Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
The Puritans have had a bad press it would be fair to say! Their close association with Oliver Cromwell and the extremes of the Protectorate have damaged their reputation as much as their much parodied hatred of anything that might be enjoyable! Within theological history, their reputation has often fared little better, with their Sabbatarianism often appearing Pharasaical, and their theological writing being sometimes impenetrably turgid. If you saw a chapter heading entitled: "Proposition #843 concerning the relationship between the helmet of salvation and the rest of the armour of God in the great analogy of gospel warfare as depicted by The Apostle Paul in the sixth chapter of his letter to the Ephesians" - you'd know you were amongst the Puritans!
One of the strange things about the contemporary church is that you could almost divide us into two groups; those who faith is "full of emotion" and those who are "into doctrine" One of the glories of this collection of prayers is that they show nothing of this false dichotomy, between heart and head. In fact they show, in the way that the writers were so moved by, impacted by, even overwhelmed by, the doctrine of grace that any separation of the 'the word' and 'The Spirit' is a horrible distortion. For these writers it is the truth of the word, which the Spirit uses to both break and then remake them; which strips away the flawed treasures of earth, only to replace them with a glorious vision of Christ!
Here is one example I read the other night, entitled "The Gift of Gifts", a wonderful meditation for Christmastime:
O SOURCE OF ALL GOOD,
What shall I render to thee for the gift of gifts,
thine own dear Son,
begotten, not created,
my Redeemer, proxy, substitute,
his self-emptying incomprehensible,
his infinity of love beyond the heart's grasp.
Herein is wonder of wonders:
he came below to raise me above,
was born like me that I may become like him.
Herein is love:
when I cannot rise to him, he draws near on wings of grace,
to raise me to himself.
Herein is power;
when Deity and humanity were infinitely apart
he united them in indissoluble unity,
the created and the uncreated.
Herein is wisdom;
when I was undone, with no will to return to him,
and no intellect to devise recovery,
he came, God-incarnate, to save me to the uttermost,
as a man to die my death
to shed satisfying blood on my behalf,
to work out a perfect
righteousness for me.
Oh God, take me in spirit to the watchful shepherds,
and enlarge my mind;
let me hear good tidings of great joy,
and hearing, believe,
rejoice, praise, adore,
my conscience bathed
in an ocean of repose,
my eyes uplifted to a reconciled Father;
place me with ox, ass, camel,
goat, to look with them upon my
and in him account
myself delivered from sin;
let me with Simeon clasp the new-born child
to my heart,
embrace him with undying faith,
exulting that he is mine
and I am his.
In him thou hast given me so much
that heaven can give
Friday, December 18, 2009
"At all times there must be absolute equity"... this apparently is the golden parenting rule, when you have two boys amongst your collection of offspring. So, having completed the decoration of "Boris'" room; attacking "Norris'" one very shortly thereafter was not a choice to be made, but a job to be done! The house stinks of paint, I stink of paint, all 'Norris' clothes and toys are stacked around the house, (which is descending into chaos), while 'Norris' himself has taken up residence on the floor of our bedroom - a position from which he was last dispatched when he was but a few weeks old!
Decorating is a dreadful job. Messy, malodorous, annoying, expensive, time-consuming and frustrating enough to either purge the mind of any perfectionist tendencies, or alternatively propel a die-hard perfectionist into apoplexy or therapy . Unlike almost every other type of housework however - decorating is something which makes a real difference to the way the house feels, does give a sense of satisfaction in its completion, and which doesn't need to be repeated again within 24hrs!
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
There are several books which follow the "three views" or "four views" format, of being a round table discussion amongst theologians who disagree on an aspect of Christian faith. Each author is invited to submit an essay defending his/her position, the others are invited to comment upon it, and the initial author allowed a final word. The format works very well as a means for charting the landscape of an area of controversy.
