You know when you are reading an author who knows his (or her) stuff, and who writes with an authority that doesn't need to name drop in footnotes, or pile up reasons for the reasons that makes their argument cogent. They say as much in a paragraph as others do in pages; they cut through the tangle of unclear thinking, or cumulative referencing of alternative viewpoints, and give you the considered conclusions from that process.
Anthony Thiselton does that in his brief, rich, and satsifying book The Living Paul. Part of what makes Thiselton an academic treasure to many of us is the sheer range and scale and variety of his intellectual discipleship. His major works on Hermeneutics range from substantial, to massive to gargantuan. His dictionary of the philosophy of religion is a one man vade mecum on the subject. His magnum opus in New Testament studies is his commentary on I Corinthians, universally recognised as a defining contribution to the study of that letter for this generation; and then he publishes a briefer more accessible commentary on the same letter which isn't a summary, but a further fresh reconsideration of the letter. His latest work on The Holy Spirit; in Biblical Teaching, Through the Centuries and Today is moving along my reading shelf. His book on The Last Things can be compared with N T Wright's Surprised by Hope as a genuine wrestling with eschatology, Christian hope and biblical teaching, drawing out wide discussion on areas of Christian thinking and reflection that remain existentially urgent.
Amongst the shorter books on Paul I've valued are TR Glover's Paul of Tarsus (back in print), C K Barrett's volume in the Outstanding Christian Thinkers Series and N T Wright's Paul: Fresh Perspectives. These are books for orientation, revision, and a reasonably brief survey of Paul's life and thought. The easy expertise I mentioned at the start of the post is evident throughout Thiselton; Romans, Galatians and Philippians are each summarised in a page or two of distilled scholarship and narrative.
The following paragraph is characteristic:
"...two distinct aspects for part of what it means to confess Christ as Lord. The practical aspect, which gives the confession currency in daily life, may be called the personal, or 'existential' aspect. The aspect which underlines God's enthronement of Christ, however humans may responde, grounds the confession in reality, and may be called the 'reality' or ontological aspect. ...If this is so, and it does seem to be the case, the confession cannot be a simple assent to a head-content, or to a right beliefe about Jesus Christ. It implies not less than this, but more. It involves trust, involvement, surrender, obedience, reverence, and grateful love."
The meaning, nature and reality of faith in Jesus Christ, and confession of Christ as Lord is reduced to its concentrate in that last sentence. This is a fine book, and a refreshing holiday read. Rembrandt's Paul gives every impression of being stuck, trying to think his way forward as he writes to maybe the Roman Christians about life in the Spirit, or the Galatians with whom he's furious, maybe the Corinthians whose problems multiply like rabbits in Spring. Either way, remember he doesn't have a keyboard with a delete or cut and paste facility, and papyrus is expensive. So he thinks before he writes - always a good rule :)
My relationship with social media is fairly simple. Apart from this blog I don't do Facebook or Twitter. There are various reasons; I understand the positives and how social media can enrich lives, share information, create and stimulate discussion, use social, psychological and moral leverage through numbers. I also understand the negatives, obsession with trivia, inflated self-importance that others actually care what we think, do, feel, buy, or say, the diversion of time, energy, attentiveness in keeping the audience current with the detail and progress of our inner climate and weather of our circumstances. Then there is the abuse of Twitter to abuse others, and with very little control over content, or sanction for such abuse.
I with millions of others celebrate the announcement of the new £10 note commemorating unarguably one of the greatest writers in English Literature, Jane Austen. The news that Caroline Criado-Perez, who campaigned for a woman's image on the next generation of banknotes, has been subjected to sexist abuse and threats of rape raise for me not so much the social usefulness of Twitter, but its social menace as long as it remains unpoliced, unregulated and open to such criminal tactics without fear of sanction. This comes at the end of a week of wider controversy about filters and controls on access and content on the Internet. Caroline Criado-Perez campaigned, responsibly, imaginatively and in my view rightly for women to be depicted on our currency on the same basis as men, significance for our culture, contribution to our history, and representation of figures of national and international importance. Jane Austen is an obvious, popular and even a brilliant choice.
