absolute. We further affirm that a statement is true if it represents matters as they actually are, but is an error if it misrepresents the facts.

WE DENY that, while Scripture is able to make us wise unto salvation, biblical truth should be defined in terms of this function. We further deny that error should be defined as that which wilfully deceives.

In other words, everything in the Bible is literally true, not only in relation to the purposes of its authors, but in relation to everything it says.

Then there's this, from Article XVII

WE AFFIRM the unity, harmony and consistency of Scripture and declare that it is its own best interpreter.

WE DENY that Scripture may be interpreted in such a way as to suggest that one passage corrects or militates against another.

That is to say, there are no contradictions in the Bible.  This, of course, follows logically from the idea that everything in the Bible is literally correct, because two contradictory statements can't both be correct.

These two statements highlight a core difficulty with the Chicago Statement's idea of inerrancy.  It asks us to believe that every detail in the Bible is literally and factually correct.  This means that the Bible must be internally consistent in every detail.  Yet you don't have to read particularly carefully to notice that this is not actually the case. 

Take for instance the accounts of Jesus' resurrection, surely a or even the pivotal story in the Bible.  To quote Bart Ehrmann from Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene:

In John's Gospel, for example, when Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb she finds that the stone has already been rolled away, and she runs off to tell two of the disciples (John 20:1).  In Matthew's version, however, Mary and another woman named Mary arrive at the tomb and watch as an angel descends from heaven and rolls the stone away and sits on it.  They are terrified, but the angel reassures them, urging them to see that Jesus' body is not there and to go tell the disciples (Matt, 28:1-2).  In Mark's account they don't see an angel roll away the stone: they come to the tomb, find it open, and enter to see a young man sitting inside the tomb (not an angel on top of the stone that he has just rolled away, as in Matthew), who tells them that Jesus has been raised and that they are to tell the others (Mark 16:4-5). 

And so it goes on, through the accounts of who saw what, where, and when.  The details of the stories vary, and in ways that can't simply be harmonised.  Some accounts have an angel on the stone, some a young man inside the tomb, some two men.  In some accounts the woman are to tell the disciples to wait for Jesus in Jerusalem, in others to go to Galilee.  In some the women tell the men what they have seen, in others they don't. 

Speaking for myself, these differences don't bother me much.  There are different versions of the story, the details vary, but the central message is the same in all of them - the tomb is empty.  Yet this type of thinking is precisely what the Chicago summit wanted to combat.

WE DENY that, while Scripture is able to make us wise unto salvation, biblical truth should be defined in terms of this function.

In other words, it's not enough that I accept the core message that Jesus left the tomb, which is the only part of this story that is important to my faith.  I must also accept that all the details of these stories are literally true.   This can only be achieved with huge mental contortions because the bar is so high.  For instance, I have to somehow harmonise a story which says the women saw an angel roll away the stone, with one that says they arrived to find it already rolled away.  How am I to do that?  How am I to reconcile the literal truth of the Disciples being both sent to Galilee, and told to stay in Jerusalem? 

That's why the idea of inerrancy is such bad apologetics.  By hooking faith in God's perfection to faith in the absolute perfection of the Biblical text, it asks believers to believe nonsense.  It asks us to leave our brains at the church door.  Or, as an alternative, to throw out the baby with the bathwater and give up faith altogether.  They thought they were defending the bible, but actually they were backing themselves and their followers into a corner.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Jesus and the Centurion

This morning in church we read the story of Jesus healing the centurion's slave from Luke 7:1-10.  I found it hard to listen to the sermon because I kept being distracted by the story.  Here's what was distracting me.

This story takes place in the village of Capernaum and has three main characters - the centurion's slave, the centurion himself, and Jesus. 

The slave is the trigger for the story:

...a centurion's servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die.

Other translations say that the slave "was dear to him".  There's some ambiguity here - was the slave a loved member of his household, or a valuable piece of property?  Either way, what follows in the story indicates that when Jesus is asked to heal this slave it is not seen as an act of service towards the slave, but towards the centurion himself.

This is not surprising when you think of who the centurion was.  He was a Roman army officer, roughly equivalent to a captain in our modern armies.  Not a very important man in the grand sceme of things, but if there was a Roman garrison in Capernaum he would probably have been its commander. 

