Saturday, November 5, 2011

Hi, I'm Zelph and I'm a Modernist

This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God

If you find the Bible hard to read, it’s probably because you are a modernist.

This might be something of a surprise to you. You didn’t choose modernism, you didn’t convert to modernism, and you didn’t apostatize from anti-modernism (whatever that may be). Yet, you are a modernist, nonetheless.

Another thing you may not know is that modernism has a history. You probably think that people all through the ages think just like you. However, that’s actually not the case, and the fact that you have assumed it is a tell-tale sign that you are a modernist. Professors of the History of Philosophy put the genesis of modernism around the time of the French Revolution. From there, it took a grip on the Western World, and it’s fruit is found in you, whether you willed it or not. 

The Bible, as you probably know, was written before the French Revolution, which means that it is not modernist. It has an entirely different frame of reference, which is why "us" moderns have such difficulty with it. It’s as if we have to un-learn our modernism, or at least recognize it for what it is, to understand it. That’s also a sad indictment of what gets taught in church. If anything, churches need to teach people how to understand the Bible, and to do so, they need to expose our inherited modernist tendencies so that we can see them for what they are.

So, what is modernism, and why does it present such difficulties to people who want to understand the Bible?

In a nutshell, modernism tends to look to the future (well, the present, actually) with the belief that we are evolving into something better. Christianity, by contrast, tends to look to the past, to see what has happened “in the flesh”, as John puts it.

A more complete picture is well painted in an interview with Thomas Oden in 1990, who described modernism as the "idolatry of the new". His interview is reproduced in Christianity Today here. Oden, defines modernism thus;
Modernity is a period, a mindset, and a malaise. The period begins with the French Revolution in 1789. The mindset is that ethos reflected by an elitist intellectual class of "change agents" positioned in universities, the press, and in influential sectors of the liberal church. This elite continually touts the tenets of modernity, whose four fundamental values are
  • moral relativism, which says that what is right is dictated by culture, social location, and situation,
  • autonomous individualism, which assumes that moral authority comes essentially from within,
  • narcissistic hedonism, which focuses on egocentric personal pleasure,
  • and reductive naturalism, which reduces what is reliably known to what one can see, hear, and empirically investigate.
The malaise of modernity is related to the rapidly deteriorating influence of these four central values between roughly 1955 and 1985.
(I reformatted Oden’s list to  “bullet points” in an attempt to make them easier to digest)

Oden goes on to say that a Post-Modern is someone who “…has both seriously entered into the assumptions of modernity and transcended them by disillusionment.”

Yes folks, the ultimate destination of modernism, if we start to think about it, is disillusionment. Which means that if you haven’t thought about it much yet, you’re not a post-modern quite yet.

The second item in Oden’s list caught my eye. It probably describes “us” more accurately than we’d like to think. How many Disney movies have taught our kids to “trust their heart”?

Some people take it to the extreme. They argue that, if moral authority comes essentially from within, then they have a right to judge God, based on whether they like or dislike what they see God doing.

Atheists, of course, take God right out of the equation. Some of this might be rationally thought out (a position that I have some sympathy for), but much folk atheism is simply a visceral dislike of any moral authority that is higher than the individual (a position that I don’t). The latter group has judged God, and found Him wanting. That’s because they are modernists.

A symptom of modernism in believers it their tendency to remold the Gospel in an attempt to make people feel comfortable with it. The “I’m a Mormon ads” do this superbly. They say, effectively “You don’t have to be American, or religious, to be a Mormon, you just have to be normal.” Believers of all types and stripes will also say things like “I know it’s true because it feels true within my heart”. That's because they are modernists, too.

I’ve been on-line with Mormons on and off for some time. I see some profound difficulties with the origins and ethos of Mormonism, especially with its colorful founder, Joseph Smith. He set the agenda for Mormonism, and Mormonism is stuck with it until it becomes something that is not Mormonism.

When I start talking with Mormons, I find that some of them also share these concerns. Even so, some have argued that what a dead Prophet may or may not have said is not important (see the commandments to practice polygamy, for example) – it’s what Mormons believe now that is important.

Maybe I missed the memo about what a Prophet, Seer and Revelator is supposed to do (something other than make known the eternal and everlasting mystery of God, apparently), but it seems that modern Mormonism has no time for him. Joseph Smith does not feature in the “I’m a Mormon” campaign. Why not? It seems to me that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (which he founded) is trying modernism on for size. So, what’s driving their agenda here; an everlasting and eternal revelation of God, or the spirit of the times? My vote is with the latter.

But, the Mormons are not the only crowd to appeal to modernism. I’ve seen it too, in my denomination and in previous churches of which I have been a member.

Consider this; when someone gets up in church to give their testimony (life-story), they usually talk about how they became a Christian. These life-stories are usually interesting and challenging, but they typically affirm modernism by re-stating that it is what God is doing now in my life, that is important. The modernist might react to this by saying “that’s a nice experience for you, but what possible relevance is it to me?”

Contrast this with Stephen’s testimony in Acts Chapter 7. He’s on trial, and the words he chooses to say will determine if he lives or dies. Does he say something like “I asked Jesus to come into my life, and he made me into a better person”? No. Stephen gives a history lecture to the people holding the rocks. It’s only when the stones are going to fly that Stephen finally tells them what it means to him.

You see, Stephen, like the first Christians and authors of the New Testament is not a modernist. He does not evaluate the Gospel by what it means to him, but by what God has done “in the flesh” in history. It only means something to him because he sees himself within that history; a history that calls both him and his interrogators to account. We are not told of the state of Stephen’s inner state of mind, because Luke (the probable author of Acts) considered it to be something of an irrelevance.The critical point here, is that Stephen is not looking into his own heart; he is looking beyond himself (to Jesus Christ, specifically) and that is why he is not a modernist.

I don’t think I have the authoritative take on modernism, or on Christianity, for that matter. However, I do believe that Christians ought to be mindful of modernism, and they should not confuse it with the Christian Gospel, which it is not (as Oden’s list demonstrates).

Perhaps the best way to approach this is to ask “what is the Christian response”? I would say that the Christian response should not be to focus on the (supposed) impact of God on the inner workings of my heart. That would be to affirm modernism, and before you know it, everybody is affirming the leadings of their own hearts, and we are left isolated, alone and vulnerable. 

No, the Christian response ought to be to declare what God has done in “the flesh”, especially in the life, death and resurrection of His Son. That is certainly where the focus of the Bible lies, and modernists will search in vain about how it supports their agenda.

This is where John wants to lead us. It is a place where we can no longer say “I believe in an [imaginary] Jesus because he has appeared in my heart”, but a place where we affirm, with John, that he has appeared “in the flesh”. Crucially, Christianity looks beyond the self of the believer, and this is Good News because we have a redeemer who is not dependent on our efforts to make Him "true".

Nothing you or I will do, say or feel will change this Jesus of the Flesh, contrary to the ‘gospel’ of modernism. God forgive us for ever believing otherwise.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The ferocious zeal of God

“What prepares you for that?” asked my wife, in tears, after the surgeon had left us alone in the ward.

It was Wednesday morning and she had been admitted to hospital on the Monday with excruciating abdominal pains. The diagnosis had raised the possibility of cancer. She was not ready to die.

You see it in other people. You hear about it when it is someone else. But, no, nothing prepares you when it is your own mortality that stands up to you and slaps you in the face.

She was terrified. I was scared, but at least it wasn’t my body that had threatened to kill me. I decided to read the Bible. There was a Gideon’s Bible in the bedside cabinet (thankyou Gideon’s), so I opened it and found Psalm 23. I tried to read out loud, but the words stuck in my throat. In between monumental pauses, I managed to croak and stumble to the end. It must have been the worst reading heard in human history ever, and my voice probably conveyed more fear than faith to her at this time.

The LORD is my shepherd;
         I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
         He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
         He leads me in the paths of righteousness
         For His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
         I will fear no evil;
         For You are
with me;
         Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
         You anoint my head with oil;
         My cup runs over.
 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
         All the days of my life;
         And I will dwell in the house of the LORD

As I came to the closing lines, I saw something that I had not seen before. This was not a Psalm about dying; it was a Psalm about living, even in the face of death.

This week, when I waited with Janna as they tested and scanned her, deciding the best course of action for surgery, I have had the privilege of spending much of my day thinking and reading. I read an entire book that I had been recently given, and on the Wednesday I got through two thirds of the Book of Isaiah. I earnestly believe I did not do it as an escape. I did it because our dire circumstances forced me to engage the reality of the situation that we had been thrown into. 

I grew angry at the mindless pap that the television churned out. Its voice was void and empty and unable to reach into our lives. The glass screen said it all. It presented a rigid wall between its imperious pontifications and the flesh and blood of our trembling lives. It existed to project its sound and vision onto us, but it had nothing to say. It could not touch us. The gods of the 21st century western world were exposed in their impotence.

