Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sword and Scimitar - Simon Scarrow

I'm usually quite a fan of violent historical fiction, of which Simon Scarrow is one of the leading exponents. This book undoubtedly gets two out of those three very well.

It's set around the siege of Malta in 1565, which was one of the key battles between the Ottoman Turks and the European powers. It was also one of the most viciously fought battles in history; but it's the history that lets Scarrow down badly.

The fictional side of it is done well – it's grippingly written and I wanted to keep on reading even though the eventual outcome of the battle is obvious from the fact that Europe did not turn Muslim in the late 1500s and Malta's capital city shares a name with the commander of the defending garrison. Yes, there's very little characterisation, but if you want historical fiction with romances and more than one developed character, read Philippa Gregory or Hilary Mantel rather than Simon Scarrow or Bernard Cornwell.

I expect he's probably right on most of the military details, including one scene which was almost too much even for me with the level of violence (think a few armoured Turks versus a horde of women and children). If anything, the violence is overdone – I'm pretty sure that being shot with a primitive musket does not make someone's “head explode like an overripe watermelon”. I'm willing to believe that the Turks deliberately desecrated one of the altars by killing a knight on it; I'm less willing to believe they'd have been ordered to do that with the line “Slaughter him like a pig!” Muslims don't kill pigs at all; still less sacrifice them on altars.

What really got on my nerves was the main character's thought life. The book includes some Q&A with Scarrow at the back – here's an extract.

Authors want to reproduce the era they are depicting with the greatest possible fidelity. That is part of the unwritten contract with the reader and it is why we spend so much time on research to get the details (large and small) correct. Readers, myself included, like to be immersed in the everyday apparatus of the past.

... By modern standards our ancestors would be considered a thoroughly cruel, sexist, racist and religiously fanatic bunch and we would find it pretty tough to empathise with them, let alone actually like them.

Isn't that therefore the job of the historical fiction writer – to help us to understand and empathise with characters (real or fictional) from the past? It's what Mantel does so well. It's what Richard Harris does in his Julius Caesar series. Past people are still people, and a good historical writer helps us feel that we understand them better.

Instead of that, Scarrow imports a very modern (and uninformed) set of thoughts. So the main character, Sir Thomas Barrett, spends much of the book thinking how silly religion is and how it causes lots of wars. Granted, most of the wars in Europe in the 1500s and 1600s had religious motives. But the 1300s and 1400s were no less bloody, and those wars (e.g. War of the Roses, Hundred Years War) tended to be to do with dynastic succession. To a knight in 1565, wars in Europe being caused by religion would be a new idea. By the 1700s and 1800s, people by and large didn't care about religion as much, and there were no fewer wars – they just tended to be about empire rather than religion. The fact is that wars are caused by people, and people find excuses for their wars, whether to do with dynasty, religion, empire, politics or whatever.

All in all, not as good as I was hoping. Not one of his best, and anachronistically anti-Christian.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

How conscious were the Old Testament authors of Christ?

There's a bit of a debate about preaching the Old Testament as Christian Scripture (which of course it is) - specifically whether we should preach as though the Old Testament authors knew they were writing about Jesus.

Here's an example of what I mean from the frequently excellent Glen Scrivener:

So how do we keep those two things together: Christ-focus and authorial intent? Only by saying that the OT in its own context is consciously a proclamation of Christ – His sufferings and glories. Without an insistence that the Hebrew Scriptures are already and intentionally Christian – without maintaining that ‘the lights are already on’ – then the “true and better” typology stuff will be good for a sermon or two, but it won’t transform our preaching or our churches.

Are "the Hebrew Scriptures already and intentionally Christian"? I don't think it's as simple as yes or no, and I'd like to illustrate it from three passages I've preached on in the last few months.

Psalm 44 - they can't be!

Psalm 44 is one of the darkest passages in the Old Testament. I don't think that the human author of Ps 44 can have been conscious of Christ when he was writing, otherwise he was being unfaithful.

In v1-8 the Psalmist looks back at God's past action in history, and praises him for it. It's centred on v4 - “You are my king and my God, who decrees victories for Jacob.”
v9-16 are then a series of accusations levelled at God – that it feels and looks like he has taken them to a charity shop and dumped them there.
v17-21 are the Psalmist pointing out that they had not done anything to deserve this punishment.
v23-26 are the Psalmist therefore asking God to wake up and help them because of his unfailing covenant love.

v22 is really interesting. “Yet for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” There are definite echoes of all sorts of things, but the core idea is that the people are suffering and dying for God's sake – because of him. Perhaps it is opposition to them because they follow God faithfully, and he does not seem to be protecting them.

