The non-reality of a Hogwarts education

Hogwarts ClassroomIn yesterday’s introductory post, I mentioned that the Ravenclaw Reader consisted of paper-and-response pairs. The first such pair looks at Hogwarts as a school. The paper “Learning, Understanding, Experience: Harry Potter and Pedagogy” is by Jessica Tiffin, the response “Hidden in Plain Sight” is by Joel Hunter. Dr Tiffin is a Student Development Officer in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Cape Town; Dr Hunter is a philosopher who’s moved out of traditional university into a community college. (I really do wish they’d provided a page describing contributors to save me time on Google.)

I have to say, Tiffin’s paper doesn’t strike me as the most auspicious start to the book. However, given the centrality of Hogwarts to the story, I can see why the editors started with it. Tiffin discusses the very limited appearances education actually makes in the Potterverse, the technological way in which magic is largely taught as practical skills within the narrative, and the vanishingly small appearances of competent teaching. Hogwarts, we may be sure, would not have passed its OFSTED (the English schools government inspection system).

Teaching is frequently ineffective and alienating to its students, and the knowledge it purports to teach often impenetrable; its function is secondary to the demands of what I choose to identify as the heroic plot, Harry’s destined confrontation with Voldemort. (p.2)

She presents an overview of dysfunctional learning in the school ranging from Professor Binns’ History of Magic class (an object lesson in the worst kind of old-fashioned recital of facts and dates approach) to the outrageous bullying and favouritism exhibited by Snape. Her observations of these details are largely accurate, although one suspects the reason there is no portrayal of a lesson teaching magical theory is that it would be poor narrative. We know there is such a thing (after all Dolores Umbridge will only let theory be taught) but Rowling does not portray it on the page. In drawing attention to the paucity of education on the page, Tiffin delineates something interesting that is often overlooked.

It is, however, the more general conclusions she draws from her observations I have problems with. The fact that the narrative majors in “Magic, Sport and Heroism” is less about “the elitism of a magical curriculum” (p.6) and more about the school as a backdrop for a different kind of adventure story. The fictional antecedents of Hogwarts attended by made-up adventurous children are largely as unlike the schools of the readers as the magical world is unlike the Muggle one. In many ways, Rowling’s story-telling is more of a throwback to earlier forms of children’s fiction where narrative compulsion takes precedence over educational virtue, and is probably all the more educative for it. In comparing her with more recent writers, Tiffin misses something of the point the child readers appreciate reflexively.

Indeed, the largest conclusion she draws (and to which the paper works) seems to me to be the most misplaced:

Important lessons, the series says, are only learned outside the classroom; … formal classroom outcomes are deemed [utterly irrelevant] in their subordination to the heroic narrative. … [The popularity of the stories of this school] demonstrates, I think, that across our education system, something is very wrong. (p.19)

The idea that the Potter books are popular precisely because the awful experience of education therein resonates with children’s awful experience of school strikes me as almost exactly upside-down. While there are recognisable elements of school, often exaggerated for comic effect, the appeal of Hogwarts is in being exactly unlike real school for most of today’s pupils, a place they’d like to belong to as those two orphaned protagonists Voldemort and Harry came to feel they belonged for the first time. The violation of Hogwarts between Umbridge in book five and the Carrows in book seven is meant to be as deeply felt as the loss to death of any of the characters. The analysis of Hogwarts as a school does little to further appreciation for Hogwarts as a narrative character.

In that respect, I find Hunter’s response much more in tune with my reading of the book. He sets the portrayal of Hogwarts against the largely dysfunctional nature of the wizarding world (p.27) which comes increasingly under question. (Dumbledore is one of the few who stands for a different way of doing things, and it is only late in the narrative arc that we find the deeply personal story of human frailty that stands behind his apparently unique stance.)

As the dystopian magnitude of wizarding society unfolds in Order, Prince and Hallows, readers may inevitably look back and ask “How did we ever get here?” only to find indicators of just how horrid Hogwarts schooling is in the first half of the series. (p.29)

Part of the answer is, of course, to be found in the reminder that this is a society that is scarred by a war which has never quite gone away, and part in the implicit racism that has become endemic to the world of magic. In drawing attention to this, Hunter reminds us that having created a wonderful world apparently unlike ours, initially attractive for being a fantasy to escape into, Rowling then turns the mirror back, so that we can see ourselves and our world more clearly.