Bruce Ware's defence of believers-only-baptism (anti-paedobaptism) is standard stuff, (i) links with the OT model of circumcision are weak, (ii) all provable NT examples of baptism are of believers and (iii) anything further is too dependant on arguments from silence, plus some critiques of the theological moves needed to justify paedo-baptism. Sinclair Ferguson's essay in defence of infant-baptism is magisterial (!), arguing less from individual proof texts, but from the form and shape of the grand-narrative of biblical-covenant-theology. This essay is probably the best explanation of the practice of infant baptism that I have read, and I would suggest that any baptist who wants to understand why their Presbyterian or Anglican friends have baptised their infants should start here. Especially devastating is Ferguson's complete demolition of the usual credo-baptist argument that suggests that Reformed paedo-baptism militates against the proclamation of the gospel or a full-blooded doctrine of regeneration! In Ferguson's hands, baptism (both of believers and their children) is a Christ-exalting sacrament which represents the gospel of God, and his initiative in the redemption of sinners - contrariwise, he seeks to present Bruce Ware's essay as reducing baptism to celebrating merely human response to the gospel! The two authors admit that their discussion at this stage reaches an impasse.
The surprising extra view comes from Anthony N.S. Lane, of the London School of Theology, who espouses a "dual-practice" view. Lane finds much merit in both Ware and Ferguson's proposals; but ultimately thinks that neither offer a water-tight (!) case against the other position. His view is that the New Testament is completely silent on the matter of the initiation of 2nd generation believers (Acts = 'missionary baptisms'), and that both credo-baptists and paedo-baptists have essentially filled in the silences in different ways as they have constructed their theologies! Additionally Lane is alone in examining the missiological context in which baptismal theologies have been worked out, pointing out that while some very group-orientated cultures find anti-paedobaptism unfathomable; the baptist movement was a direct result of the rise of modern western radical individualism. As such, Lane believes that as arguments from silence are useful but not binding, the church should embrace both forms of baptism - each household making the hard choices about when to baptise their children. What Lane insists upon is that Christian conversion must consist of four initiatory elements, (i) baptism (ii) faith in Christ (iii) repentance for sin (iv) reception of the Holy Spirit. What his view does not permit is any form of division within the church over the precise order in which these elements have occurred - as long as they are present. Ware and Ferguson are in turn intrigued, and wary of Lane's view. Basically, they both agree that it is unworkable in the realities of church life.
If you are interested in the debates surrounding Christian baptism (with a Protestant context), this book is must - a quite splendid laying out of issues and probing of their strengths of the various views.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
The unusual nature of the film is apparent from the opening scene in which all the action is taken from the visual perspective of an unseen narrator. It very soon becomes clear that the narrator is a contemporary with us, yet he is entering the Hermitage (formerly the Tsar's Winter Palace) two centuries ago; furthermore, not only can we not see him - but neither can the other people in the room! That is - all except one, The Marquis de Custine - a French travel writer who indeed visited the city and wrote of his experiences in 1839. The 'slipping in and out of time' idea is most amusingly illustrated when two characters from different centuries meet - and have a row about which one of them smells of formaldehyde!
The narrator and Custine then together explore The Hermitage - Russia's former Imperial Palace and now enormous art gallery. Curiously however - as they enter each room they enter a different time-zone and encounter hundreds of characters from across three centuries. Some of these characters can see them, some can't - always they observe and absorb. Whether it is the art on the walls, The Tsar's family happily eating while a revolution brews at their gates, or Peter the Great assaulting a servant, or Catherine the Great running for the toilet, or a great Imperial banquet taking place in the 1860s - all are observed.
As if that wasn't strange enough (and dear knows it would be!) the film is also a cinematographical oddity, in that the whole film is one single unedited scene. For the whole hour and a half, the camera doesn't 'blink' once! With a cast of thousands, an astonishing backdrop, incredible costumes, and the constant changing or eras, with famous, infamous and unheard of characters drifting in and out of the frame - it is visually so unusual as to be utterly compelling.
Frankly it needs all these strange goings on to keep the viewer concentrating (and reading the occasionally confusing subtitles) as this film is almost entirely devoid of plot or character. What little plot there is consists of the Marquis de Custine being gradually persuaded of the value of Russian culture - as preserved 'ark-like' in the magnificent Hermitage museum. He begins being rather disparaging about the building as compared to say, The Vatican but by the time they reach the enormous Imperial Ball which closes the film he seems enraptured. The very final scene explains much of what has preceded - outside the Hermitage, we discover that it is surrounded by water, and is in fact a cultural ark carrying within it, centuries of Russian history, art, and culture, which lives on despite the 'floods' of wars, invasions, revolutions, civil-wars, executions, dictators and all the other convulsions of that great nation's past.
