Monday, 28 March 2011

Australia: Land of Surprises

Reading and blogging on the dreams and visions of Gary Johns over the weekend made me think, not for the first time, of one of my favourite little pieces of arcane literature.

When my family emigrated from England in 1967, the Australian Immigration Department gave us a little booklet called Australia: Land of Surprises.  This was specifically written for English immigrant children by a person called Carol Odell, with illustrations by Emilie Beuth, to cushion us from the culture shock we would experience in this strange new land.  The book opens with a grand promise.

Australia: What does it make you think of first? Kangaroos, sheep and the wide, open spaces?  If it does, this book is going to be full of surprises; but, when you have read it, you will know what Australia is really like.

It then lists 31 surprising facts about Australia.  Some of these were indeed surprising to us.  Some would also have been quite surprising to long-standing Australian residents.  Amidst the wonders of inverted seasons, sandy beaches and a warm climate (Surprise Number Five: it is always summer somewhere in Australia) are some absolute gems.

Surprise Number Six: Hardly anyone owns a kangaroo or has one for a pet

Surprise Number Ten: Steak for breakfast.
...Steak, lamb chops or lamb's fry are often eaten for breakfast, usually with fried eggs.

I'm still waiting for mine.

Surprise Number Eighteen: Plays written specially for children.
There are sometimes as many as four plays at a time written and produced specially for children, at different theatres in the cities...

Surprise Number Twenty-Eight: There are no dangerous animals in Australia.

Apart from snakes, that is.  And you never see them.

Amidst all this hilarity there are two entries about Aboriginal people.  Surprise Number Twenty-Two is relatively innocuous and even partly true: Aborigines paint on bark instead of paper. 

Surprise Number Twenty-Four, on the other hand, is a real doozy.

Surprise Number Twenty-Four: You will rarely see an Aboriginal in the city or suburbs.
Aboriginals prefer to live far away in the inland of Australia, where their ancestors have lived for hundreds of generations.  Very few want to live in the cities.  However, their culture - mysterious and ancient - has been reflected in Australian art, music and books.

Now here  is some Whiteman's Dreaming, or perhaps just whitewash.  We found the observable part of this "surprise" to be true.  The only Aboriginal people we saw in our childhood were the man who sold boomerangs at La Perouse, and later on the drunks in Musgrave Park.  As for the rest, we had no way of checking, because there were no Aboriginal people around to ask. 

So it was more than a decade before I got to university and people started to tell me the truth.  Of course most Aboriginal people, like the European invaders who came later, chose to live near the coast, where there was plenty of food and water.  Even once the British invaders started building their cities on the riverbanks they still stayed there, alternately trying to live by traditional means amidst the destruction, and working for or begging off the white people for pitiful rations of basic foodstuffs.

Then, in the years before and after 1900, most of them were forcibly removed from urban areas and confined to seperate missions.  Their movements were controlled.  They could be sent from one mission to another on the whim of the so-called "Protector".  Married couples could be seperated on the same whim.  Aboriginal people needed a special permit to get married, own property or live in an urban area, and this could be revoked at any time.  The majority of their wages were "held in trust" on their behalf - many are still fighting for the money to be returned.

These laws were still in place in 1967, even as we were being handed this book and welcomed to a country of racial harmony, inhabited in its remote regions by happy but mysterious ancients who painted on bark and for some strange reason preferred to live in the desert.  I assume no-one thought to give them a copy of Australia: Land of Surprises.  If they had, surprise would almost certainly have been the mildest of their reactions.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

White Men Dreaming

This weekend's edition of The Australian included an lengthy extract from Gary Johns' new book Aboriginal Self-Determination: The Whiteman's Dream.  Johns was a minister in the Keating Government and since leaving parliament has researched and written extensively on Aboriginal issues as an associate professor at the Institute of Public Policy.

Johns is addressing a very real and urgent problem of public policy: why are so many Aboriginal people, particularly those in remote areas, living in such dire poverty?  However, on the strength of this extract (perhaps the whole book is better) his analysis of this problem is stale and deeply flawed.

What Johns has done is work out who's to blame.  It's the leftist intellectuals (white men, in his telling of the tale) who pushed and championed the policy of Aboriginal self-determination.  The Australian loves this stuff.  At least a couple of times a year they trot out another white man to say something similar.  Not to mention the Aboriginal man, Noel Pearson, who writes along these lines for them every week.

Self-determination, he says, has left Aboriginal people living in poverty in remote areas.  It is the cause of them being excluded from the mainstream economy and is a recipe for them to remain for ever backward.  Along the way he takes swipes at Aboriginal culture ("way of life" and "culture" appear in inverted commas as if there were really no such thing), which he says is based on authoritarianism, and perpetuates a pre-industrial way of life which inevitably results in nasty, brutish, short lives.  He also gives the idea that dispossession has caused Aboriginal poverty a whack - because he says land is not a source of wealth, enterprise is.  Run that by me again?  So of course the idea of land rights is also part of the problem.  He even manages to blame Aboriginal people for prejudice - Australians are not prejudiced against Aboriginal people, he says, only against people who are drunk and violent.  So, my Aboriginal friends, if you experience prejudice it's all your fault.

His solution is not very clear (perhaps you need to read the rest of the book to get to that), but he talks approvingly of integration - that is, of Aboriginal people becoming part of mainstream society.  His aim is to have Aboriginal people prosper without government support, as individuals indistinguishable from other Australians.  Like he does, with his parliamentary pension and government-funded academic post.

It's hard to know where to start in critiquing this.  For a start, even though Johns wears an academic robe these days he still sounds like a politician.  This means he has a poor grasp of the distinction between broad policy frameworks and detailed implementation.  Aboriginal leaders (not just white intellectuals) have for decades articulated the idea of self-determination within a framework of restoration and compensation - that is, Aboriginal people should be compensated for the loss of their lands or get their lands back, and then be able to decide for themselves what to do with these resources.  What they were able to get, as a concession from white politicians, was jurisdiction over some poorly located lands that no-one else wanted, and a trickle of government funding.  This isn't a problem with the idea of self-determination, it's a problem with the tokenistic shell that was actually implemented.

