One of the (many) peculiarities of Irish history, is the uneasy and ambiguous place of the Bible within Irish culture and memory.
I’m trying to do a bit of reading and writing around this theme at the moment.
A rough sketch of some ideas on Irish ambivalence towards the Bible goes something like this:
1.The strong historical association of the Bible with Protestant proselytism.
One example is the Pre-Famine ‘Bible War’ of the 1820s between the revitalised missionary zeal of the Established Anglican Church and a newly resurgent and defensive emerging Catholic Church. In this struggle of faith, politics and identity, the Scriptures were perceived as a tool in a religious zero-sum competition for converts. Few places were more contentious than schooling.
Donnelly writes that Protestant missionaries became more active after 1815
in circulating the Scriptures, in distributing anti-Catholic literature, and in establishing schools aimed at the children of the Catholic poor. The Religious Book and Tract Society for Ireland claimed in 1823 to have issued over 1,160,000 tracts and 86,000 books since 1819 alone.
Formal schooling, however, was a far more serious and contentious affair. The controversies that raged after 1819 at the national level about schools under Protestant auspices, their management and funding, and the use of the Scriptures within them were in part a reflection and in part a cause of strife at the local level. 
In Munster and Connacht there was particular Catholic clerical opposition to the Baptist Society schools and the London Hibernian Society “whose inspectors required that children in its schools recite the Scriptures from memory.”
And such polarisation around the Bible and social action reached a climax with charges of ‘Souperism’ (converting in order to survive via the Protestant soup kitchen) during the Famine itself – with the legitimacy of that charge continuing to be debated to this day.
And Catholic resistance to the Bible as a dangerous tool of Protestant evangelism can be traced right up to the middle of the 20th Century – with documented occasions of evangelical missionaries distributing Bibles and Bible literature being run out of towns.
2. The sacramental structure of Catholicism itself
Whereby the Bible, while revered and affirmed as the Word of God, is sidelined in the actual daily practice of living the Christian life. The altar at the heart of a Catholic Church as opposed to the pulpit in a Protestant one speaks of what is central to spirituality. The Bible has not had a central role in Catholic spirituality – for many ordinary Catholics it has been a closed book. I think this is a fair observation that increasingly many Catholics also affirm – and want to change.
[And such has been the decline of the place of the Bible in Protestant spirituality (including evangelicals) that I wonder what % of 'Protestants' actually ever regularly open a Bible - but that is a topic for another post!]
3. A post-Christendom scepticism towards the Bible
Where, in a culture rapidly divesting itself of the vestiges of a claustrophobic Catholic Christendom, the Bible is seen in postmodern terms as a tool of control, power and injustice; a weapon, for example, of inequality against those of LGBT orientation. The Scriptures, rather than being seen as radically liberating for all, are viewed with a hermeneutic of suspicion as a source of institutional legitimation and self-preservation of a fading era of Church domination. The church and its Scriptures are seen as marginal and irrelevant to the pressing questions of modern life.
Now that may all sound rather negative. But if even partially right, this gives a flavour of the missional challenges in contemporary Ireland.
Some words come to mind:
Unconditional Love. Earning Trust. Transparency. Honesty. No strings evangelism. God’s grace. Integrity. Gospel centered. Jesus focused. Embrace of Irish culture and identity. Selfless service of others. Care for the poor. Listening. Humble confidence in God’s Spirit to speak through God’s Word.
These are some attitudes and actions that need to characterise mission in contemporary Ireland.
Comments, as ever, welcome.
 James S. Donnelly Jr, ‘Pastorini and Captain Rock: Millenarianism and Sectarianism in the Rockite Movement of 1821-4’ in Samuel Clark and James S. Donnelly Jr, eds., Irish Peasants: Violence and Political Unrest, 1780-1914 (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003) 102-142.
Returning to the ‘two natures’ discussion a couple of posts back and zoning in on Galatians:
A problem here has been the translation of sarx (flesh) as ‘sinful nature’ (e.g., in the NIV, although more nuanced in more recent editions). This is a loaded translation which distorts the text.
Flesh versus Spirit needs to be understood eschatologically rather than individually as some sort of internal war between two natures.
Paul has some very negative things to say about the ‘world’. Take Galatians 1:4 and his description of how Jesus’ death for our sins rescues us from ‘this present evil age’.
Things associated with pre-Christian identity are being a slave under the ‘basic principles of the world’. The whole world is a prisoner of sin (3:22). The Law (Torah) cannot release people from this slavery. The theme of curse in Galatians is significant: those who rely on the law are under a curse for the law could never justify (3:10-11).
