Ceci n'est pas un blog
A bit of Monteverdi to brighten up your Monday.
One of my Christmas presents was the CD Monteverdi - Teatro D'Amore by L'Arpeggiata. Here's a video of one of the tracks, Si dolce è 'l tormento, with countertenor Philippe Jaroussky. Sublime!
The book of Genesis has ten major sections, each beginning with "These are the generations of ..." (toledoth in Hebrew). Before the first of these sections is the famous account of the creation in seven days (part of which featured in this morning's Bible readings).
But this seven-day creation account also features the number ten (and lots of other numbers); significantly, ten times we read, "And God said". (Ten words, perhaps.) And three of the ten major sections are actually no more than genealogies, acting as preludes to subsequent narrative sections. So the bulk of the book divides quite neatly into 10 - 3 = seven sections.
The seven days divide quite neatly into 3+3+1 days: three days of calling/separating, three days of blessing/filling, and one day of rest. And the seven sections in the bulk of the book divide quite neatly into 1+3+3 sections: one section in (and then out of) the garden, three sections of corruption, and three sections of calling/separating (of one person out of a larger family) and blessing/filling (of that one person and his descendants).
And the verse separating the seven days from the seven sections has a mirror (chiastic, [AB]CC[BA]) structure to it, as if the whole book is meant to hinge around this point (with the LORD God at the centre):
These are the generations
of the heavens and the earth when they were created,
in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens
(Genesis 2:4, ESV).
Putting that all together:
Prologue: Creation in 3+3+1 days (1:1-2:3)
1. "The generations of the heavens and the earth" (2:4-4:26)
2. "The generations of Adam": genealogy (5:1-32) + corruption (6:1-8)
3. "The generations of Noah": narrative (6:9-9:19) + corruption (9:20-29)
4. "The generations of the sons of Noah": genealogy (10:1-32) + corruption (11:1-9)
5. "The generations of Shem" (11:10-26): genealogy + 6. "The generations of Terah" (11:27-25:11): narrative
7. "The generations of Ishmael" (25:12-18): genealogy + 8. "The generations of Isaac" (25:19-35:29): narrative
9. "The generations of Esau" (36:1-37:1): genealogy + 10. "The generations of Jacob" (37:2-50:26): narrative
All of this suggests that we should try to understand Genesis 1, primarily, as the first chapter of the book of Genesis. The book of Genesis has one message, and Genesis 1 is part of that. I've tried to summarise the message of Genesis 1 in this way: Our God created and rules all things by his powerful word and according to his wise plan, which hopefully emphasises some of the big themes running through the whole book.
I (think) I used to hold to a view of the church which goes something like this: if you put your trust in Jesus, you become part of the invisible-universal-church. A local "church" (or "the local church", for some reason) reflects and points towards this invisible-universal-church. But local churches are nothing in themselves; the real deal is the true church, which is invisible and universal.
I (think) I now hold to a view of the church which goes something like this: Christ's ultimate purpose is to have this world populated eternally by his renewed, Spirit-filled people. But this isn't something entirely for the future: Christ has inaugurated this new humanity by creating a visible, identifiable, Spirit-indwelled, global community: the church. You enter that visible, global community through baptism, and you make it obvious that you belong in that visible, global community through continuing to trust Christ and to walk in his ways, and through sharing in the corporate life of the church, particularly through participating in the church's communal, family, covenant meal: the Lord's Supper.
I'm finding this new view wonderfully exciting, refreshing and biblical. It's been a gradual transition, largely driven by a growing awareness (with no little thanks to the likes of L'Abri, NT Wright and Al Wolters) that this world really matters to God. And, as such, the church's visible presence on the earth really matters too.
But this new view raises lots of challenges. On the first view, it's easy enough to identify "the local church" (even if it's not easy to find the right "the local church" initially!). And there's no need to think much more widely than that: you draw on the support of like-minded local churches elsewhere, when that is clearly helpful to the mission of your local church, but you can basically ignore everyone else. But if you want to think of yourself as belonging to a visible, global community (and not simply to a visible, local, self-sufficient manifestation of the invisible church), then it's no longer possible to be so selective. You need to (1) recognise the church, (2) identify with the church, and (3) relate to the church.
Briefly, here's where I am up to on those points.
