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.

(Response)

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.

(Response).

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.

(Response)

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.

(Response)

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.

Mixing faith and politics: Cameron, Gove and a barmy blog


It would be unkind, but not unfair, to suggest that David Cameron’s Easter message showed rather less understanding of religion than the Bishops’ Election letter showed of politics. It seems that Magic FM’s reception in the Chilterns has improved as the election nears.

In a similar vein, Michael Gove’s polemic in this week’s Spectator sits oddly alongside his achievement in sidelining Religious Education through his education reforms, collateral damage in his search for his particular vision of the greater educational good.

Nonetheless, in their own way, each provides a reminder that the relationship between religion and politics needs a rather greater amount of attention than our society’s leaders and leader-writers seem willing to give it. Certainly it needs more thought than this article calling for religion to be banished from the public sphere.

The author, who is remarkably shy about his own commitments and associations, seems basically to be saying that we don’t want our politics to be like American politics. He manages to ignore the reality that in the US religion is rigorously separated from government, yet intrudes everywhere, and in the UK it is formally enshrined in the organs of state, yet is often invisible. Consideration of that alone should have given him pause to ask what exactly he means.

He publishes the demands he made to party leaders on his blog. Again he withholds any information about his own affiliations while seeking to deny those of religious affiliation the freedom he is currently exercising. He seems miffed that they haven’t recognised the significance of his campaigning by speedy – or indeed any – replies. These are his demands:

  1. Your party will not solicit financial or electoral support on religious grounds (any religion);
  2. Your party will not give any form of special access to policy-making or campaigning to any religious group;
  3. Your party will publicly repudiate any person or organization who solicits support for it on any religious basis (for or against any religion)

I’m not sure exactly what the first means. And I’m not sure the author does either. “You and I,” says politician X, “believe in justice for the oppressed. Your scriptures are full of it, your prayers talk about it. I believe our policies deliver on that better than any other party. I hope you will see that and support us.” Mr Heller, it would seem, would like to prevent politicians saying such things.

The second is an odd attempt to make specific what ought to be general: no government should give any interest group special access to policy-making. Or does Mr Heller believe that it’s okay for the RSPCA and the National Secular Society, and other non-religious groups to have access? Or does he mean what he really, really wants is a commitment to abolish bishops from the House of Lords?

The third is even more bizarre than the first. You’ve been inspired by your faith to campaign for the Living Wage. He wants you banned from publicly supporting a political party that promises it. Your church has been running a food bank and wants to get commitments from politicians to address the root causes of food poverty. He doesn’t want a party to listen to you because your faith is a living and visible part of your motivation to provide emergency supplies to those who need them.

Now, I suspect that isn’t what he really means, and he’d feel I’ve distorted what he meant. It is, however, a fair interpretation of his actual words. I don’t think he’s thought through the implications of his slogans. But he’s certainly a good candidate for this week’s poster boy for secularist bigotry.

 

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.