Chicken Preaching, Flat Mountains and Glorious Contradictions

Chicken Preaching, Flat Mountains and Glorious Contradictions

The funny guys at Babyon Bee have hit on a Forsythian nerve of mine.  The headline ‘Half Of Congregation Dies Of Starvation As Sermon Goes 15 Minutes Over Time‘ is brilliant satire, as are almost all of their other articles; a much welcome relief to the tedium of seriousness we Protestants can so easily find ourselves embroiled in; relieved only by the annual church Barn Dance (this comment is also satire….or is it)?

My first thought upon reading the title was remembering two theological giants famous for, among many other things, their preaching.  The first, John Stott, metaphorically places the nail underneath the fast approaching hammer:John_stott

“Basically it is not the length of a sermon which makes the congregation impatient for it to stop, but the tedium of a sermon in which even the preacher himself appears to be taking very little interest.”

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The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church

The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church

The following article is a guest post by Rev’d Dr Helen Paynter, a Research Fellow and Coordinator of Community Learning at Bristol Baptist College, as well as part-time minister at Victoria Park Baptist Church in Bristol, and it is published here with my thanks to her friendship and ministry.

The paper was originally published in the Baptist Ministers’ Journal in January 2017.  Dr Paynter has also published a book called ‘Reduced Laughter – Seriocomic Features and their Functions in the Book of Kingsreviewed on this blog, and –ahem- reputable offerings elsewhere, drawing on the work of Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin.

It is of no small significance that the great Anthony Thiselton, writing the preface to his 20th Anniversary Edition of New Horizons in Hermeneutics writes, “The two thinkers to whom I would now give serious space if I were writing the book today are probably Hans Robert Jauss and Mikhail Bakhtin” (p.xxi) – emphasis totally mine!

 

To the truth…..

The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church.

Helen Paynter

Bristol Baptist College May 2017

 

 

The post-truth phenomenon and why it matters

Truth is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us – Hannah Arendt

The art of political ‘spin’ is millennia-old. But in recent years, the will to deceive for political purposes has intensified to a new level – or so it seems. In the light of the now-notorious ‘£350m/week for the NHS’ claim, and the election of US President Trump, we in the UK and liberal West are now, apparently, in the age of ‘post-truth’ politics.

The phrase ‘post-truth’ was designated ‘Word of the Year 2016’ by the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. In bald terms, it means that the factuality (I hesitate to use the word ‘truth’ here, for reasons which will become clear later) of claimed facts is becoming an irrelevant commodity in public, or at least political, discourse. As The Economist put it recently, ‘Truth is not falsified, or contested, but of secondary importance’.

An important – and disturbing – cultural phenomenon is arising, and the church needs to understand and address it. This paper will briefly consider some of the causes of our current predicament, and suggest some ways that the church might respond. First, I suggest five reasons why it matters.

  1. As shown by a Mori poll published in December 2016, lack of public confidence in the political process is at an all-time low. Ironically, this begets a vicious cycle: ‘When lies make the political system dysfunctional, its poor results can feed the alienation and lack of trust in institutions that make the post-truth play possible in the first place.’[1]
  2. History has repeatedly shown that lies are the tools of political oppression. As Hannah Arendt put it, ‘[Truth] is hated by tyrants, who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot control.’[2]
  3. Psychological studies have proven that false memories persist, even when they are publically retracted.[3] In light of the commandment not to bear false witness (Exodus 20:16), this should disturb all who take biblical ethics seriously.
  4. A recent Demos report showed that on-line disinformation, a major source of untruth, is disproportionately seen and believed by children and young people.[4]
  5. Contrary to the logic of ‘post-truth’, facts matter – in politics as elsewhere. How I ‘feel’ about Europe or the NHS may or may not be important; whether one of these institutions is receiving £350 million a week certainly is.

How have we arrived at the stage where untruth is regarded as acceptable – or at least, unsurprising – within the common consciousness?

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Reduced Laughter: A Review

Reduced Laughter by Revd Dr Helen Paynter.

A Review by Richard Matcham

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Chapter 1 – Introduction

My title:  In Defense of the Comedic

Using Private Eye as a great introductory example, one thing is sure – humanity loves humour, and we love humour that subverts the way things are, the high-and-mighty, etc.  The Bible hasn’t had good fare in recent millennia regarding all things funny.  The Bible is a serious book, and is found to be read (when it is read at all), to be read by serious people.

 

Our Western rationalism in general, and 19th century German scholarship (p.5) in particular, riding on the back of Plato’s suspicion that humour is malicious; and Aristotle’s warning that while humour is necessary, it should be ‘kept in check’, is missing the point that humour can be ‘a route to truth’ (p.3).