The Mater Hospital, where Janna ended up, was founded on a Catholic tradition, and it included an unadorned Chapel, where I whiled away some of the hours during Janna’s surgery. In Janna’s ward, and probably every other, there hung a small, stylized crucifix over the window. Here was a God whom I could worship; one that had entered into our humanity, to suffer and die that we might live. Unlike the proud gods of the television, sitting behind their hermeneutically sealed glass screen, this God not only touched our humanity, but humbled himself to come right into it. This God then picked up and carried away the things that contend against our humanity, even death itself, taking them into his own body and nailing them to the cross where they died.

This thought infuriated me, and it still does. It was that same feeling of frustration as I read Isaiah. My knowledge of Hebrew is, to be generous, rudimentary. However, I know enough to know that our English Translations struggle to convey not just the technicalities of the text, but also their beauty and raw power. In Isaiah 1:2, the prophet declares “Hear, o heavens; give ear, o earth; for the LORD has spoken”. It took me a whole evening the week before Janna’s emergency to read three words in the Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls on-line, and I was amazed at the musicality of its native language. Yet, I could not hear it well. I did not have the tongue to annunciate the words. I determined to learn more Hebrew, so I could more fully appreciate those verses that so tantalized me.

Yet, there was something else that was tantalizing me. I could sense it like a giant wave building in the ocean. I could not see or hear it clearly, and the other waves disguised its presence, but I sensed it was there. I can only describe it as the ferocious zeal of God.

I could see glimpses of it in Psalm 23, and in the voice of the prophet. I could see it in the image of the crucified man over the window. I could see it in the kindness of our family and friends as they offered their love and support. God, whom had called the cosmos into being with His indomitable Word, was filled with a ferocious zeal for our living. He was committed to our living in a way that we could only faintly sense. We can hardly assemble the language to describe it. It was this ferocious zeal of His that had called us into being, and this same zeal had given us the capacity to surprise Him. This same ferocious zeal compelled Him to enter into our flesh and blood existence, and to do whatever was necessary, at whatever cost, to secure our living. 

And it was not simply an existence that He brought about for us, but true living. God’s single-bloody-minded and whole-hearted commitment to our living is not a religion, or a set of parameters in a mathematical equation, nor even the certainty that comes from accurate or reliable predictions. It is nothing less than life itself; life in chaos and uncertainty; life in which choices make a real difference; life in defiance of death, which seeks constantly to subdue, stultify and cow us.

It’s the Gospel of Grace, but in a context that we rarely get to experience. Janna’s reaction to the Surgeon’s bad news was perfectly natural; “Why me?” She quickly recoiled at the thought. She was humble enough to know that the flip-side to this question was “Why not?” The Gospel of Grace tells us that we don’t pre-qualify for God’s love; we cannot earn it; we cannot make ourselves ready for it. We cannot be prepared for it. Like the baby entering into the world through a borrowed manger, God’s life invades our lives in unexpected ways, whether we deserve it or not; whether we are ready for it or not; whether we are prepared or not. Why? So that He is vindicated in all He does. So, if He deigns to act on our living in ways that seem best to Him, why should He also not act on our passing in the same way?

This, of course, is nothing new. The ancients knew that their lives were held in the hands of the gods. They knew their mortality in ways that we have forgotten in our modern, headlong retreat from the thinking life. What was a revolution to them was the news of God’s ferocious zeal for our living; borne to them by the despised of the world - women and Jews.

It was like God had betrothed Himself to us humble creatures, made from the earth. What business had the Divine with us sons of the soil? And, as a man would seal the oath by cutting his own flesh and shedding his own blood, so God had scourged His own flesh and shed His own blood at the cross. This was serious, and we had better take it seriously. We had better take life seriously too, not because we had done something to deserve it or enhance it, but because God had committed Himself to our living. Misuse the life He had given us, or the life that He had given to our friends and neighbors, and it would be His ferocious zeal for our living that we would ultimately answer to.

In the face of such a ferocious zeal for our living, it ceases to be a question of what we deserve, but what we do. Who knows what will come tomorrow? Tomorrow has enough worries of it’s own, as the preacher from Nazareth said. Today is the day, and we will live in it, even if we see the shadow of death lengthen over it.

Nothing can prepare you for that day when you know you will die. But you can say that until that day, you will live. What is more, beyond that day, you will live because God’s ferocious zeal is with you in your living, and it will not be extinguished or diminished in your dying.

Janna’s surgery was a success, though she had her ovaries, tubes, uterus and appendix removed. The Surgeon found no signs of cancer, thank God (and all the medics involved). It was an endometriosis.

It would be wrong to call this a reprieve because we would be saying that death, not God, had done the reprieving. We live another day. Death has receded from us, but God has not. There will come a day when death has exhausted its terrible arsenal on us, but God, and His ferocious zeal for our living will remain undefeated.

I pray that I will never forget the glancing blow that this day dealt to us, and the tantalizing glimpse it gave me of God’s ferocious zeal for our living. I pray that I might find the language to speak this zeal into our lives, my life, Janna’s life, your life, that we can celebrate the living that God has given us, in all it’s unpredictable and surprising wonder and variety.

This is a song about living, not dying.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Can you trust the archaeological evidence?

In a follow-up query from a FaceBook friend, I was asked, “Can you trust the archaeological evidence?”

Here is my reply; In short, it would be wise not to ignore it.  

Welcoming the evidence

The Christian world-view ought to fortify us for honest enquiries, and I think Christians should not be as terrified of archaeology and the sciences as some would like us to be. As I noted previously, Jeremiah says the word of the Lord came to him and asked him what he saw (Jeremiah 1:11, 1:13). Note that it is not what God saw, but what Jeremiah saw that's under consideration here, and he wrote the book, so we should notice what he says about his own oracle.

This point is worth pondering. The Bible is consistent and persistent in valuing truth and truthfulness. Jesus declared that “…the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32). The Wisdom literature in the Biblbe urges us to look and ponder what we see. Proverbs 3:5-7 states;
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding
In all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.
Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.
I have a particular concern about this verse at present, because it is often quoted in Christian culture as a reason not to think about what we see. How silly! The entire Book of Proverbs enjoins us to think, learn and to gain understanding above all else. Are we to believe that the author committed his life’s wisdom to the book, then some evil apostate sneaked in a verse that up-ends the entire work? I don’t think so. What the verse refers to is the exact opposite of what it has often been used for. It says “you will not find wisdom or knowledge by looking in your own heart; what you need to do is to learn from God, who speaks to you by His word; And, you will need to allow what’s in your heart to be shaped by what is outside it.” It’s an instruction to allow our thoughts and our understanding to be shaped by what see outside ourselves, not by the predispositions, prejudices and motives that we find in our own hearts. It’s a command to submit to the discipline of thinking, not to avoid it because what we see might make us feel uncomfortable.

What are those things that are outside ourselves? Two obvious answers are the world in which we live, and the Word of God. Our Christian faith ought to predispose us to welcome the evidence, not to ignore it. Indeed, despite the propaganda of prevailing culture, the Christian faith has more to drive us to understand the world in which we live than any other world-view, particularly atheism and magisterial religions such as Islam and Mormonism (which stultify the search for knowledge for different reasons).  

Data and inferences

The Bible, in my reading of it, presents a holistic view of understanding and wisdom by saying that if we understand the world in which we live; we are likely to make right decisions. I don’t wish to contend with it, but it’s a different question than the one you might be asking, which is; can we trust the data?

My personal response is that the data are neutral. What is important is what we infer from them in our decision-making, which is, to me, the essence of wisdom. In other words, I believe the data are important, and it is important to get good data, but they will not direct us in our thinking – we do that, and we do it for the entire smorgasbord of reasons, good and bad, that make us human. Acknowledging this (and, again, it’s a Christian perspective) ought to fortify us as we look at the data, and the inferences that people draw from them.

An important feature of this is to acknowledge why the data have been collected in the first place. I’m an anti-conspiracy-theorist, which means I don’t buy some of the more sinister motives that anti-scientists ascribe to the scientific community. But, even if the scientists' motives for collecting and publishing data are nefarious, the good news is that the data they collect are neutral. In other words, we can look at the data, but we can be discerning in what meaning we draw from them, and the meaning that I draw from them might not coincide with the archaeologists' or scientists' original inferences.  


You asked about archaeological evidence, so that’s what I’ll address next. Please forgive the lengthy preamble, but I would like to illustrate how my hermeneutic relates to some of the archaeology.

Before going to University, I took a gap year and spent about six months on a Kibbutz in Israel. At one point, I took a few days off to join in with an archaeological dig at Gamla in the Golan Heights. Gamla was sacked by the Romans in AD68, when they crushed the Jewish revolt. Next to fall were Jerusalem in AD70 and, finally, Masada in AD72.

After I had left the dig, I found that the location I was digging in was near the Synagogue that the dig-leaders were anxious to find. They had thought it might be near the centre of the settlement, but as it turned out, it was at the wall that the residents had erected as a defence against the Romans, where I had been active with my shovel.

