Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Euthanasia: The Patient and the right of 'Advance Directives'

Dr Megan Best suggests that while Christians believe that we are not free to take the life of another person, this does not mean that we must prolong life at all costs. Nor does it mean that the patient has no rights to cease treatment or give directions about their last days of life. Dr Best presented her ideas at the CASE Medical Ethics Conference held at New College on the 27 March 2010. She presented two stimulating papers on the subject of Euthanasia. One of these papers "The Ethical Dilemmas of Euthanasia" has been published in Case Magazine #25 and was recently released. A second talk on 'Advance Directives' is available on the CASE website as a free download. In it she states:
"For Christians, these are questions that do not have straightforward answers. This is because at the end of life there is a balance to be struck. On the one hand, we are not free to hasten death - it is God's to give and take away. Yet on the other hand, there is no imperative in the Bible that says we need (or even should) hold on to life at any expense - treatment should be proportional to the patient's situation. And it's okay to say it's time to go. Inside the poles of euthanasia on the one hand, and doing 'everything possible' on the other, I believe God has generously given choices regarding what treatment we want to receive as our life comes to its end."
Best points out that many decisions are made by medical practitioners, the patient and families as the life of a patient nears its end. There are matters of life and death to be considered and they involve moral choices about prolonging or allowing death to occur faster. These decisions must be made well. When the patient is of sound mind they are free to give directions to medical staff, there must be no coercion in this from family, friends or staff. But what happens when the patient is no longer mentally competent?

Dr Best suggests that 'Advance Directives' can be helpful in determining what a patient would want when it is difficult for them to make decisions when no longer mentally able. An 'Advance Directive' is an explanation of a patient's preferences for treatment should they become unable to communicate their views as death approaches.

In her paper Dr Best outlines the history of how advance directives developed, as well as important features of advance directives and potential problems to be avoided.

If you'd like to know more about this topic you can read her complete paper HERE.

You can also download a longer version of her paper 'The Ethical Dilemmas of Euthanasia' that was published in Case #25 from the CASE website HERE.

Both papers are also available as MP3 files from the CASE website HERE.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Truth in the Midst of People's Confusions about Christmas


I was amused by the above nativity scene that I photographed on Saturday in someone's front yard. The message of Christmas is actually quite simple, but it's amazing how people manage to distort the central meaning with a vast array of misused symbolism. Some of it is very funny, some unhelpful, some offensive, and other attempts are simply confused. The family that created the above scene was no doubt having some fun with Santa and the garden mulch, as well as representing the birth of Christ in their own way. In the process they had inadvertently (I assume) communicated one of the key truths of Christmas. While Santa Claus is irrelevant to the biblical meaning of Christmas, the nativity scene uses remarkably appropriate symbolism; for John's Gospel tells us that in the coming of Jesus, it was if God came down to earth and pitched a tent in all of our front yards. John 1:10-18 describes what happened on that first Christmas.

10He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

14And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15(John bore witness about him, and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.'") 16And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

When John wrote that Jesus ('The Word') came and 'dwelt among us' in verse 14, the Greek from which this was translated, literally God “pitched his tent”. This was an allusion to how God dwelt among the Israelites in the tabernacle (see Exodus 25:8-9; 33:7). God's rescue plan for his rebellious people was to send his own Son into the world. The eternal and holy Son of God took on human nature and came to live amongst humanity. He came both as God and man at the same time, and in one person. While the tent in the front yard and the 'humble' representation might not match our sense of the wonder of God, in a strange way its simplicity speaks powerfully of what God did for us.

The Bible teaches that our response to God's amazing act in sending his Son into the world, is that we should acknowledge it, repent, and believe that Jesus was and is the saviour of the world.And that his death and resurrection (which we remember at Easter) is sufficient to remove the debt we owe God due to our sin and rebellion. If we do this, then we need not fear death, for God promises us eternal life as his adopted children.  As John's gospel reminds us:
12But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)
My prayer is that readers of this blog might grasp something new this Christmas about the story of Christ. Whether you see yourself as a Christian or are simply curious about him, I pray that you might look afresh at the teachings of the Bible and see new truth in the simplicity of the message.


Resources

Rev John Smuts gave a great sermon titled 'The Wonder I Never Saw' on this passage at Petersham Baptist Church last Sunday.  You can listen to it HERE.

A simple explanation of the Christian faith 'Two Ways Lived' HERE

Monday, 13 December 2010

Is Teacher 'Belief' Important for Educational Transformation?

I’ve been working on a book over the past year with a group of theologians and educators that is exploring what is distinctive about Christian education. We see a strong connection between faith and educational priorities and decision-making. But we live in an age where teaching is seen as a secular activity and where the teacher is meant to dispassionately separate or even suppress their personal beliefs as they teach the children of other parents. This of course wasn’t how teaching was always seen. In fact, for much of human history, teaching was seen as a deeply religious activity, that is, something guided by beliefs shaped by an understanding of an ‘Ultimate Reality’ concerning the cause, purpose and nature of life and the universe. I am of the view that it is virtually impossible for the act of teaching to be free of religious belief.


Peter Hodgson in his helpful book ‘God’s Wisdom’ reminds us that people of ancient, medieval and early modern times saw teaching as shaped by religious objects like truth, goodness, beauty and holiness, and a religious power (e.g. God) or agents (e.g. the Torah) as the ultimate teacher. While in a secular society like Australia this is seen as inappropriate by many, one might question what we end up with in the absence of foundational beliefs shaped by an understanding of God. Indeed, there is some evidence that modern theorists who see no place for God struggle to find a focus for education and tend to reach out for some religious or moral significance on which to peg or anchor the theories.

In the absence of foundational religious belief, educators at times present foundational principles, ‘conditions’ and values, which are religious in nature and while at times they are presented as based on evidence, they are just as often reflective of specific beliefs.

Martin Buber
Almost 90 years ago Martin Buber suggested that it should not surprise us that educators grapple for an inner religious impulse to be in the service of ‘One’ who can do things that they cannot. The hidden God he suggested is known in the “in between” of dialogical relationships that are at the heart of education.

We can see this tendency in the most surprising places. For example, the work of Gloria Watkins, an African American Professor of English and feminist scholar (who used the pen name ‘bell hooks’) illustrates this tendency. In her book ‘Teaching to Transgress’ (1994) she draws on Paulo Freire’s work to argue that true freedom is to “Teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students…if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.

John Dewey
In sharing Paulo Freire’s passion for the liberating power of education to offer freedom from oppression, Watkins argues that we must demonstrate that anyone can learn. Teaching she suggests “…is a performative act... that offers the space for change, invention, spontaneous shifts, that can serve as a catalyst drawing out the unique elements in each classroom.” Teaching can change people and liberate them to realise their potential and change the world. Peter Hodgson argues that this power of transformation that writers like Watkins speaks of is “a sacred power”.