 

On the contrary, humour is not the opposite of sadness or seriousness, a useful observation of what de Sousa calls a ‘category error’ (p.4).  Thank God!  I have come to realise that my own use of humour is directly related to my serious side.  They are two sides of the same coin.

 

All this is carried over into our Bible reading.  Our culture may ‘Think Bike – Think Safety’ but we certainly do not train ourselves or our churches to ‘Think Bible – Think Humour,’ and I for one would love to try.   Admittedly, this is not easy – the Bible is a very serious book(s), with lots of weighty, eternal, salvific images, multi-genre & theological categories, stories and truth claims.  Thus, as a default setting, we ‘are more likely to under diagnose humour than over-diagnose it’ (p.6), and this means we will likely miss it altogether.

 

A taster-example is offered via the Naboth narrative (1 Kings 21), and how the Hebrew word describing the sulky and vexed Ahab is related to the Deuteronomic stubborn and rebellious son (21:18-19).  Here, the son is the one killed, whilst in Kings, it is Ahab who kills.  ‘This subtle, darkly humorous, allusion will only be apparent to the attentive reader or listener’ (p.8).  I wish I’d been more attentive in my reading!

Helen then offers some ‘ground rules’ for textual interpretation.  The text itself assumes a ‘literary or aural competence’ (p.8), and this requires competent hard work.  Highlighting wordplays and ‘hidden polemics’, the careful reader is able to see the ‘subversive, and deliberate partial concealment’ (p.10) of the narrative, using the ‘useful guidelines’ for the ‘methodological criteria’ outlined by Yairah Amit on page 9.

 

Finally, Helen’s hermeneutical approach leans heavily on the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, someone who refers to seriocomic literature as ‘playful, irreverent, multi-voiced, subversive and outrageous’ (p.11).  I have already guessed in my own reading that the Bible is all of these things, but what I hadn’t reckoned with, is that it is more deliberately so, and far deeper than I gave credit.

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I Suffer Not A Man To Suffer Not A Woman To Teach

There are some verses in the bible that have been read as culturally time-bound and therefore limited in scope and application.  Others have been interpreted as timeless, and therefore interpreted as timeless (see here)!  1 Timothy 2:9-15 is one such passage, a complex passage in the Greek, that has fallen foul of the hermeneutical confusion that befalls some categories of the church, notably the American holiness movement, and various other ‘complimentarian’ groupings.

Throughout church history, i.e. traditionally, these verses have been read as a universal code for female decorum and then applied generally to women everywhere!  This has determined what some women have worn as jewelry, how they did their hair and what clothes they wore, etc.

The inevitable consequence of this has been a restriction of women’s role within the church.  The Reformer’s varied slightly on this:  Luther offered women the privilige of leadership by way of exception in times of necessity (which was generous of him); Calvin and Knox were adamantly against women in any kind of ministerial role.  They each show their hand in awful ways:  Knox in a nasty little title: First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, and Calvin who wrote that women are “by nature born to obey men.”  Calvin and Knox make Luther’s offer look quite lovely!

That these verses have been used like this to control, limit and restrict, seems quite unwarranted given the local circumstances that formed the context of Paul’s writings here.  But to be clear from the start, it is always a Christian ideal for women to present themselves in modesty and propriety, but it is no less the same for men too!  The trouble is, we now equate these verses with not only a bullying use of power and control, but it also looks too much like a tame but rigid 1050’s American Evangelicalism.  Truth is, men too easily use power and force.  The desire to dominate is to be avoided by women and men.  Humility in service is the responsibility of both sexes.

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Thinking About Theology

It’s always helpful to have working definitions of theology interacting with each other, rather than one, flat, bland and bloodless offering; a few definitions are floating around this blog somewhere or other!  Michael Jenson has got a great little book out called ‘How To Write a Theology Essay‘ designed to help new theological students write good essays.

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His chapter titles suggest a keen focus on practicalities, such as ‘How not to lose heart before you start’, ‘What is a theology essay’ and ‘Types of argument for your essay’, among many other great short chapters.

I like his question:  ‘What is Theology in any case?’ and his response:

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Absolutes, Possibilities and Silence – how to read the Bible properly

Any doctrinal study of any kind must be thorough.  Beginning with the Old Testament, via the inter-testamental period (if necessary) and progressing through the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels, and concluding with Acts and the Letters.  Every study must work through the whole of what every text is a part!  Of course, this approach assumes that Scripture is authoritative and inspired by the Holy Spirit – the Third Person of the Trinity!  To not be convinced of this will lead to eisegesis, a form of study that merely seeks to bolster and promote a view already held – although a belief in the Trinity is no guarantee at all that eisegesis will not win the day!

