Paradise Lost

I don’t normally take photographs of rough sleepers, but the irony of this one takes it into social comment when you consider the vast sums being spent on the remodelling of Paradise Circus – between the seat of municipal government and the upmarket areas for concerts, clubbing and dining.

The house Jesus grew up in: a slowly percolating (non-)story

The Church of England’s communications’ team puts together a daily digest of news (subscribe here). I was a bit surprised to find that today’s had a reference to a story in the Express that the house Jesus grew up in had been discovered. I was even more surprised to find the Express writing about something other than immigration (bad), Brexit (good), Diana (divine) or the weather (variable).

It turns out that this is a story that appeared in the Biblical Archaeology Review in 2015, and was recycled in Bible History Daily last year. A University of Reading archaeologist, Dr Ken Dark, has investigated the remains below the convent of the Sisters of Nazareth (a stone’s throw from the Basilica of the Annunciation, and traditional site of Mary’s family home before she moved in with Joseph).

His investigation confirms it is a 1st century dwelling, although reading between the lines of the story, he wants both to say “Did Jesus live here” for publicity, and the “We really can’t know” for academic integrity. It’s as good a way to have your cake and eat it as comes to an archaeologist, I guess.

It’s not dissimilar from the attitude of the sisters. When I was shown round the remains in 2004 a couple of years before his project began, the nun guiding our small group was very careful to hint at the sisters’ belief that this was Joseph’s family home (and therefore also Jesus’) without making anything like a definite claim. The photo above shows the edge of the cistern, having been well worn with repeated visits to draw water. The photo below shows a first century tomb (which I lent to James McGrath for the cover of his The Burial of Jesus.)

It is a fascinating site in its own right, irrespective of speculation about Jesus, but the simple truth is: it’s a first century home. Either it, or any excavated home of similar age, or any of the many houses which have never been found, could have been the family home where the carpenter lived, and presumably worked.  It is intriguing that an academic archaeologist and a popular press as at home with alternative facts as real ones might equally speculate that this is the place where Jesus grew up.

I think that says something interesting about our society, its romantic take on history, and its fascination with Jesus that secularism hasn’t entirely eroded. I beg leave to doubt that it says anything well-founded about this particular set of well-preserved archaeological remains.

Desert song: hymning the temptation

With Lent just about to arrive, it’s time to offer a retrieval from a past blog. Here is a hymn on the theme of the temptations of Christ. The tune I had in mind when I wrote it was Picardy. But I was seriously flattered when Kathryn Rose (@artsyhonker) wrote a tune for it: her recording of Harringey is here.

Just in case you’re still struggling to find hymns (and indeed ideas) for Lent this year: here is a slightly edited version of my earlier work. A couple of months back I also had the experience of reading it aloud as a poem, during a time of reflection in the Judaean desert (pictured), which helped me rethink my own words, as well as reaffirming my hope that there’s some helpful theology in it.

From the Jordan to the desert,
from the crowd to barren place,
Spirit-driven, devil-tempted,
Lord, you sought the Father’s grace
show us now your pow’r, in weakness,
presence in the empty space.

Out of Egypt with God’s people,
freedom brings its testing stress:
what is right and what is truthful,
how the name of God confess?
Jesus, lead us on our journey,
guide us through the wilderness.

Lack of food for empty stomach,
offered only cold hard stone;
scripture used to tempt and strengthen;
easy route to grasp the throne:
Bread of life, and Word incarnate
help us worship God alone.

In the search for loving justice,
in the quest for truth and right,
Jesus walk beside, before us,
hold your Cross of love in sight;
keep us in your Father’s presence,
guide us to your risen light.

Creative Commons License(This hymn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Licence, so you can use it freely in your liturgy and worship)

Mr Sanders’ Pharisees – and Paul’s (reviewing Sanders on Paul)

I’m still not entirely sure what I think of E. P. Sanders’ Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters and Thought. Most scholars who have written extensively on Paul want to write their “big book on Paul”. Examples include James D. G. Dunn’s Theology of Paul the Apostle, a little over a decade ago or Tom Wright’s comprehensive version of his apostle in Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

At one level, Sanders’ book belongs in such company: the older statesman rehearsing his views at the end of his career. At another level, this is a different kind of book. It is written, quite clearly, for undergraduates. Little is assumed, and scholarly methodology is exposed to view in a pedagogically helpful way. Sanders is, it seems, committing to paper his Paul for undergraduates. It is, above all else, clear. The reader knows what Sanders thinks, and what Sanders thinks is that he can offer a relatively Rankean delineation of early Christian history. He claims to prescind from theology, and write as an historian. (more…)

Liturgy: words for speaking, not for reading

The Christmas issue of the Church Times included an article in favour of applying readability testing to the Church’s liturgy. It’s a summary of the author’s own thesis. The article wasn’t helped by some dodgy subbing. In the text, he explains that he “isolated a small core of 33 words that will be difficult to avoid in worship”. (A rather odd selection in any case – family? forgives?) Unfortunately the boxout captioned them “Complex words that might be avoided”. Perhaps his text wasn’t as readable as the sub-editor needed it to be! (more…)

For Christmas Eve: “Here the word was made flesh”

This is the basement grotto of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The site incorporates a first-century house, which is traditionally claimed to be Mary’s house. The inscription on the altar states “Verbum caro hic factum est – Here the Word was made flesh”.

