Monday, June 30, 2008

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Taking Risks

Near where I live, there is a big roundabout. It's often regarded as a very dangerous roundabout for cyclists. Coming out of Oxford, most cars go left at the roundabout. Most bikes go right, which causes problems.

The road coming into the roundabout splits into two lanes - the left lane for left (with the cars), the right lane for right. This all makes sense.

For the cyclist who always wants to take the safest course of action, it seems that the correct thing to do is to stay at the left of the traffic. But the problem is that staying at the left then leads to them having to cut very dangerously across the traffic when it is accelerating out of the roundabout. I have narrowly missed hitting a cyclist who was trying just that.

The safe way to cycle round the roundabout is by taking what initially looks like the more risky route - to weave into and through the stream of traffic as it is braking to arrive at the roundabout so that they are in the correct lane for turning right. It feels riskier, but it's much easier to see and to account for for cars, and far fewer people are hit doing that.

This is a parable. Often in life, and in faith, playing it safe is actually the high-risk, low-gain strategy.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Father of Compassion

I’d like to share some thoughts on one phrase I read a while ago in my quiet time. 2 Corinthians 1:3 (NIV) reads “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort”.

The phrase “Father of compassion” really leapt out at me. What does it mean for God to be the Father of compassion?

Firstly, it means that compassion ultimately comes from God. The passage in 2 Corinthians 1 is all about how Paul knowing God comforting him in his sufferings means that he can then show comfort to the Corinthians. In the same way, if we are going to show true compassion for others, we start by knowing true compassion from God. But God isn’t just the “source of compassion” – he’s the “Father of compassion”. His compassion is seen by the way that he is Jesus’ Father – he is the Father who loved us so much that he sent his Son to willingly die for us.

But more than that – the phrase “Father of compassion” is just next to the phrase “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”. The two are closely linked. He is the Father of compassion precisely because he is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God isn’t two Fathers – his Fatherhood of Jesus is in a sense the same as his Fatherhood of compassion. When we see the Father’s compassion, we see his love for his Son. When we experience the Father’s compassion, we are in some sense experiencing the Father’s love for the Son. God is compassionate to us because of the compassion the Father has for the Son. When we know and feel God’s love for us, we are beginning to taste the love within the Trinity itself (2 Peter 1:14).

Monday, June 23, 2008

Correct Response

In the Bible, the correct response to being told not to preach the Gospel is to carry on preaching the Gospel. However, to look at the Church in Britain today, you wouldn't know it.

Sorry for the lack of blogging recently - I've been on holiday...

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Wordle - Nice Pictures

Someone pointed me to Wordle, which creates nice pictures from words.

Here's one I did of the book of Ephesians, in the NIV.

And here's my personal favourite - from 1 Peter in the TNIV:

Friday, June 13, 2008

Is there a Right Thing to do?

I was put onto this interesting point by reading Raymond Brown's commentary on Nehemiah, which I might review on here in a few weeks.

Roughly speaking, Ezra and Nehemiah were in very similar situations. Ezra, out of faith in God, did one thing. Nehemiah, out of faith in God, did exactly the opposite. And both were right.

Ezra 8:21-23

Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, "The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him." So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.

Ezra, out of faith in God, does not take a band of soldiers on his expedition from Babylonia to Jerusalem.

Nehemiah 2:5-9

And I said to the king, "If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers' graves, that I may rebuild it.”... So it pleased the king to send me.

And I said to the king, "If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah... And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me... Now the king had sent with me officers of the army and horsemen.

Nehemiah, out of faith in God, asks the same king for protection on his expedition from Babylonia to Jerusalem.

So which was the right thing to do? Quite clearly, both.

Why? Because the key is acting out of faith in God, in submission to his word and after appropriate prayer (and in both cases, fasting too). And if we do that in good conscience, we're doing what is right, even if it's different to what someone else would do in the same situation.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Men and Women

This stuff mostly seems obvious to me, but it also seems that it isn't obvious to lots of people, so it's worth saying.

There have been lots of books about the (alleged) differences between men and women, and quite a few books arguing that those differences don't exist. As far as I can tell, both are obviously wrong. And things get a lot clearer if we discuss issues there is much less argument about, like height or strength.

