Monday, April 30, 2007

John Newton - Surprises in Heaven

If ever I reach heaven I expect to find three wonders there: first, to meet some I had not thought to see there; second, to miss some I had expected to see there; and third-- the greatest wonder of all--to find myself there.

(Thanks to CQOD)

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Couldn't Script It...

I was meant to be leading and preaching at 10 o'clock this morning at a prep school chapel service.

I've been quite busy lately, so I only actually started writing my sermon while waiting for the train back from Durham yesterday at around 5pm. I never actually finished writing it, because the train got quite noisy with drunk people and I didn't get back to my room until after 11, by which point sleep mattered far more than more detailed preparation.

This morning, I woke up at about 6am. I knew I had plenty of time, so allowed myself to snooze for a bit, then woke up again at 8, which was somewhat too late.

I'd only been there once before, and that was via a friend's house which was quite out of the way, and seemed to remember it took about 30 mins. I was therefore aiming to leave at 9am, but got slightly distracted in a conversation after breakfast and then struggled to get all my props together. I left at 9:30.

After driving "slightly" too fast while trying to read a map (but only when there was no traffic around me so that it didn't matter when I swerved across the road a bit), I managed to get there at about 9:45, at which point I realised that I had a) left my sermon in my room somewhere and b) forgotten to bring a Bible, and the only Bibles evident in the church were good old-fashioned KJVs. I had, however, remembered my props and the passage I was to preach on.

I believe at that point I may have prayed something along the lines of "help!!" I then remembered some of the best arguments for the traditional way the C of E does things - robes mean that people don't focus on the person leading but on the office and liturgy makes it a lot harder to mess up. So I donned my robes (which I hadn't forgotten - the person there usually wears robes, but I'd been given a free choice) and decided to use quite a bit of the printed liturgy. As I sat down, I also found a Good News Bible in the shelf in front of my seat (no others in the church). I've never been so grateful to find a Good News Bible in my life!

Given all of that, the sermon seemed to go pretty well and the service to go very well. God is so gracious...

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Is "Black Theology" Racist?

Traditionally, “Racist” means treating one person or group of people better than another group only because of race, usually used to refer to white people treating black people badly, because that has been the main sort of racism in the world in the recent past. One of the main forms of racism is having unhelpful and inaccurate stereotypes, which is why racism is usually much more common among those who do not know many people of the targeted group well.

Increasingly, the word “racist” is also used of things that treat people differently simply because of race. This is because experience suggests that either the motivations for treating people differently are almost always from wanting to treat one group better or worse or that it ends up that way. Racism is bad, as it took someone a whole lecture to try to tell us at college.

I was having a discussion today about “black theology”, as taught at certain Anglican theological colleges. It refers to an important variant of liberation theology, which looks in particular at the way power structures are used and abused with regards to race issues. It is especially popular in England among liberals.

My suggestion is this:

Teaching ”black theology” in an Anglican context is inherently racist.

And I don't just mean because it draws a distinction between “block” and “white”.

My reasons are as follows:

Most black Anglicans do not follow black theology. Most of them are in provinces such as Nigeria and Uganda, which are generally closest to the category “high church evangelical”. To label “black theology” then as “black” is to misrepresent and ignore the many important insights of the theology most commonly held by black Anglicans. It is to say that we know what they think already, so it isn't worth listening to them.

Black theology is bad theology in as much as it does not share the Bible's emphases. That is not to say that racial justice is not important. and hence to label it as such is to tar “blacks” who do not hold to that theology with the same brush (inappropriateness of metaphor intentional). It therefore creates unhelpful and incorrect stereotypes and encourages those who reject the importance of “black theology” while affirming the importance of racial justice to reject black people too.

So teaching black theology creates incorrect stereotypes of black people, while ignoring what they actually do think.

What more would something have to do to count as racist?

Friday, April 27, 2007

Ezekiel - Chris Wright

This is one of the best titles in the Bible Speaks Today series of commentaries. It's certainly the best I've read on the Old Testament.

Commentaries in the BST series generally read like moderately academic sermons, but the standard of them is somewhat variable. At best (like Stott on Acts, Romans and Ephesians or indeed Wright on Ezekiel), they are pertinent, challenging, clear and really help to understand the text better. But quite a few of them are just long-winded and obtuse ways of saying obvious stuff in a way that isn't especially challenging.

Wright doesn't cover all of Ezekiel in the same depth, probably due to the contraints of space. He provides some excellent chapters on some sections of Ezekiel, especially towards the beginning of the book, whereas other chapters and sections get much lighter treatment.