A second problem is Johns' "either/or" mentality.  You can have integration, or self-determination.  You can have land-rights, or engagement with the modern economy.  You can have traditional Aboriginal culture, or modern European culture.  Why not both?  Why do we assume that Aboriginal people, given the choice, would not choose economic development?  Why can economic development only take place in the context of abandonment of traditional culture?  What's to say Aboriginal people wouldn't choose to modify their culture over time to accommodate modernity or post-modernity?  I've heard tell that Aboriginal people in remote areas drive motor vehicles, use metal tools and listen to country and western music.  Were they forced to do this, or did they decide for themselves it was a good idea?  And is self-determination really all about staying in remote areas, or is it also a relevant discussion for the 80% of Aboriginal people who live in urban and regional Australia?

But the point is, why should we listen to Johns, another white man putting forward his own dreaming for Aboriginal people?  Why should you listen to me, yet another of the same kind?  Instead, let's listen to the Aboriginal voices and take what they have to say seriously.  We shouldn't expect that they'll all agree - Aboriginal people like to have debates as well.  We shouldn't expect that they will always be right, or that every idea they have will turn out well.  But lets not return, as Johns seems to want to, to that old paternalism where Aboriginal people have to do things our way or no way at all.  That's been tried - a lot - and look where it's got us.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Lives of Jesus: Reflection

I was thinking of calling this last article in my Lives of Jesus series the Conclusion, but that would seem to imply that I was about to give you the answer.  Sorry.  You'll have to work that one out for yourselves.  But what I'd like to do is share some thoughts that have been developing over the last three months as I've read or re-read the various books one after another.

The single statement that impressed me the most was this one from Albert Nolan.

We cannot deduce anything about Jesus from what we think we know about God; we must now deduce everything about God from what we know about Jesus....  To say now suddenly that Jesus is divine does not change our understanding of Jesus, it changes our understanding of divinity....

If we claim to be Christians - followers of Jesus as the Christ - then he should be at the centre of our faith.  Everything else should flow from him.  Yet so often Christianity starts somewhere else.  Most often, it starts with Paul and his theological formulations about the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection, and his instructions for church life.  In some cases (like the Dispensationsalists) Paul's teachings are even elevated above Jesus' on the grounds that they are addressed to our age, and Jesus' teachings were not.  To an extent this is easy to understand.  Paul's teachings are what the proponents of Bibilical inerrancy call "propositional truth".  They are clear, logical and sequential.  Jesus' teachings, while couched in simple language, are allusive, multifaceted and often obscure.

Yet Paul's teachings themselves should drive us back to Jesus.  If we accept his Christology, and view Jesus as the Son of God, descended from heaven, surely we would put down Paul's letters and return again and again to the words of this messenger of God.

This is the impetus that drives the writers of the Lives of Jesus.  They want to know - who is this man around whom the worldwide Christian faith has been built?  Yet there is a great gulf between him and us.  2000 years have passed since his day.  The culture he lived in was destroyed shortly after his time by a brutal Roman invasion.  The very record of his words and deeds has come down to us translated from Aramaic into Greek.  And they are overlaid for us by 2000 years of interpretation and by our own training and education whether inside our outside the church.

As James Robinson points out, Rudolph Bultmann and his followers thought the task was impossible.  The gulf was too great, nothing about the historical Jesus could be revealed with any certainty.  The Christian's only choice was to take the Christ of Faith on trust and live accordingly.  Yet Robinson realised that this was never going to work.  The thread of historical research, conducted over two centuries and so eloquently documented by Albert Schweitzer, could not be unravelled.

The diversity of conclusions reached by the authors I have reviewed shows just how difficult the task is.  Does this mean Bultmann was right, and we should give up?  In some ways he has a point and we should keep his suspicion in mind as we read the various authors.  It is hard to get clear about a distant historical figure.  And if we take Jesus seriously as God's Word to us, we should not expect to be able to understand him easily.

For me, this means I need to stay open to learning.  Hence, this is not a "conclusion".  It's unlikely we could learn a lot from the strange speculations of Thiering or Pullman, but even from the bitterly skeptical Robert Funk we can learn to see the gap in our creeds between Jesus' birth and his death, and wonder what belongs there.  Mostly, though, my thoughts wander around between the views of Marcus Borg, Albert Nolan and NT Wright

From Borg, we can learn how truly counter-cultural Jesus was, the extent to which he turned the norms of his own day on their heads, and what this might mean for us in our day. 

From Nolan, we can learn to see this counter-cultural impetus in social and political terms, not just in individual spiritual ones.  We can learn the depth of Jesus concern for the poor and oppressed, for social outcasts, and the depth of his challenge to the power structures of his day and our own.  We can take our eyes off a distant heaven and go about Jesus' business of furthering God's Kingdom.

From Wright we can see that these insights do not destroy traditional Christianity, but renew it.  If you assert the centrality of Jesus' death and resurrection, this does not mean that you automatically accept the practices of the orthodox church.  Jesus, crucified and risen, challenges everything we do and think, including our very concept of God.

This is what happens when you study Jesus.  Just as he challenged the Pharisees and Sadducees of his own day, so he challenges religious people like us.  If we are feeling a little complacent in our religion, like maybe we have arrived at a settled faith and can rest in that, we should allow ourselves to be unsettled again by Jesus' own message.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Westminster System Bamboozles LNP

I have written before about how little our media understand the Westminster system of democracy.  Now we find that Queensland's Liberal National Party opposition doesn't get it either.

The LNP is notorious for rotating its leadership.  Most of the current MPs seem to have been leader or deputy, or tried to get themselves elected to these roles, over the last few years.  Yet despite this obvious wealth of leadership experience, they have decided to draft in a leader from outside - Brisbane's popular Lord Mayor Campbell Newman. 

Unfortunately for him (but probably fortunately for the rest of us) you can't be Opposition Leader in our State Parliament without being elected as a Member first.  So while Newman goes about the tedious business of getting pre-selected and then elected to the currently Labor-held seat of Ashgrove, Jeff Seeney will keep the seat warm for him - as he says "represent him in the Parliament".  I thought you were representing us, Jeff!

To those detractors who say that this is against all the principles of the Westminster system, Newman replies that he has done it before.  He successfully campaigned for the Mayoralty without being a Brisbane City Councillor.  If it worked once, why not again? 