I found this film as bizarre as it was charming, and as strange as it was compelling. Whether that is because of the strange subject, or the strange presentation I don't know. Maybe it's simply because I have studied so much Russian history and spent a day exploring The Hermitage itself - that I thought that this film so perfectly captures the feel of the place and all that it represents so brilliantly. What I am sure of is this - if you like your films standardised, from the Hollywood production line - you'll hate this one!
Wednesday, December 09, 2009
To be honest, the book raises a few genuine laughs, attacks some very worthy targets - but mostly causes a kind of gentle wry amusement of the kind that leads to a raised eyebrow rather than a voluminous belly-laugh.
Most of all though this book is rather smug. Imagine Ian Hislop doing his smuggest - smuggy grin, - that's how smug this book is. Hislop himself only actually wrote the introduction which is quite entertainingly self effacing as he does his 'I'm hopelessly out of touch with the young' routine so well.
All in all, this book isn't worth the £10- rrp, but if you see it in the bargain bucket for 50p it can lightly amuse, fill a spare hour or a train journey.
Tuesday, December 08, 2009
In order to achieve his aim, he does two things. Firstly he rehearses the standard Baptist New Testament exegesis of the most contested texts. This he does with mixed success; on some texts he advances some flimsy arguments that simply belie his underlying assumptions, whilst on others he manages to successfully hole Covenant theology below the water line (woeful pun intended!).
So far so good. What comes next however is quite unusual. Watson, to his credit is brave enough to actually offer an anti-paedobaptist critique of the classic Presbyterian view of Covenant Baptism. (I remember being pressured by some ardent baptists on the subject. When I asked them the basis on which they specifically rejected Calvin etc. on the subject, it was blank looks all round!). Thankfully Watson has done his groundwork here, he is fully conversant with key views on baptism within Presbyterian (etc) thought from the Reformation to the 20th Century, and he offers a detailed - and sometimes persuasive critique. There is though at the heart of his argument here a gaping hole - in fact an embarrassingly monumental logical gaffe. His method of argument is to demonstrate that for each pillar upon which covenantal paedo-baptism rests, there is a paedo-baptist theologian who has gone into print to refute it; only leaving him to conclude that believers-baptism is the only credible option. Although he does make good points on the way, and amasses a fascinating array of quotations - the problem is that the structure of his argument is deeply flawed. Firstly, just because there is disagreement within a body of work, doesn't automatically invalidate every aspect of it - that much is obvious. Secondly though, what Watson seems to be completely unaware of (or perhaps just quietly ignoring!), is the fact that a Presbyterian could perform exactly the same exercise on an array of Believers Baptist literature! For instance, Watson and Jewett could be used to undercut each other on whether or not the children of believers have any special place in the church (Watson, no; Jewett yes) - or we could line him up against the American independent churches that practice Believers Baptism but refute Baby dedication; then we could line Spurgeon up against the current trend in Baptist churches towards a more sacramentally efficacious Believers-Baptism! Similarly we could turn Baptist upon Baptist in terms of their understanding of the relationship between Water and Spirit Baptism! Using Watson's method it would be easy for a Presbyterian to conclude (mirror-ing Watson) that paedo-baptism is therefore the only viable option! The fact remains that detailed spade-work through acres of paedo-baptist texts is essentially pointless when marshalled in so obviously flawed a way. Without the transparency of admitting that his own position is not one without difficulties, problems and complexities, to interact with; his method descends from discussion to polemic.
The other significant problem with this book, is the deployment of the 'fallacy of the excluded middle' - that is to say the establishment of a false dichotomy of extremes, ignoring moderating options. Watson sadly resorts to such measures on several key points in the book especially where he seeks to move from principles to application. He is so keen to play strict paedo-baptists against strict baptists like himself, that he is entirely unwilling to examine any of the many believers through history who have not interpreted the matter in such overtly confrontational terms. So we get no Bunyan, no Lloyd-Jones and no F.F. Bruce with his famous desire to be a "Baptist but not an Anabaptist"; having a preference for Believers Baptism but not making the re-baptism of those he saw as baptised prematurely, an article of faith! Another critical ommission in this vein is Karl Barth, who did so much in the 20th Century to undermine paedo-baptism, but for whom re-baptism of those so baptised remained a blasphemy, an 'insult' to God!! Likewise no hint of David F. Wright, for whome baptism needs to be reformed within denominations, and is not cause to abandon them. The weight of such exclusions is to the great detriment of the book.
