Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Frank Viola interviews NT Wright

Two of my favourite authors, one interviewing the other. Frank Viola and NT (Tom) Wright. Viola writes about a different way of being church (right up my street) and Wright is one of the UK's most famous theologians, writer of a series of Bible study guides and a rather epic trilogy all about the origins and early development of Christianity.

Here is a link to the interview, so have a look if you're a fan of either Wright or Viola.

Confession - this post is part of a 'plug your blog' day on Frank Viola's blog. But both he and Wright are genuinely two of my favourite Christian writers!

Sunday, 26 February 2012

I am learning

There's an aspect of my character that I've been trying to work on for some time now, probably for two years or more. I've made the odd positive step over that time but then slipped back again and it was all getting very frustrating. I strongly felt that God had highlighted something that he wanted to improve in me but I just wasn't really getting anywhere.

Well... I'm delighted to say that I can very clearly see some progress! In this specific area, I do think I'm becoming a little bit more like Jesus. What's particularly interesting is the things that have helped me get to this point. It's not been sermons (more on that here), it's not been books (new ideas don't always bring character transformation), and it's not even been praying. What's made the difference is seeing close at hand the lives of two mighty women of God who serve and love people relentlessly and joyfully. Simply through their lives, they are showing me how to be like Jesus and I am tremendously grateful to them. I'm reminded again that people are amazing...

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Badly translated Bible – mustard seeds and birds of the air

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed planted in a field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of garden plants; it grows into a tree, and birds come and make nests in its branches.

This little parable is found in the first three Gospels, with the version above being taken from Matthew 13:31-32. There's a lot in these two short verses that we might miss, simply because we aren't first century Jews. Apparently, one of the problems facing gardeners of Jesus' time was how to keep out mustard. It was very quick-growing and invasive, like Japanese knotweed and stinging nettles in the UK nowadays. So ancient Jewish gardeners weren't fond of mustard! Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw put it like this in their book, Jesus for President:

When those first-century peasants heard Jesus' images, they probably giggled, or maybe they told him to hush before he got himself killed for using this infamous plant to describe God's kingdom subtly taking over the world.
So that's a bit of context we won't notice if we aren't aware of how ancient Jews viewed the mustard plant. There's more to come, though, and this is the part that gets into the territory of badly translated Bible. The 'birds' that Jesus said would make nests in the mustard tree's branches were not powerful, noble eagles or the like, instead they were the unclean birds that farmers and gardeners didn't want anywhere near their land. Quoting from Jesus for President again:
Jesus... said the “fowls” can come and rest in the branches of the mustard bush. The fowls are not the mighty eagles that would dwell in the cedar [see, for example, Numbers 24:6 and Psalm 104:16] but the detestable birds, the ones that ate animal carcasses (Gen. 15:11; Deut 28:26). Farmers didn't want fowls in their garden. That's why they put up scarecrows. Bless his heart, Jesus was saying the Kingdom of God is “for the birds”; the undesirables find a home in this little bush.
Jesus chose his parables and metaphors so well, yet we miss much of his meaning if we don't dig a little bit into the culture of his time. And we could miss the real significance of Jesus likening his kingdom to the mustard plant – 'a wild contagion of a weed, a healing balm, a sign of upside-down power – official sponsor of the Jesus revolution'.

Previous posts in the Badly Translated Bible series

Did Jesus get the future wrong?

Looking at Mark 13:30, did Jesus predict his second coming within the next 30 years or so?

Seek first God's kingdom...
Matthew 6:33 - should it be God's kingdom and his righteousness, or is 'justice' a better translation. What difference does it make?

Friday, 24 February 2012


Someone dear to me, and even more dear to several of my friends, passed away a few days ago at the shockingly young age of 40. In the midst of this awful, awful tragedy, I think it's natural to ask (scream, more like) the question 'Why?'. Why does something this unfair, this brutal, happen to someone so good? Being someone who thinks too much, this question has been going round my mind; but for now I want to pay my own little tribute to my friend, whom I'll call Phoebe (although I expect most folks reading this will know who I mean).

I didn't actually know Phoebe all that well, but many of my good friends did and they are just devastated. It seems she was loved and cherished by all who knew her, whether as close friends, workmates or neighbours. Phoebe was known to many in her community, partly because she was involved in running some community activities and also through having children at the local school. I've heard that even people who only had a passing acquaintance with her were in tears at the news of her death. What a legacy.

All this outpouring of grief and the sense of loss makes me wish I knew Phoebe better and reminds me powerfully of a talk I heard at a church meeting recently. The key message from the talk was that we should value eternal things (like people) over temporary things (possessions, status, power and so on); making that which is temporary the servant of that which is permanent. It's like that famous quote: 'Nobody's last words are that they wished they'd spent more time in the office.' Our final thought is not going to be about that car we decided not to buy, or that extra work that we turned down...

