Monday, December 22, 2014

Sacred and Spiritual Links - Monday 22 December 2014 including Oihi commemorations

The very big news of sacred and spiritual activity in Aotearoa New Zealand this week is the culmination of celebrations of the preaching of the gospel for the first time in our islands on Christmas Day 1814.

One major events was yesterday and a further event takes place on Christmas Day itself.

Taonga has articles here and here.

Bishop Kelvin Wright's Available Light blog has a series of posts on his pilgrimage from Dunedin to Oihi here.

The following links are supplied by a UK colleague:

Advent links remain available here for this fourth Sunday of Advent:
There will be a round up of Christmas services in the next few days.

Meanwhile I hope some of this may be of interest:
#1 Archbishop Glenn Davies preaching powerfully at the Sydney memorial service; #2 Raphael Samuel, recently made Bishop of Bolivia on God and his purpose; #3 Archie Coates on the presence of God with us; and #4 All Souls Langham Place have a series on Christmas Begins with Christ.

Prayers for you this coming week.

SERMONS AND TALKS
1. Sermon from a Service of Hope and Prayer - Archbishop Glenn Davies - St Andrew's Sydney Audio

2. How God Restores His Purpose - Bishop Raphael Samuel of Bolivia - Holy Comforter, Sumpter, SC Audio

3. Message of Christmas:God with us - Archie Coates - St Peter's Brighton Audio

4. Christmas Starts with Christ - talks from All Souls Langham Place

Commentary for Sunday 21st December
5. Preaching Ideas and Commentary - Rev Peter Carrell

6. The Sunday Readings - Rev Stephen Trott

WORSHIP
7. The bells of St Peter's Congleton in Cheshire - BBC Radio 4

8. Choral Evensong from Manchester Cathedral - BBC Radio 3

9. Sunday Holy Communion livestreamed from St Helena's Church, Beaufort, South Carolina at 10:15 am Eastern Time, 3:15 pm London Time

10. Sunday Worship from Methodist College, Belfast - BBC Radio 4

11. Advent Carol Service still available from St John's College, Cambridge - BBC Radio 3

12. Sunday Hour - BBC Radio 2

13. Archived Choral services during the holidays from the chapels of King's College Cambridge
and Trinity College, Cambridge
and St John's College, Cambridge
and New College, Oxford

PRAYER
Please pray for the Ebola Crisis and for those working for a cure; for Christians and all facing persecution and crime in Iraq; for the persecuted church and in particular in Nigeria, Egypt, India and Iran; for peace in Ukraine, Israel and Gaza; and for the Diocese of South Carolina.

14. Topical Prayers - Church of England
Nigeria: Archbishop Kwashi 'Poor Nigerians need protection' - BBC News
Nigeria government 'outraged' by kidnap - BBC News
Egypt: Christian convert facing maltreatment in prison – CSW
India: Christmas 2014 ‘evokes not joy but fears’ for India’s Christians – WWM
Iran: Charges dropped against Church of Iran clergy – CSW
South Carolina: Prayers from Lent and Beyond

CURRENT AFFAIRS
15. Sunday Programme - with Edward Stourton - BBC Radio 4

Food for thought
16. Happy Christmas from the Middle East - Canon Andrew White - Huffington Post
No, we love Yeshua - Fr Dale Matson
Richard Hooker and Magna Carta - Bishop Graham Kings
Miracle on Clifton Rd: God is in Charge - Robert Lundy
Six Clay Seals Discovered In Israel Linked To Era Of Kings David And Solomon - Huffington Post

FINALLY
17. Advent 2014 Week 3 - Andrew Evans - UCCF Video

18. Christmas Message from Bear Grylls - Alpha Carols Video

19. O Come Immanuel - Sheyi Martins - Alpha Video

20. O Magnum Mysterium - Morten Lauridsen - New College Oxford Choir

God bless you





Saturday, December 20, 2014

What I would preach this Christmas!

As a matter of fact I am pulpitless this Christmas but that doesn't mean I am not thinking about what could or even should be said this Christmas about the reason for the season.

Somewhere in my hypothetical sermon I think I would be mentioning that this Christmas the message of Jesus Christ is a little, perhaps even a lot harder to preach because this past year has been a very, very bad year for religion.