While not suggesting that education is a religious activity, American philosopher, psychologist and educator John Dewey also offered echoes of the sacred as he argued for the role of education as a key to renewal and human transformation. And yet, Dewey was one of the founders of pragmatism and his work was a catalyst for varied progressive approaches to education and the championing of education’s role in ensuring democracy. He wrote the following words in his well-known work ‘Democracy and Education’ (1916):
By various agencies, unintentional and designed, a society transforms uninitiated and seemingly alien beings into robust trustees of its own resources and ideals. Education is thus a fostering, a nurturing, a cultivating, process. All of these words mean that it implies attention to the conditions of growth. We also speak of rearing, raising, bringing up - words which express the difference of level which education aims to cover. Etymologically, the word education means just a process of leading or bringing up. When we have the outcome of the process in mind, we speak of education as shaping, forming, molding activity -- that is, a shaping into the standard form of social activity.
While Dewey and others grasp for words to explain the essence of what they believe, words like “ideals” lead us to ask, on what foundations are these based? But for Freire and Dewey, it is education that liberates and sets people free, whereas the Bible teaches that only Christ can offer true emancipation and freedom (Gal 5:3). The transformation that Freire’s education or that of Dewey offers is a pale shadow of the transformation that is possible in Christ (Rom 12:1-2).
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Education is indeed about transformation, but I believe that it is much more than just the transformation of knowledge and behaviour. The Bible doesn't say a lot directly about education, but the picture that it presents of the transformed life in Christ is relevant to our thinking. The Christ-centred life is one under the direction and authority of God; and is made possible by God's grace in sending his son to take the punishment for our sins and to restore our relationship with him. The life God demands of us is one that leads to a renewing of our minds and the transforming of our life priorities. The biblical message of transformation in Romans 12:9-21 is a life of very high expectations made possible by Christ.
"9Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." 20To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head." 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."


While not all readers of this blog will accept the message of the Bible, my challenge to all would be to consider the ultimate goals of an education system that seeks to strip away any basis of belief or faith. From what will it draw its priorities and what will be the marks of the graduate of the system of education that is created? My comments above will raise many questions. Am I saying that you have to be a Christian to be a good teacher, or is the only good school a Christian school? The short answer to both is no. But what I am saying is that what teachers believe matters, and that their beliefs have an impact on the type of education that is offered. I will return to this topic again in 2011.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Seeing is Not Believing

Second Lecture to be Broadcast!

As many of the readers of this blog know Professor Jeremy Begbie presented a series of talks and performances in September for the 2010 New College Lectures at the University of New South Wales (Sydney). The series had the theme ‘Music, Modernity and God’ and addressed three sub themes – ‘Creativity’, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Language’. Below you will find references and links to a variety of resources on his work.

His second lecture in the series will be broadcast this Sunday evening (5th December) at 6.00pm Sydney AEST time and again at 1.00pm Tuesday. The lecture will be broadcast on Rachael Kohn's program 'The Spirit of Things' on ABC Radio National.   International readers should be able to listen to the broadcast HERE. Please note that this second lecture will be posted on the New College website as a podcast once the program has aired.

On night two of the Lectures Prof Begbie began by posing the proposition ‘Can we be free with God in our space?’ He challenged the notion that having a creator God in our space can only lead inevitably to a battle between the two. He also suggested that music can help us to understand deep biblical concepts such as the Trinity and the concept of freedom as spoken of in John 8:36 “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

With wonderful clarity he suggested that at times our use of words and even images has offered almost sub-Christian explanations of deep truths like the Trinity. Music he suggested can help us to understand biblical metaphor and biblical truth in new ways. Not as a replacement for word and image but in addition to it.

I will never forget how he demonstrated ‘sympathetic resonance’ to show how two sounds do not need to be in opposition, and can indeed work together - the upper note helping the lower note to resonate – one enhancing the other, not constraining it but helping to make it the unique sound the composer meant it to be.

So too, the biblical explanation of freedom in Christ suggests that rather than taking away our freedom, God frees us from enslavement to sin and rebellion and enables us to be free to become the people he meant us to be (John 8:36). A profound truth demonstrated in the simplest of ways.

Other resources

1. Two great interviews

a) Jeremy Begbie was interviewed (at the keyboard) on Hope 103.2 radio station during the lectures and this was broadcast on the 19th September on the 'Open House' program.  You can listen to the program by downloading an MP3 file or listening online HERE.

b) ABC Radio National's Rachael Kohn interviewed Jeremy on 'The Spirit of Things' during the Lectures. This program was aired on the 26th September and can be downloaded or listened to HERE.

2. Jeremy's Case article

If you would like to read some of Jeremy Begbie’s work, the recent article he wrote for CASE is a great place to start – ‘Polyphony of life: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’. The whole issue of Case #23 in which it appears is devoted to the theme ‘Music and Theology’ and I have reviewed it HERE. The magazine can be purchased HERE.

3. My summary of the Lectures

You can read the post in which I summarised the Lectures HERE.

4. Jeremy's latest book

Jeremy Begbie’s most recent book ‘Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music’ (2007) also covers some of the content of the lectures. He also has a new book in preparation but this won’t be available for 18-24 months.

5. Other related posts

'Music, Life & Worship' (here)

Friday, 26 November 2010

Life's End

Issue #25 of Case Magazine has the theme 'Life's End' and had its genesis in the 2010 CASE conference, 'Christian perspectives on the end of life'. In this issue you can read the papers of all speakers from the conference. The contributions include papers by Dr Megan Best, Dr Russell Clarke, Rev Rod Benson, Kate Bradford and Dr Frank Brennan.

There are many common threads running throughout the articles, but for me, three stand out:

  • Society does not value all human lives equally
  • The Bible teaches that death is not simply the end
  • Death is both a curse and an opportunity for blessing

Each of the above themes has a relationship to one over-arching theme, they intersect in the idea and hope that it is possible to end life well. It is possible, even in one's death, to have an influence on others for good.

Dr Best reminds us that the word ‘euthanasia’ comes from two Greek words: 'eu' meaning ‘good’, and ‘thanos’ meaning ‘death’. Most people today link the word with the idea of taking someone's life in order to end their suffering. Ending the life of someone who is suffering is seen by some as the only logical or humane path. But all our writers stress that while death is a curse, it is also an opportunity for ultimate blessing for those who trust in Christ.