This is true, but irrelevant.  The Lord Mayor of Brisbane is directly elected by the voters, not by the councillors, and does not hold a local Council seat.  You have to choose - local Councillor, or Mayor.  It is basically a Presidential system.  State politics is not.  You get elected to the parliament, then your fellow parliamentarians promote you to higher office on the basis of your performance as a local member.  You never stop representing your local electorate.  Unless you're Jeff Seeney, of course. 

Newman, with the connivance of the LNP organisation, has decided to bypass that boring local stuff.  He's running for Lord Mayor of Queensland.  Queensland doesn't have a Lord Mayor, Campbell!

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Lives of Jesus 8: Philip Yancey

At last, at the end of this little series of reviews, we get to a writer evangelicals can feel safe with.  Not too safe, though!

Philip Yancey is more a journalist and writer than a serious scholar, although he's no fool.  He's a popular writer of books on spiritual issues - Where is God When it Hurts about the problem of pain, What's So Amazing About Grace? about...yes, you guessed it, and so on.  His books can be found in great numbers in conservative Christian bookshops.  He has an easy, popular writing style, free of jargon, but he reads widely and deeply and brings insights from a diverse and often surprising range of sources. 

The Jesus I Never Knew was published in 1995, around the same time as Marcus Borg's Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and Robert Funk's Honest to Jesus, in the midst of the ferment caused by the work of The Jesus Seminar.  You'd hardly know it.  None of the controversy is mentioned, and a brief (out of context) quote from John Dominic Crossan is the closest Yancey comes to admitting he's heard any of it.  This can't be because he didn't know - Yancey does leave his house fairly regularly - so perhaps he just didn't think it was helpful to his audience to discuss it.

Yet there are some interesting parallels with both Borg and Funk.  Like Funk, he is strongly aware of the gap in the creeds between Jesus' birth and death, and wants to fill it.  Like Borg, he starts out by describing the way Jesus was portrayed in his Sunday School classes and later at his seminary.  Hence, in his childhood he pictured Jesus as a kind of friendly, comforting uncle and a bit later like "a Star Trek Vulcan: he remained calm, cool and collected as he strode like a robot among excitable human beings on spaceship earth".  Later, going through Bible College, he developed an image of a "cosmic Jesus" hovering above the world like a powerful super-being.

However, his response to these challenges could hardly be more different.  For a start, he affirms his full agreement with the creeds.  There will be no major theological departure here.  He also appears to implicitly accept the inerrancy of the Bible, and so there is no sense in which he tries to sift the text of the Gospels to determine the historical Jesus behind them.  For Yancey there is no difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. 

Yet he has to do something to rebuild his image of Jesus and learn to understand him as a real human being.  He reports how, in researching his book, he spent time in the libraries of three seminaries of different theological persuasions, familiarising himself with the voluminous literature about Jesus and feeling overwhelmed and even further from a living picture of Jesus at the end.  Instead, what caused the breakthrough for him was seeing Jesus on film, through the eyes of a wide variety of 20th century film-makers.  These films, he said, brought Jesus to life for him, and he used them as the basis for an extended series of classes on Jesus at his local church which eventually developed into The Jesus I Never Knew.

I have to confess that I found this book disappointing when I read it the first time.  Re-reading it now, I still feel the same - but I can also see its value.  So let me first tell you why I don't like it, and then what I think redeems it.

I hope, he says, as far as is possible, to look at Jesus' life "from below", as a spectator, one of the many who followed him around.  If I were a Japanese film-maker, given $50m and no script but the Gospels' text, what kind of film would I make? 

Later on he says: I have placed myself on the edges of the crowd in Jesus' day, as a sincere seeker captivated by the rabbi but reluctant to commit to him.

Sadly, this is precisely what he has not done.  First of all, his prior acceptance of the creeds makes it clear that he is not "reluctant to commit to him".  He is fully and deeply committed, not only to the Rabbi, but to the Son of God of later Christian theology.  The very title of his chapter on Jesus' birth - The Visited Planet - gives the game away.  Despite Yancey's best efforts we are still in cosmic territory here, God coming from wherever he lives to pay a visit to his creation. 

Second, he has not really placed himself in the crowd around Jesus.  In turning away from the historical scholarship on the life and times of Jesus, he has abandoned any serious effort to understand or depict what Jesus meant for the people of his time.  Instead, we have a timeless Jesus, largely divorced from his own historical context and speaking directly to us in our time. 

Hence, for instance, he struggles with the meaning of the Beatitudes and concludes that what Jesus means is this:

...the poor, the hungry, the mourners and the oppressed truly are blessed...because of an innate advantage they hold over those more comfortable and self-sufficient.  People who are rich, successful and beautiful may well go through life relying on their natural gifts.  People who lack such natural advantages, hence underqualified for success in the kingdom of this world, just might turn to God in their time of need. 

There may be some kind of truth in this, but it certainly wasn't what Jesus was saying!

Instead, Yancey has placed himself in a different kind of crowd.  A few in this crowd are figures from close to Jesus' day, like the author of the Book of Revelation.  However, most are from modern times, starting with John Milton and his incredible cosmic poetry from the 17th century, and growing thick with novelists, poets, cultural commentators, film-makers and even the occasional bible scholar from the 19th and 20th centuries.  At each point in his portrayal he brings in the insights of some noted thinker or creator as a way of arriving at a meaning for the text or event.  He sees the Sermon on the Mount through the eyes of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Gandhi.  He pictures the wedding in Cana through the medium of the wedding scene in Fiddler on the Roof.  And so it goes on.  The centrality of film portrayals to his analysis is the biggest giveaway - he is firmly entrenched in seeing Jesus through 20th century eyes. 

This is what disappointed me.  Compared to the immersion in first century Judaism of the many other Lives of Jesus, this account seemed to cut Jesus off from his roots and set him adrift in our own time.  It seemed to me that despite his best intentions, Yancey had failed to really grapple with Jesus as an historical figure, as a real person living in Palestine in 30 AD.  This book is not what it claims to be.

Yet its weakness is also its strength.  If you put aside what it claims to be and assess it for what it actually is, it clearly has something to say to us.  In trying to get beyond the Jesus of his upbringing, Yancey has searched widely in the diverse cultures of our time.  Not only has he gone beyond Evangelical sources, he has sometimes stepped beyond the boundaries of Christianity completely.  He is not afraid to see the Sermon on the Mount through the eyes of the Hindu Gandhi.  He allows his relationships with modern American Jews to colour and deepen his appreciation of Jesus as a Jewish man.  He allows Italian film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini, "an outspoken homosexual and Marxist", to open his eyes to Jesus' humanity through the film The Gospel According to St Matthew.  And the list goes on.  And on.

