Saturday, 29 September 2012

A Review of 'The Casual Vacancy': Pretty Vacant

I never really caught on to the whole Harry Potter phenomenon; not that I had religious objections - my kids read the books and I took them to the movies. It's not that I can no longer enjoy children's books, either; I can still delight in 'The Wind in the Willows', which was on my bedside table recently, and many other children's classics hold such (nostalgic?) appeal that I can enjoy them repeatedly. The Potter series should have appealed to the Anglophile and Gothic fiction enthusiast in me, but try as I might, I found I just couldn't get past J.K. Rowling's clunky prose, especially such huge volumes of it.
Anyway, Rowling's first novel for adult readers, 'The Casual Vacancy', has been getting quite a bit of positive publicity down here this week and will surely get to the top of the bestseller list before Christmas. If you're thinking of buying it for yourself or a friend/family member, though, here's a  review by the erudite journalist and biographer Charles Moore that you might want to check out first:
"The blurb says that The Casual Vacancy is “a big novel about a small town”. That is, in principle, a wonderful thing to write. Anthony Trollope does it about Barchester. Jane Austen does it about Highbury. Both these are comedies of manners that are also morally serious. George Eliot does it in the Midlands. Thomas Hardy does it about Dorset (there is a masterly description of the 19th-century equivalent of Rowling’s Fields in The Mayor of Casterbridge). He discerns in his provincial milieu the elements of implacable tragedy. These great writers have widely differing approaches and styles. But what they have in common is a sense that the small-town/rural life they describe is real. Sophisticated though their art is, it does not look down upon its chosen setting from a lofty height. It inhabits its own world fully. The authors may laugh at their creations sometimes. They may certainly pass unfavourable comment on social injustice, but they do not invite their readers to despise the world they depict. For JK Rowling, on the other hand, Pagford is a vehicle, not properly imagined. It is southern, provincial, class-bound and “therefore” contemptible. As a result, the book is negligent about reality..."

Read it all here.

If Moore is right - and I do trust his judgment in such matters - Rowling's offering seems, like a lot of contemporary fiction, to be "pretty vacant" when it comes to redeeming features; just another slice of late modern nihilism that we're being asked to fork over $39.99 for the privilege of "enjoying". Not me; I think I might revisit 'Barchester Towers' in the post-Christmas holidays, unless someone can make another suggestion.

Why so many posts on a Saturday? Don't I have a sermon to prepare?
Alas, I'm currently under medical orders to rest, having contracted some sort of virus that feels like Glandular Fever, though I've already had that and don't think you can get it twice. So I'm doing more net surfing and blogging than usual in order to ward off insanity!

The Intolerance of the Tolerant and Giving and Taking Offence in Religious Discourse

The Intolerance of the Tolerant
On a recent nationally broadcast and widely watched program in Australia, Q & A, a Left-leaning liberal democrat said words to the effect that he believed in freedom of religion as long as said religions were "reasonable". "Reasonable to whom?" one might ask. One suspects the speaker would have been all too eager to set up some sort of National Council for Religious Affairs, staffed by enlightened souls like himself, to decide which religions did not fit into some arbitrarily conceived late modern rubric of "reasonableness".
What such a proscriptive attitude misses is that by definition freedom, like mercy, is "not 'strained". Provided laws pertaining to the protection of life and limb and minors and other basic human rights are observed, in a democracy it is surely best that people are free to practice their religion as they see fit, no matter how bizarre and irrational it may seem to others, particularly the irreligious, who are by definition probably the least capable of judging such matters. The best way to curb manifestations of religiosity deemed dubious or dangerous is not by the heavy hand of law or the privatization of religious beliefs and practices by stealth (through the rigid application of zoning laws to prevent free assembly for religious services, multi-cultural reductionism, pressure to self-censor etc) but through free discussion, debate and critique in the public sphere; which activity, of course, requires upholding the freedom of speech even if it means offence is taken by some.

Giving and Taking Offence in Religious Discourse
Let me add this caveat, though: I personally do not believe that freedom of speech should be abused by gratuitously insulting other religions. To me, that is just bad manners and, more importantly, corrosive of social cohesion in multi-religious cultures. But the best response religious people can make to such gratuitous insults is to ignore them; freedom to indulge in gratuitous insult, however offensive such insult may be to religious sensibilities, is the price religious people should be prepared to pay in order to preserve our own freedom of religion, which includes the freedom to speak about it in the public sphere. And that freedom should be precious to us because, when all is said and done, every religious affirmation offends someone.  In particular, Christianity, with its exclusive claims of divinity and supreme authority for Christ, offends just about everyone who isn't Christian, from the atheist to the Hindu to the Muslim to the Jew: "Do you take offence at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?" (John 6:61b-62).