A number of the articles also speak about the way in which we too quickly make judgements about the relative value of life, and the dangers of thinking this way. The unborn of course have very few rights and seemingly, for many, no value. A life that cannot be lived exactly the way one wishes can also be seen as not worth living. This point was highlighted by Professor John Wyatt when he presented the 2009 New College Lectures.

Prof John Wyatt told the story of a couple at his church who, after a routine ultrasound, discovered that their unborn child had a tragic and rare chromosomal disorder which causes multiple malformations, severe mental impairment and a uniformly fatal outcome. In this condition nearly all obstetricians will recommend abortion. But the parents decided to continue the pregnancy and little Christopher was born.

Christopher lived for almost 7 months and in Wyatt’s words exercised ‘an extraordinary ministry’. The weakest member of the church exercised a strong, strange influence. ‘He became, in the end, almost public property.’ Wyatt concluded:
Christopher in his way was a God-like being, a flawed masterpiece. His life was an example of Christian theology in practice, and it was a privilege for me to know him. Here is a strange paradox. Sometimes we see the image of God most clearly, not in the perfect specimens of humanity, not in the Olympic athlete or the Nobel prize winner. We see Christ in the broken, the malformed, the imperfect. It is an example of the Easter mystery. God is revealed, not in glorious majesty but in a broken body on a cross.
Dr Megan Best, a bioethicist and palliative care doctor, considers the arguments for and against euthanasia, and presents a Christian ethical response to these arguments. Dr Best also presented a second conference paper evaluating the use of Advanced Directives – documents that state a patient’s preferences regarding medical care in the event they can no longer speak for themselves. This article is available on the CASE website together with an extended version of the euthanasia article published HERE.

Geriatrician Dr Russell Clarke provides biological and biblical perspectives on what it means to age. He explains why ageing and death are biologically inevitable, then considers how this sits with a biblical understanding of the topic, and the hope of renewal it offers (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)?

Rev Rod Benson reflects on how death is portrayed in Scripture. He begins by quoting Arwen’s words from Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' as Aragorn dies. For Arwen, the loss of Aragorn seems to leave her with little but memories, pain and loss, but in the Bible he explains, death is both a curse and a blessing (1 Corinthians 15).

Kate Bradford, Anglican Chaplain at the Westmead Children's Hospital presents a practitioner's perspective on the privilege of visiting and caring for seriously ill people. With compassion she gives practical advice on how to conduct such visits, taking into account the awkwardness we can feel as visitors, and providing insight into the fears and needs of patients.

Finally, Dr Frank Brennan discusses a number of ethical challenges arising within the area of palliative care, including transparency and withholding treatment. Drawing on his many years of personal experience, he uses case studies to show how ethical considerations can influence decision making in this difficult area.

The issue ends with two reviews. John Diacos looks at 'This Mortal Flesh' by Brent Waters, who assesses the potential impact of life-extending technologies, envisions what a society made up of long-lived people would look like, and asks how Christians should respond to these technologies. Rosemary Albert’s reviews a very different book, 'The Art of Dying'. In it, Rob Moll combines pastoral, theological and cultural considerations as he seeks to revive the Christian art of dying well. Christ should make a difference not only to how we live, but how we die.

For more information on how to obtain single issues of Case Magazine or to subscribe to receive the magazine quarterly, simply visit the CASE website.

Other resources and posts

Audio downloads of all lectures at the 2010 Medical Ethics Conference are available HERE.

Previous blog posts on Prof John Wyatt's 2009 New College Lectures HERE.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

'Real' Community

As I contemplate an overseas conference in a beautiful European country, the words of G.K. Chesterton* on 'real' community life, are an important reminder. Living in one's own community is where we need to concentrate most of our energy and prayer. We need to guard against the tendency to want to escape everyday life in favour of more exciting adventures.

In this quote Chesterton argues that families and communities are good, not because they are "peaceful, pleasant and at one" but because, often they are not, and that we need to learn to stick it out, not simply run away to exotic locations as an 'escape'.  How desperately do we at times seek to escape the mundane grind of daily life?

If we were to-morrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known. And it is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives. First he invents modern hygiene and goes to Margate. Then he invents modern culture and goes to Florence. Then he invents modern imperialism and goes to Timbuctoo. He goes to the fantastic borders of the earth. He pretends to shoot tigers. He almost rides on a camel. And in all this he is still essentially fleeing from the street in which he was born; and of this flight he is always ready with his own explanation. He says he is fleeing from his street because it is dull; he is lying. He is really fleeing from his street because it is a great deal too exciting. It is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive. He can visit Venice because to him the Venetians are only Venetians; the people in his own street are men. He can stare at the Chinese because for him the Chinese are a passive thing to be stared at; if he stares at the old lady in the next garden, she becomes active. He is forced to flee, in short, from the too stimulating society of his equals--of free men, perverse, personal, deliberately different from himself. The street in Brixton is too glowing and overpowering. He has to soothe and quiet himself among tigers and vultures, camels and crocodiles. These creatures are indeed very different from himself. But they do not put their shape or colour or custom into a decisive intellectual competition with his own. They do not seek to destroy his principles and assert their own; the stranger monsters of the suburban street do seek to do this.
Living in community day after day where we rub against those who are different in appearance, values, priorities, interests, habits and beliefs is ultimately the default position that God calls us to. Yes, he calls us to the ends of the earth too, but most of us live ordinary people in ordinary places, amongst other ordinary people to whom we are to witness of Christ.  This of course will be played out with other believers through our local church, it will be evident as we live the life of a neighbour in our street and it will be seen as we live together as families. We are to imitate Christ's humility as we live out our lives (Philippians 2:1-18)

This is challenging stuff!
1So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others (Phil 2:1-4).  
Other posts


'God, the City and Us' HERE

'The Tyranny and Challenge of Time' HERE

* HT: Thanks to John Smuts for pointing me to this quote

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

God's Story Reflected in Children's Literature

I have been an academic for 30 years and a Christian for 26 years.  At first when I became a Christian I struggled to see connections between the life I was living day by day, and my new life of faith as a believer in Christ. But as I grew in my understanding of the Bible I began to see the presence of God in my work and my study.  As an academic interested in how children learn I have maintained a long-term interest in literature and its power not just to teach about language and life, but also to enrich our lives and even transform the way we think about our world. Over time, I have come to realise that stories, even when created by non-believers in Christ, contain echoes of the central meta-narrative of the Bible.

