Monday, 24 December 2012

The Magic of Christmas

We often hear talk about "the magic of Christmas".  Usually it has something to do with elves and flying reindeer and Santa Claus breaking into your house through the ceiling vent.  However, we shouldn't forget that the original Christmas story (you know, the one with Jesus in it) also features magicians.  Here they are, in the NIV translation of Matthew 2.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Herod consults with his scholars and suggests they try Bethlehem, then asks them to report back to him after they have found the child.

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

English translators have struggled with this little group of people over the centuries.  The NIV wimps out and just uses the original Greek word, Magi.  What is a Magus, though?  The King James bible, and many others since, translated the term as "wise men".  JB Phillips renders them as "astrologers".  The Message calls them "a band of scholars". 

The Greek word magus (plural "magi") originally applied to followers of the Persian religious teacher Zoroaster, whose teachings (at least in the popular mind) included an ability to both tell the future by the stars and manipulate that future.  Over time the term came to be used more broadly of those who practiced various forms of magic - astrology, divination, alchemy and other esoteric arts. 

The magi were generally viewed with suspicion in the ancient world, but their arts could also be seen as useful and powerful people would turn to them for help or advice.  The two other times magi appear in the New Testament they are clearly enemies.  In Acts 8 Peter has an encounter with Simon Magus who both the King James and NIV translate as someone who "used sorcery".  Simon loses his following when the apostles arrive on the scene and he tries to buy their healing power from them, earning a stern rebuke from Peter.  He lived on in later Christian tradition as an implacable opponent of Peter and the apostles. 

The other , "Elymas the sorcerer", appears in Acts 13 as an advisor to the Roman official Sergius Paulus.  He opposes the apostle Paul and is struck blind, convincing Paulus to become a follower of Jesus.

These stories represent the more typical Christian attitude to magic as something to be combated, as a suspect source of knowledge to be displaced by the true knowledge of God. 

Matthew's portrayal could not be more different.  It's no wonder the English translators went searching for a different word.  For a start, their science is implicitly praised.  Their astrological knowledge leads them correctly to Jesus' birthplace, and correctly identifies him as King of the Jews.  Furthermore they come to worship, not to compete, and bring appropriate gifts. 

Later Christian traditions recognised the difference, and embroidered their tale to great effect.  They were generally portrayed as three men (no doubt to match the three gifts) although in some versions there were 12.  They were given names.  In the Western tradition they were known as Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, respectively from Persia, Ethiopia and Arabia, while Eastern traditions gave them other names.  In some versions they were promoted from magicians to kings. 

Sometimes they were portrayed as representing various regions - one from Europe, one from Asia, one from Africa to represent the three continents which adjoin Palestine, all the gentile nations bowing before the King of the Jews.  Early Chinese christians saw them as coming from China, giving themselves a role in the story.  Their gifts also had prophetic significance - gold symbolising Jesus' kingship, frankincense his priesthood and myrrh his suffering.

Matthew didn't put this story here by accident.  He starts his book with Jesus' genealogy, establishing his royal Jewish heritage.  Yet the first people to pay him homage are these Gentile sorcerers, these suspicious practitioners of the dark arts.  As Christians, this story reminds us to put aside our prejudices, to stop demonising those whose knowledge comes from sources we don't trust.  Jesus didn't come into a safe little Jewish cocoon, he came into the wide world, with all its diversity, all its varied practices and varied ethnicities, all its diverse and fascinating sciences, arts and wisdoms.  He came to challenge orthodoxy, not reinforce it.  Everyone is welcome here, and each can add to our store of wisdom.

Happy Christmas everyone!

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Sickness unto Death

And now for something completely different...Soren Kierkegaard was an early/mid 19th century Danish theologian, famous as one of the founding figures of what came to be called existentialism before this philosophical school became associated with atheism in the 20th century. 

Kierkegaard trained in theology and toyed with the idea of becoming a pastor in the State Church of Denmark, finally deciding not to follow through.  He also toyed with marriage before breaking off the engagement.  In the end he lived most of his life on the proceeds of an inheritance from his father, acting as a theological and intellectual gadfly, at odds with his church and his society. 

Over his life he published a number of theological works  Many were published under fanciful pseudonyms that seemed designed to suggest he was not fully committed to their content, that they were coats he tried on to see how they looked.  The Sickness unto Death is published under the name Anti-Climacus, "edited by Soren Kierkegaard".

Unlike John Stott, Kierkegaard does not set out to make his writing accessible.  The Sickness unto Death is a mere 130 pages long, but it took me over a week to struggle through it and I'm not sure I really understood it properly.  Yet I've been thinking about it ever since, puzzling over its meaning and its significance.  Here's the best I can make of it.

