Category Archives: Theology

My Own Philippians 4:4-8

Protest the things that are unfair, and again I say, protest! Ensure your clever sarcasm is appreciated by all. Roll all the bad stuff around over and over in your mind, as if that was just as good as handing over requests to God. And a righteous unease with this world, which transcends all rationality, will characterise your heart and mind. Finally, if anything has been changed without consultation, if anyone has dropped the ball, whatever is uncertain and dubious and falls short of the high standards of idealism, ensure that those things do not go unnoticed.

God, forgive me and heal me.

What Paul (Paul! — who had been unjustly beaten & imprisoned when he visited Philippi!!) actually wrote:

Phil. 4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Genesis in Nostradamus

I got to thinking the other day. There are lots and lots of creation narratives across cultures — elephants standing on turtles, the first man and woman throwing bones over the shoulder to create the plants and animals, and so on and so forth. If you lined them all up one alongside each other in a shelf, I think there are only two that that you’d say were viable — our own and the Hebrew one. And when you look at them side by side, they’re not really that different.

You have to do a little cultural translation, mind. You have to be aware that water/sea does not mean H2O to the Hebrew mind, but rather the sea is chaos. When a westerner thinks of the infinity of the universe, we cannot help thinking of space… we even call it space! A Hebrew mind thinking of an infinity of nothing would think of the vast sea … would think of water. And they do, in their creation story. If you squint a little, you’ll see that the author of the Hebrew creation was communicating the same creation we’re used to. It starts suddenly, and with light/energy … brought about by something or someone totally out of our experience. Then matter (firm land) has to be separated from the chaos (water) before the rest of the stuff can happen.

Much of what follows is in the order you would want it to be in — truth that modern people have accessed through scientific enquiry was somehow accessible in a different way to this ancient author. Plants before life in the sea before birds and mammals. Even evolution is anticipated: “Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind.”

Even those bits that are difficult are worth discussing in science terms as well as theological. So, for example, in Genesis, if the dry land / Earth does represent matter rather than planet Earth, then the plant life is viewed to come into existence before our solar system. That would have been thought bizarre at one point. But by the late 20th century, the theory that life is extra-terrestrial, and that comets and so on might, in fact, be transporting the earliest forms of life were being explored (see for instance, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe’s panspermia hypothesis).

Because the Genesis account is in the Bible, it’s given a rougher ride than it deserves. If it had been discovered in a cave, or if someone found it in the writings of Nostradamus or even in the writings of some 19th century mystic, oh, how the tabloid newspapers would hawk it as uncanny, supernatural, and an amazing likeness. Good guesses, Moses!

Satan’s Conversation with Eve (Gen. 3)

He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1)

Satan is so crafty. I’ve long believed it’s no mistake that he chooses to talk to Eve on her own, not because she’s Eve and the weaker of the two, but just the fact of talking to one of them, rather than the two of them. “It is not good for him to be alone,” God had said before the Fall — astonishingly, even before the ‘bad’ was introduced into creation, there was ‘not good.’

But isn’t also curious that Satan chooses to start the conversation by implying that he has an incorrect understanding of God’s conversation with the two? Later, he’ll imply that he is an authority on the matter of whether the thing will kill them or not — clearly he needs her to believe that he knows what he’s talking about. So why start by implying that he doesn’t know? Why start by having her feel like she’s telling him stuff that he doesn’t know? How does that help him?

He does not come in claiming to be an alternative God. The conversational style makes it sound as though this is one created thing chatting to another about their roles in the cosmos…. Over the course of the conversation he sounds as if he is not trying to set himself as an alternative Father figure, but rather as a kind of impartial older brother, advising rather than issuing contradictory orders.

Does he despise her? He must, to wilfully lead them away from God’s decrees like that. Unless he is convinced that ‘opening their eyes’ in that way was good for them or good for him or something. What is he hoping to gain? That clearly is not something Scripture thinks we need to know, maybe it is, at this stage, beyond our comprehension.

Very curious.

the word “evangelicalism”

Timothy Keller writing in The New Yorker magazine:

“in the early nineteen-seventies, the word “evangelical” still meant an alternative to the fortress mentality of fundamentalism [but]…its meaning has changed drastically…”

“When I used the word to describe myself in the nineteen-seventies, it meant I was not a fundamentalist. If I use the name today, however, it means to hearers that I am.”

“in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with “hypocrite.””

“Does the word, then, have an ongoing usefulness? For now, the answer may be no.”