To understand why the dig-leaders thought that finding a Synagogue was important, we need to understand what it meant in the current geo-political context. The Golan heights were (and are) disputed territory. The discovery of a Jewish Synagogue would do two things 1) reinforce the reasons for the dig, and hence allow the dig-leaders to appeal for more money and 2) legitimize modern Israel’s occupation of the Golan heights by staking a claim on the territory based on antiquity.
Even though you might disagree with these motives, the fact remains that the dig now gives us a better picture of Jewish life around that time, and we are richer for it. For instance, we can see a real-life example of the kind of Synagogue that Jesus would have taught in. We can also see what happens when a people put their faith in their ethnic/cultural/religious identity before faith in Christ (I’m referring to the Jewish revolt and the consequent annihilation of the Temple-system by the Romans).

Again, what I’m saying here is that you should look at the archaeological evidence, but you’re not compelled to agree with other people’s inferences of it.

Archaeological evidence around the New Testament

I’m going to refrain from using the phrase “archaeological evidence of the Bible”, because I believe that such a statement misunderstands the issue.

The good news for Christians is that much of the evidence supports the narratives of the New Testament; it attests to the New Testament accounts. The environment, culture, place-names, people of the Bible fit well into the environment that the extra- Biblical archaeological evidence and historic sources describe. However, there are some contentious areas and it would be unwise to ignore them.

It has been my interest, and my joy, to release the Biblical stories back into their “native environment”, which is described by the archaeology. I have found that this brings the stories to life in ways that are quite unexpected and sometimes challenging. I refer you to some of the earlier notes I made on Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s well to see what I mean. For example, being able to project this story onto its archaeological background, like one of the son-et-lumiere presentations you sometimes see projected on mediaeval castle walls, has got me reading the Gospel of John in a new and refreshing light.

The biggest problems that I am aware of in the New Testament are;
• The details of the death of Judas (compare Matt 27:5 with Acts 1:18-19)
• Whether there was a census under Qurinius around the birth of Jesus, as described in Luke 2:2

It’s a very short list, and I don’t think these problems are insurmountable, though I concede that we might need to stretch the text a little. For instance, Judas might have strung himself up (per Matthew), then his corpse might have fallen off the gibbet causing his guts to explode (per Acts). In any case, the point of both accounts seems to be that he died a shameful death. The census might be resolved if we accept that Quirinius was the de-facto governor of Syria, and that this particular census didn’t find it’s way into the annals (which would be unusual, but not impossible). Still, there was a Quirinius, there was a Syria, and they did censuses, according to all the available extra-Biblical evidence.

Archaeological evidence around the Old Testament

This is a huge subject, which is hotly contested by a number of learned societies. I’m not going to do it justice, so I trust that you will forgive my rather cursory treatment of it. Much of the controversy relates to time-lining the development of the Biblical texts. I’ll try to give you an overview and to do this, I’ll work backwards.

The later Biblical texts are usually accepted as extant (the events they describe to occurred at the time of writing, or soon before). These texts are usually identified by the language (late Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek translations), and the consensus is that they comprise much of the Wisdom Literature (I understand). The Psalms, for example, seem to be a very mixed bag, including many of the earlier works, but many phrases, language and ideas appear to have been re-cycled in the later Psalms. (Incidentally, this “recycling” causes me no problem whatsoever, because that’s exactly what we do in our modern hymns and songs of praise.)

The earlier texts are more contentious, and there is much speculation. Humanistic scholarship insists on dismissing anything that might have the slightest hint of the miraculous, so it ascribes the origins of the stories not in some miracle, but in folk-religion. The critical period, according to this perspective, is around the centralist reforms of King Josiah. The redaction camp use this to argue that the Priests of Josiah commandeered and formalized the folk-religion of Israel and Judah to legitimize Josiah’s reign in Jerusalem. There is actual support for this from the Biblical narrative itself - 2 Kings 22 describes the rediscovery of the Book of the Law, and we could legitimately ask what they did with it when they found it. We honestly can't be certain, but the more negative inferences would tell us that characters such as Abraham and Moses were not real people, but rather mythological constructs on which the folk-stories were projected, rather like the legends of King Arthur or Robin Hood (which vary according to who is telling the story).

Importantly, the humanist camp dismisses any idea that the Exodus was a real event, or that David and Solomon actually reigned over a united kingdom, and these are the areas in which the archaeology can be called as a witness.

As far as the Exodus is concerned, the humanists have a point. There is no archaeological evidence for the kind of mighty upheaval that you might expect following the conquest of Joshua in the 12th Century BC. Why the 12th Century? Because that’s the date you get from the calculations of lifetimes and years in the Biblical record. However, if we adjust our math, and allow for Abraham to live “in Egypt” whilst in Canaan (which is possible because Egypt did project its power over the region), then we’re not stuck with the 12th Century, and we can look earlier for an Exodus-like scenario.

There is plenty of evidence that such a scenario might be found in the 15th Century BC. This was a time of massive upheaval and cities being sacked and rebuilt. Basically, the land of Canaan was caught between the competing super-powers of Egypt to the south and the Hittites to the north. Such regional instability would fit well with some of the statements in the Bible, such as the metaphorical “hornet” that God sends ahead of his conquering people (Exodus 23:28, Deuteronomy 7:20, Joshua 24:12) and the sense that the conquering Hebrews are God’s judgment on a violent and lawless people (see Genesis 15:14-16).

Then, there is the etymology of the word “Hebrew”. It is possibly derived from the Egyptian “Apiru”, which means “wanderer” or “vagabond”. Could it be that the chosen nation was not an established earthly kingdom, like Egypt, but a bunch of displaced refugees, who wandered in from the desert and found a home under YHWH’s protection and reign? I find that tidbits like these actually help my theology come to life.

In these cases, the archaeology challenges our perceptions of the Exodus story, but I believe that if we allow the archaeology to speak to the text, and for the text to speak to the archaeology, we have a better chance of building up a true picture of what the archaeology and the text are about.

But what do we make of the opening chapters of Genesis – the stories before Abraham? My personal view is that these are mythological, in the sense that they could have been co-opted from neighboring cultures, though they might have arisen from real, historic events.

The flood account in Genesis 6:9-9:17, is an instructive example, because the story-line shares so much with the Gilgamesh Epic. Returning to my earlier comments about inferences, I find it fascinating to see how the theology of Genesis varies so profoundly with Gilgamesh. The God of Genesis could not be more different that the “gods” of Gilgamesh, and that, I believe, is it’s true message, whether it was written before Gilgamesh, or not.  


There is much, much more that I could possibly relate here. In short, I believe that the Biblical narrative was derived mostly from actual historic events, which are attested to by the extra-Biblical archaeological evidence. The New Testament, being comparatively modern, has good attestation; the Old Testament is mixed; some parts have good attestation, some don't. The Old Testament might well have been redacted under Josiah, but one has to ask if they were doing what we are doing now – taking what they can see and inferring what they can from it.

The irony is that though the origins of the Biblical stories are sometimes obscure, we can see the agenda that the authors (or redactors) had when they committed their knowledge to writing. I believe that if we truly intend to treat the Bible as the Word of God, we need to listen to that agenda because that is the light that will make our paths straight, as the Book of Proverbs promises. The archaeological evidence, I believe, informs our understanding of this agenda and helps bring it to life. As I said at the start, we would be wise to listen to the archaeology, but discerning in what we get from it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Has the Bible been redacted?

I recently received a query from a FaceBook friend, who asked “in your reading, what has been redacted, or more importantly, why? And what does it change? Anything important?”

Here is my reply;

The question of redaction can get highly contentious, especially if you're talking to someone who wants to capitalize the subject to say either "so, you don't believe the Bible, then", or "you can't trust anything that's written in there". Personally, I think the question of the extent of OT redaction is highly subjective, so I’ll stick to what can be demonstrated, and I'll remain circumspect about what can't.

For instance, the archaeological evidence (as far as I understand it has been demonstrated) points to the Chaldeans not arriving in Ur until about 900 BC. That's after Abraham (about 1900BC) and after Moses (about 1500 BC - though more traditional scholars put him at 1200 BC). So, when Genesis 11:31 etc refers to "Ur of the Chaldeans", you have to ask whether it was written or altered or redacted after Abraham and after Moses.

I find this quite an instructive example because it changes nothing in the Abraham story (Abraham came from the city that was later occupied by the Chaldeans), or the theology that the story tells (God still covenants Himself to Abraham and his children).

What it does change (or challenge) is our perception of how the Biblical texts have come to us. Not even the most hardened inerrantist would argue that, in the beginning, Moses sat down with a ball-point pen and wrote on a piece of paper "Genesis chapter 1, verse 1" (see how many anachronisms there are in that scenario). However, there is an expectation that God dictated the text, and it remained unaltered from that time on. (Ironically, this is the exact scenario that Joseph Smith was working to.)