This was an army of occupation, and the foreign troops would have been resented by the local people.  On the other hand, the army doubled as the police force in the Roman Empire and carried out various civil functions in what was essentially a military regime.  The centurion was an important local official, perhaps the most senior official in the village.  This makes the encounter a very delicate and politically important one.

Naturally Roman officials varied.  There was a lot of corruption in the empire and many officials used their positions ruthlessly.  However, there were also diligent, ethical officials who tried to do well.  In this story we are hearing about one of the latter sort.

The centurion could have easily sent a couple of soldiers to fetch Jesus.  However, this would have amounted to an official summons, and could even have looked like an arrest.  It would have shamed Jesus and angered his followers.  Instead, the message is courteously sent via Jewish elders.  This makes it a request, not a command.  The concrete outcome would not be much different - no-one could really refuse such a summons - but it sets up a context of mutual respect.

Reinforcing this is what the elders say.

This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.

This could indicate that the officer has some level of devotion to the Jewish God, as a gentile worshipper or perhaps just paying respect to the local god in accordance with his polytheistic world view.  On the other hand it could simply indicate that he is an enlightened governor, trying to win local cooperation by diplomacy rather than by force.  If it was the latter, it was obviously working.

And now for the bit that was distracting me the most.  Jesus agrees to go, and sets out for the centurion's house, only to be met on the way by another set of messengers, who bear the following message.

Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.... But say the word, and my servant will be healed.  For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.  I tell this one, "Go," and he goes; and that one, "Come," and he comes.  I say to my servant, "Do this," and he does it.

I think perhaps this story is so familiar that we don't notice how strange it is.  We understand what the officer is saying about himself, but what is he saying about Jesus?   He is saying that he, too, is a man who has the power of command.  But over whom?  Plainly not the disciples, because there is no suggestion that he should send one of them in his place. 

I concluded he must be referring to the army of spirits who lurk in the background of the gospels.  As Western materialists, we only notice the most obvious of them, like the story a little earlier in Luke (4:31-37) when a man possessed by an evil spirit calls out to Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue and Jesus commands the spirit to be quiet and come out of him. 

When we hear that the slave is ill, we assume he has a virus or an infection of some sort.  A first century reader would immediately conclude that he too was being attacked by an evil spirit which would need to be driven out in order to heal him.  These spirits, the centurion is saying, are under Jesus' command just as the soldiers are under his own.  It could be simply that he thinks Jesus can command this particular spirit from wherever he is.  However, a more symmetrical way of understanding the story is that just as the officer sends messengers to Jesus and he obeys, so Jesus can summon a spirit ("Come!") and then send this spirit with a command to the one oppressing the slave ("Go!") which this spirit will have no choice but to obey.

When the messengers arrive back at the centurion's house they find the slave healed.  Jesus' messenger has gone on ahead of them, delivered his command and been obeyed.  No doubt the slave would have been just as happy and grateful as his master, and both would have had their faith in Jesus confirmed. 

For myself, though, I'm reminded again of the breadth and depth of the mental gulf dividing us from the writers of the gospels.  It requires a huge effort to bridge that gap - and there is another still to go, as I try to climb back from there and ask, "What does this mean for me, in the age of the germ theory of disease?"

Friday, 29 October 2010

Lucy and the Wolves

My birthday is long gone and finally the new Richard Thompson CD that I ordered with my birthday money has arrived.  Because it's my birthday I ordered the deluxe version which includes a set of acoustic demos and I'm glad I did because to my mind a band doesn't always add much to Thompson's amazing guitar playing.  I saw him live in Brisbane a few years ago, standing alone on the stage of the Tivoli, and didn't miss the rest of the band for a moment.

I must admit though that the new album is a little patchy, and I'm getting more enjoyment out of the one that arrived earlier, Martha Tilston's Lucy and the Wolves.  I caught on to Tilston when I picked up a copy of Milkmaids and Architects in a second hand shop and couldn't understand how anyone could part with it.  If you've never heard her, listen to this beautiful performance of "Music of the Moon".  Lucy is better, if you need to make that kind of comparison.

It has a quiet, understated backing, based around her acoustic guitar or occasionally piano.  Her voice has the most beautiful timbre of any singer I've heard lately, warm, rich and expressive.  On this album, even more than the last, it hardly rises above a whisper, as if she's sitting next to you talking confidentially.

