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Archive for January, 2012

“You think that I’m strong. You’re wrong. You’re wrong” — Robbie Williams in Strong.

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Before I left my hometown of Christchurch I experienced something of a Robbie Williams renaissance in my own life. As I worked the checkouts at Fresh Choice, my ears always pricked up when one of Robbie’s classics was cycled through the delightfully plain playlist. After a little reflection I realised how much of an effect his music had had on me when I was younger. I was familiar with his song Back for Good from his earlier days in the boy band Take That. And his combined effort with Nicole Kidman on the older song Somethin’ Stupid was very cherishable. Perhaps most important was the Rock DJ, one of the highlights of my primary school music-listening days. I never stayed up late enough or always forgot — something like that — to see the video, allegedly, according to the accounts of schoolmates at the time, showing Robbie strip, taking off all his clothes, skin, muscles, etc, eventually becoming a skeleton. The primetime version always ended in his undies. I could never understand the transfixed facial expressions of the rollerblading ladies circling around Robbie… But perhaps the most important aspect of the song was the line, “If you can’t get a girl but your  best friend can it’s time to move your body”. I remember hearing the line, somehow thinking that if my nine year-old-or-so best friend at the time got a girlfriend then, according to Robbie’s rule, it would be time to move my body. Out of my three best friends at the moment, one has managed to “get a girl” so according to Robbie’s rule I’m yet under no obligation to move my body, or only under obligation to move a third of it. The careful reader will note that if two mutual best friends followed Robbie’s rule then they would remain perpetually girl-less.

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Being exposed once again to Robbie’s words as an adult, I noticed some thematic overarchings across his singles¹. The search for love, his self-confessed failings and cosmic bewilderment, among others, can be summarised in what I’d like to term ‘the weak man’, the self not as something central, boastworthy and knowledgeable, but admittedly dependent, confused and unreliable.

Millenium

At the same time as Robbie embraces the carpe diem, “We all enjoy the madness ’cause we know we’re gonna fade away”, there is an underlying sadness for the current humanity: “We’re praying it’s not too late  /’Cause we know we’re falling from grace”. Of course there is not a huge hurry to attend the first-world issues of the current humanity, but rather an acknowledgement that the issues are there and the ideal of sorting them out in the future. The value of Millenium is in its cynicism and self-deprecation: “Live for liposuction /And detox for your rent; /Overdose at Christmas /And give it up for lent”. The words are indicative of a generation searching for meaning and cataclysmically failing, periodically hopping from one extreme to the other.

Angels

I was surprised to learn that Robbie himself didn’t write this. The words are however in keeping with the purpose of this post. Although this song lends itself to the possibility of depicting an imbalanced relationship with a weak and a strong partner, it is also possible to read it as one side of a weak:weak relationship, where the Angel in the song is only an angel through her lover’s eyes; she equally depends on him for his love. In saying that, the Angel may very well have angelic qualities, therefore attracting the dependent speaker, who relies on her, looking for affirmation: “And as the feeling grows /She breathes flesh to my bones² /And when love is dead /I’m loving angels instead”.

The lyrics also allow for interpretation in a cosmic sense, where the non-physical angel is either a past/passed lover, representing the ideal, no longer attainable relationship, or an imagined/spiritually experienced angel whom the speaker looks to for hope when feeling downtrodden: “When I’m feeling weak /And my pain walks down a one way street /I look above /And I know I’ll always be blessed with love”.

Better Man

Perhaps signifying Robbie’s love for New Zealand, this song was only released in Australia, New Zealand and Latin America. The speaker tenderly acknowledges not only a need for love, shelter, security, etc, but also resolves to become a better person, possibly in relation to a past fault: “As my soul heals the shame /I will grow through this pain. /Lord I’m doing all I can /To be a better man”. The beauty of this is that speaker has clearly also been hurt by his own fault and is therefore quite defensive: “Go easy on my conscience /’Cause it’s not my fault”, which pairs nicely with his dependence and weakness expressed in the opening verses. Perhaps an appeal to Lord in the chorus represents a break from the accusations of others. The speaker has undoubtedly been hurt by his own actions, but this hurt has been made much worse by the condemnation by others arising from his own actions. Lord is therefore the last refuge, a hopeful desire for grace after being rejected by everyone else.

