Sunday, 23 October 2011

Paul Keating on Music

Yesterday's Weekend Australian contains a detailed interview with former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating and a short extract from his new book.  In it, he laments the narrowness of our current political culture, the inability of our politicians (especially his successors in the Labor Party) to tell an overarching story about Australia, where we are heading and our place in the world. 

Part of the problem, he says, is that they are too focused on logic and pragmatics at the expense of vision and aesthetics.

Friedrich Schiller, the German philosopher, said: "If man is ever to solve the problems of politics in practice he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through beauty that man makes his way to freedom."   

Romantic and idealistic as that view may seem to some, the thought is revelatory of the fact that the greater part of human aspiration has been informed by individual intuition and privately generated passions, more than it has through logic or scientific revelation. The moral basis of our public life, our social organisation, has come from within us - by aspiration and by light, not by some process of logical deduction.

He then moves on to use music as an illustration of what he means.

Music provides the clue: unlike other forms of art, music is not representational. Unlike the outcome of the sciences, it was never discoverable or awaiting discovery. A Mahler symphony did not exist before Mahler created it.

E.T.A. Hoffman, a contemporary of Beethoven's, famously said: "Music reveals to man an unknown realm, a world quite separate from the outer sensual world surrounding him, a world in which he leaves behind all feelings circumscribed by intellect in order to embrace the inexpressible."

This is not to turn our back on reason. Or to argue that modernism, with all its secular progress through education, industrialisation, communications, transport and the centralised state, has not spectacularly endowed the world as no other movement before it. But a void exists between the drum-roll of mechanisation with its cumulative power of science and the haphazard, explosive power of creativity and passion. Science is forever trying to undress nature while the artistic impulse is to be wrapped in it.

While these approaches are different - perhaps often diametrically opposite - they inform related strands of thinking in ways that promote energy and vision.

This is what I have found when these forces are contemplated in tandem. When passion and reason vie with each other, the emerging inspiration is invariably deeper and of an altogether higher form. One is able to knit between them, bringing into existence an overarching unity - a coherence - which fidelity to the individual strands cannot provide.

Apart from making me wish he was still Prime Minister (given the current alternatives on offer) Keating has said very eloquently something I often try to get out in my own hesitant way.  He applies the lesson to politics - we need to use our intuition, our aesthetic sense, to complement our rational decisions, not replace them.

I've been thinking the same in the church.  So often our songs are just another way of expressing our dogma.  Our songwriters and musicians write and play out of an intellectual straitjacket of "correct doctrine" which means only certain forms of words are acceptable.  This is part of what worried me about the Twist conference that I reacted so strongly to. 

Music at its best, whether in church or in wider society, should open up another realm to us, something that can't be easily encapsulated in theological or sociological formulae.  If it could be pinned down in words, music would no longer be necessary.  It alerts us to the fact that our formulae are only ever approximations of the truth.  Sure, "the truth is out there" but if we think we understand it we are selling it short.  Perhaps it's a bit like what the other Paul says in Romans 8:26-27.

We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.  And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

More Lives of Jesus 4: Crossan and Reed

So, after John Carroll's existential midrash on the life of Jesus, we return to a more typical type of contemporary midrash, the historical reconstruction.  Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L Reed represents a detailed forensic examination of historical evidence in the tradition of the Jesus Seminar, of which Crossan was co-chair for a decade.  Crossan is perhaps the more famous of this pair of authors, known for his New Testament scholarship and his reconstructions of Jesus' life and the first century church.  Reed, while lower profile, appears to be just as distinguished in academic terms and specialises in Palestinian archaeology. Within the dual focus of their sub-title, the division of labour seems clear - Reed deals with stones, Crossan with texts.

It is the combination of the two which provides the power and fascination of this book.  The archaeology of first century Palestine can't tell us much in particular about Jesus, but it can give us a vivid picture of his place and times.  The key is to dig to the right level and distinguish the buildings and other material remains of the first century.  By analogy, the authors use the same process for the texts.  These have at least four layers - the original words and deeds of Jesus; the oral accounts and memories which circulated amongst his first followers; the first written records of these, in the gospel of Mark, the presumed "Q" gospel which provided extra material for Matthew and Luke, the writings of Paul, and later but independent non-canonical writings such as the gospels of Peter and Thomas and the Didache; and as a fouth layer the additions and editorial glosses of the later Biblical writers themselves. 