In the process, he paints a picture of Jesus as, certainly, a divine figure, even a cosmic one, but also a figure of humility, compassion, courage and self-sacrificing love.  It is not really an "historical Jesus", and in fact Yancey has little interest in such a figure.  If anything, this is an "imaginative Life of Jesus" of the kind that recurs at intervals in Schweitzer's account, and of which Barbara Thiering and Phillip Pullman are more typical modern examples.  Of course Yancey is at the opposite end of the spectrum to Thiering and Pullman - he is uncompromisingly orthodox and evangelical, building from the foundation of the creeds and the Bible as sacred text.  Nonetheless, this is a Jesus of the modern imagination, a Jesus who can speak to people in the 21st Century in their own voice and meet their very pressing current needs with love, compassion and grace.

Friday, 18 March 2011

The Sound of Failure

For the last little while I've been enjoying a couple of Flaming Lips albums - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and more particularly At War with the Mystics.  How these guys managed to slip by me for so long I'm not sure.  Perhaps the fact that there's a bit of electronica involved would have led me to read reviews and think "that doesn't sound like me".  However, their most recent album is a cover of The Dark Side of the Moon so that got my attention.  They're a clever bunch.  Complex rhythms, interesting melodies, and lyrics that make you think.  My ongoing favourite is called The Sound of Failure

She's starting to live her life
From the inside out
The sound of failure calls her name
She's decided to hear it out

So go tell Britney and go tell Gwen
She's not tryin' to go against all them
'Cause she's too scared and she can't pretend
To understand where it begins or ends
Or what it means to be dead
It's just a sound going through your head
Let them go on

Standing there in the graveyard
While the moon sprays its fireworks in your hair
The sound of failure calls her name
She's decided to hear it out

You can't get to my age without suffering your share of grief and bereavement, like the character in this song.  Sometimes you just don't want or need to be cheered up.  You want to listen to maudlin music and think about your own mortality and fallibility.  It's OK, it's normal, it's part of the human condition.  I think Tolkein says somewhere (although I can't find it now) that the songs of men are always tinged with the sadness of mortality.  As opposed to the songs of elves.
Or perhaps you might prefer the words of the late lamented Mark Heard.
These plastic haloes, they seem so out of place
Behind the mask lurks a scarred and fragile face
We lie so spiritually, familiar smiles displayed
This fleeting masquerade
In stone grey silence we do not face our fears
We bite our lips and we press on with feeble cheers
With hearts of sadness we say our thankful prayers
Refusing comfort unawares
We learn the protocol, we bare our souls to none
We praise our peers for the optimism shown
"Brave men don't cry" we say as we watch the world turn to dust
The tears of God fall for us.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Lives of Jesus 7: N.T. Wright

In moving, in a sense, from left to right on the theological spectrum in our adventures with the Lives of Jesus, we have finally arrived at writer who holds an essentially orthodox view of Jesus, although one which has been criticised strongly by some conservative church leaders.  Nicholas Thomas Wright was until recently Anglican Bishop of Durham in the north of England, and is a celebrated and prolific New Testament scholar.  In this capacity he walks a fine line, on the one hand upholding many of the building blocks of Christian orthodoxy while on the other challenging conventional views of what this theology means.  Many people find him confusing.  He doesn't say what they are used to hearing, but at the same time it's impossible to brand him a "liberal".  In a sense, he sees this confusion as part of his mission.  He says:

If church leaders themselves spent more time studying and teaching Jesus and the Gospels, a good many of the other things we worry about in day-to-day church life would be seen in their proper light.

And in another place:

...the way to Christian growth is often to allow oneself to be puzzled and startled by new apparent complexity.

And finally, in case you thought you were in a safe haven of orthodoxy, there is this.

After twenty years of serious historical-Jesus study I still say the Christian creeds ex animo, but I now mean something very different by them, not least by the word God itself.

The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is is based on a series of lectures originally given in Chicago in 1999.  It draws heavily on his longer work, Jesus and the Victory of God, from which he quotes extensively.  The title gives you a clue to two things about this book.  The word Is in the subtitle suggests that he views Jesus as a present, not merely an historical figure.  The main title suggest that he wants his readers to be challenged, not comforted.

In introducing the book he links himself very firmly with the legacy of Albert Schweitzer.  For Schweitzer, writing in the first decade of the 20th century, the state of research allowed for only two possibilities - the "thoroughgoing skepticism" of William Wrede, who asserted that it was not possible to know much for certain about Jesus but that he certainly wasn't divine; and Schweitzer's own view that he was an eschatological prophet, a prophet forseeing the imminent end of the world as he knew it.  Wright, almost a century later, aligns himself firmly with Schweitzer, while seeing the proponents of The Jesus Seminar such as Robert Funk and Marcus Borg as successors to Wrede.

Following this line, he begins with Jesus' teaching about the Kingdom of God, placing it firmly in the context of first century Judaism and the political situation in Judea.  Jesus clearly saw that the dominant forces in Judaism were moving towards a conflict with Rome which could only be disastrous for Israel.  This hardly took divine insight, just common sense.  The divine insight was rather in the alternative vision that he presented, of an inclusive Kingdom in which Israel would not simply be an independent theocracy but the true "light of the world" which God had originally intended.

In his view of the Kingdom he is not too far from Borg or Nolan.  However, he differs as to Jesus' view of his own place in it.  Firstly, Jesus saw himself very clearly and unabiguously as the Messiah.  Secondly, in contrast to the popular messianic view of his time, he understood that the Messiah had to suffer and die.

So for Wright, as for all orthodox Christians, the centre of the Gospel lies in Jesus' death and resurrection.  Wright is unambiguous about both these events - he regards both the crucifixion and resurrection as historical events, seeing the growth and spread of Christianity as inexplicable without both.  However, the meaning he gives to these events is a little less orthodox, and one of the key points on which his view is both complex and difficult to grasp.

