Sunday, April 27, 2014

Atheists, Jedi Knights and Noah

Two non-signatories (from Wikipedia)
A blogger called Alistair Thompson points out (hat tip Guido) that the 53 Prominent Persons who wrote objecting to the PM's description of the UK as a Christian Country have a remarkably small constituency.

According to the 2011 Census there are just 15k humanists and 39k Atheists in England & Wales - compared to 177k Jedi Knights and 57k Pagans - and, oh yes, 33 million Christians, 2.7 million Muslims, 800,000 Hindus, 250,000 Jews and 430,000 Sikhs.

We went last night to Noah and although I'm quite glad to have seen it I don't really recommend it. The performances are good but the theology is pretty terrible. Still it doesn't money with the Bible in quite the way Hollywood monkeys with most of their other factual sources.  According to Genesis, Methuselah lived for 600 years after the birth of Noah and since Noah was reportedly 600 years old when he went into the Ark showing Methuselah as dying in the flood is not hopelessly inconsistent with the chronology - though since Methuselah was broadly speaking righteous it may be more likely that he died before God wiped out the rest of humanity.

However it states clearly that Shem, Ham and Japeth went into the Ark with their wives and that they should have been about 100 years old. God also speaks to Noah and his sons - rather than never speaking which causes most of the trouble in the movie. And FWIW Ham, who wanders off at the end on his own, has lots of children as well as Shem and Japeth.  Though perhaps we are meant to think the he comes back and marries one of his nieces whilst Japeth marries the other one.

Of course it's important to realise that the Bible is not a work of Archaeology or Palaeontology and that the stories we have in Genesis are told so as to give us spiritual truths rather than anything else. It seems extremely improbable that a hypothetical VCR would have recorded events in exactly the way Genesis describes - though the problem of what on earth all the animals on the Ark could have eaten while the Ark was afloat is solved in the movie by having them all put to sleep by some kind of incense.  It is probable, or at least possible that there were massive floods when the Black Sea connected to the Aegean. It is certain that God love humanity and wants to rescue us and His creation - this rescue taking its ultimate shape in Jesus the Messiah.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The incarnation was about 3 minutes ago (if we think of the Universe as being roughly mid-life)

Microwave Background - from Wikipedia

One point that has struck me quite forcibly in reading Tom Wright's wonderful Paul (still only on page 1220 I’m afraid) is that if God’s plan is for the redemption of the whole of Creation – as he quite rightly argues – then we are very early indeed in its implementation.

My friend and collaborator John Polkinghorne has remarked that most theologians seem to have very short timescales compared to cosmologists. If the universe is about 13.5bn years old then the 2000 years or so since Jesus are only about 0.000015% of the age of the Universe. To put it another way if the Universe were 40 years old the Incarnation would have happened about 3 minutes ago. I somehow find this a very comforting thought.

Let me share a few more of the gems I've found in Tom's great book:
  • One recent writer has seen Romans  not only as a description of the acquisition of the Christian mind but as a kind of therapy: the hearers, as they listen again and again to the letter, are meant to find themselves brought from the 'darkened mind' of chapter 1 to the 'transformed and renewed mind' of chapter 12.
  • Paul in 1 Thessalonians says:
    "For, my dear family, you came to copy God's assemblies in Judea in the Messiah, Jesus. You suffered the same things from your own people as they did from those of the Judeans who killed the lord Jesus and the prophets, and who expelled us. They displease God: they oppose all people; they forbid us to speak to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. This has had the effect, all along, of completing the full total of their sins. But the fury has come on them for good."
    ...We should not make the ...mistake of thinking that the outburst is directed against 'the Jews.'  Paul was himself of course Jewish; the people who he describes as 'assemblies (ekklesiai) of God in Judea in the Messiah, Jesus' were Jews. The parallel Paul is drawing is between the Thesallonian Messiah-people, who are being persecuted by their pagan neighbours, and the Messiah-people in Judea, who are being persecuted by non-Messiah believing Judeans.
  • To say that divine wrath has come, or is coming, upon wrong-doers is to say, by clear Pauline implication, that human wrath is inappropriate.
  • Romans as a whole is a book primarily about God... especially in Chapters 9 and 11.  Here we find...God's word, God's children, God's promise, God's purpose in election, God's call, God's love (and hatred), God's justice (or injustice), God's mercy, God's power, God's name, God's sovereignty, God's will, God's rights as the potter over the clay, God's wrath and power, God's patience, God's glory and God's people...If we came upon it in the desert, smouldering with latent Presence, we might find ourselves impelled to take off our shoes. Removing shoes is not something exegetes often do (we like our footnotes the way we they are)...
  • We are so used to being told that Paul's letters are 'occasional'...the implication being that he dashed them off without thinking where he was going, making it up as he went along much as Tony Blair's 'New Labour' Party tinkered with the British Constitution...Romans...was not like that. The structure is clear; the balance is remarkable; the rhetorical effects are intended; the theology is reflected in the way the parts fit together as a whole. Paul was not thinking this through for the first time...He had been through these arguments countless times.
  • ...the...anachronism we would commit if we congratulated Paul on his ecological sensitivity in taking a sailing boat from Caeserea to Rome while everyone else was getting on their jumbo jets.
  • [Romans 9-11] was never an abstract 'doctrine of predestination,' attempting to plumb the mysteries of why some people (in general, without reference to Israel) hear and believe the gospel and other do not.  Paul never encourages speculation of that sort. Rather, it was a way of saying, very specifically, that the fact of Israel's election...had always been there to deal with the sin of the world.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Delightful break in Cornwall with the church packed for Easter!