(1) Recognise the church. Having come to a view of baptism as an outward, objective, visible sign, which is "the water rite of entry into the church" (Peter Leithart), it's pretty easy to recognise the church. In some sense at least (see below), it consists of all those people who have been baptised.
(2) Identify with the church. I really don't like leaving a church. Even though I've belonged to lots of churches, I don't think I've ever left a church, except through moving from one part of the country to another. But such a move has recently taken place, and I made a very deliberate move (back) to the Church of England. If you ask, "How can I best identify with the whole global church, while living in England?", it seems that the obvious answer is, "By joining the Church of England". It's the biggest and broadest church (or group of churches, or ecclesial body, or whatever) in the country, it has a pretty good claim to be the historic expression of the universal church in England, it takes history, tradition, "churchiness" and connectedness very seriously, and it has a fantastic pedigree in terms of relating to the wider, global body of Christ. And, reassuringly for me, it also has a great deal of life within it, and a strong, biblical, Reformed theological heritage. (See my post from last year about Stephen Neill's book, Anglicanism.)
(3) Relate to the church. Having said, in some sense, that all baptised people are part of the church, it then gets complicated. First, there are people who clearly love Jesus but haven't been baptised. That's simple enough: they ought to become members of the church by being baptised! But then there are baptised people who have drifted away from the church (not least the huge number of people who were baptised as infants, despite their parents having no connection at all with the church—people who have been baptised, but shouldn't have been baptised, in my view). And there are people who have been baptised, who remain active within the church, but who by their lives and teaching demonstrate that they actually hate Jesus. And there are people who belong to the church, but are not prepared to recognise large portions of the church. How do we relate to those people? I sense that it might be helpful here to look to Richard Hooker, the 16th-Century giant of Anglican theology and ecclesiology. He wrote about three kinds of separation: through heresy, schism or apostasy. These need to be distinguished, and handled appropriately. But I probably need to actually read some of what he wrote before saying more...
Hugh Ross is an astrophysicist who is the president and founder of the science-faith think tank Reasons to Believe. He has some helpful short videos (amongst other resources) on the Christmas star: the star of Bethlehem. In summary...
Who were the wise men? They were the successors of the likes of Daniel, a Jewish exile, prophet and wise man who spent most of his life in Babylon. As such, they quite possibly had access to—and greatly valued—the writings of Daniel. Following Daniel's prophecy (9:25), they may have been looking for a sign of the birth of the Messiah from around the year 5 BC. If that is so, then it was primarily the Scriptures that directed them to Jesus.
What was the Christmas star? It was a "star", i.e., a single object in the night sky. As such, it wasn't a conjunction of more than one object (contra Rick Larson and The Star of Bethlehem). It was something that wasn't obvious, because people watched the sky carefully in those days, and because the shepherds and Herod and his buddies had no idea that something significant had happened until they were told either by the angel or by the wise men. As such, it wasn't a comet, or a really bright object, or a significant conjunction involving the planets. And it was something that appeared, then disappeared, then appeared again. As such, it wasn't a supernova. Ross's preferred explanation is that it was a recurrent nova.
How did the star guide the wise men to Jesus? It didn't. They went first to Jerusalem, not to Bethlehem, because they were looking for the king of the Jews. There they had to consult the Scriptures to find out that they needed to go to Bethlehem. As they were heading to Bethlehem (following the Scriptures!), they saw the star again. The Greek word for "stood over" is very broad in its meaning, and doesn't imply that the star directed them to the specific house. After all, Bethlehem was a small village, so it wouldn't have taken long to find a family with a firstborn child who was a boy of toddler age. Elsewhere, Ross wrote:
The New International translation says the star “went ahead of them [the magi] until it stopped over the place where the child was.” This wording suggests that the star may have become clearly visible as the wise men approached Bethlehem and then dimmed when they neared the house where the Joseph, Mary, and Jesus lived. Other interpretations also seem possible.
In terms of explanations of the Christmas star in terms of natural phenomena, I think this is pretty good. But if this explanation doesn't work, I don't think we need to worry: the "star" may have been a supernatural light, which, naturally (so to speak), could have directed them to a specific house.
It's not easy to party for twelve days.
Our celebrations typically last for no more than a day. We have a great time, eating, drinking and dancing, and then collapse, exhausted, until the reality of life catches up with us again the following morning.