I found the book very helpful devotionally, and would be fine using it for a basic reference work on Ezekiel as a whole and on the chapters he covers in more depth. But if I need to do a longer series on Ezekiel, I guess I'd end up getting Block's massive 2 volume commentary in the NICOT series, which Wright has clearly used extensively (though doesn't always agree with), or maybe Zimmerli's Hermeneia commentary, which Wright also references frequetly.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Book Review - "Not Me, Lord" by Max Ramsay

Time for a break from blogging about Israel, though I've got plenty more to say... Time to review a few books I've read recently.

This one was very generously given to me by a well-meaning relative. It's a really interesting read, and as with most interesting reads, it raises a lot of questions.

It's an autobiographical account of the author's time training for the Anglican Ordained ministry, having previously taught science (oh, that's like me!). It is pretty much there that the similarity ends.

While I'm sure that the author was a very good science teacher, he seems to have understood science to say that miracles can't happen, which is a very naive mistake. What science observes, of course, is that miracles do not usually happen, which is actually part of the point of miracles. They wouldn't be miracles if they were part of the normally observed process by which the universe works, and Jesus wouldn't have been able to do them if he was just a normal bloke.

He also somehow seems to have been selected for ordination training without any experience of leading churches, of preaching or anything like that, or indeed without being sure whether he was a Christian. He then went to one of the more liberal colleges in the Church of England, which seems to have affirmed him in his belief that he didn't need to believe much to be a vicar.

Which rather raises an issue about selection for ordination training. I know my process wasn't easy, but I think it was sensible. I was expected to do quite a bit of Bible teaching and leadership in my home church, both up front and in small groups, to ascertain whether I was gifted / capable at that sort of thing. The official selection process beyond the local level didn't really seem to investigate that much, but for me my sense of calling was strongly tied up with other people telling me I was gifted.

Here's Paul's list of criteria for church leaders:

  • above reproach, respectable, good reputation with outsiders
  • the husband of but one wife, must manage his own family well
  • temperate, self-controlled, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome
  • hospitable
  • able to teach
  • not a lover of money
  • not a recent convert

(from 1 Timothy 3, NIV)

Which rather raises the question - why don't the C of E use those as their selection criteria?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Israel 5 - The Church of the Resurrection

The Church of the Resurrection (the Orthodox name for it) or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (RC name for it) is built on what we're pretty sure is the site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus. It was great to be in the same place that Jesus died for me and then rose from the dead all those years ago.

One of the ways that Christians celebrate being united in Jesus' death and resurrection there is by acting like small children. For example, inside Jesus' tomb (you can't actually see the original rock - people were too keen on souveniers and the Christians were too keen on ecclesiastical bling so it's all covered up - there is a ledge for candles. The ledge is split into three sections - one for the Greek Orthodox, one for the Roman Catholics and one for the Armenian Orthodox. That's really mature, guys.

Inside the church itself, there are areas run by the Greeks, the Romans and the Armenians. The Syrian Orthodox and the Egyptian Orthodox also use little bits of the church. After a nasty argument (or running out of money or something), the Ethiopian Orthodox were "lovingly" expelled to the roof, so they have some monks living on the roof of the church. Apparently, the Egyptians also claim the roof, and a few years ago a riot broke out after the Egyptian monk sitting on the roof (to assert ownership) moved his chair from its usual place because he wanted to sit in the shade.

The Christians there also exhibit their great maturity in other ways. For example, there is a ladder on a window ledge. It has been there for over 100 years, because they can't agree whose job it is to move it.

The same kind of idea applies to the building - "the edicule" round Jesus' tomb. It has seriosuly needed repairing for getting on for 100 years, but they haven't got round to it yet. Apparently, while Jerusalem was under British rule, the Brits got so fed up with the arguing that they put some big girders round the outside to hold it together. They're still there.

There was also quite a lot of damage done to the building in a big fire in the early 1800s. Bits of it still haven't been repaired, because they can't agree whose responsibility it is!

I guess one good thing about all of this silliness is that it shows us that we are still stupid sinful human beings, and we still need Jesus' death for us just as much as we did 2000 years ago.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Israel 4 - Mad Caliphs

Jerusalem has of course been under the rule of lots of different groups over the years, and for most of the last 1500 years it has been under Muslim control. And many of the Muslim rulers have no doubt been very good and competent. But as with any selection of rulers, some of them have been completely potty...

For example, one of the gates in the city wall is known as the Golden Gate, and is in the East side of the city wall, opening directly into the temple mount area. Or it would do if it hadn't been bricked up by Sultan Suleiman I in 1541.

