Friday, February 27, 2009

Brief trip through recent days

Posting average is way down... here's what I've actually been up to lately.

1. Reading the Fathers. I made it through Athanasius' Orationes contra Arianos, which took some time but was well worth it. Last week I spent with Basil in De Spiritu Sancto and some of his Epistles, this week I've been reading Gregory Nazianzen's Theological Orations. It's a great experience. I'm still keenly aware that I owe Nick Norelli a blog post on the trinity very shortly though.

2. With the Ruth sermon series finished (sadly chapter 4 involved some equipment failure and so no audio), this week we're launching into John, which I'm pretty excited about. I wish Chrysostom hadn't written so many homilies just on chapter 1 though!

3. Speaking of John's Gospel, I'm auditing a subject on narrative criticism and John's gospel, which I'm still woefully behind on because I haven't got stuck into the readings yet.

4. Just yesterday we started a new ministry opportunity in a local boys' juvenile detention centre. We met with the chaplain earlier this week, and went in yesterday. It will be a slow, regular process of getting to know the guys inside and building a relationship with them and sharing faith and life together.

5. I'd quite like to go the APECSS Conference in Japan this year, but without a paper to present I can't really justify it at all. So if you have any suggestions for some research I could do on Early Christian Letters, I'd love to take them and run with it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Transliterations are ugly and useless

I don't understand why commentaries use transliterated greek or hebrew. For anyone who's done some Greek/Hebrew, it's far easier to read the Greek or the Hebrew text than a transliteration. For anyone who hasn't, the transliteration doesn't help them, except to mouth-out some incomprehensible word they can pretend to grasp. If you're going to talk about the Greek, talk about it and accept the lost audience. If you're not, don't both with transliterations. They're ugly and useless.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The power of a name

Ever since the emergence of the Driscoll phenomenon (a man I'm entirely grateful to God for, a phenomenon I'm continually cautious about), and particularly his visit in late 2008 to Sydney, there has been a real shake-up and swell of discussion and initiative in the evangelical circles of australia. I can immediately think of a half-dozen young men either involved in some go-getting church-planting, or working towards church-planting. There are also a lot of discussions about church-planting, conferences, etc., etc..

Some of it is very helpful. Some things really do need to be shaken up and broken down, to proclaim jesus to more people and see many saved by the glorious grace of the gospel.

But some of it is very unhelpful. It's about names. It's about making a name for oneself. It's about associations with other names. The question of 'who will succeed?' as a church-planter, in a very 'who will build a contemporary independent missional mega-church in sydney kind-of-way.

I'm more convinced than ever that there is a lot more talk than anything else. I love church-planting, I would love to see many more church-plants take place and take flight, and many people come to know Jesus. But I'd love to see a lot less, hear a lot less. I myself must continually remind myself that I'm not in 'this business' of preaching Jesus to make a name for myself. That's the whole anti-thesis of Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 4:12.

More dying to self, more proclaiming Jesus rather than our name, more ground-work, trench-fighting, real-ministry, living God glorifying lives in the everyday in real community with ordinary believers and tragically lost sinners like ourselves.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Narrating Christianity

How do you narrate post-Jesus Christianity?

Coming from a fairly conserved reformed tradition, the narrative always looked like this:

"The church expanded around the Mediterranean basin, primarily in Asia Minor, Greece, and Egypt. Constantine represents the political climax of the conversion of the Empire, Nicaea its theological counterpart. Post-Chalcedon the church get's a little off-track, and the ascendancy of the Roman pope really sends things askew. Fast-forward to the Reformation, and here's the bible, isn't it great. Luther and Calvin are great guys. Oh, yeah, we tried to reform the English church, good on Cranmer and co. Fast-forward to 1788, isn't Sydney Evangelicalism great??"

Read Jenkin's fine book though, and he'll thoroughly de-stablise your eurocentricism. Tackle church history through any denominational angle, and again your perspective skews. Read through Roman Catholocism, and 500-1500 suddenly becomes a lot more important.

