Monday, April 29, 2024

Newest Reading Oldest Story

So, confession, I have never read any of Marilynne Robinson's novels. Probably doesn't make me a good person; may make me a bad person. Perhaps one day I will get around to it. But - and maybe this makes me a strange person - when I saw that this very famous, very much appreciated novelist (and Christian Calvinist) has written a book Reading Genesis, I knew I had to read that book. This is a post en route, as I haven't finished it yet.

Essentially Marilynne sets down her thoughts on reading the Book of Genesis in one long 230 page chapter. The second chapter of the book is a copy of the KJV of Genesis.

Now this is a stone thrown in the literary millpond because it has been noticed. The New Yorker, for instance, has gotten up a review and it is, in the language of North America, a doozey. James Wood flays God (or, at least the God of Genesis, Job and other parts of the OT) alive. That God if real is not a good God; and likely if not certainly is not real because, well, Genesis (and its OT colleagues) is just interesting human thoughts about a human invention of Something which is actually nothing.

John Stackhouse, North American theologian (and, yes, I am aware there is considerable uneasiness about this man), tackles this review and slates it as appallingly bad and essentially a vehicle for "hatred." It is a lovely essay and has a bit of whimsical bite to it as the Chicago v Harvard card is played. (Let's not angst over the state of US universities on ADU just at the moment ...).

What I love about what I have read so far is that Marilynne - I feel like her intimate writing demands a personal response to her first name and not surname - juggles the raw humanity of Genesis (some appalling things are done by human beings to human beings, discreditable people are graced by God, rather than not worthy people rewarded for perfection) and the sublime divinity behind and within Genesis (God is completely God, creating, working out God's divine plan, seeking beneficent outcomes for creation). 

In sum, God works providentially: things happen in our world under and not apart from God's watchful eye; often we cannot make sense of things, but one day we will; God is trustworthy; and definitely not capricious or chaotic (like the gods of Babylon). This is the Calvinism Marilynne admires and it is indeed admirable in her telling as she reads Genesis.

A flavour of her approach - finding God's providentiality at work in the world, understanding that Genesis has its particular character on contradistinction to Bablyonian myths - is found in this paragraph (p. 28):

Humankind are very marginal in Enuma Elish, servants of the gods in the sense that they perform the labor involved in building their temples and feeding them. The second narrative in Genesis with its anthropomorphisms seems meant to invite comparison with such myths, It says no, in fact it is the Lord who has created a habitation for humankind and it is He who provides food for them. Humankind are the center of creation. They have no competitors for God's attention. He is present with them in what must be a desire to share the pleasures that are intrinsic to Creation, for example, the evening and the morning. Their disobedience is a failure of trust in His benevolence toward them.

One reaction I have had reading to date is that Marilynne challenges me to find the grace of God at every turn in the Old Testament - grace understood in a New Testament sense (i.e. that God is actively for us before God activates laws to govern us). Put differently: the Old Testament seems very similar to the New Testament when Marilynne reads the former with the eyes of the latter. I (and - it would seem - other Christians) find that difficult to do.

Of course there are various things going on as this reading of Genesis unfolds: for example, although Marilynne doesn't specifically engage with the "creation v evolution" debate, her consistent reading of the first chapters of Genesis as a reconstitution of Babylonian myths - a wholly new version of how the world began and how disaster (Flood) struck it, renders that debate irrelevant. Genesis is a theology which sets out to set aside another theology (of Babylon): in this theology, Genesis tells us who (the one) God is and what this God offers and seeks in relationship with humanity, and this telling involves depicting this God in respect of his work as Creator, as the one responsible for the inception of the world and the peopling of it. The most important thing we are told about the origin of life is that it is "good". Details about days and domes of water and ribs and what have you are incidental to this disclosure of who God is and what attitude God has in disposition to the world. By all means debate "creation v evolution" but have the debate in the scientific lab, with telescopes and  microscopes, and in reviews of Darwin, Dawkins and co - do not involve the first chapters of Genesis in it.

Incidentally, a wonderful insight of Marilynne's is simply that Genesis is theology. It is not a writing on which theology is based and from which theology proceeds. Genesis is theology. It is (in my words, inspired by hers)) a word (logos) about God (theos); it is a word about God which denies another (Babylonian) word about God/the gods; it is a word about who God is in relation to people thinking about God and seeking to articulate something about God. We may read Genesis as history or story or both, but it is, in fact, a book of theology - theology expressed through stories. And it is a theology of the God who is compassionate, just and merciful (i.e. consistent with the NT God who is love).