In Romans 8, Paul takes v22 and quotes it. He treats it as an example of the kind of sufferings which Christians experience in this life, and then goes on to say “No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

My point is this. I do not doubt that Psalm 44, rightly understood is about Jesus. It is really helpful to see it as a song that Jesus sings, speaking of his undeserved suffering for the sake of following God. It is wonderful to notice in v22 that even when we suffer like sheep to be slaughtered, we are following in the steps of the one who became like a sheep to be slaughtered for us. But a Christian take on it requires a stronger vision of God's final victory. All that Psalm 44 has is confidence in God's character on the basis of past action; it is a backward-looking faith rather than the resurrection faith which looks forwards to God's final victory and restoration of all things. That's why the way Paul uses Ps 44 in Romans 8 is so significant – Paul shows how the wonderful truths he has been writing about transform even the darkness of Psalm 44.

Psalm 45 – they must be!

The very next Psalm is a complete contrast in lots of ways. It is a wedding Psalm, which transforms the darkness and despondency of Ps 42-44 into the triumph and security of Ps 46-48. The first half of the Psalm (v2-9) are praising the king, and his language gets more and more exalted, famously reaching the heights of v6-7.

Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a sceptre of justice will be the sceptre of your kingdom. You love righteousness and hate wickedness, therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.

Some people try to weasel out of the king being called “God” here, generally unsuccessfully. Perhaps the best such suggestion is that v3-6 are a prayer to God, which happens to be in the middle of v2-9 addressing the king. But there's no textual evidence for it, and in any case Hebrews 1:8-9 treats it as a continuous section addressing Jesus.

At the very least, you end up with something like G.H. Wilson's position in the NIVAC commentary, where he argues that this Psalm was kept even in the exile because Israel were holding onto God's kingship and marriage to his people even after earthly kings and royal weddings had ceased. In any case, it looks very much as if the Psalmist sees through the earthly royal wedding he is writing for to the wedding of God and his people – of Christ and the Church.

Are "the Hebrew Scriptures already and intentionally Christian"?

I think the best way to answer this question is to recognise the dual authorship of the Scriptures. There is the human author (and sometimes editor too!), and there is the divine author. The same passage can be rightly attributed to both David and God, as with Psalm 110.

Given that, it makes perfect sense to say that for the divine author, the Hebrew Scriptures are already and intentionally Christian, since the author of them is God the Holy Trinity. Certainly to preach them in a way which does not point to Christ is to ignore their significance, and is a fundamentally non-Christian hermeneutic.

But are the Hebrew Scriptures already and intentionally Christian in the mind of the human author? I'd want to say “sometimes, but not always”. What does that mean for preaching? It means we have to work at it!

The third passage is Joshua 2, and I'll try to cover that next time...

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Homosexuality and the Church - One Last Time

It's a difficult issue to avoid at the moment, largely because culture seems to be moving fast, and in a direction that is away from historic Christianity. There are three big issues here, and it's important to recognise that they are distinct issues - far too many people on all sides confuse them, to their peril.

1. What should our attitude be to people who experience same-sex attraction?

Simple - Love and compassion, same as everyone else. Sure, they are sinners, but so am I. Their same-sex attraction is not the most important thing about them, and we should resist labelling them as such. For years people have suffered opprobrium because of feelings they did not choose to have, and now they have become a political football. Treat them as individuals whom God loves, just like you are.

2. Is same-sex sex consistent with Christianity?

Again, the answer is pretty simple - No. Quite a few people disagree, but they always seem to do so on the basis of trying to treat people lovingly rather than having actually looked at the texts - they seem to twist the Bible's teaching on this to make it seem more compassionate. And I understand where they are coming from, I really do. But I still haven't seen a single decent argument from the Bible that same-sex sex is a good thing or a single respectable Bible scholar who argues that either Jesus or Paul would have approved of it. For those who do try to argue that same-sex sex is consistent with the Bible, here are a few questions which show the futility of their position:

  1. If Paul had been told about a same-sex couple who wanted to marry and have consensual sex, do you honestly think he would have approved? (see here for Andrew Wilson pushing Rob Bell on that very question, which Bell keeps on avoiding.)
  2. At the time the New Testament was written, were there people who were gay in the modern sense of the word? (if yes, then Paul wasn't just speaking into the context of pederasty; if no then orientation is only a social construct)
  3. Can a human life be perfectly fulfilled without sex?
  4. If you could be convinced that the New Testament condemned all same-sex sex, would you agree with it?