I believe (and I could be wrong) that the text itself invites us to think otherwise, and I would argue this by citing Jeremiah 1:11 and 1:13 - the Word of the LORD asks us "what do you see?" (emphasis mine). There is, I think, a mystery here - it's not what we see that matters as much as what we infer from it, and this, I think, is where we need the Holy Spirit to guide us.

Now, here's the real problem, and I might not have come to a satisfactory answer. If the Biblical texts were limited by the human author's understanding of what happened in the past, how could we regard them as divinely inspired?

My two responses are these;

The first goes back to my "inference" idea - it's not the story that matters as much as what we get from it. In other words, God has given us these stories so that we might live by them, and many (all?) of the stories are actually historical. We don't have a decent word in English to describe this; "myth" has too closely aligned with fiction and "legend" is too closely aligned with super-heroes. This might sound quite esoteric, but I'm sure you're familiar with at least one concrete application; Christians are called to "live out" the story of Christ, and we get that story by reading our Bibles. Personally, I think the story of Christ is fully historical, but it doesn't change God's call on me to make that story a living reality by the way I choose to live. It just makes it more compelling.

Secondly, the delivery of the word of God into the world has much in common with the delivery of the Word of God into the world, and there is a deep mystery here. Jesus Christ is/was both fully human and fully God. How can he be both? How can he be so totally unlimited, and yet so confined in his human flesh? It is only by faith that we can even attempt to bring these two polar opposites into one, undivided person. By the same token, it is only by faith that we can bring the fallible, limited thoughts of the human Biblical authors and the perfect, unlimited Word of God into the same book. That doesn't stop us asking how, and it is right to do so. Maybe, if we spent time thinking about this, we might begin to understand what it means for God and us to be brought together in our limited, fallible lives.

Summing it up, my personal view is this; Jesus Christ is the intersection of heaven and earth. This is truly good news, because, like you and me, he is fully human, which means that you and I are also fully capable of this without the need to become what we are not. The Bible tells us about this in its own limited way, and it often mines stories from the past, however they came to us, to point us in Christ's direction. Even if (and that's a big "if") it gets some of its source data wrong, it still comes to the right inferences. Not everybody sees it this way, and it is right to wonder why. In the end, it's not my ability to convince myself of the historical and scientific precision of the Biblical accounts, nor even my faith in my faith that counts, but Christ's ability to work in me that counts. In this sense, I believe the Bible to be true.

And that's good news for those of us who, inevitably, might have missed the bus on some of these important issues.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Jesus said “I am the Gate” (John 10:9)

A salutary lesson against religious movements that try to control the believer’s access to God.

John’s Gospel continues to delight and intrigue me. Having got my teeth stuck into the story of the Samaritan Woman at the well, I’m reading it in a different light.

It seems that everything in John's Gospel has meaning, including the apparently incidental details. The story-line and Jesus' dialog both move together such that Jesus’ various encounters are not simply random opportunities that he capitalizes to say something profound. Rather, both the physical action and the dialog advance in a unified procession with the sense that God is ordering them both (which would be the logical trajectory for John’s opening comments about Jesus being the Word of God made flesh). The Logos of God not only permeates the dialog; it drives the action.

So, we come to a rather peculiar claim of Jesus; that he is the Gate in John 10:7-10:
Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
To understand what Jesus is saying, one has look back into the preceding narrative. It’s not an isolated grandiose statement, but an explanation, or reason, for Jesus’ prior actions.

In the preceding chapter, John recounts the story of the man born blind. In brief, Jesus comes across a (Jewish) man born blind and heals him. The miracle is remarkable enough, but it sparks a hostile verbal exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees. In fact, John writes more about this exchange than the miracle.

The Pharisees have a hard time believing the miracle because it does not fit into their theology. This, I believe, is the issue Jesus returns to in his claim to be the gate. Why else put this statement here? Why not somewhere else? Although it looks like a break in the narrative, John intends it to be a natural extension of the preceding story.

With this in mind, it is possible to build up a satisfying explanation, and it’s got everything to do with the Pharisees’ attitude to religion and Jesus’ bold-faced rebuttal of it.

To the Pharisees, the man was born blind because of some sin, or failing, on his own part or the part of his parents (which would have prompted the Disciples’ initial query in John 9:2). We ought to understand that in the ancient world, the blessing of the God/gods was typically manifested in a person’s health and wealth. If they saw a blind beggar, the Pharisees would have thought that he had been put beyond the reach of God. The Pharisees might also have reciprocated by limiting the blind beggar’s access to the Temple, inferring that there was something unworthy about him that would keep him from making any proper contact with God. In other words, the Pharisees considered themselves to be the gate-keepers, and they were the ones who controlled who went in, and who went out. That was why they thought they could throw him out in John 10:34.

Their irritation at Jesus comes about because he simply circumvents them. He disenfranchises them from their position as judges in Moses’ seat (see Matt 23:2). In a beautiful enactment of Grace, Jesus takes the initiative and heals the blind man, thus removing his stigma, and equipping him for entry into the presence of God. The Pharisees see this, and they are incensed that Jesus would do this without their permission.

It is against the Pharisees’ assertion that they are the gate-keepers, that Jesus stakes his claim to be the gate. He calls them thieves and robbers, who had only come to steal and destroy, even though they believed they were justified to act on God’s behalf through his chosen prophet, Moses.

It is Jesus, not the Pharisees, who determines who goes in and who goes out. However, Jesus will not dance to the Pharisees’ tune (Matt 11:16-17) and he seems to have this habit of bringing in people who are at least undesirable failures, and at most, cursed.

Are there equivalents of the Pharisees around today? Most certainly, there are. If John’s account of the man born blind is a reliable guide, then anyone who puts himself in a position of saying to one “you can come in”, and to another “wait outside” is standing in their shoes. John’s Gospel warns us to respect the competency and authority of Jesus in determining who comes in and who goes out.

Earlier this week, I read the stories of some ex-Mormons and the trouble they had to go through to get their names removed from the rolls (see Vidar’s closing comment here). People who voluntarily leave commonly complain that they have to traverse an emotional assault course. The LDS community refuses to acknowledge that there might be a problem with it, so the problem must be some hidden sin in the person who is leaving. Guided by this unmovable dogma, the community and its leadership react to a person’s desire to leave by trying to find some sexual transgression so that the person’s departure can be written off as a formal excommunication (it’s a shame that they don’t apply the same ethic to Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, but that’s another story).

In this context, the LDS community is acting as if it were the gatekeeper. I would like to remind it that Jesus says, “I am the gate.”

However, this is not the only context in which the LDS priesthood act as gatekeepers. The LDS religion orbits the Temple, entry into which is strictly controlled by the priesthood. If the Temple is the means through which believers connect to God, then the priesthood is acting if it were the gatekeeper. Again, Jesus says, “I am the gate.” There are other examples in other religions. There may be some in my own, and if there are, I would appreciate it if you would let me know.

Dear reader, you may find yourself in a position in which another person is controlling your access to God. To you, and to me, Jesus says, “I am the gate, whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to kill and destroy. I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Sacred Cows of New Evangelicalism

I’m posting this because, at first glance, I strongly agree with it. I hope to actually buy the book. I particularly like the summary of the “Sacred Cows”, which Cary (and I) consider harmful to the Christian experience, and the list at the bottom is the main reason why I’m posting this.

The following is reproduced from the review of Good News for Anxious Christians; Ten Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do.

In Good News for Anxious Christians, Phillip Cary, a philosophy professor at Eastern University, challenges what he calls "the new evangelical theology," which is "a set of supposedly practical ideas about transforming your life that gets in the way of believing the gospel" (p. x). The techniques that he covers "all have the characteristic that they turn you away from external things like the word of God, Christ in the flesh, and the life of the church, in order to seek God in your heart, your life, your experience. Underneath a lot of talk about being personal with God, it’s a spirituality that actually leaves you alone with yourself" (p. xi).

With this premise in mind, Cary goes on to attack ten "sacred cows" of the new evangelicalism. As a college professor he constantly sees these faulty ways of Christian living and thinking in his students. These young people have grown up in an evangelical environment that has perpetuated these myths for the entirety of their lives. They are unaware that the matters Cary discusses are recent distortions of the truth and not part of historical Christianity. Cary is writing primarily for these students and his writing style reflects that. It is colloquial, repetitive, and relatively simple. Such a writing style might be irritating to older or more astute readers, but the content of the book is excellent.

The sacred cows of the new evangelicalism include:

*God is speaking in your heart
*Your intuitions are the voice of the Holy Spirit
*Finding God’s individual will for your life
*You must examine your motivations
*Heart and head are different
*You have to be transformed all the time
*You always have to experience joy
*Sermons must be practical
*Experience is foundational to the Christian life

Saturday, August 13, 2011

John 4:1-42 Jesus and the Samaritan Woman Part 9

Here is the final cut of my sermon notes.

