Sundays on Mark (8)

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections on the Gospel of Mark

This week, the parable of the sower, Mark 4:1-20

It is easily missed in Mark’s sparse prose how tumultuous and chaotic the crowd scenes must have been around Jesus. A repeated pattern occurs (as in Mk 3) of the swelling crowds literally causing Jesus to retreat from land and teach from a boat ( maybe as earlier, already prepared in case it was needed) with the people lined up on the shore. An indelible image.

The first recorded parable in Mark is probably the most famous. Really a parable of the soils rather than the sower, it speaks right into the earthy world of the listening Galilean peasants. At the end of the story they are left with the cryptic ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’ You can only assume they were as in the dark as the disciples.

We’ll come back to the explanatory quote given to the disciples from Isaiah 6:9-10 next time. But the story itself poses the question to the listeners – and to us – what type of soil are you?

– One already resistant to the idea that this local man could be the Messiah?
– One hoping Israel’s day of liberation is dawning and eager to hear – so long as particular expectations and hopes are being fulfilled?
– One initially receptive but more focused on short term material concerns?
– Or one ready to receive, trust and follow the words of the man from Nazareth wherever they lead?


Heavenly Father, help us to have ears to hear, eyes to see and hearts to receive your life-giving word. 

The Parable of the Sower

1Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. 2He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: 3“Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. 8Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times.”

9Then Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

10When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. 11He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12so that,
” ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’

13Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? 14The farmer sows the word. 15Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. 16Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. 17But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 18Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. 20Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.”

Postmodernism, the IRA and the myth of redemptive violence


I’m overlooking the breakout of resignations among Irish politicians (who would have believed it? Like waiting for a Dublin Bus. None for ages despite being well overdue, then four all arrive together) .

What I’d like to comment on briefly is this: a friend told me this week he heard a noise that he hasn’t heard in years and his young children never have – the concussion of a car bomb exploding in Newry, over 15 miles from where he lives.

The escalating threat of dissident republicans is traced here. The Real IRA, the organisation behind the 1998 Omagh Bomb, seems determined to record another mass killing. What their strategic goals are is opaque – apart from some sort of Pearsean fundamentalist republican purity that glorifies violence even if doomed to failure, or even because it is doomed to failure. The ‘glory’ is belonging to the last remnant [since Sinn Fein and the IRA have betrayed the cause] of those engaged in a ‘noble’ and ‘just’ fight for Irish freedom, whatever the cost [and how wonderfully convenient that the cost is borne by the blood of other people].

And of course this is giving them the benefit of the doubt of being motivated by some sort of ideal, however twisted. Money, power, racketeering and drugs are more material objectives. The brutal murder on Wednesday night of Kieran Doherty by the Real IRA looked far more likely to be connected to mafia like activity – the very brutality being a graphic warning to others not to cross the mob.

We all give our lives to some story. Maybe it is the myth of western capitalism that more is better. Maybe it is the story that all that really counts is friends and family. Maybe it is the individualist story of ‘my life’ being at the centre of reality. Christians believe in the story of Jesus and are called become his followers in the non-violent kingdom of God.

For the people who planted this week’s bomb, it is the story of nationalism – that the utopian abstract idea of ‘free Ireland’ is of such value that it demands blood sacrifice and justifies threat, terror and brutal violence to achieve ‘justice’.

Some stories do more damage than other stories. Nationalism isn’t intrinsically ‘bad’, it can do a lot of good. But Ireland has been plagued by the poisonous sort (and while I’m talking about Irish republicanism, the poison has infected more than one side).

The IRA campaign ground to a halt for many reasons. One, I think, was because fewer and fewer people kept believing in the utopian mythology of the nationalist dream as the bodies piled up. Put it another way – postmodernism eroded the sand from beneath the feet of the IRA. Their nationalist meta-narrative had become corrupted to be all about power, force and killing. However, while the IRA’s campaign of armed resistance may have stopped, the underlying mythology of redemptive violence was left intact.

The myth of redemptive violence is that good things like peace, justice, equality and reconciliation can come through pain, fear, death and intimidation. This belief remains embedded deep down in psychology of Irish republicanism. It has never been repudiated.

The Real IRA are no morally different from the IRA. The former just happen to believe that the political conditions remain to justify their ‘right’ to impose their story on others by force and fear.

It is one of the ironies of the ‘Peace Process’ that just about everyone’s version of the past seems to remain largely unchanged. Maybe I’m wrong here (I have not lived in the North for a long time) but you get the impression that, if similar circumstances dictated, many would repeat the violence of the past. Put it another way – hearts have not been changed. Little wonder that, while there has been pragmatic political progress, trust and reconciliation remain in short supply 12 years after the Belfast Agreement.