But what I love most is the songwriting.  I'm a sucker for a love song that says more than just "I love you" and this album is full of them.  She uses little scenes to draw you in - sitting in a restaurant talking to cover the discomfort of passion, passing the stuff at a party and dancing with a man who is mourning his love for Lucy, walking along the Cornish beach and visiting the hidden caves, sitting in the special chair playing a new song.  Each vignette is a tale of joy and passion and unlike Thompson it doesn't always end badly.  Here's some lines from the closer, "Wave Machine":

and when I see you, all the days before
all the truths I swore to lovers I thought I couldn't love more
well now that I've found you all this slides into a stream
I was only paddling
you are the wave machine

There's something spiritual in all this passion and its no surprise that one of the most beautiful songs on the CD is a number called "Who Turns".  Here's a bit of it for you to think about.

Lady Moon, I pull a chair to the window
and wonder what you make of it all.
Down here we've been getting tangled
strangled, snapping at the carrot that's dangled
above our heads so we don't see the fall.
But you just rise each night and case the joint.
Many, many more of us will come.
Last night I dreamt that I was dying
and it was kind of beautiful;
a homecoming to a realm I'd known before.

How long, how many more will come?
How long before we get it right?
Who, who turns the wheel?
And are we all just moons reflecting light?

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Winning in Afghanistan

I've been really enjoying Australian Observer's coverage of the Afghanistan debate and other such matters.  One of the things he's highlighted is that while our politicians are talking about defeating the Taliban, the Afghani government, with the support of the US Military, is giving Taliban commanders safe conduct to attend negotiations aimed at ending their insurgency and bringing them into the political system.

It reminded me of something I learnt way back in undergraduate politics.  Democracy is not secured by the will of the majority, but by the consent of the minority. 

You can see this in our recent election dramas.  Despite the rhetoric and posturing, once Labor had secured the votes of enough independents the Liberals accepted that they were once more the Opposition.  They tried to disrupt and block, but only within the bounds of parliamentary procedure.  They kept turning up in Parliament, they debated, they sat down when the speaker told them to.  In other words, they consented to their own defeat, and stayed in the process of government.  Meanwhile the Australian military and police forces did...absolutely nothing, just as they were supposed to.

Now contrast this with the Taliban.  They have far less support than the Liberals, probably even less than the Greens.  They certainly have less support than Abdullah Abdullah, the candidate defeated by Hamid Kharzai in a 2009 election marred by widespread electoral fraud.  The difference is that Abdullah accepted his defeat and lives peacefully, if unhappily, with the resulting regime. 

The Taliban, by contrast, neither participated in those elections, nor accepted their outcome.  Instead, they devote what resources they can to disrupting the governance of the country, lauching terrorist strikes on civilian targets and raids on military ones.  They can't win, at least not while the international forces are there.  Yet while they refuse their consent, ordinary Afghanis can never live in peace, and the government of their country can never be secure. 

Hamid Kharzai knows this, and it seems that the Americans do too, although it wouldn't do for them to admit it too publicly.  The Taliban can't be trusted, their return to power would be a disaster for ordinary Afghanis (especially women) and their fanaticism poses a danger to other countries as well.  But a victory in the war will not be wiping them out militarily.  That will never happen, because they're a guerilla force based in local communities and can just go to ground.  Victory will be gaining their consent to, and participation in, an orderly democratic process, even one as flawed as the one which saw Kharzai elected.  It happened in Ireland despite decades of terrorism and bitterness.  Let's hope and pray it can happen in Afghanistan too.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Murdoch on Thatcher

Rupert Murdoch, one of Australia's most valuable exports, has recently taken his private jet to London to deliver the inaugural Baroness Thatcher Lecture.  Here's what he has to say about the woman who was British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990.

My words tonight will be flavoured by those of Margaret Thatcher herself. We sometimes forget how pithy she is – how wise her thoughts, and how pertinent they remain even though she left office long ago.

And we cannot forget that she is no ideologue, but a person of pragmatism, an optimist whose optimism is founded in her faith in the individual. 

