Saturday, April 25, 2015

3D Jesus

"...transposition is a criterion of truth.  A truth which cannot be transposed isn't a truth; in the same way that what doesn't change in appearance according to the point of view isn't a real object, but a deceptive representation of such."

Simone Weil, The Need for Roots, p 68

In context, this is part of Weil's discussion of how culture can be transmitted, especially across boundaries of class and education.  She is against popularising, which loses the essentials of culture in trying to create something that can be successfully transmitted.  Transposition, by contrast, involves the hard work of so understanding the essential heart of a thing that it can be put across in a different way to different people without losing its essence.  The end result may outwardly look very different from the idea with which one started, but inwardly it will be the same.

Which is all interesting, but isn't what I wanted to say off the back of the striking quote above.

Ever wonder why there are four gospel accounts, each with their own details and ways of telling the story, and containing between themselves a number of irreconcilable differences?  I think it is just because the gospels are not flat, painted scenes; they are viewpoints on a three-dimensional object, which looks different from different angles.  Which is to say, behind each of the gospel accounts lies a real life - the life of Jesus.  Jesus is real, and so one can (so to speak) move around him and view him from different angles and in different ways.

It is an essential criterion of gospel truth that it work like this.  The reason the gospel message can be transposed into different cultures and situations is that it was never dependent on one particular form of words or way of telling the story; rather it is dependent on the reality of the Person who stands behind those words and stories.

This obviously doesn't mean infinite flexibility; some ways of telling the story would clearly be views of a different object, an invented person.  There are criteria for thinking this through, but in the end a lot will come down to whether the person behind this account seems to be the same as the person behind the canonical accounts.  In Weil's terms, some attempts might look to much like popularising; that is to say, editing the story to look like what we think people will accept.

In practice, we need to be careful about tying ourselves too closely to one way of viewing Jesus.  There are a number of indicators that this is happening - for example, if we're not satisfied that the gospel has been explained unless certain particular words or formulations are used...  But perhaps the biggest indicator would be that we wouldn't know how to introduce Jesus to people who did not share our culture, background, or education.  There's a challenge.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Bigger, Better, Stronger, Faster

Perhaps it is because we live in a technological age.  Around us there is constant technical progress, and that shapes our thinking about everything.  We believe very passionately in progress.  All the lines go upwards.  In a piece of very muddled thinking, we absorb at one and the same time the idea that progress is inevitable and the pressure that says we must make progress.  We are unable to be content with things the way they were.  Everything has to be bigger, better, stronger, faster.  We need more, we need improvement, we need power, we need efficiency.  That is who we are.

It is no surprise that this thinking affects the Church, and within it individual Christians.  Whether its our own walk with God or the shape of our Sunday services, we are constantly evaluating.  How do we grow?  How do we improve?  How do we exert more influence or just become more robust?  How we do become more slick and get more done?

Are we killing ourselves, spiritually, with monitoring, planning, changing?

Here is the thing: the Best of us - the only one of us who could be called in any unqualified sense Good - went to death on a cross.  In so doing, he shut the door for ever to bigger, better, stronger, faster.  He chose the way of the remnant, the way of the failure, the way of the weak, the way of delay and obstruction.  We cannot be his disciples and walk the road of improvement.  We cannot follow him on the track of high performance.  He just didn't walk those roads.

The tragic thing is that we struggle to hear this as gospel.  We are so immersed in the ways of bigger, better, stronger, faster that closing the door on these things feels hard.  We are being forbidden, prevented.  What we can't see is that this is liberation.  We must not  walk the way of performance and technique, but that means we need not do so.  It is not required of us, either in our individual spiritual lives or our community life as Christians, to perform.  We don't need to be on the curve, let alone ahead of it.