The authors use these layers to perform a kind of triangulation.  If something appears (perhaps in different form but with the same content) in more than one of the third layer sources (say, in both Mark's gospel and Thomas's) then it probably comes from a source that precedes them.  If it only appears in one, it is more likely to be a later addition.  The authors acknowledge that this is a controversial procedure and take a reasonably humble approach to it, but the items they identify are those most widely agreed to originate with Jesus himself or his immediate followers.  This is then placed in the historical context revealed by archaeology and the early historians, particularly Josephus and to a lesser extent Philo.

What emerges is this.  The core of Jesus' message, the Kingdom of God, was an act of non-violent but far from passive resistance against the Kingdom of Rome.  Against the heirarchy of the Roman empire, symbolised by its palaces and fortresses in which the subjects came to the Emperor (or his representatives) and bowed before him, Jesus opposed a centreless regime in which he travelled to the people, lived with them and served them where they were.  Against the merchantile empire of Rome which concentrated wealth in the cities and in the hands of the few, Jesus opposed a communal life in which possessions were shared and justice and equality reigned.  Against the Roman claim to ownership of the land Jesus opposed God's covenantal ownership in which the people of Israel were stewards.  Jesus chose neither the path of violent resistance of the Zealots, nor the withdrawal of the Essenes, but lived out his message with his followers right under the eyes of the Roman and Jewish authorities.

This mode of resistence meant that he, like his predecessor John the Baptist, was openly challenging the Roman system and its Jewish collaborators, and was destined ultimately for punishment - especially when he went to Jerusalem and directly challenged them through the cleansing of the Temple.  This is also why only he was executed at the time - if he had led a violent resistence, his followers would also have been slaughtered, but for a non-violent protest it was enough to execute the leader and hope the followers would then disperse.  Of course they didn't, and many were executed in later years in a further attempt to stamp out the movement.

Which of course brings us to the resurrection, and what to me is Crossan and Reed's most interesting chapter in this fascinating and vivid book.  They accept for the sake of argument that the resurrection occurred and ask instead the historical question - what did it mean?  In its first century Jewish context, they are clear that there were a number of things it didn't mean.  It didn't mean resuscitation, for instance, a nearly dead person returning to life.  Nor did it mean an "apparition" - a ghost or spirit talking with his followers from the land of the dead - or exaltation, the spirit of the person being caught up to be with God.  All these things were well understood in the ancient world and are different to what was said about Jesus.

The resurrection, in their view, is intimately linked with his earthly program - his role as an eschatological or apocalyptic prophet.  The just, holy kingdom promised by the prophets involved the resurrection of the martyrs, those who had died in earlier times as a result of their faithfulness to God.  Jesus' resurrection was the herald, the beginning, of this more general resurrection of God's servants, which would surely follow.  It was in expectation of this completed resurrection that the disciples, under the leadership of Peter and of Jesus' brother James, gathered in Jerusalem to wait.  It was also in expectation of this that Paul and his companions travelled throughout the empire, announcing the coming of this Kingdom to Jew and pagan alike.

In the process, they present us with a first century take on that most common piece of modern apologetics, the fearlessness of the disciples and rapid growth of the Church as evidence for the resurrection.  In our post-Enlightenment world view, they say, "impossibility battles with uniqueness" - the miracles and resurrection appear improbable, but Christians argue that they are one-off, unique events attested to by their followers' passion.  In the first century this argument would have been totally irrelevant.  The miracles and resurrection would be seen as neither impossible, nor as unique.  No-one would have had any trouble believing them and most ancient religions involved similar claims.  Instead, the arguments of the early Christians centred around the question of superiority.  For believers, the clincher was not the truth of the events, but the superiority of the message they conveyed - the reality of the liberation and justice that flowed from the Kingdom of God, enacted in their own believing communities.  Those who remained inconvinced remained so primarily because they could not see the value of this message, not because they disputed its truth.