The violence and hatred expressed murderously in the name of one or two religions makes it harder for all religions to communicate their message. That some atheists in the 20th century murdered millions in the name of atheistic anti-religions such as Marxist-Leninism is a pretty bleak counter to those who wonder why any religion should be taken seriously when in the name of religion children are being beheaded in front of their parents, girls are being kidnapped, both girls and adult women are being sold into slavery and forced marriage. The list goes on and in 2014 has been viciously horrible.

There is something deeply wrong with religion in general when religious reasons are proffered for ill-treatment of fellow human beings, especially the most powerless in the face of men with guns: children and women. Could 2015 be a year when religious leaders start talking to one another and uniting in condemnation of humanity's inhumanity to one another?

Yet the dark religious clouds hovering over Christmas this year highlight the beacon of light which shines from the manger in the stable. That light is the light of the world, born in miserable circumstances to bring light and life to the whole world, to every man, woman, and child.

The light that shines from the stable is not the light of truth, if truth means we may maim and kill those who do not agree with us, and it is not the light of goodness and purity, if goodness and purity means that we may torture and destroy those we perceive to be bad and impure. It is the light of life, the light of love, the light of God who so loved every man, woman, child (i.e. 'the world') that he sent his own Son to all humanity to rescue us from precisely the darkness which threatens to engulf the world today.

The challenge of Christmas (if we may put it that way - it does sound serious and heavy in the midst of celebration) is to move beyond religion (if that means 'my religion' versus 'your religion') to the heart of God which is love. If religion does not serve this God, it is nothing. If the religion known as 'Christianity' does not serve this God, it has misunderstood the announcement God's heart makes to our hearts in Jesus Christ.*

In many ways the sermon is now preached. But I have also been thinking through this year about the awesomeness of the Incarnation. I think in my hypothetical sermon I would also want to at least mention this. The common accord with the reflections above could be this: when God takes up human flesh, God signals the true worth and value of every human being - God's love for the world is so great that God becomes the world, identifies and shares with us in our plight, and leads us to God's new creation.

There is a risk when we talk about the Incarnation that we reduce it to a kind of cosmic magic trick. "Look, God became a man. How awesome is that?" But that is not the Incarnation, and nothing in John's beautiful Prologue suggests anything like a display of awesome magic took place when Jesus was born.

Rather, when Jesus was born, God made a new birth for humanity possible. By becoming us, God opens the way for us to become God. Salvation is so much more than moving from the wrong side of God's ledger to the right side, from hell to heaven: it is to be drawn into communion with the Communion of Father Son and Holy Spirit.

But after 2000 years, have we made much progress as Christians in understanding this?

Let 2015 be the year when theology moves from its preface to its first chapter, when the church moves from infancy to childhood, and when religions wither on the vine!

*(Unfortunately there is evidence that Christianity is a religion which misunderstands this message! Here is but the latest, in this morning, 20 December, evidence of not understanding our calling to serve the God who is love).

Thursday, December 18, 2014

If you buy one Lenten study guide for Lent 2015 ...


Theology House's next Lenten study guide looks even better in your hands - thanks to superb design by Marcus Thomas. Taonga has the story and the ordering details here.

TH's website has the details here.

It's a bargain - eight studies for the price of six :)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas Services for Travellers in NZ

Looking for a [Anglican] service to attend when out of town this Christmas? The following list could help. At this time (16 December) it is a South Island only list. See below the links for further background/introduction to this post.

Note that for parishes with no website at all, you can find contact phone numbers by working from links on the following pages: Diocese of Christchurch, Diocese of Nelson, Diocese of Dunedin ...

SOUTH ISLAND - island to the north is "south" on this post!

Diocese of Christchurch

Christchurch city and surrounds

Transitional Cathedral, inner city, Christchurch

St Michael's and All Angels, inner city, Christchurch.

