Jesus: resurrection, history and misplaced apologetics

Just before Lent I heard what I regarded as an unhelpful – to put it charitably – sermon on the Transfiguration story. It was unhelpful for several reasons. The preacher used Luke to “fill in the details Mark left out” and largely ignored Mark’s shaping of the story. He referred to the “eyewitness account we have” in 2 Peter, as though this was unproblematic, whereas it seems to me verging on dishonesty, to hide from “the laity” any knowledge that Petrine authorship is almost universally questioned by scholars.

Saint_Catherine's_Transfiguration
Mosaic of the Transfiguration, St Catherine’s Monastery Sinai. Public Domain

Above all it was unhelpful because the preacher’s main aim seemed to be primarily, if not solely, to establish the historicity of the event. This fixation on historicity led to contrasts such as “not an hallucination, not a vision, but something that really happened”. (The possibility that it was a theological story was not entertained.)

I can understand the “not an hallucination” – a term we tend to use for those who are either ill or ingesting psychotropic substances. I can’t understand the “not a vision” since it is the testimony of almost all cultures but ours that visions are “real experiences”. What was it if it wasn’t a vision experience, and how does it being a visionary experience make it less real to its participants?

But leaving all that aside, what made this in my view a big problem, was that there was no real engagement with the summons to be transformed by following Jesus down the mountain and onwards on the way of the cross. The story of exaltation is sandwiched between Passion predictions, which is one of the reasons, I take it, that the Church of England messed around with the Revised Common Lectionary and moved this away from Lent 2 to the Sunday before Lent, to invite us to see Lent as walking this path of transformation. Listening to this sermon rather brought to mind Eliot’s line from The Dry Salvages (Four Quartets) “We had the experience but missed the meaning”.

Why do I bring that up at this end of Lent rather than at the start? Well apart from the fact that I wasn’t really blogging at the time, it is because I see the same temptation regularly surrendered to as Easter approaches.

It seems so easy for us Christians (teachers and preachers especially) so to give ourselves to an apologetic defence of the resurrection having actually happened, that we spend insufficient time and energy opening up the meaning of Easter. In doing so we run the risk of turning the resurrection of Jesus from the entropy-busting event that offers new hope and life to everything that happens in history, into just one more thing that happened in the distant past.

I’m sure no-one intends a form of apologetic that reduces the resurrection to a past event. I think, however, that an over-fixation on establishing its historicity as a ground for faith can produce exactly that effect. I suspect it is more that finding faith in the risen Jesus is the ground for accepting both the historical and eternal reality of his being raised from the dead.

Easter Eggs and the Daily Mail’s resurrection of George Carey

Today’s Mail on Sunday has one of those stories (click at your own peril) which makes it sound as if they’re on the churches’ side. (They really have mastered the art of link-bait – the url includes Jesus, Sainsburys and Darth Vader amongst others.)

But what is this? In a story complaining about the ignorance of supermarket chains about Easter, the Daily Fail subs show their ignorance of the Church of England. They think their occasional columnist George Carey is still archbishop of Canterbury.

Mail-screen-grab

The nub of the story is that some supermarket chains won’t stock the Real Easter Egg. I confess I remain seriously suspicious of the report that:

One chain even asked ‘what has Easter got to do with the Church?’, according to the makers of The Real Easter Egg,

When a quote is that anonymous – one chain – and it is qualified by attribution to a company, my instinct is to doubt its veracity. I don’t doubt there is widespread ignorance of the Christian Easter faith, but when a quotation is so carefully not attributed to anyone who might be able to sue, it is unlikely to bear much resemblance to what anyone actually said.

I also have to say, while I think the Real Easter Egg is a great idea, it is a commercial initiative. It has to succeed on commercial grounds, not on the basis of archepiscopal, or wish-I-still-were-archepsicopal pronouncements. As a bare minimum, it has to taste good, in order for people (other than those who wish rightly to support its message), to want to buy it. And, much as I regret having to say so, based on my personal chocolate taste, the Real Advent Calendar has put me off “Meaningful Chocolate” for some time to come.

The Church of Enunciation and Resurrection Tuesday

Some typos are too good to pass over without comment. I was fascinated to read in the Independent this morning about the Church of Enunciation.

Church of Enunciation

On one level it’s simply amusing. Although I hadn’t noticed any qualitative difference in people’s elocution at the Church of the Annunciation. At another level, you wonder why someone reporting on a country in which religion is such a significant part of cultural, racial and political identity, shows himself quite so ignorant of a fairly basic Christian concept. (And of the importance of Nazareth as the largest Arab city – leaving disputed Jerusalem out of the equation – in Israel, not just another Arab majority town.) Perhaps as a Defence Correspondent, he’s simply filling in, and the Indy is underfunded and understaffed.