For the trick to work, however, the nature of Hogwarts as fantasy education has to draw us in first, and after all, which of us wouldn’t like to play Quidditch, or learn Defence against the Dark Arts. The fantasy draws us in precisely as being unlike our world, not because we recognise the poor pedagogy of Potterworld as our own. It seems to me that Tiffin has been so taken with observing the details some very interesting and easily overlooked tress, she’s not realised that she’s wandered into the Forbidden Forest.

Harry Potter and the Groves of Academe

RavenclawReaderSo, as I was saying, Harry Potter gets his first academic conference. The edited proceedings of a 2012 conference at St Andrew’s University have just been published as The Ravenclaw Reader. Potterheads will get the allusion: Ravenclaw is the house “where those of wit and learning / will always find their kind.” (Philosopher’s Stone p88 – The Sorting Hat’s song). I hope to blog my way through the articles (each paired with a response) over the next couple of weeks. This post is by way of a starter.

I’m rather proud that when it comes to all things Harry Potter, I started ahead of the curve. It was sometime in the winter of 1998/9, I think, that I became intrigued to see a number of boys at our church primary school, none of whom you would think of as eager readers, spending lunchtimes with their heads in books (it was less of a surprise with girls). And it appeared to be one of two books, either Philosopher’s Stone (none of this American Sorcerer’s nonsense, please, the philosopher’s stone is a celebrated trope of alchemy) or Chamber of Secrets.

I decided to try one, and enjoying it greatly moved on to the other. I was hooked. I bought Prisoner of Azkaban (which remains my favourite book) on its publication day, as I did the next two. By the time we got to Half-Blood Prince I was queuing at midnight outside the shop (fortified in-between times by regular reading of Mugglenet). But it was, memory tells me, soon after the publication of Azkaban that the bandwagon began to roll, and by the time, two years later, the first film came round, it had become an apparently unstoppable media juggernaut.

As the momentum swelled, the odd (and they were very odd) fundamentalists started to swim out of the walls, like some kind of Puritan Peeves. (Peeves is a chaotic poltergeist and troublemaker absent from the films.)

I found myself being told very firmly that the books were evil. “Have you read any?” I enquired. “No. But she uses real spells from mediaeval grimoires to draw children into evil,” came back the answer. “Hmm,” I said, “that spell to make chewing-gum fly out of a keyhole and up a poltergeist’s nose must have been all the rage in the Middle Ages.” (Waddiwasi, if you should care to try it.) Alas, the self-righteousness was such that they didn’t even get the mockery.

It seems a long way from the respectability of a Harry Potter conference at a prestigious Scottish university. Interestingly, the foreword (by James Thomas, Professor of English at Pepperdine’s Seaver College) notes that “Conservative Christian opposition has abated a good bit now that Harry’s story has been told in full” (p.i) Those of us who’ve been arguing for its roots in classical and Christian cultural themes for some time can only say “Amen”.

Even more interestingly, the book’s two editors appear to be Christians from the more conservative end of the theological spectrum. Micah Snell is a priest in the Anglican Church of North America (Anglican in name, but not in communion with Canterbury) and John Patrick Pazdziora is an alumnus of Moody Bible Institute and Belfast Bible College. They are both studying with the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at St Andrew’s.

(It is one of the frustrations of the collection that there is no list of contributors – I’ve had to Google to bring you these biographical notes.)

In their introduction they note the “moral neutrality, both of Rowling’s fictional magic and of the imagination” (p.viii) and point out that “loved or loathed or preserved as quaint enigma, Harry Potter will remain the definitive cultural literary text of the generation that read its way into the third millennium.” ( Whatever their literary merit (much no doubt to be disputed) the books are a cultural phenomenon. I hope that the collection will live up to my hopes and the promise of its own foreword.

Bootstrapping the blog

It’s been a long time since my blogging was anything but desultory. I have it in mind to make the effort to get back to a more regular posting schedule, and that means finding some things to write about in a more organised way to get myself back into the habit.