St Luke's, inner city, Christchurch

St Saviour's Sydenham and St Nicholas' Barrington

Opawa-St Martins

Holy Trinity Avonside

Sumner-Redcliffs

St Barnabas' Fendalton

St Paul's Papanui

St Mary's Merivale and St Matthew's St Albans meeting at St Margaret's College Chapel or, better information, here on Facebook

St John's Latimer Square BUT most services at Mairehau High School

St Timothy's Burnside and St James Harewood

St Christopher's Avonhead

St Peter's Upper Riccarton and St Luke's Yaldhurst

St Columba's Hornby, St Saviour's Templeton, St Paul's West Melton

South Canterbury

Fairlie and Tekapo

St Philips and All Saints Marchwiel Timaru

St John's Highfield Timaru

Christmas Eve Children's Services (interactive) 4pm and 6pm 
Christmas Eve Midnight service, beginning at 11.15pm 
Christmas Day service at 9am

Temuka and Pleasant Point - link is to general service information

Pre Christmas, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at St Peter's Temuka

Thursday 18th Christingle @ 7pm - a Candlelight Service for Children and the Young at Heart (30th anniversary of this service!)

Saturday 20th  4 pm Remembrance service to remember loved ones or for people suffering grief of any kind

Christmas Eve 10 pm Service

Christmas Day 10 am Service

Diocese of Nelson

Marlborough

Nativity church, central Blenheim

St Luke's Spring Creek (north of Blenheim) - scroll down this Facebook page

Nelson

Nelson cathedral, central Nelson city

St Barnabas' Stoke

St Stephen's Tahunanui - just a walk from the beach!

Tasman

Holy Trinity Richmond

Motueka (including Riwaka, Ngatimoti) - Anglican churches closest to Kaiteriteri

Brightwater and Waimea West

Diocese of Dunedin

Dunedin city and environs

St Paul's cathedral, central city

St Matthew's corner Hope and Stafford Streets, central city

All Saints Dunedin North / University

St John's Roslyn

St Peter's Caversham

Warrington (coastal village north of Dunedin city)

Central Otago

Queenstown and Arrowtown

South Otago

Milton

Balclutha and Clinton

Invercargill

St John's Invercargill

NORTH ISLAND
The following does not  represent systematic research into each and every parish listed on diocesan websites. As time permits I am trying to add some info/links re major cities and towns. 

Te Manawa o Te Wheke

St Faith's Ohinemutu Rotorua

Diocese of Auckland

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Parnell, Auckland city

St Columba Grey Lynn, Auckland city

St. Matthews-in-the-City, Auckland central city

St Margaret's Hillsborough, Auckland city

Church of the Good Shepherd Massey, Auckland city

St Chad's Meadowbank, Auckland city

St George's Church Papatoetoe, Auckland city

Diocese of Waikato and Taranaki

St Andrew's Cambridge

St Mark's, Te Aroha

St John's Waihi

St Mary's Cathedral, New Plymouth

Diocese of Waiapu

St John's Cathedral, Napier

Holy Trinity, Tauranga

St Andrew's, Taupo

Diocese of Wellington

St Paul's Cathedral, central Wellington

St John's Johnsonville and Holy Trinity Ohariu Valley

All Saints, Haitaitai, Wellington

Masterton

Introduction to above links

It can be difficult when travelling to relatives for Christmas to know where to go to church ... at least when relatives are unreliable guides to local worship times. So as a free service to readers in search of a Christmas service in a strange city here are some possibilities ... BUT I NEED YOUR HELP to enlarge the offering. Thanks for those who have been sending links/info ...

I have been able to survey my own diocese (Christchurch = Canterbury and Westland) and the dioceses to our north (Nelson = Nelson, Marlborough, Tasman, Golden Bay, Buller, Grey District) and south (Dunedin = North, Central, South Otago, Dunedin, Invercargill). As time permits I may be able to do more this week.

If you were to offer additional information via comments I could keep enlarging the scope of the post. My preference is for a weblink to your local parish(es)/cathedral service times but failing that send the times/places and I will publish.

The criteria below where I publish a link is that the parish has an identifiable page with 2014 Christmas service times on it. No link, no publication unless times are sent to me via comments!

No order of priority here, but some attempt is made to group parishes by geography. For Diocese of Christchurch parishes I have worked from the AnglicanLife site to connect with each parish website listed there. If your parish is not listed below then either I have not researched well enough or your parish is not displaying Christmas service times on or around 14 December.

The observation needs to be made quietly but firmly that in an e-information age, it is most unfortunate that there are many parishes with websites which do not display Christmas service information.

In 2014 people look up websites to find out when services are on. They do not ring contact phone numbers as a first means of finding out.