Hence the midrash.  As for them, the authors are implying, so for us.  By building the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the site of Jesus' grave, with the magnificent architecture of a Roman palace, Constantine transformed Christianity from a radical challenge to the Kingdom of Rome into a mirror of it.  No longer did the Christian church go out among the people and create a kingdom of justice and shared wealth.  Now people came to the palatial church, built with the wealth of Constantine's merchantile empire, and paid homage there to the twin powers of Church and State.  It made the church safe, not to mention rich and powerful, but what became of Jesus' message?

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Onshore Processing

So, a few weeks ago I wrote a letter to Julia Gillard, with copies to Chris Bowen and my local member Graham Perrett, outlining the reasons they should not only abandon overseas processing of boat arrivals but the whole mandatory detention system.  I'm still waiting for the reply, aside from a brief acknowledgement from a member of Perrett's staff thanking me for saying what I think.  But blow me down if they haven't gone and done something quite like what I suggested.  All arrivals will be processed in Australia, with those deemed likely to be granted refugee status given bridging visas and allowed to live in the community after basic health and security checks.  At last, a move in a more humane direction!

It would be nice to think they listened to me and the thousands of other people advocating a more humane solution.  Sadly, it seems that it's just a stuff up.  The media is even talking about it as the "failure of migration policy".  Both Liberal and Labor parties went into the parliamentary debate intent on reviving offshore processing.  Their inability to agree on the form this should take, however, meant that no legislation got passed.  As a result the High Court ruling against offshore processing stands, and the government has no alternative.

It made me think of that lovely poem by WH Auden, which I think may have been written about Winston Churchill.

Providentially
right for once in his life-time
(his reasons were wrong),
the old sod was permitted
to save civilisation.

It's not exactly Churchillian and it won't save civilisation but it's great when a government accidentally does something right.  May there be many more such stuff-ups!

Friday, 14 October 2011

More Lives of Jesus 3: John Carroll's "Existential Jesus"

To keep the Australian theme going here is another Australian Life of Jesus, The Existential Jesus by John Carroll.  However, this is where the resemblance to John Dickson ends.  Carroll is a professor of sociology at La Trobe University in Melbourne and is not an active church member or a biblical scholar.  Instead, he approaches the story of Jesus through a secular reading group he convenes at the University, which has twice read the Gospel of Mark in its entirety.  He has found the story profoundly affecting and life changing, and this book is the result.

Nor is Carroll greatly interested in the Quest for the Historical Jesus, and is scornful of both the idea of Jesus as eschatologocal prophet, and of the Jesus Seminar with their colour-coded sayings.  Not that he doesn't make use of historical research - he leans particularly heavily on Catholic scholar Raymond E Brown - but his intention is quite different from theirs.  This is what he says.

The Christian churches have comprehensively failed in their one central task - to retell their foundation story in a way that might speak to the times.  They have failed in what the ancient Jews called midrash - the art of reworking stories so as to bring them up to date.  The church Jesus is a wooden residue of tired doctrine...little of which has cogent mainstream resonance today.

This is his aim - to produce a midrash which can make Jesus relevant to the 21st century.  What does he find?

...a mysteriously enigmatic, existential Jesus whose story has not been retold elsewhere...This Jesus learns through his own bitter experience to reject temples and churches.  What he finds himself left with is nothing, apart from his own story.  So he invites those who have ears to hear to join him, to stand in his shoes, and to learn from his tragic journey.  By the end, the total accumulation of what he has done and what he has said is stripped back to one single teaching: all you need is his story.  You don't even need him, only what his story teaches - a dark saying about being.

With a beginning like this it would be tempting to dismiss Carroll as recreating Jesus in his own image.  This would be a mistake.  While there is certainly some truth in the charge, there is also a lot to like about his reconstruction.  He is erudite, perceptive, and daring.

