Sunday, 25 December 2011

Pushing back on 'Brand Christmas'

Christmas nativity knitted by my wife with pure Aussie wool!

As I pointed out in a recent post (here) our latest edition of Case Magazine has the theme 'Selling Christmas'. We attempted to unpack just some of the many possible sub-themes. One of these was to question who owns Christmas and how Christians might deal with the seizure of 'our' brand for largely commercial purposes. I've just watched the evening news with it's annual focus on Christmas sales, the customary shots from the North Pole as Santa leaves, and messages from our Anglican and Catholic Archbishops given permission by the station to have 15 seconds to bring some focus on Jesus as the 'real' reason for the season. All too obvious, that Christmas for most has little to do with Jesus.

In our lead article, Simon Angus reminds us that for most people Christmas means gifts. Commercially, ‘Christmas’ is a brand that no self-respecting business would want to ignore. And yet, as Angus points out, Christians think much less about the brand that they once owned, than the commercial entities do.

We debated the meaning of this photo last year - One family 'pushing back'?

How do we respond to the stealing of 'our' brand, for as Angus argues, this time of mass celebration is not sustained purely by religious observance or even tradition, but rather by ‘Brand Christmas’. We could adopt one of the extremes of either decrying the commercialisation of Christmas, or mindless assimilation. But instead, he suggests a third way for Christians at Christmas in our non-Christian communities, celebrating the Messiah's birth within the midst of all that passes as Christmas, proclaiming or 'gossiping the gospel'; what Peter Jensen calls a 'grassroots whispering campaign'.

One of my grandchildren playing with our woollen nativity
"Christians ought to push back on the notion that gifts are the sole reason for, or climax of, the traditional Christmas gathering. This would be as obviously ridiculous as if, at the first Christmas, the host of angels suddenly turned their attention and worship from baby Jesus in the manger to the precious, but ultimately inanimate and inconsequential gold, frankincense and myrrh of the wise men upon their arrival. They didn't, and nor should we."

This pushing back can take many forms.  My daughter Nicole Starling has much to say on her blog about the development of Christmas traditions in the Christian home (HERE); this is one example of what Simon Angus is getting at when he said:


"...where Brand Christmas goes assiduously after our children's material desires, there seems an important work for Christian parents to educate their young in the true meaning of Christmas from the outset. Attending family church services, singing carols and hymns , at home, reading the accounts of Jesus' birth, crafting nativity scenes, and spending time in family prayer..."


I pray that readers of this blog and supporters of CASE might have some success this year 'pushing back' on Brand Christmas, and that we might manage lots of gospel gossip with family, friends and neighbours.


If you are not a Case subscriber you can purchase a single issue online via our website HERE.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Thomas Watson on Contentment

Thomas Watson (Wiki Commons)
Thomas Watson (1620-1686) is known as one of the great Puritan Preachers. He was educated at Emmanuel College in Cambridge and began his first pastorate in 1646 at St Stephen's Walbrook. Charles Spurgeon said of him: "Watson was one of the most concise, racy, illustrative, and suggestive of those eminent divines who made the Puritan age the Augustan period of evangelical literature".

In his book 'The Art of Divine Contentment: An Exposition of Philippians 4:11' Thomas Watson explores true contentment and how we understand the circumstances of this life in view of the next life. How do we measure the things of this earth, our temporary home, in light of our true and ultimate home?

Paul said to the Philippians in the context of his comments to a church with its share of internal problems, that we are to be content (Phil 4:1-23). Thomas Watson's book is based on Philippians 4:11 - "Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content"  (Philippians 4:11). I share this inspirational quote that offers an insight into the place of the conditions of life in the overall sweep of God's purposes for us.

God sees, in his infinite wisdom, the same condition is not convenient for all; that which is good for one, may be bad for another; one season of weather will not serve all men’s occasions, one needs sunshine, another rain; one condition of life will not fit every man, no more than one suit of apparel will fit every body; prosperity is not fit for all, nor yet adversity. If one man be brought low, perhaps he can bear it better; he hath a greater stock of grace, more faith and patience; he can “gather grapes of thorns”, pick some comfort out of the cross: every one cannot do this. Another man is seated in an eminent place of dignity; he is fitter for it; perhaps it is a place that requires more parts of judgment, which every one is not capable of; perhaps he can use his estate better, he hath a public heart as well as a public place. The wise God sees that condition to be bad for one, which is good for another; hence it is he placeth men in different orbs and spheres; some higher, some lower. One man desires health, God sees sickness is better for him; God will work health out of sickness, by bringing the body of death, into a consumption. Another man desires liberty, God sees restraint better for him; he will work his liberty by restraint; when his feet are bound, his heart shall be most enlarged. Did we believe this, it would give a check to the sinful disputes and cavils of our hearts: shall I be discontented at that which is enacted by a decree, and ordered by a providence? Is this to be a child or a rebel?

Contentment is not to be found in the circumstances of life, but rather in the purposes for which our God uses them. For "...we know that for those who love God all things work together for good for those who are called according to his purpose." (Rom 8: 28)

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.  Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. (Romans 8:18-19)

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

You can find 'The Art of Divine Contentment: An Exposition of Philippians 4:11' in varied forms on the Web. These range from versions to be read online, copies to buy and a number of free versions. You can find some of them HERE.

Friday, 9 December 2011

'Selling' Christmas

When we chose the theme of Christmas for the next issue of Case Magazine we knew that it could potentially have many different facets. Our choice of ‘Selling Christmas’ as the cover theme reflects the issues that our authors have explored. Christmas is historically one of the most sacred days in the Christian calendar. But it is known today more for its commercial contribution to the economy than its celebration of the birth of the Son of God. As Simon Angus reminds us, for most people Christmas means gifts. Commercially, ‘Christmas’ is a brand that no self-respecting business would want to ignore. And yet, as Simon points out, Christians think much less about the brand that they once owned, than the commercial entities do.

Brand Christmas

Simon Angus argues that this great time of mass celebration is not sustained purely by religious observance or even tradition, but rather by ‘Brand Christmas’. Rather than adopting the extremes of decrying the commercialisation of Christmas, or mindless assimilation, we need a better informed response. The answer suggested turns us away from finger-pointing to instead look closer to home, targeting the real powerbrokers in the economy.

‘Sold out’ Christmas

Rembrandt's 'The Adoration of the Magi' Wiki Commons
But our theme has a second dimension. Christians and non-Christians alike might well ask whether the church has ‘sold out’ in relation to the true significance of Christmas. Have we allowed others to capture our time of celebration of Christ’s birth for commercial and even political purposes? Several of our articles touch on this important theme, with a challenge for Christians to focus on what matters at Christmas time. Diane Speed, for example, guides us through centuries of accumulated tradition surrounding the Magi, recounting how the mysterious Magi have been used for purposes from religious fundraising to political propaganda, but she also shows how they may be seen ‘as our representatives in the text, worshipping the Christ Child’.