But to celebrate for twelve days? That's only possible with some extremely powerful substances! Or, perhaps, by going somewhere so remote that you're able to forget about everything—not easy these days! We're simply not able to forget about how life really is for that long. We soon hear the news about another disaster. Or our fears for the future haunt us again. Or the drudgery of day-to-day life becomes impossible to ignore any longer.
And yet a twelve-day celebration is precisely what Christmas is, traditionally.
How can Christians celebrate for twelve days? Are we really supposed to be so other-worldly that we are able to shut our eyes completely to the ugliness of the world around us?
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).
The darkness is still there, but we no longer need to hide from the darkness. We can rejoice and celebrate, even while the darkness is staring us in the face, because Jesus, the true light, has come into the world, and he has defeated the darkness.
As Keith Sinclair, my local bishop (of Birkenhead), put it in his Christmas message in the Wirral Globe,
Jesus is the light that has come into the world, and the darkness will never overcome the light because he went to the darkest place for the darkest of reasons and that darkness, though he died because of it, didn’t defeat him because he rose again, and will raise us up as we put our trust in him.
So let the party continue—at least for another day. And once you've got the hang of celebrating for twelve days, why not make a habit of it, and carry that joy with you into the rest of 2014?
Over the past year-and-a-half, I've been thinking a lot about baptism. Prior to that, I was a fairly ordinary credo-baptist. You can follow my progress from one state of confusion to another through my posts on the topic (Should infants be baptised?, Can infants be baptised?, John Stevens on baptism, Rethinking the local church: ecclesiology for spiritual reductionists, Anglican infant baptism: credo-paedo-baptism?, Paul Avis on the visibility of the Church, Peter Leithart on baptism). But I think I've thought enough now (I'm completely thunk as a consequence), and I'm fairly comfortable with my current position on the subject. At least provisionally. So, for now, I consider myself to be an ecclesiocredopaedobaptist.
Let's break that up.
Baptism is an outward, visible, objective sign. As such, it is just as much for the benefit of everyone else as it is for the person being baptised. Baptism is, therefore, fundamentally about the church. Baptism is "the water rite of entry into the church", as Peter Leithart puts it.
(This makes me somewhat uncomfortable with the position of many credo-baptist churches, in which whether or not someone is considered to have actually been baptised makes no practical difference to that person's involvement in that church.)
The church, as a visible community, ought to consist of believers. All believers ought to be in the church, and all unbelievers ought not to be in the church. Thus, if someone wants to enter the church, through baptism, they ought to be a believer, and it is appropriate, prior to baptising them, to ask them to profess their faith.
(As such, I have a lot of sympathy with John Stevens, in his critique of infant baptism, and agree that baptism is a sign of fulfilment, not of promise, so it is not a simple equivalent to circumcision. This makes me uncomfortable with the approach of many paedo-baptist churches, in which baptism is offered to "believers and their children", as though being an unbeliever is fine, so long as your parents are believers.)
But what if there is room for doubt about whether someone is a believer? Well, precisely because baptism is an outward, visible, objective sign, and precisely because baptism is something that is done to a person, not in any way something a person does (no one baptises themself), it is not strictly necessary for someone to be a believer in order to baptise them. In some cases it may be desirable to welcome someone into the church through baptism, even though there is some room for doubt about that person's faith. So, for example, it is not always inappropriate to baptise someone who has a severe mental disability, or who is unable to speak or articulate themself clearly—someone who can't give clear evidence of faith. If necessary, such a person can be brought for baptism by a sponsor, who will speak on their behalf.
This third point is the least fundamental, and follows from what I have already said. It is perfectly possible to baptise an infant (and hence I no longer think it is appropriate to [re-]baptise someone who underwent the rite of baptism as an infant—even though that is precisely what I went through in 2002!). And if a child is to be brought up and nurtured within the family of believers, it makes sense for that child to be welcomed into the family of believers through baptism. If the child is too young to profess their own faith, their parents (usually) would bring them for baptism, and speak on their behalf. (This seems to be what happens in Anglican infant baptism, which I've characterised as "credo-paedo-baptism".)
(Note that I'm not justifying the baptism of infants by appealing to God's promise to include children of believers within the covenant. I am not convinced by such claims—at least, not yet. But, having said that, it is worth noting that God often deals with families, communities and nations, not simply with isolated individuals.)
Phew! I think that's about it for baptism. But my thinking in this area has led me to think more seriously about ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church, and I suspect that will continue into 2014 and beyond...