The core of the book is his own retranslation of key parts of Mark's and John's text as well as one or two passages from Luke but none from Matthew.  His translation is perhaps not entirely to be trusted - he says he has based it on his knowledge of classical Greek (a different dialect to New Testament Greek) supplemented by insights from other scholars.  Nonetheless, he has a gift for highlighting complexities and ambiguities in the text, and these abound in Mark.  A key one is the word pneuma which depending on the context is variously translated wind, breath and spirit or Spirit.  By retaining the original Greek term he draws out multiple meanings which disappear from most English translations.  Hence the wind which batters Jesus' boat on the Sea of Galilee can be read as both wind and Spirit, and this complexity is repeated across accounts.

However, the best thing about this book is Carroll's keen literary eye.  Unclouded by historical or doctrinal questions, he hones in on the correspondences between different events, the repetition of key words and ideas, the motifs which Mark and John use to identify Jesus' main teachings, and point readers to their own interpretation of these.

Carroll sees Mark as the foundational gospel story and John as a midrash on Mark.  He organises his book in the same way.  In the first part he provides a sequential commentary on Mark.  His version of the story is enigmatic, and Godless.  Jesus is a tragic, isolated figure, misunderstood by his disciples, especially Peter, but occasionally understood by random strangers who he encounters and heals - like the man posessed by 2000 demons in the country of the Gadarenes, or Mary of Bethany who anoints him with oil before his crucifixion.  His message is I am and he wants his followers to see themselves in the same way - to learn to be.  What Carroll means by this is not entirely clear.  He does not see Jesus as claiming to be God so much as replacing him, but he sees him as driven and inspired by pneuma and wielding a power which any of his followers could also wield, if only they could learn.

Mark's story is ultimately a tragedy, although an ambiguous one.  Jesus dies alone, understood by none of his disciples except perhaps the shadowy figure of Mark lurking in the background and Mary finding the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.  Frustrated and angered by the obtuseness of his disciples (he regrets calling them almost the moment he has done so) many of his sayings take on a caustic, even cruel edge.  His final death is accompanied by a scream of agony and the empty tomb is at best ambiguous, a hint or possibility rather than a certainty.

In the second part of his book, Carroll turns his attention to John, presenting a more hopeful version of Jesus' story.  Where Mark's Jesus is driven by his fate, doubting and learning as he goes along, John's is serene and fully in control of his destiny.  In Carroll's own midrash on John we see Jesus through the eyes of five archetypal followers - Peter, who is incapable of rising to Jesus' heights and instead is given the lowly task of creating the Church; Mary (Carroll follows the later Christian practice of conflating Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdelene and the anonymous woman who washes Jesus' feet in Luke), a woman who finds her true being through a jouney from sensuality; Judas, consumed by hate, who opposes Jesus' I am with an angry I am not; Pilate, who reaches the borders of I am in the course of Jesus' trial; and finally John himself, the young man who Jesus loves and who needs nothing more than to be himself.

These chapters for me are the high point of the book.  His skill, for instance, in picking out the progression in the five key sayings of Pilate during the trial is a revelation, as is his reading of Judas' motivations and his bitter hatred.  Even his portrait of Peter's continual failure has an air of truth about it, sealed by his plausible reading of the final scene in John's gospel where Jesus asks three times "Simon, son of John, do you love me" and Peter replies in the affirmative and is asked to feed Jesus' sheep.  Carroll highlights two things about this tale that have escaped every preacher and commentator I have heard or read on the subject.  Firstly, he uses the name "Simon", not "Peter" - his pre-conversion name, not his name as a disciple.  It is as if he is rescinding his earlier call.  Secondly, Jesus asks "do you agape me?" - the Greek word for selfless, giving love used by Paul in 1 Cor 13.  Peter replies, "you know that I phileo you" - the word for fraternal love.  The final time Jesus gives in and also uses phileo.  Peter is not affirming his love for Jesus as we are usually taught.  Rather, he is unable to rise to the heights of selfless love Jesus is asking of him, and will always be stuck at the level of mere mateship.