Selling the true meaning

There is a third motif in this issue: how might the Christian church ‘sell’ the true meaning of Christmas? Indeed, might it be able to enrich contemporary understanding of old traditions? John McClean argues that the age-old understanding of the incarnation, the very heart of the meaning of Christmas and Christianity, is not obsolete but defensible within contemporary scholarship. While the incarnation might be seen as a problem in that it is a hard truth to comprehend, and to sell, McClean points out that it is worth the effort, for it solves a greater problem than it creates.

But how might the church go about communicating its message clearly to a world committed to the trappings but not the truth of Christmas? Dan Anderson sees some hope in developing a distinctive Christian community calendar, which functions as ‘an education in the memories and expectations of the group’ and ‘allows an individual to become the bearer of a communal identity: to “act out” that identity and communicate it to others’. Christmas and Easter are reminders of a Christian liturgical calendar that once had greater significance, but has been abused and has lost much of its embedded meaning and witness. Yet this doesn’t mean we should reject the idea altogether. Like many of our authors in this issue, Anderson calls for biblically informed reflection on Christmas, and encourages us to ‘question the narrative identity enacted in both the communal calendars of our surrounding society and that which we have inherited from the Christian tradition’.

In an enjoyable foray into Australian poetry and songs Anna Blanch shows us how different poets have expressed their experiences of Christmas in ways that resonate with life down under, from the light-hearted fun of ‘Aussie Jingle Bells’, to Les Murray’s thought provoking ‘Barranong Angel Case’. Peter Stiles too, draws on Australian literature as he makes his case, encouraging Australians to let go of their dependence on the Northern Hemisphere traditions at Christmas. Yet both Blanch and Stiles lament the lack of serious poetry and song connecting the celebration of Christ’s nativity with the Australian context: a challenge for our literary readers.



Our issue ends with some recommendations for Christmas reading. If we are to enter into gift giving this year, what better gift can we give than books that strengthen our understanding of the central eternal narrative of Christmas? We have asked a variety of Case Magazine contributers to recommend books that they have found enjoyable or helpful. I’ve also included a short review of some children’s books (which I might post separately) that might lead to meaningful discussions with the younger members of your circle of family and friends as we contemplate God’s purpose for our lives.

If you're a Case subscriber you will receive this issue before Christmas. If not, you can purchase a single issue online via our website HERE.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

A right view of indoctrination? From the CASE Archives*


"... no true education can escape the responsibility of communicating a view of life - that is, of 'indoctrinating.' The cult of the open mind is a way of camouflaging the poverty of an education which has no view of life to communicate. Indoctrination is not an educational crime; it is an educational necessity, in religion as in table manners. The crime is to indoctrinate in such a way as to destroy the freedom and responsibility of the pupil. It is by no means impossible - and the world's greatest teachers from Socrates onwards have proved it to be the very heart of teaching - to present a strongly held faith in such a way as to challenge the beholder to come to terms with it on his own personal responsibility. That there is no necessary opposition between doctrine and freedom is clear when personal freedom is at the very heart of the doctrine."

The above is a quote from a book written by M.V.C. Jeffreys who wrote most of his publications in the first half of the 20th century. He was a Professor of Education at the University of Birmingham. The quote is from his book 'Glaucon' and was first published in 1950. We could argue about what we mean by indoctrination, but I'm happy to accept the Oxford Dictionary definition for the purpose of the post. That is, to "teach (a person or group) to accept a set of beliefs uncritically".

Richard Dawkins is a big critic of parents holding a faith position and teaching it to their children. He claims that it is indoctrination and that it is a form of child abuse. Is this fair? I think not! Surely it is the right of all parents to teach to or share with their children the things they believe. What parent would not try to teach their children the things that they think are important. How different is it for a parent to passionately teach their children about Climate Change, the killing of endangered species, the dangers of atomic energy or the unparalleled merits of the New York Yankees (or the Rabbitohs in Sydney) and a parent who teaches their children about their faith?


It's easy to be accused of indoctrination. In September 2009 President Obama was accused of indoctrination (here) due to his national address to the nation's school children.  Jim Greer the chair of Florida's Republican Party stated, "I am absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama's socialist ideology." In fact, there are accusations of this sort against the President all over the web. Personally, I think the claims are grossly unfair, but how do we make such judgements? How and why did Jim Greer reach his conclusion that it was indoctrination?

Is it just possible that some of the people who object to parents teaching their children about faith, labelling it as indoctrination, might 'indoctrinate' their own children, or even find it acceptable when others 'indoctrinate' children with ideas with which they agree? I read a blog recently in which the writer told how her 3 year old had chanted to her at dinner that night “Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!”. She suggested that the learning of this chant to encourage recycling is "good indoctrination".  Who decides when indoctrination of children is good, or bad? Given that indoctrination simply means to instruct or teach someone a "doctrine" - which in turn means a body of knowledge, sets of principles, a collection of teachings - then it is nonsense to assume that it is always wrong.

Photo of Mother & Child I took at Clare Hall Cambridge
M.V.C. Jeffreys' view was that indoctrination rather than being wrong or immoral is appropriate and unavoidable. What he saw as wrong was indoctrination that can "destroy the freedom and responsibility of the pupil". In defence of Christians who are accused of indoctrination regularly, it is relevant to remind people that the very basis of Christian faith is freedom. Christianity isn't about simple adherance to a set of rules or even moral principles; although the Bible does suggest ways that we should live. Those who present the Christian faith in this way are teaching a false gospel. While we can teach a child about faith in Christ, we cannot make them believe. It is wrong for a parent or teacher to seek to coerce children into believing that which they believe themselves. It is also a quest that is doomed to failure. As Joshua reminded the Israelites as they prepared to enter the Promised Land, ultimately all of us must choose who we will serve. Joshua challenged the Israelites to consider if they were going to serve the gods of the Amorites or the God of their ancestors, Yahweh (Joshua 24:14-15). Likewise, Jesus called his disciples to choose to follow and to believe in him. And as Jesus taught the stakes are high:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Why shouldn't parents teach their children the doctrines that will allow them to make a choice as to the reality of God as taught in the Bible? Especially when they believe that there are eternal consequences.

The Bible teaches that the Christian faith is not about being enslaved to the views of others, whether as a child or as an adult, it is about being set free to live as God had intended.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.  (Romans 8:1-4)
* This is a revised version of a post I wrote in May 2010.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

New Perspectives on Anglican Education

UPDATE: The book is now published and is available from the Anglican Education Commission, St Andrews House, Sydney. Mailing address PO Box A287 Sydney South, NSW 1235. Email: info@aec.edu.au. Price is $10.95 AUS

I'm one of the authors of a new book that will come out in early December. It is titled 'New Perspectives on Anglican Education: Reconsidering Purpose and Plotting a Future Direction'.  My co-authors are Bryan Cowling and Michael Jensen.  While it is situated in the context of Anglican schooling, it has relevance for all Christian teachers in varied schools and Christian education in general. It is the outcome of a year of intensive reading, thinking and discussion with a group of nine other Christians.  The group was brought together by Archbishop Peter Jensen to consider a simple question posed in his 2009 Isaac Armitage Lecture, “Is there such a thing as Anglican Education?”