The focus of the Bible is Salvation History, with its central narrative tracing both the history of Judaism and Christianity and God’s redemptive plan for his people. In the beginning God created…and it was good. But sin entered the world, man rebelled against him and so God placed a curse upon his creation that one day would end in judgement. But God always had a plan for such rebellion; a plan of redemption motivated by love. An amazing gift of grace; his own son sent to die and three days later to be raised from the dead to defeat sin and death. A plan that provided a way for his creation to be restored to a relationship with him. Salvation for those who repent of their sin, seek the mercy of God and in faith commit their lives to following Jesus. This is the meta-narrative of the Bible.

You don't have to go far to begin to see how literature often echoes (even if imperfectly) God's foundational story of salvation told in and through the life of Christ. J.R.R. Tolkien once said (to C.S. Lewis) that “The Christian story is the greatest story of them all. Because it’s the real story. The historical event that fulfils the tales and shows us what they mean.”

Lewis and Tolkien both saw the gospel narrative as the central or foundational human narrative. The rescue of a pig by a spider in a children's story, which at one level might seem trivial, is a faint echo of the ultimate act of sacrifice of God in redeeming his children through the sacrifice of his Son. The real event ultimately fulfils the literary narratives and makes sense of them. After studying children's literature for over 30 years I have come to see the wisdom of Tolkien's comment. There appear at least 5 main ways that Christian writers of children's books can point their readers towards God's divine narrative of redemption:

Type 1 – Stories that directly present the Christian gospel explicitly, often in the form of the retelling of Bible stories suitable for children. Children’s Bibles and collections of Bible stories fall into this category.
Type 2 – Stories that allegorically present the gospel (e.g. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress).
Type 3 – Stories that present or address essential biblical understandings and teaching; where the key elements of the Biblical plan of salvation are woven within the story, or can be seen as explicitly reflecting the key elements of the divine narrative (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S.Lewis). While some would see the latter as allegory, Lewis denied this and instead claimed that the narrative came first and the biblical parallels followed.
Type 4 – Moral tales that have direct biblical parallels or that reflect moral principles consistent with the Bible’s teaching (e.g. evil will be punished; sin has consequences; honesty is better than falsehood). Nursery rhymes and many fairy tales fall into this category, as do many cautionary tales (of course not all such tales reflect biblical moral insights, but many do).
Type 5 – This is really a variation or extension of the above. Here the links or parallels are at the thematic level rather than in the form of moral teaching. Stories of this kind demonstrate or echo biblical teaching (e.g. salvation narratives, stories of redemption, parallels to biblical narratives or parables). These narratives parallel the gospel narrative without explicit commentary. Such stories can be read at one level as simply a nice tale, but at another level the key themes parallel biblical themes that can be discussed.

I have suggested before (here) that types 2-5 offer special potential for audiences beyond the children of Christians. The following demonstrate some type 5 examples of what I mean.

Example 1 – “Charlotte’s Web”, by E.B. White

This is a well-known book written for 6-10 year olds. It is a beautifully written tale about a group of talking farmyard animals, a spider, a rat and a little girl named Fern. While it makes no attempt to teach the gospel narrative, or even disguise it within an allegorical telling, it has themes that parallel key themes within the biblical gospel narrative. At one level, it is the celebration of loyalty, love and friendship. But it is also a salvation narrative. The story of a runt pig rejected by the farmer, sentenced to death but then rescued first by a small girl and later by the work of an intelligent and literate spider. At this thematic level, the narrative points to the power of faith, hope, love, charity, sacrifice and new life.

Example 2 – “Why do you love me?” by Martin Baynton

This is a beautiful little picture book written for 3-6 year olds. It is essentially a dialogue between a dad and his little boy, prompted by the boy’s question, “Do you love me?” This is one of those conversations that only a parent could full appreciate. The little boy asks, “Why do you love me?” “Do you love me because I’m kind?” “..brave?” “..funny”? “…clever”? “…good”? “…naughty?” To each question the Dad says “Yes”. “So why do I try to be good” says the boy. “You tell me,” says his dad. “Because I love you too”, replies the boy. The echoes to the biblical account of God’s grace are evident. Like God whose love towards us is an unconditional act of grace not linked to who we are and what we do, the father loves the boy in spite of who he is and what he does unconditionally. He loves him through the good and the bad. And the boy, in response to the love of the father, loves his father as well and seeks to please him.

Example 3 – “The Delivery of Dancing Bears" by Elizabeth Stanley

This is a picture book written for children aged 4-7 years that is essentially a contemporary fable, although it was written in opposition to the cruelty that 'dancing' bears had experienced in many countries.  The dancing bear is enslaved and mistreated at the hands of a cruel man who uses her to entertain people in the market square of a village in Turkey. The bears hope of freedom keep her alive until one day a noble peasant comes to rescue the bear by paying the cruel owner a ridiculous price (all he had in the world) well beyond what the bear was seen as worth by its keeper. This great act of grace frees the bear and the old man Yusuf takes her back to his humble cottage near a stream and loves it back to a life of freedom from the fear and pain of the past.

The story is centred on an act of great mercy from the old man, who gives all of his earthly wealth to rescue the bear.  This is a story of rescue from slavery, redemption due to the love, grace and mercy of Yusuf and the bear's ultimate restoration to the life she was meant to live.

The Special Merit of Children's Literature

There is great merit in Christians seeking to write literature in its many forms for children. Such writing needs first to meet the basic criteria for good writing – good tales well told; language used well; narratives that work at multiple levels; rich authentic characters; interesting ‘page-turner’ plots. But beyond this they should:
  • offer knowledge that is a celebration of God’s world and his purposes;
  • act as a mirror allowing the reader to reflect on life and their future;
  • lead us to consider aspects of the human condition (life and death, fear, loneliness, pain, loss, frailty, brokenness etc);
  • point to the central redemption narrative of the Bible.
What is important to stress is that Western literature is an essential communicator of cultural traditions that reflect the central biblical narrative of Christ. Good books, shaped by Christian understanding, offer an opportunity for the essential foundations of the biblical narrative to be communicated in stories that connect with children's contemporary world.  This offers a bridge to the biblical narrative and its life-changing opportunity to be repent and believe in Christ.

Related Links

This post appeared in a different form in a post I write in 2008 ('Christian writing for children - Part 1')

'Christian writing for children' - Part 2 (here)

Friday, 29 October 2010

Facebook as Digital 'Crack'

Daniela Elser wrote an interesting column on Facebook a couple of weeks ago (Sydney Morning Herald 9-10 Oct). In it she seems to put her finger on a number of reasons for the popularity of Facebook around the world:
  • It offers us the possibility of reinventing ourselves or presenting a specific crafted image of ourselves to our Facebook friends.
  • It has changed the way we interact with others.
  • It offers a sense of connection, or in Elser's words, it offers a "digital inoculation against any creeping sense of disconnection or isolation".
  • It offers an opportunity to "socialise in solitude" (to quote Aaron Sorkin the writer of 'The Social Network' which is the story of Facebook's creation - see the trailer below).  
  • It allows us to be hyper-focused on constructing hyper-elaborated identities.
  • We live more distracted lives because of our constant checking and updating of our profiles. 
 Daniela Elser writes:
One of the most intoxicating things about Facebook is the possibility it represents for reinvention. From our words, to our image, to our friends, Facebook lets us control the public perception of ourselves with an iron fist that would surely please even Kim Jong-il.