The idea that a woman can be abused and threatened by such violent and obscene language, anonymously and with impunity, is first a violation of her person, and also a real threat to wider society. Not only so; she campaigned within a democratic culture, enjoying the privileges and obligations of freedom of expression, responsible discussion, informed debate and shared agreement. When a person is intimidated, threatened, made the focus of co-ordinated hate and violent expression by hidden haters of women then two essential principles of a healthy society are broken. Respect for persons consists in the recognition and respect for the other, and a willingness to live in humane co-operation for the welfare of the community, the common good. Respect for individual freedom enables a community to live in creative accommodation through discussion, democratic decision-making and the compromises necessary to reflect the diversity and interests of the community.
The abuse of Twitter violates both respect for the individual, and the balance of individual freedom with community obligation - rights always bring obligations. The problem is the current failure of law and regulation to not only to control the content of Twitter (which is not what I am asking), but to identify and bring to account those who use it as a weapon against others (which I am asking). The demand is now overwhelming for legislation to enable the prosecution of criminal uses of Twitter (and personal threat of rape is in anyone's definition criminal). During the London riots those fomenting riot on Facebook were traced and prosecuted; using Twitter to threaten rape is surely just as socially corrosive and criminally significant?
Twitter has issued reassuring statements - but they lack legislative authority and are couched in obvious self-interest. Whatever decisions are now made, it is outrageous that a woman, any woman, should be threatened with rape by a man, any man. No circumstances justify that; and no democratic Government can ignore the need to change the rules of what is not a game, but a socially embedded reality. Even as this is being written, Twitter is seeking to reassure two women MPs that it will do all in its power to ensure that Twitter complies with the Protection from Harassment Act.
As a Christian I would want to say more - about the nature of communication, the power of communication technology to change and shape that most human of qualities, communication through words, body language and presence; about the virtues of integrity, compassion, wisdom, humour, love and friendship; and about what it means to be made in the image of God and therefore made as essentially communicative and social beings. But for now, I simply want to record my own sense of outrage, and my demand for more than words from Twitter. Interestingly, and ironically, Twitter users have started a campaign against those who sent the scurrilous messages - maybe they can force Twitter to introduce controls.
Yesterday walking along the River Don the ducks were dancing. This is the perichoretic synchronised waltz performed at olympic sport level.
On a whim, I liked the sharp yellow and sharp grass against the blurred background of the river.
Then I saw the fabled ugly duckling, a tweenage swan wondering why it was such a big lumbering colourless bag of flurff. I was wishing I could enhance its self-esteem, and tell it " But you are beautiful" Not true though, but some day it will - here's the next photo of mum to prove it. Keep preening cygnet face, some day like your mum you'll see yourself reflected in the water and think "Oh ya beauty!"
Ecclesiastes 3.11 - "God has made everything beautiful in its time...." Yesterday was a good day.
Yesterday I did a round trip to Ayr for the unveiling of a statue. The new and stunning UWS Ayr Campus was opened last year and the University had commissioned a work of art by Alexander Stoddart, Sculptor in Ordinary to the Queen in Scotland. Sandy chose as the subject, Coila, the Goddess of the poetic charms of Ayrshire. The encounter between Coila and Burns is told in his poem "The Vision"
"...To give my counsels all in one,
Thy tuneful flame still careful fan:
Preserve the dignity of Man,
with soul erect
And trust the Universal Plan
will all protect
And wear thou this...she solemn said,
And bound the holly round my head:
The polished leaves and berries red
Did rustling play;
And, like a passing thought, she fled
In light away.
From "The Vision by Robert Burns".
The finished statue is quintessential Alexander Stoddart and is "a thing of beauty and a joy forever. " Keats' often over-quoted line was entirely appropriate as the response of the audience to the unveiling, and to the aesthetic and affective impact of the statue.
Here are some photos:
This is now one of the most important pieces of statuary in the West of Scotland. The University's association with the West of Scotland, spreading over four campuses, is both widespread and significant as a source of educational, economic and cultural investment. The statue signifies " the spirit of dedication and diligence that University of the West of Scotland embodies." Those of us who attended the unveiling of Coila are happy to acknowledge that role, and proud to share in it.
Here is a photo of the sculptor in full flow placing the work in context:
I've just spent a while reading Paul's two letters to the Thessalonian Christians. I'm reading Paul's letters in chronological order, and reading each of them in their entirety at a sitting. Paul could never have remotely imagined the centuries of scholarship and study, exegetical and expository activity, contemplative prayer and public reading, that would expose his occasional at times frantic writing to letter by letter scrutiny, word by word lexical analysis, syntactical disentangling, grammatical scrutiny, theological construal, contextual reconstruction, textual criticism and socio-rhetorical examination.