To answer this question we drew on the best that there is to offer from the fields of education, philosophy, humanities and the social sciences, and grounded our explorations and study in an understanding of the Bible. We sought to ask three sub-questions about Anglican education:
Why?   Knowing what our priorities and purposes should be in raising children, nurturing them in the faith and teaching them the skills they need for life.
What?  Seeking knowledge of what these priorities and purposes mean for the things we teach.
How?  Making wise and informed choices each day about schooling, curriculum and pedagogy.
We conclude from our work that an understanding of God’s plan for humanity should also shape our purposes for education, its content and the way schooling, teaching, curriculum and pedagogy are implemented. What we do as teachers is meant to help the children we teach to take their place as grown humans and mature citizens in the family of God. If we hold to such a purpose, then it matters what the priorities of the Anglican school are, how we teach, how we encourage learning, the nature of the social structures we promote, the methods we use to discipline our children and so on? If we keep our sights fixed on the goal of seeing children knowing, accepting and following Christ, does it matter how offer them education in our schools? We think that it does, because there is a relationship between our priorities shaped by the gospel, our faith in Christ, how we live out and speak of this faith, and our actions (Phil 1:27; Jas 2:14-26).

Haro Van Brummelen reminds us in 'Stepping Stones to Curriculum' that knowing, being and acting are all tied together in the biblical view of knowledge. In short, we cannot allow the ‘What?’ of education to become a list of curriculum content, or a set of lesson plans divorced from our biblical understanding of God’s purpose in creating us. He has made us as creatures who learn and for whom he has specific plans and purposes. 

We don’t believe for a minute that we can offer a simple prescription for how Anglican Education should be constructed and sustained, or exactly how we should teach mathematics (or any other subject), or which content should be in or out of the curriculum. But we do believe that all teachers can look to God’s Word to gain wisdom and insight as they grapple each day with what education means and how it can be used to bring honour and glory to our Creator.

With a right view of God and our relationship to him we are set free to consider research and writing about all that is foundational to education and teaching. But how do we do this? One of the challenges for all Christian teachers is how we relate that which was taught to us at university with what we continue throughout life to learn about our relationship to God. Our project and this book, is all about this tension.

To be an Anglican School is to be a different school, not just in the results we achieve academically or socially in the leadership roles that our graduates take on, but in how the very institution is used redemptively by God; not just in the lives of the students and families associated with the school, but in the wider community.

Similarly, when looked at from the perspective of the teacher, we conclude that to be an Anglican teacher is to be a different type of teacher. It would be our hope that the Anglican teacher is someone who is being transformed into the likeness of Christ, one different in character, motivations, moral views and purposes.  But we would also argue that the teacher in an Anglican school is also one who in teaching children reaches qualitatively different decisions day by day as he/she nurtures and teaches the children God has entrusted to them. Just as the Bible offers us guidance on how not to act, it also teaches us how to act as a child of God (Eph 4:17-5:21). As well, we want to argue that the Bible offers us wisdom that enables teachers to make wise choices day by day as we make numerous decisions about what, how and why we teach.

While the parent body might well choose to send their children to an Anglican school to achieve academic excellence, or to meet all the 'right' people, above all, our schools and their teachers must surely seek to create a classroom and school environment (perhaps community is a better word) in which children grow in body, mind and soul. At the core of this is the extent to which all that the teacher and the school does communicates the wisdom of God revealed in Christ.

The book culminates in a challenge to consider the fundamentals of pedagogy that will help us to create Anglican schools and classrooms that are different. It also outlines the next steps in this project that we hope will widen the conversation.  'New Perspectives on Anglican Education: Reconsidering Purpose and Plotting a Future Direction' is published by the Anglican Education Commission. It will be available from December and will sell for $10.95 AUS.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Understanding the 'Social Perspective' of Others

A psychology professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education has spent the last ten years exploring the capacity of humans to grasp, discern and perhaps decipher the feelings and thoughts of other people.  Dr Hunter Gehlbach has been exploring this human ability to help teachers improve teaching and learning. He calls it 'Social Perspective Taking' (SPT). At one level, Gehlbach is simply concerned with how he can assist teachers to identify when students aren't motivated, distracted, unhappy and so on, with the goal being to enhance their engagement and learning. But this ability to discern the feelings and thoughts of another has even greater potential. In an interview that is reported in an article written by Deborah Blagg, Dr Gehlbach suggests that there are implications for a variety of people in education; for example, students, teachers administrators etc. He suggests, for example that,
“We need to help students comprehend their classmates’ values, perspectives, and motivations so they can learn from each other as well as from their teachers.”
But of course, this isn't just a challenge for children. What motivates adults to seek to understand, respond to and take up the perspectives of other adults? He comments:

“We are exposed to dozens of people every day — in the grocery check-out line, during our commute to work or school, or sitting in a restaurant — yet we are very selective about those with whom we empathize.”

Why do we do this? Why do we take note of some people, ignore others, and take a wide berth of others? I see this in my own behaviour. My SPT can be very selective. It might also be possible that the way we see our roles and relationships within the school, church, neighbourhood might make a difference to the way we selectively apply SPT.

One interesting finding by Gehlbach was that people could be very selective across contexts and roles in how they engage in SPT.  For example, “a border crossing guard who is trying to identify someone who might be a threat, or [a] detective questioning a high-stakes suspect, is very motivated to take that person’s perspective to try to figure out what they might be thinking.”

As well, he found that people could be highly motivated to engage in SPT in one context but not another.  He found that a soldier was highly motivated when he was acting as an interrogator, but not when he was handing out discipline within his own unit.

All of the above prompted me to think about the relevance of this secular research for understanding my own empathetic inconsistencies. It seems likely to me that my own desire to engage in SPT might vary depending on things as varied as:

How busy I am? Am I so distracted at times by multiple balls to juggle that I can't see what's obvious in the person in front of me, in the queue at the bank, in the workplace, at home and so on.
How focussed am I on the agenda at hand? In my desire to deliver the current lecture or sermon well, do I fail to stay tuned to my audience before, during or after it?
Do I restrict my circle of contacts in such a way, that I screen out those for whom I find it hard to extend SPT?
Do I look for like-minded people to spend time with so I don't need to work hard at understanding the social perspective of others?

I don't have an answer to the above questions, but I suspect that thinking through Gelhbach's concept of SPT, and using it as an analytical lens for my life, might just make me a more effective teacher, neighbour, friend, husband, brother and apologist.

Ultimately, I know that my desire to love other people, my ability to empathize with those who weep and suffer, and my preparedness to try to place myself in the shoes of another and understand their view of the world should be motivated by love born of God's grace shown to me, and a desire to see others come to saving faith in Christ. The Cross of Christ and my understanding of the consequences for the people I know that reject it, must be the foundation of my burden for others.  Having said this, my suspicion is that Gelhbach's work might just offer a corrective to some of my sinful ways, and that this might just open my eyes to the 'social perspectives' of others, and direct me back towards God as I live my life with others.