Sadly, while recognising that Facebook is allowing us to do this to ourselves, she fell short of suggesting ways that we might use it responsibly (like any drug).  However, she does recognise that Facebook "...speaks to an underlying human need to feel like we are the centre of things".  She cites recent survey research that indicates that 48% of Facebook and Twitter users check or update their profiles from bed on a daily basis either during the night or first thing in the morning.  This comes hot on the heels of other research that shows that addiction to the Internet is a problem for 25% of young adults at University.    

I love technology, and so I know just how strong the urge is to present false images of myself, to be less than honest about my heart's desires at times, particularly the desire to be liked and respected. I think the essence of the problem is a subtle difference between the word 'need' and 'desire'.  Elser suggests that we have a 'need' to feel that we are the centre of things, worthy of attention, needing to be admired, liked etc. While I have no doubt that we have a human need to be loved, I don't accept that we have a 'need' to be at the centre of the world.  This is a 'desire', and it is one that is in opposition to God's desire for us to give him first place in our lives. This is the desire that he created us for. Our desire is to be for him not for the promotion of self.

What a different view the Bible gives in Romans 12:1-8 of what we should desire, and what true community looks like when its members centre their lives on God. Rather than spending our lives feeding a need to be recognised, to be liked and to be admired, we are called to give ourselves to a life of sacrifice - "living sacrifices". We are not to be conformed to the patterns of the world. Rather, because of God's mercy to us we are "not to think of (ourselves) more highly than (we) ought". As God's children in Christ, we have been given gifts from God due to his grace and mercy, not for ourselves, but to fulfil our part as "..one body in Christ, and individually members one of another".  Whatever good gifts God has given are to be used for the good of the Body of Christ and the glory of God.

Is Facebook bad? No, I don't think so. It is a social networking site that can be used to sustain relationships and maintain contact with friends around the world. But it does have the potential to become an addiction and to shift our focus too much to our own sense of self worth and the need to create an identity that is pleasing to us and others. This is not ultimately something which will be for our good.
 
Other posts and resources

Daniela Elser column 'Hooked on the digital crack of Facebook', Sydney Morning Herald (HERE)

Previous post on 'Late Night Habits and the Mental Health of Young Adults' (HERE)

'The Social Network' (HERE)

Thursday, 21 October 2010

God the City and Us

When police broke into an apartment in Sydney in January 2008 and found the decomposed body of 61 year-old Jorge Coloma (here), there was much community discussion of how his absence could have gone unnoticed for over a year. He had died from natural causes in his bedroom. No one noticed that he'd disappeared. Even a pile of twelve months worth of mail and unpaid bills did not lead anyone check to his apartment or call the police. It took a year before neighbours felt that something was wrong. People asked why authorities had not done something. Others wondered about his family; wasn't there one family member that had missed him? Neighbours also began to ask themselves questions, why hadn't they spoken up much sooner? Jorge's story and many others like it are the dark side of city life, but there is another side.

The Bible depicts the new restored and redeemed world as a city. Jesus revealed to John what God had in store for his people, he saw '...the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband' (Revelation 21:2). The city is not an evil aberration that is a consequence of the fall, but rather it is a form of human settlement. Jeremiah (29:5-5) commended the survivors of Israel after the destruction of Jerusalem and their exile to Babylon with the words of God that they were to:
"Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper."
The remnant of Israel were to build towns and ultimately cities and to contribute to their good.

Understanding the importance and role of the city

Cities can be lonely places, where it is easy to be anonymous or to lead an isolated life. They can be places where people like Jorge can die alone, and where others can suffer physically and emotionally alone and without support. Cities are places where homelessness is common and abuse of one kind or another a daily part of life.

But they are also places of rich culture and learning, places where ideas are exchanged and people's lives can be enriched. They are places where Christians can preach and share the word of God, serve the sick and needy, train and equip others for ministry and life, raise a family, be part of the delivery of God’s grace to lost people.

Tim Keller has pointed out that the human desire to congregate inevitably leads to the formation of cities as people congregate together for security, to share resources, for commerce, to learn from one another an so on. Keller suggests that if you capture the city with the gospel you capture the nation (here). The city he points out can be a wonderful place to live and raise a family (listen to his talk here). It is a strategic place to build gospel ministry.


As Christians it would be easy to assume that the city is a sinful wasteland and retreat to the peace and tranquillity of a remote farm to live a life of isolation, but that is not what we are generally called to do. Cities are places over which God is sovereign where he is at work, and as always they are strategic, because it is in cities that many people come together to work, trade, learn, play, create, perform and so on. There is much talk about the impact of technology on human activity - new ways to travel, instant forms of mass global communication, new ways to connect or ‘wire’ communities (see previous posts here and here) - but while technology is changing the way we spend our time, where we spend it, and how we communicate with one another, the need for human contact remains and community remains. As such, the buildings and physical buildings and spaces we create should reflect our desire to be with other people, to share our lives and the gospel others.

What are the implications of the above?

How does the above inform the way we use the space that we live in at home, the way we think about the role of space and property in gospel ministry, the way we engage with and seek to build our local communities? A few quick thoughts on practical ways that we can think about these issues.

a) Our houses - if we need to choose a house or apartment to rent, or we're fortunate enough to be able buy one, we should look at the property with community eyes. How easy will this property make it to get to know my neighbours? Is it open in design or closed? How is the space within the property conducive to family life and offering hospitality to others? Can I see other people from my apartment balcony, the front veranda, the front or back yard? How long will it take me to get to work, church, the people I care for, and so on (loss of time due to travel is important)? Such thinking turns on its head the way we generally think about our real estate. As well, within the apartment or home, is there a good mix of individual and shared space? If raising a family we should avoid creating personal retreats equipped with all one needs for individual survival. Don’t locate televisions and computers in children’s bedrooms. If you are building a house, don’t cover the block with house at the expense of yard.