The gospel - the way of Christ - wins for us the ability to be quiet, the permission to be slow, the precious and vital space to fail and be picked up again.  This is where life happens, ironically: on the long and winding road of the cross.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Policies AND Personalities

There are lots of useful websites out there which will help you to work out which of the main political parties has policies which you are likely to find agreeable.  This is one of the best.  If you've not decided how to vote you will probably find it helpful.

The only thing I have against this particular website is the strapline: vote for policies, not personalities.  It seems to me that if I am voting for someone to represent me (and bear in mind that is what you are voting for; we don't elect a government, we elect an MP to represent us) I would rather have someone with integrity than not, even if I largely disagreed with them.  "We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them", as President Andrew Shepherd would put it.

Just something to bear in mind,

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Taste and See

What man is there who desires life
and loves many days, that he may see good?

Psalm 34:12

This verse jumped out at me as I was reading this week. It is not a rhetorical question (it is not effectively denying that there is such a man), but a practical question - do you want life? Do you love the good days of life and long for them to continue?
Then turn from evil, and do good, says the Psalmist.  Control your tongue.  Speak the truth.  Seek peace.  Then YHWH will look on you, and you can expect life in fullness.

When you think about it, the Bible is full of this sort of thing.  Jesus came to give abundant life, after all.  The promise of life, life in fullness, life full of good things - that is all over Scripture.  In Christ and his discipleship there is life.

A few thoughts:

It is vitally important that we read this promise through the cross.  It is right to love life, right to want many days, right to enjoy the many good things which life has to offer.  But life - real life - comes on the other side of death, whether that is the daily 'little death' (but not so little!) of self-denial or the 'final death' (but not so final!) of the grave.  If we forget this, we will create a theology of glory and deny the cross of Christ.

I think that for most people religion is about avoiding death, or at least avoiding the fear of death.  I wonder if that isn't right on the money for some of us who profess ourselves followers of Christ.  Scripture calls us to more than this: the love of life, not just the fear of death.  I think that will play out in a number of different ways.  Fear of death leads at best to disciplined and committed rule-keeping, hatred of sin, avoidance of evil; love of life leads to disciplined yet joyful submission to God's law, love of holiness, pursuit of Christ.  Fear of death leads to world-denial, and self-contained, self-confessed spirituality; love of life leads to loving service of the world (albeit recognising the temptation of worldliness) and a willingness to risk.  How can you risk anything, waste anything, put anything at all in harms way if your main motive is to avoid death?  But if you love life - and know that life means knowing Christ and his cross - then you can say: this is the game, this is the final, this is what counts; let's give it everything.

I wonder as well how we as Christians address those who just want life.  I suspect that often we just see the surface froth of hedonism and condemn this, without realising that underneath that is love of life, love of goodness, love of joy.  How do we persuade people that here, in Christ Jesus, here is life?  How do we shift the perception of the church from being joy-denying, world-hating, repressive, anti-life misery?

How will we taste and see that the Lord is good?  And how will we invite others to do the same?

Friday, April 10, 2015

Really Alive

Reflecting back on the Easter weekend, I'm struck by the same thing that generally strikes me at this time of year: I'm really convinced that this stuff actually happened, in real space and time.  I am convinced that there is compelling testimony, backed up by strong corroborative evidence, to say that the tomb in which the dead man Jesus of Nazareth was placed on Friday was empty on Sunday morning; that the dead man Jesus of Nazareth was seen alive on the third day after his crucifixion; that in this one case death has not had the final word.

I think in our culture we generally think religion, if it has a place at all, ought to be about transcendent ideas, lofty values, and a strong ethical code.  Christianity is not about any of those things.  If it includes them, it does so at the periphery.  Christianity is about the particular rather than the general, the historical rather than the transcendent, a story rather than an ethos.

It is about the fact (yes, fact) that in our history - and yet inexplicable in relation to our history - this man who had died was alive again.