I've spent most of my life immersed in the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures, and Paul has been a conversation partner with whom I've argued, to whom Ive listened, whose company I've mostly enjoyed, whose tone of voice has often comforted, upset, inspired, interrogated, rebuked, encouraged and nourished my mind and heart. So I'm spending some time trying to hear once again what he is saying. You know how those few close friends we have who know us so well we can't kid on in their presence, they know us. And we know them too well to be daft enough to think we can wing it and present only a selected self? Paul is like that for me - actually, so is the Jesus of the Gospels, only more so, but that's another story.
Near the end of the second letter to the Thessalonians Paul writes one of his wish prayers, which comes as a softener for some of the hard things said and one or two hard words that follow. "May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ." (2Th 3.5) Just now and then words like that clarify what it is that makes us and keeps us Christian. The way Paul writes the phrase " the love of God" is deliberately ambiguous - it's about how we read the genitive 'of' - is it the love of God for us, or our love of God. Likewise the steadfastness of Christ - the word means faithful, longsuffering, durable, persevering, indefatigable - it's a word that is much more descriptive of the real thing than those abstract nouns so loved by preachers, such as commitment, decision. Christ's steadfastness towards us enables our perseverance; his durable love enables us to endure; unless we trust the steadfastness of Christ towards us, it will be hard for us to live after and in the steadfastness of Christ.
The psychology of Christian obedience is shaped by profound gratitude for the love with which God loves us, and given resilience and durability by Jesus Christ whose own patience and perseverance endured the cross, and defeated death, and lives in resurrected power that makes new, creates grace, and recreates us.
I've never used this verse as a benediction at the end of worship. I'm not sure I've ever heard it used. Has anyone else? But next time....
"May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ."
Yesterday I met my steadfast friend Ken for breakfast and a long catch up. His life is now divided between the United States and Scotland, and we try to meet up each time he is back here. Amongst our obvious shared passions are reading and books, and there is probably a book could be written about our book chasing adventures -like the one at the greasy B&B in Oxford. That too is another story. As was our attempt yesterday to eat a soft poached egg in a roll with some decorum, minimum mess, sitting across from each other and with barely controlled hysteria!
The point of this diversion is that amongst the sacraments of the steadfastness of Christ are those friends who are steadfastly there, who share our lives, and by whose kindness and faithfulness direct our hearts to the love of God. I have several such sacraments.
The following is taken from an order of service for First Baptist Church of Ithaca from July 7. I like the call to worship - its realism, biblical echoes and the prayer that says most of what most of us want to say most of the time.
And Moses said, "I am slow of speech and slow of tongue..."
All: But God sent him anyway
Jeremiah said "I am just a boy..."
All: But God spoke through him anyway
mary was perplexed by the angel's visit
All: But God still invited her to give birth to Jesus
God invites us to understand that we have gifts and we are needed;
whether old or young; tired or energetic; quick or slow;
whoever we are, however we are.
All: We hear your call O God. We have come.
Holy One we come to you, for we need healing.
We come to you for we need teaching.
We come to you for we need leading.
As we gather; as we sing; as we pray; as we listen; as we speak.
May we open ourselves to your balm, your blessing, your word,
The painting is a detail from Michaelangelo's Sistine Ceiling.
I went out for a walk early this morning along to the village of Skene. We are enjoying a long hot spell in Scotland, which is in itself cause for thanksgiving, rejoicing, praise and feeling so much better about the world! Amongst the miraculous everyday accomplishments exhibited around us every day is the acrobatic low flying demonstrations by swallows skimming over the fields and any water that happens to be around. Seeing them reminded me of the poet of the Psalms noticing that even the swallow finds a nest in God's house.
A bit further along I came across a teenage pied wagtail. Not quite mature, and its markings not fully defined. B ut there it was sitting on a hay roll getting its face ready for the day.
It wasn't all that fussed about this part time wildlife paparazzi in a pink T shirt invading its privacy so I took a couple more
Then over the road I heard a birdong I've known all my life - a yellowhammer in full flow. It was at the highest point of the hedge showing off. My wee Sony optical zoom x10 gave this photo which isn't exactly National geographic but it'll do me - what a lovely moment when sound, sunshine, spectacular colour and many a memory all came together.