I don't agree with everything Carroll says.  His portrayal to Jesus' isolation is overdrawn, missing the many clues in Mark that Jesus is surrounded not only by his disciples but a wide group of friends and followers.  His heavy existentialism leaves me cold - what does this Jesus ultimately have to offer us?  To be ourselves?  Is that it?  Yet because he is an outsider, and because he loves and reveres these texts and has immersed himself in them, his interpretation is rich in possibilities.  He shines light in dark places, he raises new questions and proposes new answers.  His voice will be in my head as a reread the stories, and it will lead me to see them in a new way.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

David and Solomon

As a teenager I was fascinated by the story of King David.  It was a part of the Bible I read over and over again.  Looking back on it, I think it’s because David is the most complete and the most human character in the Bible, even including Jesus.  Despite his flaws and his repeated failures he keeps trying to do right and enjoys tremendous success.  Plus, there’s lots of action, plenty of blood and guts and a fair amount of sex.

At one point I even wrote an ancient history assignment about King David’s role in Israelite history.  However, I lost marks because of my na├»ve acceptance of the Biblical accounts as accurate history, my failure to evaluate them as sources.

To be fair to my teenage self, back in the 1970s most historians had a fairly generous view of the historicity of Samuel and 1 Kings.  Not that I knew anything about it at age 16, but most critics regarded elements of these stories as reaching back to two narratives written close to the time of David himself – one they called “David's Rise to Power” which charted David’s rise from bandit chief to king of a united Israel, and another called the “Court History” or “Succession History” which was mainly written to explain or justify why Solomon ended up as his successor. 

This doesn’t mean scholars accepted the accounts as objectively accurate in all respects.  They were seen as being written as defences of David, royal propaganda to counter charges that David was nothing but a bandit and mercenary who killed his master Saul and stole his throne, and that Solomon was a usurper who may not even have been David’s legitimate son and certainly not his heir.  However, setting their creation close to the time meant these critics accepted the broad historical picture of David as a powerful king of a united Israel, and Solomon as the wise and wealthy builder of the temple and palace.

I would like to think that this was true.  However, I’ve just been reading David and Solomon by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman.  Both authors, and Finkelstein in particular, are distinguished archaeologists, and this book summarises the vast amounts of archaeological evidence about the period of David and Solomon uncovered in digs over the past few decades, and combines this with a re-reading of the Biblical text in the light of this evidence.

The result is a much more sceptical view of these two kings.  In the tenth century BCE, when they are presumed to have lived, Judah was a largely subsistence agrarian community with as few as 5000 inhabitants.  Its towns, including Jerusalem itself, were small villages.  The population as a whole, and probably most of its leaders, was illiterate and writing was hardly used for even the simplest communications.  The realms of Israel and Judah were clearly separate, with Israel far more wealthy and populous.  David, who they assume was a real person, could have been no more than the bandit chief and local leader portrayed in the early parts of the account in 1 and 2 Samuel.  The elaborate temple attributed to Solomon was built at least 100 years later.

So where did these elaborate, detailed and vivid accounts come from?  You’ll have to read the book to get the full picture, but they suggest a number of stages in the creation of the story.  The first is the creation of a folk tradition, preserved in orally transmitted stories and songs, of David the bandit chief made good and his mighty men, as well as the rival tradition from further north containing the deeds of the Benjamite King Saul.

The second, dating from the destruction of the Northern kingdom by the Assyrians and the prosperous reign of Hezekiah in the 8th century, involved combining these two traditions in a more sequential account used to justify the legitimacy of David’s dynasty in the face of Assyrian aggression and a wave of refugees from the north.  The third, dating from the time of Josiah in the 6th century, placed stronger emphasis on the territorial extent of the united kingdom and the religious purity of David’s reign as a way of justifying Josiah’s religious and territorial ambitions.  The fourth and fifth, compiled by priests after the exile, focused even more on the importance of the temple and religious purity as the key to the kingdom’s greatness.  At each point, the new editors used David and Solomon as foils for their own concerns and needs, and so the story kept on growing and changing. 

Nor did it stop there, they say, with Jews and Christians continuing to develop the story through their expectations of the Messiah and the development of their own ideas of kingship.

It doesn’t make it any less fascinating as a story, or the character of David any less inspiring.  What it calls into question, though, is the concept of static religious truth.  Each if the successive tellers of the story, in their view, felt free to re-interpret and retell the tale to fit the needs of their time.  Rather than an abstract and absolute truth, the stories evolved with their writers and readers, being brought to bear on new and urgent problems.