In Christian terms, what would have a profoundly healing effect is repentance: – a turning away from a previously wrong belief and action to walk in a different path. It is probably a totally naïve hope that one day the republican movement might not only ‘regret’ the past, but turn away from the myth of redemptive violence that underpinned it. To do so would be at enormous cost since it would undermine the ‘legitimacy’ of 30 years of ‘armed struggle’. But until that myth is repudiated, there will continue to be new generations of deluded ‘believers’ like the Real IRA all too willing to kill in the name of Ireland.

Total Church 2

Beginning discussion of Chester and Timmis Total Church: a radical reshaping around gospel and community

The Introduction is actually central to the authors’ overall argument. After starting with some stories of frustrations and questions about church life, they propose two key principles that must shape how we do church. They are (as the book title suggests) GOSPEL and COMMUNITY. Christian identity is shaped by these two things: one the content of what we believe; the other the communal context for living out that belief.

GOSPEL: All that Christians do should be defined by the gospel. This means that the Christian life must be ‘word-centred’ since the gospel is a word or message. It also means that the Christian life must be ‘mission centred’ since the gospel is a missionary word to be shared.

COMMUNITY: for truth to be done well, we need authentic community that embodies and enfleshes that truth (my words).

Chester and Timmis want to hold both of these together. They note that some emerging churches seem to prioritise community and go soft on truth. Many conservatives are strong on truth but fail to live it out well in community. This book is an attempt to be enthusiastic about truth and mission, AND enthusiastic about community and relationships.

To hold these things together in practice will, they argue, likely lead to some fundamental shifts in how we do church. The title Total Church is about seeing church as our identity in Christ, not an organisation we join or a place we attend. The goal of the book is not just a collection of useful practical ideas for doing church better, but exploring the implications of making gospel and community the central organising principles for church life and practice.

Part 1 unpacks the theology behind Gospel and Community (chapters 1-2).

Part 2 then looks at implications for church life (chapters 3-13)

How do you see church? A place to go to on a Sunday? A life in community to be lived out every day? Or something else? What is church actually for?

Up in the Air

Movie Review: Up in the Air

We went to see this last week. A virtual one-man show by George Clooney is supplemented by an outstanding performance by Anna Kendrick as his 23 year old nemesis. There is not so much a plot as a detached observation on the bleakness of early 21st century American capitalism.

Clooney is Ryan Bingham, a hired terminator, travelling 350,000 miles a year telling people their services are no longer required. He adores his job and the perks of first class air travel, lives for reaching the goal of 10 million air miles, promotes his theory that we are all ‘sharks’ – loners, survivialists – and are best served by keeping our ‘backpacks’ uncluttered with all the heavy burdens that slow us down – especially relationships, the heaviest of all the burdens we carry. His sexual relationships are casual, knowing and mutually exploitative transactions.

His perfect world begins to crumble with the arrival of Kendrick, at first apparently even more ruthless than Clooney, whose big idea is to replace the road warrior terminators and save money by doing all the firing by video link. And so the heart of the film is how these two characters lives are shaped by being up in the air all over the USA. Kendrick has her eyes opened to the brutal realities of sacking a real flesh and blood person and Clooney’s ironclad persona beginning to crack as he falls in love with one of his casual encounters (played beautifully by Vera Farmiga).

Outstanding moments? There are some.

– The incongruity of Clooney, the self-absorbed shark, trying to talk his prospective brother-in-law into going ahead with marriage to Clooney’s sister is one.

Memorable images?

– The head shot scenes of person after person hearing the news that their ‘services are no longer required’ (from someone that they have never met before). Work is income, work is dignity, work is sustaining family life, work embodies hopes and dreams … To watch all this being stripped away in a few seconds on a person’s face is moving and draining stuff.

– Clooney’s face as the film ends staring up at an airport departure board and a life of endless travel, alone.

Parting thoughts? – a surprisingly downbeat thought-provoking movie. The big theme for me was that while relationships may well be the heaviest burden in our backpacks, they are what make our journey both possible and meaningful. To try to live without them is to destroy our own humanity.

This all made me think again of Michael Schulter and relationalism. Not long ago he wrote a Cambridge Paper on ‘Is Capitalism Morally Bankrupt?’ arguing how capitalism desperately needs reforming in light of relational thinking. Well worth reading. It was unaccountable actions divorced from real relationships that helped fuel the Credit Crunch. In Up in the Air, we have another all too realistic glimpse into people being treated in in-human ways in the name of supposedly efficient ‘systems’ and the dictates of the ‘market’. No wonder the cinema was silent at the end.