Allegedly, his reasoning went something as follows:

In Ezekiel 43:4, in a passage about the permanent restoration of the nation of Israel, God's glory returns to the temple through the East gate of the temple. This had become strongly associated with the idea of the Messiah coming (coz the Jews acted like they didn't notice that Jesus was the Messiah). So in order to stop the Messiah coming and God's glory returning to a rebuilt temple, he bricked up the gate. Because God and the Messiah are really going to be stopped by a few bricks. They also then put a Muslim cemetary just outside the gate, because that would make it a ceremonially unclean place, so good Jews (including Elijah, if he came in front of the Messiah) couldn't use it anyway).

But I think the prize for maddest ruler of Jerusalem probably goes to Caliph Tariqu "The Mad Caliph" al-Hakim who reigned from 996 until 1021. Among other things, he allegedly banned:

  • eating grapes
  • women's shoes
  • watercress
  • chess
  • working in Cairo during the daytime
  • dogs - he actually ordered the killing of all dogs in Egypt because their backing annoyed him
  • Christians from riding horses, unless the saddles were wooden

He was also a big fan of killing people, sometimes killing them himself. I've read somewhere that one of his hobbies was paying young men to climb up a tower in his palace, then jump into his pool. The problem was that the pool wasn't directly underneath the tower, and the results were sometimes a little messy. But perhaps that's why he liked it.

But his most spectacularly stupid act was ordering the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre / Church of the Resurrection, built around the site of Jesus' death, burial and resurrection. In doing so, he caused a huge rise in concern for Christian access to sites in Jerusalem which was one of the factors leading to the Crusades. I'm aiming my next Israel blog to be about that church.

It's probably worth adding that the Druze religion holds that Caliph al-Hakim was the incarnation of God. That probably started from one of his courtiers trying to keep his head for significantly longer than the average, but it seemed to stick and al-Hakim encouraged them, even if he didn't explicitly claim to be God himself... Odd - C.S. Lewis's famous mad, bad or God argument seems relevant here, especially as al-Hakim was so plainly both mad and bad.

Unsurprisingly, he died in suspicious circumstances. It's thought his sister hired assassins to kill him before he killed her.

This is an equal opportunities blog. I'm willing to lay into anyone.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Israel 3 - The Greek Orthodox Church

One of my strong impressions during my time in Israel was to do with observing different denominations and how they ran the establishments they were looking after. Especially noticeable in this was the contrast between the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. Put simply, the difference was that while the Romans sometimes had wonky theology (like building a church with chapels for Moses and Elijah on the mountain where they claimed Jesus had told Peter not to build shelters for Moses or Elijah), they usually did it with moderately good taste, and in some cases very good taste. The Greeks seemed to have not only severely wonky theology, but also appallingly bad taste.

Here are some of their particular howlers...

Are they in the least bit trying to be incarnational? Are they recognising that Christianity started in Jerusalem or that it is possible to be non-Greek and Christian? Are they seeking in any way to reach the local community? No, they're flying Greek national flags on all of their buildings. In Israel.

(picture from Wikimedia as mine weren't as good). This might look like an overdone year 9 project where the kids have discovered how to use shiny stuff but not how to do faces (notice the faces are flat and painted) or that sometimes there can be too much shiny stuff. This with about 17 bazillion dirty gold-ish coloured lamps is the Greek Orthodox chapel on top of the rock of Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified. And it looks like an overdone stage-mock up of a cross between Aladdin's cave and a junk shop.

This is from the Church of the Nativity, marking the site of Jesus' birth. Note the incredibly tacky and cheap-looking Christmas tree bauble.

Again from the Church of the Nativity. Note the massively over-huge dirty chandeliers and the general atmosphere of decay. Note also the rope stopping people from going there. Yes, they let you into the cave where Jesus was born (which is under the bit pictured), but they don't let you at the front of their church because that bit is too holy.

Just for comparison, here are a few pics of Roman Catholic churches...

St Peter's Gallicantu, remembering Peter's denial of Jesus.

The Basilica of the Annunciation, built around Mary's house in Nazareth.

Church built over (yes, on stilts so you can see the original site of) Simon Peter's house in Capernaum.

And through the gap under that church, it is possible to catch a glimpse of the Church of the Pink Blancmange (Greek Orthodox, probably not its real name).

Random Quote

Me, in response to someone who asked me a question they were worried was stupid:

There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers and stupid people.

Well, I liked it. And on balance, I can think of stupid questions such as "Why did the mollusc eat happiness?"

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Israel 2 - The Dome of the Rock

Lots of potential to offend here... In fact, the Dome of the Rock and surrounding area is just about the most politically sensitive area in the world. In fact, an old fat politician just visiting the area managed somehow to trigger the Second Intifada. I'm neither aiming to offend or not offend here - I'm simply aiming to describe the world the way I see it. On the right is a picture of me not seeing the Dome of the Rock.