The speaker also expresses some naivety in resolving to become a better person, which can only be received lovingly by his listener. The bridge represents an alternative way of moving on, “Once you’ve found that lover /You’re homeward bound; /Love is all around” and “I know some have fallen /On stony ground /But love is all around”. The speaker moves away from his confession and appeal to the Cosmos, and instead hopes to find a new love, with the possibility of repeating again his past mistakes.

Feel

This is my favourite on the list. The edgy guitar, the tense video, and a more confidently weak man assaults his weakness head on with strength. The speaker explores existentialist questions in the opening verses: “Not sure I understand /This role I’ve been given” — What is my responsibility in life as a human? “I sit and talk to God /And he just laughs at my plans” — A variation of the adage, ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans’, represents the speaker’s cosmic bewilderment, earnestly seeking a spiritual connection and yet finding no answers. “My head speaks a language /I don’t understand” — The last straw is the unintelligible self. The speaker cannot find refuge either in the world or out of the world; now he is rejected by his very self.

Surprisingly, the speaker makes the most beautiful conclusion. Instead of doing away with himself, he aggressively confronts his meaninglessness and demands answers. He lives in spite of a world of questions and unfulfilled dreams. And he wrestles with the reality that birthed him, until it will answer him, “‘Cause I got too much life /Running through my veins /Going to waste. /And I need to feel real love /And a life ever after; /I cannot give it up”.

Before I end, I would just like to say that Robbie Williams is the man.

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¹Unfortunately all I have heard of Robbie has been on the radio, having never acquired one of his albums.

²There is a subtle hilarity in reading this as a reference to the skeleton Robbie in Rock DJ.

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This is at once a necessary break from overly serious posts and a tribute to The Inky Fool, a fascinating blog on the roots of words and phrases in the English language. What follows is a list of words and their definitions as I have come across them in my reading. Some are still used legitimately today, whereas others are usually only used for poetic reference to a time past:

1. wont: accustomed: “My lord, the roynish clown, at whom so oft /Your Grace was wont to laugh, is also missing” — Shakespeare

2. wanton: frolicsome/sexually unrestrained: “Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young bulls” — Shakespeare

3. thee/thou/thy/thine: you/you/your/yours: thee is objective whereas thou is subjective: he ate me; I ate him; thou ate me; I ate thee: there is no differentiation between you (objective) and you (subjective) in modern English: thine can function as your when preceding a vowel, like the difference between a and an: thy son; thine own son.

4. whither/whence: where (destination)/where (origin): “Whence they came? Whither they went?” — John Bunyan: see also hither/hence, thither/thence

5. suffer: permit: “But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven” — Matthew 19:14, KJV

6. wherefore: why/for what reason: “The Brooks laugh louder when I come— /The Breezes madder play; /Wherefore mine eye thy silver mists, /Wherefore, Oh Summer’s Day?” — Emily Dickinson

7. yclept: named: pronounced ee-KLEPT: “But come, thou goddess fair and free. /In heaven ycleped Euphrosyne” — John Milton

8. Phoebus/Diana: Greek or Roman names for the gods, used in reference to the sun and moon, respectively: “Phoebus, arise! /And paint the sable skies /With azure, white and red” — William Drummond

9. divers: various : pronounced DAHY-vers: as opposed to diverse, which means varied: “To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues” — 1Corinthians 12:10, KJV

10. gird: surround/bind with a belt: “Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning” — Luke 12:35, KJV

11. weregild: compensation money for someone murdered: were, meaning man, can be seen also in werewolf: “”This I will have as weregild for my father, and my brother” — Isildur in Lord of the Rings, taking the ring as payment for the loss of family members

12. lovingkindness: kindness motivated by love: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions” — Psalm 51:1, KJV