Delightful break in Cornwall at our family house where my mother lives. We flew down and were rewarded with spectacular views of the South coast  including many places where I have sailed. The journey is quick and cheap and much easier to get to our house than by train.

We even had a very good overfly of Trevose Head and of the Quies - though sadly I didn't get a shot of our house.

My mother had tickets on Maundy Thursday for an Agatha Christie play (Black Coffee) in Truro with Robert Powell playing Poirot. It was intricately plotted but not wonderfully acted or directed, though Powell was very good. To write in 1929 a play about an atomic scientist who develops an explosive orders of magnitude more powerful than any that had gone before shows some level of prescience though!

We had supper in a delightful fish restaurant in Truro and then went to the Maundy Thursday service in the Cathedral which was also a great experience. The Byrd 5 part Mass and the Byrd Ave Verum were musical high points but it was also very good to be part of the quite substantial congregation.

The Good Friday service at our village church was quite sparsely attended but I'd noticed that they had put loads of extra folding chairs out for Easter Sunday. And indeed we saw why when we arrived 20 minutes early on Easter Day to find the car park almost completely full. By the time the service started the Church was packed, with about 100 extra chairs almost completely filled and some people sitting on the steps. There were 4 hymns set for communion but so many people came forward that after a pause 3 of them had to be repeated. The Vicar was immensely encouraged, and clearly had been greatly inspired by Justin who she quoted twice. She finished with an exhortation to go out and proclaim the Gospel - spread the love!  She told me afterwards that she'd had a lot of positive feedback about Justin and that church weddings were double the level last year. All enormously encouraging!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Rotterdam Marathon and more gems from Tom Wright on Paul

Just crossed the (yellow) finish line
Back from a weekend in Rotterdam where I ran the Marathon (my 8th) in aid of the Cambridge Development Initiative. I'd never been to Rotterdam before but the Dutch are very friendly and it was a fun weekend. Time a bit disappointing because I got a bad ankle twinge at 36k and had to walk for a while.

And Tom Wright continues to dazzle and illuminate in Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Again may I share a few gems:
  • Those who belong to the Messiah are now, [Paul] suggests, married to him in a friutbearing relationship. The obvious echoes are of the relationship of YHWH with his people.
  • Romans 5-8 is constructed with tight rhetorical skill... It is impossible to think of it as a random train of thought...pausing here and there to change direction or to answer detatched 'objections'.
  • [Paul is] speaking...'to those who know the law' (7.1) .. to tell the story of Israel because it is the story of the world's redemption....The point of Israel's election was not 'for God to have a favourite people'  but for the sin of Adam to be dealt with.
  • If the spirit of the living God dwells within his people, constituting them as a new tabernacle...then the work of this transforming spirit cna and must be spoken of in terms, ultimately, of theosis, 'divinisation'.
  • The indwelling spirit is taking the place, within the church as a whole and within each of the Messiah's people, of that firely, cloudy, pillar, the living an dangerous presence of God himself... The natural theosis... but... a cruciform 'divinisation', involving the constant life of putting to death the flesh and coming alive in the spirit.
  • The pistis Christou of 3.22 is the agape Christou  of 8.35 and the answering pistis of the believer has become, as in 8.28, the answering agape which, by the Spirit, keeps the Shema.
  • Between the beginning of the work of the spirit and its triumphant conclusion, Paul envisages a spirit-filled life which does not in any way contribute to the initial justification, or to the consequent assurance of final justification that the initial justification brings but transforms the life of the person who has already come to faith.
  • To suppose the only real question is whether Paul thought the law a good or bad thing is to guarantee that one will not understand half of the relevant passages.
  • 'Do this', says Torah, 'and you will live'; Paul radically redefining 'do this' around Messiah and spirit, looks ahead and sees that what the Torah could not do...Israel's God has done in the Messiah and will do for all his people. The promise of Torah, the hope of Israel, was 'life'. It was, in fact, nothing other than resurrection.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Catch Nicole's wonderful concert, and more of Tom's wonderful book

Nicole on balcony
Madly busy so hardly time to blog. Caught up with Nicole Cabell for lunch on Weds and she's doing a wonderful concert at the Barbican on Saturday - The Apostles with Sarah Conolly and Gerald Finely amongst others.  We had lunch at the Cafe Royal and they gave us a tour afterwards including the wonderful Dome Suite (if you have £9,000 to spend for a night).