Back to James Wood's review: his point, made countless times by countless others through history, is that there is no God, just human creativity imagining who God might be (and then, he asserts that if Genesis and the remainder of the OT is among the best of such creativity, this "God" is not much chops).

That's gotten me thinking - aided by my reading Marilynne's Reading - that the critical consideration we (Jews/Christians) bring to all debate about God is that - respecting the plausibility of the thesis that the OT is simply an extensive rendition of an exclusively human invention - nevertheless we claim that the God we speak about has spoken to us. There is a God and this God is not a figment of human imagination because this God has revealed himself to humanity. To be sure, how we have written down our experience of God is shot through with human reflection, anthropomorphisms, counter-thrusts to the thoughts of other societies (such as Genesis's anti-Babylonianisms), but it is not reducible to mere human thought. Both Testaments are testimonies to the speech of God to humankind. Our bubble of creative thought has been pierced by direct speech from God.

Marilynne Robinson gets this!

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Still the Easter Season, so Resurrection Narrative thoughts

Hard not to think about what is going on in Scripture in respect of history when Christmas rolls around, and then Easter. The Gospels do differ!

Christmas: Mark and John opt out od details re birth of Jesus. Matthew and Luke unite on Mary, conception by Holy Spirit, Joseph as husband of Mary, birth in Bethlehem, notable visitors. Nazareth as place of upbringing of Jesus. Pretty much everything else differs. Why? Is it different perspectives (Matthew sees things through Joseph's eyes, Luke through Mary's)? Is it differences in historical details, Matthew and Luke each in touch with different versions of the history? If so, what is contradictory and what is complementary? Some great difficulties to explain such as Nazareth being a place from which the Holy Family comes to get to Bethlehem (Luke) and to which the Holy Family flees, via Egypt (Matthew). Are differences theological? History combined with fables - common history to Matthew and Luke with different fables, all to make differing theological points?

Easter is a bit more complicated because, aside from the four gospels (none opting out on the resurrection this time), there is Paul's handed down account in 1 Corinthians 15. And where the four gospels have some things in common, they all differ from 1 Corinthians in several respects.

The four gospels have in common that women discover the empty tomb (Matthew, Mark and Luke: women plural; John: a woman singular (but a named woman who is part of the group in each of the other gospels).) Paul mentions no women explicitly - perhaps women are implied by his mentioning a group of 500 people seeing the risen Jesus. Nor does Paul mention the empty tomb explicitly but it seems reasonable to conclude that he does think the tomb was emptied by the raising of Jesus from the dead. We might note that all four gospels ascribe the tomb's provenance as associated with Joseph of Arimathea.

The four gospels also have in common appearances of the risen Jesus to disciples: in Jerusalem (Matthew, Luke, John); in Galilee by implication (Mark); in Galilee (Matthew, John); not in Galilee (Luke, who mentions Galilee but in a strange way, putting these words in an angel's mouth, contrary to what Luke would have read in his Markan source, or, even, if used, his Matthean source: "Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee," (24:6).) It is as though, Luke, who has a strong attachment to Jerusalem as the locus of critical action in the Jesus movement, cannot omit Galilee as a reference in the resurrection narrative he tells, but also cannot have any resurrection appearance further away from Jerusalem than Emmaus, seven miles away.

Putting the four gospels together, they focus on places, events, and encounters: Jesus is buried in a tomb, women go after the Sabbath to visit the tomb, and discover it is empty. Messages are given to them by an angel or angels. Appearances of the risen Jesus subsequently take place, or are predicted to take place: to the women, to disciples among the Eleven and to disciples not among the Eleven.

By contrast Paul's narrated history concerns encounters: Jesus appeared to both key leaders among the disciples, to groups of people and, last of all, also and in a similar way, to Paul himself.

Is there a competition going on? Do the gospels (all almost certainly written after Paul wrote 1 Corinthians) seek to put Paul right? Are the accounts complementary? All good questions but perhaps the thing to look for (similarly to Matthew and Mark and their birth and infancy narratives of Jesus) is this: what are the four gospel writers and Paul trying to convey theologically to us about the way they tell the history of the resurrection?