In my research for above I observed the following:

Many sites do not contain Sunday service information on their 'front page.' Do people go to a church's website to find out what is great about the church or to learn when they can meet for worship at the church (to then find out in person how great the church is)?

Some websites are not functioning because some kind of trojan something or other has affected/infected their site. One site was in Chinese, another site told me about a publishing venture! Do we check our sites regularly for functionality?

One site had so much "byte" content that it took ages to download - so I gave up! It is good to have a superb site re web aesthetics but the essence of a website is that it is the e-newsletter and e-noticeboard of the church, not one of its glorious stained glass windows reproduced in gigabyte detail.

Some sites used to exist and now do not; other sites were maintained by someone ... until 2012. (That is also a comment which reflects on links held on diocesan websites. Every South Island link above I got to via the 'parishes information' page on each diocesan website).

There are many parishes without a website at all. I do not want to criticse those parishes because I do not know what struggles they have to do what they do without adding to their burdens the establishment and maintenance of a website. (As a blogger and as one of the administrators of the Theology House website I understand how much work a website involves and would want parishes to have website presences they can sustain or no presence at all). Nevertheless is there not an issue for our church as a whole in the e-information age about how we might assist parishes in the development and sustaining of basic parish websites?

Monday, December 15, 2014

Spiritual and Sacred Links - Monday 15 December 2014

Supplied by a UK colleague:

Advent links remain available here:

Meanwhile I hope some of this may be of interest:
#1 Kendall Harmon on John the Baptist and the call to repentence; #2 Bishop Tom Wright on Joy; #3 Andrew Hay continues to look at Christianity in politics; #4 John Lennox on Discipleship and the Book of Daniel; #15 a new website 'Christmas starts with Christ' is getting some coverage.

Prayers for you this coming week.

SERMONS AND TALKS
1. St John the Baptist and the danger of cheap grace - Kendall Harmon [Mark 1:1-8]

2. Theology of Joy: N. T. Wright with Miroslav Volf - Yale Video

3. God and Government: the characteristics of a good political leader - Donald Hay - St Andrew's Oxford Audio [Deuteronomy 17:14-20 and Mark 10:35-45]

4. Four talks on Daniel and Discipleship - Professor John Lennox - FOCL Video
Standing Strong for God in a Secular Society
Identity and Intecrity [Daniel 1-2]
Revelation and Reason [Daniel 3-5]
Power and Truth [Daniel 6-12]

Commentary for Sunday 14th December
5. Preaching Ideas and Commentary - Rev Peter Carrell

6. The Sunday Readings - Rev Stephen Trott

WORSHIP
7. The bells of St Michael's, Kingsteignton in Devon - BBC Radio 4

8. Sunday Holy Communion livestreamed from St Helena's Church, Beaufort, South Carolina at 10:15 am Eastern Time, 3:15 pm London Time

9. Advent Carol Service still available from St John's College, Cambridge – BBC Radio 3

10. Sunday Hour - BBC Radio 2

11. Archived Choral services during the holidays from the chapels of King's College Cambridge
and Trinity College, Cambridge
and St John's College, Cambridge
and New College, Oxford

PRAYER
Please pray for the Ebola Crisis and for those working for a cure; for Christians and all facing persecution and crime in Iraq; for the persecuted church and in particular in Nigeria, Iran, Pakistan and Egypt; for peace in Ukraine, Israel and Gaza; and for the Diocese of South Carolina.

12. Topical Prayers - Church of England
Nigeria: Dozens killed in double bombing in Jos - BBC News
Iran: Second appeal hearing for three Iranian clergymen – CSW
Pakistan: Three more cases in which Pakistani Christians accused of blasphemy – WWM
Report referred to
South Carolina: Decision in South Carolina Case Expected Soon - Alan Haley
Prayers from Lent and Beyond

CURRENT AFFAIRS
13. Sunday Programme - with Edward Stourton - BBC Radio 4

Food for thought
14. Wake up for Advent - Archbishop Sentamu - BBC Radio 2 Pause for Thought
Waiting is more than unfulfilled longing - Dr Martyn Atkins
Christmas Observance – BRIN
Good without God? Morality's Foundations Crumble in the Absence of Christianity - Peter Hitchens - ABC Religion
CIA torture: What should the Christian response be? - Roy Jenkins - Christian Today
Did Luke get the date of Jesus’ birth wrong? - Ian Paul