Jewish religious teachers have a term for this – midrash.  A midrash is a creative reading of the text.  A portion of scripture will be read, then its message embellished in the light of the issues faced by the listeners at the time.  The aim is not to analyse the text as we would, digging into its “true” meaning.  The aim is to use it to help the listeners and to bring God into their situation.  Both Jesus and Paul regularly use this technique, perplexing well-educated evangelical preachers who see their statements as divinely inspired but also know they violate all the principles of sound exegesis.

We can see this process reaching back in time.  The kings of Judah used the stories of their ancestors, David and Solomon, to shore up their own positions in the face of Assyrian imperialism, as a way of uniting their kingdom after a wave of northern refugees, and as a way of explaining their religious reforms.  The priests of post-exilic Jerusalem used these same stories as part of a the grand narrative of national continuity and faith in God that helped their temple worship to survive and helped cement Jewish identity.  The first Christians radically reinterpreted the idea of a Davidic messiah to provide continuity with the Jewish faith, while also opening it up for non-Jewish believers.  Later Christian theologians continued the process, interpreting the lives and putative writings of these kings as symbolic representations of Christ, or as examples of godly kingship.

I would suggest that we do the same thing.  Modernist Christians have reread these stories in the light of our own need for scientific factuality.  We have needed, within our modernist culture, to see them as having actually happened the way they were written.  We have needed to see the Bible as the kind of scientific history written by Finkelstein and Silberman.  We are so blind to the cultural nature of this reading that we believe our faith stands a falls by it.  If the authors are right, then it must fall.  Then again, maybe it is our culture that is temporary.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

TWISTing Our Plastic Halos

It's always good to step outside your normal environment and be exposed to something new.  That's how you learn.  So I let myself be persuaded to go to last night's TWIST (The Word in Song Together) conference.  This is part of a series of events organised by Emu Music, an Australian organisation best known for recording and publishing new worship music but which also runs frequent training events for church music leaders.  That's me, so off I went.

The event went for about two hours, split pretty evenly between singing and listening to the featured speaker, Bob Kauflin, a songwriter and worship leader from Sovereign Grace Ministries in the USA.  As you'd expect from a room full of 500 musicians the singing was good, led by a polished (and loud!) pop-rock ensemble.  The songs, and the talk, certainly made me think, but I probably wasn't thinking what the organisers wanted me to think.  I rarely do.

The talk was pretty simple, although I may have lost the point because there were no visuals, and I'm a visual learner.  Best practice communication, people!  Kauflin was basically saying that worship is our response to God - reverence, obedience, service, trust, love, and so on.  In a worship service, then, we should be worshipping God with our minds, souls (the seat of emotion) and bodies.  I got the minds and souls bit - we should clearly understand what and who we are worshipping, and it should be more than cold logic, it should engage us.  The bodies bit was a little confusing and a lot overlong, and he seemed to think we should be waving our hands more.  He waved his a lot, anyway.

What interested me more was the songs, and the context they provided for the message.  I lost count, but we probably sang about eight songs in all, some of them twice.  The tunes were straightforward and easy to sing although I thought they were sometimes pitched a little too high.  I'm 50, and men's voices drop as they get older. 

However, I was struck by their words and their content.  There were some gems, especially In Christ Alone, the Townend and Getty song which is already widely sung in protestant churches.

In Christ alone my hope is found,
He is my light, my strength, my song;
this Cornerstone, this solid Ground,
firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
when fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My Comforter, my All in All,
here in the love of Christ I stand.


It's not exactly brilliant poetry - the metaphors are a bit strained - but it paints an evocative scene, and the folk-tinged tune gives it a certain grandeur which I find stirring.

Sadly, most of the lyrics were a long way short of this standard.  Like this, from the Emu-published song This Life I Live by Michael Morrow.

This life I live is not my own
For my Redeemer paid the price
He took it to be his alone
To be his treasure and his prize
The things of earth I leave behind
To live in worship of my King
His is the right to rule my life
Mine is the joy to live for him


Or this one from the speaker himself.