So I'm going to redouble my efforts to spend more time with people. People are amazing. I can't know everyone, obviously, not even everyone in my church. But I can spend more time – and better-quality time – with my friends and family; I can also take more opportunities to get to know new people. It's not always my favourite option but it's the better option, I think. Because people are amazing.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Badly translated Bible – did Jesus get the future wrong?

Here's the second part of my series on parts of the Bible that have been translated badly (check out part one if you missed it). Again, I'm looking at something Jesus said, this time in Mark's Gospel:
I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene before all these things take place.
This line is from Mark 13:30, towards the end of a passage that is usually taken to be about Jesus' second coming and the end of this era. Hold on a minute, I hear you say; the generation that Jesus was referring to 'passed from the scene' over 1,900 years ago! Well, yes. And perhaps this is why most versions of the Bible have a little footnote linked to that word 'generation', giving a couple of alternative translations ('age' and 'nation'; I might have seen 'race' too).

The problem with this is that the Greek word in question (genea) clearly means 'generation'. Ancient Greek had different words for 'age' and 'nation', something you can check for yourself by cross-referencing between the Bible Gateway and Scripture for All websites (if you're so inclined). It seems to me that the translators are simply trying to avoid the obvious implication – that Jesus predicted the future incorrectly.

But did he?

Perhaps not. As I mentioned in some detail within my post from last month about the end of the world (click here to have a look), some Bible scholars think Mark 13, and the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke, are actually about the end of the Jewish Temple-based religious system. This makes plenty of sense for at least three reasons:

Firstly, the chapter starts with Jesus talking with his disciples about the Temple. In response to one of the disciples marvelling at the Temple, Jesus says this:
Yes, look at these great buildings. But they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!
At some point afterwards (the text simply says 'later'), Jesus' closest disciples ask him when this will happen and what warning they should look for. It's now that Jesus gives his long account of what will happen and how the disciples should respond; and I think it's sensible to assume they are all still talking about the Temple. No change of subject is indicated.

The second reason for Mark 13 being about the end of Temple-based Judaism begins with Jesus' words in Mark 13:24-25:
At that time, after the anguish of those days: the sun will be darkened, the moon will give no light, the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
I'm sure you're thinking this is classic end-of-the-world language, right? Not so fast. What do you make of these three passages?
The heavens will be black above them; the stars will give no light. The sun will be dark when it rises, and the moon will provide no light.
When I blot you out, I will veil the heavens and darken the stars. I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon will not give you its light.
The earth quakes as they advance, and the heavens tremble. The sun and moon grow dark, and the stars no longer shine… The sun will become dark, and the moon will turn blood red before that great and terrible day of the Lord arrives.
The three texts above are from Old Testament prophets, with each text referring to the fall of a major kingdom or city (not the end of the world). The first passage (Isaiah 13:10) is about Babylon, the second (Ezekiel 32:7) Egypt, and the third passage (Joel 2:10 and 31) concerns the fall of Jerusalem. It seems that ancient Jewish writers had a habit of using dramatic, even over-the-top language to describe what we might call earth-shattering events (oh, we use dramatic language too!).

Finally, the events that Jesus describes in Mark 13 did all take place when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. Far from being a false prophet, Jesus actually foresaw what was soon to happen! In the years leading up to AD 70, there were indeed people claiming they were the Messiah (verse 6), there were wars, earthquakes and famines (v7-8), Christians were persecuted harshly (v9), and there may well have been a great flight from Jerusalem (v14-20 – to a town called Pella).

It's also worth noting that there are a few ideas as to what Jesus might have been on about with the 'sacrilegious object that causes desecration standing where he should not be'. The one I like (which has the merit of explaining why the text says 'where he should not be' rather than 'it') notes that the Jewish resistance leader set up his headquarters in the Temple itself, thus desecrating the place where God's presence was made known to His people.

So there you are. Bible translators bending the text in order to allow a bit of wiggle room in our interpretation of it. It's a shame, really, when there are actually ways of interpreting the passage that are both true to the original language (that little word 'genea') and compatible with what we take from the rest of Scripture (we can't really have Jesus as a false prophet, can we?).

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Lie back and think of England

You might be aware that people these days are, on average, living longer than they used to. I guess most people would think this is a very good thing, but it also brings problems; pensions are being paid out for longer and also the cost of old-age healthcare is increasing. It's been referred to as a 'pensions time-bomb' – we're not saving enough for our retirement. How to defuse this time-bomb then...?