Jesus had declared that the way to the kingdom was the way of peace, the way of love, the way of the cross.  Fighting the battle with the enemy's weapons meant that one had already lost it in principle and would soon lose it, and lose it terribly, in practice.  Jesus determined that it was his task and role, his vocation as Israel's representative, to lose the battle on Israel's behalf.  This would be the means of Israel's becoming the light, not just of herself...but of the whole world.

...the cross, seen as I have said in the light of Easter, offers itself as the great turning point of history.  if we are to follow Jesus' own understanding of his vocation, it was the moment when the evil and pain of all the world were heaped up in one place, there to be dealt with once and for all.

Statements like this led to Wright being accused of not believing in "substitutionary atonement", the idea of Jesus "dying for our sins" and taking the punishment for us.  He has apparently denied this, but I suspect that we have here an example of him saying the words but meaning something different by them.  Jesus' substitution in this retelling is both more direct, and more rooted in this world, than the view I was taught as a young Christian.  It also makes Jesus much more real, more human and less ethereal.

Which brings me to next logical question - was Jesus God?  This is the context for the quote at the start of this review - I still say the Christian creeds ex animo, but I now mean something very different by them, not least by the word God itself. 

So let's try to follow his argument. 

He believed himself called, by Israel's god, to evoke the traditions which promised YHWH's return to Zion, and the traditions which spoke of a human figure sharing the divine throne; to enact those traditions in his own journey to Jerusalem, his messianic act in the Temple, and his death at the hands of the pagans (in the hope of subsequent vindication); and thereby to embody YHWH's return....

In Jesus himself...we see the biblical portrait of YHWH come to life.

So Jesus appears to see it as his mission to represent, or act out, the identity of God on earth amongst his people.  But then:

I do not think Jesus "knew he was God" in the same sense that one knows one is hungry or thirsty, tall or short....It was more like the knowledge that I have that I am loved by my family and closest friends; like the knowledge I have that sunrise over the sea is awesome and beautiful....As part of his human vocation, grasped in faith, sustained in prayer, tested in confrontation, agonized over in further prayer and doubt, and implemented in action, he believed he had to do and be, for Israel and the world, that which according to Scripture only YHWH himself could do and be.

So that's "yes and no"?  In answer to the question he has given us a riddle, much as Jesus himself often did.  Perhaps that's appropriate for a subject so complex and so mysterious.  But he goes on to explain further.

Western orthodoxy, not least that which calls itself "evangelicalism", has had for too long an overly lofty and detached view of God.  It has always tended to approach the christological question by assuming this view of God and then by fitting Jesus into it.  Hardly surprisingly the result has been a docetic Jesus. (i.e. the idea that Jesus' human body was merely an illusion)...My proposal is not that we know what the word god means and manage somehow to fit Jesus into that.  Instead, I suggest that we think historically about a young Jew possessed of a desperately risky, indeed apparently crazy, vocation, riding into Jerusalem in tears, denouncing the Temple and dying on a Roman cross - and that we somehow allow our meaning for the word god to be recentred around that point.

So, then, this is what Wright means when he says "God" in the creed - and it is just the same as Albert Nolan meant 25 years earlier.

We cannot deduce anything about Jesus from what we think we know about God; we must now deduce everything about God from what we know about Jesus.

This, ultimately, is the challenge of Jesus - to understand what Jesus, and hence what God, is for us in our time and place, in the postmodern world where everything seems to be falling apart.  Wright sees the place of the Church and of Christians not as retreating to a modernist or pre-modern world-view, or "hurling true doctrine" at the world, but engaging with every aspect of life. 

The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology and even, heaven help us, biblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and post-modernity, leading the way into the post-modern world with joy and humour and good judgement and true wisdom.

Friday, 11 March 2011


Nothing gets Christian bloggers talking like Universalism, the idea that all people, irrespective of faith, will receive God's mercy in the end.  Recently the debate has fired up again on the back of some very clever pre-publicity by the publishers of a book by Rob Bell called Love Wins.  I haven't read the book - in fact the only people who have so far are those lucky enough to receive advance copies to review - but the debate around its teasers is already fierce.

In the small and rather random group of blogs I read, Mr Hackman, Like a Child and the wonderful Richard Beck argue the universalist side, while Luke and Simone among many more hold up the more orthodox end of the debate.  I have to confess that I lean fairly strongly to the universalist side, but I'm not well-read about the subject and it doesn't dominate my thoughts much of the time, at least not consciously.  We'll get to that in a minute.

The dialogue, such as it is, seems to me to be pretty much a dialogue of the deaf.  It's fascinating to read debates in the various blogs where both universalists and believers in hell (what is the catchy term for that?) argue their cases from the Bible.  I suspect there are two reasons why the sides remain so far apart.  One is that in fact both views are present in the New Testament (and neither is in the Old Testament, where life after death has not been thought of).  As Hans Kung says, the New Testament already contains a number of different theologies.  I also suspect that the issue of heaven and hell was far less central to the New Testament writers than it is to us - they were both less individualistic than we are, and less steeped in the platonic notions of ideal forms and immortal souls.  They were not driven to answer this question clearly because they had other things on their minds.

However, the larger reason is that we have such a huge emotional investment in the outcome.  Ultimately, people become universalists, or maintain orthodoxy, because they can't bear the opposite.  People remain orthodox because they understand that universalism will rock their faith in every area.  People become universalists because they believe passionately in God but are unable to bear the notion that he/she has the level of cruelty required to send people to eternal torment.  Until we engage our emotions in this argument, bring them into the daylight and allow them to speak their hopes and fears, the discussion will never progress.

This emotion is not really about the hypothetical question of whether there is a hell, and whether anyone goes there.  We can't know that now and are bound to know sooner or later - unless the atheists are right in which case we never will.  It's more about our lives here and now.  Here's some things universalism changes.

It changes the way we grieve.  With an orthodox world-view, when relatives or friends die outside the Christian faith, the proper response is despair - or perhaps despairing resignation.  Your mum is now burning in hell.  Thankfully most orthodox believers I know are unable to actually rise (or fall) to this level of consistency and resort to a fudge - you never know what was in people's hearts, God moves in mysterious ways, insert your comforting phrase here.  For a universalist, grieving can always be conducted in hope, since God's mercy will triumph.  It can focus on our own pain, the awful empty space in our lives that no other person will ever fill.