15. Christmas Starts with Christ - Vic van den Bergh
Giggling baby Jesus goes viral in Christmas Starts with Christ campaign - Ruth Gledhill - Christian Today
Christmas Starts with Christ website

FINALLY
16. Advent 2014 Week 2 - Sharon Dirckx from the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics - UCCF Video

17. Christmas Video 2014 - All Souls

18. O Sing Joyfully - Adrian Batten - Royal Holloway Choir

19. Joy to the World - Rend Collective

20. Soaring lights over Norway - Ole C Salomonsen Vimeo

God bless you

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Big Bang Theory of Gospel Preaching

The Holy Bible gets a hard time. Mostly from Christians! It's complicated. It's just another book among holy books - hey, we should read the Qu'ran at the next coronation service in England (says a bishop!). It's long. It's long-winded. It has some terrible scenes in it which would make even the CIA blanch. Did I mention its misogyny? Approval of slavery?

I know many Christians love to "hate" what he says, to accuse him of preaching a false gospel, of being the Protestant who reworks Luther and Calvin to endorse the Counter-Reformation, but +Tom is always worth reading and mostly Wright. That's because he probes deeply into the meaning of the Bible as the Holy Scripture revealed by God. The trick (I find) is to keep reading what +Tom Wrights. Some subtleties in his penetrative insights become clearer across different publications.

This week I came across a particularly illuminating essay, "Paul and the Powerful Word: Gospel, Community, Mission," published here.

It is long so you may find my excisions below quicker to read.

+Wright argues that the power of the gospel message is the power of the same creative Word of God which brings the world into being. The gospel now brings the new creation into being and thus fulfils the deepest expectations of the Law and the prophets.

Along the way there is a useful clarifying of +Wright's understanding of the relationship between gospel and Law.

But, most importantly, +Wright is challenging the church in the West to see beyond its divisions to God's purpose for the church, to be the new creation (which, indeed, is a world without divisions!).

Read on ... all the words below are +Wrights:

"It quickly became clear [at a recent Roman synod] that some people were using the phrase “the word of God” to refer to the Bible, while others used it to mean “the Bible and the tradition,” and still others wanted it to mean “the Bible, the tradition, and the magisterium.” Clearly we all have some work still to do in clarifying the question, never mind answering it. "

"Here [Paul in 1 Thessalonians] speaks of the powerful divine word as a transforming energy which, though unleashed through his own announcement of the gospel, is much greater than the sum of his own words or his rhetorical skill."

"within five verses we have three aspects of the divine word: it comes upon people in power through the preaching of the gospel, it is received with both suffering and joy, and it resonates outwards from the newly formed communities. There you have my subtitle in a nutshell: gospel, community and mission."

"Now we can see, as well, the way in which what Paul says about the powerful divine word is a lot more than simply fresh content, fresh information, upon which one might construct an intellectual system, even a theological system. The “word” in question creates a new reality. We can point towards this with inadequate illustrations: when a judge says “I find this person innocent,” or a priest says “I declare that these two are husband and wife,” a new reality comes into being. In a different way, when someone says “I love you,” especially if it’s unexpected, something happens which is far more than simply the conveying of information. All this goes with the theme which I and others have explored at length elsewhere: for Paul the gospel is about the sudden and dramatic fulfilment of the age-old divine purpose, generating a new creation, a new world in which there is not only new knowledge but a new type of knowledge, a type indeed for which one of the best names is agapē, love."

"The letter to the Colossians has creation and new creation as one of its main themes, with the famous poem of chapter 1 verses 15-20 offering a careful and subtle Christological meditation on Genesis 1.1 and Proverbs 8.22. The poem sees the Messiah as the hidden meaning both of the “wisdom” who was with the creator at the beginning and of that “beginning” itself. It is therefore no accident that, in the introduction to the letter, when Paul speaks of “the word of truth of the gospel,” he echoes Genesis 1. This “word,” he says, is “bearing fruit and multiplying” in all the world (1.6), just as in Genesis first the animals and then the humans are commanded to “be fruitful and multiply.” Paul is already hinting that what is going on through the gospel is new creation. This hint is magnified when he reports his prayer that his hearers may themselves “bear fruit and multiply” in the knowledge of God (1.10)."

