Friday, March 25, 2011

God and the Japan Tsunami

I was horrified to hear the news of a Tsunami that had hit the east coast of Japan at Sendi. As of today, the estimated toll is about 12,000 confirmed dead and 17,000 missing.

I had been meaning to blog this issue since the tsunami hit on 11 March 2011, but it’s something that I approach with a great deal of fear and trembling. No matter what I think, or whatever “explanation” I might postulate, the fact remains that some 29,000 people have lost their lives. It’s a monumental tragedy, and I will not allow myself to treat it in any other way. Each one of those people who died was a valuable, meaningful person, not just some shock statistic on a banner headline. I imagine that in that population were men and women, young and old, saints and sinners.

This is a time for grieving, not explanation.

Yet, it is human nature to search for meaning in what goes on around us. To various degrees, everyone who is affected, or who can see this event will turn from grieving to explanation. That search for an explanation will include some impassioned questions; did they deserve to die?

I have to say that I been immensely impressed by the response of the Japanese people, as seen on the TV coverage. There are the images of the ordinary women, searching the wreckage of their homes for their lost families and neighbors with a public dignity that seems impossible to maintain. There’s the story of the chief fireman, who lost his entire crew as they battled, unsuccessfully, to close the flood gate. There’s the manager of the nuclear plant, who visited the refugees one by one to apologize to them personally for his plant’s contamination of their food and their homes.

The word that the press has used is “stoic”. It might be an appropriate word, but its possibly incongruous because its Greek and has more to do with the heritage of Europe than the Far East. It seems to have been exported from west to east. Is there a better Japanese word, that we can import into our language? I ask because I’m wary of imposing Western interpretations on how an Asian people are reacting to this.

Another imposition on the Japanese understanding of this event might also be the prevailing Western idea of God. I’m unsure if the Shinto and Buddhist people of Japan might frame the question in this way, but I know the small Christian community might; did God send the Tsunami?

If He did, what was His purpose in it?

If He didn’t, does He interact with our world at all?

There seems to be much less public interest in these questions than the debate that followed the Boxing Day Tsunami in December 2004. Maybe its because the casualty count is much lower. Maybe its because the predominantly Muslim people affected in 2004 would have been more inclined to process their reaction by questioning God.

I have not done any sustained research on the matter, but I only came across one article that attempted to answer these questions from a Theist perspective. It’s a podcast from the website PleaseConvinceMe.Com, run by Jim Wallis and his team of “one dollar apologists”. Even so, this was not an extended reflection on this one event, but rather Jim Wallis giving his initial reactions.

I listened to the podcast and, whereas I don’t disagree with anything Jim Wallis has to say on the specifics, one thing that struck me about his approach was that he seemed to be interpreting the tsunami, and all of life’s triumphs and tribulations, in terms of what benefits us. His conclusion seemed to be that God sent the tsunami because it would ultimately benefit us, including those who died.

If I were an atheist, I would easily dismiss this position as absurd. How can something possibly benefit you if you end up dead? Jim Wallis counters (and I paraphrase) by saying that our lives go beyond death, so even our journey through death has relevance to what happens to us thereafter.

I’m not entirely satisfied with Jim Wallis’ position here. Psalm 6:5 says, “Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?” The salvation that the Psalmist sings about is all about preserving this present life.

As for the atheist position, I would have to respond that the lives of those who died had no meaning at all because, to put it bluntly; who cares? I might care, and you might care, but when our days are over, and we have long since been forgotten, what possible meaning remains?

Maybe its because I have an austere soul that I tend to believe that I’m really insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I find it hard to believe that God would summon a tsunami for my sake.

However, Jim Wallis does make a point that I need to hear. The Christian Gospel states that, though it’s not about me, God is interested in my welfare. Romans 8:28 tells me that “…we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” By “all things”, I presume Paul includes tsunamis. God loves me, and He can order things for my benefit. Even so, I wonder what “benefit” God intended to those who died in the recent tsunami. I don’t have a satisfactory explanation.