For most western christians, one of the defining questions you need to ask is: what to do with Christendom? I personally thank God we live post-Christendom (Here's one good reason. nevertheless, I'm committed to a strong doctrine of providence, and most of the great doctrinal contributions of the early church is the 4th century, the issues forced really by imperial intervention. Constantine was a great tragedy, but also the agent of great good, in the church.

Constantinian-ism, if such an entity exists, was a mistake though. Christendom was a grand social experiment which has thankfully failed, but it's legacy in a post-colonial age is far from over.

This week we finish up the book of Ruth at church. I'm convinced that chapter 4 firmly puts its date of composition to post-David's ascension. It could be, but need not be, later. But it's only the ascension of David as king that makes the story of Ruth and Boaz significant - God's purposes at work 3-4 generations ago suddenly become a lot clearer. They become a lot more clearer in Matthew 1, as we read the Ruth story with Christian eyes. It's a lot harder to work out how to read the story of Christendom, Constantine, and the church (but at least we know where it'll end up, Rev 20-22).

How do you narrate the story of Christianity?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sermon, Ruth 3

I really enjoyed preaching Ruth 3. There are some definitely strange things going on in the chapter, but in the end you have this profound mix of the details of the romance between one man and one woman, the minutiae of a single story at a single moment in time, mixed with the profound truths of the providence of God as he works in his people, for the best, with a view to the really long, long term, and the coming of a redeemer who will wash us clean.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What is it good for?

Here's an excellent series of posts on "What is it Good For? Nonviolence in a Violent World":
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

Well worth the time.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

lexicon of five langugaes

Since I spend an inordinate amount of time studying 5 languages, and since I also have an unhealthy interest in language eedagogy and language-courses, as well as a rabid interest in language acquisition more than grammatical-linguistic knowledge about languages, I am working on a rather crazy piece of lexicography.

I have a spreadsheet set up, in which I place items of vocabulary from time to time, and then attempt to fill in the other columns for other languages. Naturally, languages not having 1-1 mapping, this is a little messy. Nonetheless, it's very enlightening. I hope that eventually I will have a rather comprehensive database, and might make it available for people (whoever they are) who might find it useful. It's also rather nice, in that I come across rather conversational/contemporary words in some languages, and then have to go looking for corresponding words/phrases in ancient languages.

At the moment the lexicon has English, Ancient Greek, Latin, German, and Scottish Gaelic. At some point I may add some Biblical Hebrew.

I also have a sub-lexicon specifically for noting in-language terminology for Grammar.

Against Combat Sports, such as MMA (Mixed Martial Arts)

Craig asked me whether I had a biblical argument against MMA to offer. I've been pondering over this for awhile. Today's post isn't a biblical argument in the sense that it doesn't quote a lot of Scripture. I do present it as a coherent theological argument though, and as part of an ongoing case to get Christians to reconsider the status quo on violence.

First: holding Just War accountable

If you've read my blog for awhile, then I expect you know that I am convicted by the scriptures that a form of pacifism, grounded in the New Testament, and centered on Jesus, is the Christian position on 'violence'. However, as I thought about this post, I realised that I didn't need to defend that position for this particular case. Instead, I want to suggest that if you hold some variety of the 'Just War' theory, you need to be far more consistent with that position than most advocates are. (If neither Just War nor Pacifism describe your Christian-ethic regarding violence, I humbly submit you are way off track in your understanding of the Scriptures).

If you hold a robust doctrine of Just War, with the following kinds of criteria: Just Cause, Comparative Justice, Legitimate Authority, Right intention, Probability of Success, Last Resort, Proportionality of outcome, Distinction of Combatants, Proportionality of conduct, and Minimum force with Military necessity, then I suggest the kind of picture that emerges of the combatant is one of restraint, an almost-apathy towards the use of arms, a deep sense of grief at the necessity, and a readiness to abandon violence when its necessary use has passed.