"For Paul the word of the gospel, the word of reconciliation, is the word through which God renews and establishes the covenant in order to renew and establish creation. That is the point of the fulfilment of prophecy. And here we come upon a vital point. For Paul, the idea of a powerful word was not simply a matter of his understanding of what today we call speech-act theory. It corresponded to the ancient belief in the power of the prophetic word. The prophet’s words carried divine power. So did Paul’s."

"What then about Torah? Everybody who studies Paul comes, sooner or later, to the question of “Paul and the Law,” and many of us were taught the different answers: does Paul think the Law is a bad thing, abolished in the gospel, or a good thing, fulfilled in the gospel? Galatians seems to say the first, and Romans the second. But this is far, far too shallow. Paul is a lot more subtle than that—as we might expect from the larger context of second-temple Judaism in which he grew up."

"Paul, like some other Jews of his day, thus read Torah—Genesis to Deuteronomy—not simply as the long-distant back story of Israel, but as the whole story, with the last chapters seen as a long-range prophecy of exile and final restoration. In Romans 9 and 10 he retells that whole story, starting with Abraham, continuing with Moses, coming at last to the exile and then to the Messiah, whom he describes as the telos nomou, the “end of the law,” the goal, the point to which Torah was driving all along. And so he quotes Deuteronomy 30, not arbitrarily, but exactly to the point: the “word” which Deuteronomy says will be “near you” is the covenant-renewing word, the heart-transforming word, the faith-inducing word, the word of the gospel, the word of the Messiah, the Lord. 

If Paul sees the powerful divine word as the fulfilment of prophecy, he also sees it as the fulfilment of Torah. God has done the radical new thing which he always promised, and in the word of the gospel this new thing springs to life —the life which the law longed to give but which, because of the flesh, it could not, as Paul says two chapters earlier. The divine “word” thus summed up the law and the prophets, not simply cognitively—as though somehow expressing in a nutshell all that they had taught, though Paul would probably have said that too—but narratively, in that the long story both were telling had reached its telos in Israel’s Messiah through whom the covenant was fulfilled and the creation therefore renewed. And it is that fulfilment of covenant and creation that leads us into the final section of this lecture."

"I have argued that for Paul the powerful divine word is both the word of the gospel, the announcement about Jesus and his death and resurrection, the proclamation that he is therefore Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord, and also the fulfilment of Israel’s long hope, shaped by Torah and Prophets. In this Messiah the covenant is renewed; therefore, in his resurrection and through the gospel itself, creation is renewed as well. “If anyone is in Messiah, new creation!” That is of course paradoxical and partial, awaiting the final resurrection for its completion; but for Paul it is decisively launched.

That is the framework for the larger understanding of gospel, community and mission to which I now return. For Paul, the community of Messiah’s people were called into being by the powerful word of the gospel, and were to be built up in faith, wisdom and understanding by that same word, seen as having specific cognitive content but, deeper than that, as convenying the divine transformative “energy.” Thus a the word was declarative (saying what had actually happened), informative (saying what it meant), performative (bringing into being a new state of affairs) and transformative (effecting in human beings individually and together the new creation of which it spoke). All these were, for Paul, part of the whole work of the powerful divine word.
Paul sees the community called into being by this word as a pilot project for new creation.
And therefore, not only in Philippians 2 but all through, Paul sees the community called into being by this word as a pilot project for new creation."

"The church is the people of new creation who are to live, by the powerful word, at the heart of the creation that is longing to be free from its own slavery to decay. The church is to be the sign, and, by its prayer, part of the means, of that creation’s renewal. Of course one can parody this. One can speak of the church simply building the kingdom by its own efforts. That is not the point. The church is to be the community in which the signs of new creation—particularly, of unity across traditional boundaries, and of a holiness which instantiates what the Torah longed to do, a humanity free at last from idolatry, hatred and sexual sin—are coming to birth, demonstrating that there is indeed a new way to be human, and with that a new future for the whole creation.
It will I think be obvious that this vision of new creation is very different from the traditional western model, whether Catholic or Protestant, in which the only real point is to leave behind the present world and go somewhere else. There is a long debate as to whether the Platonic influence on Christian dogma has been healthy or not, and I hope it’s clear from what I’ve said tonight why I think it has been largely unhealthy."