13. myrtle: a type of plant: this word is the same here as it is used in modern times: however, as someone up-grown  in New Zealand and experiencing English literature as something largely foreign, these factors have necessitated my inclusion of the word: I would also include something like rhododendron to further indicate my ignorance of botany, if only it was frequently found in the poetry I have read

14. alack: crap? mild curse/expression of sorrow: “Thou bring’st me happiness and peace, son John; /But health, alack, with youthful wings is flown /From this bare wither’d trunk” — Shakespeare

15. Muse: one of nine Greek mythological goddesses from whom are sourced all artistic inspiration: I hope the Holy Spirit will lead me as a Muse: Shakespeare assigns the young man of his sonnets as his own Muse: read about it here

16. swain: country boy/male lover: “Haply some hoary-headed swain may say, /Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn /Brushing with hasty steps the dews away, /To meet the sun upon the upland lawn” — Thomas Gray

17. twain: two: although the usage is slightly different: if anyone can enlighten me, please do: “For both, for both my love is so immense, /I feel my heart is cut in twain for them” — Keats

18. methinks: I think: “Wherein your father flourished, yet by you,
Madam, methinks I see him living yet” — Milton

19. o’er: over: apostrophes were widely used to reduce syllables and therefore meet the metrical requirements of poetry: so you also find e’er (ever), ne’er (never), and awkward deletions such as ev’n (even) and heav’n (heaven): I still don’t know how to pronounce a v and an n so close to each other with no vowel to mediate: also, you will find that since the e in the ed ending was pronounced, poets often omitted this to make words shorter: eg. walk’d: a few words in English still have this pronunciation: learned (adjective form), blessed (adjective form, possibly only in ecclesiastical contexts?), and crooked (I have never heard anyone say ‘crookd’)

20. behest: command: “Michael, this my behest have thou in charge, /Take to thee from among the Cherubim /Thy choice of flaming Warriors” — Milton

21. dun: grey, dull: “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun; /Coral is far more red than her lip’s red; /If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun” — Shakespeare’s unflattering account of his mistress is a landmark reaction against the deification of women by their male poet lovers: this not only paves the way for modern realism, but in some obscure, and possibly offensive, way you can use this sonnet to say, “I love you just the way you are”

22. connexion: connection: the alternative British spelling is actually not that archaic, still being in modern usage: it’s awesome, actually, how as a New Zealander I can interchangeably use words such as burnt and burned, spelt and spelled, learnt and learned: kist and blest, among others, have sadly fallen out of use

23. quoth: said (used before the speaker): “Quoth Peter, leaping from his seat,
‘There is some plot against me laid;'”– Wordsworth

24. ere: before: “O thou sword of the Lord, how long will it be ere thou be quiet? put up thyself into thy scabbard, rest, and be still” — Jeremiah 47:6, KJV

25. two-and-twenty: twenty-two: my age: the construction can be used for any number (I think): Shakespeare plays on it: “What’s to come is still unsure: /In delay there lies no plenty; /Then come kiss me, sweet-and-twenty! /Youth’s a stuff will not endure”

26. threescore and ten: seventy: a single score is twenty: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away” Psalm 90:10, KJV

27. fie: expresses annoyance: pronounced FAHY: possibly cognate to fffffffffffffffffffffuuuuuuuuu: “O, fie, fie, fie! /Thy sin’s not accidental, but a trade” — Shakespeare

28. irksome: irritating: “But this swift travel scorns the company /Of irksome change, or threats from saddening power” — Wordsworth

29. hark: listen: “Hark! the herald angels sing /’Glory to the newborn King /Peace on earth and mercy mild, /God and sinners reconciled!'” — famous Christmas carol by Charles Wesley

30. hillock: diminutive of hill: “A graceless hillock rose too near mine town center. No wonder thou wert victorious! I shalt abdicate” — CPU resigning in AOE II: note the use of mine is probably incorrect as it does not precede a vowel