Those in Christ, who have been justified by faith, belong to a new age; they are ‘new creations’ who belong to God’s redemptive purposes for this fallen world. They are set free (5:1) in Christ.
This new creation has invaded the present evil age (Gal 6:14-16). Since the coming of Christ and the Spirit, believers are living in the overlap of the ages. The world in its present form is ‘passing away’ (1 Cor 7:31)
Those in Christ are dead to the old age (flesh); it is crucified. The Christian life is therefore all about a community of faith who are drawn by God’s grace, into his redemptive purposes for the world.
The problem in Galatians was their utter foolishness to go back to something that enslaves and cannot give life. The flesh equals the old age that has decisively been defeated at the cross and resurrection. Its days are numbered. To go there is to go back under the curse.
Paul, their concerned father, has strong words for those who would lead the Galatians astray (1:8-9 – under God’s curse and wishes for a bit of painful self-mutilation with a knife in 5:12).
In contrast, Christians now belong to the new age of the Spirit. The Spirit brings life, grace, justification, freedom, transformation and hope. This is part of the promised blessing to Abraham (Gal 3:14) – for both Jew and for Gentile.
Those who walk by the Spirit will demonstrate practically and ethically what God’s good purposes for humanity looks like. They will live lives that are attractive and loving – full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control.
Individual Christian lives and communities are to be visible, beautiful and joyful witnesses to the new age of the Spirit; a foretaste in the present age of the ultimate age to come. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6)
It is only the power of the Spirit who can change lives; who can bring someone new life; who can overcome the powerful ‘passions’ or ‘desires’ of the (age of) the flesh.
So, rather than end up with a sort of schizophrenic Christian identity of two internal warring ‘natures’ in each individual Christian, the flesh versus Spirit conflict is much bigger than the sphere of the individual.
The real challenge of Galatians is a calling to live by the grace and new identity that has already been given to believers through faith in Christ and the vivifying gift of the Spirit.
For Paul’s warning to the Galatians is not just theoretical – they were in danger of going back under the flesh and turning their back on the gospel. And, at the same time, were denying the radical boundary-breaking implications of justification by faith alone for anyone – Jew or Gentile / male or female / slave or free (3:28).
Do you think that many Christians see themselves as living their lives within a larger cosmic conflict of flesh versus Spirit? If not, why not? Has the church lost touch with Paul’s thoroughly eschatological perspective on the Christian life?
If the Christian life is all about life in the Spirit from beginning to end: walking by the Spirit; sowing to the Spirit; keeping in step with the Spirit; what does this actually look like in practice? In your experience and understanding, how does it work? How do you sow to the Spirit and not to the flesh? Where does the community of the Spirit (the church) come in?
A couple of weeks ago I was kindly invited to preach at Dunlaoghaire Evangelical Church within a series on Luke’s Gospel.
Jonny Somerville videoed the scene of the crime. That’s one ‘L’ in ‘Mitchel’ Jonny ;)
Comments welcome I guess.
In various places, Paul develops a strong contrast between the Spirit and the flesh (sarx) – see Galatians 5 and elsewhere (Rom.8:3-17, Phil. 3:3).
May I humbly suggest that most Christian interpretation of what Paul means here is just flat out mistaken.
And may I also suggest that such a view has damaging pastoral and theological implications (of which more below).
I was taught, and maybe you have been too, that this refers to an internal spiritual conflict within the Christian between our ‘sinful nature’ (literally sarx = ‘flesh) which is warring against our new ‘spiritual nature’. In effect, in this view, Christians have two natures – the old and the new, which exist alongside each other within us for as long as we live.
We have constantly to choose to live to our higher ‘spiritual nature’ over our lower ‘fleshly nature’.
This is what Luther taught: ‘there be two contrary captains in you, the Spirit and the flesh’ – and innumerable commentators have followed his lead ever since.
For some this leads to a pretty pessimistic and limited view of the Christian life as a virtually equal struggle between two natures; flesh and Spirit.
Usually this is tied to an interpretation of Romans 7 as Paul describing the ongoing battle of the Christian life in these terms:
14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am!
Now, you can easily see how this link can be made. Romans 7 does describe in graphic terms an inner angst of two competing inclinations. But I’m with Gordon Fee and many others, in finding this completely at odds with Paul’s theology of the Christian life.
There are various interpretations of Rom 7:14-24: one asks whether Paul is speaking in the third person as a faithful Jew under the law – yet the law does not have the power to overcome sin? But however you cut it, the idea that Christians have a ‘flesh’ nature and a ‘spiritual’ nature co-existing and giving shape to their life ‘in Christ’ is profoundly wrong-headed.