Hers is a generous spirit, a spirit based in an appreciation of personal potential and not of an impersonal ideology. As she said: "With all due respect to the drafters of the American Declaration of Independence, all men and women are not created equal, at least in regard to their characters, abilities and aptitudes."

It was that appreciation of individual aptitude and ability that made her so intolerant of the strictures of socialism. How quickly too many people have forgotten that she has not only changed Britain, but, along with Ronald Reagan, changed the world, much, much for the better.

No idealogue?  Generous spirit?  Of course he would say that.  Thatcher's approach to deregulation paved the way for Murdoch to make a killing in the UK, allowing him to drive down the wages of the workers who printed his newspapers, and to develop a very profitable and very lightly-regulated pay-tv empire.  The workers obviously thought differently, especially the coal miners who struck for a year over the downsizing of their industry before finally being forced to give in.  Not to mention Murdoch's own printing workforce who were locked out of their workplace after refusing to accept Murdoch's changes to their pay and conditions. 

Thatcher was lucky to be around at the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Meanwhile, under the guise of opposition to socialism at home she ran down Britain's public sector, privatised public assets and forced local governments to tender out the provision of basic services.  Wealthy people like Murdoch rejoiced, and continue to rejoice to this day.  As for the poor - well, they weren't created equal anyway, so what does it matter?

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

I was talking with someone on the Internet about Biblical inerrancy, and said as I often do that I didn't really understand properly what the term meant.  He referred me to a document called the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

This document was produced in 1978 at a conference sponsored by a group called the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.  Its 300 signatories included a number of evangelical luminaries of the time including JI Packer, Francis Schaeffer and RC Sproule.  The same group produced two more statements in succeeding years and the second, The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, is a kind of follow up and explanation of the first.

The core of the statement is a set of 19 articles, each of which is framed as an affirmation of what the authors believe, followed by a denial of the position they are refuting.  It's a pithy, elegant statement written by some highly intelligent men, and it certainly helped me to understand what people mean when they are talking about inerrancy.  My conclusions are probably not what my e-friend was hoping.  If you are someone who gets angry or upset when beliefs that you hold dear are questioned or critiqued, you might want to stop reading at this point.  At least you might want to read my earlier post on the perils of bad apologetics to understand why I think this issue matters.

Without going into all 19 articles, here are what I think are its crucial points.
  • The Bible in its entirety is God's perfect message to us, with "inspiration" meaning that these are God's words, transmitted to us via humans but not in any way infected with human fallibility.
  • The Bible is correct in every affirmation it makes about any subject, not just "spiritual" subjects - to remove all doubt on this point they specifically affirm the literal truth of the creation and flood stories.
  • The authority of the Bible is not conferred on it by the Church, by church tradition or Church Councils, but is inherent in the book itself.
  • Because it is without error, there are no contradictions in the Bible, it is in perfect harmony with itself.  Later parts of the Bible may fulfill ealier parts, but not correct or contradict them.
There are a number of problems with the Chicago Statement, which I'll try to summarise briefly.
  1. It requires you to sign up to a huge piece of circular logic.  The traditional Catholic view of scripture is that its authority comes from the church - the books were written by apostles and prophets or under their authority, the canon was assembled through church practice and formally ratified by key church councils.  This position, while asking us to accept the infallibility of church tradition, at least grounds scripture in an historical process and a believing community.  By removing this grounding, the Chicago Statement leaves us with only one source of authority - the scripture itself.  Church tradition may help us to interpret scripture correctly, but it is not authoritative.  We are thus asked to believe scripture is inerrant because it says it is. 
  2. Leaving aside the circularity of the logic, if the inerrancy of scripture is to be believed solely on its own authority you would expect the Bible to contain a clear statement to this effect.  Interestingly, the Chicago Statement makes no attempt to quote or summarise what the Bible says about itself.  In my own view, the Bible's statements about its authority are far from supporting the case made by the Statement, even if they are read using its principles of interpretation.
  3. The statement appears to presume that the Bible is a book of facts and affirmations.  This is the only reason it makes sense to focus on its "inerrancy".  The picture you would get from the Chicago Statement if you had not read the Bible for yourself would be of a series of propositions, much like the statement itself, and of precise historical accounts of scrupulous factuality.  The Bible does contain some of this, but most of it is much more complex, written in a variety of genres and styles including poetry, song, allegory, poetic drama, moral fable, parable and folk tale.  The concept of inerrancy is therefore irrelevant to a large proportion of it and, even where it is relevant, more often than not it is a peripheral question.
  4. Following right along from this is the idea that the Bible is without contradiction.  This follows inevitably from the assertion of inerrancy.  The problem with this is that it forces you to read the Bible in a very superficial way - ironically given the authors' high view of scripture.  You are forced to read at the level of facts, and put the facts in order - times, places, people's names, doctrines and so forth.  A lot of energy goes into harmonising accounts which seem to be contradictory.  In the end the reader strains out a gnat and swallows a camel, lining up all the little details but missing the huge tensions in approach and intent that exist both within and between books of the Bible.
Why did this group of evangelical leaders spend so much time and energy making this statement?  When I first converted to Christianity in my teens I went to an evangelical Anglican church.  At one stage in those first few years, the evening service was turned over to watching Francis Schaeffer's film series How Should We Then Live?  My clearest memory of that series was Schaeffer on the beach drawing circles with a stick.  In each era, he said as he drew his circle, human thought was driven by a philosophical world view which made sense of what was going on and put things in their places in relation to one another.  From time to time, an old world view would be challenged and a new one would take its place.  He crossed out one circle and drew another next to it.  In our time, he said - in the in the late 20th century - something different was happening.  The old philosophical assumptions were being overturned (cross through the final circle) and being replaced by...nothing (no circle, just blank sand). 