Not to be outdone by those pesky Catholics claiming the location of Mary’s home, just down the road the Orthodox have built the Church of St Gabriel, incorporating the well at which an early apocryphal text (the second-century Protevangelium of James) narrated Mary’s first encounter with Gabriel. This text splits Luke’s narrative: the initial greeting comes at the well, the remainder of the conversation back at the house. The scene is portrayed in the courtyard of St Gabriel’s Church, below.

There seems to me (despite this territorial competition) to be something tremendously important about adding that “hic” (here) to St John’s prologue – “here the Word was made flesh”. It is not an argument about any kind of certainty that anyone has identified a holy site accurately. I doubt anyone is going to uncover a “Yeshua was here” graffitum. It is rather a reminder that this is a specific story, told about named people at a particular time in history, at a (theoretically) identifiable place.

I often hear people speaking about “the principle of incarnation”. I’ve nothing against such a principle, but the language can sometimes sound as if incarnation is the sort of thing the Deity spends all his time doing, rather than a single and unique event we approach through the stories of Jesus. “God became human” is a faith-filled characterisation of a particular human history, not primarily a theological generalisation about either divinity or humanity.

We need to be reminded of the uniqueness of how this light comes into the world, so that we may better appreciate where  and how to seek it, find it, and reflect it.

So, as I prepare to retell and rehear the Christmas story again in song and prayer, word and (above all) sacrament, I pray that for you and for me, we may find in this unique history of God coming to share our earthly nature, that fruitful encounter with him, that will enable us to participate in his divine life. Happy Christmas.

One will be taken

Choose one of two
Choose one of two

The gospel for Advent Sunday (Year A – Matthew 24.36-44) is not without its problems. Indeed, in our contemporary context, the idea that the parousia – the “second coming” – is a theme used in preparation for Christmas – the “first coming” – of Christ, is itself problematic. An open-minded pentecostal friend messaged me asking about the Advent themes, and was, I think, rather surprised to hear that the traditional ones were not the “love, peace, joy, hope” of many schools’ Advent wreaths, but “death, judgement, heaven and hell”.

The emphasis, it seems to me, in the gospel, is really quite existential. If we live sub specie aeternitatis – in the shadow of eternity – that prospect is presented in Jesus’ words less as a continuous present, and more as an imminent disruption. The metaphors of this teaching point to something sudden. In some contexts, such as Noah’s, the sudden change is being prepared for by a few. In other contexts, it is entirely unexpected. Unexpectedness, suddenness – these seem to me to be the point of the metaphor expressed in “one will be taken, one will be left.”

We are not dealing with some kind of weird timetable of rapture. We are dealing with something that cannot be timetabled: the possibility that any time might be the time when God breaks into normality.

There are some differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of these texts. Matthew places them in the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Luke places them before that final week. Matthew’s analogies are of two men in a field, and two women grinding meal. Luke’s are of two men in a bed, and two women grinding meal. Matthew uses present passive verbs, Luke uses future passives. (This is one of those places where gospel interrelationships don’t meet a tidy Q paradigm.)

Whatever the precise group in view, the idea seems to be that two people are engaged in the same task, and find a different outcome. It is more likely that the one who “is taken” is the loser, and the one who “is left” who is the winner. (Dispensationalist theory notwithstanding.) To be taken by, for example, a flash flood in a wadi, a lightning strike in a storm, a plague that seems indiscriminate in its targets, all suggest that it is “being taken” that is destructive, and “being left” that is escape.

When this is paired with the language used, that becomes even more likely. The language for being left is also the language for being forgiven. Words depend on their context for their meaning, and the use of the verb “ἀφίημι – to leave, permit, forgive” is not a knock down argument. Yet the balance of probabilities suggests that, far from supporting any idea of “the rapture”, Jesus’ language is directed at readiness for change, rather than timetable for judgement.


Mind your language

I’ve been in a discussion today about the language of scripture. My interlocutor wanted to claim that the language of John 2 implied that the water that was changed into wine was the water of the well from which the stone jars were filled, rather than the water in the jars (John 2:1-11). And, therefore, Jesus transformed all water into the wine of the kingdom.

The basis of this claim was that the word for drawing water used in the Cana story was the same as the word for drawing water used in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. That much is true. Both narratives use the common verb “to draw” – ἀντλέω (antleõ).