Related Posts

'Asking the Second Question' HERE
'Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends' HERE

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Gospel and Globalisation

Image from Wiki Commons
We live in age experiencing extraordinary changes in technology, cultural diversity, the spread of some dominant languages and the loss of others, constantly changing nation states, and shifts in global wealth and power. Increased human mobility and dramatic transformations in communication technology have helped to create a growing sense that people can no longer restrict their citizenship to the town, region or even nation. The impact of globalisation means that even if we never venture beyond the borders of our birthplace, the world will increasingly find its way to our doors. This is an age in which traditional limitations on citizenship and responsibility to others are being questioned.

There is a growing recognition of our status as global citizens and, of the new challenges and opportunities this brings. Recent events in the Middle East where citizens have risen up against dictatorial regimes have, in their own way, shown that it is impossible to shut out the world. These events demonstrate that nations now find it harder to close their borders to the scrutiny of others; social media alone offer amazing opportunities for citizens to be connected with others globally and the ideas and expectations of their nations.
 
In 2010 we devoted an issue of Case magazine (#22) to the theme 'God Beyond Borders'. The writers we chose brought a range of theological and other disciplinary approaches to bear on the problems of life and the overlapping of local, global, national, and international spheres. The various articles in composite helped us to make sense of the growing complexity of our roles as global citizens and nations.

In one of these articles, 'The Gospel and Globalisation', Erin Glanville examined globalisation in the light of the gospel. She rejected a narrow conception of globalisation that focuses primarily on economic concerns and, drew our attention to its power for good in the connections and interdependence it allows between people and cultures. She argued that this globalisation touches every area of human existence, from the social and political, to the judicial, aesthetic, and religious. However, the latter is almost completely lacking from contemporary considerations of globalisation. However, religious faith is not just another factor that sits alongside others; it has a formative and unifying power for those who believe. Such an understanding should move Christians to reconsider their engagement with the world. In the article she suggests:
“If Christians want to live faithfully in the world they need to ask: What time is it? Where are we at in our culture’s story? What are the most powerful dynamics and forces that are shaping our world today? Perhaps three words begin to answer these questions—at least for those of us living in the West: globalisation, postmodernity, and consumerism.” 

Glanville argues that the message of Christ offers a comprehensive understanding of the world, its history and God's purpose for our future. Jesus’ invitation to repent and believe in her words is a "...summons to accept his remarkable claims and to inhabit the world of the biblical narrative as the true story of the world. It is an appeal to take the person and work of Jesus Christ as the fundamental clue for interpreting the rest of the world."

With the gospel as her starting point, she asks readers to consider three key questions:
1. How is this dynamic of globalisation rooted in God’s intent and design for creation and for history?
2. How has globalisation been corrupted by human rebellion, and cultural development twisted by idolatry sometimes of a technological or economic type?
3. In light of the hope we have in the promised final restoration, are the processes of globalisation, as they exist today open to healing and renewal?

If you'd like to read more of this article, you can download it HERE.

You can also read my previous introduction to the whole issue of Case #22 HERE

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Helping our children to have a right attitude to work, rest and play

Image from Wiki Commons
In his book 'The Busy Christian's Guide to Busyness' Tim Chester challenges Christians to examine the way we live our lives and to unmask the many self-deceptions that drive us to lead lives that at times seem out of control.

The Bible teaches that work and rest are both good, but in western countries like Australia, there is a constant playing out of two competing ethics, a ‘work-centred’ ethic and a ‘leisure-centred’ ethic. How can we achieve balance between work and rest? Chester points out that even the way we 'play' is driven by purposes other than the ultimate purpose of this important human activity. He comments:
"Even our time off can be hard work. Our secular age tends to give material answers to spiritual problems. So leisure has become a thing you 'do' or 'buy'....we no longer 'stroll' or 'ramble'; now we 'hike' with walking poles...leisure is no longer rest; leisure is consumption."
At the end of a week that for me seemed out of control and with Chester's comments about adults and play and as a backdrop, I want to suggest that the problems adults have working out a right view of rest (and work) might have many unintended consequences for others, including our children. Our children learn from us through the words we teach them, the lives we live before them and the relationship between both of these and our faith. Children can grow up to imitate us or at times reject that which we have taught and demonstrated. The latter might have positive consequences or simply lead them to other equally wrong and confused notions of work and rest.  Research on the loss of childhood play might be relevant in understanding the importance of play (as a form of rest) to our children. While I don't want to suggest that rest = play for the child (or the adult), changes in the nature of play and the amount of time that adults and their children devote to play is I think relevant to our understanding of rest.

The varied consequences of diminishing play time for children

Psychologists, educators and paediatricians see children’s play as so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child   [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Convention on the Rights of the Child].

But in a clinical report to the American Academy of Paediatrics, Kenneth R. Ginsburg concluded that "...many children are being raised in an increasingly hurried and pressured style that may limit the protective benefits they would gain from child-driven play."

Major child rearing agencies, early childhood associations, paediatric groups and government agencies with responsibility for children and families have been raising serious questions about declining spare time, and in particular unstructured playtime for young children. For example, a UK report from 300 teachers, psychologists and children's authors claimed that the erosion of unstructured, loosely supervised playtime is dangerously affecting young people's health.

Ginsburg concludes that:

• Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.
• Play is important to healthy brain development.
• Through play children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them.
• Play allows children to create and explore a world where they can achieve a sense of mastery.
• They can also conquer their fears while practising adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers.
• As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence.
• Undirected play allows children to learn how to work and create with others, to share, to negotiate, and to resolve conflicts.
• When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace and discover their own areas of interest.
• Play is essential for the building of active healthy bodies.

How might the limitation of play in childhood limit understanding of work & rest as adults?

None of the research on play gives any consideration to the possible consequences of the loss of play to the spiritual well being of the child and its impact on later adult life. Neither does the Bible offer too much direct advice about the importance of play for children's health, development and general well being. But we do know that God ordained work and rest for our good, and in doing both we imitate him. We also know that in modelling the Christian life for our children, that they observe our actions as well as listening to the things we teach them. Could the way we structure our children's lives teach children things about work and rest that we never intended? Could the work ethic we hold and our attitudes towards activities like school, study, chores and part-time work (for older children), indirectly teach ethics of work and play that aren't biblical? What are we teaching them about work and rest in and through our lives and the way we shape their lives?

What should be our response?

The answer to the observed problem of children's reduced time for rest and play is not simply a new timetable at home.  The answer to lives that are too busy and lack time for rest, is not simply less work or more rest, but a right attitude to both based on a clear understanding of God's grace.  This will start with parents examining their own lives first, then their children's. There is nothing wrong with being busy, in fact Paul teaches us in Philippians that we are to 'pour out' our lives in the service of God (Philippians 2:17); and we are to honour God and give him first place in our lives, as we "present our bodies as a living sacrifice" (Rom 12:1).