What is being described in Romans 7 is a conflict that Christ delivers believers from - not one that faith in Jesus leads believers into! So verse 24b-25
Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
In Romans (and Galatians), Paul is not thinking in narrow introspective categories of some sort of existential inner crisis that remains unresolved for the believer. This completely misses how he talks about the acts of the ‘flesh’ in wholly negative terms:
Life according to the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21 describes a life in total opposition to life in the Spirit. Such life will NOT inherit the kingdom of God and leads to destruction (Gal.6:8, cf Rom.8:13).
So, sorry brother Martin, that’s pretty hard to square with ‘flesh’ life being a normal expected part of a Christian’s identity!
Take Romans 8:5-8 and Paul’s discussion of life kata sarxa (according to the flesh) and life kata pneuma (according to the Spirit). Rather than this somehow talking about two inner natures in every Christian, Paul is contrasting two utterly incompatible ways of life. Life according to the flesh cannot please God (Rom.8:8) and is a life hostile to God (8:6).
Far from continuing to have an inner ‘flesh nature’, for the believer, the flesh has been crucified. It is dead (Gal 6:14).
To understand the Christian life as an endless inner (and virtually equal) duel between Spirit and Flesh drastically undermines Paul’s confidence and expectation of the transforming power and presence of the Spirit in a Christian’s life.
It also, wrongly, portrays Christian identity in almost schizophrenic terms.
If you’ve got this far, some questions :
How have you interpreted and understood flesh versus Spirit in your own life? What have you been taught in church?
And if flesh does not equal an ‘inner nature’ within believers, does this somehow suggest that the Christian life should be without struggle and difficulty? In other words, does rejecting Luther’s view lead us into some sort of unreal hyper-spirituality that is doomed to drive us to guilt and failure when we continue to sin? (For sin we will).
And just maybe you are asking if Luther was wrong, what then was Paul talking about in his flesh / Spirit contrast? Come back for the next post! [Don't you love these cliffhangers?]
Today someone kindly sent us some photos in the post from years back. (How nice to get a letter with a handwritten note as well!) This coincided with my backing up of photos from computer onto a spare hard-disk – they take up a crazy amount of space now. These are just the digital ones – let alone older photos (and slides!) in boxes in the attic that one day I’d like to digitise.
This got me thinking about photographs – their purpose and meaning. Why do we so deeply value them? I’d hate to lose them that’s for sure. They would be one of the first things I’d want to rescue if the house was burning down (guess I should have them backed up on the cloud!)
In the not so very distant past, you had to think carefully about camera use – processing film was expensive and slow. You only took pictures of special occasions or places – or hired in experts. Now, with Facebook, Instragram – and videos on YouTube – images have just become another means of self-expression and instant communication; an immediate and convenient way to document our lives in graphic detail.
I don’t do Facebook, but the other day my daughter was showing me photos that she is tagged in by Facebook friends; very useful and fun, but also a public record that a person has little or no control over what goes up there.
A while back Instagram was bought by Facebook for a nifty $1 billion - see here for 10 good reasons why. If reason 5 is true, or even mostly true (and since I don’t do Facebook can’t really comment) that ‘most people are on Facebook to look at other people’s photos’ this raises the question of why are so obsessed with pictures?
Like many pieces of technology, I think that photographs are neutral in themselves but can be used in positive or negative ways.
Some negatives (wee pun there ;) )
From the ubiquitous ‘selfie’, to being at a gig the other night in the Olympia in Dublin and having constantly try to see past the (insert suitable adjective here) people in front with hands raised high holding smart phones videoing the concert, there’s ample evidence that we love a bit of photographic narcissism.
At the receiving end, didn’t the Queen comment the other week about seeing nothing but a sea of smart phones pointing at her when she looks out into a crowd? Or someone who got married recently told me that when she came down the aisle, rather than seeing the smiling eye of friends and family, all she saw was camera lens and phones. Has the screen has become a means of mediating life itself? Have we become almost unable to experience life without feeling we have to record, and therefore somehow own it?
2. A false source of identity? Does our apparently limitless fascination with images of ourselves and those we love and like, act as a way of self-validation and affirmation? We create a carefully constructed profile on Facebook or LinkedIn or wherever. We project an idealised image of ourselves to the world. From a Christian perspective, self-worth, identity, purpose and meaning are found outside ourselves; not in a partially real imagined self, but, as Paul would put it, ‘in Christ’. There is no need (or ability) to pretend with God – he knows our true selves, and gives himself in sacrificial love precisely because he knows what we are really like – sinners in need of his grace and forgiveness.