Tom Wright's Paul and the Faithfulness of God also continues to enthrall. Here a few more gems:
  • When Christianity became the religion of the Empire it faced new challenges and temptations, and did not always rise to the challenges or refuse the temptations.
  • "Paul has no familiarity with  Jesus Christ, only with Jesus should never forget that it is beyond an author's power to take a term that is in current use in the linguistic context of his life and turn it into a proper name." (Quoting Giorgio Agamben)
  • The word 'entrusted' is always used by Paul in the same sense that it bears in secular Greek: to entrust someone with something is to give them something which they must take care of and pass on to the appropriate person.
  • The claim in Romans 3.31 more than a way of saying 'I will now proceed to prove my point by some exposition of Genesis'  It is a way of saying...that the faithful death of the Messiah...picks up and fulfils the major themes of the Pentateuch itself.
  • ...the Messiah's faithfulness revealed, in action, the faithfulness of God.
  • because [Jesus] is Israel's representative, he can be the appropriate substitute, can take on himself the curse of others, so that they do not bear it any more.
  • In [Romans] 8 it is ...the covenant God who 'does not spare his only son'. Instead of Abraham, God; instead of Isaac, Jesus; and, instead of a death averted, a death embraced.
  • Here then is Paul's vision of how the Messiah, particularly in his death and resurrection, had redefined around himself the very grammar of election, looking all the way back to Abraham. The patriarch believed, and was declared for ever 'in the right'. His seed would be enslaved within a land not theirs; God's faithfulness would guarantee both Passover and promise:inheritance, and blessing for the world. They waited. Psalms and prophets sang of peach, a covenant of justice. And, instead: exile; hope lost; the rise of bestial empires. Then, when the times and tears had overflowed, God sent his only son, the strangest king, to be for Israel what they could not be: obedient; faithful; Passover in person. He was the seed, the servant and the son; the chosen; the beloved; the victory won.
What a wonderful book! What a wonderful writer! And what a wonderful message of God's love, grace and faithfulness that Paul delivers and Tom expounds.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Jane Dee (and Angela Lansbury!) in Blithe Spirit

 On Thursday we went to see our lovely friend Janie Dee in Blithe Spirit at the Gieldgud Theatre. The truly wonderful cast is headed by Dame Angela Lansbury who is 88. Normally I don't really approve of people being applauded when they walk on stage but in her case it was fully justified.

Angela's fans (she's just got into the car)
Taken from Janies Dressing Room
The role of Madame Arcati was written for Margaret Rutherford who created it in 1941 when she had just turned 49. Blithe Spirit ran for just under 2,000 performances and was the longest-running play in London theatre history until The Mousetrap overtook it.

It's a delightful comedy based on a beautifully simple main idea and the clich├ęd phrase "with hilarious consequences" seldom has rung truer than through Coward's sparkling script.  But like all great comedies there is an undertone of deep seriousness. It's not just that the humor depends on one principal character having died, who then murders the second while trying to murder the third- and on the desperate need that many people have to contact their loved ones who have died- this is written BTW in 1940/41 and opened in June 1941 just after the end of the Blitz (which is presumably why it opened in Manchester and didn't move down to London until July. It also explores very sharply themes of jealousy and mistrust. In this production, unlike many others, you actually care about the second wife (Ruth) who is clearly placed in a very difficult position.  Janie did this wonderfully and it was why people who had seen both told us afterwards that this production was even better than the one in NY.
Janie with Angela
Charles Edwards was super as Charles Condomine the jaded novelist - we'd last seen him as Oberon to Judi Dench's Titania. Jemima Rooper was fine as Elvira - an obviously fun part - and Patsy Ferran, straight out of RADA, was excellent as the Maid - who turns out of course to be a more important character than might have been supposed, in a delightful plot twist.

But of course the night belonged to Dame Angela. She really inhabited the role and it's somewhat tragic in that she's basically a very un-successful medium who has only had one major success which was due in part to someone else in the house. She can't see the spirits that she summons, and ekes out a living writing children's books and biographies of minor royals. She is clearly sincere and delightfully down-to-earth but rather a complex character and Dame Angela really brought out the depths - I'd love to see the film Coward directed and compare the Margaret Rutherford performance but I suspect Dame A's would be better. And it was very physical - especially with the whimsical walking/dancing when she goes into a trance - which naturally the audience loved.

Afterwards we went backstage to see Janie where we joined the delightful Greta Scacchi and her mother. She had last Oct been awarded Cavaliere dell’Ordine al Merito by the Italian Government for services to the Arts. All of Janies friends that we've met have been delightful and she is no exception. Charles Edwards joined us for some Champagne and we stayed chatting until the long-suffering stage door manager closed the house. Sadly we didn't get to meet Dame Angela because she had a massive posse of relatives (12 I think) visiting her. But the crowd waiting for her at the stage door was a thing to behold!