Let's face it: each account has an oddity or three in their reports to us. 

If Mark is first gospel account, then in 16:1-8, he narrates no appearances. Obviously there were appearances (see Paul in 1 Corinthians; try to explain why Mark would write his gospel if there were no appearances). 

Matthew has "colour" no one else has (earthquake, soldiers guarding the tomb) and seems to be at pains to rule out the possible explanation the tomb was empty because the body was stolen. 

Luke has the Emmaus story not found elsewhere, omits, as we saw above, reference to appearances in Galilee, and, perhaps most odd of all, tells a story in Luke 24 which could all have taken place in one long day and then, in Acts 1, tells us the same story as far as appearances go too place over 40 days. Luke seems to be at pains (similar to John) to verify that the risen Jesus has a new material body (whatever else was new, different, amazing about it), that could eat and drink as per human normality

John cuts the group of women down to one woman, Mary Magdalene; has the Doubting Thomas scene no one else has; and gives us a wonderful fishing trip in Galilee, omitted from all other accounts. John's risen Jesus gives final teaching and a commissioning to his disciples in keeping with the Johannine Jesus, and somewhat different to the commissionings in Matthew and Luke, and particularly different when we compare the "Johannine Pentecost" with the "Lukan Pentecost."

What Paul reports misses, as we noted above, any direct reference to women being the first witnesses to the resurrection, and lays out a sequence of appearances to disciples difficult to square with the sequences given in any of the four gospels, through for all five accounts, Peter is important!

In the end, in 2024, as I reflect on these things, I have been struck by the core details of the gospels' narrative: early on that Sunday morning, one or more women went to the tomb in which Jesus had been buried, and discovered the tomb was empty. Subsequently Jesus appeared to disciples, female and male, in Jerusalem, its surrounds, and in Galilee.

Thursday, April 18, 2024


It is likely not the right thing to do, to blog here about this and that around Anglican Communion traps, and say nothing about what is going on locally!

We have a long running story about the reinstatement of our Cathedral (in the Square), which has involved considerable twists and turns. That story is well told in this Newsroom article (unfortunately may be behind a paywall - though not at the point when I looked it up, 14 April 2024).

Ever since I became Bishop-elect (August, 2018) I have had considerable involvement in the unfolding story (not having had involvement before then, save for being a member of the 2017 Synod which voted for reinstatement.) My involvement has sometimes been stressful but mostly has been an amazing experience of working with incredibly able people and I have learned so much from doing so.

Recently, however, the Cathedral Reinstatement Project (as we call it) has faced a very specific challenge: how are we actually going to install a new foundation for the cathedral, in the light of some new knowledge - since we have been able to enter the inside of the cathedral, from March 2023 - about the ground conditions and the actual design of the foundations of the walls (which differ from plans drawn up in 1881)?

We spent about six months reassessing the situation, including a new timeline we need to plan for and our revised estimate of costs. Then, on Saturday 6 April 2024 we announced our revised situation, with an associated report by NZIER on the benefits of reinstating the Cathedral.

Our revised estimated cost for completing construction is $248m, which, after further fund-raising of $26m, and a contribution of $16m I hope we can agree to as a diocese, leaves a shortfall of $114m.

To descibe this as a difficult or challenging situation is an understatement!

Anyway, the week since has been stressful, including an interview on Friday which led to this article, headed (helpfully - thank you, Press), "We cannot do it alone." 

The week has also been supportive and prayerful - many lovely messages and many people, across our diocese and beyond, praying much! (Thank you everyone.)

There have also been many views put forward, about what we should have done, or should not have done, or should do.

What happens next? Let's see!

Can we avoid mothballing the cathedral? I hope so!

Watch this space ...

Monday, April 1, 2024

More on Easter? You can't have too much, right?