An Ordinary Message

If you think that your last week was ordinary; if you think your next week will be ordinary; if you think that ordinary is a word that sums you up, this message is for you. You are important. It’s not your ordinariness, or your extra-ordinariness that makes you important. Rather it is the presence of Christ in your life. He comes into ordinary lives, like yours, and transforms them into something special.

An Ordinary Samaritan

We are doing a series on the people that Jesus met. This week, it’s the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:1-42). If there is one word to describe her, it is ordinary. Yet, she has an extraordinary encounter with Jesus that changes everything.

An Extraordinary Conversation

I believe that the best way to make sense of the conversation is to understand that both Jesus and the woman are talking metaphorically. They both use things in the immediate situation (the well, the water, the husbands, the Temple) as metaphors for something bigger. Without this metaphorical view, the conversation looks disjointed and Jesus and the woman appear to the talking over each other’s heads.

So much of what we think is evangelism involves us saying what we want to say without actually engaging in the concerns of the other person. That is not evangelism, according to the Biblical model.

Jacob’s Well

Time prohibits us from looking at more than one of these metaphors, so we will only look at Jacob’s Well, and the woman’s reference to it in John 4:11-12
“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
To understand what the woman is saying, we need to understand the history of the Samaritans and the Jews, and how they viewed each other at the time of this encounter;

• The Jews thought the Samaritans were “half-bloods”, who had been faithless to God by inter-marrying with the surrounding nations. The Samaritans thought the Jews were apostates, and that they (the Samaritans), not the Jews, were the true inheritors of the “well” that was dug by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

• The Jews had their Temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans had had their own Temple on Mount Gerizim. The Samaritans had desecrated the Jerusalem Temple by throwing dead men’s bones all over it. The Jews had marched over the border and had destroyed the Samaritan Temple in about 110BC. To the Samaritans, the Jew’s destruction of their Temple would have felt like someone ripping the heart out of their community.

• The Jews had been sending missionaries into Samaria to convert the Samaritans to their religion.

The Woman’s Expectations of Jesus

I believe this woman would have thought that Jesus was another missionary. She expected him to say something like;
You need to become like one of us, so that we can prepare you for entry into the Temple, where you can make the connection to God. Your well is no good, and you need to come to ours
They were saying that she could find God in the Temple. However, God was already standing next to her at her well.

In response, she says something like
I don’t believe that you can draw from the True Well that was dug by our father Jacob, from which we draw our water, and I’m not interested in coming to yours

Jesus’ Remarkable Response

If Jesus’ mission was to set up a new religion, or Temple, we would expect him to launch into a sermon about how much better his new “well” was than hers. But, he doesn’t.

So much of what we think is evangelism involves us trying to persuade people to come to our well. So often, we are concerned with telling people that they are going to the wrong well. Again, that is not evangelism, according to the Biblical model.

Jesus hits the nail square on the head. He observes that even when the woman is drawing from a good well, she does not get “living” water from it. She has to keep coming back, and the water she drinks requires continuous upkeep. The well does not sustain her; she sustains the well. Only Jesus can offer her the “living water” that will ultimately sustain her.

Change the Message

There are good wells, dry wells and poisoned wells. It is important to try to explain why some wells are poisoned, and why people should not draw from them. However, good well or bad well, only Jesus can offer the living water that we seek. In other words, what people truly seek in their wells is truly found in Jesus. The basis for our evangelism is not simply “stop going to the wrong well and come to ours”, but “what you are looking for in your well can truly be found in Jesus”.

Change your perspective, not your circumstance

When Jesus comes into a person's life, it will change. He will deal with sin. Notice, though, in this story, that she starts out a Samaritan Woman, and ends up a Samaritan Woman. Her external circumstances have not changed (at least, not to start with). Even so, Jesus transforms them. The most insignificant person in the community becomes its first apostle, and the whole town comes out and walks towards Jesus (John 4:30). At the end of the story, they do something that they were not doing at the start; they talk to each other.

Christ beings salvation to individuals, and he reconciles communities to themselves. This is His work, to work with people in the circumstances that they are in, to bring the best out of them. He is interested in redeeming real people in real situations; and so should we be.

The Importance of Being Ordinary

Too often, we weigh our importance on how extraordinary we try to be. We might mistake our commitment to the church, or our “spiritual” achievements, as a way to qualify for God’s attention. We might think that the super-heroes of faith are more important than us. We might think that our Christian brothers and sisters might be falling short of the mark unless they become super-heroes.

The Bible teaches something different. James 1:9 says
Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position.
Why? Because He is the Lord of all; the ordinary and the extraordinary. If He can bring life into an ordinary person’s life, that's good news indeed for the rest of us ordinary people.

Thank God for the extraordinary people and the high-achievers in His Kingdom. Most of us, though, are ordinary. Being ordinary is living proof that God loves to come into our ordinary world, and transform it into something special. That is why being ordinary is so important.

• Clements, Roy “Introducing Jesus” Kingsway Publications, ISBN 0 85476 321 X, 1996

• Guthrie, Donald, Commentary on John in The New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, Inter-Varsity Press, ISBN 0 85110 648 X, 2002.

• Kruse, Colin G “The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries – The Gospel According to John”, Inter-Varsity Press, ISBN 0 8511 327 3, 2003

• Wright, N.T. (Tom) “John for Everyone, Part 1, Chapters 1-10), Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, ISBN 0 281 05302 2, 2003

Saturday, August 6, 2011

John 4:1-42 Jesus and the Samaritan Woman Part 8

Next week I’m up.

I’ll be preaching on the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan Woman in John 4:1-42, and I have to gather my thoughts and settle on a core message.

I believe that a sermon is not simply an intellectual exercise, or an entertaining presentation; it’s about feeding Christians so that they are stronger and better equipped to deal with life, with all its joys and tragedies. So, I’m now I need to force myself to think about what “food” I am going to serve up. What is more, I will have to limit myself to what is important, rather than those things that I have found of particular interest to me. I’ll have to kill most of my babies, so to speak.

What’s the message that they will take with them? Here’s my first cut of the final edition.

The Importance of Being Ordinary.

The Australian language has done a great disservice to the word ordinary. If you were to ask me, How was your week?, and I replied Pretty ordinary, we would both know that what I meant was that my week had been pretty crap. In the local lingo, ordinary is a synonym for crap.

The dictionary definition of ordinary is quite different, meaning with no special or distinctive features, normal, commonplace, standard.

Most of us are ordinary. The Samaritan Woman was ordinary. Like her, most of us are not spiritual super-heroes. What makes us special, or valuable, or worthwhile human beings is neither our ordinariness nor our extra-ordinariness, but the presence of Christ in our lives.

That’s not to say that we should not attempt the extraordinary. We rejoice in the many heroes of faith who have done extraordinary things; John Wycliffe, William Wilberforce, and Mother Teresa, to name a few. There is a danger in focusing on super-heroes, though, which is that we can begin to evaluate our lives in terms of achievements, commitment, or work-rate. We can find ourselves inadvertently headed towards works-based justification, even if our official statements of faith and doctrine deny it. Do we really believe in a Gospel of Grace? If we do, should we not celebrate and rejoice in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary? What do we want our Christianity to be about?

Another danger in hero-worship is that it breeds elitism. This plainly runs against our creeds, in which we say We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church(1). What we mean by catholic is all-embracing. In other words our church embraces the ordinary people with the extraordinary, so it should celebrate and welcome the ordinary person together with the extraordinary.

This all sounds quite mystical, theological, religious and philosophical, so I’ll explain it in the way that the Bible explains it’s theology – through story. In this case, it’s the story of the Samaritan Woman.

The story of the Samaritan Woman

Several weeks ago, I started off looking at context and history, which I found absolutely fascinating. From this I developed a “work in progress” hermeneutic for reading John’s Gospel. Both of these lines of inquiry have brought much detail to light, and they have challenged my preconceptions of this story.


• The Samaritan Woman is a simple rustic, who can’t see beyond the drudgery of her chores.

• She brings up the subject of the Temple to deflect the conversation away from the issue of her men.

• She is stunned into believing by Jesus’ miraculous knowledge of her circumstances.

However, if we apply these misconceptions to the encounter, what we get is;

• Neither Jesus nor the woman, actually engage in each other’s concerns; the conversation is disjointed and they talk over each other’s heads.

• Her strategy for deflecting Jesus actually pays out

• Bad evangelism, which attempts to stun people into believing

Rebooting the way we read John’s Gospel

We need a reboot in the way that we read John’s Gospel. I believe that what we need to do is;

• Start with the presumption that everything that John writes is deliberate and carefully considered; everything is there for a reason.

• So, pay attention to the details, especially the incidental details

• Because all this apparent detail points to, or illustrates, an underlying truth.