I’m picking two starters. A long time ago, on a blog far away enough to be largely beyond the reach of even Google’s wayback machine, I ran a series on the 39 articles that proved (to me at least) rather more interesting than it said on the tin. I still have some of the source material, even if my views have sometimes moved on. Over however long it takes, I’d quite like to rework that series, perhaps a bit more with catechesis in mind.

(Should you be asking why I was so stupid as to delete a blog that was more widely read than I expected or it deserved, the answer is a complex combo of blog-weariness, a bout of depression, and (for in depression you lose most of your sense of proportion) what I felt I was experiencing as cyber-bullying from a couple of individuals whom I shall not name, but who are now indelibly etched in my spam filters.)

The other project, with which I shall start shortly, is to blog my way through the newly published (and edited) proceedings of a 2012 conference: the first academic conference devoted to Harry Potter. The first up on that will be a general introduction.

Well, so much for good intentions, let’s see if I can put them into practice.

Sorry, but I don’t think that’s evangelism

I was just now in Foyles, trying to look at newish theology books. A couple of young women, one head-scarved, one not, came by. One said to the other that this is where she could get a Bible. Immediately, an older man by the shelves with a friend, leapt in: “The Bible, yes, you should read that. It’s true.”

The head-scarved woman hit back. “Are you saying that to be helpful, or because you’re prejudiced?” The dialogue, such as it was, developed. She tried to challenge him about his presuppositions. He denied he had presuppositions because he knew the truth, and indeed, knew the author of the Bible so he could understand what it said, since it was God’s word, and anyway, Jesus said the Bible was true.

When he quoted it, it was the KJV, and virtually all his quotations, prefixed “Jesus himself actually said” were from St John’s gospel: this is a definition of “actually said” which is somewhat stretches the semantic resources of that phrase!

He’d clearly also read some kind of “Evangelical Apologist’s Guide to Where Islam Goes WRONG”, and kept telling the woman what she believed, and why it was wrong, since it contradicted the Bible. He didn’t, of course, listen to what she was saying about her belief.

I give her credit for a) being feisty, b) not letting him get away with his views and c) being far more intelligent and sophisticated about truth, faith and texts than he was. She had the advantage that she’d read at least parts of the Bible, had Christian friends, and was an Arabist and student of the Quran. He knew the Authorised version, and what other people had told him about (I approximate his pronunciation) “The Book of Korrrr-ran”.

I wanted to apologise to her on behalf of other Christians. Instead I left to catch a train, leaving her with at least a friendly remark which she seemed to appreciate, and pointing out to the would-be evangelist that of course he had presuppositions, and if he wanted an honest conversation he’d acknowledge them.

There was no relationship in this conversation. There was no respect for her as a human being. There was no consideration of the dynamics of an older man approaching a young woman. There was no attempt to listen to what she actually said, since he “knew” what Muslims believed.

And I’m sorry, that’s not evangelism as I see it.

Evangelism might have started in that context with a “Do you need any help choosing a Bible?” and seeing where the conversation went. But it would have included listening to what the woman was saying, and not assuming that there was an automatic right of a man in his sixties to approach a head-scarved young woman with a peremptory challenge about her beliefs, before he’d even found out what they were, or received any signal his approach was welcome.

Frankly, it made me embarrassed to admit I was Christian.

Good neighbours. Sermon in Morogoro Cathedral

I don’t often cross post things. And I almost never post sermons. (In fact, I hardly ever write sermons down, so posting them would be an impossibility!) However, I put this on or diocesan web site earlier today, and I’ve decided I also want to place it here. I hope it reflects an encouragement to take partnership in mission and cross-cultural friendship seriously.

The Chair of our (Tanzanian Diocese of) Morogoro Partnership Group asked me if I could write down a summary version of the short sermon I preached in Morogoro Cathedral on Sunday 30 August. This is an approximation of what I said intended for phrase by phrase translation. I have tried to reconstruct what I said on that occasion, and run it by colleagues to check. I have added a couple of glosses in italics. The Gospel Reading set for the Sunday was the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:23-37).

This is, as best as memory serves, what I said.