Jesus in the Life of Pi 2

Continuing the conversation between Pi and Father Martin in Yann Martel’s fable The Life of Pi:

“That a god should put up with adversity, I could understand. The gods of Hinduism face their fare share of thieves, bullies, kidnappers and usurpers … Adversity yes. Reversals of fortune, yes. Treachery, yes. But humiliation? Death? I couldn’t imagine the Lord Krishna consenting to be stripped, naked , whipped, mocked, dragged through the streets and to top it off, crucified – and at the hands of mere humans to boot. I’d never heard of a Hindu god dying … It was wrong of the Christian god to let his avatar die … The Son must have the taste of death always in his mouth. The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God the Father. Why would God wish that upon himself? Why not leave death to the mortals?”

Compared to the power and might of the Hindu gods who can rescue and save and put down evil, “This Son, on the other hand, who goes hungry, who suffers from thirst, who gets tired, who is sad, who is anxious, who is heckled and harassed, who has to put up with followers who don’t get it and opponents who don’t respect him – what kind of a god is that? It’s a god on too human a scale that’s what … This Son is god who walked, a pedestrian god-and in a hot place at that-with a stride like any other human stride, the sandal reaching just above the rocks along the way; and when He splurged on transportation, it was a regular donkey. This Son is a god who died in three hours, with moans and gasps and laments. What kind of a god is that? What is there to inspire in this Son?”

“And this Son appears only once, long ago, far away? Among an obscure tribe in a backwater of West Asia on the confines of a long-vanished empire? Is done away with before He has a single grey hair on His head? Leaves not a single descendant, only scattered, partial testimony, His complete works doodles in the dirt? … what could justify such divine stinginess?”

Father Martin’s one word answer to all of Pi’s questions is “Love”


Jesus in the Life of Pi 1

This blog will at times be fantastically out of date. I could argue some profound reason such as a principled stand against the ‘tyranny of the new’ but usually it will be because I’ve got round to reading a book years after it was popular.

One I’m reading with my younger daughter at the moment is Life of Pi by Yann Martel, winner of the Man Booker Prize with way over 7 million copies sold. Haven’t finished it yet but we’re enjoying the crazy unpredictable ride so far as our hero, Piscine Molitor Patel, becomes a Christian and a Muslim as well as a Hindu.

His first encounter with the story of Jesus from a local Priest called Father Martin goes like this: [and I’ll post it in two parts because there is a lot in it]

“And what a story. The first thing that drew me in was disbelief. What? Humanity sins but it’s God’s Son who pays the price? I tried to imagine Father [a zookeeper] saying to me, ‘Piscine, a lion slipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas. Yesterday another one killed a black buck. Last week two of them ate the camel. The week before it was painted storks and grey herons. And who’s to say for sure who snacked on our golden agouti? The situation has become intolerable. Something must be done. I have decided that the only way the lions can atone for their sins is if I feed you to them.’

‘Yes Father, that would be the right and logical thing to do. Give me a moment to wash up.’

‘Hallelujah, my son.’

‘Hallelujah, Father.’

What a downright weird story. What peculiar psychology”

Total Church 1

This is to kick off a series on a book by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis called Total Church: a radical reshaping around gospel and community, published in 2007 by IVP.

In my view, the only really useful theology is theology that leads to ‘doxology and devotion’ – a phrase stolen from somewhere in J I Packer’s writings. In other words, it leads to a life shaped by the worship of God in every area of day to day living. One of my hopes in starting a blog is to provide a useful place for discussion and thinking about ‘real life’ theological issues that face us as we go about our daily lives at home, church, work, or wherever – and with an Irish context in focus.

What I like about Tim Chester’s many books is his concern to connect the world of theology with the everyday challenges that face Christians every week. You Can Change is a practical down to earth guide to growing in the Christian life. An upcoming book will deal with overcoming addiction to porn. But it is in his writings on the church and mission that he is probably best known. He is a leader in The Crowded House – (a network of missional church communities in Sheffield) and other missionally focused ministries.

I’ve found this book especially helpful in trying to think about missional church in an Irish context because – let’s face it – the UK cultural context is a lot nearer to Ireland than much of the USA where the vast majority of missional church writing originates. It is also refreshingly realistic and makes no claims that ‘this is how to do it’. Another thing I like is the authors’ determination to keep  ‘gospel’ and ‘missional church’ together. In other words, Chester and Timmis are willing to be very radical in how to ‘do church’ in a post-Christendom context. They are also willing to deconstruct inadequate understanding of the gospel itself. But they are not willing, as some appear rather enthusiastic to be, to let ‘deconstruction’ turn into destruction –  to a point where there is little clarity left on what the gospel actually is.

There is a good short foreward by Ian Coffey who describes this book as an attempt to help the church be more like the Bride of Christ and less like the Bride of Frankenstein 🙂 and so become, as Lesslie Newbigin put it, ‘the hermeneutic of the gospel’.

So I hope that we will have lots of discussion points about church, mission, community and gospel as we go.