It's pretty certain that the area was the area used for the Jewish Second Temple (as built in Ezra and Nehemiah, as enlarged by Herod and as visited by Jesus. Jews claim (with pretty good evidence) that it was also the site of the First Temple (destroyed in 587/586 BC), and before that the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite which was bought by David in 2 Samuel 24. Muslims deny at least some of that, mostly because it would mean that the Jews were probably the legal owners of the site, which they claim was where Muhammad ascended into heaven from (that's at one end of the site, covered by the Al Aqsa mosque).

The Dome of the Rock is built over a rocky outcrop on the site, thought to have been the actual threshing floor of Araunah. A later tradition also identifies it with the rock where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac in Genesis 22. The Muslims, of course, claim that it was Ishmael who was nearly sacrificed (though that claim doesn't seem to appear in the first 2000 years or so of the story being told, but that sort of thing never really seems to worry Muslims much).

It is a very noticeable and beautiful building when seen from a long way away.

It is even more amazing from a hundred metres or so away.

But close up, it becomes very apparent that it is in fact the most prominent and famous building in the world to be built almost entirely out of horrible 1970s B&Q-style tiles.

The Dome of the Rock is meant to be one of the key early examples of Islamic art. It is therefore interesting that it actually seems to have been commissioned by Muslims, but designed and built for them by a group of Syrian Christians....

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Israel 1 - Big Impressions

I've recently got back from a trip to Israel / Palestine, hence the lack of blogging recently. I've got lots and lots of things to say, but it's a good idea to start with my biggest impressions of the place.

It was awesomely amazing to be able to walk where Jesus walked. We were following the book In the Steps of Jesus, largely because the author was our tour guide. The book is well worth a look if you're into that sort of thing. One of the things that I hope will really stay with me is a knowledge that I've been where Jesus was born, where he grew up, where he preached, where he died, where he was buried, where he rose again and where he left the earth to go into heaven (well, pretty near that last one).

On the other hand, it was really sad to see so much of the rubbish. The way that the Jews and Palestinians treat each other. The way that although there are great Christians on both sides and indeed working to bridge that divide, that is not always obvious from the way they go about things. The way that all too often the historic "Christian" communities in the land seem to be merely societies for the preservation of their own history in opposition to others. The way that the Greek Orthodox churches all fly Greek national flags. The fact that of all the sites we visited, only a handful actually made any effort either to explain what was going on or to tell people about Jesus.

Here's an example of that last one, from just outside the church at Gethsemane:

(The picture at the top was taken through the window of the chapel of Dominus Flevit, which commemorates Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. By the time I left I could understand more clearly both the rejoicing in Jerusalem and the weeping over Jerusalem that are found in the Bible.)

Saturday, April 14, 2007

quick blog from Israel

I'm blogging via e-mail on a snail-powered, reassuringly expensive internet connection, so I won't say much or put any photos up yet.
Having a good time in Israel, being kept busy, etc.
I've spent most of my time so far in Jerusalem, with a bit round the Dead Sea and today in and around Bethlehem.
More (and plenty of pictures) when I get back!

Monday, April 09, 2007


Often I come across situations where it is necessary to make judgements who I agree with on issues where I do not have enough information to come to an anayltic opinion. I then tend to use the following criteria:

  • Do I trust any of the people involved on this issue?
  • Who seems to be more motivated by pride? They're more likely to be wrong...
  • Who is being more loving? They're more likely to be right...
  • Who has more to gain from winning? They're more likely to be wrong...
  • Who is acting in a more mature way? For example, if there is an argument between people, it seems that the person who is talking about it less is more likely to be right, especially if they are the ones in a position of authority (let some of the readers understand).

It could certainly be argued that one of the strongest arguments for the acceptability of homosexuality is Fred Phelps (of Godhatesfags fame).

Thursday, April 05, 2007


Blogging via e-mail from camp...

A while ago I heard a rumour that the NIV - the most widely available
modern English Bible translation - is to be pulled in favour of the
TNIV. I'd also seen that denied by Zondervan, who publish both.

However, every time I go to a bookshop now, it is striking that the
number of NIVs is going down rapidly and the number of TNIVs is going
up equally rapidly. My guess is that the suppliers are providing new
TNIVs to replace sold NIVs.

This isn't especially distressing for me. Both translations are decent
rather than very good translations of the Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic; both
are easier to read than more accurate translations - probably about
the reading level of a popular novel, which is about right for many
people. Except that I know chunks of the Bible primarily in the NIV
because it's what I grew up with. Most churches I've come across use
the NIV, and college chapel is the only place I know that uses the
TNIV, though that will probably change....