It changes the way we evangelise.  Traditional evangelism is driven by the need to save people from eternal torment.  It is driven by fear as much as love.  The task is urgent and literally a matter of (eternal) life and death.  For a universalist, the eternal question doesn't come into our sense of mission.  The entire question is - is the love, message and person of Jesus worth spreading in the world?  It is of small consequence whether or not people convert, our only motive can be to incarnate Jesus' love in the here and now, hoping to bring forward the Kingdom of God.

It changes the motivation for our morality.  We do not fear God's punishment, but we want to imitate his love.  This is, indeed, also true of Protestant orthodoxy, where nothing we do can save us and we are forced to rest on God's grace.  Yet how often have you heard people who grew up in the Christian church talk of waking up in a quiet house and lying in terror at the thought that Christ had returned and taken everyone but them?  Or the anxiety they feel after a particularly fiery sermon which leads to them answering the altar call again and again in case their previous repentance was not genuine enough?  So much of our striving to be good is based in this elemental fear of God's anger.  In a universalist world view, the only motivation for good behaviour is love.

Universalism is weakness.  There is no reason people should become Christians, no reason they should be good, except an appeal to their better nature.  The rebel, the apostate, the oppressor, the persecutor of Christians, will not ultimately be punished.  The only answer to evil, oppression and violence is love and forgiveness.  This is frightening, it makes us powerless, it has its own terror as we realise there will be no flaming sword to defend us.  It is the way of the Cross.

(More on the subject here.)

Sunday, 6 March 2011


I've been thinking a lot about dictatorships lately, as we all have with the protests sweeping the Middle East.  First came the good news stories - the rapid and relatively bloodless falls of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt.  Then the not so good news - the grim determination of the Gadaffi regime in Libya to hold on no matter what the cost to the nation as a whole.  Meanwhile other conflicts await resolution - in Yemen, Bahrain, Iran and Morocco just to name a few.

I don't know a whole lot about Middle Eastern politics or culture, only a few things I've read and an attentive following of Western media.  But a few things seem clear to me.

First of all, our media is very focused on the figureheads of these regimes, like Mubarak and Gadaffi.  There is no doubt that these are (or were) genuinely powerful men, but no-one can rule a country on their own.  A dictatorship is not a rule by one man or woman.  Rather, it is rule by a segment of society which has the power and resources to force others to comply.  This means, first and foremost, the military, and most dictators are either army officers or politicians with significant military connections. 

This is simple, but the next bit is not so.  Someone has to pay the soldiers.  This means that a dictator has to have a certain level of cooperation from economically powerful people or corporations, both in the country and outside it.  Cooperation within the country can be "arranged" - if owners refuse cooperation their assets can be taken by force, unless they've been quick enough to get themselves and their wealth out of the country.  But you also need support from elsewhere.  If you have oil, someone has to be willing to buy it. 

The Mubarak regime had the military onside, of course, but had no oil so was in an economically weak position.  It's economy was propped up, fascinatingly enough, because it played the game of alliances well, keeping friends in the Arab world but also being willing to succour Israel and serve US interests and so be seen as a valuable ally which powerful countries did not want to destabilise.  In the end, Mubarak lost the support of the military and was deposed - but right now this leaves the army itself in even firmer control.  Is there a viable path from there to democracy?

Gadaffi is much cleverer (or perhaps just more powerful) than Mubarak in this respect.  He supported the creation of a second army, including mercenaries and orphans who did not have divided loyalties, to keep the original national army in check.  We see the fruits of this now.  The official Libyan army wants to overthrow Gadaffi, but the "special forces" remain loyal to him.  It seems a lot of people will be shot before this is resolved, and Gadaffi has made sure the troops on his side have the best guns.

Of course Libya also has lots of oil and many countries want it.  This is a huge part of the reason why in recent years various Western countries have been willing to do conscience-free deals with the Gadaffi regime, letting it back into international forums, releasing the Lockerbie bomber and in the case of Silvio Burlusconi calling Gadaffi a "true friend of Italy" in exchange for a huge amount of oil. 

The third thing dictatorships have to be able to do is suppress alternative sources of power.  This includes controlling the news media, outlawing rival political parties, co-opting or disempowering traditional authority figures like tribal or religious leaders, and demonising unsympathetic foreign countries so that information coming from them will be distrusted.  Some of these steps are easier to take than others.  Political parties can be easily outlawed, but they can reappear in other guises.  Both the German Nazis and the African National Congress reappeared as soccer teams when they were outlawed.  Mass media can be controlled but it's much harder to control small presses or the Internet.  And no dictator should ever underestimate the ability of even quite minimally educated people to see through propaganda.  Did Gadaffi really think ordinary Libyans believed it when they saw recent footage of him addressing cheering supporters?

This third aspect of dictatorship is what makes the next steps so difficult for these countries.  It's one thing to get rid of Mubarak, or even Gadaffi.  But who will take their place?  After years of brutal suppression, from where will the alternative leadership emerge?  It is highly likely that most Egyptians do not support the aims of the Muslim Brotherhood, which include the imposition of Sharia law, but no-one else is a well organised.  The forces of liberal democracy have been systematically weakened.  Can they organise quickly enough to form a workable government?  Can they find people who know enough about governing to make a decent go of it?  Or will the military, used to having its way,  take a look at the result, declare another "emergency" and install the next Mubarak?

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Lives of Jesus 6: Albert Nolan

So, this exploration of the the Lives of Jesus has finally got through the deconstructionist forests of The Jesus Seminar (via Funk and Borg) and we are ready for something closer to a traditional understanding of who Jesus was and is.  Not too close, though.  In Albert Nolan's Jesus before Christianity we have a classic work of liberation theology.  I first read this book quite a few years ago, and its a delight and an inspiration to come back to it after all this time and find its message still fresh and challenging.

Those unfamiliar with liberation theology should look elsewhere for a full explanation, but it emerged in the second half of the 20th century in Catholic communities in the poorer parts of the world - especially in South and Central America, but in Nolan's case South Africa.  Their major contribution to Christian theology was to assert the central importance of the social and political dimensions of Jesus' teaching.