Dear brothers and sisters, thank you. Thank you for your warm welcome to our group, thank you for inviting us to join you today in worshipping our Lord, thank you for the privilege of this invitation to share the scriptures with you. Asante sana. (Thank you very much.) We have already read you our bishop’s greetings, and offered you our own, but again I greet you in the name of the Lord on behalf of our brothers and sisters – and yours also – in the diocese of Worcester.

My brother John has already read one of the most famous stories in the Bible, and one that is much loved in our church in England. Today I think that story gives us both a challenge and a comfort. Like many of Jesus’ stories, it starts with a question.

In my country, children are full of questions. I expect the same is true here in your lovely country as well. Children ask questions, don’t they? It is how they learn things they don’t know. But in my country, something happens when we grow up. A lot of us stop asking questions, in case people think we are stupid.

But Jesus tells us we must become like little children. That means a lot of things, but I think it means we must always go on asking questions, because we all have a lot to learn. And when it comes to reading our Bible, we must keep asking God questions about what it is he wants us to learn.

Today’s story starts with a question. It is not a good question. The teacher of the law, the expert, is like a Bible professor: he is asking his question not because he wants to know the answer, but because he wants to test Jesus. He wants to be able to say either “good answer” or “bad answer”, he is like a teacher giving a child a test.

Jesus is not trapped so easily. He makes the teacher give an answer. It is Jesus’ own favourite answer: “Love God, love your neighbour.”  Then Jesus says “Well done.” Imagine how it would be in the Bible College if the student tells the Principal “well done”, or in school if the child tells the teacher “Good answer”.

The teacher of the law is not happy, he tries again. “Who is my neighbour?” This sounds like a better question. But Jesus doesn’t like it. It sounds good, but it means: “Who are the people I have to love?” Is it my family? Then I can ignore those who are not family. Is it my village? Then I don’t have to help people in another village? Is it my country? Then I don’t have to love people from another country.

Brothers and sisters, we are all here together today because of we know Jesus not only wants us to love people from other countries, but wants to make us his brothers and sisters, and so make strangers, English, Tanzanian, people from all countries, into family. But the teacher of the law does not know this, and so he asks “Who is my neighbour? Who are the people I have to love, and therefore who are the rest who I can hate?”

And so Jesus tells the story of the man who falls among thieves and lies wounded and bleeding by the side of the road. The priest (the pastor) passes by, the levite (the catechist) passes by, the Samaritan (the foreigner, the heretic) stops to help. And at the end of the story Jesus asks his own question: “Who was a neighbour to the man who fell among thieves?”.

Look at Jesus’ question: “Who was a neighbour?” It means our question must not be the question of the teacher “Who is my neighbour?” but a new question: “Who can I be a neighbour to?” The Samaritan turned the wounded man into a neighbour by helping him: he did not see a Jew, he did not see a relative, he did not see a fellow countryman, he saw a man in need of help. He saw a man who needed love. And he helped, he loved, without asking questions about the man’s race, or family, or wealth, or status. This is Jesus’ challenge to us: he wants me, he wants you, to be a neighbour to anyone who needs help.

But there is also comfort. St Augustine was a great north African theologian 1600 years ago. Once he preached a sermon on this story in which he said the Good Samaritan was Jesus himself. He did not think of the risks to himself, he did not ask if we were worthy of help, but he loved us, and gave himself for us. He brought us to an inn, his holy church, so that we could be cared for, he handed over two coins: baptism, in which we are washed clean of our sins, and holy communion, the food of life which sustains and heals us.

There are times in our lives when we feel unable to help another, when we feel like the man who is wounded, beaten, bleeding by the side of the road. We are unable to get up unaided and continue our journey through life. But Jesus is always there to help us, to rescue us, to carry us and save us. And in his holy church he gives us each other to act as neighbours, to act as brothers, to act as sisters, to love, and care for, and help each other. This is a great comfort, that we do not journey alone, but with Jesus, and his whole company of friends.

Brothers and sisters, I spoke of St Augustine, child of Africa. He was not only a bishop and teacher for his own church, but his writings, his sermons have inspired the church for hundreds of years. One of the greatest theologians and teachers who has ever lived was African. And there were Christians in Africa before there were Christians in England. In my country and in your country we need to remember this.