b) Church buildings – When designing, renovating, relocating or extending church buildings, we need to think about the type of spaces that we create in the church and how we use it. Rows of pews facing a high alter will have a different effect on communication and interaction than seats in the round or even at tables. Our traditional church buildings with stained glass windows and grand facades were designed like the temple to be seen from afar and to draw people to them. While accepting that heritage issues will prevent us making too many changes to such buildings, we can praise God that they are often in the best locations in town. We can also change how we use space inside them and how we use their location and their use to establish relationships with the people living near us. If locating a new church we need to consider all options for where we place it, what form the building should take and whether it will serve ministry to one another while ‘connecting’ with our communities. Of course the activities we develop in and from the building and the way we live our lives within the community will matter, but the buildings and their spaces do make a difference.

c) The city around us - As citizens within a city what are the things that we should join others in advocating? While Christians represent a small proportion of citizens how can we use our voices and sometimes public and professional positions to influence public decisions about our cities? And how can we use the spaces we have? In relation to planning we should be supportive of:
  • More and better public spaces (parks, playing fields, walking tracks, cycle ways etc).
  • Better public transport, pedestrian ways, cycle ways, spaces to encourage people to congregate (see Tim Chester’s thoughts on this here).
  • Careful planning to integrate commercial, residential and recreational spaces in ways that make human movement easy, that increases visibility (for safety as well as community building), that reduce isolation and the need for long distance travel.
If this post has raised some issues for you please check out Case #18 that has the theme 'City Life' in which we will explore a number of these and other issues as they relate to living and engaging in ministry in cities. 

Related links and reading

An excellent book on this topic has been written by Philip Bess, 'Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred (Religion and Contemporary Culture) (here)

Tim Keller's excellent summary of a biblical view of the city (here) and his talk on how the city can help us to raise a family (here).

A longer article of mine title 'God in the City' appeared in Case #18 and can be downloaded here.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Late Night Habits and the Mental Health of Young Adults

I've written previously on this blog about the challenge of making good use of time. In my post 'The Tyranny and Challenge of Time' I cited the 2009 OECD Social Indicators report that has shown Australians spend less leisure time with friends than just about everyone. I also wrote some time ago about 'Time and the Family' and in particular how families are spending less time together including a reduction in eating meals together.  Finally, I have written about the impact of 'Children's Loss of Play', including its impact on them and the things they might be learning about rest and work. 

Our inability to manage time seems to be an increasing challenge in an age when ironically we have so many technology applications that reduce travel times, remove much of the domestic drudgery of past ages and increases our opportunities to use time well. There is no doubt that we are living in an age where we are busy beyond what is good for us and that this can have an impact on others.

A recent research study has raised new fears about the way young adults (aged 17-24) use their time, and in particular the way their sleep habits are affecting their mental health. 

Sleep Deprivation Study
 
Associate Professor Nicholas Glozier from The George Institute for International Health, University of Sydney, Sydney has led a team of researchers to examine the impact of sleep deprivation on the mental health of young adults. The results are worrying. The findings were published in September in the journal 'Sleep'. Just over twenty thousand young adults (aged 17-24) were randomly identified through the state vehicle licensing authority and surveyed. A random sample of 5,000 people was then chosen for follow-up interviews 12-18 months later. There were 2837 who provided complete data.
 
What the study showed is that about 25% of young adults are affected by psychological distress, which is defined as poor mental health comprising common symptoms of low mood and anxiety. As well, a considerable proportion of young adults who indicated some level of distress in the first stage of the study went on to develop more severe mental disorders, recurrent episodes and the associated negative effects of this, including suicide attempts, self harm and welfare dependence.

The research identified a link between the amount of sleep that young people have and psychological problems; specifically, that shorter sleep was associated with psychological distress. The very short sleepers amongst those identified in the first stage of the study without psychological distress had an increased risk for the onset of psychological distress. Furthermore, of 945 participants who did report psychological distress in stage one, 419 (44%) were distressed at the follow up stage of the research. It was found that each hour less of sleep increased the risk of psychological distress persisting after all other factors were controlled or discounted. Participants who demonstrated 'long sleep duration' showed no association with distress at any time point.

In relation to the amount of sleep young people have:
  • 18% reported sleeping less than seven hours per night on average and a further 30% slept between 7 and 8 hours.  
  • Almost one third (31.9%) returned scores on the study instrument, which indicated high levels of current psychological distress.  
  • Over half of those reporting fewer than 6 hours sleep had higher levels of current psychological distress compared to a quarter of those sleeping the recommended level in young adults of 8-9 hours per night. 
  • Shorter sleep duration was also associated with a number of baseline characteristics including recent deliberate self-harm, using marijuana, excessive Internet use, other drugs and drinking at harmful levels.
Psychological distress was also associated more strongly with the female gender (40% versus 28% in males), unemployment (33% versus 28% in the employed), drug use (45% versus 32%), harmful alcohol use (38% versus 32%), high sensation seeking behaviour (44% versus 22% in lowest category) and recent deliberate self-harm (70% versus 31%).

This study's findings suggest that recent increases in the levels of distress reported by young adults may be related to changes in their sleep patterns.

Associate Professor Glozier suggests that:
"The increased reporting of stress seen in many countries over the past decade or two in this young adult population may reflect lifestyle or other changes that lead to too few hours of sleep."

The researchers also report that shorter sleep duration in younger age groups is associated with a number of factors including increased television viewing, computer gaming, and Internet use.  All of these appear to be becoming more commonplace, with young people communicating with each other late into the night, gaming, updating their Facebook and so on. While we have become accustomed to young people wanting to stay up late and rise later, this research suggests that wake time is not changing much through the week due to school, university or work commitments. This has the net effect of reducing sleep.

Making Sense of these Issues

It seems that young adults are not managing their time well and as a consequence, they may be losing valuable sleep time with disastrous consequences for their lives. This troubles me because my suspicion is that there is a relationship between the topics of all of my posts on time and its use.  What is common?
  • Life is busy
  • Time seems limited
  • We manage this time poorly
  • We end up doing things that don't help our relationships with other people
  • We seem to have a clash between our drive to succeed and live life to the full and  our well-being
Robert Banks suggested in his book 'The Tyranny of Time' we need to reclaim and rethink the way we use our time. The solution is not to drop out of society, to take extended breaks between periods of excessive pressure and time stress, nor is it just the application of self-help strategies.  Rather, we need to look at the deeper issues that drive the way we use time. Are our priorities in life distorted and driven by things that get in the way? In biblical terms these would be seen as idols, that is, something that attains such prominence in our lives that it supplants the central place that God and his purposes should have in our lives. The Bible teaches that we were made to centre our lives on God not other things. Study, work, friends, games, families, while in and of themselves are good, can distract us from what we designed to be if they assume a dominant place in our lives. We are commended to serve the living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9) and avoid those things that distract us from this. It is in turning to Christ that we will achieve true meaning and purpose.