Sundays on Mark (7)

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections on the Gospel of Mark:

The arrival of Jesus’ mother and brothers into the overcrowded and charged atmosphere becomes a teaching tool to the crowd sitting gathered around this charismatic rabbi. The family are unable to get near to Jesus. And in a very Jesus-like way, he takes the opportunity afforded by unfolding circumstances to teach and challenge the listeners about his own identity and the nature of his mission.

‘Whoever does God’s will are my mother and brothers’ is an extraordinary claim. In saying this Jesus is explicity claiming he knows, and is doing, God’s will. Those who accept him will be part of the family of God. Here, I think, is the Messiah re-forming a renewed Israel around his own person and mission. The invitation is open to all the listeners.

PRAYER: Lord God, you give us ears to hear but also feet and hands to obey and do your will. Help us to have the courage and faith to be doers of your word as well as hearers. Amen.

Jesus’ Mother and Brothers

31Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

33“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

34Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

Saturday story of the week

I’m thinking of taking Saturday to comment or reflect on a story from the week’s goings on nationally. So we’ll see how it goes.

The big story this week was the Irish Bishops’ summoning to Rome. They spent much of Monday and Tuesday meeting with the Pope and senior curia. The goal of these meetings was described by Primate of All-Ireland Cardinal Seán Brady as “one step in a process . . . which will lead to a journey of repentance, renewal and reconciliation”.

Gladys Ganiel in a series of informed and sceptical posts doubted Brady’s optimism. William Crawley took a similar line. I’m with Ganiel and Crawley. Why? Because there is something far more systemic to face up than a failure “to act effectively” by the Irish Catholic leadership – as the press statement put it. [And as the statement itself suggests, that Irish leadership is not united in the aftermath of the Murphy Report].

Christendom Catholicism Irish style was formidable: the corrosive institutionalised culture of loyalty; a general culture of deference to authority; fused with nationalism; all mixed with a high sacramentalist theology where everyone is ‘in’ from baptism, led IMHO to a culture where the spiritual qualifications for Christian ministry were so marginalised as to be irrelevant. Having a son ‘go for the priesthood’ became a symbol of cultural prestige regardless of whether he had truly been converted by the Spirit to new life in Christ. Perhaps even the question would have seemed a strange one.

It is interesting that the statement did say this:

The Holy Father … stressed the need for a deeper theological reflection on the whole issue, and called for an improved human, spiritual, academic and pastoral preparation both of candidates for the priesthood and religious life and of those already ordained and professed.

The New Testament qualifications for spiritual leadership revolve around character, integrity and Christ-likeness, all recognised within a local community of faith. This is a long long way from recent Irish experience. As Catholic thinkers themselves have acknowledged, “We have baptized and catechized but not evangelized.” And the reason for this is, in my view, is the overly-sacramental nature of Catholicism. As a result personal faith is downplayed and the necessity for new birth is marginalised.

The Pope’s statement is spot on – it will take BOTH profound theological shifts about the nature of faith and conversion as well as improved spiritual preparation for leadership for lasting change to take root. [and in saying this I’m in no way saying evangelicals somehow have got it all right, I’m just focusing on this particular story].

Atheism and the goodness of God

Earlier this week I had a hour long debate with Ciaran Mac Aoidh of Atheist Ireland. It was hosted by Steven O’Neill on his Monday Night Radio Show (Nightlife) on LifeFM 93.1, a local station based in Cork City. This is the first specifically Christian radio station to be given a licence to broadcast by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland [BCI].  Steven is doing a series on Christianity and Atheism.

I think it was a civil and good conversation and it sure covered a lot of ground. The main theme was God and morality. I was arguing that atheism logically cannot believe in any objective basis to morality. To be fair Richard Dawkins tries to construct some sort of evolutionary foundation for morality in The God Delusion. But what he suggests in the end is not objective morality at all – simply an explanation for why it may be mutually advantageous to act nicely to eachother in certain circumstances.

Ciaran (as best as I can recall) rejected the idea that Bible is an objective metaphysical basis for morality since it is a human book interpreted in different ways by humans. And even the content of that book is full of immorality – God is not good at all, he does (and commands others to do)  horrible things – we’re back here to issues we’ve posted on earlier such as the conquest of Canaan in the OT and the injustice of hell in the NT.

One reflection on our discussion:- faith or un-faith ultimately revolves around who we believe God is. Is he utterly good or is he not? I believe that he is. Yes atheists like Ciaran are asking real questions. But Christopher Hitchens, Dawkins et all give the impression that Christians are either too credulous or too naive ever to have thought of these questions themselves. Christians have been wrestling with these questions for centuries precisely because they believe and know God to be completely good.  One recent and very readable book is God is Good God is Great edited by William Lane Craig and Chad Meister.  I’m not going to work my way through the whole thing – but will post some reflections from different chapters along the way.