Indeed that may be a more likely explanation, for in another article, someone who is described as an “online news reporter” has written a piece describing why Easter moves around in the calendar. She seems to think it moves around considerably more than it does, since she has it falling a week on Tuesday.

Easter dates

It suggests to me that not only is the Independent unable to source stories from specialists, but it’s unable to pay for basic sub-editing. But I wonder if it is revealing problems of religious literacy in the media more generally, that such basic mistakes are allowed in a news organisation that once had aspirations to change the industry for the better.

Hidden pictures and primitive history

Somewhat by chance I heard of Mow Cop as an interesting ruined castle worth visiting with a camera. And despite rather harsh and contrasty sunlight, it was. Oddly, this must be the worst signposted castle in the UK. It was almost as though they didn’t want visitors. There are no signs at all, even close to the actual ruins.

Mow Cop 35

What I hadn’t known until I saw this stone, was that this was the place where the Primitive Methodists originated. You go out for an interesting image, and come in with a better grasp of English and religious history.

Mow Cop 44

I’d heard of them as a more protestant, revivalist, and lay movement. I hadn’t realised where they originated in the Potteries.

Photography is a very educational hobby.

The Bible says …

I have always thought that “the Bible says” is a deeply problematic thing to say. If there was just one phrase I would like to ban from the pulpit, I think it would be a serious contender.

The problem, to my mind, is it erases the interpreter from the picture, yet everyone who says ‘the Bible says” actually means, “I say, the Bible says.”. There may be more or less sophisticated, elaborate, studious acts of interpretation that lie behind that “Bible says”. The affirmation made may have widespread agreement, or very limited agreement.

But it is still an interpretation, and to hide the interpreter’s responsibility for what they say, for the claim they make by that “the Bible says” is a moral abdication. We are responsible for our interpretations of scripture, whether we use them to feed the poor, justify genocide, liberate slaves or subject wives to domestic violence. Arguably all those actions could be prefaced by a “The Bible says …” introduction to applying a verse to make a case.

That’s why I’d like people to stop saying it. It’s a way of refusing to take responsibility for our positions, while rhetorically cloaking them in a “beyond argument” garment.

Discipleship & Establishment

Apart from appreciation offered by Christians of all (Protestant) stripes to Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, the word “discipleship” really began entering contemporary Christian discourse through David Watson’s book Discipleship (originally published 1981, I think). That came with a characteristic charismatic evangelical flavour, although influenced by some of Watson’s newly acquired friendships with catholic Christians.

It was complemented in popular evangelical reading by Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, which offered a particular evangelical Quaker take on the catholic spiritual tradition. This made for a fairly heady combination, which was always eclectic and reaching beyond any single tradition of churchmanship.

The language of discipleship, informed by this history, and an ever-widening embrace of devotional writings, not least those of St Ignatius and St Thomas à Kempis, has become the aspiration of “ordinary” Christian belonging. As such it has received a rather OTT reaction from people like Angela Tilby.

the language of discipleship to describe the normal Christian life does not stand up particularly well to scriptural scrutiny.

It would be an understatement to suggest that is not a view well grounded in the scriptural text, even if the language of discipleship is used somewhat differently from one author to the next.

However, the debate over the language, and the increasing use of it, does point to a sea-change in the way the Church of England speaks about its identity. The language of discipleship belongs to a gathered church, where belonging is conterminous with commitment. That sits poorly with talk of establishment, which embraces (among others) a sort of Anglican agnostic, or the Prime Minister’s description of himself as someone whose faith is a bit like Magic FM in the Chilterns (“it comes and goes”). To some extent this also surfaces as an urban / rural divide.

The question Angela Tilby raises may be an un-alphabetical example of the D-word following the E-word, but despite the hyperbolic language there is a real question to be pondered. Does emphasising the challenge of discipleship reduce the opportunity to welcome the less committed or enthusiastic? And does it simply emphasise a favoured type of commitment?

Development aid: one good reason for pride in Britain

Scrutiny of development aid is important, and helps ensure it is used effectively. In the real world, all honest scrutiny will identify things that need improving. Today’s Making Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s report needs to be read in that context. There’s a good article on it in The Guardian here.

There’s always the danger, however, that those who are opposed to aid on ideological grounds, or simply those of prejudice, will seize on the existence of any criticism to argue for a reduction in, or even the abolition of, the aid budget. So it might be a good time to rehearse some of the fundamental reasons why it matters.

In the pastoral letter Who is my Neighbour? (PDF), the Church of England’s bishops said:

The government is to be commended for committing 0.7% of GDP to overseas aid when budgets have been so hard pressed. For any party to abandon or reduce this commitment would be globally irresponsible in pragmatic terms as well as indicating that the moral imperatives of mutuality and reconciliation counted for nothing.” (p74)

Those commentators who try to dismiss the letter as a leftist whinge against the government might note this is one of several places where the letter commends the government. Why though, do the bishops say this?