31. hoary: grey or white with age: there is a word with the exact same pronunciation used in New Zealand English to describe something either warn out, low-quality or a bit dirty: whorey? but I’m not sure how to spell it: “What are garlands and crowns to the brow that is wrinkled? ‘Tis but as a dead flower with May-dew besprinkled: Then away with all such from the head that is hoary! What care I for the wreaths that can only give glory?” — Lord Byron

32. sylvan: pertaining to the wood: “Sweet Ruth! and could you go with me /My helpmate in the woods to be, /Our shed at night to rear; /Or run, my own adopted bride, /A sylvan huntress at my side, /And drive the flying deer” — Wordsworth

33. beeves: the plural of ‘beef’. Wordsworth uses it, along with kine, to refer to cows: “Let beeves and home-bred kine partake /The sweets of Burn-mill meadow” — Wordsworth

34. yon: in the distance, yonder: “How exquisite the scents /Snatch’d from yon bean-field!” — Samuel Taylor Coleridge

35. vicissitude: change: pronounced vi-SIS-i-tyood: “There is a Cave /Within the Mount of /God, fast by his Throne, /Where light and darkness in perpetual round /Lodge and dislodge by turns, which makes through Heav’n /Grateful vicissitude, like Day and Night” — Milton

36. bonny: pretty, comely: I think it’s related to the name: “It’s not for fight that I came here, but friendship for to show. /Give me one kiss from your bonny, bonny bride and away from you I go” — The Green Wedding, English folk song

37. livelong: entire: “I’ve been workin’ on the railroad, /All the livelong day. /I’ve been workin’ on the railroad, /Just to pass the time away” — American folk song

38. concupiscence: sexual desire: “And what was it that I delighted in, but to love, and be loved? but I kept not the measure of love, of mind to mind, friendship’s bright boundary: but out of the muddy concupiscence of the flesh, and the bubblings of youth, mists fumed up which beclouded and overcast my heart, that I could not discern the clear brightness of love from the fog of lustfulness” — Augustine’s Confessions, translated by E. B. Pusey

39. perturbation: a disturbance: it may still be in usage but it’s not one I come across often: although Gandhi has made use of it: “Richard, thy wife, that wretched Anne thy wife, /That never slept a quiet hour with thee, /Now fills thy sleep with perturbations ” — Shakespeare

40. betwixt: between: my main source implies this is still in modern usage in parts of America: it is widely used in a lot of poetry I have read: “Of all the days that’s in the week /I dearly love but one day, /And that’s the day that comes betwixt /A Saturday and Monday” — Henry Carey: the context of the poem suggests that but should be read as just, because he is not excluding but speaking highly of Sunday: I dearly love just one day

41. erstwhile/whilom: former: “He conquered al the regne [reign?] of Femenye, /That whilom [fomerly] was ycleped [named] Scithia, /And weddede the queene Ypolita, /And broghte hir hoom [home] with hym in his contree [country], /With muchel glorie and greet solempnytee [solemnity?]” — Chaucer

42. prithee: pray thee, please: “The tidy breezes with their brooms /Sweep vale, and hill, and tree! /Prithee, my pretty housewives! /Who may expected be?” — Emily Dickinson

43. yea: yes: pronounced YAY: “But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil” — Matthew 5:37, KJV: Can also be used to mean indeed: “Now the chief priests, and elders, and all the council, sought false witness against Jesus, to put him to death; but found none: yea, though many false witnesses came, yet found they none” — Matthew 26:59-60, KJV

44. tarry: wait: “O let us be married! too long we have tarried: /But what shall we do for a ring?” — The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear

45. chanticleer: rooster: “A flippant fly upon the pane; /A spider at his trade again; /An added strut in chanticleer; /A flower expected everywhere” — Emily Dickinson

46. wight: person, sometimes creature: In the poem Beowulf it is used to refer to the beast Grendel: “That heathen wight was right ready: fierce and reckless, he snatched thirty thanes from their slumber, then sped homeward, carrying his spoils and roaring over his prey as he sought his lair”

