Friday, 28 November 2008

Barack Obama and the incarnation

I've just written an article on the incarnation which will come out in the next edition of the Australian

 Presbyterian. One angle I'd thought of was looking at the election of Barack Obama and the incarnation. What's the conne

ction? Well the material didn't make the cut for AP, so here it is, slightly amended.

Barack Obama's election has triggered an outpouring of hopeful enthusiasm, some of which is almost messianic in its raptures. The response from conservative Christians seems to have been as much to this millennial fervour as

 to Obama himself. Lots of them have been saying “pray that he can keep his head with all this nonsense going on”. (There was a similar dynamic with the election of the Rudd government a year ago, though because we are usually more reserved about our politics it hasn’t been as exaggerated as in the US.)

The election is a significant historical event. Obama’s racial background, his age, hi

s political leanings, his background in community development, the use of the internet and the financial support of million

s of individuals all seem to make the 2008 election notable. The progress of his presidency will be fascinating. There is an important incarnational perspective on it.

The incarnation shows us the depth of our problem. Our world is not simply disorganised or uneducated. There is a wound which centres in the human heart, and runs through the whole created order and can only be restored by God’s healing. The evangelical sceptics of the Obama-hype have a point, a new president, no matter what his calibre, can not change that. Every declaration that we have entered into a brand new era of hope inevitably founders on the rocks of human sin.

However the incarnation is also God’s great affirmation of the world he has made, include people and our societies and even our political institutions. Our world can only be healed by God, but it will be healed. When the evangelical critics paint any hope in politics or enthusiasm for a political program  as wrong headed, they are in danger of losing sight of the incarnation. God says we matter and our life in his world matters.

There are elements of Obama’s platform with which most evangelicals would disagree. Still, we shouldn’t be surprised that people hope for good government and for change for the better. The incarnation says that is worth working for, it also says that we won’t find the change we really need in any politician.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

World Philosophy Day

I bet you did not know that it is World Philosophy Day. Once you've settled down your raucous laughter perhaps we can be  serious for a moment and at least admit there are worse reasons for a "day". (How about World Telecommunications Day, or World Television Day? "Here's a good idea - let's all make phone calls or watch TV today, because we don't do enough of that!") As a rather amateur philosophy teacher who is really a theologian I am glad that a discipline with such an impressive heritage is being recognised. The Western world could only benefit from greater emphasis on the life of the mind.

Though too much can be claimed for philosophy. Ko├»chior Matsuura Director General of UNESCO connects the human rights tradition to philosophy, saying about the Day " Of eminent philosophical importance, the 1948 Declaration implicitly evokes the universality of human beings and their rights. It also provides an opportunity to revisit today some of the key concepts that underpin our modernity: human dignity, freedom and universality". That all sounds very Kantian, and did give some of the language in which human rights have been couched. However I think it is widely acknowledged that the Kantian account does not provide resources which really sustain a moral life. Much of the content of the human rights documents draw from the Christian tradition not from Kant.

One way to celebrate the day would be a rousing rendition of the Philosopher's Song by Monty Python (excuse the language), and note that this comes from the Philosophy school of University of Wooloomooloo in Sydney (it doesn't actually exist).

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Some more on Psalms

A student made an interesting comment yesterday. I'd asked him to read Richard Pratt's book Pray with your eyes open. When he reported back he said he'd liked it and one strength was that it used the Psalm's a lot. He said something like "Usually its he Pentecostals who are into the Psalms, not the Reformed". (I checked that I could quote him here!)

Wow! Talk about giving up our heritage.  The movement that used to be the Psalms-singer, or in the Anglican mode the Psalms-chanters, nows looks like the group that isn't into the Psalms.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Scripture in church - the Directory

Thinking about the Bible in worship sent me back to the Directory of Public Worship (Westminster Assembly, 1645) to re-read its instructions.

Fascinating stuff.

First of all since it is part of public worship the reading is to be done by the pastor or teacher or by someone training for ministry. I don’t think that public reading should be restricted to that office, but I wonder if we send the message that it dosen’t matter than much when our ministers never read.

All the books of the Bible are to be read in the common language from the best translation and to be read clearly so everyone can hear and understand.

The minister decides how mauch to read each time, but usually there should be a chapter of the Old Testament and a chapter of the New, or more if that is to short or it is is easier to follow if a longer portion is read!

The books should be read through in canonical order and chapter by chapter, but books like the Psalms shuld be read more often.

The minister might give an exposition along with the reading. Now don’t think that is the sermon, no there would be an expostion (or maybe two) and a sermon later in the service. But the minister is advised to complete the whole reading first, not commenting along the way and to be careful about how long this takes so as not to limit time for preaching or to make the whole servie “tedious”.

Literate people were to be exhorted to own a Bible and read it privately, while others should be encouraged to learn to read.

The demise of scripture in church

I am reading R. Scott Clark’s provocative new book Recovering the Reformed Confession. It is a great read, argued crisply with some fascinating historical studies along the way. If you know Scott and his Heidelblog you won’t be surprised to know that he pulls no punches (in one chapter he argues the revivalist tradition including Edwards, Lloyd-Jones, Packer and Iain Murray has subverted Reformed theology and piety!) I’ll comment on the book in the next few weeks. Now I want to take up one issue that reading it crystallised for me.