As Tim Chester wrote in an article for Case magazine last year, the Bible presents us with a "liberating God-centred ethic in which we work for the glory of God and we rest for the glory of God".  We need a right attitude to work and play driven by motivations; goals and aspirations centred on knowing Christ better ourselves and making him known to others. Tim Chester reminds us that "...we can find rest in our busyness and joy in our labour." As parents we need to demonstrate and teach our children that a life dedicated to Christ is one that has a yoke that is easy, and one that will bring ultimate 'rest'. Jesus' teaching ultimately points to the fact that our lives need to acknowledge the perfect rest that we find in our relationship with him:
Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28, 29).
Other reading and resources

Robert K. Johnston (1983), 'The Christian at Play'

Tim Chester (2006). 'The Busy Christian's Guide to Busyness'

Robert Banks (1983). 'The Tyranny of Time'

Previous posts on 'Tyranny and Challenge of Time', 'The Busy Life' and 'Time and the Family'

Tim Chester (2009). 'The Busy Christian's Introduction to Busyness' Case Magazine, No. 18. [Theme: City Life]

Kenneth R. Ginsburg (2007). 'The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds'. Pediatrics, Vol. 119, No. 1, pp 182-191.

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Bible, Human Rights & Justice

Dr Greg Clarke (CEO of The Bible Society) recently spoke at a New College formal dinner about the future of the Bible. His talk was framed by two simple questions, 'What's the Bible done for me?' and 'does it have a future'? It was based on an article he has written for Case magazine in which he suggests that there are two different ways that people can approach the Bible. The first of these treats the Bible as a ‘sparring partner’  against which various claims of understanding and experience are tested to see if it can stand; the other approaches the Bible as a worldview forming ‘coach’. Dr Clarke argues that while the ‘Bible-as-sparring-partner’ was dominant throughout much of the 20th Century, there is now considerable evidence from a variety of sources that this approach is waning, and the ‘Bible-as-coach’ approach is on the rise.

He suggested that the Bible is a transformative text, challenging, interrupting and rebuilding the philosophy, ethics and historical horizons of both individuals and states. He outlined and supported his claim that many things in our world would be different but for the Bible, the people who believed it and, who sought to live lives shaped by it. He cited many examples including:
care of the isolated, disadvantaged, homeless and alienated;
western systems of justice;
economic systems that distribute financial support to the needy;
a great deal of literature and the arts;
the judicial system and so on. 

In short, he suggested that human rights as we know it would not have emerged without the Bible. He cited Archbishop Rowan Williams to support his case:
"It never does any harm to be reminded that without certain themes consistently and strongly emphasised by the 'Abrahamic' faiths, themes to do with the unconditional possibility for every human subject to live in conscious relation with God and in free and constructive collaboration with others, there is no guarantee that a 'universalist' account of human dignity would ever have seemed plausible or even emerged with clarity."

You can read more of Dr Clarke's article in the latest edition of Case Magazine with the theme 'Theology and the future'. This edition of the magazine also includes all three talks given at the 2011 New College Lectures.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Theology & the future of humanity

The New College Lectures were concluded on Thursday evening with Dr Michael Jensen's talk 'Theology & the future of humanity: Smith's 'White Teeth' and Paul's Galatians'. My last post provides a short overview of the first two lectures by Prof John McDowell ('Theology & the future of education') and Dr David Starling ('Theology & the future of the Church').

Dr Jensen chose to contrast the views of humanity embedded in two sources, Zadie Smith’s 2001 novel 'White Teeth' and Paul's letter to the Galatian church. He unpacked the competing meta-narratives used in the novel to describe the future of humanity that is embedded in the work. He discussed three meta-narratives exemplified in the story's main characters: the epic, the tragic, and Smith’s own ‘comic-romantic’ vision. In doing this he highlighted how as Smith develops her story, she humorously critiques several competing futurisms – the religious, political and scientific all shown in differing forms of fundamentalism. We end up through Smith's eyes with two descriptions of the future, the materialist or the religious. For Zadie Smith the best humans are those who "..don't succumb to some fanatical programme for change, but just love." But as he pointed out, Smith’s alternative visions of the human future are hard to take seriously when she presents such twisted examples - scientists linked to a Nazi eugenicist and, Christian eschatology represented by Jehovah's Witnesses. He suggested that none of Smith’s meta-narratives offer satisfying accounts for ‘actual human experience…’.

Instead, Dr Jensen used Paul’s letter to the Galatians to offer a better vision, one that harnesses an apocalyptic eschatology to address the corrupting influence of a potentially destructive group within the Galatian church - the ‘circumcision group’.

Paul’s word to the Galatians offered them real hope, because it suggested that the future of humanity was in their reach. The alternative gospel of the circumcision group was to situate the gospel in themselves and a new form of tribalism. The circumcision group suggested an alternative gospel in which God commands repentance, signified by the circumcision and zeal for the law (Gal 4:17). Instead, Paul suggested to the Galatians that the gospel is not controlled by them as individuals and revealed by their efforts. Rather, God reveals it to us.  And this revelation Paul suggests finds its answer in and through Christ. The cross of Christ is where God makes things right with humanity and offers the potential to become the people he wants us to be. This is a gospel that frees them from the law by the crucifixion of the flesh.

The future of humanity has already entered the present. At the cross, God founds a new humanity—a community bound in faith and formed because of the sacrificial love of God. While Zadie Smith also proposes a priority be given to love, she proposes a randomness to reality, filled with the "faint hope that human beings can summon up enough tenderness for each to break the shackles of history that so weigh us down."

"For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love." (Galatians 5:5,6)

"For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another." (Galatians 5:13)

Further information

The three lectures are already available in slightly shortened forms within Case magazine, a publication of the apologetics centre CASE within New College. Associates of CASE will receive this in the mail next week. Others can purchase them online HERE.

The lectures will also be made available in audio and some video formats in a few weeks.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Theology and the Future of Education and the Church

The New College Lectures are underway. Tonight we will enjoy our final lecture. The theme for the lectures is ‘Theology and the Future’. Our three speakers are Prof John McDowell, Dr David Starling and Dr Michael Jensen. The trustees of the Lectures (of which I am one) believe that it is timely to consider the place that theology has in any discussion of the future.

In an edited collection of essays in honour of Jürgen Moltmann titled 'The Future of Theology' (1996) Miroslav Volf pondered the problem of the seeming irrelevance of theology to many with this comment:

"Could it be that the problem is not so much that theological language is foreign but that theologians themselves are deracinated - they have severed their ties with concrete communities of faith, the sole crucibles in which the virtues and practices of which they speak can be forged in culturally specific ways, and become free floating intellectuals, proudly suspended by their superior knowledge above the hustle and bustle of ecclesial life, speaking from nowhere to nobody in particular?"
Volf was writing for theologians but the laity cannot escape the claims. Is part of the problem of Christianity's loss of relevance in the public square that far too few of us consider what our theology is, how it is supported by Scripture and what relevance it has for our lives? How seriously do we apply our theological understanding to life? Indeed, how different are our lives to those who completely reject theology?

Theology & the Future of Education

On Tuesday evening Prof John McDowell, Morpeth Chair of Theology at Newcastle University, helped us to consider the future of education. Prof McDowell took us on a journey beginning with theological education, and touching on the challenges of education in its varied contexts, including the university, schools and the church. He began with an historical account of how in the 18th century theology moved from the very centre of university education to the periphery, to become one among many disciplines. He argued that the scholarship of Kant and others burdened theology with the yoke of ‘practical reason’ and ethics and, in the process focussed it on how we live, not on what is true about God, the world and our relationship to both. The reforms of Friedrich Schleiermacher at the University of Berlin in the 19th century provide yet another constraint on the place of this once central discipline, Theology became positioned as ‘clerical-training’.