You are worthy to be praised
with my every thought and deed
O great God of highest heav'n
Glorify your name through me.

No doubt the sentiments are worthy but the poetry is lacking. It's flat. It could just be a sermon.  There was worse, but fortunately I have forgotten the titles and so can't look them up.  These are not terrible songs but neither are they particularly good.  Played by a rocking band like last nights, they could engage your emotions, but they could be so much better.

What made me think the hardest, though, was the extremely limited spiritual and emotional range that was on show.  This may not be typical of Emu, but if not, an interesting choice for a night meant to encourage the development of "contemporary, Biblical, Christ focused music in the church".  The songs were indeed Christ focused, but in a particular way.  They focused almost exclusively on one moment in Christ's life - his death - and one "moment" (at least figuratively) in ours - the moment of conversion.  Michael Morrow again.

I died to sin upon the cross.
I'm bound to Jesus in his death.
The old is gone, and now I must
Rely on him for every breath.

Substitutionary atonement is front and centre, and everything else - Christ's life, his teaching, his acts of compassion, his social and political message - fades into the background.  It brought to mind very vividly Richard Leonard's observation that Christ didn't come to die, he came to live.  In these songs Jesus is always bleeding.  It even made me think of Robert Funk (bizarrely, given where I was) and his focus on the "missing bit" of the creeds - the bit between Jesus' birth and his death.

Along with this, the speaker and the singers appeared to want us to feel a particular emotion - a passionate zeal for Christ based on his death for us.  This passion was vertically directed - we are focused on God, and we are longing for heaven.  In the process, our relations with each other become invisible, as does our life in this world.  Kauflin acknowledged, as a kind of concession, that we may not always feel this passion, and that our remorse at not feeling it and even our emptiness of it may also be acceptable worship.  But what of our other emotions - our sorrow, our grief, our joy at mundane matters, our passion for justice, our sense of community, our fear of looming death, our excitement at our work?  Surely all of these things are part of our worship as we come together and try to make sense of our lives in the light of God's love.  The tendency of Kauflin's approach, reinforced by the songs, is to repress all this and try our hardest to generate the emotions the songs ask of us.  We risk ending up where Mark Heard did.

These plastic halos, 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.
We hide our pain, we try to laugh
Fools to think our tears would provoke holy wrath.

I wonder if this is why the songs often seemed so flat.  Maybe the writers were trying to fit their words to what they believed they should be feeling, but their masks got in the way.  Perhaps that's doing them an injustice, and they felt deeply what they wrote but just struggled to communicate it.  Yet surely all of who we are, and all of who Jesus was and is, is an acceptable part of our Sunday gatherings and should find its way into our songs and prayers.  We need not enter our atonement bubble.  Our sorrows and struggles, the troubles of the world, our joy in the universe and the tiniest atom, our children and friends, are all important to God.  Jesus entered our world because it's his world too.  We don't need plastic halos, we need to remind ourselves that God loves us as we are, all that we are and all of the time.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Where the Hell is God?

Christians have a recurring problem over suffering.  Apart from the fact that they actually suffer, which is a problem everyone has, the Christian-specific problem is this: Christians traditionally believe in three things.
  1. God is all-powerful, both knowing and being in control of everything that happens in the universe.
  2. God is perfectly loving, desiring nothing but good for his/her children and creation.
  3. Humans have free will and are able to decide the direction of their own lives, including being able to reject God and to make mistakes.
The problem is that these things are logically incompatible, and nothing brings this incompatibility into focus more than suffering.  If God is both loving and all-powerful, why does he allow suffering in the world?  There are two common answers.  One is that the suffering is a result of our misuse of our freewill.  This, however, calls into question either God's power (could God not have designed things so that our freewill need not lead to suffering?) or his love (has God now withdrawn his love from us?).

I must admit that for a long time this question didn't bother me in the slightest.  I think there are two reasons for this.  One is that I was brought up with a rather stoic idea of suffering.  My mother always said that when something goes wrong there's no point complaining, just get on with it.  And that's what she did, right to the end of her life.  Yet I think the more important reason is that I just haven't suffered all that much.  Sure, I've experienced grief, I've been afraid, I've been anxious, but I'm much better off than the vast majority of people in the world.  I'm have a good income, a comfortable home, I'm mentally and physically healthy, I have a happy marriage and two lovely grown up children, I do work that I love.