Why Things Don’t Change

The sun is nearly 900,000 miles wide. It is a huge ball of gas with nuclear fission going on at the centre, producing a temperature of 15.5 million degrees Celsius at the core.

A human being can blot it out of the sky by holding up the palm of their hand.

No matter how great or how true a thing or an idea, no human being will see what they choose not to see.

Life More Abundantly?

“God wants you to be rich” is a statement that, to me, seems almost indistinguishable from an assertion like “God wants to stuff you with a table full of cappucino-flavoured ganache.” Before accepting Jesus’ offer of “life to the full” (John 10:10), you need to understand his concept of what a full life is. That is unlikely to be the same as the assumptions of 21st century western culture.

The Alien Logic of Both/And

My former colleaugue, Lish Eves taught that our western/Greek logic is based on “either/or” — we deduce things with the default that one thing will exclude the other thing. This has been a useful shortcut in, for instance, Newtonian physics, but turns out to be a real drawback in our attempts to understand quantum mechanics.

But, she said, many other non-western cultures, notably the ancient Hebrews, have a default logic that is “both/and” — this makes them appear to us illogical and incapable of reasoning when in fact it’s merely a different kind of reasoning and the only way of dealing with some truths. Einstein rejected quantum physics because he was “either/or.” But light IS both wave and particle; there are occasions where the photon/electron or whatever IS in superposition — both here and there. Jesus IS fully human and fully divine. etc. For ancient Jews, my comical example is “Your god does not exist, AND our God could beat him up with one hand tied behind his back, AND he doesn’t have hands anyway.” To us, this is funny; I’m not sure St Paul would understand why we think so.

In our lives, relationships are easier to see as both/and … most westerners can conceive of a love/hate relationship when it comes to themselves. But the extreme modernist frequently complains “How can you say God is a God of love when X Y and Z?” EITHER he is this and not that OR he is … etc.

You and I are culturally conditioned, I think, to lump things into either/or categories. Other cultures would find this arbitrary.

What I never got around to asking Lish is why it is that she thinks cultures need to be either one or the other….

Instruction and Counsel (Ps. 32:8-11)

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you. (Psalm 32:8-9)

Good theological education leads to independent thought and judgement. Even for the Old Testament writers, it wasn’t about mindless obedience to detailed regulations. Do NOT be like a broken horse being led here and there! This is what Paul is yammering about in Galatians and Romans. Judaism itself isn’t simply about obedience. As the passage goes on to say, it is about trust; it is about heart:

Many are the woes of the wicked,
but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him.
Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
sing, all you who are upright in heart! (32:10-11)

There Was No King (Judges 17:6 and //s)

Four times in the book of Judges, we run across this formula: “In those days Israel had no king” (17:6, 18:1, 19:1, 21:25). The first and the last time, the author adds the phrase “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”

Now, make no mistake, Judges is in scripture as a negative example: do not act like this. It has become common then, to read this repeating formula as if it were saying that the bad morality displayed in this period is because there wasn’t a king — that is, if they’d had a king, they’d have been better. There is a glaring problem with this: it’s clear from the book of 1 Samuel, which follows Judges, that having a king is itself part of the bad thinking, and not what God or Samuel want.

Mary Evans, in her new commentary on Judges, suggests a nuanced interpretation, one which doesn’t occur to us because we’re not living in the kind of monarchy that the biblical writers would have been writing in. If we lived under a dictatorial monarchy that we knew God didn’t really want, when things went badly, we would be tempted to blame everything bad on the monarch.

Into such a situation, Judges could be telling you about the old days, which were not good old days, and using our repeating phrase to say: yeah, but things were awful even before the kings; the problem is not the form of government, it’s deeper and wider than that. The problem is the unfaithfulness of the people.

Imperfect Followers (Mt 28:16-20)

Bart Tarman preached on the Sunday morning, the final session of SimplyJesus 2017. His text was from the end of Matthew’s gospel. And he said something simple, but true and reassuring. He read this about the Jesus, who was back from the grave, and his first followers: “then the eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him…” there Bart paused before reading the end of the sentence… “but some doubted.”

Bart looked at us and said, “I don’t know about you. But that makes me feel a whole lot better about my doubts and fears.” They saw him, they worshiped him, and still there could be doubts.

And these are the people — we are the people — Jesus sends and promises to be with. “Surely I am with you always.” To which we might add, “but some doubted.”

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