For Christians, there will always be an awareness of the gospel imperative to help those most in need, and that we are encouraged to do things not for those who might one day return the favour, but for those who never can. It is, of course, not only Christians who might wish to argue for the morality of altruism on the basis of need.

There is another moral argument, from obligation. The West’s economic superiority and standard of living owes much to our past history of colonialism. Bluntly, even those of us who believe that the British Empire gave many of our former possessions much of value, should be honest that our shared history was more to our benefit than theirs. Our markets’ purchasing power can still over-determine their economic production, and to their detriment.

But for those who think moral arguments have no place in politics, who oddly enough are always those who gain advantage from present arrangements, there are also pragmatic arguments.

A very practical argument is that the more we can contribute to the well-being, health and stability of other countries, the greater their chance of a more productive economy, better health, less violence, fewer economic migrants and asylum-seekers. Aid helps others and serves our own long-term interests.

Changes in the world’s climate, combined with deep poverty are a real threat in sub-Saharan Africa, for example. As in Northern Nigeria, with Boko Haram, there’s a real danger that those conditions will leave people prey to the rise of militant Islam. For the sake of global peace and stability, we need to support solutions to things that are not just “someone else’s problem.”

When it’s well placed, and UK aid is better targeted than ever, (even if, as toady’s report reminds us there’s always more to be done) it helps economies grow to the point where they can trade more effectively, and be better global citizens.

Well-placed development aid is win-win. And, to be honest, we should be proud as a country that the UK government is leading the way by honouring our commitments. Aid is an investment in the world’s future.

Making peace a strange greeting?

If you’d asked me how common “Peace be with you” was as a greeting in the New Testament, until recently I’d have said “very”. I’ve been surprised to notice that it is instead very rare. (Incidentally the same phrase – εἰρήνη ὑμῖν – occurs even more rarely in the Greek Old Testament.)

The basic idea occurs in combination with grace in all of Paul’s letters, but the simplest form of the greeting doesn’t. And in the gospels it occurs exactly four times. It comes once at the climax of Luke’s gospel. The disciples return from the Emmaus encounter, and are discussing it with those in Jerusalem, when “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” (Luke 24:36 NRSV).

The other three all occur in the same story of the risen Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in the upper room. Twice on his first appearance as he shows them the marks of his wounds, and once on the appearance to Thomas which is the climax of the account (and I would argue, the gospel). The first occurrence is in words that seem to echo Luke’s: “Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” (Jn 20:19)

(I leave aside for now the interesting thought that this is one of several texts which raises questions about either the relationship of John’s and Luke’s texts, or their relationship to some shared tradition.)

What I want to suggest is that for both of them “peace”, as they present it, is seen as a consequence of the story. It is fundamentally the reason for everything that has preceded and is itself the experience and gift of the resurrected one.

If “peace” was a reasonably common greeting, as it is today in the Middle East, then there is a sense that what the gospel does is make it strange, and make it fresh. When you have journeyed with Jesus through the story that has been read, you discover the meaning of a word you have used all your life for the first time.

The Bible’s contrasting contexts of power

Let’s start his new site with a generalisation, in full knowledge that it’s always dangerous to generalise. That goes double for generalising differences between the Old and New Testaments. But, admitting that I paint with a broad brush, I think there is one that largely holds up.

With that caution, I note that the Hebrew Scriptures are the largely the creation of those in proximity to power. Scribes belonged at courts and temples. The concern they had with law was concern with the running of a country (whether idealistic vision or practical legislation for theocracy). It needed, on the whole, the wealth of kings and large temple complexes in the ancient world, to sustain an industry of producing texts. It is unsurprising therefore that the histories they wrote were the histories of kings.

Prophets seem to have been on hand as advisors to kings, even if their advice was sometimes unwelcome, most of them seem to come and go with full access to some kind of court or entourage. As for the production of poetry and wisdom literature; well, who but the wealthy or well-kept had the time to devote to scribal and literary study?

By contrast, when we move into the New Testament, we move largely away from elite groups. Jesus seems to have crossed most of the social boundaries of his day, but if we can make any deductions at all about a village carpenter whose innermost group were fisherman, we might place him and his core movement as artisan class. Most of those we meet in the urban centres where Paul conducted his mission can probably be placed somewhere between those struggling to survive even at subsistence level and a petite bourgeoisie.

In short, in the Old Testament we meet those who have the power to change their society, and in the New Testament those who have to live in their society with no real expectation of making any kind of difference. Those who suggest a version of religion that is disengaged from the structures of power and politics have forgotten the overt politics of the first, and misunderstood the restraint of the second.