Biology versus Psychology

There are obviously difference between men and women in terms of genitals and so on. But it seems to me utterly mad to say that those are the only differences, because the different sex organs produce different hormones. For example, men have a much higher average level of testosterone than women, and it is well documented that testosterone increases muscle mass and aggression, which is part of the reason athletes sometimes use it to cheat. Because men's bodies produce much larger amounts of testosterone than women's bodies, you'd expect this to affect their psychology too.

Normal Distributions

Many continuous variables (like height, strength, IQ, etc) are pretty much normally distributed - if you plot a graph of height against how many people are that tall, you get something like this:

But when you try plotting men and women separately, you find something like this:

The green line represents the total - the red line represents women and the blue line represents men.

In words, men are on average taller than women, but there are some men who are shorter than most women, and some women who are taller than most men. That doesn't mean that the shorter men are more feminine or the taller women are more masculine - it's perfectly normal to have a distribution like that.

As I understand it, the situation is slightly different with IQs.

Women, I am led to believe, have a higher average IQ than men, but men are more spread out. So it's not just the mean that can be different between the sexes, the standard deviation can also be different.

My suggestion therefore is this:

Roughly this phenomenon is true for pretty much all continuously measurable attributes.

I'd include in that things like love of science fiction, dress sense, relationality, rationality, etc.

In some cases, the average man will be better than the average woman at things. In some cases, it will be the other way round. In all cases, if women are better at it on average, there will be men who are better than the average woman and women who are worse than the average man.

Because of those cases, it is a bad idea to describe one trait (e.g. love of science fiction) as distinctly male or distinctly female. Yes, it might be more predominant among men, but that doesn't mean that a woman who likes sci-fi is less of a woman or a man who doesn't is less of a man.

In some cases, e.g. pitch of voice, there might well be such a gap that there are very few women whose voices are as deep as the average man's, or men whose voices are as high as the average woman's. But there might be.

As I said, this all just seems obvious.

Now whether there are underlying ontological differences - whether it is genuinely different being a woman to being a man in some inbuilt sense which isn't due to society or whatever and which isn't just something where there's a scale and there's overlap - that's a different question...

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sexist Bible Translations?

This is something where my opinion has shifted with time... Here's what I thought last year. Here's a big, big problem with the TNIV and NRSV. Here's what I recommended for translations 6 months ago.

The basic problems are as follows:

  • Greek has three main words for adult human, which are aner (man), gune (woman) and anthropos (person).
  • English used to use "man" as the normal word for a male person or for a person of unspecified gender.
  • Modern English doesn't, but a lot of Bible translations (ESV, NIV, NASB) still do.
  • Greek follows the way of older English when it comes to pronouns. A person of unspecified gender is usually referred to as autos (he).
  • The same is true with a few other words - masculine plurals can include both males and females.

What has changed my interpretation of these data is this:

Most women who are used to reading older English tend to see themselves as included by the language of the ESV (for example). Most women who are not used to reading older English see themselves as excluded.


Here's an example. The Greek word for brother is adelphos, and for sister is adelphe. "Brothers" is adelphoi, which could also mean "brothers and sisters" or "siblings", and is often used in the Epistles by someone addressing a whole church. The NIV and ESV translate adelphoi as "brothers", which to a modern reader looks as if it excludes the women. The TNIV and NRSV have "brothers and sisters", which is better, but looks as if it might be addressing two groups. Some of my friends have suggested using something like "brethren" which could be understood as gender-inclusive.

I think this issue is so important that it over-rides the fact that the TNIV really messes up Hebrews 2, Psalm 8, etc. Adelphoi includes women. "Brothers" does not.

"Son of Man"

The biggest problem facing gender-neutral translations, like the TNIV and NRSV is the phrase "Son of Man", where "man" translates anthropos, the gender-neutral word for person. In the Old Testament, "Son of Man" is often used as a general term for an individual (male) human, sometimes as a representative human. Ezekiel gets it used of him a lot, Daniel 7 has it used of a figure seemingly representing Israel, Psalm 8 has it used of someone who is given authority by God.