Such a picture clearly fails to match up to most conflicts in human history, which raises its own questions. More relevantly, such a picture bodes poorly for our discussion of MMA and its ilk.

Second: Culture and Sport

The Second element that needs to be brought to the table is some account of culture and sport from a theological viewpoint. Even though Niebuhr's substantive ethical contribution is (to my mind) really poor, his categorisation of Christ and Culture (Against, Of, Above, in Paradox, Transformer) (Earl Barnett has a great pictoral summary with Jesus and Mr. T.) is quite helpful. Let me suggest that none of these categories is meant to be a sole model for how Christians should deal with culture. That said, recent (and helpful) emphases on 'engaging', even 'redeeming' culture seem to me to have taken the stance that all elements of our cultural context can be 'redeemed', and we have increasingly lost the ability to take stands on some seemingly pure-culture issues and say, “No, we don't agree with that”. It makes zero sense to most contemporary Christians that the early church had a no-tolerance policy on serving as a soldier, the theatre, the Roman games, and so on.

That's not entirely my position either. I would say that human arts and culture are expressions of our sub-creativity, and so we fashion cultural artefacts in our own image. The question then becomes, what kind of expression is the practice, or the visual consumption, of mixed-martial arts?

I differentiate Combat Sports from sports that are called 'violent' in a generic sense. Various codes of football, for instance, are often called 'violent' sports. But really that is a function of the physicality of their competition. Combat Sports, however, are at heart about violence. They are the matching of two human beings engaged in physical violence with the result conditioned on the victory of one over their opponent. The only real difference between Combat Sport and Combat is that as a sport they are (generally) designed to stop the combat in anticipation of its violent conclusion (incapacitation and/or death) at a point where that conclusion would be apparent.

A person who practices Combat Sports, and particularly those more down the MMA end of the spectrum, is training their body and mind in the skill of violent harm. If, as many do, it's seen as fun and enjoyment, then I suggest this is even more disturbing, or at least should be – that a person takes delight in training for violent harm. If a person watches combat sports as a spectator, then I consider that equally disturbing: to derive a certain voyeuristic and vicarious enjoyment from the violent harm of one combatant to another.

Third: Synthesis

The real disconnection, I believe, comes from the attempt of Christians to hold 1 and 2 together. That is, ask most Christians who have an appreciation for combat sports, and they will give you some version of the Just War doctrine. They will carefully make a case for self- and family- protection. They will then make a clear distinction between real self-defence, and the sports of violence. What I am proposing is that the nature of combat sports is contradictory to even a doctrine of Just War. To take delight in a sport that centres on causing physical damage, is to enter into a mindset, and inculcate a way of life, that runs remarkably against the kind of attitude of reluctance, slow-to-anger, measured and grieving violence that a Just War doctrine seems that it should uphold.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Change of view

Last year we worked hard to get into our local high school, which has a fairly poor and tough reputation. The authorities that be gave us a fairly open door to run seminar-days and present the gospel.

This year we'd arranged to move to weekly classes of special religious education (SRE), but I've just heard back that the start of the school year has been really unsettled, with a lot of fights. The school executive has decided to restrict and cancel all non-core activities, including outside visits and excursions. That includes us.

I'll meet with the school later this week to discuss arrangements and possibilities for Term 2 and onwards. In the meantime, I now find myself (and our youth worker), with about 8 free work-hours. The question now is, "Where will we find opportunities to meet people, be a blessing to others, and share the gospel?"

Pray for the school, and pray for the new opportunity this opens up of free-time in my schedule.

Sermon, Ruth 2

Ruth Chapter 2 is full of Grace, as Boaz models and typifies the grace of the Christ to come, in provision and protection for the Outsider, Ruth. I really enjoyed preaching this sermon.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Martial Metaphors: What to do with them

One of the things I am convinced of should be a hermeneutical principle is refusing to flatten the scriptural witness on an issue. This is why I'm convinced a biblical argument for pacificism needs to be carefully nuanced, and take full account of the flow of the redemptive meta-narrative that stretched from Genesis to Revelation.