I think we resist that conclusion, not least because if religion is about facts then there might be some onus on us to investigate whether they are true.  For everyone, believers and unbelievers alike, this is a disturbing premise.  Transcendent values, which seem so very high and lofty, are actually things that we don't argue about much because they are not worth arguing about; they are just not that sort of thing.  In fact, despite their lofty pretensions, it turns out we don't much care which value set you hold.  It is of no more importance than which supermarket you choose to shop at.  But if there are facts in there - things that are either true or false...

What's more, if the resurrection of Jesus took place in our history, in the midst of all the other mundane (in the most positive and literal sense of the word) occurrences of history, then there may be some knock-on significance for the mundane occurrences and circumstances of my week.  I might not be able to restrict Jesus to a part of life labelled 'religious'.  He might intrude on Monday morning as well as Sunday...

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Really dead

The day Christ spent in the tomb is all about this: he was really dead.  It wasn't a trick.  The Romans didn't half-execute anyone.  He was dead.  He had utterly succumbed to the brutality and horror of life in a sinful world.  More: he had experienced in full the curse of God which lies on a rebellious race.  He was dead.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.  He descended into hell...

Today is the proof that he tasted death.  And here's the thing with death: you don't get the full flavour unless you drain the cup, right down to the bottom.  There is the bitterness, in the last swallow.  There is the vile taste that catches in the throat.  He tasted death.

For everyone.  He drank it down for everyone,

And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Be kind

Before I throw myself into the (rather more important) business of the annual commemoration of the Lord's death and resurrection, here is a brief thought about the general election campaign.  I don't particularly want to comment on what's happening 'out there' in the wide world of national politics.  Rather, I want to say something about how you and I - especially if we are Christians - need to conduct ourselves during the campaign.  In so far as this is a rebuke, I promise you that it is directed at me and my past behaviour at least as much as at anyone else.

Here are a few things I think we need to bear in mind:

1.  We don't know people's motives.  It is easy for us to infer motives, especially when we are talking about people we don't know well.  For example, 'David Cameron only wants to help the rich'.  Does he?  That's an inference, I suppose, from Conservative economic policy, but I think we would do well to assume the best of people.  I find it helpful to think of people I actually do know who hold particular political and economic views; it is much harder to just assume that they are evil!  So, for example, my left-leaning friends would probably not say 'Daniel Blanche only wants to see the rich getting richer', even though I broadly agree with Dave's economic policies.

2.  Cynicism is a deadly trap.  I know that politicians give us lots of reasons to be cynical, but the way cynicism works reminds me of the conspiracy theorist I met who couldn't think for long about any subject without linking it in to his skewed worldview.  Cynicism becomes a habit of thought which colours everything and prevents us from seeing any good or nobility in anything.

3.  Tribalism is easy.  It's easy to get into a frame of mind where we think everything 'our side' says and does is right, whilst 'the others' are wrong about everything.  Really, what are the odds of this being the case?  Isn't it much more likely that we could all learn from one another?

4.  Life is complicated.  If we think we have a simple solution to any of the big political or economic problems of today, it probably just means we don't understand the issues.  Let's be a bit more patient with those on all sides of the political spectrum who are trying to wrestle with them.

5.  For Christians, our unity in Christ trumps our political divisions.  I imagine all Christians would agree in principle, but already this morning I've read a couple of articles - and more painfully comments from friends - essentially saying that I can't be a Christian because I am likely to vote Conservative.  Of course, they didn't say this about me - but in critiquing political leaders in strong language like 'clearly he doesn't understand Christianity given his evil politics' you implicitly unchurch all those who agree with that particular leader or his policies.  Let's be careful about that.

6.  Robust debate must have limits.  Let's just speak well of one another, and of politicians of all stripes.  Let's at least give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that we all want what's best.  I know that might be hard, given strong disagreement.  I know that sometimes it's really hard to see how someone can possibly think that.  But we can disagree within parameters of civility.  And indeed, if we are Christians we can disagree whilst showing honour to our leaders (and potential leaders) and love to one another.

I suppose it all boils down to this: let's be kind to one another, shall we?