John 8 is a wonderful passage for thinking through our response to individuals. Having stopped all the criticism and condemnation of the woman there, Jesus turns to her and says "Neither do I condemn you; go now and leave your life of sin."

It's also worth saying that there's a big question for the church to wrestle with here. The Bible clearly speaks a lot about the value of same-sex friendships, and for centuries it was accepted as normal for two male friends to share a house without having sex. The question is "if there are two men who experience same sex attraction, and want to live together as friends but without having sex, is that ok?" I'd say yes...

3. To what extent should we expect society to regulate itself by Biblical standards?

This is the key to the same-sex marriage debate. In general, the older generations think this is still a Christian country. Constitutionally, of course, it is, but that is becoming more and more of an anomaly and it wouldn't surprise me if the gay marriage issue leads to disestablishment in time.

It is clearly wrong to expect Christians to disengage their brains either when in church or when relating to the big political questions of the day. Because Christians believe that the Bible is in some sense a record of God's revelation into the world, they should therefore see that it does have something to say. And since Christians believe that God's revealed way of running our lives is better than the way we'd just figure out for ourselves, we also believe that society would be better if it defined marriage as one man and one woman for life.

But I don't think that's the issue any more. In the 1960s, bishops argued that just because homosexual sex was a sin did not mean it should be a crime - it should be in the same category as greed and pride. We accept that same-sex sex should be legal now; we even accept that it makes perfect sense for there to be a form of legal recognition for same-sex partnerships. None of that is an issue any more.

4. So what's the problem?

The issue with the currently proposed law is none of those. If the proposed legislation were to rename "civil partnerships" as "same-sex marriages", I don't think there would be anywhere near as much opposition. The problems with the proposed law are essentially threefold.

  • First, it is a big change without any mandate - it wasn't in a manifesto, there hasn't been proper public debate, etc.
  • Secondly, it is desperately trying to say that two different things are in fact the same thing, and not quite managing it.
  • Third, by saying that same-sex marriage is the same as marriage, it's opening the door for future discrimination against those who disagree on principle. I don't see the quadruple lock as surviving a legal challenge once same-sex marriage is ensconced as a human right, and I'm willing to bet we will see ministers and churches taken to court over this within the next decade.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Christians and the OT Law

Here are 10 quick tips on how to apply and understand the Old Testament Law as Christians.

  1. The Law isn't just commandments. The Jewish word usually translated "law" - Torah - actually refers to the first 5 books of the Bible. What we read as commandments are set within the context of story, and are inseparable from it.
  2. The Law was always about how to respond to salvation. Just before the 10 Commandments are given comes the wonderful Exodus 19. The Law, for the people of Israel, was about how to respond to the fact that God had already saved them, and how to continue as God's saved people.
  3. The Law was given to the nation of Israel - it was given in a specific time and context to a specific group of people to show them how to respond to God saving them from slavery in Egypt. It wasn't given to 21st century Gentile Christians living in the UK (or anywhere else). So it doesn't apply directly to us.
  4. The Law was given in the knowledge it wouldn't be kept. Just after the commandments finish, in Deuteronomy 32, comes a wonderful song from Moses responding to the law. And in it, he recognises that the people won't keep the law and will need saving again. Jesus isn't therefore a Plan B, he is part 2 (or 3, or whatever) of Plan A. The Law shows us that we are incapable of keeping it, despite the best possible carrots and the worst possible sticks. The problem is the human heart.
  5. Jesus is the perfect Law-keeper. But Jesus kept the Law perfectly. He did what we could not do.
  6. Jesus embodies the character of God as revealed in the Law. He doesn't just fulfil the Law by not breaking it - he shows us more clearly the God who gave the Law.
  7. Jesus is the answer to the problem posed by the Law. The problem the Law shows is that even if God rescues us, we still can't live up to it. Jesus solves that by rescuing us from our own inadequacy, from God's right anger against that inadequacy, and by giving us his Spirit to live in us and transform us.
  8. The Law reveals the character of God our Father, especially in the importance of love - loving God and those around us, as well as showing us worked examples of what that love looks like in the culture of the time. We can therefore apply it to how we should respond to God's greater salvation in Jesus, but to do that takes work. There's a great outline of how to go about it in CJH Wright's book Old Testament Ethics for the People of God.
  9. The Law leads us to God the Son, and shows us our need of his sin-bearing sacrifice.
  10. The Law shows us our need for transformation by God the Holy Spirit. In New Testament thought, the Spirit replaces the Law. That is why there are so many parallels between Pentecost and Sinai.

What have I missed off? Anything important?