Yet there is the little question of context, which, admittedly, is always more problematic in John, who delights in ambiguity and paronomasia. Words have a range of possible meanings, but to place a word in a sentence, or a series of connected sentences, is always a process of limiting the range of meanings that word may bear.

“Are you religious?” probably means something like, “do you go to church?” when the question is addressed to a lay person. “Are you religious?” when addressed to a member of the clergy signifies, “Do you belong to a religious order?” And “Are you a religious follower of #LFC?” (Victory be upon them) signifies something else again.

Words are simply not repositories of concatenated meanings. To place a word into a sentence is to limit the meanings that word can convey. Sentences restrict semantics. Context constrains meaning.

And in that Johannine sentence, and that context, it seems to me that “draw water” in all probability refers fairly clearly to drawing it from the jars, not from the wells / springs from which that water was originally taken.

Sow the seeds of discord, and reap what harvest?

Military Cemetery – Mahn und Gedenkstätte Gardelegen
Military Cemetery – Mahn und Gedenkstätte Gardelegen

I spent some time on Wednesday at a workshop organised by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. It was the first step towards planning next year’s event. One of the resources they introduced us to was the 10 Stages of Genocide (PDF). This is a refinement of an earlier 8 Stages, developed by Gregory H Stanton, President of Genocide Watch.


I am still pondering this, not least because it makes the process look too sequential. Yes, there is a broad sequence, but many of these can happen in varied sequences, and develop simultaneously. Perhaps it would be better to think in terms of components of genocide, rather than stages.

If we do think in terms of components, then how worried should we be that aspects of stages 1-4 and 6 of this diagram, seem to have formed part of the Brexit aftermath? And play a part in the rhetoric of AfD in Germany, FN in France, and Trump in the USA to name but three.

That’s not to suggest that we or they are on a path to genocide. That would be a ludicrous over-reaction. It is to  ask whether we’re normalising some very dangerous behaviours.

Putting them in their historical and global context might help us realise how dangerous they are.

Brexit and friends: reasons to be frightened

Yesterday I had a conversation with someone who actually seems to share my anxieties (or paranoia). Many people think I (and she) are simply alarmist.

What we share is this.

We see the Brexit vote, and feel that this is simply a glorified opinion poll. It saw many people vote against immigration, against marginalisation, against poverty, against a London-centric nation, against politics as normal, against a distant political elite, against the failures of globalisation. It was a protest vote. That protest vote is not a vote for anything, yet it is being used to try to stamp out dissent, by those who are anti-EU zealots. “The people have spoken. We need to accept the democratic vote.” Bollocks. If they have spoken, it’s with a multiply forked tongue.

We look at the Corbynista take-over of the Labour party, in which Militant have been re-branded Momemtum. We see an appeal to a democratic mandate, while anyone who disagrees with the so-called “mandate” seems to feel themselves threatened with de-selection, and women MPs especially feel bullied, harassed, and threatened. Jewish members, in particular, seem to feel particularly vulnerable, despite Shami Chakrabati’s successful application for a peerage. A long-time member of our local Labour party tells me that virtually none of these new members have turned up for either local party meetings, or for canvassing at elections. They are single-ideology members.

We look across the Atlantic at the Trump phenomenon. God knows Hilary Clinton comes across as a particularly bloodless and unappealing candidate. But Trump appeals to the worst in people: anger, anti-almost-everything, clearly racist, and fundamentally unwilling to accept any degree of scrutiny of his tax and business affairs. Yet, despite all this, he taps into a deep root of anger among those who have lost out of present day American success, while hankering for a mythological and lost fifties’ Pleasantville.

We look across Europe and see an out-of-touch political class and populist anger. In France one incompetent president is likely to face off an equally incompetent (and corrupt) predecessor, while Marine Le Pen and the FN turn more and more Islamophobic resentment into votes. In Germany, Frau Merkel is less and less the respected Mutti of a happy and confident nation, and more and more the resented mother of a rebellious teenager. AfD continues its accelerated political rise, unhappily coincidental with the re-legalisation of the publication of Mein Kampf.

We see these things, and we see uncomfortable and undesirable comparisons with the Germany of the 1930s. A popular appeal to fix things, a populist ability to fix the blame on “them”, an ability to disguise a profoundly demagogic manipulation of the voters as a democratic appeal to the people. These things should be really very scary. They are not politics as usual. They are venomously anti-political, and ultimately de-humanising.

We fear greatly that we have failed dismally to learn the lessons of history. We acknowledge a significant degree of both complacency and arrogance in the European political elite. But we fear, in short, that we are seeing the seeds of failure of Western democracy, sown in a field of anger and disillusionment. Those currently in government seem to us to be sleepwalking into a nightmare.

It may be that we are alarmist, even paranoid in these fears. But what if we are not?