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 J├╝rgen 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

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.