Another part of my brain has been occupied with cosmology. In particular the Incarnation of the Word of God (as you might see in the song I wrote last week). The issue here is how God reveals Himself through his creation, of which I am but a miniscule part. I’ll conclude with a comment that I posted on FaceBook;
If we are looking for God in this tsunami, we should not look to the tsunami itself but to the lives of the people who were affected, and who are reacting to it. Why? Because God has chosen to create His image in people, not tsunamis.

Friday, March 18, 2011

We are the witness of the Word - Music score

Last week, I posted the lyrics to a song that I had been composing. After a week of tinkering, I've settled on a score. My first efforts had the same melody, but with quite exotic harmonies. This is more symmetric, and it plays better.

I've tried to be sparse in the arrangement. This is because its a song that should be carried by the voice, not the accompaniment. In fact, it's suited to a cappela, or even Barber Shop, which is probably beyond the capabilities of your average church-goer. So, the accompaniment is intended to give it the subtlest texture and sense of direction, as if were standing behind the singer saying, "go ahead, you can do this".

This work has been prepared and authored by Martin Jacobs in 2011. You are free to share this work (i.e. copy it and perform it) under the following conditions: 1) You must attribute the work to Martin Jacobs, 2) You may not use this work for commercial purposes, 3) You may not alter or transform this work.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

We are the witness of the Word

This weekend I have been preparing a paper for the Stormwater Industry Association, Queensland's conference. However, as often happens when you apply your mind to something, it finds something else to occupy it. I confess that I yielded to my wandering thoughts, and finished off a song that I had been writing.

It started out as a poem, then I found a tune for it, which required some modifications to get it to fit within the strict meter. It has quite a pretty tune that's easy to sing (it passes the "shower test" - if you can sing it in the shower, it's got a good tune).

The words, however, might require a brain-stretch. What I wanted to do was to capture some of my recent meditations on the Incarnation, following John 1:14 and Colossians 1:15. What intrigues me about the Biblical idea of "witness" is that it is not just a passive observation of something (as in "witness to a crime"), but it is something we "do". We are the witness of the Word because it (technically He - we're talking about the Second Person of the Trinity) becomes incarnate in us. We are also the creation of the Word, and it becomes expressed, or brought to tangible life through the Church.

It's not that we "generate" the Word, because He was there before all else (Genesis 1:1-3, John 1:1 etc). No, but he does take on recognizable and meaningful dimensions in what we are and what we do. He is "incarnate", made flesh, in us.

Any feedback will be welcomed;

We are the witness of the Word
The declaration of the Lord
So eye can see what ear has heard
That heaven speaks in love to earth

That same Word spoke creation’s name
Gave time and space both form and frame
Heard before ears had listening
Before all else, spoke life to being

But see, he takes on human flesh
He binds Himself within our mesh
Invites our senses on him wash
Baptized into our world afresh

See Him, the One who walks on sea
The unseen Word seen visibly
He calls our name in love that we
May rise to touch true Deity

They ate with Him, who rose again
Who cooked, and blessed after His pain
Submerged in death by sin’s foul stain
He now lifts high the highest name

They saw him rise beyond the cloud
Now ears can’t hear his voice out loud
He speaks on through their story told
No more by sight, but by faith beheld

And yet we hear the Word that lives
We see the life His living gives
Our dark tumult His voice now moves
To save us through the parted waves

We are the witness of the Word
He speaks to us, through us He’s heard
And having heard, we say the Lord
Shall now speak life and love to earth

Friday, March 4, 2011

Does the Bible teach that trees eat people?

…the forest swallowed up more men that day than the sword. 2 Samuel 18:8

When I read this recently, the first image that sprung to my mind was the scene from the movie “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”. In the movie, and in Tolkein’s book, the good guys have just defended the fortress of Helm’s Deep, the cavalry has literally charged over the hill, and the enemy army is sent fleeing into the forest where the trees take their revenge by devouring the survivors.

The Biblical account, which is, of course, 2,500 to 3,000 years older, follows a similar story line. King David has ascended the throne in Jerusalem, but is faced with a rebellion by his own son, Absalom. Through a sustained campaign of subversion, Absalom manages to mobilize a sizeable army of Israelites and David musters his forces to meet it. Here’s an excerpt from the Biblical narrative (2 Samuel 18:6-8, NIV):
David’s army marched out of the city to fight Israel, and the battle took place in the forest of Ephraim. There Israel’s troops were routed by David’s men, and the casualties that day were great—twenty thousand men. The battle spread out over the whole countryside, and the forest swallowed up more men that day than the sword.