One solution is, of course, to retire later. And we're seeing this; older people are taking part-time jobs after they've retired from their main career and also the age at which you can start claiming the state pension is rising. To be honest, the retirement age should have gone up to something like 75 decades ago, shouldn't it? I couldn't find the exact figures, but when the retirement age was first set at 60 for women and 65 for men, the average expectation was for just a few years of retirement. Now, you can reasonably expect around 20 years (figures at the end of this post) but the statutory retirement age hasn't gone up with the greater life expectancy.

Polly Toynbee
in today's Guardian has a novel solution. Not for her, steady rises to the age at which we can start claiming the state pension. Her idea is to get the birth rate up, so that the economy will get a nice boost once these babies grow up and start working. The increase in tax take will then help us meet the pension liabilities and healthcare costs of those who will be pensioners in twenty years' time or so. Here's an excerpt from the Guardian article:

For decades European families have shrunk, though they were slightly increasing in size before the crash. Alarmed governments face more older people but smaller working populations to sustain them. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average total fertility rate is 1.6 births per woman, when 2.1 is needed to stay stable. Immigration helps, but countries resist large rises. Governments start with the obvious – making older people work longer, retirement age rising with longevity. But what about the birth rate?

I hope you've spotted the slight flaw in Toynbee's plan. I wonder how she proposes to meet the costs when all these new babies are older in years and costing the state rather than contributing to the national coffers. You remember Bernie Madoff and Farepak? Well, Toynbee wants us to implement this marvellous model on a national scale; where the only way of meeting our current liabilities is to get ever more people paying in until... the instigators get thrown in prison, perhaps. It's called a Ponzi Scheme, named after an American fellow called Charles Ponzi who ran a rather impressive (for a time) fraud based on international postage coupons. So it's a well-known way of making money by criminal means but I didn't expect to see it promoted in a national newspaper as a viable way of getting the nation's finances back on track.

Life expectancy statistics

According to the Office for National Statistics at age 65 the average life expectancy is another 18 years for men (i.e. to age 83) and another 20 years for women (to age 85). Back in the early 80s it was 12 years for women and just 6 years for men. I can't find figures further back than this but I expect they used to be even lower earlier in the 20th century.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Is Christianity really being marginalised?

As you might have seen, the UK's High Court has just ruled that a local council was not allowed to have prayers at the start of its official meetings. (Here is the BBC's report.) Some people, such as Lord Carey (the former Archbishop of Canterbury) and the Daily Mail, are bewailing the 'assault on Christianity' that this ruling represents. I'll quote a section or two from the Mail article as they show some of the hysteria that has greeted this decision:
A landmark legal ruling banning the tradition of saying prayers at council meetings was denounced last night as an ‘assault on Britain’s Christian heritage’.

The High Court controversially backed an anti-religious campaign to abolish official acts of worship. Christians and politicians reacted with dismay after a judge overturned centuries of custom by outlawing a town hall in Devon from putting prayers on the formal agenda...

Simon Calvert, of the Christian Institute, said: ‘Prayers have been a part of council meetings for centuries, and many people, either for religious reasons or cultural reasons, see them as a positive part of our national life.

‘It’s a shame the courts have taken sides with those whose goal is to undermine our Christian heritage. It is high time Parliament put a stop to this assault upon our national heritage.’

So, our Christian heritage is under attack because councils aren't allowed to have prayers as part of their official meetings? Well, this Christian couldn't care less. If local councillors who are Christians wish to seek the Lord in prayer before council meetings then they are absolutely free to do so. I don't see anyone looking to ban us Christians from gathering together round each other's houses, in pubs or in our church buildings to pray; do you?

What it seems us Christians are no longer free to do is to pray as an official part of local council meetings. Boo hoo. Times have moved on, people. If we want our democratic bodies to be representative of all sections of the local community, then the way meetings are conducted should (within reason) encourage everyone to feel they can take part if they wish to. Even if all members of a local council are Christians, then having prayers at the start of their meetings might well send the message that only Christians are welcome; or at least that Christian councillors would really be preferred, thank you very much. That's simply not right, in my view.

There's another point, too. You might say how about if all the councillors are Christians and most people in the area are too. Wouldn't it then be all right to have prayers at the start of council meetings? I still don't think so. First, the point remains that those who aren't Christians might feel excluded or unwanted; and the Christian councillors can still pray together before their meetings officially start, in order to avoid sending any message of exclusion. But second, since when did the New Testament ever encourage Christians to seek power through official channels? Christianity is a religion of the marginalised, the unwanted and the oppressed. Theocracy is Old Testament (at best), from a time when God was working his purposes in the world mainly through one nation.

Personally, I think Christianity changed markedly for the worse when church leaders got their hands on the levers of power (I'm looking at you, Constantine), bringing in an era in which outward adherence to Christian practice was the social norm. Even more disastrous than this is the temptation for particular nations to be seen as God's chosen instrument, as has recently happened (I'd argue) with the United States of America (more on this from me here). There's a lot that governments can justify if they view themselves as God's agent, leading a Christian nation...