Albert Nolan is a Dominican priest and theologian from Johannesburg.  He played a key role in the development of liberation theology in the South African context and in 2003 was awarded the Luthuli Award for "his life-long dedication to the struggle for democracy, human rights and justice and for challenging the religious dogma including theological justification of apartheid".  Hence this book is no detached, academic exercise.  Although at no point in the book does he refer to apartheid specifically, he does set it within the context of looming crises including the threat of nuclear war, the prevalence of poverty and hunger and the rate of environmental destruction.  Although it was written 35 years ago and we are perhaps less worried about nuclear war, both poverty and the environment still loom large as current and pending crises.

In this context, Nolan accepts Schweitzer's premise that Jesus, too, saw a looming crisis in his time and place - in his case, the coming conflict with the Romans which was to wipe out the nation of Israel as he knew it.  Nolan is no Biblical literalist, he is clear that the Gospels are not works of biography and are themselves reliant on earlier sources, and he is not afraid to use the findings of Biblical criticism to get behind the received text.  Nor is he immune from a little rationalising of the story, including dragging out our old friend, the idea that the feeding of the 5000 involved inspiring the generosity of the gathered crowd.  However, he is a long way from the deconstruction of the Jesus Seminar, and is prepared to grapple with the whole story, not simply exclude the parts he finds difficult.  I have highlighted dozens of quotes from the book and I wish I could share more of them with you.  He has a clear, unadorned style, free of jargon but weighted with thought and learning.  Writing in 1976 he was not yet attuned to gender inclusive language, so you must excuse some of his gendered quotes.

His analysis starts with Jesus' choice to align himself with John the Baptist.  This shows, he says, both that Jesus accepted John's view that a crisis was looming, and that he agreed that the proper response to this was a call to repentence and renewal.  This call was not the secular revolutionary call of the Zealots, nor was it the exclusive call to purity of the Pharisees or Essenes.  Rather, it embraced everyone in the need to repent - poor and rich, powerful and outcast, even Roman soldiers.

However, Jesus own ministry took a different course to John's and Nolan characterises this as being positive rather than negative.  John was a prophet of doom, announcing coming destruction.  Jesus brought a message of hope, announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God both in his teaching and in his practice.

To begin with his practice, as Nolan does, the striking thing is his particular focus on the poor and outcast.  Within the a highly stratified society, Jesus spent his time with poor labourers, tax collectors, prostitutes, sick and demon-possessed people - those who the religious leaders of the day saw as unclean and beneath their attention. 

The remarkable thing about Jesus was that, although he came from the middle class and had no appreciable disadvantages himself, he mixed socially with the lowest of the low and identified himself with them.  He became an outcast by choice. 

This compassion for and identification with "the lowest of the low" is shown most clearly in his healings.  Nolan explains that in the first century there was no clear distinction between illness and evil.  All sorts of mental and phyical illness were explained as the results of demonic activity and as punishments for sin - either ones own or that of a family member.  This meant that illness was equated with evil and those who were ill were also socially outcast.  Jesus' healing both acts out a deep compassion for their suffering, and draws them back into the community.  While Nolan is not immune to a bit of rationalising he is also not dismissive of the miraculous. appears as an indisputable historical fact that Jesus did perform miracles, and that he did exorcise and heal people in a quite extraordinary manner.

However, he also highlights Jesus' reluctance to perform miracles, and in particular his refusal to do spectacular acts to show off his power - he regarded the idea of such acts as a temptation.  His miracles are solely motivated by compassion, not by a desire for glory.

As in his practice, so in his teaching, the inclusion of the poor and outcast is central to Jesus' idea of the kingdom of God.

...the good news of the kingdom of God was news about a future state of affairs on earth when the poor would no longer be poor, the hungry would be satisfied and the oppressed no longer be miserable....

The fact that his way of speaking about the kingdom is based on a pictorial image of a house, a city or a community leaves no doubt about what he had in mind: a politically structured society of people here on earth....

As Jesus understood it, Satan ruled the world.  It was a perverse and sinful generation, a world in which evil reigned supreme....When God's kingdom comes, God will replace Satan.

The crucial difference between these two kingdoms is that God's kingdom is inclusive and all-encompassing, based on God's boundless compassion.  This is what set Jesus apart from the various Jewish sects of his time, which all in one way or another promoted purity and exclusivism as the path to national renewal.

...the kingdom of Satan differs from the kingdom of God not because they are two different forms of group solidarity but because Satan's kingdom is based on upon the exclusive and selfish solidarity of groups whereas God's kingdom is based upon the all-inclusive solidarity of the human race.

Furthermore, God's kingdom would be qualitatively different to any kingdom which had come before. 

The power of this new society is not a power which has to be served, a power before which a man must bow down and cringe....It is the power which is so unselfish that it will serve men even by dying for them.

So if Jesus was talking about an earthly kingdom, one which was to come soon in order to avoid the looming destruction, does this mean that Jesus was a failure?

Jesus had not been mistaken: he had failed or rather the people had failed him.  A unique opportunity had been lost.  But it was by no means the end.  There would be another chance and still another because the kingdom of God will come in the end - God will have the last word.

So we come to Jesus' confrontation with the authorities, both Jewish and Roman.  We can see that his teaching of the kingdom threatened both, by turning Jewish religion on its head and by challenging earthly power relations. 

The Jews made no distinction at all between politics and religion.  Issues which we today would classify as political, social, economic or religious would all have been thought of in terms of God and his law.  A purely secular problem would have been inconceivable.

But what kind of revolutionary was Jesus?  Nolan's argument is that he was a more thoroughgoing one than any of the more clearly political movements of his day. 

Jesus was much more genuinely concerned about liberation than the Zealots were.  They wanted a mere change of government - from Roman to Jewish.  Jesus wanted a change that would affect every department of life and that would reach down to the most basic assumptions of Jew and Roman.  Jesus wanted a qualitatively different world - the kingdom of God.

Neither authority wanted to be reformed and so Jesus' death became inevitable.  Nolan is quite clear that he knew this and faced it willingly, without fear. 

Jesus did not die for a cause.  As he understood it, one had to be willing to give up one's life for exactly the same reason one gives up possessions, prestige, family and power, namely for others.  Compassion and love compel a man to do everything for others....It is not a willingness to die for someone or for some people; it is a willingness to die for all (people).

A key question about all this is - what has this to do with us?  If Jesus' vision was for an earthly transformation, for an inclusive kingdom in his time and place, what does this mean for people in the 20th or 21st centuries?  Nolan devotes the last chapters of his book to exploring these issues.