Appropriately, Kierkegaard himself starts with a puzzle.  In John 11, when Jesus was asked to come and attend to Lazarus, he assured his disciples, "this sickness is not unto death".  Yet Lazarus did in fact die, and even though Jesus raised him again he surely died a second time.  So what did Jesus mean? 

For in human terms death is the last thing of all, and in human terms hope exists only as long as there is life; but to Christian eyes death is by no means the last thing of all, just another minor event in that which is all, an eternal life....

But then Christianity has discovered in its turn a misery which humanity as such does not know exists.  This misery is the sickness unto death.

This misery is what Kierkegaard labels "despair".   By this he doesn't mean the type of mental illness we would call depression, from which he himself appears to have suffered.  He means the existential despair of being separated from God which he holds is a universal human experience.  This separation is what death means for a Christian.

Different people, he says, experience despair in different ways.  Some are not even aware of it.  They go on living upright, respectable lives, even think they are Christians, without once experiencing the pang of conscious despair.  Yet their despair is all the more real for their lack of awareness of it. 

For others, they experience despair but work hard to deny it, pushing it away and trying to go on with their lives as if it doesn't exist. 

As a third option, some people accept that they are in despair and wallow in it, willfully maintaining their seperation from God with full awareness of what they are doing.

It doesn't seem to be an option to not be in despair, only to become conscious of your despair and act appropriately.  So what is the solution?  Kierkegaard doesn't spell it out in so many words, but in the second part of the book he equates despair with sin.

Sin is: before God in despair not to want to be oneself, or before God in despair to want to be oneself.

In following this definition of sin, he throws aside much of what we would normally understand to be good and evil.  Certainly, he says, all the things we commonly think of as sinful are part of sin - murder, adultery, theft, etc - but these things are sin because they are contrary to God's command.  They are not intrinsically sinful because there is no such thing as intrinsic sin.  They are only sinful in relation to God.

But often this fact, that the opposite of sin is by no means virtue, has been overlooked.  The latter (the idea that virtue is the opposite of sin) is partly a pagan view, which is content with a merely human standard, and which for that very reason does not know what sin is, that all sin is before God.  No, the opposite of sin is faith, which is why in Romans 14:23 it says: 'whatsoever is not of faith, is sin'.  And this is one of the most crucial definitions for the whole of Christianity: that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.

This then is his answer.  There is no middle ground, no moderate way, no set of deeds we can do which will solve our despair.  We cannot work our way through it, or reason our way past it, or push it away. We would be foolish to embrace it as if it were a good thing.  We can only stand before God in full consciousness of our despair - that is of our sin - and trust his mercy.  We can only have faith.  Nothing else will do.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Guns Kill People

We woke up this morning to read about yet another mass shooting in the USA.  In an all too familiar story, a young man with no criminal history has gone on a shooting rampage in a school in Connecticut, killing 26 people including 20 children before turning the the military-style rifle on himself.

It's a tragedy for the children and families involved, including the family of the killer who started his rampage by killing his mother and ended it with his own death.  It should also be a political scandal of the first order.  How did an ordinary, and obviously disturbed, young man get his hands on a piece of powerful military hardware?  Why, after so many such killings, are gun laws still unchanged and all these weapons still lying around in suburban homes?

It's not often I praise former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, but my American readers should take note of how he responded in a similar situation.

On 28 April 1996 a young man named Martin Bryant went on a shooting rampage at Port Arthur, a former penal colony which is now one of Tasmania's most popular tourist attractions.  He killed 31 people and injured another 19.  My own feeling of sickness at the event was heightened by the fact my family and I had been there ourselves less than two weeks previously.  Yet such a brush with fate wasn't needed for Australians to be shocked.  Nothing like this had happened in Australia since the 19th century.

Howard, not long installed as Prime Minister, acted immediately.  He rallied Australia's State premiers to the cause and passed new, much tougher gun laws, restricting ownership and sale of a wide range of firearms.  He also introduced a time limited buy-back scheme for the now illegal firearms.  Protests from Australia's version of the gun lobby (financially supported by their much more powerful US counterparts) were summarily dismissed and the new laws were in operation by October 1996.  Any nonsense about "guns don't kill people, people do" was dismissed for the idiocy it is.  Bryant would have been a lot less deadly with a knife.

In the next 12 months over 600,000 firearms were handed over to government authorities.  In some States they could be handed in at stations where they would be destroyed in plain sight, placed on a conveyor belt and crushed while their former owners, and other curious onlookers, watched.

Of course this measure didn't end violent crime in Australia.  It didn't even end shootings.  It did show that Australians are not tolerant of such crime.  A 2002 incident at Monash University at which a mentally ill student shot two of his fellow students resulted in further tightening of gun laws.  Organised criminals, of course, can and do possess illicit firearms, but it is virtually impossible for an ordinary person to get the hardware for the kind of shooting that took place last night in Connecticut. 