Yet for many centuries, there were very few Christians in Africa. In many places, the church disappeared. In recent centuries, European countries acted as neighbours again and brought the faith of Jesus back to Africa. We were not always good neighbours. Even if we shared the faith, we did many things neighbours should not do. Many times in the past we Europeans behaved more like the thieves and not like the Good Samaritan. But now our Christian faith is strong again in you.

In Africa, Christianity disappeared in most places for centuries. In England, in Europe, it is disappearing today. We are like the wounded man by the side of the road. We need a neighbour. In Europe, in England, the church needs a neighbour to help us on our journey. You know you have much material poverty in your country. We have more poverty than you think, but we are still a rich country – in money, in buildings, in material things. Yet we have grown very poor in the things of the Spirit. You are very rich in the Spirit, in faith, in hope, and in love of Jesus. We need you to be neighbours to us as well, to be a neighbour to our church, to bind up our wounds and support us on the journey.

Brothers and sisters, I thank God for our friendship link. I thank God that Morogoro and Worcester can each give something to one another. That we can belong together to the family of Jesus, his one holy church. That we can help each other. That we are neighbours to each other. I pray that we will continue to learn to be good neighbours.

Bwana asifiwe. (= “Praise the Lord”. Response: Amen)

Alleluia. (Response: Amen.)

Please do not feed the paranoid

Western Christians seem to be developing a rather unhealthy persecution complex.It can be seen in the ways in which Christians have assessed early media interviews with Tim Farron. It can certainly be seen in a recent (well almost any vintage) story from the Christian Institute, which I noticed when a Facebook friend shared it at face value. It’s growing more common.

I want to offer a couple of brief observations, starting with the Farron election and subsequent interviews. Gillan Scott, in one of the more thoughtful reactions, provides the key links from The Times (paywall), the Spectator’s transcription with comment of the Today Programme, and Channel 4 News. He signs up to the persecution reading of these:

This whole episode has demonstrated that it is not Tim Farron who is being illiberal in his views and beliefs, but rather those who have set themselves up as a liberal elite, casting scorn and treating as pariahs those who do not bow down at the throne of secularism. God has been pushed to the margins, and religious illiteracy glories in its own folly.

I am not so certain this is the right way to read it, and Gillan’s comment about “religious illiteracy” seems to me nearer the mark. The more interesting reaction, and to my mind the more helpful one, is the reading offered by Ben Ryan at Theos. Media stories rely far more than we usually allow on two factors, a pre-existing script or story template into which the story can be fitted, and an easy controversial point, ideally with a completely contradictory view for balance.

When you take the religious literacy problem prevalent in our media into consideration, then Humphrys’ and Newman’s crassness becomes rather more understandable as floundering for cheap controversy without a decent story template to help them.

The problem with the easy cry of “persecution” or even just “marginalisation” is that it doesn’t put the core problem, media ignorance of a subject that is central to an increasing amount of global reporting, into the spotlight. (To which we should add Christian incompetence at providing accessible and intelligent presentations of the faith that sound like there may be a though worth pursuing.) And developing religious literacy in the media is key to developing it in society. See these repeated calls for a BBC Religion Editor to give the area due weight and competence.

The other story I saw today which illustrates the Christian persecution problem comes from the Christian Institute. Sadly, I came across it from someone on Facebook seeming to take the CI’s headline as gospel: Police to crack down on street preachers in Manchester. Their overblown news release starts off with “Police and council officers will target street preachers in Manchester city centre.” Their cited source, however, from which it appears the whole story has come, says something rather different:

Council officers will target pedlars and chuggers but officers will also crackdown on any nuisance booksellers, preachers and noisy musicians (emphasis added)

Frankly, if Manchester is anything like Birmingham, my sympathies lie largely with the council and police. By the time I’ve passed several stalls of Muslims on da’wah, a troupe of Hare Krishna, endless charity collectors, competing Christians with shouted KJV verses, Yoda impersonators, more charity collectors round the corner and so on, I sometimes wish I hadn’t ventured out.

Treating a crackdown on cacophony as “persecution” shows just how deeply this narrative has embedded itself in some people’s psyche.

The first problem with this modern Christian persecution mania is that it is not going to encourage us to find creative ways to address the key problem of religious illiteracy, especially in and among media people. The second is that it is likely to lead to short-term and knee-jerk thinking about campaigns, most of which show every sign of being fought in the wrong ditch. The third is that is likely to grow an us-and-them mentality and so become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Did Jesus make love a general principle?