"This is the powerful word which Paul spoke, and about which he spoke. And, as we look outward to the larger question of the word of God for today, this message must naturally be at the heart of what the church is and does. And when we look with Pauline eyes at the whole canon of scripture, and see how Torah and Prophets come together into this new word, we may perhaps glimpse ways out of the sterile antitheses which have for so long made life difficult in the western church. 

I haven’t talked about the gospels or Revelation, but I would want to say that the Bible as a whole is designed to work in the same way that the powerful word of the gospel works. It too is declarative, informative, performative and transformative. It too transcends the small rationalistic boxes into which both conservatives and skeptics have so often tried to squash it. 

If we say that the Bible carries the divine authority, we are not saying that it is an encyclopedia in which we can look up true facts. We are saying that it is the story in which all our stories are contained, including the story of how our Christian predecessors have read it. It is the work of art through which we ourselves may become God’s artwork and may then produce fresh artwork ourselves. It is the story of how God is putting the whole world right, within which is contained the story of our own putting-right so that we can share in God’s larger project."

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

What if Jesus was an Australian Cricketer?

I have reserved the right to write about cricket here but that has been for the sake of cricket as cricket - a great, wonderful and endlessly fascinating game. Today cricket can be written about religiously, but sadly because of a tragedy.

A couple of weeks ago Phillip Hughes, an Australian batsmen of great talent and popularity, playing in a match between South Australia and New South Wales attempted to play a bouncer - a short pitched rising ball intended to (legally) unsettle if not intimidate the batsmen - missed and was hit in the back of the head. Despite wearing a helmet protecting nearly every part of his head this ball hit the lower rear of his head in such a way that a major blood vessel was damaged. Two days later in hospital he died unleashing amazing global grief uniting the cricket world.

Many have been the reflections since. The one I draw attention to here does so in terms of theology. Scott Cowdell, writing at the always thoughtful ABC Religion and Ethics site, reflects on "Sport and the Sacred Victim: Rene Girard and the Death of Phillip Hughes."

A minor but not unimportant aspect of this reflection is that it helps pea-brained people such as myself to get a better understanding of Girard and his deep insights into the relationship between the sacred and the social. Girard most frequent referencing by Christian theologians is in respect of his understanding of atonement.

Here Cowdell proposes that Hughes' death lays bear a disturbing truth for Australian society (where cricket plays - arguably - a stronger social role than in any other nation):

"The answer to why Phillip Hughes's death unleashed so much shock and even awe on so wide a front is because the foundations of our social order were uncovered to reveal a slain victim. We are not normally meant to see this mechanism laid bare like this, because it works best when we know about the slain victim intuitively rather than explicitly. When we see an actual death in this context, however, it is uniquely surprising, sobering and unifying."

Here is a flavour of his Girardian analysis:

"A third technology for deflecting and defusing violence is provided by ritual, which is the key thing for present purposes. Rituals unite a society in recollection of its founding murder, though as in myths there has to be a veiling of the whole truth lest its revelation weaken or undermine the cure. Without suitable awe and mystery surrounding them, so that the pragmatic nature of their efficacy remains concealed, such rituals lose their power. This is why the rituals of organised religion have so little power to move us any more, while rituals of militarism, celebrity and sport can still get the blood pumping.
Initially ritual victims were killed, and later animal substitutes were sacrificed. Rituals of kingship often involved ceremonial challenges to the intended ruler by armed groups, which for Girard points to the origins of kingship in the way that prisoners were often kept in luxurious conditions until the moment of their sacrifice, when their scapegoat role was revealed. The echo of this particular ritual substitution is alive and well, with recent history confirming the close connection remaining between celebrity, leadership and the proneness of such widely envied persons to be made victims. Hence a whiff of the ancient sacred, in all its terror and wonder, is retained.
The sense of emotion that a military parade, or a jet fighter flypast, or even an academic or legal street procession can evoke points to the social cohesiveness fostered by such ritual functions. They are religious in a primal way that works - and still works - far below the more superficial level of contested beliefs over which today's theists and atheists argue."

Incidentally, as we argue over our cathedral in Christchurch, Cowdell makes a general point about the shift in ritual power in society in relationship to extravagant spending on buildings in which rites are performed:

"In the case of sport, we are dealing with public rituals par excellence. Some of our greatest buildings are devoted to sport, with the huge expenditure once allocated to the sacred in its Christian form now lavished on the sacred in its sporting form."