47. honey-tongued: sweet-speaking, persuasive:”This is the flower that smiles on every one, /To show his teeth as white as whale’s bone; /And consciences, that will not die in debt, /Pay him the due of honey-tongued Boye” — Shakespeare

48. wax: increase in size: “a full eye will wax hollow” — Shakespeare

49. horned: crescent-shaped: “There’s tempest in yon horned moon, /And lightning in yon cloud” — Allan Cunningham

54: oft/oftentimes: often: depending on metrical requirements, you can now use often for one, two or three syllables: “Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield, /Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke; /How jocund did they drive their team afield! /How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!” — Thomas Gray

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The three greatest controversies the church has to deal with today are probably something like homosexuality, abortion and evolutionary theory. I’d dismiss the third as relatively unimportant because it’s mostly intellectual, whereas the first two have a large bearing on the lives of real people. It’s still important though!

There is a plethora of thinking I need to do on this subject, homosexuality, before getting off the fence and actually making some sense in what I believe about it. But I don’t want to leave you with a head full of questions. Rather, I’d like to explore a metaphor of possible real-life examples of gay people in a way that should challenge the way you live out your faith.

The only gay eskimo

The queer world does present a problem for the Church. After overcoming fundamentalism, or pretending it’s not there like some embarrassing parent that tells inappropriate jokes to your friends, we still haven’t said all there is to be said on homosexuality. Sure it’s narrow-minded to say that being gay is a sin.

This stance leaves no room for people who are born gay. According to these people, whom you attract yourself to is just that, a decision made on your part. But let’s dismiss this for now. If someone tells me that as they grew up they discovered their homosexual identity, or some similar story, what right do I have to discredit them? To support my own theological position I could say that they were lying because God obviously doesn’t create people to be gay. I think a more valid theological position would actually be to love people, meaning that we trust them, and if we trust people then we consider what they say as truth. What is more, to say that people are not born gay is unscientific.

But this is baby-food. Let’s examine two positions that arise from the aftermath of the first. Firstly, a more progressively minded friend may point out that our goal is not to define what sin is and sin isn’t, but to love people despite their sin. How much relevance does this have for Gay-Church relations? Maybe homosexuals are treated better but what they do is still sinful… So the Church may say that if people are born gay then clearly God created them this way. There should be no reservations in the Church. Gay Christians have the right to marry someone of the same sex and enter into a leadership position in the Church. I really haven’t nothing to say on this view but what the view is itself.

Secondly, a more moderate position (that I’d like to optimistically¹ guess a lot of Christians adhere to) is there is a distinction between being homosexual and acting on your homosexuality. We see no problems with gays converting. Hey, perhaps the Lord may work through them and heal them of their attraction to people of the same sex. But if not, they can continue as gays, even serve in the Church, as long as they remain celibate or marry someone of the opposite sex. Let me illustrate the point with a joke I remember being told to me when I was in my early teens:

A bear is chasing a mouse through the woods, when they casually come across a magic toe. When the toe offers them three wishes each, the mouse is thrilled at the chance to possibly take the bear’s mind of him being lunch. The bear, greedy for the possibility of wishes snatches away his first wish. “I wish that every bear in the wood, except for me, were female”. Without hesistation, the toe wriggles, grants the wish and turns to the mouse. “I wish that I had a truckload of cheese”. The bear, exercising a little imagination, extends his last wish. “I wish that every bear in this country, except for me, were female”. Patiently waiting for his turn and slightly inspired by the bear’s imagination, the mouse announces his second wish. “I wish that every mouse in this country had a truckload of cheese”. The bear cannot take it; he is overcome with greed. No other bear but him will ever make love again. “I wish that every bear in the world, except for me, were female”. The mouse smiles from ear to ear. “I wish that this bear was gay”.