What can we do about this?

Associate Professor Glozier and his colleagues are trying to devise clinical methods to help young people.  Patients are being treated with light therapy in the mornings and hormones such as Melatonin to help them sleep earlier. While these things will no doubt help those whose lives have developed psychological distress, there are more fundamental things that we can do before problems develop.

What are some of the basic things that all parents, teachers, bosses, brothers and friends can do to help?  It seems to me that in life one of the most significant influences on us are other people and the examples they set for us. We need to start with our own lives and begin to set new examples. As parents we may also need to be much more proactive in moderating our children's behaviour at younger ages and not placing burdens on them that inadvertently may drive them towards unhealthy pressures to study, work, succeed and be successful in everything.  Parents might ask the following basic questions:
  • How great a priority do I place on achievement and success in my own life?
  • What example do I set for my children, workmates and friends in relation to how I use my time?
  • To what extent do my priorities model priorities for my children and other people around me that might have a negative impact on how they use their time?
While my focus in this post has been on young adults, and the responsibilities of parents, I could just as easily have turned the focus on workers and their leaders, church members and their pastors and so on.
Writing this post has led me to engage in much self reflection about the priorities I have in my own life. I would encourage readers to do likewise.   
  
Other Resources

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Jeremy Begbie on Music & Theology - Some Resources

As many readers of this blog know, Professor Jeremy Begbie has just concluded a series of talks and performances for the 2010 New College Lectures at the University of New South Wales (Sydney). The series had the theme ‘Music, Modernity and God’ and addressed three sub themes – ‘Creativity’, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Language’.

The second lecture has been posted in its entirety on the CASE website HERE.

In the meantime, there are a number of resources you can tap to find out more about his work.

1. Two great interviews

a) Jeremy Begbie was interviewed (at the keyboard) on Hope 103.2 radio station during the lectures and this was broadcast on the 19th September on the 'Open House' program.  You can listen to the program by downloading an MP3 file or listening online HERE.

b) ABC Radio National's Rachael Kohn interviewed Jeremy on 'The Spirit of Things' during the Lectures. This program was aired on the 26th September and can be downloaded or listened to HERE.

2. Jeremy's Case article

If you would like to read some of Jeremy Begbie’s work, the recent article he wrote for CASE is a great place to start – ‘Polyphony of life: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’. The whole issue of Case #23 in which it appears is devoted to the theme ‘Music and Theology’ and I have reviewed it HERE. The magazine can be purchased HERE.

3. My summary of the Lectures

You can read the post in which I summarised the Lectures HERE.

4. Jeremy's latest book

Jeremy Begbie’s most recent book ‘Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music’ (2007) also covers some of the content of the lectures. He also has a new book in preparation but this won’t be available for 18-24 months.

5. The second lecture

As indicated above the 2nd lecture, 'Freedom – Can we be free with God in our space?' HERE

Other related posts & Links

'Music, Life & Worship' (here)

Prof Trevor Hart 2008 New College Lectures on 'God, Creativity & Creators' (here)

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Work in Progress

In the latest edition of Case Magazine we focus on work with the theme 'Work in Progress'. In it we explore a range of questions. It is framed by the broad question, what does the Bible teach us about work? Do we see it just as a curse to be endured? Could it be simply a means to earn money for life? Or is it part of God's plan for our lives? Do we have a well thought through theology of work, or is our thinking about the place of work in our lives no different than that of the non-Christian? Does work have too dominant an influence on how we view our identity and purpose in life? These are just a few of thew questions that our 5 writers address in Case #24.

Andrew Laird is one of these authors with a piece titled 'The Worthiness of Work: God and your 9 to 5'. He approaches the topic from the perspective of the value and meaning it has for the world we live in. He points out that we contribute daily to the order and running of this world in our work, and in so doing, reflect what God did in creation by bringing order to chaos. Work is reflective of God’s plan for us, and as such is part of what it means to be humans made in the image of God. As well, there is also an instrumental aspect to work; it is, a means to some end.

Work is reflective of God’s plan for us, and this is one reason why it can be so satisfying to admire a back patio you’ve just swept which, for a moment, is spotless and clean; to appreciate putting a staple through a finished university essay or work report; to feel pleasure at having fixed a leaking tap or re-installed software on a troublesome computer; to take joy in composing a song or painting a final brushstroke. We can find pleasure in our work when we bring order to chaos, subdue, work and rule over the creation because we’re doing something we’ve been wired to do; we’re fulfilling part of what it means to be humans made in the image of God.

As well, work has value for human, social, structural and broader societal development’; it contributes to the good order and development of society

But beyond the value, meaning and good that work can do, Laird suggests that all work is part of our service and worship of our God. He reminds us that the death and resurrection of Jesus has changed work.  It is an arena where we can show our love for God by working in a way that pleases Him and it can be a way to love our neighbours by working in ways that benefit them.

And beyond work, he reminds us that there is rest, for this is the climax of God's creation towards which all of creation is heading. In "resting from our work we testify to our colleagues that we don't rely on our own strength in life but trust in someone bigger to provide for our every need, especially salvation".

Other articles

In the same edition you can read the lead article by Gordon Preece that considers the tricky notion of ‘calling’. To address the question ’Does God call people to particular jobs?’ he outlines a Trinitarian model of ‘calling’ and argues that our first focus must be on our call to God’s kingdom. After that, where and how we are to work is an area of ‘freedom in limitation’.

Mark Stephens addresses the question of work in eschatological terms and sets out to evaluate the idea that work is of value not just as participation in God’s creation, but as it relates to the ultimate completion of creation. Unpacking Revelation 18 and 21, he explores the possibility that some aspects of human culture may find a place in the new creation: an eschatological city that takes account of the works of man.

Nicole Starling's piece (which you can read online) - 'Chained to the Kitchen Sink? Christian Women and the Apologetics of Unpaid Domestic Labour' - provides a specific illustration of how diverse work is.  She explores a type of work undervalued by society, being a stay-at-home mother. She argues that the paid career shouldn’t be seen as the only type of socially productive work. When a woman chooses to become a full-time stay-at-home mother and wife, she demonstrates three attractive counter-cultural lifestyles that are a powerful apologetic. Caring for a family, and the many other forms of service this permits, are valuable social goods. The worth of the work done at home exceeds the social status given to it and so those making this choice demonstrate a freedom from social status and consumption. Finally, stay-at-home mothers show that their decision to work in the home reflects a “deep and secure sense of… identity as children of God”.