The Legal Situation in Australia
While Australia does not have a Bill of Rights which enshrines freedom of religion as a fundamental legal right, freedom of religion is implied in Section 116 of the Constitution: "The Commonwealth of Australia shall not make any law establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth."

The legal defence of religious freedom here falls mainly under the rubric of anti-discrimination laws. From the website of the Australian Human Rights Comission: "Freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental human right protected by a number of international treaties and declarations, including article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This right encompasses freedom of thought on all matters and the freedom to manifest religion and belief individually or with others, in public or in private.
For more information see Article 18: Freedom of religion and belief.
The right to freedom of religion is supported by the right to non-discrimination on the grounds of religion, contained in article 26 of the ICCPR.
International human rights law also protects people against the promotion of religious hatred which amounts to incitement of discrimination, hostility or violence (ICCPR, article 20). "

Beyond these reasonable national laws, though, each state also promulgates laws pertaining to freedom of speech which, because they are poorly conceived or drafted, can impinge upon freedom of religious discourse. That is an area that bears watching.

Kleinig on Exodus

Go here to download audio files of five lectures given by Australian Lutheran theologian John Kleinig at Mount Zion Lutheran Church, Castle Rock, Colorado, USA:
From Slavery to Divine Service: The Foundation of
Israel as a Liturgical Community in Exodus

In Exodus God institutes the divine service for the Israelites at the tabernacle and establishes them as His holy people, a unique liturgical community dependent on Him for its existence.

In fact, He had rescued them from slavery Pharaoh and the Egyptian gods so that He could be their God, dwell in their midst and meet with them daily in the divine service to bless them and share His holiness with them.

This course will examine the book of Exodus as a founding story for Israel and discuss its relevance for the theology and performance of the divine service in the Lutheran church. 
Dr. John W. Kleinig is retired after teaching for 26 years at Luther Seminary in Adelaide, South Australia. In the last 20 years he has taught in many different Lutheran seminaries in North America and Asia. Earlier this year he lectured at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Pretoria in South Africa.

Dr. Kleinig is an Old Testament theologian with an M.Phil. and Ph.D. from Cambridge University in
England and an honorary doctorate from Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne. His published
doctoral dissertation was on The Lord’s Song: The Basis, Function and Signi cance of Choral Music in

Dr. Kleinig’s commentary on Leviticus for Concordia Publishing House explores how the people of God
share in His holiness through their participation in the divine service. He has published two books on
spirituality, a congregational study on Prayer: We Speak to God and a handbook on Lutheran piety called
Grace Upon Grace: Spirituality for Today (Concordia, St Louis, 2008).

HT Andy Burmeister
Image courtesy Segsworth Design

Thursday, 20 September 2012

A Gem from Gerhard

I was reading a volume of John Gerhard's 17 volume magnum opus Theological Commonplaces in bed the other night  - as you do, especially when your wife is away for the week! - and came across the following gem which touches upon the noetic effects of sin and the cure, as well as other weighty spiritual matters. Gerhard is drawing out the application of two scripture passages, Romans 15:4 and 2 Timothy 3:16, which I quote first from the ESV:

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. Romans 15:4 (ESV Anglicised)

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…2 Timothy 3:16 (ESV Anglicised)

"The human race is subject to a threefold malady and evil through and because of original sin. In true knowledge, we are blind and ignorant; in good action, remiss and lacking; in tolerance of evil, weak and impatient. Scripture remedies that first malady with “teaching”; the second with “instruction in righteousness”; the third, with “encouragement”. Not only are we blind and ignorant in the matter of true knowledge but we also are prone and rash to think up or embrace errors. This malady scripture remedies with “reproof”. Not only are we remiss and lacking in the matter of good action, but we also have an immediate proclivity for doing evil. This malady scripture cures with “correction”.
On the other hand there are three responsibilities for the truly devout person: to know the truth, to do good, to endure evil. Consequently, we also count three special cardinal virtues of the Christian person: “faith, hope and love”. Faith is related to a knowledge of the truth; love to the doing of good; hope, to the endurance of evil. However, because a knowledge of the truth does not exist without the removal of that which is untrue, because doing good has no place unless there is a departure from evil or sin, consequently there are five responsibilities altogether that are required in the perfection of Christian holiness: teaching and reproof for a knowledge of the truth, instruction in righteousness and correction for doing good, and encouragement for the patient endurance of evil. For all these scripture is not only useful but is also sufficient, so one may deservedly say that it makes one complete." 