Some may find it funny; some may find it offensive. But the gay bear, the only gay eskimo², is a picture of the converted gay. In the same way the bear was punished by the mouse for his greed, the converted gay is punished by his or her church or theology for being gay. The prospect of true love is no longer possible. Sure, the gay bear can be celibate, but can anyone actually prescribe celibacy for another unless they themselves know how much of a sacrifice it is? It is different if God speaks directly to a converted homosexual and asks them to be celibate for the sake of the Kingdom. But if Christianity truly is universal, as in open to everyone, how can such a stringent requirement be in place for everyone who is part of such a large proportion of the population, the gay community? If there is a lesson here for the straight Christian, who expects the homosexual convert to deny one of the most important parts of human existence, the expression of their sexuality, this straight Christian needs to consider these words, even put them into practice, in relation to their own life: “You can’t always get what you want”.

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¹This is optimistic in light of the view that to be gay is a sin. I realise that many will see it as pessimistic that many Christians see gay actions but not gay feeling as sin, when they should really see gay actions as not sin at all.

²This is a reference to a song that mum used to have on tape when we were kids. I looked it up recently and didn’t realise how rude it was, ha!

Image from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/14/Eskimo_Family_NGM-v31-p564-2.jpg

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In a complete u-turn from the last post, this blog will examine the validity of non-academic, even counter-academic approaches to the bible. Because I affirm both academic and counter/non-academic, if you think the bible is contradictory then you can embrace your puzzlement by attempting to reason that people are like numbers who add up and all of their rational views are coherent. And though I haven’t been a Christian long, if I have a ‘background’, that is, a Christian background, then I can very proudly say it is Pentecostal. Pentecostals are awesome for counter-academic approaches. Maybe this has something to do with class: If the middle to upper classes were those who engaged in higher learning, back in the day when Pentecostalism was predominantly sweeping through the lower classes, then there would be understandable undervaluing of higher learning. Although my Pentecostal background is more of an educated middle-class one, I think in the Pentecostalism I have been exposed to that there is a healthy admixture of upholding higher learning as well as being suspicious of it. Suspicion is definitely more prevalent towards the theological quarter, rather than in something like say education, medicine, science, etc.

Modern Pentecostalism arose out of the Azusa St Revival. In the early days after Azusa, people all over America met at cheap-to-rent buildings throughout all hours of the night, in prayer, speaking, experiencing healing and coming back to their Lord. Healing evangelists travelled across the land of opportunity with their massive tents and held meetings. In one semi-regular meeting, an older woman attended who had the gift of discernment. She could tell if the Spirit moved someone to speak or whether that person thought something of their self enough to start preaching without the leading of the Holy Spirit. The principle is not whether you have the ability to be a preacher or not, but whether the Spirit leads you to do so. A person, if they believe they are created by God, can best glorify him when they do what he has made them for. I think someone else has said that before. It might’ve been C S Lewis, but I’m not sure.

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I read a book about two YWAM missionaries just over a year ago. It really affected me and reminded me how central a part of faith is following the Spirit. After a time of settling down and looking after the family, the husband was reading his bible when he came across God’s words to Abraham: “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1 NIV). And so his family packed up their stuff and went to do mission work in another country. This is such an affront to the context and real meaning of the text! Is it not just to indicate the story of Israel’s history through God’s actions with Abraham? There is no way that every Spirit-filled Christian who reads that verse should take it at face-value and accept it as a command from God to their self. Maybe we can look at Abraham’s example of faith and draw some guidance for our own faith in that. But, c’mon YWAM guy! If you can only see those things then you miss the point of the story. Of course we can’t take God’s commands to another as commands for ourselves; of course we need to build our theology on the context of the passage rather than its literal meaning. But, even so, can you discount the fact that God spoke through the Holy Spirit to this guy and his family, and that they were fruitful in their ministry as a result of their obedience?