• The ultimate underlying truth is Jesus Christ himself – the Divine Logos from whom all things come into being, or become visible – see the prologue to John’s Gospel in John 1:1-18

The challenge in reading John’s Gospel, then, is to try to understand the meaning behind what John shows us. John sees various incidental details but he writes them down because they point to an underlying truth that he wants us to understand. Here are some examples;

Jacob's well was there...(John 4:6) Jacob’s Well is both a thing and a metaphor. The Samaritans based their religion on the Books of Moses. Metaphorically, they drew their religion from Jacob’s well, from which they watered their sons and flocks (4:12). They thought the Jews were apostates, so when the woman states that Jesus has nothing to draw from the well (4:11), she is criticizing his Jewish religion as being too shallow. The problem, of which they were both well aware, was that her well no longer yielded living water.(2)

It was about noon...(John 4:6) The woman was drawing her water at the wrong time of day. Most likely, she is avoiding the other women in her community. She was shunned, a social outcast. The reason her neighbors shunned her was her faithless relationships with the men in her life.

I have no husband...(John 4:17) The statement sums up the woman’s existence, but it also points to the legendary faithlessness of the Samaritan nation. The Samaritans had flirted with one God after another, and what they were left with was a loose, unreliable relationship that was nothing like the covenantal life-long bond of a marriage that God binds himself to his people with

…this mountain...(John 4:20) The mountain in question is undoubtedly Mount Gerizim, on which the Samaritans had built a Temple to rival the one in Jerusalem. The Jews, under John Hyrcanus, one of the Maccabbeean Kings of Judah, had razed it to the ground in 128 BC. The Samaritans and Jews found good reason in their shared history to hate each other.

…you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem(John 4:20) She is expecting Jesus to try to convert her to Judaism, which would give her access to the Jerusalem Temple, and hence to God. This is the big agenda item of the day. She can’t get into the temple in Jerusalem because, to put it bluntly, she is the wrong sort of person. She is beyond God’s reach (or so the Jews implied). She implies that she is not interested in going to his party.

…Christ is coming…(John 4:25) She, like all the Samaritans, is looking forward to someone who will resolve the issues and problems that have precipitated from her religion. In response, Jesus states, “I am” (4:26). The end-goal of her religion, and that of the Jewish religion is not a Temple, but God Himself, and here he was, presenting Himself to her in the person of Jesus Christ.

…leaving her water jar…(John 4:28) She leaves the symbol of her empty life at the feet of Jesus and goes into the community that shunned her. Having been pointed in the direction of Jesus by the woman, her neighbors embrace Jesus for themselves.

The fruit of the reboot

So, what do we get from this reboot?

• The Samaritan woman is not ignorant of her circumstances, but is acutely aware of her situation, and the situation of her community. She uses the banality of her workaday life to explain and illustrate the situation. She and Jesus engage directly in each other’s concerns. Perhaps this is the first time that anyone has actually done this to her; the first time that someone has openly acknowledged her actual circumstances and taken her seriously. However, though she accurately sums up the situation, she cannot see a way out and she has no way of releasing herself from her bondage

• Turning the conversation to the Temple is not a successful attempt to deflect Jesus (3). This issue is at the heart of the conflict between Jew and Samaritan, and it is the root cause of the problems in her life. Jesus’ response is well worth pondering – he does not attempt to recruit her from one Temple to another, but rather he holds himself up as the end-goal of all the Temples in the world. Effectively, he says to her All you are looking for in a temple is truly found in me (4)

• Good evangelism. The woman’s conversion is aided by Jesus’ miraculous knowledge of her feckless men, but it is underpinned by her conscious understanding of Jesus. Basically, she trusted him because he knew everything about her, and he didn’t abuse the privilege. (Jesus does not sermonize on her questionable morality, probably because she already knew her sins). The New Testament (and Old) is full of evangelism that’s based on argument and reason, not emotional ambush, and it fully engages with the concerns that ordinary people actually have. I’m not saying that we need to be dry, heartless automatons with no emotional sense of value or worth; rather, I think we need to steer clear of the kind of emotional manipulation that has no reference to reason or truth.

An ordinary story…

The Samaritan Woman is very ordinary. The paradox of this story is that the most ordinary, least important outcast from the community becomes its first apostle. Her faith in Christ spreads to her neighbors, and they embrace him too. Remarkably, the Samaritans of this town end up doing something they had not been doing for some time; they talk to each other. Christ brings salvation to the individual, and reconciles the community to itself.

Quite how Christ does this is a bit of a mystery, but I think there’s a big clue in his description of himself.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
(Matt 11:29). I think humility is the Christian’s greatest weapon in his or her fight against the Evil One (5), and that’s why we need to create a culture of humility in the church.

Is this what people see in our church? Do they find a place of rest here, or do they uncover a message that says, in effect, You have to work harder to jump through all these hoops, and you have to obliterate your culture and self-identity before we will let you into our temple. You must become clones of us, because we are the right sort of people, and you’re not.

… for ordinary people

The woman’s story is remarkable because she is ordinary. She does not shine as a super-hero, but we remember her. She is special because Christ came to her; he came into her dead world and brought it to life. My point is this; if Christ only concerned himself with super-heroes, what hope is there for the rest of us?

If you think I’m stretching it consider what James has to say;
Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower.
(James 1:9-10).

If you find yourself in ordinary circumstances, thank God for putting you there. Your mission is to transform those circumstances by bringing Christ into them. He is the Lord of all creation; the humdrum and the ordinary, not just the spectacular.


Don’t try and get God’s attention by trying to be a super-hero. Christ comes to you in the circumstances that you find yourself, whether you think you deserve it or not. It is his presence that transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary, and he will change both you and your circumstances. This is what the Gospel of Grace is all about, and that is why I believe it.

Occasionally, we come across Christian super-heroes and high achievers, and we thank God for them. They are beautiful, and they stand out, like the wild flower that you might chance upon on your travels. But, they will go the way of the rest of us.

If you are ordinary, thank God. He sent His Son for you as much as for the high-achieving super-heroes. He is the God of the ordinary, as well as the extraordinary, and you are the living proof.

That is why, in being ordinary, you are important.

(1) See the Nicene Creed

(2) Incidentally, neither did the “well” of the Jews, as Jesus’ previous encounter, with the Jewish Nicodemus, demonstrates, though the problem and its solution are described using different metaphors.

(3) The Jesus of the Gospels is never deflected from his mission. See Jesus' determination in Luke 9:51; the Greek emphasizes his resolve on the matter and, of course, he succeeds.

(4) See Revelation 21:22

(5) Because, to put it as simply as possible, he is the antithesis of humble

Saturday, July 30, 2011

John 4:1-42 Jesus and the Samaritan Woman Part 7

I am continuing my preparations for preaching on John 4:1-42 in August by blogging my thoughts on this passage. I started an eclectic commentary from John 4:6 to 4:14, and this week I ought to get to John 4:42 if I have any chance of finishing my preparations.

John 4:15
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
When I read this, I can’t help but hear a pitiful tone in the woman’s plea. She wants her old well to work, but it doesn’t. It has become a burden and a chore, and all it yields is lifeless water that has to be replaced every day by her own efforts. As I noted previously, I believe she is speaking on two levels; on one level she is speaking about the physical well and the banality of her existence; on the other she is speaking about her culture and religion. She pleads Jesus to deliver her from the living death that she currently endures.

John 4:16
He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
Here’s the catch; if you want to be delivered into life, then you’ve got to deal with the death in your life. The woman wanted the living water that Jesus offered, but Jesus tells her that she cannot have both it and the sin that brings death. You can be free, says Jesus; I open the door, but you still need to walk out of the prison.

Why did Jesus tell the woman to go and fetch her husband? It’s another query that I don’t seem able to find a fully satisfying answer to. Possibly, he’s reluctant to “convert” her in the absence of the man who should have been her guardian-protector but, if this is the case, why initiate the dialog with her in the first place? Possibly, he is concerned to “convert” her husband at the same time, though it is almost certain that he will be an embarrassing “no show”. Most likely, Jesus is already fully aware of the woman’s situation, and he uses a social nicety to get to a very tricky subject.

John 4:17-18
“I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
Remarkably, the woman does not deny her circumstances, but is disarmingly open and frank about them. It’s as if she is saying, “If you want to deal with me, you’ve got to deal with the real me, and not some romantic vision of me that you might have in your head”. I like this kind of bluntness. It tells me that this woman was someone to be reckoned with, and not some simple rustic who is overwhelmed into believing by Jesus’ charisma.

At first sight, Jesus’ reply looks somewhat condescending because he appears to sermonize and blunder about the subject. Did she surprise him with her answer? Did she force him onto the back foot? Such a view, however, does not fit with Jesus’ awareness of her situation because he already knows that she has had five husbands and the latest man in her life is too lazy or self-absorbed to make a decent woman of her. It seems more likely that Jesus is articulating their shared thoughts on the subject. It might be the first time that the woman had found someone who actually acknowledged and engaged in her predicament.