With the continuing reform of the university and, in particular, theological education, he spoke also of the loss of personhood from learning and education. Gradually they lost their centring as human pursuits, to become something moulded by individual will, individual choice, the good life, the common good and so on. Instrumental rationality began to dominate, leading to a stress on transferable skills and a loss of the things that were once seen to matter.

In responding to what we are to do about the somewhat emaciated nature of education that we have inherited, he turned to Alasdair MacIntyre’s appeal to universities to train students in good judgement. This is a judgement that might move us beyond narrow notions of critique, analysis & evaluation and, instead towards the possibility of the application theology with richer considerations of ‘attention to subject-matter’, ‘attention to community’ & ‘attention that is critical’. He argued that a critical and ‘attentive’ theology can offer an alternative, humanising and transformative vision to an education system that has been commodified and individualised. This is broad view of theology he suggested offers us transformative insights on who we are and what our relationship is to our God and each other. He concluded:
“An attentive Theology of the type broadly offered here indicates the importance of asking what education is for, and by attending to its responsibility for human well-being it can offer a vision of education beyond any reduction to consumer will and the pressure of the market. Embracing and promoting serious, rigorous and honest lifelong learning characterised by good judgment might then mean that the theologian could encounter the silence of interest from those who want to hear and discuss the issues more than the silence imposed by anti-theological sarcasm. At the very least, a well-ordered Theology can critique the faith/reason, practice/theory dualisms that tend to underlie the more dismissive versions of silence, and the more simply disinterested versions that are grounded in the vision of individuals’ will-to-consume.”

Theology and the Future of the Church

Last night, Dr David Starling applied a more traditional view of Systematic Theology as “the discipline of Christian thought that attempts to construct an ordered, rationally coherent account of the inter-relationship between God and the universe, with comprehensive scope and enduring validity”. He addressed two questions: whether we ought to keep attempting the task of Systematic Theology? And, if we do, what shape might that theology take?

He took as his starting point in the lecture the claim by Stanley Hauerwas in the 1990 New College Lectures, titled ‘After Christendom’ that “the very notion of a Christian systematic theology is one that is obsolete in our time”. Further, he responded to claims made by Hauerwas and others that we should “abandon altogether the idea of a single story and a single church, and embrace instead an infinite plurality of ways in which stories of Christ could be told as expressions of the experience of individuals and communities”. To make his case for Systematic Theology, he considered the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and explored the ideas of community and narrative evident in his word to them.

To begin his analysis he helpfully drew parallels between the life of Corinth and our own life, and demonstrated that the religious pluralism, cosmopolitan nature, status inconsistencies, and the power of market forces in our times, are similar to the forces at work in Corinth. This is a healthy corrective to those who would want to suggest that these ancient writings were addressed to a people and a place with little in common with us.

Dr Starling proceeded to unpack how Paul challenged the church in Corinth to be a missionary community, witnessing and sharing testimonies that lead to deep theology. It was helpful to be reminded as people of faith who see difference far too easily and discount that which binds us together, that we are called to be a ‘catholic’ community aware of the place we have with all the saints in Christ. And of course, in keeping with the theme of the Lectures, he showed how Paul urged the Corinthians (like us) to have an eschatological perspective in relation to the identity of the church, not just caring about the present and the proximate future, but waiting and looking with great expectation to the day of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Dr Starling then moved to his second key category, and the narrative that Paul proposed should bind community. He argued that Paul’s letter shows that it is to be a stable and unchanging salvation-historical narrative; one that is apocalyptic and prepared to look for the hiddenness of God’s hand in the world that we see and experience each day. Paul’s challenge was to be a people prepared to assert propositions that are seen as mere foolishness to many (1 Corinthians 1:8). And finally, he reminded us that this isn’t a narrative for our own back yards, our cultural situation, it is a cosmic narrative. He concluded:
"But the kind of theological system-building that is consistent with the trajectory established in 1 Corinthians is not a set of pure, timeless abstractions that can be stated independently of the particular, historical assertions at the core of the Christian faith; nor are its vast, ambitious claims about the comprehensive implications of the lordship of the risen Christ articulated without reference to the problems that arise for the people of Christ in particular contexts and circumstances. Hauerwas is right on these scores.

And (once more in agreement with Hauerwas) it is still salutary for a post-Christendom church – just as it was salutary for the pre-Christendom Corinthian church, with its false expectations of social acceptance and prestige – to be reminded of the paradoxical combination of boldness and humility with which such theological system-building needs to be undertaken, if it is to be authentically an act of Christian faith, hope and love." 

Theology and the Future of Humanity

Tonight Dr Michael Jensen will present our third lecture at 7.30pm at New College, UNSW.

I will provide a post on the final lecture tomorrow.

Further information

The three lectures are already available in shortened forms within Case magazine, the apologetics centre within New College. Associates of CASE will receive this in the mail next week. Others can purchase them online HERE.

The lectures will also be made available in audio and some video formats in a few weeks.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

A review of Children's Bible Apps

The purpose of this post is to look at a few new children's Bible apps but before doing so let me mention a few things about children's Bibles generally.

Children's Bibles in Traditional Book Form

There are many Children's Bibles available for use with children aged from 1 to 12 years in traditional book format. I have used many examples with my own children (a while ago now!), my grandchildren and other people's children at Sunday school. I have found many of the Lion Bibles useful, including 'My Very First Bible' (1-4 years), 'The Lion First Bible' (5-8 years) and the 'Day-By-Day Bible' (9-12 years). All are well illustrated and offer a sampling of Old and New Testament Scripture that seek to present the overall biblical story of God and his plan for the salvation of his people through Christ. They use shortened descriptions that are faithful to the texts on which they are based. I have also used The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones that offers a more literary and creative narrative approach to the Bible, but always seeking to reinforce key Scriptural themes. As well, I have also used The Beginner's Bible that is also excellent and is designed for children aged 2-3 years.  My daughter has written an excellent post on children's Bibles and resources on her blog 168 Hours (here), which offers additional information.

The way I judge the quality of any children's Bible is straightforward:
Does the selection of stories and Bible content offer a consistent and accurate narrative that teaches children about God, our relationship to him, and his plan of salvation in Christ and what this means for their lives?
Is it written in appropriate language that communicates the message of Scripture?
Does it adequately communicate the important themes of Scripture story by story, or section by section and avoid selectivity that distorts?
Is it illustrated well and in a way that is engaging and helpful for children in communicating the above?
Do they help parents to introduce the message of the Bible to their children and for older children; does it help to develop habits of daily Bible reading and study?

Some early attempts at Children's Bible apps

As yet, there have been relatively few attempts to turn children's Bible stories into apps for iPad, iPhone or Android devices. Some of the early examples are a little mixed in quality and generally leave me wondering why they would bother. I have to confess, that I struggle to see how app versions offer many more possibilities than book versions. Having said this, some adults and children will want to use them, and there certainly appears to be a market for them. App versions of children's Bibles should be able to satisfy all of the above criteria that I use to judge quality as well as two more:
Does the various app features increase engagement with the biblical story or distract from it?
Is the app easy to use for children and parents?