Intriguingly, while Hodge and Vos and their views are given a chapter each, the thorny issue of 're-baptism' is dismissed in a single sentence - as is the requirement to leave paedo-baptist denominations without reference to fruitfulness of ministry in that context! In so doing he makes the assumption that the reader, if persuaded by his attack on paedo-baptism, will automatically share his view that the sequence of the biblical command to "repent and be baptized" is the sole determining factor in the question of 're'baptism, and denominational affiliation. Of course he treats that text as a disembodied proposition, not part of a narrative; but that's really beside the point. What is more suspect is that Baptists frequently don't complete the sentence - because in Acts 2 Peter's actual order of events is (i) repentance - (ii)baptism - (iii)reception of the Holy Spirit - yet no argument is successfully formulated to demonstrate why the sequence is not binding in its third element! Some Baptist might be so bold as to argue that only Believers' Baptists actually have the Spirit, but the historical verification of such a position would be laughable. I remember having a baptismal interview when I was a student, with two leaders of a baptist church which descended into farce on this very point. One arguing that the sequence is vital (and that by implication paedo-baptists don't have the Spirit!) and the other arguing that that was plainly ridiculous (Wesley, Whitfield, McCheyne etc) but then not being so sure on why the sequence of the first two elements was then so definingly critical! (it wasn't a great evening).
Sadly, after ignoring all the moderating positions, and the views of those like Martyn Lloyd-Jones who strove not to make the Baptism issue a point of division between believers, and who served in a denomination with whom he had some disagreements on the matter (a very odd omission indeed as in the introduction Watson seeks to verify his Reformed credentials with a bit of DML-J name dropping!); the book ends on a sour note. Rather than seeking like Lloyd-Jones to place the issue in its proper context as a secondary non-divisive issue, Watson concludes his book with a double insult. The penultimate chapter calls paedo-baptists regressors into paganism, and the final chapter subtly entitled "the evils of infant baptism" says that it undermines the gospel. At least in Paul Jewett's book arguing in favour of Believers Baptism he says that the matters are so fiendishly complex, that at very least there should be sympathy, charity and understanding offered between sides.
If T.E. Watson was still alive today, I'd write to him and ask him to re-write this book. When he is in good form, arguing from the New Testament for his preference for witholding baptism until a credible profession of faith has been made - he is actually persuasive. What marrs the book is his handling of those he disagrees with, his hasty leaps from principle to practice, his somewhat divisive approach, his ignoring inconvenient moderate positions, and his lack of humility about similar problems which exist within his own camp. I suspect if he had stuck to the good bits, he would have won more people to his point of view.
I have subsequently had a book entitled, "Baptism: Three Views" recommended to me, it looks fascinating and which I plan to read next. The fact that it has "3" views is immediately encouraging in the light of some of my criticisms of Watson (above).
Saturday, December 05, 2009
The book consists of eighteen essays on the interaction of culture and Christology, demonstrating the way in which they have influenced each other. In Pelikan's account, Jesus appears initially cloaked in the language and imagery of a Jewish Rabbi, but when the gospel is transmitted to the Gentiles, the image of Jesus becomes less Jewish, and instead the emphasis is upon Jesus as the 'Logos', the word, the fulfillment less of the Old Testament - than of Greek philosophical tradition. With breathtaking ease, and a quite astonishing range of knowledge and sources Pelikan continues his journey through the Christological debates of the 3/4 centuries, monasticism, Reformation, Enlightenment, Romanticism, Liberation and Universalism.
Personally, how much I gleaned from each of the 18 essays was somewhat dependant on the background knowledge which I brought to them. Some of the patristic stuff, the Reformation and Liberation theology related chapters I found straightforward enough (the blurb does say that the book is pitched at the interested lay reader!), yet one or two chapters such as that on the Romantic movement, with many references to poets and authors like Emerson I found required some concentration!