This, I believe, is another example of the conversation occurring in more than one dimension. Doubtless, the immediate subject is the woman’s sexual relations. However, there’s another narrative arc in play that concerns the Samaritans’ legendary unfaithfulness to God (which I explored earlier). Through this exchange, John seems to be saying, “This is the practical outworking of a religion that is faithless”. In other words, the woman’s situation is indicative or typical of the Samaritan way. It has been observed many times before, that human culture tends to take on the character of the Gods it worships. If the Samaritans had been faithless towards the One God, then they would tend to be faithless towards each other in marriage.

John 4:19-20
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Most commentators (e.g. Wright) see this as an attempt by the woman to steer the conversation away from her personal choices. I disagree; if this were the case, she might have been more evasive in her preceding statement, unless Jesus had caught her off guard and she suddenly found herself cornered.

To be fair to the commentators, most of them read this within the context of their pastoral experience, and they have grown wary of the deflections people sometimes use to evade searching questions. As Tom Wright notes, there is no better deflection than religion. Even so, if a deflection is what the woman had in mind, then she succeeded in it by getting Jesus on to the subject in his consequent remarks. I have to object to this on the basis that this supposed ability to deflect Jesus does not sit well with John’s portrayal of him. John’s Jesus is someone who cannot be deflected from his mission.

So, what is going on here? The woman has moved the topic of conversation from husbands to temples. To me, this makes sense when we view the conversation as a multi-layered sandwich, rather than a linear string of comments. If the woman’s marital situation typifies the Samaritan religion, then the conversation should turn to the issue of temples. I have previously commented on the friction between Jew and Samaritan over their respective temples, and I don’t intend to rehash it all here, but suffice to say that this very question is the burning issue of the day. This is the number one item on the agenda, and from it come all the answers to everything else, including the question of how the woman found herself in her situation with her many men. Her question about Temples provides the framework within which she takes her points of reference. The question and its context would have made perfect sense to John’s primary audience, but it looks odd to us because our Temples operate very differently from theirs.

If I were to paraphrase the question, it would be something like this; “We know that our self-identity was given to our forefathers by God, but the well that our forefathers gave us does not deliver life. We know that the way passed to us by our forefathers has become a chore and a burden, and we now find ourselves in a kind of living death. We are looking for a way out, and you Jews have told us that you have it. The problem is, your way is no better than our way, and you only seem intent on obliterating our traditions and self-identity in order to get us to qualify for entry into your Temple. No thanks. We don’t want to come to your party.”

John 4:21-24
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
Dear reader, please pay careful attention to what Jesus does not say. If the purpose of Jesus mission was to create a new religion, or even to promote an old one refurbished and made-over, he should have launched into a diatribe at this point about how his temple was better than anyone else’s. But he doesn’t. In fact, he says that neither of the two temples in the shared experience of Jew and Samaritan would be the locale for true worship. Jesus statement is unbelievably revolutionary, even blasphemous. We can only imagine how shocking and scandalous this message would have been in the ancient world.

Jesus emancipates the true worship of God from the bounds of the temple system, but on what basis? Jesus is no proto-humanist, so he is not giving way to a laissez-faire religion in which everybody can do whatever he or she likes, or even decline to take part if they so wish. These options are simply not available in the remainder of John’s Gospel, or in the rest of the Bible. Nor is Jesus promoting the kind of internalized, privatized and psychologised religion that prevails in current western culture (Jesus’ religion was something that was expressed in public and embraced the community, in which the individual was seen as a vital component but not the end-goal). The true worship that Jesus sees is “in the Spirit and in truth”. What I think matters to Jesus is not the location of the worship, whether it be in this building or that, but whether it connects to life outside the temple.

The reason for this paradigm-shift is profoundly simple; God is Spirit. He is not bound in the confines of any temple (even one ordained by God Himself); therefore His worshipers have access to Him wherever they are. Now, we are comfortable with such a notion (partly because we have had 2000 years to get used to it), but if we play it out in the context of first century Judaism, we get some extraordinary and noteworthy results.

I apologize if I repeat myself ad nauseam on the topic, but we have got to understand how profoundly important the temple was in the context of this encounter. The temple was many things, including the focus of the community, the source of its physical sustenance and the bank-vault for its treasures. Over and above these community functions, the temple provided the vital connection between the community and its God; the temple is where you went for forgiveness, cleansing, teaching and worship. The worst thing that could happen to you as an individual would be to be excluded from the temple, or to fail to qualify for entry into it in some way. This is because you would be cut off from all those vital things that you could only get in the temple. You would have no access to forgiveness, for example, and your sins would kill you. In the Biblical idiom, if you were cut off from the temple, you were cut off from life.

Yet, Jesus does away with the temple system.


Because all the things that the temple held forth are now found in Him. Jesus is the true Temple (see Revelation 21:22).

Jesus does not promote a religion or a temple. He claims that everything that the Temple system offers is found in him, and when he comes to you with his living water, you come to life.

If, like the religion of the Samaritan woman, your God-given religion, culture and tradition have become lifeless chores and burdens to you, I suggest it’s because Jesus is absent. He is not interested in obliterating your self-identity, culture, or even religion, though there are some aspects in all these things that you will need to leave behind if your are to embrace Him. He is interested in working with you to bring you to life.

John 4:22
You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.
My reading of this is that Jesus is contrasting his heritage with the woman’s. I believe he is saying something like this; “You have some idea of God, but it’s a pretty crude picture and you don’t know it all. We Jews have the right collective experience (through the Temple and Exile) and the means to interpret that experience (the Scriptures, especially the post-Mosaic prophets that you reject). God has chosen it such that the means of your salvation has come into the world through this Jewish heritage. That means of salvation is me, and you can only make sense of me if you understand the Jewish heritage that brought me here.”

John 4:25-26
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
The Samaritans had a pretty strong idea that the anointed prophet would come to them to redeem them, much as Moses had done in the past. Jesus audaciously places himself in this role.

There’s a nuance here that’s not fully conveyed in the English translations. In the Greek text, Jesus simply states “I am”; the “he” is added to our English versions to round off the grammar (ἐγὼ εἰμι, egō eimi, see Sharp-eyed readers should know that there is only One who can make this unqualified statement of being; the “I am” of Exodus 3:14. So, Jesus is not only holding himself up as the Messiah that the Samaritans were seeking, he also claims to be the very object of their religion. He is the One to whom their religion should be leading them, which is as clear an allusion to Jesus’ divinity as you can get.

Time is against me, so I’ll have to (reluctantly) skip the interactions between Jesus and his disciples in John 4:27 and 4:31-38.

John 4:28-30
Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
John, the master of apparently incidental detail, notes that she left her jars –the symbols of her empty life – at the feet of Jesus. She retains her doubts and reservations, but she dares to hope to believe in him. Her change in heart is evident in the message she takes to her neighbors, who are persuaded to follow her “out of town” towards Jesus.

In reflecting on this, I can’t help but think that faith in Christ is not the “final product” that will push you over the line into a sense of unchallengeable certainty. Rather, it is something that compels you to walk out of your old ways, despite the doubts and reservations that you will always carry with you. This tells me that it is not a sense of certainty that we need to seek, but rather the courage to put one foot in front of the other and to believe that as long as we walk towards Christ, we walk towards life.

John 4:39-42
Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”
Having started the walk towards Jesus, the entire community began to make the connection with him. It started with one person, but grew and spread to all. I can’t help but sense that this community found itself coming to life, confronting its demons and reconciling its members to each other. The woman, who entered the story as a despised outcast, had opened the door to the community’s renewal. Jesus had given them common ground on which they could to talk to each other. They had been emancipated from a temple-system that they all knew could not deliver. It was like the lights had been switched on and, suddenly, they knew that Jesus had saved them. This new life was not only theirs to claim, but they saw that it could flow out into the world beyond their small town.

John focuses on the receptiveness of these Samaritans to the message of Jesus, but there is sad irony in his account. The Jews, who should have known, found it much harder to receive Jesus’ message (as the author recalls in John 1:11), with the exception of a sizable, dogged minority. John’s implied rebuke to the Jews is something that we would all do well to hear; why try to persuade people to come to your Temple, when you should be persuading them to come to the One to whom your Temple points?

For John, in his delightful account of the Samaritan town, the answer was simple; the One to whom the Temple points is Jesus.

To be continued…

• Clements, Roy “Introducing Jesus” Kingsway Publications, ISBN 0 85476 321 X, 1996

• Guthrie, Donald, Commentary on John in The New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, Inter-Varsity Press, ISBN 0 85110 648 X, 2002.

• Kruse, Colin G “The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries – The Gospel According to John”, Inter-Varsity Press, ISBN 0 8511 327 3, 2003

• Wright, N.T. (Tom) “John for Everyone, Part 1, Chapters 1-10), Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, ISBN 0 281 05302 2, 2003

Thursday, July 21, 2011

John 4:1-42 Jesus and the Samaritan Woman Part 6

I am continuing my preparations for preaching on John 4:1-42 in August by blogging my thoughts on this passage. Previously, I started a commentary, and got from John 4:6 to John 4:8. I could not post the following installment because of other commitments over the weekend, so here it is (belatedly).