Pretty much all of the early attempts to turn the Bible into apps fail in one way or another. Some fail on many fronts.

'Children's Bible' by Barcelona Media presents the Bible in comic format with a new story each week. You can download a free comic and then purchase additional copies. Some children will enjoy the comic format but they offer little more than traditional story forms, and while suitable for independent reading for children aged 6-10 are bigger on style and format than attention to content.

Christful Apps has also produced a number of apps that present separate Bible stories in varied formats, including 'Baby Jesus'  'Jonah', 'Easter Story'  'The Beginning - Let There be Light' and 'Adam and Eve'. I sampled the 'Easter Story' from the Christful collection and was a little disappointed. My primary concerns were that the language of translation was at times limited and repetitive, and the translation left out elements of the Easter story and in doing so inaccurately presented it (e.g. the sequence of Jesus' appearance to his followers after his resurrection). As well, the app features some limited movement of parts of the generally static images that were basic and in places almost comical (e.g. Jesus' ascension) due to the artificial and one-dimensional nature of the movement.

Apps from Copenhagen Publishing House

The work being done by Copenhagen Publishing House is the best of what I have reviewed so far and I would encourage them to keep improving what they have achieved so far. There seems to have been progress in this publisher's work over their successive efforts and desire to present the Bible faithfully. While I don't think they have succeeded in some of the choices they have made with text, the examples I looked at had many good qualities. I will comment on two separate apps.

My First Bible Stories'My First Bible Stories' is a collection of favourite Bible stories for children aged 3 and up (probably 5 or 6 years would be the top of the range). The stories are well illustrated and have appropriate well-written texts.  You can download the first story free ('Noah and the Ark') and then you can add the other stories by simply scrolling through camera screen to the other stories. One problem with this is that it makes it much too easy for children to simply download more stories if the owner of the device is logged in to iTunes. The stories include:

Noah and the Ark (FREE DOWNLOAD)
Adam and Eve and the story of The Creation
David and Goliath
Daniel and the Lions
When Jesus Was Born
Stories Jesus Told
Miracles of Jesus
The Story of Easter

The apps have three different recording options, with a delightful 'default' voice reading. As well, the child can read and record their own voice or have their parents or others record the stories.  You can also turn the voice off allowing the stories to be read with the child. I haven't had time to read every story closely but I was a little frustrated when sampling 'Adam and Eve and the story of The Creation' to find a few examples of 'loose' translation. One example is the presentation of Eve to Adam as his 'partner' rather than the biblically more accurate translation of 'helper'. There were other examples where the text in its selectivity of biblical content (as it must be for kids) left out key elements of the story. The most dramatic example is the failure of the text to mention the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden.

The story ends with Adam and Eve being  'happy together':
'[T]hey loved each other and did not have to worry about anything. They had plenty of food and did not have to fear bad things for there was nothing bad. And the best thing was that late in the afternoon as the day cooled God came and they walked with God in the garden. God had now finished creating everything. So, on day seven God did not create anything. Instead God rested and enjoyed everything He had created in six days. God looked at all He had made and said, "It is very good. Everything is just perfect".'
While the developers might argue that they have just presented the creation story to the point at which Eve is made, leaving out the end of the story in the garden, fails to meet my criteria for a good children's Bible. It is hardly a satisfactory end to the story; the entry of sin into the world through Adam and Eve is obviously a key plank in the Bible's story of God's rebellious people.

The app is also a little annoying in that it is hard to navigate back and forward. For example, when you reach the last page it takes you back to the beginning with no ability to move backwards once you leave the last page.

'Toddler Bible - The Carry Along Bible'

This second app from Copenhagen Publishing House has overcome all of my frustrations with navigation that I experienced with the first app. It incorporates a range of additional features, including clear buttons at the front end for the varied options of 'Read to me', 'Read My Self', 'Record' (with 3 buttons for different versions)'. There is also an up front information button, a menu, a clear 'Home' button on every page and a more sophisticated page turn (though the page turn noise annoyed me).

The app also incorporates sound effects throughout, and some level of animation on every page (mainly movement of characters etc).  The text is also a little more faithful to the Scripture but again it leaves out some key bits. For example, the Bible ends with the ascension of Jesus with no mention of his ultimate return and the judgement to come, nor a clear articulation of our responsibility to repent and believe. It is possible to present a short version of the message of the Bible with all key elements of the biblical narrative present. I'd encourage the developers to keep working at this. We need to avoid assuming that children aren't ready for the tough bits. My daughter reported a delightful example of my eldest grandson picking up an error in a children's Bible aged six (here) that shows that kids can understand all elements of the Bible's key message. If children are being well taught about the message of the Bible they will begin to see the inconsistencies for themselves, but some children won't. I'd hope that a good children's Bible would actually reinforce the key elements of God's plan of salvation for the children as well as the parents as they share it with their children.

I'd encourage all developers of children's Bible apps to spend a lot of time thinking about the way biblical content is presented accurately. It actually needs to be given at least equal priority to the useability and attractiveness of the app. While some of the earliest attempts simply present existing children's Bibles to apps, using the most accurate text is a priority.

Other Posts on Children's Bibles

'Nurturing Spirituality in Your Kids' HERE
'Resources for teaching children: Children's Bibles' HERE
Another review of iPhone apps HERE

Sunday, 11 September 2011

In Memory of 9/11


The 9th of September 2001 was a day of horror millions of people around thew world. I sat in my 'safe' suburban home in Sydney late one Tuesday night watching the late night news with my daughter who was 21 at the time. It was an ordinary sort of day, I had just returned from Sydney Missionary Bible College, where I was doing some study, and she had been doing some university work that night. The news was interrupted by reports of a plane hitting a building in New York. What followed was two hours of television horror as we watched the dreadful events unfold.

The memories and shock are still vivid, how much more so for the people directly affected by the tragedy and who were living in New York, Washington or Shanksville Pennsylvania. But in some way everyone who watched those events has been affected in varied ways. The impact continues.

The images below capture the events of the week before, at the time of the attacks and since the tragedy of that day.

9/11 The Week Before

9/11 The Day of the Attacks

9/11 The Decade Since

A 'Hat Tip' to 'TRIABLOGUE' for pointing to these photos from The Atlantic: In Focus with Alan Taylor. Alan originally created them when he worked at The Boston Globe: The Big Picture

Two Psalms come to mind on this memorial day, Psalm 23 and Psalm 77
1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.

4Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

5You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
forever.

HT: A 'Hat Tip' to 'TRIABLOGUE' for pointing to

Monday, 5 September 2011

Beauty in the 'dappled' things of life

On 23rd August Rhonda Watson died less than three years after hearing that she had Motor Neurone Disease. She was a 58 year-old wife, mother, grandmother, daughter and sister. She was also a wonderful teacher and talented writer. She was a personal friend, fellow church member, fellow Bible study member and sister in Christ.