Jesus is a much underrated man - underrated not only by those who think of him as nothing more than a teacher of religious truth, but also by those who go to the opposite extreme of emphasising his divinity in such a way that he ceases to be fully human.  When one allows Jesus to speak for himself and when one tries to understand him without any preconceived ideas and within the context of his own times, what begins to emerge is a man of extraordinary independence, immense courage and unparalleled authenticity - a man whose insight defies explanation.  To deprive this man of his humanity is to deprive him of his greatness.

But what, then, of Jesus' divinity?  Nolan's anwer is quite complex and surprising and worth taking some time to think over.  I'm afraid I can only scratch the surface of it.  First of all, Nolan is clear that Jesus did not claim authority.  He forbade his disciples to spread the idea that he was the Messiah, and the only words he applied to himself were the words "son of man" which Nolan takes to be a term of humility and self-effacement.

Jesus was unique among the men of his time in his ability to overcome all forms of authority-thinking.  The only authority which Jesus might be said to have appealed to was the authority of truth itself.  He did not make authority his truth, he made truth his authority.  And in so far as the authority of God can be thought of as the authority of truth, then Jesus can be said to have appealed to, and to have possessed, the authority of God....

Most scholars are satisfied with the assertion that somewhere at the heart of Jesus' mysterious personality there was a unique experience of intimate closeness to God - the Abba-experience.... And we know that the Abba-experience was an experience of God as a compassionate Father.  This would mean that Jesus experienced the mysterious creative power behind all phenomena (God) as compassion or love.

So what then of the idea that Jesus is himself divine?  Nolan does not deny this idea, but is extremely careful to clarify what it means.

To believe that Jesus is divine is to make him and what he stands for your God.  To deny this is to make someone else your god or God, and to relegate Jesus and what he stands for to second place in your scale of values....

We cannot deduce anything about Jesus from what we think we know about God; we must now deduce everything about God from what we know about Jesus....  To say now suddenly that Jesus is divine does not change our understanding of Jesus, it changes our understanding of divinity.... We accept the God of the Old Testament as one who has now changed and relented of his former purposes in order to be totally compassionate towards mankind - all mankind....

We have seen what Jesus was like.  If we now wish to treat him as our God, we would have to accept that our God does not want to be served by us; he does not want to be given the highest possible rank and status in our society, we wants to take the lowest place and be without any rank and status; he does not want to be feared and obeyed, he wants to be recognised in the sufferings of the poor and the weak; he is not supremely indifferent and detached, he is irrevocably committed to the liberation of mankind, for he has chosen to identify himself with all men in a spirit of solidarity and compassion....

Jesus' divinity is not something totally different from his humanity,...Jesus' divinity is the transcendent depths of his humanity.  Jesus was immeasurably more human than other men, and that is what we value above all other things when we recognise him as divine, when we acknowledge him as our Lord and our God.

This picture of divinity offended Jew and Roman alike in Jesus' day.  It was a stumbling block for Nolan's original readers and remains so to this day.  It is at the heart of the challenge of Jesus to both our religious and our secular culture.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Thirty Years On

I've just realised that it's now over thirty years since I was first let loose on the unsuspecting public as a young Social Work student on my first placement.  I spent most of the first half of 1981 at Brisbane's Royal Childrens' Hospital, supposedly providing social work support to the families of children in the hospital.  In actual fact, I was so shy and underconfident that I spent a lot of time hiding, trying to screw up my courage to approach parents on the ward.

I partly thought of this because I just spent two days helping to run a conference for alcohol and drug organisations here in Brisbane.  One of the speakers, a long-time university teacher and researcher, revealed that while she likes her students be capable of really helping people, she often passes them on the basis that at least they won't do any harm.  I think that was probably me - in fact I'm almost certain it was because one of my lecturers told me so at the time.  In hindsight, it might not be a bad philosophy.  I've lasted 30 years and I like to think that as I've got more mature I've progressed from not being dangerious to actually doing positive good.

The other thing that inspired these thoughts is that someone recently did a risk management audit for our church.  I'm glad they did it because otherwise I might have had to.  While I understand the importance of risk management it bores me witless.  It also makes me wonder, and what I wonder is this.

When I was a young social worker we never heard anything about risk management.  In my first three years after graduating, I worked in the State child welfare department, dealing with child abuse, juvenile justice and children in out-of-home care.  Of course we had lots of policies, contained in a foot-thick policy manual.  We also had huge case loads and constant demands on our time so none of us ever had enough time to actually read this manual, and we basically copied what the people around us did - or if we weren't sure, we made it up as we went along.  I'd like to say that no-one was hurt but this was child protection so I know for a fact that quite a few people were - but not by us, and I seriously doubt that following the manual more closely would have resulted in us uncovering that hidden abuse or finding a more appropriate placement for that troubled teenager.  The resources just weren't there.

I found my heart's home three years on when I went to work in an emergency housing organisation.  I'm still working in housing now, 25 years later.  I was the organisation's first staff member at the ripe old age of 25, and we were pretty much a policy-free zone.  Aside from inventing a few forms and coming up with some procedures to resolve key issues in the work, we pretty much did what we thought was right.  I'm quite sure I didn't do any harm in that job, and I'm also sure I did a lot of good - people came into the office with nowhere to live, and left with somewhere.  It probably could have been better, but it was certainly heading in the right direction.

Fast forward 20 years or so and I now work as a consultant, with many of my clients the same type of organisation I went to work for in 1986.  They all have policy manuals that run to hundreds of pages.  I've written a number of such manuals myself.  One, for an organisation with three staff, runs to over 250 pages with attachments.

All this policy writing is an attempt at quality improvement.  If we have good, detailed policies, the reasoning goes, our work will be better, less will be left to chance, we will be more accountable.  I think somehow we feel if we have everything written down we have it under control, we have factored out the uncertainty, we have made the world a safer place. 

Yet I wonder.  How often do the staff of that organsiation refer to the manual?  In their busy lives, overwhelmed with demands from desperate families, do they look at their beautiful manual any more often than I did in the Childrens Services Department in the 1980s?  Or do they, like me, respond to the situation as best they can, using their judgement and common sense?  If they do this, do they do positive good?  Do they at least avoid making things worse?  And do they sometimes, in the inspiration of the moment, do something so brilliant that no policy manual could ever compare?