Some Positives: photos and eschatological hope
A photograph freezes time; it captures a moment. Looking at the image later brings back the moment, the person, the experience, the feeling. Getting those photos in the post took us back to a completely different life from our current one. That’s what I love about photos – over time they compile a narrative of your life and the lives of others around you. They record (sometimes painfully) old friendships now gone for one reason or the other, but also sweet moments of joy. And as you get older, they act as a reminder of the brevity and preciousness of life. They remind us, I think, of a deep instinct or desire, that life matters. We desire significance and meaning and relationship for the very reason that God has made us that way.
Macbeth, that cheerful fella, may have said this
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
But Christians cannot agree: for the believer life is going somewhere. This life, which we document so thoroughly these days, is not an end in itself. It is a narrative and journey that Christians can live with hope, not because of something we have done or achieved (whether captured as an image or not), but because of what God has done in Christ.
Put it this way – none of the very best experiences you have captured on camera will be able to match what comes next ….
Comments, as ever, welcome.
On hearing of the death yesterday of Ian Paisley, I went back and re-read the chapter I wrote on Paisleyism in my book Evangelicalism and National Identity in Ulster 1921-98. [I see it is a bargain at £132.50!]
The title of the chapter was ‘”Ourselves Alone”: Paisleyism and the Politics of Purity’. It feels like it was written in a previous lifetime and sparked some thoughts below.
Tributes pouring in for the ‘big man’ have pretty well all revolved around two things: the wit, humour and warmth of the man in person; and the fact of his finally, and remarkably, doing the ‘right thing’ and participating in power-sharing with Sinn Fein.
There is of course no little irony that this move – coupled with his bonhomie relationship with Martin McGuinness – eventually cost him the leadership of the party he founded. For it was Paisley who, from the late 60s onwards, dispatched one Unionist leader after another for ‘betraying’ the cause of Ulster by doing some sort of deal with the British or the Irish Nationalists. Finally the ultimate outsider ended up centre-stage and did what he had vitriolically attacked those leaders for doing – dealing with the reality of some sort of power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland.
His later alienation from the DUP, and relative estrangement from the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster which he also founded, seemed to have left him feeling bitter and betrayed. That last interview he did on the BBC with Eamon Mallie seemed to surprise many people who, making assumptions about his joking around with McGuinness, jumped to the attractive conclusion that Paisley had suddenly become an avuncular liberal who had left behind those problematic and divisive religious and political convictions.
I don’t think I would revise too much of what I said back in 2003. His was a personal and political identity forged in conflict; given shape and content by separation from the impure Other. The Other included the mother of all harlots Rome, ‘liberal’ (!) Irish Presbyterians, the WCC, Methodists, Baptists, the British, the Irish Govt, Irish nationalism, Irish Republicanism, weak Unionists, even the Orange Order, and, towards the end, fellow DUP leaders like Peter Robinson who turned, Brutus-like, on their leader.
Paisley’s sense of persecuted righteous prophet was there in that BBC interview. His career was built on personalized politics. In 2003 I looked at some of his rhetoric and concluded that by it
Paisley establishes that hostility to him is equivalent, not only to hostility to Christ, but to biblical truth, the values of the Reformation, and Ulster’s place within the United Kingdom. The power of ideology lies not only in its connection of contemporary political events with dramatic spiritual battles, but in its fusion of traditional Ulster siege mythology with Paisley’s own destiny and actions. He has personalized the Ulster unionist myth of the persecuted faithful. In a sense, his whole politico-religious career has been a conscious re-enactment of the past. (179)
The remarkable success of Paisleyism, I argued, was built primarily on it being a particular form of nationalism that was organized around a theological core of deeply held evangelical beliefs. The result was an innovative cocktail of fundamentalism and an intense localised form of nationalism. There is no room for doubt, complexity and shades of opinion within a nationalist myth. This was why, in a BBC vox pop after his death, ordinary Protestants, one after another, primarily talked of him as a great leader / defender of Ulster etc. The breadth of his support was political and nationalistic rather than being based on his faithfulness to the Reformation solas.
At the end of the chapter I wrote that Paisleyism would lose its coherence and potency without the threat of imminent betrayal. I think this has happened. Paisleyism had gone as a movement well before yesterday. The DUP continues to struggle out of the shadow of the big man and chart its way in a new power-sharing era. A key to the future in the North will be how successful it can be in leaving behind the ‘politics of holiness’ – as well as how successful Sinn Fein can be on the other side of leaving behind its own toxic nationalist myths.
Comments, as ever, welcome