Very interesting post here, if only as a story of conversion (or here). The convert is Paul Kingsnorth and he says something very inspiring about Easter! My bold:

"In the church, this Resurrection is the biggest, most astonishing, weirdest thing that’s ever happened to humanity. And it is exactly something that happens when all hope is gone, when your Messiah has just been crucified and buried. Then this astonishing, impossible, and unexpected thing happens, which not only brings him back, but also completely rewires your understanding of what the world is and how it works. And that’s what my coming to Christianity did to me. And every Easter—or Pascha, as we call it in the Eastern church, which is a corruption of [the word] Passover, actually—the story deepens for me. It’s interesting because I used to think that you become a Christian and that’s that and you’re sorted. But it’s not that. It’s the beginning of a journey, and every year the journey gets deeper. So every time you go through this cycle of 40 days of fasting and then a feast at Easter, something else deepens. It’s like you just dropped a couple of inches deeper into this thing that you’re in. And as I say, the world changes shape. So that is the kind of steady hope, and it’s always there. It doesn’t matter what humans do, and not everything is under our control. And that’s okay. There’s always something else. There’s always somebody holding you. That’s how it feels. And it’s rather wonderful. It doesn’t remove the struggles from your life, but it means that they’re in the bigger context of you always being held and watched by something much bigger that’s happening. So yeah, Easter is a pretty wonderful time."

Incidentally, the whole post above is a tribute to the old saw that familiarity (with Christianity in Western culture) breeds contempt (or longing for anything spiritual/religious other than Christianity).

American bishops have something to say here. Quite a lovely conversation on a leading US TV show.

Michael Jensen - leading theologian [IMHO] within the Diocese of Sydney - has written engagingly on Easter here. He makes a link to the current phenomena of conspiracy theories - there were a few back in the day about the Christian claim that the empty tomb was due to resurrection and not anything else.

Of course we shouldn't forget ... Judas. And, given a few posts here and there about universalism, focusing on Judas and his "future" after betraying Jesus is quite a test case for why we think, or do not think universalism might be a theological thing. Edward Feser strikes a blow against universalism.

ADDENDUM: Can we resurrect Christ Church Cathedral, Christchurch?

We have hit a bump in the road to reinstatement of our Cathedral. A bump which might might be an impenetrable wall. Read here, here and here.

Is +Tom right (on the resurrection)?

Bishop Tom Wright (aka Bible scholar, N. T. Wright) has an Easter column in Time magazine, cannily titled in this year of the American election (i.e. if Trump wins, is this the last American election?), "The Link Between The Resurrection and Elections."

I am not too worried here about the link to elections but I am interested in what +Tom says, and it is Easter, and I need to blog on something! So, why not?

+Tom has considerable prior publications to his name re his understanding of "resurrection" in relation to human life in its present and future forms. His general thesis is described in this column as follows (with emboldening = my emboldening - the key aspects of his thesis):

"So what does "resurrection" mean? Most people today assume that it’s a fancy way of saying "life after death." That’s certainly what I would have picked up from that funeral service. But "resurrection" never meant "life after death," or "going to heaven." Plenty of people in Jesus’ day believed in "life after death," in some form, but were still shocked by talk of "resurrection." That’s because "resurrection" always meant people who had been physically dead coming back to a new life—a new bodily life. Whatever we might mean by "life after death" (the Bible actually says very little about that), "resurrection" is a further stage. It’s life after "life after death." Wherever Jesus was after his horrible death, he wasn’t raised again until the third day. "Resurrection" is the final stage in a two-stage post-mortem journey. With that, a new world is born, full of possibilities. 

Jesus’ risen body was the first element in God’s long-promised "new creation." A little bit of God’s new world, coming forward from the ultimate future into our surprised and unready present time. And launching the project of new creation that continues to this day.

Most people in our world, including most churchgoers, have never heard this explained. This robs us, as individuals, of our ultimate hope, leaving us with "pie in the sky when you die," which was never the original Christian vision. In particular, it robs us of the motivation to work for God’s new creation in the present. And that means public life—justice, politics, voting—and all that goes with them."

"Here's the point: Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t mean, "He’s gone to heaven, so we can go there too" (though you might be forgiven for thinking it meant that, granted the many sermons both at funerals and at Easter). It means, "In Jesus, God has launched his plan to remake creation as a whole, and if you are a follower of Jesus you get to be part of that right now." What God did for Jesus, close up and personal, is what he plans to do for the whole world. And the project is already under way.

How does this work? One way of putting it is to say that God intends to put the whole world right in the end. This will be a great act of total new creation, for which Jesus’ resurrection is the advance model. In the present time, though, God puts people right—women, men, children—by bringing them to faith in Jesus and shaping their lives by his spirit. And he does this so that they can, here and now, become "putting-right" people for the world. In the future, God will put the world right; in the present, God does put people right.