One verse I have heard quoted a lot which I don’t think does too much justice to the original context is Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God” (NIV). The psalm gives the impression of a city feeling the pressure from some outside sources: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (v1); “God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day” (v5). The psalmist then contrasts the threat of war with the power of God: “Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts” (v6); “He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire” (v9). This is followed by the climax of the poem, the imperative to “Be still and know that I am God”, the God who has power over the nations. In an attractively lit church service with some nice worship music, what relevance does this God have for our first world troubles? How can quoting this verse do justice to its original purpose? Yet, if the Spirit leads, and we are unaware of the original purpose of the psalm, can not God use these words to bring comfort, even his purpose in the service, which is to draw people closer to him? Of course. Then I hear you say that this focus on individual experience is an injustice to all those who don’t have it half as good as us attending the church service. Yet if you draw close to God, and follow the Holy Spirit, who knows where he will lead you?

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In the last blog post I pointed out some holes in our conception of biblical canon, or at least I attempted to do so. But there is also value in having the bible as a closed canon where all books are seen as under one homogenous umbrella known as ‘scripture’, even considering the considerable differences in sources and content. This, ‘scripture’, is of course the modern-traditional and more widely accepted view among the vast number of churches and laity. This value is seen in such acts as opening your bible and the first verse you read is just what you need to read at that moment: It’s really comforting to know God knows how you feel. Other times the same verse may come up  three times in one week from different friends, books, etc, giving you a sense that God is trying to speak to you through this verse¹. Sometimes you may read two completely unrelated books of the bible and find that God speaks to you on a similar theme from both, even though the writers have nothing to do with each other. I’m being very hypothetical and amn’t giving any clear examples because I can’t think of any… But anyway, the assumed connectedness that the idea of a unified the text, the so-called ‘bible’ gives way to is, as many other people have experienced more widely and deeply than I could ever hope to imagine or idealise, clearly a way that God speaks to us. Thoughts?

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¹I read a funny account of a similar approach where people would randomly select a bible verse and take it for God’s word for them at that moment. Some poor guy received a verse about Judas miserably hanging himself. Of course you could also come across some of the hardline denouncements of the Old Testament prophets or the fleshly suggestions of Ecclesiastes or Song of Songs. The important thing, I have learnt, is praying through something like this as well as looking for confirmation from other sources.

Image from http://divinity.library.vanderbilt.edu/collections/ARIL/azusa.JPG

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“Evangelicals have been raised to be suspicious of Christian tradition… Believers whose (unacknowledged) tradition is that the Bible is their only guide for faith and that there is not reliable Christian tradition must come to terms with how they got this view before they are willing to adopt the church tradition as their own.” –D.H. Williams¹

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When Protestants started breaking away from the Catholic Church they needed to establish what their authority was. Obviously it was still God, as it was with the Catholics, but something had got lost in translation and God was asking people to do what God doesn’t ask people to do. For Catholics, the Church was an authority that represented God as much as Scripture did. The Protestants, having seen human fallibility represented in the theology and practice of the Church, curbed that authority and developed the doctrine of sola scriptura, the bible alone being their source of faith. This blog post will attempt to bring to the surface some assumptions we have made on the basis of sola scriptura and some critical thinking that will hopefully in some way contribute to the Kingdom of God. Chur.

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One of the dangers of sola scriptura is the unavoidable consequence that biblical interpretation is no longer given to the individual by those who should know what they’re talking about; instead the individual interprets the bible personally. I don’t want to undermine the blessing of being free from uncritically received biblical interpretation though. It is surely a blessing that individuals read the bible and decided that God really did want women in church leadership. It is another blessing that a small group of people called Quakers read the bible and found out that God really didn’t want people to join in on all those wars. It is a great blessing that some devoted theologians over the centuries have again realised that you don’t have to do anything to be saved. It’s right there. It’s free. If we didn’t have individual bible interpretation then we wouldn’t have these things in Christianity to the same extent that we now have them. But one downside I suppose is that some guy read the bible and decided that God wanted us to keep most of those laws in the Old Testament, that Jesus hadn’t really abolished them, only some, and that we had to stop eating bacon. Another guy read the bible and told everyone that salvation isn’t for everyone, only those that God invited to the party. I’m still waiting for mine in the mail. And then this one guy read the bible and decided that if you give all your money to this church you attend then God will give it all back including triple and more, because the meek will inherit the earth or something. We probably wouldn’t have these if the Church was still an authority, or we would but to a lesser extent.