Last week I was listening to one of the most distinguished biblical scholars of his generation talking about applying the teaching of Jesus to politics. I have to confess to being disappointed. His approach was to isolate the double love commandment, the “summary of the law” as Jesus’ central ethical principles, and then suggest that we today had to work out how to apply those principles.

I have problems with this, the first of which is that it is unexceptional almost to the point of vacuity to say that politics should practice and promote the love of neighbour, while being controversial to the point of displacing liberal democracy to say it should promote the love of God. Unfortunately the emphasis was on applying the principle of the former while neglecting the disruptive nature of the latter.

The second problem I have with it is that I seriously wonder whether the way these commands are abstracted is helpful. There’s a sense in which there’s nothing that unusual in the conversation between Jesus and the scribe in Mark (12:28-34). It belongs with the rabbinic tradition that attributes to Hillel the summary of the law as “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary.” (Matthew’s Jesus also has his own version of that summary – Matt 7:12.)

While Matthew (22:34-40) essentially re-uses Mark’s story while making the scribe more antagonistic, Luke attributes the combination of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 with Leviticus 19:18 to the teacher of the Law. It is possible to read this as Luke not seeing its attribution to Jesus as significant. It is equally possible to see it as Luke thinking his readers / hearers will be so familiar with it as Jesus’ teaching that they read / hear the story as the lawyer deliberately choosing to parrot Jesus’ teaching back to him. John, of course, has neither command, but provides a potentially more sectarian “love one another” that appears nowhere in the synoptic tradition.

A love-ethic does feature significantly in Paul and early Christianity, and appears to echo Jesus tradition in many cases. However, there’s no evidence that, for those at home with first century Jewish readings of Torah, there is anything particularly unusual or exceptional in Jesus’ appropriation of these verses as either a summary or hermeneutical key to Torah. The way in which later Christian tradition singles them out as unusual, or revolutionary, may just be the default setting of Christian anti-Judaism. Given the priority of love, that is desperately ironic.

But there’s that other thing about detaching them from the rest of Torah, or Paul’s communal practice, as “ethical principles”. It means any particular definition of love, which may or may not owe anything to the particular practices the text has historically been embedded in, can be read into it without any other controls. Abstracting love as a general principle allows it to become whatever the reader wants it to be, and Jesus’ hermeneutical key for reading Torah becomes a contemporary means for ignoring it.

Prayers for Global and Economic Justice

We’ve had a year in our diocese of focussing on issues of tax and economic justice, which concluded with a service of repentance, prayer and celebration earlier this week. This has been done in partnership with Christian Aid and Church Action on Poverty.

I was asked if I’d share the prayers I wrote as part of the liturgy. I apologise in advance to whoever I pinched the idea from (and others from whom I’ve probably borrowed phrases here and there). I do recollect seeing and using a set of prayers in the past based on Matthew’s beatitudes, and I acknowledge that while I have very much made these – based on Luke’s beatitudes – my own, I’ve borrowed ideas and phrases from others I can no longer identify. Others, in turn are free to use and adapt these.

Christian Aid Week is coming up here (10-16 May), and these may be particularly helpful then.

On the evening we used as a response between each section of prayer, the Taizé chant “Jesus, remember me”. This can of course, also be adapted as “Jesus, remember them”. Other chants or spoken responses are equally suitable.

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

God of the poor,
you call us to be attentive to the things we would rather not see,
the people we would rather not hear.
The goodness of your creation, the generosity of your provision,
has been obscured, twisted out of shape by human greed and fear.
Creation groans, knowing it is not the kingdom it will be.
The voice of the poor and oppressed comes to your ears,
even when, especially when, it is ignored by ours.
Teach us to seek your kingdom urgently,
that we may share its blessing with those to whom it is promised.


Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.

God of the hungry,
in the world economy, and in our own economy,
many brothers and sisters struggle with less food,
worse health, and lower life expectancy.
Your blessings are taken away from the poor
by those who have seized them for themselves.
We give you thanks for the generosity and energy
of all those who staff and provision food banks,
and who work for international development,
yet we pray to you for the grace to fight for a world
in which aid and charity are not needed,
and in which all flourish and are filled.


Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

God of the desolate,
our economy grows rich on cheap labour,
we clothe ourselves in cheerful garments
made by the sweat of the poor,
delight in music played on machines
made by those on subsistence labour.
Our lives are full of luxuries
carved out of the tears of the poor.
Help us to work for a world
in which the poor have equal dignity with the rich,
and enjoy a fair share of the fruits of their labour.
Help us to weep today with those who weep,
that we might laugh with them when they rejoice in your kingdom.


Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude you, revile you,
and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

God of the persecuted and marginalised,
we have cared so much for our peace
that we have supported tyranny in far away places
to keep our homes safe and secure.
We have failed to invest in the education,
rights, and protections of others,
failed to hear the cries of the prisoners,
or the words of the truth-tellers.
Help us to find a fearless voice
that speaks truth to power,
that rebukes the torturer and abuser,
brings the oppressed out of prison,
and takes a place beside the persecuted,
that in standing with them,
we might find ourselves standing beside you.


Silent prayer may follow, and the prayers may conclude with the Lord’s Prayer, a collect or some other prayer.

Jesus our brother,
suffering servant and righteous judge,
so mould our minds in the patterns of justice
and shape our hearts with the contours of love,
that we may secure the rights of the poor and oppressed,
challenge the consciences of the rich and powerful,
and draw the hearts of all humankind
to follow you in the way
which leads to the liberation of the whole creation
and the glorious freedom of all our Father’s children,
in the love and glory of his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

Remembering Paul: a brief review

Remembering PaulTom Wright rather over-eggs his pudding when he claims in Paul and the Faithfulness of God that St Paul invented Christian theology. The earliest Christians’ reflections on memories of Jesus and his teaching, as well as their experience of the Easter event and the presence of the risen Christ with them in the Spirit, were already what Paul the pre-Christian persecutor was reacting to as he chased them down.

Paul is, however, the most influential of Christian theologians, not least by virtue of his writings being canonised as scripture. His range is greater, more diverse, and more practical than “John”, his major canonical competitor for the title. It is not surprising then, that when subsequent Christians articulate their theology, they want Paul on their side.

Remembering Paul is Benjamin White’s exploration of that attempt to claim Paul as one’s own, as his subtitle “Ancient and Modern Contests over the Image of the Apostle” suggests. In the first chapters of the book he looks at some of the ways modern critical scholarship has both claimed a “real Paul”, and how post-Enlightenment scholars read the early history of Pauline reception in the second century church.

Modern scholars have (at least until recently) chosen a Paul whose theological heart is found in Romans, Galatians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, the so-called Hauptbriefe. Most commonly the “real Paul” is held to have written seven letters, adding Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon to those four. The Paul so constructed is a Lutheran Paul, but not only was justification of the individual believer made the cornerstone of constructing Paul, it also became the yardstick by which Pauline influence on the Apostolic Fathers and other early writers was measured. Where they are non-Lutheran, they are judged un-Pauline. So scholars invented a Pauline captivity, in which he was held prisoner by Marcion, Valentinus and other heretics, before Irenaeus reclaimed him for orthodoxy at the end of the 2nd century, albeit a more catholic orthodoxy than the “real Paul” (read Lutheran Paul) would have been happy with.

This narrative lasted until almost the close of the 20th century, and it is White’s claim that what is now needed, and what he seeks to provide is a new prolegomena to Pauline studies that sees Paul as a constructed, remembered, frequently re-imagined figure. He proceeds through mapping the history of scholarship since F C Baur, explores how the narrative that held sway from Baur onwards has now been largely exploded, and offers his own fresh study of how Paul is remembered by the orthodox using 3 Corinthians (p. Bodmer X) and Irenaeus’ Adversus Haereses.

He ends with an eight point program for better Pauline studies. First, he argues that interpreters need better to situate themselves in their own context, not least that of the history of interpretation through which they approach the text. He argues (2) for better awareness of the institutional framework (perhaps disciplinary framework would be better?) of the academy’s practice and that (3) the academy ought to provide a place for the proper contestation of methods assumptions and interpretations. His fourth point is that critical engagement with methodology must always be at the heart of the discipline. One could be excused for thinking those four points are the same thing said in different ways.