It's also why I'm fully willing to concede that the Old Testament condones, and in some instances depicts Divinely mandated, war. That is then why I'll only make an argument for pacificism ultimately from the New Testament, because I believe the New Covenant and the Incarnation, and more significantly, the pattern of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, is decisive and transformative on the issue of violence and war.

Then, one must come to terms with the military language and martial metaphors resident in the New Testament. How does one do that? I think it is far from satisfactory to cite the presence of militant language as a case for militancy from the New Testament. To do so is to miss the significance of metaphorical language.

I would suggest, that a careful reading of metaphorical violent language in the New Testament corpus routinely subverts physical violence and transfers the referents of conflict to 'spiritual' matters. That, in effect, is what metaphors deal in: semantic transference. Ephesians 6 is the classic example of this, and Eph 6:12 is the verse that keys you in, not "against flesh and blood".

It is, indeed, not conflict that the New Testament rules out, but violence in particular. In doing so, in a Christocentric fashion, there is no room for martial metaphors to reverse that ethical innovation. One can't argue back from metaphors to the normativity of violence, if the non-metaphorical has already ruled it out.

The Revelation to John is the book that contains probably the most significant, forceful, and ambiguous metaphorical language about violence (if metaphor is even the proper catch-all). Yet, there more than anywhere, I'd argue that the whole book systematically undermines and subverts the paradigm of a conquering military messiah. The contrast of the Lion of Rev 5:5 with the slaughtered Lamb of Rev 5:6 is the most succinct summary of a pattern that the book repeats throughout.

A secondary implication though, is to note that the NT doesn't do away with militant metaphors. Unless one has embraced a position that is radically against the arts on other grounds, it is not the presence of violence in film, literature, even video-games that is the sticking-point, but where that violence points to. To take a non-allegorical text, the Lord of the Rings is interwoven with Christian themes, but is not an explicitly Christian text, and manages to portray a world of violence without glorifying violence or providing violence as the ultimate solution. As Christians wrestling with the issue of metaphor and violence, or more deeply with the Cruciform pacificism of Jesus, we would do well to reflect more deeply on these matters.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

2009: Doing it tough on the languages

This is what I've been doing lately, and why I haven't been posting much.

Greek: I've been doing a lot of work on Greek. Everything from vocab drilling (trying to expand and also cement accentuation), working through Zuntz's introductory textbook (it's massive), using Buth's materials to internalise, Prose composition, reading intermediate texts (classical and patristic), and scripture memorisation.

Hebrew: My Hebrew program is more scaled-back. Reading over and reviewing an introductory grammar, working through Buth's materials, frequency-based vocab drilling, and a commitment to preaching 3 OT books from the Hebrew text this year, even if it's done with a lot of software assistance.

Latin: My Latin scheme is more intensive too. I'm trying to re-learn vocab to inculcate vowel-length knowledge. Reading through Gildersleeve and Lodge, some of Oerberg's Roma Aeterna, Patristic selections (Minucius Felix at the moment), prose composition, and Adler.

I then spend a little time working on German and Gaelic, before spending as long as I can focus working on my reading course - at the moment I'm about halfway through Athanasius' Orationes contra Arianos, and it's slow going. My page-count limit for the course was 2500, but the nature of the ANF-NPNF volumes means its a lot more reading.

That's my studies, then I go and do work. Now you understand why I haven't got to much posting. Secondly, I've been cutting down on internet time. Trying to focus more.

So, that's my half-apology, half-explanation.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Sermon, Ruth 1

The first in a 4-part series on Ruth. I've finally figured out how to podcast through blogger, so I expect to regularly post sermons in this format from now on. Otherwise, the link on the right should always take you to the latest.