PS – I will carry on my series about mistranslations in the Bible soon, but this talk of Christianity being marginalised has really got my goat.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Badly translated Bible – 'Seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness'

This blog entry is the first in a series where I'll look at words and passages in the Bible that often get translated badly. I want to do this because I think it can make a real difference to how we live; what we read shapes our thinking, which then shapes our behaviour. I hope it's not just an academic exercise that actually ends up getting in the way of real change (here are my recent thoughts on that).

Let's begin, then, with Matthew 6:33. Jesus has been telling his followers and a wider crowd that they shouldn't worry about material things like food and clothing. Instead, Jesus says this:
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.
Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.

These are three popular versions of Matthew 6:33, firstly from the New International Version, then the New King James Version, and finally the New Living Translation.

What strikes you about this verse? 'Seek first the kingdom of God...' What does that mean; what is this 'kingdom of God' all about and what does it mean to seek it? Let's look at the second half of the verse for a clue: '…and his righteousness' or maybe '…and live righteously'. So the kingdom of God is about living a righteous life, it seems. I suppose that means don't murder, don't steal, love God and your neighbour, don't be jealous of what other people have; the stuff in the Ten Commandments and in the New Testament teaching on morality. Maybe... I'm sure that's part of it. But let's take a closer look at that phrase, 'and God's righteousness'? It's time for some Greek!

The word that most Bibles translate as 'righteousness' is the ancient Greek word dikaiosune. From what I've read, its meaning certainly includes what we would call 'righteous living' or 'righteousness', in the sense of living the right way. But it also carries the meaning of 'justice', which rather changes the sense of Jesus' comment in Matthew 6:33:
But seek first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added to you.

Seeking God's justice is rather more challenging than seeking his righteousness, it seems to me. Especially if you think of the latter as being mainly about your personal devotions; how much time you spend on so-called holy activities like praying or reading the Bible. Jesus' instruction is changed from being something like this:
Make sure you're living an outwardly good life, trying to follow my commands as best you can. And make sure you're doing a lot of praying, studying and reading. something like this:
Make sure you're joining in with what I'm doing, bringing justice, peace and reconciliation to the world.

It's good to pray, study and read. It's good to not steal or murder. But perhaps Jesus is calling his followers to something bigger in this passage. If he did really have more of the global picture in mind, rather than merely the personal, then 'Seek first God's kingdom' becomes a marvellous invitation to join with God in his work of reconciling the world to himself, of bringing what Hebrew people, both ancient and modern, call shalom

Post script

The inspiration for this blog post came from Brian McLaren's book, 'The Last Word and the Word After That'. In a passage looking at how we might understand the good news of Jesus Christ as being more than 'Go to heaven when you die', McLaren says this:
I tell people God loves them, God accepts them, God isn't holding their sins against them, God wants them to follow his way. I ask them to rethink their lives, to be ready for a new beginning. I tell them how God sent Jesus to invite us to follow him and live in the way God wants us to live. I tell them that Christ died for their sins and that the Holy Spirit can enter their life and begin transforming them. I tell them they truly can be transformed. I invite them to make their first priority to seek God's kingdom and God's justice.

Here are a few links to definitions of that Greek word dikaiosune. You'll see the definitions tend to include both 'righteousness' and 'justice' although the Bible translations rarely pick this up.

Dictionary of Spiritual Terms
Greek lexicon at Bible Study Tools

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Science as worship

Lots of people find it refreshing and relaxing to be outdoors, enjoying the beauty of the natural world. For many Christians, the natural world reminds them of God. And as regular readers of this blog will know, I'm firmly of the opinion that humanity's efforts to better understand the natural world should cause Christians no worry at all. Something I read in a novel today took this idea further, though; equating the practice of science as a kind of worship. In the passage, a woman is describing her aunt's vision of what science can be:
Idelba's vision of science had it as being progressively improvable, just as a matter of making it more scientific. That aspect is one of the ways you define science, as against many other human activities or institutions. So to me this makes it a kind of prayer, or worship... It is a devotional labour.

I just love this thought – that, far from being opposed to faith in God, the search for truth about the natural world is actually part of what it means to worship God.

By the way, if you've read the book (The Years of Rice and Salt) you might just remember that the little part I left out of the quotation rather changes the meaning. In the book, it says 'So to me this makes it a kind of prayer, or worship of the world'. I was struck by the idea that the scientific endeavour is an act of worship, not of the world but of the God who set it all in motion. I love it when novels send my thoughts off in interesting directions and Kim Stanley Robinson is fast becoming my favourite author!

Note to self: ideas are all well and good but I must not use them as defence mechanisms that shield me from the demands that Jesus makes on my life if I'm to be His disciple...