So, my American friends, turn your shock and grief into action.  Don't let the gun lobby and the ridiculous right get away with rhetoric about freedom and democracy and the sanctity of the constitution.  Don't let Obama, who no longer needs their votes, get away with inaction.  If your congressional representatives try to block legislation, sue them for the deaths of the next group of children killed in such a massacre.  Any country which tolerates a legal right to acquire instruments of mass murder is crazy. 

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Radical Disciple

For over 50 years, up until his death in 2011, John Stott was a leader of the worldwide Evangelical movement.  He was a key author of the Lausanne Covenant on World Evangelisation in 1974 (he was chair of the drafting committee) and central to the subsequent spin-offs and supplementary statements.

Stott was an ever-present eminence in my youth, an evangelical authority who was assumed to be right until he could be positively proven to be wrong.  You would be hard put to find such proof - his writings are careful and considered, marshalling evidence before laying out a modest, logical conclusion.  His sermons - to which we listened on cassette tapes - were masterpieces of the art of condensing complex subject matter into four alliterative points for easy recall.  He was not so much an original theologian as a gifted teacher, able to explain complex concepts in simple lay terms.

He was a good role model for young evangelicals.  He didn't despise learning but nor did he flaunt it.  He avoided extremes, treated opposing viewpoints with respect, always played the ball not the man.  He also lived what he taught.  He never sought high office in the church, even though he would have made a good bishop, and lived all his life on a modest stipend from his London parish while allocating his substantial book royalities to the charities he founded.

To my mind, though, his biggest contribution to the evangelical movement was his focus on holistic discipleship. For him, it wasn't enough for Christians to preach the gospel - we also had to practice it, to live as far as possible the way Jesus intended.  This led him to adopt and adapt many of the findings of liberation theology into an evangelical context.  In my youth I thought he was too tame and conservative - I still do in many ways - but he was a key influence in moving evangelicals away from a myopic focus on conversion to a concern with justice and human wellbeing.

All these thoughts are prompted by a 50th birthday gift from my friend Trevor of Stott's final book, The Radical Disciple.  I'm not sure why it's taken me until after my 51st birthday to read it, but I have a lot of books on my shelf waiting to be read.  Written when he was not far short of 90, the book is shot through with mortality.  Stott was living in an aged care facility as he wrote it, having broken his hip not long previously in a fall.  He knew he did not have much life left and this would be his last book, and his post-script is a typically self-effacing final farewell to his readers, thanking them for their encouraging letters and explaining the details of his literary will.

This is a deceptively simple book, because although you could read it in a single sitting, it would take a lifetime to put it into practice.  Stott summarises what he sees as the essence of Christian discipleship.  What sort of people should we be striving to become as Christians?  He allows himself eight points rather than four.

Non-conformity for Stott is the mid-point between escapism - a desire to run away from the world - and conformity, a desire to blend in.  Christians are called to live in the world, but to live by Christ's standards even if these are different from those of our neighbours.

Christ-likeness follows directly from this, trying to model our lives on the standard Christ set for us.  This involves us learning humility, service of others, unconditional love, and devotion to our mission.  These things in themselves can be the study of a lifetime, and fortunately he reminds us that we have God's help, and the presence of his Spirit, to guide us.

Maturity is one of Stott's signature themes and the focus of much of his ministry.  His complaint about the church throughout his life was that while the numbers of Christians have increased around the world, so often our Chrisitianity is only skin deep.  We have limited knowledge of our faith, and practice only its most obvious disciplines.  He is particularly focused on Bible study and knowledge, but his meassage could be extended - maturity in prayer, in moral judgement, in theological and political discernment.

Creation care for Stott is a key aspect of living in God's world in the 21st century.  God has put us on earth with the task of caring for it and its creatures, and we need to acknowledge we are failing in that task, and learn to do better.

The chapter on simplicity is drawn from the Lausanne Movement's Consultation on Simple Lifestyle which Stott chaired in 1980.  It touches on our care for creation, our concern to eradicate proverty, our building a new kind of community in the Church, our personal commitment to simplicity, and our desire for justice.  He has no expectation we will acheive this in this life, but believes we should try.

His sixth concept, balance, is quite nuanced and complex.  He points out three dichotomies - between individual discipleship and corporate fellowship, between worship and work, and between pilgrimage towards God and citizenship in this world.  For Stott, these are not choices to be made, but elements of our life to be held in balance.

Dependence is perhaps something Stott was well qualified to talk about in his declining years, dependent as he was on others for many of his daily needs.  However, he points out that we are all dependent - on God for our very life, and on one another.  A fierce independence is not a virtue, it is a weakness we need to address.