So, does the Bible teach that trees eat people?

I don’t think so.

This, I believe, is a figure of speech. A quick survey of the surrounding text demonstrates that it is a detailed chronicle of this particular episode in David’s career. It is “naturalistic” in the sense that it does not overtly concern itself with the miraculous, or even the divine (in the text from 2 Samuel 17:24 to 18:18 God only gets a mention in the salutations of David's messengers).

The story is concerned with the relationship between David and Absalom, and projects a warning against disunity within the People of God. So, it would seem out of place to interpret the phrase literally, and a figure of speech appears to be a safe conclusion. Perhaps Absalom’s men took to the forest and simply deserted, or they got lost in the confusion, or they took to fighting among themselves, or they fell at the hands of bands loyal to David or even third party brigands or spies. Any, or all, of these possibilities can be adequately communicated with the convenient phrase “the forest swallowed up…men”.

So, if the Biblical texts use figures of speech, is all of it figurative?


But, how do we know when we’re reading a figure of speech and when we’re not?

There are many instances in the Bible where the conclusions appear clear-cut. Just as I consider the trees-eating-people thing to be a figure of speech, I also think that nobody who seriously engages the Biblical text would argue that it treats Jesus, John or Paul as figurative people. That’s not to say that it might not describe them in figurative terms, and this is where Christian theologians and apologists begin to argue.

One such hot topic (please forgive the pun) this week is Hell. Conservative Evangelicals have reacted strongly against suggestions by Rob Bell that the traditional understanding of Hell (eternal, conscious torment for non-Believers after death) is not satisfactorily supported by the Biblical texts.

I first read about it in a Christianity Today article, and then on a FaceBook link. I’m not going to rehash what has been written already, but suffice to say here, that Bell might understand references to “everlasting fire” (Luke 16:19-31, Revelation 20:10 etc) to be figurative, which the Calvinists don’t like. In my brief reading of the blogs and opinions, what I see here is not a dispute about the reality of Hell, but rather its shape, and how we might understand what the Biblical texts say about it. It’s not even a dispute about the authority of the Bible. At is heart is a dispute about how figurative the texts are.

Two thoughts;

Firstly, in deciding what is figurative and what is not, we tend to follow our own preconceptions. Personally, I find the idea of trees eating people to be absurd, which is why I readily categorize it under “figurative”. And I have good reason to do so, or so I believe. But, I also believe in a “real”, not “figurative” resurrection of Christ, which might sound absurd to others. OK, so the latter case gets much more exegesis in the New Testament than the former, but what if the forest actually did eat Absalom’s army? I guess we’ll never know for sure, but I think it’s worth reminding myself that I don’t domineer my preconceptions as much as I’d like to think.

Secondly, the evidence is not conclusive. If it were, the match between Bell and the Calvinists would be called off. That’s not to say that one side’s case is not weaker or stronger than the other, or that neither side can be right or wrong. Absalom started with a truth (2 Samuel 15:3). He used it to foment a full-scale rebellion against his own father, but it was a truth nonetheless.

Finally, there is the issue of what we do with the evidence. It demands a verdict, but what do we do when it’s not enough to bring us to the verdict? It occurs to me that we defer to the evidence, when God has mandated that we judge it.

Another FaceBook link (thank’s Aaron) introduced me to, which is a comprehensive on-line commentary and translation resource. Launching from Genesis 1:2, and surfing the articles on the Holy Spirit, I came across this wonderful quote from Daniel B Wallace about his personal struggles in life and how they interacted with his profession as a (conservative, reformed) theologian:
Evidence alone cannot bridge the gap between us and God. As much as I wanted the evidence to go all the way, I couldn’t make it do so. At one point there was real despair in my heart. I had gotten so sucked in to the cult of objectivism that I forgot who it was who brought me to faith in the first place. Only when I grudgingly accepted the fact that some faith had to be involved—and that through the Spirit’s agency—could I get past my despair. The non-verifiable elements of the faith had become an embarrassment to me, rather than an anchor.