John 4:9
The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans).
John refers to her as the Samaritan woman (also in John 4:7). He uses the term that she would use to describe herself. The term “Samaritan” literally means “keeper”, as in “keeper of the law”. Jews used the pejorative “Cuthim”, after the foreign city of Cutha, to imply that they were the foreigners in the land, and not “true” Israelites (see my earlier blog on the origins of the Samaritans). It’s remarkable, then, that John, a Jew (though one with Hellenistic leanings), uses the term “Samaritan”. John’s irenic use of the term is underpinned by one of the major themes of his Gospel, which is that the Word had come to the whole world, not just the world of the Jews.

John lays down a pattern that we ought to follow. By using the words that a person uses to describe himself or herself with, we respect their sense of self identity. If a person self-identifies as “gay”, “Mormon” or "black" or whatever, it seems to me to be something of a violation to substitute my words for theirs, even if I don't share the values that these terms sometimes convey.

The Samaritan woman certainly recognizes Jesus’ self-identity by baldly stating You are a Jew…. Let’s get this clear; Jesus was a Jew. He was not an Aryan, a Greek, and American or something else, despite various attempts by some (for nefarious reasons) to co-opt him into a non-Semitic ethnic identity. Jesus does not correct her on this issue because, frankly, she is right. She thought he was a Jew; he thought he was a Jew and everybody else at the time thought he was a Jew. If you have a problem with the fact that Jesus was a Jew, I can only appeal to you to stop fighting the evidence and get over it. He was.

The Samaritan woman’s surprise at Jesus’ request is articulated in her question How can you ask me for a drink?. She was undoubtedly aware of the taboos around food that the Jews operated under, because the Samaritans shared most of them. According to the Jewish Rabbis, food given by Samaritans was considered unclean, but there was a concession for food bought from them. To her, then, Jesus’ request was odd, made odder by the fact that he had even spoken to her at all. Jesus crossed several racial and ethnic boundaries here; something that was not lost on her.

When John notes that …Jews do not associate with Samaritans, he is being diplomatic in the extreme. The fact of the matter was that they hated each other, and there had been a long a bloody history of animosity between them.

John 4:10
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
Jesus answers her question with a riddle and though I have a couple of theories about why, none appear conclusive. Perhaps John is giving us a stylized and truncated version of the original conversation, because he brings us right to the point and omits to tell us if Jesus actually got the drink that he asked for. Perhaps, sensing the woman’s receptiveness to his message, Jesus deliberately steered the conversation in another direction, forsaking his physical needs to capitalize on the opportunity, which would align the discussion he had with his disciples later on in the passage (John 4:31-38).

Jesus’ startling response to the Samaritan woman, which would be a conversation-stopper in most circumstances, parallels his response the opening question of Nicodemus (a Jew) in the preceding chapter (John 3:1-3). Again, this signals to me that John’s Jesus is concerned with treating Jew and Samaritan even-handedly.

The riddle concerns the gift of God, who it is who asks and living water. It is difficult to overlook a Trinitarian formulation here, with such clear allusions to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

(Note that John does not use the term “Trinity”, which was first used by Theophilus of Antioch in about AD180, then Tertullian in AD211, some 120 years after the writing of John’s Gospel (depending on the date of the latter), but the concept is derived from the basic ingredients presented in the NT; there is One God; the Father is wholly God, the Son is wholly God and the Holy Spirit is wholly God; and yet the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct from each other.)

The gift of God is God Himself. He becomes the gift to those He loves, just as husband and wife become their gifts to their spouses in a marriage. The promise of God’s intimate presence amongst His people is a common trajectory in Biblical scripture; for example, Ezekiel’s oracle ends with the statement “And the name of the city from that time on will be the LORD is there” (Ezekiel 48:35). John, of course, sees this intimate relationship brought into tangible reality by the presence of God in Jesus, “made flesh” in the world (John 1:14).

Jesus refers to himself as who it is who asks. This statement might echo Jesus’ role in John 14:16-17, in which Jesus describes Himself as the One who asks the Father for the Holy Spirit.

The living water, like so many things in John’s Gospel, is a both thing and a metaphor. The thing refers to water that is fresh and flowing, not stagnant. Jews were concerned at keeping water “live”, by keeping it moving. Sometimes they would puncture their cisterns so that there would be a notional flow of water through them. Demons, according to Matthew (Matt 12:43), could not cross “living” water. It was the “thing” that brought refreshment, life and cleansing, and it becomes the metaphor for what the Samaritan woman really needs. The water from the well will serve her for a day, but the “living water” that Jesus promises will serve her for life. It’s a metaphor for God the Holy Spirit, who refreshes, animates and cleanses the Church; the Holy Spirit is, quite literally, the life-breath of God, and He is God’s gift of Himself to the Church. That might seem quite a religious and esoteric thing to say, but think of it like this; the Holy Spirit is the very life of God, and this God-life is what gives life to the church.

John 4:11-12
“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and flocks and herds?”
This is where commentators differ. Is she a simple rustic, who has missed the point and cannot see beyond the immediate circumstance of the well; or does she engage Jesus in some intellectual sparring? I tend to believe the latter. This is a remarkable exchange; else John would not have bothered to write it down. What I think is happening here is that the woman is remarking on the immediate, visible circumstance, and the underlying truths behind them, which are best understood when they are viewed against the historical conflict between Jew and Samaritan.

Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep Can this woman lift her gaze? Is she captive to the daily drudgery of lifting and fetching water for her man, who could be too selfish to marry her? Perhaps, but her question could be a double-entendre. She could be flirting by equating “this well” to her own sexuality. It would be unlikely that a Jew would arouse her interests, unless she had got bored with the attentions of the Samaritan men she knew. More likely, she is teasing Jesus’ for his Jewish religion, which she would have regarded as being too limited to draw from the well of Jacob.

I believe that she could see beyond the physical well; however all she could see was her Samaritan religion, which, she thought, was sufficient to her and her community (Jacob’s “sons and flocks and herds”) The problem with her religion was that it was bankrupt, which was patently apparent from its failure to sustain a Temple, or to sustain a faithful relationship with God. What she needed, indeed, was some new and living water, to refresh, animate and cleanse her.

John 4:13-14

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
If I am right about the Samaritan woman’s perceptiveness, then she and Jesus are talking on the same wavelength. Both see how bankrupt her religion is. She has likened it to her journey to the well, carried out with tedious monotony, and with always the same result. The journey to the well, day in and day out, was not enough to heal the divisions in the land or to make that vital connection to God that was now broken.

The well is not enough, yet Jesus promises something more in himself; it is something that He has within His gift. He doesn’t promise say “join my religion and it will sort you out” (as the Jewish missionaries to Samaria would have said), but he gives her a personal guarantee. Faith in Christ is not about signing up to a religion, or a program, but believing in Jesus, the person, who gives us his personal guarantee.

…the water I give them will become a spring of water welling up… The gift of the Spirit will be something experienced continually within the very being of those who receive it – like a spring of water welling up within them. The verb used for “welling up” (Greek hallomai) means literally to “jump up”, and in the only other places where it is found in the NT it has that literal meaning (Acts 3:8; 14.10). It is a vivid metaphor for the activity of the Holy Spirit within those who believe in Jesus, reminding us of the experiential as well as the cognitive side of the Christian faith. The fulfillment of this promise (with its future-tense verbs “I will give”, “will never thirst”; “I will give”, “will become”) awaits the coming of the Spirit following Jesus’ exaltation (John 7:37-39). (Kruse)

And now for something completely different. John 4:14 is partially quoted in the film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. In the film, it appears as part of an inscription on a crusader’s shield in a clue to the whereabouts of the Holy Grail. The film infers that eternal life might be gained by drinking from the Holy Grail, which Indiana Jones and his father both do, though the “eternal life” they imbue only survives within the confines of the grail’s secret location. I enjoyed the film, but I do no think that Jesus had this in mind; this “eternal life” is not dunk from a physical grail, but the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, and it is certainly not constrained by locale.

Finally, this last point is actually important in the context of John’s Gospel. Up to this moment in time, the connection to God and the source of life were regarded as being located in the Temple (in Mount Zion for the Jews and in Mount Gerizim for the Samaritans). Jesus brings that connection and that life out of the Temple such that it can be reached by all persons, wherever they are. In John’s idiom, the true connection to God is made in Jesus, not in the Temple.

To be continued…

• Clements, Roy “Introducing Jesus” Kingsway Publications, ISBN 0 85476 321 X, 1996

• Guthrie, Donald, Commentary on John in The New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, Inter-Varsity Press, ISBN 0 85110 648 X, 2002.

• Kruse, Colin G “The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries – The Gospel According to John”, Inter-Varsity Press, ISBN 0 8511 327 3, 2003

• Wright, N.T. (Tom) “John for Everyone, Part 1, Chapters 1-10), Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, ISBN 0 281 05302 2, 2003