Dani Scarratt also revisits the insights of Sayers and C.S. Lewis on ‘good work’ in our first ‘Case History’, an occasional segment that seeks to unearth the wisdom of Christian writers from the past for the benefit of Christians today.

To complete our issue Andrew Baartz reviews 'The Missional Entrepreneur: Principles and Practices for Business as Mission' and Georgina Barratt-See reviews de Botton's ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work'.

You can read all of these excellent articles by subscribing to Case magazine or by purchasing single copies of Case #24. You can find more information HERE.

Friday, 17 September 2010

The Relationship of Music to God, Faith, Creativity & Language

Music is pervasive in modern Western culture. Scarcely a day goes by when we are not surrounded by musical sounds. It would be hard to avoid music. I grew up in a household where music was very important. My introduction to classical music was through a tiny jewelry box that sat on my mother’s dressing table. I would sneak into her bedroom and lift the lid to hear the beauty of the music playing ‘Fur Elise’. Music is still special to me. In all its forms it can capture my attention, move me deeply, excite me, teach me, challenge and rebuke me, make the hairs on the back of neck seem to bristle, make me tap my feet and sway my body, think of my mother, my life experiences, my hopes, passions and fears, and it is an integral part of my worship and praise of my God. Music is indeed part of life.

But is it more than just an accompaniment to life? More than just entertainment and a high point of culture? Would it matter in the church if we had only words and no music? Intuitively, even the non-musician is tempted to say, "well of course it’s more than that".

The 2010 New College Lectures

Professor Jeremy Begbie has just concluded a series of talks and performances for the 2010 New College Lectures at the University of New South Wales (Sydney). The series had the theme ‘Music, Modernity and God’ and addressed three sub themes – ‘Creativity’, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Language’. In his final talk last night Pofessor Begbie concluded that yes, music is much more than just an accompaniment to life, it is an important part of the life God has given us and both reflects and speaks of God’s purposes for us.

He suggested that if we didn’t have music we would be all the poorer because music can help us to ‘read’ the story of our culture with the eyes of Christian faith, responding in fresh ways to some of the deepest dilemmas and truths of our time. Furthermore, music offers metaphors that can help us to understand the deep truths of Christianity – God, creation, freedom, rebellion and sin, salvation and redemption, the new creation to come and the fulfilment of God’s promises in Christ. He led us to this conclusion by teaching us over three nights using word, image, performance on the piano, recorded music and image. It was a memorable series that has been deeply challenging.

Lecture 1 - 'Creativity'

On night one he addressed the question ‘Can we be creative in a world made by God?’ He looked at the key assumptions of modernity and the proposition in the modern era that human creativity is basically a matter of bringing our own order to the physical world, constructing things out of nature but without regard for nature.

He challenged the idea that discovery and creativity are assumed to work against each other. Memorably he used Bach’s Cantata 78 ‘Jesus, der du meine Seele’ and ‘Chaconne’ from Partita No. 2 in D Minor for solo violin to show us what a folly this notion is.

Bach’s work he demonstrated was an amalgamation of styles, amazing complexity, even in repetition. Yet, somehow, in the midst of this there is great simplicity. Bach’s music demonstrates a vision of cosmic order and positions us as creative agents within it. Bach did not appear to believe that the rules of music are wholly dependent on culture, fashion, custom, taste or even human make-up. Rather, his work reflects and illustrates the idea that music is “grounded in God-given order in the physical world” – the composer respecting and eliciting them to create harmony that testifies to its Creator. Music glorifies God in its own way.

Lecture 2 - 'Freedom'

On night two Prof Begbie began by posing the proposition ‘Can we be free with God in our space?’ He challenged the notion that having a creator God in our space can only lead inevitably to a battle between the two.

He suggested that music can help us to understand deep biblical concepts such as the Trinity and the concept of freedom as spoken of in John 8:36 “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

With wonderful clarity he suggested that at times our use of words and even images has offered almost sub-Christian explanations of deep truths like the Trinity. Music he suggested can help us to understand biblical metaphor and biblical truth in new ways. Not as a replacement for word and image but in addition to it.

I will never forget how he demonstrated ‘sympathetic resonance’ to show how two sounds do not need to be in opposition, and can indeed work together - the upper note helping the lower note to resonate – one enhancing the other, not constraining it.

So too, the biblical account of freedom suggests that rather than taking away our freedom, God can free us from our enslavement to sin and rebellion and help us to be free to become the people he meant us to be (John 8:36). A profound truth demonstrated in the simplest of ways.

Lecture 3 - 'Language'

On night three he posed the question ‘Can we speak about God without words?’ Once again he spoke, played, shared orchestral music, used images and offered words to unpack the question. He pointed out that in the modern era we have seen an increase of confidence in the powers of human language to describe and control the world, especially the language of science. But even words do not depict reality through one-to-one correspondence. Many have pointed to the severe limits of language; the things we cannot say seem to be as important (sometimes more important) than the things we can see.

 He explored the way music has been caught up in these debates about the power and limits of language, not least when it comes to speaking of the Christian God. He traversed the varied views on the place of music in relation to language, questioning the German Romantics’ notion that instrumental music offers the highest form of the arts and somehow is connected to the divine in ways that words cannot be.

Instead, he pointed out that the realities of which words speak often seem to “exceed the grasp of language”. Music sits with language. Language and the word is in the centre of God’s purposes, but music can be faithful to words while "doing its own kinds of work in its own kinds of way". Music can help us to be more faithful to the word and in the process help to make more intelligible the truth that is communicated.

Want to know more?

Jeremy Begbie was interviewed on Hope 103.2 this week on the 'Open House' program.  You can DOWNLOAD HERE.

ABC Radio National's Rachael Kohn interviewed Jeremy on 'The Spirit of Things' during the Lectures. You can download the interview HERE.

This was a memorable Lecture series. We hope to post a composite MP3 version of the talks soon and may post some video segments as well. Watch for these in coming weeks. I will post the details on this blog when they are available.  ABC Radio National is also working with us to broadcast the lectures later in the year.  Once this has been done we also hope to post the talks on our website.

If you would like to read more of Jeremy Begbie’s work, the recent article he wrote for CASE is a great place to start – ‘Polyphony of life: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’. The whole issue of Case #23 is devoted to the theme ‘Music and Theology’. This can be purchased in hard or soft copy (overseas only).

Jeremy Begbie’s most recent book ‘Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music’ (2007) also covers some of the content of the lectures. He also has a new book in preparation but this won’t be available for 18-24 months.

Other related posts & Links

'Music, Life & Worship' (here)

Prof Trevor Hart 2008 New College Lectures on 'God, Creativity & Creators' (here)


* Image Credit - Sarah MacKenzie, courtesy of 'Educational Insights'