Since 17 March 2009, I've had a poll on this site about the universe. The poll is now closed! Here is how it looked:
Before I give you the results, I wonder how you would respond to this? How does the universe make you feel?
I make no claim to scientific accuracy in the results that follow. It is obviously skewed by the kind of people who visit my site (not that there is anything atypical about my site, of course). And it is also skewed by a certain friend who was so awestruck and excited by the universe that he voted in the poll every time he visited my site...! (The WP-Polls plugin logs your IP address when you vote, so this kind of thing shouldn't happen too often!) But anyway (drumroll please), here are the results...
You will glean from this, first, that my site is extraordinarily popular. It has been visited by 504 different people (or different IP addresses at least) in a mere 4 years and 9 months.
But, second, you will glean that there is a clear winner, a clear loser, and a clear second-placer. Let's deal with them in reverse order.
What's on the telly? (12%, 58 votes)
Let's face it: this is a very reasonable response. Not one of these billions of stars and galaxies is going to make the slightest difference to your life. For the vast majority, you need a telescope even to see them. Astronomy is of no practical use, and if you want trivia or entertainment, just switch the TV on.
Tiny and insignificant (19%, 97 votes)
Slightly more popular is another very reasonable response. Those billions of stars were burning away long before you were born, and will still be burning long after you have been forgotten. The universe is big. Really big. You are not. It is perfectly reasonable to feel insignificant compared with the vastness of the cosmos.
Awestruck and excited (69%, 349 votes)
But this was clearly the most popular result. Why? Indifference is understandable. Existential angst is understandable. But why be awestruck and excited? Will such a reaction help you to survive? Are you more likely to get another meal, or pass on your genes, if you are endlessly gazing at the stars? Unlikely.
But few of us can fail to respond in this way. I sometimes say it's really easy to give an inspiring talk about astronomy. Just go to HubbleSite, download a few pictures, show them to people and say, "Look! It's really big!" The audience will say, "Ooh, wow!" and tell you how wonderful your talk was! Why do we have this reaction?
Such a reaction makes perfect sense if the Christian account of our existence is correct. If we have been made in order to know God our creator, and in order to be awestruck and excited by his greatness and his goodness, then it is no surprise that we are awestruck and excited by the wonderful things he has made.
Perhaps this instinctive reaction to the vastness of the universe is a small pointer towards the reason for our existence?
Something to think about next time you are out on a starry night.
The Church of England has been thinking seriously about same-sex relationships. Very seriously, in fact, as is clear from the recently published Pilling Report, a report to the House of Bishops by a working group chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling. (Hence the name.)
It's a long report, but it's definitely worth reading. However, if that's not your cup of tea, I'm going to try to offer a very brief summary of the report here, without much comment of my own.
The group consisted of four bishops and four other people. I have to say I was very impressed with the quality of the discussions the group has had. The members of the group were chosen to represent very different positions within the Church, and they have clearly listened carefully to each other and tried, very successfully, to understand each other. They have had conversations with innumerable people, seeking to learn about their experiences and convictions. At its best, the Church of England seems to be remarkably (perhaps incomparably) good at this kind of listening process. And for that I'm truly thankful.
But listening cannot continue indefinitely without action. What does the report recommend?
They couldn't agree.
The report itself was signed by seven of the eight members of the working group. In summary, as I understand it:
The dissenting member was my local bishop, Keith Sinclair, the Bishop of Birkenhead (in the Diocese of Chester). To summarise his position, as I understand it, based on his dissenting statement:
I think that's where the nub of the disagreement lies. (Mike Ovey has written an incisive blog post on the topic.)
So what next? Ian Paul is very concerned about the consequences of accepting the recommendations of the report. But he thinks that "the House of Bishops [HoB] can rescue this situation relatively easily" (emphasis in original):
Pilling is not proposing a change in Church policy or doctrine. They should accept this. Pilling is proposing 'facilitated discussions' to deeper our understanding of the issue. Personally, I doubt that these will make any progress at all—but I'm all for increased mutual understanding, even if it is understanding of how much we disagree, so I don't think the HoB could reject this. But in order to create any credibility at all for these discussions, the bishops need to agree to and implement an absolute moratorium on any liturgical change, however local and however 'pastorally accommodating.' The only alternative, as others have pointed out, would be a slow and painful death by a thousand (pastoral, local, liturgical) cuts.