How should I talk about this?  It seems rather pagan to say that I've simply been fortunate - blessed by the goddess Fortuna, lady of chance and fate.  Yet if I say "God has blessed me" or "God has been good to me", what does this say to all those who are worse off than me - those who are poor, ill, grieving, and so on?  That God has been bad to them?  That he has cursed them?

All of which is a rather long introduction to a short and lovely book, Where the Hell is God?,  by Jesuit priest Richard Leonard.  His starting point is the story of his sister.  At 25, she was a faithful young Christian woman who had devoted her life to helping the poor, first in Calcutta with Mother Theresa and later at a remote Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory.  Then she had a car accident - which wasn't even her fault - and became a quadriplegic, in need of full time care for the rest of her life.  This experience led him and his family - and especially of course his sister Tracey, who has also written her own book - to delve deeply and personally into the problem of suffering.

He starts with the standard lines that Christians think the sufferer might find comforting, but which the Leonards found offensive - like "God wants to teach you something through your suffering", or "God has a purpose in all this".  As if God couldn't work out his purpose by some less clumsy and drastic means.  Then there were the Job's comforters who said, in more or less subtle ways, that Tracey must be being punished for her sins.  Which, besides being very insulting, begs the question - why would God punish a dedicated, generous young woman for some unspecified sin, while leaving oppressors and mass murderers untouched?

The tendency of all of this "comfort", in Leonard's mind, was to make God seem cruel, arbitrary and perhaps even a little unhinged.  He is particularly scornful of the line often used to comfort grieving parents who have lost young children - "God must have needed another angel".  So he killed our child?  How psychopathic is that?

All of this leads him to a set of broader questions about how God acts in the world and the picture that emerges is fascinating and thought-provoking.  Leonard's God is not the God of popular piety who will meet all our tiny requests.  He does not order our suffering - the suffering simply happens as a result of the laws of nature, or our own mistakes or misjudgements.  We may learn from our suffering, but God does not send it to us for this purpose.  Instead Christ, who came into this world to be like us, suffers with us, and comforts us in our suffering.  He wants us, in turn, to learn to suffer with and comfort others.

His comments on two other pieces of popular piety also struck me.  One is his reluctance to pray for rain.  He is not unsympathetic to farmers suffering from drought - far from it.  However, he says that when we pray for rain, or say special masses for it, we misunderstand God.  Instead, we are praying to someone like the Greek God Zeus, an unpredictable character who controlled the weather and had to be placated through ritual and sacrifice.  God is not like that.  He does not interfere at random with the planet's climate system.  Instead of thinking that if we pray hard enough God will send us rain, Leonard thinks we should take our lament to God, and our pain and suffering, and lay it before him.  In the process, perhaps we should reflect on our own behaviour, the damage we have done to the planet, the havoc we are causing to the climate system, and repent and change our ways.

The second (and I promise to stop here) is his reflection on the hymn How Great Thou Art and particularly the third verse.

And when I think that God, his son not sparing,
Sent him to die I scarce can take it in.
That on the cross my burden gladly bearing
He bled and died to take away my sin.

If God sent Jesus to die, he says, why did he warn Joseph about Herod's murderous intentions?  Why not get the whole dying thing over at the beginning?  Why go through the charade of the next 30 years, if all that was required was a death?  No, he says, God didn't send Jesus to die, he sent him to live, to show us what God is.  It was people who sent him to die, arresting him and crucifying him because they did not like the light he shone on their injustice and oppression.  Thus it always is.  We blame God for our suffering, but so often we do it to each other.

So for Leonard, free will is intact.  We should not expect God to direct our every move or fiddle in the minutiae of our lives.  Instead we should get on with living as he has taught us.  God's love is also intact.  He cares so much for us that he came to share in our lives.  Where in this is God's power?  Leonard leaves the question unanswered, and leaves us much to think about, many questions to explore further.  It's a short book, and left me wanting more.