Lots of Evangelical churches in Australia with a reformed tradition (I’m thinking of Presbyterian, Anglican and some independent churches) have changed their patterns of worship
  or  liturgy in the last generation. (Most of them  would not use the words worship nor liturgy but they are better than circumlocutions such a “what we do when we meet as a church”). That is no great news, though those of us who have grown up through the changes may not see how great they’ve been.Lots of those changes ‘had’ to happen, because older patterns reflected a culture of formality that has gone. However I’ve had a nagging sense that some valuable things are lost in the shift (and I’ve bemoaned the loss in class!)

In “Recovering the Reformed Confession” Clark argues for exclusive psalmody, which is something I grew up with. I am not going to join him in that (and I’ll explain why some time). I do agree that we have neglected the song book that God gave the church. As I thought about that again I had my moment of clarity. It dawned on me that this is part of a wider pattern in the change in worship. We have managed to remove almost all the points at which the church used to hear Scripture!

Think about a traditional Presbyterian service that you’ll find in the The Book of Common Order (Presbyterian Church of Australia, 1956). It would open with a call to worship, usually drawn from scripture. There would be a prayer of approach, often taken from Scripture. A pray of praise (which would have more or less scripture depending on the minister) and a prayer of confession which would often appeal directly to a promise such as 1John 1:9. Then there would be an Old Testament and New Testament reading and a sermon, the Lord’s prayer and a benediction and doxology often taken from Scripture. Even in the hymn singing churches there was often a pattern of having at least one psalm. In more recent years responsive readings were also used. If the Lord’s Supper was celebrated then the narrative of institution would be recounted twice and there might be a further Bible reading and reflection. There were plenty of things that could be done badly in all this, and the prayers and sermon could be drivel while the people had little heart for worship. But even in the worst case it was a form which gave the opportunity for extensive reading of Scripture. We could do the same analysis of the shift from a Prayer Book Service in the Anglican Church.

What happens in lots of churches today? The call is a welcome which runs along the lines of “a funny thing happened to me on the way to church …”. The prayers are brief and while perhaps (and only perhaps) more heartfelt than in more traditional services do not have any more substantial reflection on Scripture. In a family service there will be a kid’s talk, which is often an object lesson on a general theological or moral point including the words “the Bible says”, but with nothing read and certainly not a passage explained. The Lord’s prayer is not heard and there is probably only one (often short) reading. The service (meeting) finishes with the now traditional benediction, “please stay for coffee”.

I know that is a caricature and that it is not as bad as all that in all churches. Is your church very different though? (For my local friends, this is not a complaint about Springwood-Winmalee PC . We have some of these problems sometimes but often do better than I’ve described here).

The last generation has seen an encouraging resurgence of textual-expository preaching and an enthusiasm for small group Bible study. But we’ve lost something as well! We fret that people don’t read their Bible’s, but we don’t read them much when we get together, so people are simply following the example of church!

I don’t want a return to formalism or even formalities, but we need to work on how to infuse worship with Scripture. There’s the challenge.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

New Book on Preaching

I was privileged recently to attend the book launch of Preach or Perish: Reaching the Hearts and Minds of the World Today . The book is edited by an old friend, Donald Howard (‘retired’ Anglican minister from Sydney), with substantial contributions of his own included. Contributors include such luminaries as J.I Packer, Donald Robinson, and Sir Marcus Loane, who launched the book. I put ‘retired’ in quotes as as Dudley Foord has a chapter on ‘Returement: Junction or Terminus?’. Another contribution which caught my eye is on ‘The Public Reading of the Living Word (Can we be Guilty of Murder?)’, a topic dear to my heart. The chapters are all short and (while this is not the place for a review) look to be to the point and build up an approach to pastoral ministry which has preaching God’s word at its core. The book is not aimed only at preachers, however, for it seeks to encourage an approach to hearing and responding to preaching as well. This looks to be a welcome addition to the resources available in this area and may turn out to fill a gap that is not otherwise supplied. I have for many years been recommending Donald Howard’s book on the Family and his one on Grief as the best things on offer in those categories.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Paul Barnett, honorary doctorate

Congratulations to Paul Barnett, one of our part-time lecturers (we share him with School of Christian Studies, Moore College, and Regent College, Vancouver). Paul is to be awarded an honorary Doctor of Theology degree by the Australian College of Theology. The doctorate recognises Paul’s contribution to the Anglican Church of Australia and his substantial academic and scholarly work.  Paul has (among other things) been a lecturer at Moore College, the founder of the School of Christian Studies at Robert Menzies College at Macquarie University and the Bishop of North Sydney. He has written many scholarly and popular works and is currently working on a three part series ‘After Jesus’ on the first Christian century.
The degree will be conferred at the School of Christian Studies graduation ceremony on Monday March 2, 2009 at Trinity Chapel, Robert Menzies College.

Monday, 3 November 2008

New directions in Pooh Studies

The directions aren't so new, but are still important for all Biblical scholars to engage with! An important  advance in literary studies drawing on source and form criticism. One of our graduates sent me the link and I thought I should share it. It is probably time for a reader response paper and a feminist reading of the same texts (at least). I'd love to see them.