Cultural and linguistic background studies must be exhausted, followed by exegetical questions about the passage in question, with whatever doctrine is in mind; this is especially true in our day when many within and with-out the Church seem to foam at the mouth regarding “the authority of women”, “women in the Church” or “homosexuality” or whatever!

I think the Bereans of Acts 17:11 are a great acid test here:  “With great eagerness [they] examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true!”  Note: if what Paul said was true!  They surely knew not of whom they spoke!  But all credit to them.  Integrity, openness, honesty and desire all the way.

Anyone engaging in exegetical study, or Bible study, must use sound principles of interpretive method and procedure.  Openness and honesty, as already stated, is primary, especially in any polarised topic or doctrine.

The exegetical student must recognise and distinguish between:

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Take Me To Church

My youngest son (17) brought me a CD for my birthday recently (a minor miracle in its own right), and was very interested to know my thoughts on the song ‘Take Me To Church’ by Andrew Hozier (aka Hozier).

I was very impressed with the CD overall, the thoughful lyrics and quality of music (I am a 44 year old with a broad range!).  But my ordained antenna (a self-depricating allusion) were alert to my son’s interest in my thoughts (a first since he was 12)!

I will admit to enjoying the ‘funky groove’ of the tune (does that make me sound like a doofus?)!  Though I must confess I needed help with the ‘hermeneutics’ of the song.  And confession is a big deal.  I needed help to interpret the phrase meanings and word meanings and big picture meanings.  It was like trying to interpet the Bible – I needed some background info!

I came across a really great post here by Angela Denker on REDLETTERCHRISTIANS.ORG (not sure why they shout that), and then I found an actual interview with the talented man himself here.

First the song that came to me as a gift from my teenage son (suspicious in its own right), then the blog post by Denker, suberbly written, on a very popular Christian website have made me think:  If Calvin wouldn’t approve of all Calvinists (and he wouldn’t!), why on earth (or Heaven) would Jesus ‘approve’ (this term needs more work but please indulge me) of all Christians?

In fact, Jesus’ approval of all Christians is not even the point.  As a Protestant protestant (Baptist), and a human being in general, it is totally right that Hozier feels this rage – for heaven’s sake, I do.  Catholic abuses of children (and anything else for that matter) are a foul satanically fueled outrage of the holiest order!   GOD IS OUTRAGED!!!

Hozier’s Irish Catholic background is the fertile soil for his rage, a rage incidentaly, that could have been a hell of a lot worse.  In the ‘actual interview’ he impressed with his genuine desire to be sensitive. Here you will find no ‘anti-Christian Dawkins rage’ (which isn’t even that scary anyway), but a thoughful, hurting, talented, God-imaged young man.

We reap what we sow!  A Catholic doctrine of celebacy is more unnatural than any ‘sin’ the Mother Church try to denounce!

I am a man, a Christian, (yes! Born-again, if you can get over the ‘Americanist’ hullabaloo that this phrase conjurs up), a British citizen, a heterosexual (OMGosh – it’s not illegal you know), a son, a brother, a husband, a (grand)father, a redeemed follower of Jesus!  My salvation is not determined by any of these: my nationality, my sexuality, my progenity, my ‘whatever’! I am saved from my ontological state of sin, my alienation from God, my ‘natural’ bent away from the rightness of righteousness, and the wholeness of holiness.  I have been rescued from ‘Adamic-apple-loving’ to being grafted in to the Christ-vine.

I am saved (and I tell you all, I know I am saved) because I believe what Jesus said.  Jesus has saved me.  The only institution I answer to or respond to or yield to is the Kingdom of God.  Why?  Not because I’m holier-than-thou (an evening in the pub with me will convince you I’m not), but because a sin-drenched humanity is so in desperate need of Christ and His grace that I will put all my puny sin-eggs into His great magnificent salvation-basket.

So Andrew Hozier, thank you.  I don’t know whether you believe in Jesus as He is, not as we think He is, but your song is a greater prayer than many prayers I’ve heard.

And Jesus Christ Himself knows that.  And He hears you.  He hears us.  All.  He hears your ‘Amen’.  And I am convinced he says ‘Amen’ to your ‘Amen’.

“For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.”  Romans 11:32

All.  Amen.

 

Hozier’s Song on YOUTUBE.

Lyrics to ‘Take Me To Church’ here.

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