The surprise of the book was that the final chapter suggested a late 20th Century dichotomy between particularity and universalism, with Re-thinking Missions, the definitive document of a christian universalism, Karl Barth's career a re-statement of particularity, and Vatican II, seeking to affirm elements of both. Whether or not Pelikan wished to leave the reader with a sense of his own persuasions on the matter I don't know - but the book did come to a conclusion weighted heavily towards universalism. All in all however this is inspiring and instructive reading. It is illuminating to see how the church over two thousand years has sought to hold together three essential things, (i) the Christ of Faith, (ii) the historical Jesus (iii) who together satisfies contemporary questions. We judge some of them to have got this right, others to have lost their grip on one or two elements of it. This in turn provides us with the humility to assume that we don't manage that perfectly in our own day; but the thought that the more we think, learn, and pray - the image of Jesus will clarify for us. Of course, we will only see through a glass darkly, this side of glory, and complete vision will elude us until then. Books like this, though are a fascinating map of our journey thus far.
Another top book recommendation from Dr Stumpy Greenisland, I might add.
Friday, December 04, 2009
Wednesday, December 02, 2009
Fantastically produced and with a sound-track that is achingly beautiful, this film is at once, charming, bizarre, funny, endearing and ultimately curiously moving. The dynamics of the band of eccentrics who pursue this ludicrous dream are fascinating, the planning and the risk-taking is breathtaking and Petit's reaction to constantly being asked "why" he did it - so gloriously French that it is just fabulous! ("I have done something so wonderful, so beautiful and you come along and ask "why", "why?" - there is no why!")
This is the oddest, and perhaps most wonderful DVD I have seen in a very long time. To spend an hour and a half immersed in the strange world of Phillipe Petit; courtesy of this utterly beguiling film, is as endearing as it is terrifyingly bizarre. Utterly captivating.
Tuesday, December 01, 2009
Mark Thomas writes with passion, anger, wit, eloquence and an appalling overuse of foul language. He also rants, (but ranting with style, is OK by me). The result is hardly a balanced or nuanced discussion, but a deliberate attempt to marshall all the evidence to persuade the reader not to purchase Coke again - and to stimulate a grass-roots alternative to the shiny corporate image which Coca-Cola spends billions every year marketing. In this task he is very successful and persuasive.
Of particular note are three things. Firstly Coca-Cola's refusal to take coherent responsibility for the whole "Coca-Cola System". That is to say that while the company makes the syrup for all Coke - mixing and bottling is carried out by franchisees, whose malevolent actions Coke seeks to distance itself from. The reason that this is disingenuous is that (i) Coke control all other aspects of mixing, branding, marketing, site location etc - but claim not to be able to ensure basic workers rights, which is unpersuasive (ii) Coke actually own/control most of these sub-contracted firms (iii) Coke actively claim responsibility for any good that these sub-contractors claim e.g. number of jobs created by 'Coca-Cola'! Thomas' book is a sustained demand that Coca-Cola actively take responsibility for the whole system - ensuring that what happens in communities and bottling plants throughout the world actually follows the fine-sounding policy documents and corporate social-responsibility documents regularly published by the head-office.
Secondly, Thomas' book exposes the way on which Coca-Cola consistently refused to be drawn on any of the key issues about effects of their business model on vulnerable people in countries as diverse as Peru, Mexico or India. Lists of unanswered questions, corporate spin, interviews avoided and misleading press releases all make a sorry tale of a company happy to make huge profits in the developing world, but deeply resistant to challenges to the many ills which take place under its logo. Following reading the book I went to the Coca-Cola website, and trawled their press-releases to see if there were refutations of any of the specific claims made in the book, and in the Channel 4 Dispatches programme that accompanied it. I was surprised to find not one mention of any of the issues involved, and the company essentially being in denial about it - focusing instead on relentless promotion of their brand image.
Thirdly the book highlights the stories of many of the people and movements throughout the world who are seeking to resist the dominance of, and exploitation they have suffered at the hands of Coca-Cola; from bottling plants where to join the union can mean death or beatings, to Indian villagers whose wells have dried -up because of Coke's excess water-extraction, to other soft-drink producers who have had illegal and shockingly brutal campaigns against them by Coke seeking to maintain its monopoly in a market.
Finally the book is entitled "Belching out the devil" because on one of Thomas' trips he discovers a fringe Catholic cult, who use Coke (and its gaseous after-effects) in bizarre exorcism ceremonies. Paradoxically, of course, Thomas is asking us to see that he devil of the piece is the sugary brown fizzy stuff itself, and the irresponsible actions of the global corporation who make it. A fascinating read.