Death is the final item in Stott's list.  Jesus says if we follow him we need to be willing to take up our cross, and he was not talking metaphorically.  For many Christians persecution and even martyrdom is a reality.  Yet even for those of us who live in safety, mortality is always with us, and part of Christian discipleship is to look it in the face and accept that only through our death can we truly live.

Stott faced his death with equanimity.  He also left us a legacy, both in his writings and in his example.  If we could follow just a small part of it, we would be a genuine blessing to the world around us.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

No News on Climate Change

Most of you will probably be aware that the United Nations Doha Climate Change Conference is lumbering to a close.  Delegates sit in air-conditioned comfort in a country which is perhaps a small foretaste of our future world and struggle to make decisions that are in some way meaningful.

As a result, we have been getting updates on the latest findings of climate science, and the results are not pretty.  Data on increases in emissions, rises in sea levels and trends in average global temperatures are all worse than expected.  Melting permafrost adds an element to warming that most models didn't include because of previously inconclusive evidence. 

Climate scientists are pessimistic about our ability to acheive the objective of keeping warming to 2 degrees celsius by 2100, and 4 degrees is being discussed.  A recent World Bank report suggests the human consequences of such a rise would be catastrophic.  Here's a bit of what they say.

Even with the current mitigation commitments and pledges fully implemented, there is roughly a 20 percent likelihood of exceeding 4°C by 2100. If they are not met, a warming of 4°C could occur as early as the 2060s. Such a warming level and associated sea-level rise of 0.5 to 1 meter, or more, by 2100 would not be the end point: a further warming to levels over 6°C, with several meters of sea-level rise, would likely occur over the following centuries...

No nation will be immune to the impacts of climate change.  However, the distribution of impacts is likely to be inherently unequal and tilted against many of the world’s poorest regions, which have the least economic, institutional, scientific, and technical capacity to cope and adapt...

A world in which warming reaches 4°C above preindustrial levels would be one of unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions, with serious impacts on human systems, ecosystems, and associated services. 

Warming of 4°C can still be avoided: numerous studies show that there are technically and economically feasible emissions pathways to hold warming likely below 2°C. Thus the level of impacts that developing countries and the rest of the world experience will be a result of government, private sector, and civil society decisions and choices, including, unfortunately, inaction.

In other words, climate change is a slow moving train wreck, which will make us all poorer and be a genuine disaster for those who are already poor.  We can minimise it if we act, but we definitely need to act soon.

Meanwhile in Canberra our political leaders have been fully focused on sorting out the important question of what Julia Gillard did or didn't know when she acted as legal representative for the AWU 20 years ago.  Not only did our Prime Minister need to stay home from Doha to sort this issue out,  Climate Change Minister Greg Combet needed to stay home to help.  I'm not sure who is representing Australia in Doha.  

Nor am I sure who is representing any other country. The most important question facing global leaders is being left in the hands of officials who do not have the authority to commit their countries to anything they have not already decided to do. Not surprisingly, it looks as though the result will be what diplomats might refer to as "modest progress".

It so happened that the talks coincided with Australia playing South Africa in the third cricket test in Perth, so instead of the ABC news which at least mentions such things I watched Channel 9.  While some of the alarming research reports released to coincide with the conference were reported, complete with dramatic stock footage of things that look like affects of global warming, the conference itself was not even mentioned.  Obviously there was no decent footage from the conference to be had.  So a large part of the Australian public is likely to be unaware the conference is even happening.

I think this story trumps the absurd cruelty of our country's treatment of asylum seekers as the worst news story of the year.  Both stories leave me feeling frustrated, helpless and angry but the crime involved in neglecting climate change is on such a huge scale it would be hard to imagine anything worse. 

So how is it that we are so sanguine about it?  How is that this comes as just one news story among arguments about 20 year old scandals, interest rate cuts, petty crime and cute animals?  The ABC's Jonathan Green has some thoughts on the subject.  Firstly this:

The problem is of course one of both the scale of the threat and its contemporary invisibility. We are talking about a trend, a prospect, a probability. One that is boggling. Barely conceivable. That both admits idiotic and ideologically motivated "doubt" and subtly invalidates the issue in the eyes of a news media that favours the instantaneous, graphic and loud. If the consequences predicted for 2100 were happening now, well ... then we'd have a story.

The second he quotes from Fairfax journalist Chris Feikin.

Consider this: of all the coal, gas and oil fields that the world's corporations and nations have already quantified and have the legal right to exploit, 80 per cent now needs to stay in the ground if temperature rises are to be kept within 2 degrees.

Incredulity, distance in space and time and multinational corporations with vested interest in the status quo make a powerful combination.  Doha will pass, there will be a lull in press on the subject and we will be able to spend the summer sitting in front of our fans watching the cricket.  The global warming train wreck will roll slowly on.  Who will be powerful enough, and long sighted enough, to stop it?