John Gerhard, Theological Commonplaces: On the Nature of Theology and Scripture, p328 of the CPH edition (trans. R. Dinda; St Louis 2006).
Like all the best theology, Gerhard does not just instruct, he also edifies and leads the student to meditation and doxology.
For the uninitiated, the Wikipedia entry on Gerhard can be found here.
The CPH edition of the English translation of Gerhard's Theological Commonplaces, projected to extend to 15 volumes, is to my mind perhaps the most momentous event in Anglo-Lutheran publishing since the American Edition of Luther's Works appeared upon the scene.


Monday, 17 September 2012

A Subversive Act

The local evangelical book shop has recently started the in-store advertising of recommendations by local pastors. These recommendations to date consist of spiritual self-help books (you know the sort: "5 Steps to Becoming a Victorious Christian" etc) and evangelism books based on decision theology (which teach would-be evangelists to exhort people to "give their hearts to Jesus" or the contemporary equivalent of same). I'm going to try and get a gig doing this and I've already got my first recommendation picked: The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther. Of course, this will be a subversive act. Just as when it was first written (1525), so also now Luther's tract is a direct attack against the sort of theology that is so popular yet soul-destroying in times of spiritual declension, whether it be found emanating from Roman Catholics like Erasmus or Baptists like Billy Graham or the latest of their ilk, who posit something good in man that can respond positively and co-operatively to God's grace.

For the uninitiated, here's a taste:
"I say that man, before he is renewed into the new creation of the Spirit's kingdom, does and endeavours nothing to prepare himself for that new creation and kingdom, and when he is re-created has does and endeavors nothing towards his perseverance in that kingdom; but the Spirit alone works both blessings in us, regenerating us, and preserving us when regenerate, without ourselves..."

Pure spiritual dynamite for blasting away false notions of the spiritual ability of man.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Good Lutheran Books

Good Lutheran books courtesy Concordia Publishing House, St Louis, Mo, USA.
Those outside the US can order via or check for a local distributor.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Death of the Ante-Pope and the Dialectics of Catholicism

An interesting take on the recent death of the man who could have been pope, Cardinal Martini, by Leonardo de Chirico:

"According to public opinion, Martini represents a view that is the polar opposite of that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI in the Roman Catholic world. The former has been called "liberal", "progressive", "democratic", "left-wing", while the latter has been labeled as "conservative", "traditional", "authoritarian", "right-wing". With these conventional categories, one could map the entire Roman Catholic spectrum.

As a matter of fact, the public opinion needs to find polarizations, needs to put one figure against another, and needs to find conflicts within a given social body. Many times these polarizations reflect reality; others simply project oppositions that are not there. In the case of Martini, both observations are true. They are true because Roman Catholicism is based on multiple on-going tensions that sway one way or another but are meant to be kept in balance. In other words, John Paul II needed Martini and Martini needed John Paul II. The first maintained balance, while the second explored new fields. Martini spoke to the center-left, while Wojtyla spoke to the center-right, so that the whole spectrum was covered. Roman Catholicism as a whole needs both the defender of the already given balance and the explorer of new settlements.

In the Roman Catholic system, the Pope is supposed to fight against "anti-popes", but is likely to encourage "ante-popes" that would stretch the Roman Catholic synthesis further, so that what is now felt as disturbing avant-garde will be center-stage tomorrow. In this sense, the "ante-pope" Martini, who arrived too late to become Pope, will perhaps serve as a model for future Popes.

Leonardo De Chirico is lecturer in theology at IFED (Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione) in Padova, Italy, and editor of the theological journal Studi di teologia. After twelve years of church planting and then pastoring a Reformed Baptist church in Ferrara, since 2009 he is involved in a church planting work in central Rome. He has degrees in history (Bologna) and theology (ETCW, Bridgend, UK). His PhD was obtained from King's College, London, and subsequently published as Evangelical Theological Perspectives on post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (Frankfurt-Oxford: Peter Lang 2003)."
Read the whole thing here.

Whether de Chirico is correct in his prediction that Martini will serve as an ante-Pope or model for the next Pope will be known soon enough. But he is accurate in his assessment of the role that the impetus to synthesise disparate "truths" and movements plays in Romanism. I suspect this trait attracts many intellectual converts to Rome...people who, almost by definition, haven't come to grips with the noetic effects of sin. Those who have come to grips with the radical effects of sin upon human reasoning, however, are likely to see Rome as a fatal compromise with paganism. Indeed, Karl Barth, the most influential Protestant theologian of the 20th century, called the analogia entis the invention of the anti-Christ. As it happens, I disagree with a lot of what I have read in Barth, but on this point I believe his insight was profound.       

Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Gospel in Dramatic Verse

Here's the Gospel - the Gospel in the "wide sense" of the Biblical doctrine of the theological use of the law, justification by grace through faith and the good works that follow as its fruit - in dramatic verse, courtesy Shakespeare (as we're getting into the habit of quoting the bard here ;0) ) [bolding mine]:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

 It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath:

 it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

 ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes The throned monarch better than his crown;

 His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

 The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

 But mercy is above this sceptred sway; It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

 It is an attribute to God himself;

 And earthly power doth then show likest God’s When mercy seasons justice.

 Therefore, Jew, Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

 That,in the course of justice, none of us Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

 And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy.

 I have spoke thus much To mitigate the justice of thy plea;

 Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

 William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1

Of course, there's more; Shakespeare omits to mention the atonement of Christ, but that should be taken as understood in his cultural-historical context and, after all, he was writing a play not a theological tract, although this is a very theological dialogue, deriving the origin and blessedness of mercy in the attributes of God. Unhappily, the foundations of Christian doctrine are no longer so readily understood in today's culture, and neither, presumably, is Shakespeare.

Update 15.09.12
I posted this when I was preparing a Bible Study which I titled "The Gospel According to William Shakespeare". I've since completed that study and presented it twice to a positive response. It's given me the idea of writing a book on this topic, although that project may have to await my retirement before its completion!

Sunday, 2 September 2012

11th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (Proper 14): John 6 and the Lord's Supper

The following is an edited version of something I submitted to an on-line forum discussion on John 6 and the Lord's Supper, a subject which has a long history in Lutheran and Reformation circles and which came up in this particular forum because of the lections from John 6 in the RCL a few week's ago. It's not my last word on the subject by any means, but I post it here in the Lectionary Notes section so it's not consigned to oblivion.

Isagogics is foundational to interpretation, it sets the stage, so to speak, or provides the lens through which interpreters view and frame the text and it often determines actual points of interpretation - this is where presuppositions can creep in and distort exegetical conclusions. Let us then ask some important isagogic questions that might shed light on the nature of John 6: What is the context of John's Gospel? Who was it written for? What was its original purpose, as distinct from the purpose it might serve in the church today? That is the way we begin to get at what John was writing about, as distinct from imposing our own concerns and views upon the text. For a long time in Biblical studies it has been popular to suppose that the Gospel of John was written for a putative Johannine community that was in conflict either with the Jewish synagogue or with Gnosticism. Such a proposed setting leads to the expectation that we will find in it, as we do in the synoptics, the institution of the Lord's Supper, which expectation in turn has apparently shaped the view of many scholars that John 6 is somehow John's treament of the sacrament. I'm sure that approach seems, on the face of it, quite plausible to many of us.
I suggest, though, that this is a great example of scholarship overlooking the obvious in the pursuit of the novel (something scholars are tempted to do to get noticed in academe which we pastors are mercifully freed from). John himself (and yes, unlike many scholars, I believe he wrote the Gospel) tells us the purpose of his Gospel most clearly: it was not primarily a hortatory text for a community which already believed and was struggling under theological attack from without, rather it was evangelistic in purpose; it was written "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ and that by believing you may have life in his name" (20:31). It was an evangelistic tract, if you will, and we can deduce from what John tells us and from the interlocutors Jesus mainly discourses with in the Gospel who it was aimed towards: Jews who needed to believe, for the sake of eternal life, that "Jesus is the Christ", the long-awaited Messiah prophesied in the OT. Thus we find all through this very Jewish flavoured Gospel the linkage of belief in Jesus as the Christ/Messiah with the reception of eternal life (1:7; 3:15-16; 3:36; 5:24; 6:40; 6:47; 10:40-42: 17:20), the reference to Jewish teachers who don't immediately "get it" (Nicodemus) and later secret Jewish believers who are afraid of the authorities and perhaps have later "back-slidden" from that initial, somewhat unsure faith. This is what the discourse in John 6 directly refers to: belief in Jesus as the Christ, expressed in the metaphorical language of eating (and drinking) through faith, which - if they'd had ears to hear - Jesus' and John's listeners would have picked up on, such metaphorical language being familiar from Rabbinic discourses where disciples are urged to "eat the Torah" and so on. This is, I point out again, the interpretation of John 6 in our confessions (SD VII 61) and Luther's sermons.
That is not to say that John 6 has no reference to the Lord's Supper, which our Lord instituted to strengthen faith in him - as our confessions also note - but only that the reference is indirect and perhaps better termed an allusion. Therefore, I urge, we need to be very careful about drawing implications for our practice of the Lord's Supper from John 6.