To be honest, I do certainly prefer the freedom of personal biblical interpretation. But what would I think if others hadn’t told me what to think? There are infinite controversies, including the topic of this blog, our ideas around the bible, which I need all the time in the world to do adequate research for and make up my mind on. Because it’s so important to have an opinion on anti-semitic sentiments expressed among the early church fathers… But really: People need to be told what to think about things. When necessary, you critique what you’re hearing. Other times, you assimilate it.

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“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2Timothy 3:16-17).

Would I be right in citing this as the most popular piece in the bible for asserting its inspiration? Not only does Paul poetically describe the origin of Scripture, but he also provides Timothy with purpose of Scripture. What Scripture was Paul speaking of though? His Scripture would have been the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which included the apocrypha² (books which are rarely found in a Protestant bible but are part of the Catholic, Orthodox and other canons). Modern bible translation uses the Septuagint to double check dubious translations of the Hebrew and better understand quotations in the New Testament, as most quotations from the Old Testament appearing in the New Testament are from the Septuagint. The New Testament authors’ use of the Septuagint explains why we have Jude³ quoting from Enoch (vv.14-15), and Paul making use of the Wisdom of Solomon in Romans (1:19-20). This guy has some good examples, including the Romans one.

So Paul probably isn’t referring to the bible as we currently know it. Peter, on the other hand, uses the same Greek word for the Hebrew Bible, translated as ‘Scripture’ to refer to a collection of Paul’s writings (2Peter 3:15-16 — there is an uncanny numerical resemblence to the piece from 2Timothy). But what is Scripture? It is widely accepted that the Book of Isaiah had not one but three authors, concerning close but historically separate times in Israel’s history. The Book of Job is an ancient poem and parallels of it can be found in other literary traditions. Elihu, the young eavesdropper in the story who gets a word in to rebuke Job and his friends just before God turns up is not mentioned at the start when Job’s other friends turn up and nor is he mentioned by God, who should really approve of his actions. He was probably written in at a much later date. Should I still consider what he says when reading Job or just flick past him? The Comma Johanneum, in 1John 5:7-8, is a later insertion by trinitarians which can not be found in any early Greek manuscripts. Until recently it was included in English bible translations.

The Book of Revelation was still being disputed as canonical five hundred years after Jesus had risen. Dionysius of Alexandria, quoted in Eusebius, writes, “I, however, would not dare reject the book, since many brethren hold it in esteem, but since my intellect cannot judge it properly, I hold that its interpretation is a wondrous mystery.” Dionysius had an esteemable intellect. His view is a profound contrast to the dogmatic end-time theologies people have constructed around this book. Hebrews, because of its unknown authorship and theology around apostasy was also widely disputed. The Shepherd of Hermas was, along with other writings not included in our New Testament, widely read and accepted by many early Christians, but the Church later rejected it because of its adoptonist theology, that is implying that Jesus became God’s Son at baptism. Now that the Church is concerned by things other than orthodoxy it’s not such a big issue, so imagine if a new council arose in modern times and James was excluded because of theological leanings to works-based salvation or 1Timothy for asserting that women would be saved through childbearing.

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That is the crux of what I’ve been exposed to so far, but there’s a lot more learned people out there who can give a decent critique of our current canon. I hope you enjoyed the whirlwind tour. If anything, problems with inspiration, biblical unity and canon should point to something that we can all agree is inspired by the Holy Spirit, that the bible uniformly makes clear and which every saved soul has experienced: Love God; love others.

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¹The quote is a paraphrase. I came across it in ‘Deep Church’, a book that looks for a midway point between postmodern and traditional Christianity.

²I may be wrong.

³Earlier on in Jude, the author also cites a confrontation between Michael and Satan, not mentioned elsewhere in the bible. You may be interested to also know that Paul quotes three Greek (?) poets throughout his writings.

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