All of that baggage is carried by Jesus when he uses the phrase as his own title in the gospels. So it won't do to translate some of them as "mortal" or "people" and not others, which is what the TNIV and NRSV do, which is why they end up in such a mess in Hebrews 2. My somewhat radical suggestion, if doing a new translation from scratch, would be to translate the phrase consistently as "Human One", or something like that, which means pretty much the same as the original. It also has the advantage of being able to point out that Jesus is the only truly Human One, which is part of the significance of the use of the phrase anyway. But it breaks with 500 years of English Bible translations, which is why people are understandably reluctant.


What puzzles me is why a fairly new translation like the ESV consciously decided not to go down the inclusive-language line, at least in part. Why translate anthropos as "man" rather than "person", for example? Was it just a bit of old-fashioned bloody-mindedness? And if so, does that mean it is sexist?

I still like the ESV in a lot of ways though - it's still the main translation I use in my own study, and it's still great for listening to.

Which Translation to Use?

So here's an update of my earlier list:

  • Bible translation I'm most used to: NIV
  • Translations I use for my own reading: ESV, Nick King's translation, LXX.
  • Translations I consult when studying a passage: ESV, NKJV, NASB, Nick King
  • Translations I've preached from: NIV, TNIV, NRSV, GNB
  • Translation I'd choose for pew bibles: TNIV if there's a moderate level of literacy; NLT is there isn't. I'd be strongly inclined to use my own translation for a lot of passages and have it printed in the service sheet.
  • Best translation for keeping poetry sounding poetic: NIV, NKJV

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Lord of War

I guess the best film to compare this with is Blood Diamond. They're similar in a lot of ways (this was made first). Both are about huge problems facing Africa largely caused by the West - in this case arms trading, with the central character here being an arms dealer who specialises in selling to Africa. Both films are very hard-hitting.

For what it's worth, I think that Blood Diamond was probably slightly the better film, but that Lord of War was harder-hitting.

What I didn't realise until renting the DVD was that this is Andrew Niccol's fifth film (after Gattaca, The Truman Show, S1m0ne and The Terminal). I knew I was a fan of his work already. I even quite liked S1m0ne, despite the appalling computer virus scene... Most of his films even seem to have a conscience, which is great.

Good film. Challenging, hard-hitting, lots to discuss from a Christian point of view. Also has some very violent moments (mostly gun-related).

Sunday, June 01, 2008

David, Saul, Goliath and God

I'm taking the day off exams today, and I've finished exams on the Bible, so here are some thoughts I had this morning.

Saul was chosen as king of Israel because he was the sort of king they wanted.

They ran and brought him out, and as he stood among the people he was a head taller than any of the others.Samuel said to all the people, "Do you see the man the LORD has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people."
Then the people shouted, "Long live the king!"

1 Samuel 10:23-24, NIV

His quality as king was marked out by his tallness. Of course, we also know he's an incompetent donkey-herd (1 Samuel 9:4), a coward (he doesn't attack the Philistine outpost in Gibeah like he's meant to), not devout (he needs his servant to tell him that Samuel even exists, 1 Samuel 9:6) and a proud man who would even sacrifice his heroic son for his own pride (1 Samuel 14). Saul wasn't at the gathering to choose a king because he was hiding in the luggage.

So it it hardly a surprise that when Israel under Saul comes up against Goliath in 1 Samuel 17, that he doesn't know what to do. His best attribute was his height - he was a head taller than anyone else in Israel. But Goliath was 9 feet tall.

David, by contrast, was everything that Saul was not. He was a good shepherd, brave, devout, only a boy and quite willing to admit it, but with an unshakeable confidence in God. We wasn't at the gathering to choose him king because he'd been overlooked and was keeping an eye on the sheep. And he's the one God uses to kill Goliath.

So why do we care about the kind of image that our leaders have? Saul was the one expert on image. Man looks on outward appearance, but God looks on the heart, and that's what matters.

Why does ministerial training teach us presentation skills, but not personal prayer life and spiritual disciplines? Why do we learn to talk about God, but not to love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength?

[ETA - That's not just a Wycliffe-specific comment. I know people at lots of the theological colleges, evangelical, catholic, whatever, and one quite a few of the courses. And none of them seem to prioritise helping their people be men and women after God's own heart...]