At her funeral last week many wonderful things were said about her. A recurring theme was her love of writing and of language. Words were so important to her, and continued to be right up to her death. But Motor Neurone Disease took away her ability to talk in the early stages of the disease and so much of her last two years of life were spent without the ability to speak. But while she lacked speech, she wrote many things. These included notes and emails and a newspaper article titled 'This (speechless) life' (here). The latter shared her experience living without the ability to speak. One of the things she found helpful was to write letters to herself as she struggled day by day. She was inspired to do this after reading how Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher, had written letters to fictitious recipients.  She wrote these to remind herself "...about what gave [her] life meaning [and] to speak to [herself]..".

Eventually Rhonda decided that the things she was writing and the readings that she found helpful, might just be helpful for others in the midst of their own struggles. They were turned into a book and were published not long before her death.

'Remember: The things that matter when hope is hard to find' was published by IVP and contains poetry, literature, theological and philosophical writings, and biblical texts that helped and inspired her. She describes the book this way:
"This little book is my response and my effort to 'talk to myself' wisely, gently and yet firmly.."
It is a remarkable little book of 192 pages. It is a personal devotion that shares the texts she found helpful, her comments on them, some of her prayers and responses, and some of the wisdom born in the struggles of her life each day.  The book has eight sections:
Beauty and ugliness
Silence and speech
Fear and trust
Thankfulness and bitterness
Joy and grief
Delight and despair
Awake or asleep?
Life and death

She opens the first section of the book by reflecting on what it means to be ugly. Increasingly, in her last 2-3 three years of life, Rhonda spent most of her days alone with no one to impress. She pondered, "What is ugliness? What is beauty? Does being 'beautiful' really matter?"

She recalled Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem, 'Pied Beauty'.
Glory be to God for dappled things -
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles in all stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

She reflected on Hopkins' poem and how he saw 'dappled', unusual, 'strange' and different things bringing glory to God.

"Their very strangeness is cause for praise to their creator. He sees something that strikes him as beautiful and praises its maker. He who 'fathers-forth' is the only one whose beauty is 'past change'. The speckled, imperfect, unusual, and dappled creatures are as they are; it is in the creator that beauty is found. He is beauty."

Rhonda finished this section with Psalm 27 in which King David speaks of God's true beauty and his desire "to gaze upon it". Finally she reminds us that in Christ we see this true beauty, for at the cross Jesus gave himself as a sacrifice for those with nothing to commend them. He gave up the beauty of God for the ugliness of the death that we deserve. But for Rhonda the resurrection that followed Jesus death was in her words "a beautiful moment of sweet victory over all that is marred and wrecked by sin" (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). Rhonda knew that the ugliness of Motor Neurone Disease and the death she would suffer, would be defeated and removed by the 'beauty' and perfection of Christ.

'Remember' is a wonderful devotional book that is a significant legacy that will help many people. It is an encouragement to those of us who knew Rhonda and, who also trust in Christ, to realise that Christ's victory is now Rhonda's victory too.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Theology and the future: A practical matter


Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons
As I wrote in a previous post, the New College Lectures this year will have the theme 'Theology and the Future'. They will be held on the 27-29 September at New College at the University of New South Wales. This is an important series of lectures of great practical significance. While for some, the title might suggest otherwise, our speakers will tussle with this very practical theme, and demonstrate that theology has great relevance for life. What we believe about God should influence how we understand the past, live within the present and contemplate the future.

In an edited collection of essays in honour of Jürgen Moltmann titled 'The Future of Theology' (1996) Miroslav Volf suggests that Theology is important not just to think "..from the perspective of God's future but also towards a new human future." Volf frames this collection of essays by outlining a few of the serious challenges of theology:
1. Plurality - We inhabit a plurality of often contradictory social worlds and we are surrounded by a plurality of cultures that are moving ever closer. This is associated with a plurality of theologies.
2. Marginalisation of theology - There has been a progressive marginalisation of theology in the public discourse (I have discussed this in previous posts here & here).
3. Increased specialisation and abstraction - Academic theology has seen increased specialisation that has led to narrower areas of research and scholarship and higher levels of abstraction that fail to connect with parishioners.
4.  The challenge of social issues - Beyond the moral challenges of our time, we need to consider how theology addresses significant social issues such as concern for happiness and misery, the life, death and suffering of millions, ecological crisis, poverty, issues of gender and sexuality, intersecting and overlapping forms of oppression and so on.

The challenges that Volf and others identified in 1996 are still some of the many challenges we face today, in fact, some are more intense than ever. Where should theology focus its attention? Volf asks:

"Do these problems singly or together require a radical rethinking of classical Christian perspectives on God, humanity, and the world, or would attempts at minor adjustments or even retrieval of genuine Christian tradition be more appropriate?"

Theology is an immensely practical pursuit. What could have more relevant for the Christian than understanding what they know of God and the implications this knowledge has for their relationship to him, their life in the world and indeed, their future? It isn't trivial to say that our theology has a relationship to how we dress, how we drive, how we parent, pay our bills, plan our futures, choose partners and so on. Tim Chester has even discussed the theology of washing up! But does the average Christian think this way? Why do so many (even within the church) fail to see the practical implications of theology for life and our future?

Volf asks the question:
"Could it be that the problem is not so much that theological language is foreign but that theologians themselves are deracinated - they have severed their ties with concrete communities of faith, the sole crucibles in which the virtues and practices of which they speak can be forged in culturally specific ways, and become free floating intellectuals, proudly suspended by their superior knowledge above the hustle and bustle of ecclesial life, speaking from nowhere to nobody in particular?"

Volf is writing for theologians but the laity cannot escape the claims. Is part of the problem of Christianity's loss of relevance in the public square that far too few of us consider what our theology is, how it is supported by Scripture and what relevance it has for our lives? How often do we fail to comment on all manner of social issues? How seriously do we apply our theological understanding to life? Indeed, how different are our lives to those who completely reject theology?

I can't promise that our lectures will answer all these questions (they cannot), but they are not to be missed because I have no doubt that they will be challenging.

New College Lectures

The three speakers we have chosen to share their perspectives on this theme are:

Prof John McDowell (Newcastle University) will consider 'Theology & the Future of Education'
Rev Dr David Starling (Morling College) will consider 'Theology & the Future of the Church'
Rev Dr Michael Jensen (Moore College) will consider 'Theology & the Future of Humanity'

Each speaker will be followed by a discussant who will respond briefly before we have open questions. The discussants will include Archbishop Peter Jensen.

27-29 September, 2011 at New College, UNSW Sydney, 7.30pm - 9.00pm

Special Edition of Case Magazine

We have also asked our lecturers to write articles based on their addresses for the September edition of Case Magazine (this will be released just after the Lectures). In addition to the above speakers we have asked two other theologians to write for the same edition of the magazine:

Dr Greg Clarke (Bible Society) will write on 'Theology & the Future of the Bible'
Dr Rhys Bezzant (Ridley College) will write on 'Theology & the Future of Worship'

The above edition of our quarterly magazine will be available to regular subscribers and on sale as a single issue just after the New College Lectures.