This next bit I cite puzzles me as I am not yet convinced by him that he understands cricket appropriately in relation to primal religion in respect of 'victims':

"In cricket, ritual elements for the containment and dissembling of violence are very clear. This is a gentleman's game in which the older custom of wearing long whites (now also coloured variants) has long survived its abandonment by tennis players. The slow pace of the game in its traditional form applies the brake to violent escalation. Yet the batsman is clearly cast in the role of victim, with a licensed assailant flinging a hard ball of cork, string and leather weighing around 160g at the batsman. If the batsman appears weak, the opposing team gathers around him in what is called an "attacking field," all of which recalls the mob and the widespread practice of human sacrifice by stoning.

To be sure, all such rituals hide their true nature. In cricket, the victim is not helpless but is provided with protective gear and a bat to deflect the attack, with his success against the assailant celebrated. Likewise there is the deflection of attention to the stumps, which are attacked and defended, representing a further dissembling of the true victim's identity. Likewise there are two batsmen, so the single victim mechanism is further concealed. Yet when one batsman is dismissed another victim comes out, typical of ritual's repetitiveness."

As a bowler I cry that I feel the victim when my bowling is flogged by the batsmen!

But whether or not Cowdell understands cricket correctly in the Girardian sense, his final paragraphs bear very careful reflection. One question we could ask in the light of these paragraphs is whether Christianity died with Jesus on the cross (because in that death society's enthralment with victimization also died and thus the power of religion died too)?

"For Rene Girard, all such ritual mechanisms begin to falter with the onset of modernity. We lose our taste for blood sports, racism, pogroms, social exclusion and all other ritual marks of a nervous society preserving its order at the expense of innocent victims. We can distract ourselves with consumption, keep a lid on things through the quasi-religious expedient of nation-statism, and of course we retain public rituals such as sport and celebrity-baiting for helping maintain a tolerable level of social cohesion.
Yet, since the world uniting to condemn Jesus Christ capped-off the Bible's exposure of all this, societies have become less and less able to console themselves by victimization. Thus the Christian revelation leads directly to the death of the archaic, socially-preserving sacred, setting us inexorably on the path to secular modernity.
Versions of the old sacred are busy trying to reassert themselves wherever the Nietzschian, Dionysian spirit is given play, from Nazi Germany to the sacred mythology celebrated by murderous video games and today's mythically-themed 3D blockbusters. The church has done plenty to deny its own best instincts, too, not least by painting a violent and judgemental God as saviour, who in reality comes more from the pages of myth than from the Gospel. Yet something of the emotional, cohesive power of these rituals abides, and all the better preserved by its roots remaining hidden from view.
I suggest that the death of Phillip Hughes has had such a powerful effect on us because it reveals the disquieting, sobering yet powerful and unifying reality of the primitive sacred - the entirely human construct that our proto-human forebears happened upon to save them from their violent-tending rivalries. Hence Phillip Hughes has become at least a little godlike, has he not?"

My own final (at least for now) thought, reflecting on the phenomenon of the public grief over Hughes' death is this: for a week or two we saw myth-making in action. Hughes the very good cricketer became Hughes the transcendent, archetypal even godlike cricketer. We even have the phenomenon this week of a form of 'resurrection': Hughes has been named as "13th man" in the Australian test team for a match beginning today.

For those of us whose approach to the gospels is to firmly and resolutely eschew arguments that the gospels include the results of myth-making, there is pause for thought. When a person dies whose role (whether in life or death or both) in society is to move us in some primal manner, making myths about the deceased is the first thing we do. (For non-cricketers we can think, as Cowdell does, of the myth-making grief surrounding John F. Kennedy and Princess Diana). Hughes' death reminds us of our human tendency to manufacture myths as a coping mechanism for our loss of a figure vital to the ordering of our human experience.

For Christians, our ongoing reflection on the gospels is, or should be, critically peering beyond the mythical to the reality of what God was doing in and through Christ, indeed to the God who was present in Christ.

When the going is slow out in the middle and we are distracted and sleepy lying in the sun, we might contemplate these mysteries and ask, What if Jesus was an Australian cricketer?