For Schaeffer, such uncertainty and lack of meaning was a sign that civilisation was about to collapse.  The duty of the Christian was to resist such meaninglessness, and their weapon for doing so was the certainty provided by the Bible.  Schaeffer wasn't the only one who thought this way.  The Chicago Statement is part of their response.  In a post-modern, protestant world where the authority of the church, governments, teachers and traditions was up for question, they wanted to see the Bible as a bastion of certainty, as something they could rely on absolutely when everything else around them seemed to be falling apart. 

A noble attempt, with the best of motives, but at the end of the day it's still bad apologetics.

If you're interested, I've written more posts on this subject - Part 2, 3, 45 and 6.

Monday, 18 October 2010

St Mary MacKillop

The news here in Australia is full of the canonisation of the first Australian Saint, Mary MacKillop, founder of the Order of St Joseph. 

Being a Protestant, I've never quite got the whole sainthood thing.  We were taught that all of us are saints (sanctified ones) and that this comes about as a result of God's grace.  We were also taught that it's wrong to pray to anyone other than God himself - my evangelical teachers were very big on "there is one God, and one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ the Righteous" from 1 Timothy 2:5.

As a result I've watched the whole thing with mixed emotions - not only bafflement, but pleasure, irony and cynicism.

Pleasure because for a change we are celebrating a national hero whose life was dedicated to doing good.  Mary MacKillop was a woman whose mission was to care for poor women and children, found schools and lift people up out of poverty.  She wasn't afraid to take on the church to do so either, and was even excommunicated for a short period after refusing to back down on her stance against priests guilty of sexual abuse.  A woman ahead of her time - if only the church had listened then, it might not be in the mess it's in now.

Irony because Mary's vocation was literally self-effacing.  Women in religious orders were not only veiled, they changed their names.  Yet this deliberately self-effacing woman is now a national celebrity. 

Cynicism because one of the truly odd things about sainthood is that one of the requirements is that the saint be responsible for at least two certifiable miracles.  This is perhaps not bizarre in itself, but the bizarre bit to my mind is that there is no suggestion Mary performed these miracles while alive.  They consist of incidences where people prayed to her (or in her name, I get confused) and were healed of terminal illnesses.  Which of course raises a host of questions of which the following are just the beginning.  First of all, were these just coincidences?  If people prayed to Mary and then got better, why would we necessarily believe Mary was responsible - and not say God, or even the doctors they consulted who despite having given up hope in their treatment found that it was unexpectedly successful?  Secondly, how many people died after praying to Mary?  Surely this doesn't mean she's also a killer?

I'm happy to admire Mary as a hero of the faith.  Protestants have those too.  She persevered against mistrust and obstruction, did good in her lifetime, and founded an order which does good to this day.  But please, spare me the mediaeval mumbo jumbo.