As that other ornitheologian said, "Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in
barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more
valuable than they?" Not a bad start to my day, on holiday and at home and enjoying all this.
On the recent jaunt to Kinloch Rannoch we diverted down to Fortingall to see Europe's oldest living tree, the Fortingall Yew. The trunk used to be 52 feet in girth and the tree has been around for 3,000 to 5,000 years. It sits at the end of a long country road that runs through a glen and the night we went to see it was sunlit, silent and still. We stood for a while wondering at the long human story witnessed by a tree that was there at least since the Bronze Age. The Exodus was still a thousand years away when this seed germinated; it was already two thousand years old when Jesus called Nathanael from his contemplative siesta under his mature fig tree; and around two thousand five hundred years in the growing by the time Columba's coracle bobbed up on Scottish shores.
The path leading to the tree is like a time line with several engraved slabs reminding those who walk therein of the human achievements and changes over centuries. And I guess standing on a sunny evening under the shade of a tree that has witnessed so much of the human story you are left to wonder, and ponder, at the miracle of human lives and the improbability verging on impossibility of the coming and going of the human story. I found this particular stone deeply moving in its simple witness to the humanising and civilising power of knowledge, learning, understanding and wisdom. In the celebration of wisdom in Proverbs 3 such life applied scholarship is described in an arboreal metaphor "She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one that retaineth her."
This ancient tree has outlasted around 70 human lifetimes of three-score years and ten. That longevity and 'still thereness' kind of puts the rest of us in our place. The connection between the tree with deep and ancient roots, human scholarship and accumulated wisdom, and the way we live responsibly now, came as a gentle nudge on a summer evening, in an old graveyard,at the end of a Scottish glen, looking at a winding path that led to this ancient witness to life as gift. And perhaps wisdom is knowing what to do with the unique privilege that is our own, individual, unique, precious life.
"The violin, through the serene clarity of its song,helps to keep our
bearings in the storm, as a light in the night, a compass in the
tempest, it shows us a way to a haven of sincerity and respect."Yehudi Menuhin
On a summer holiday in the 1970's my holiday read was Yehudi Menuhin's autobiography, Unfinished Journey. I had recently been given my first Classical LP, from Sheila, Brahms Violin Concerto. There are occasions in life when a new experience becomes a sort of epiphany, a glimpse of horizons never imagined, a listening that re-attune our ears to the beauty of sound, emotional responses we can neither control nor would ever want to, and a conviction of mind immediately recognised as life-changing - my first hearing of the Brahms Violin Concerto was each of these.
Yesterday on Classic FM I heard the newest CD of Brahms Violin Concerto, the finale, which still lifts me beyond wherever I am to a more hopeful place, just as the second movement combines for me sense of compassionate presence that both cares and teaches to care. Mind you, lest this becomes too much, the first bars of that second movement also remind me of the first line of Nice One Cyril, nice one Son!
Amongst the important legacies Yehudi Menuhin lefts the world was his passionate belief that music was a midwife of peace, a humanising surrender of self interest to something higher, a gift from God with the power to express our highest hopes, deepest tragedies, most far reaching hopes and most all embracing loves.
Menuhin's faith in music, and use of his own influence through his music, was given memorable and forthright expression in 1991 when he was honoured by Israel and addressed the Knessett in his acceptance speech:
This wasteful governing by fear, by contempt for the basic dignities of
life, this steady asphyxiation of a dependent people, should be the very
last means to be adopted by those who themselves know too well the
awful significance, the unforgettable suffering of such an existence. It
is unworthy of my great people, the Jews, who have striven to abide by a
code of moral rectitude for some 5,000 years, who can create and
achieve a society for themselves such as we see around us but can yet
deny the sharing of its great qualities and benefits to those dwelling
There is greatness in such words, in such outspoken critique of his own people, and in such aspirations for a world made more hospitable, safe and humane. The man who played to the survivors of Belsen, and who absorbed hostile criticism for playing under Furtwangler in Berlin after World War II, pointing out that Furtwangler had remained in Germany throughout the entire Nazi period and had helped a number of Jewish people to escape capture, such a man spoke with a different kind of moral authority. Human greatness is an elusive and ambiguous value - but for me persitent peacemaking, joyful music making and fearless defence of the humanity of others are amongst the more obvious criteria.