Fifthly, he suggests that claims about the “real Paul” need to be accompanied by descriptions of how they might be falsified. Given his literary approach to historiography, this seems to come from a rather more positivist discipline than any he has articulated. Sixth, appeals to the canonical letters are appropriate as primary evidence “inasmuch as there is a high probability that at least some … go back to Paul’s apostolic team” (p 180) Well, that’s a relief! His seventh point is that even authentic letters are rhetorical constructions, and that a developing mind, never mind a potentially inconsistent one, means that a fixed-point “real Paul” will always be elusive. Finally, he concludes that the remembered Paul may be a matter more of broad impressions, rather than a clear historical reconstruction.

That last point shows a deliberate overlap with, indeed imitation of, the place of social memory studies in historical Jesus research which White particularly explores in his fourth chapter. Those of us who are unconvinced that social memory studies bring anything significantly new to the table of Jesus studies are even less likely to be convinced that they have something new to bring Pauline studies. The historical Jesus left no writings and is only accessible through the refracted memories of the tradition. The historical Paul left writings in his own voice, and even if our reconstructions should rightly be chastened by many of the points White makes, the Paul we remember is one who left us his own words, even if we dispute still which words in fact be his.

Rejecting Rankean positivism (White repeatedly uses “wie es eigentlich gewesen” as a rhetorical dismissal) is nowadays somewhat passé. That dragon has been slain, or to change the metaphor, no-one in academia sails that close to Scylla any more. However, White sails far too close to his namesake Hayden White, a Charybdis at least as risky as Ranke. If Hayden White be a historiographer, then he is one at which most practicing historians curl their lips and roll their eyes.

There is, I think, a genuinely interesting parallel which White draws out between the ways in which ancient and modern writers alike construct a Paul congenial to their cause, a “real Paul” from whom they draw the comfort of their orthodoxy. In drawing attention to that process, however, White really ends up saying very little about how we deal with the represented Paul of the canon, whether those are the self-representations of a man who constructs his rhetoric carefully, while professing not to use “plausible words of wisdom” or the representations of a wise mentor of young pastors that we find in the Pastorals. Nor does he explore how those and other representations (such as Luke’s) might refract the same apostle, and what methodologies might be employed to hold them in some kind of interaction that doesn’t simply reject what is not the “real Paul.”

And finally, I cannot but draw attention to his conclusion that it is right to appeal “to specific Pauline letters and passages within letters as primary evidence for Saul of Tarsus” (p 180). I rather hope it is a conscious irony that he chooses to refer to the Paul of history by the referent “Saul of Tarsus”. After all, the Paul of the letters nowhere claims that Hebrew name, or that Cilician place of origin. Remembering Paul is indeed in need of careful historiography.

Remembering Anzac Day

I was once privileged to take part, some 32 years ago, in the commemorations of this day on Anzac Hill, overlooking Alice Springs. Although, I don’t think, growing up, I had heard anything about the Anzac campaign, or had ever heard of Gallipoli, by then, having lived in Australia for a few months, I knew rather more about it.

The first I really remember becoming aware of it was in 1981, seeing one of the most powerful anti- war films ever made, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli. In my memory it was elegiac in its simplicity, striking in its effective use of Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene and Albinoni’s Adagio as twin themes offsetting each other, and a gut-punch in its freeze frame ending of sprinter Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) breasting an imaginary finishing tape of his last run, not white as in all his past races, but the red of blood and bullets. If you haven’t seen it, I still recommend it as worth watching.

But in commemoration today, here’s first one of the most powerful folk songs commemorating it by ex-pat Scot Eric Bogle (and I’m not normally a folk music person). I think in my mind the mood created by the film is somehow intertwined with this song. And after that a collect from A Prayer Book for Australia for use on Anzac Day.

O God, our ruler and guide,
in whose hands are the destinies of this and every nation,
we give you thanks for the freedoms we enjoy in this land
and for those who laid down their lives to defend them:
We pray that we and all the people of Australia,
gratefully remembering their courage and their sacrifice,
may have grace to live in a spirit of justice,
of generosity and of peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.