And the "put-right" people are called to be "putting-right" people, Sermon-on-the-Mount people, lovers of justice and peace, in and for God’s world. They are to be signs of the new creation which began with Jesus’ resurrection. They are to produce, here and now, further signs of that new world. The church as a whole, and every member, is called to become a small working model of new creation.

And that new creation includes (what we call) social reform. Check out the relevant biblical passages. The Psalms sketch the ideal society: in Psalm 72, the No.1 priority for God’s chosen king is to look after the weak, the poor and the helpless. The prophets add their dramatic pictures, as in Isaiah 11 where the wolf and the lamb will lie down together. ... Already in Jesus’ day some Jewish teachers were interpreting Isaiah’s picture of the peaceable world in terms of warring nations finding reconciliation. Jesus announced that the time had come for this new way of peace. St Paul picked up that theme, seeing the church as, by definition, a multicultural, multi-ethnic society, without social class or gender hierarchy, as a sign and foretaste of the coming new creation of justice and peace.

The tragedy in the western churches is that, by misunderstanding "resurrection," both the "conservatives" and the "liberals" have robbed themselves of the whole message. The conservatives, eager to tell people how to go to heaven, regard any attempt to improve the present world as a distraction, not realizing that with Jesus’ resurrection the new creation has already been launched. The liberals, having long been taught that science has disproved Jesus’ resurrection, dismiss its importance and pursue their own vision of social improvement."

So, there is a lot to like here, that is, to agree with. Resurrection as a concept is not the underlying foundation to a "life insurance" coupon which we obtain by (say) baptism, or conversion to Christ, or both, and then when we die we present the coupon and receive "eternal life" or "life in heaven." Resurrection is a "first" sign of a new world coming - a new creation, the new heaven and earth, the kingdom of God (fully and finally realised. We ought to live - the action points of the gospels and the epistles agree on this - in a manner which reflects both God's commands concerning love, justice and good relationships (family, employment, etc) and a new "way" - of love so great enemies are loved, mercy so wide it is like God's own mercy, and relationships which so bind us together that we are the (single, united) body of Christ on earth. All such living, according to the New Testament, is anticipatory: we live now how we will live for ever. We live on earth according to the will of God in heaven. Or, when we pray the Lord's Prayer we should consider how we might contribute to answering the prayer!

But is Wright right on his emphasis on resurrection not primarily being about the general human notion that there is "life after death" meaning a continuation of our lives after death in some kind of new "space" (heaven, hell, purgatory and (hopefully!) heaven, some other liminal space, perhaps en route to some goal such as nirvana, or reunion with our ancestors)?

From the citation above, with my emboldening, is Wright correct to talk about life after life after death, or a two-stage post-mortem journey?

"It’s life after "life after death." Wherever Jesus was after his horrible death, he wasn’t raised again until the third day. "Resurrection" is the final stage in a two-stage post-mortem journey."

For instance, is this conception of life beyond our human death compatible with (let alone demanded by) all that Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15?

Writing in verses 17 and 19, Paul says,

"If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. … If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:17, 19)."

Paul seems pretty keen on the life to come and sees no "two stage post-mortem journey."

The Book of Revelation, with its (at worst) confusing conception or (at best) complicated conception of how "the end" will unfold (various stages (?) of judgment, a first and second death, etc), is not that supportive of a "two stage post-mortem journey".

Of course, +Tom may be right in what he says - between what Jesus says about life after death, what Paul proposes (and not only in 1 Corinthians 15), and the Book of Revelation, various scenarios are possible - meaning conceptions conceivable by us with our current space-time view of the world, physical life, etc. Even though here I am arguing that I cannot see that his case is clinched by what we read in the New Testament, it is not necessarily disproved by what we read. 

All talk in the New Testament about what lies beyond death is at its most certain/consistent when it speaks of (a) retributive justice for wrongdoing (b) a new life bound to Jesus Christ. What might also be the case - the nature of heaven, the nature of a new heaven and a new earth, some form of heavenly city, hell as a place of eternal punishment or of destruction of the soul - seems less (much less?) consistent across the whole of the NT.

On one thing I agree with +Tom: the resurrection begins "a new creation" - a point I made in my sermon yesterday at the Transitional Cathedral - viewable here. Even if the sermon wasn't up to much, the music was outstanding in its celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord!