a favourite place

Here’s one of my favourite places in Ireland – the vale of Glendalough in autumn colours. Taken on Saturday from the spinc walk above the upper lake with my camera phone. The monastic settlement in the far distance below the lower lake.

Nice example of a glaciated U shaped valley for any geologists out there.

St Kevin sure had a eye for a scenic retreat centre.

Sundays in Mark (35) 11:1-11 The Triumphal Entry

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections on the gosepl of Mark. We’ve come to Jesus’ arrival at last in the holy city of Jerusalem.

This is a big moment. Finally the Messiah reaches his destination.This is a text all about the Messiah, the city and the temple.

I remember well standing some years ago on the Mount of Olives looking across the Kidron Valley at the golden dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It is not that hard to imagine the dramatic image in this text of Jesus gazing across that same valley, but at the magnificent second temple complex of Herod the Great.

It’s risky trying to psychoanalyse Jesus or read his mind. But his actions speak clearly here of his own self-understanding. The story of the unridden colt [saved for a sacred task] speaks like an acted parable – Jesus declaring his messianic status by claiming Zechariah’s prophecy as his own. The ‘messianic mania’ so evident all through the gospel reaches its climax with the chants of the crowd acclaiming Jesus as the long-awaited one, come in the name of the Lord to renew the kingdom of David.


The verse that hits me here is the last one. After all the tumult of the day, after the long build up over 3 years of ministry, here finally in the gathering gloom of night, quietly and unobserved, is Jesus the Lord at the temple – the dwelling place of God, the heart of Israel. A pause before the confrontational climax of his mission; confrontation not only with the religious and political elites within Jerusalem, but with the powers of sin and evil he has come to overthrow. A confrontation won not with military might, but in humiliy and suffering of the Messiah himself.

The Triumphal Entry

1As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ tell him, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’ ”

4They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
10“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest!”

11Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

Bird’s eye view of Paul (20) Paul, Sex and Women

In his excellent book A Bird’s Eye View of Paul, Michael Bird has a discussion of ‘Paul, Sex and Women’ in his chapter on Paul’s ethics.

Here’s a good discussion starter …

A society that has rejected God will be driven to pursue power or pleasure, the fist or the phallus, Hitler or Hefner.

And he catches well the dual character of Christian sexual ethics. On the one hand, grace and welcome is there for all, whoever they are and whatever their sexual orientation or lifestyle. On the other hand everyone is called to experience the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit and be part of God’s redeemed humanity.

In other words, grace is not opposed to ethical transformation, indeed it leads to it.

On homosexuality the exegetical territory is so well mapped out that it is difficult to add to the conversation. Bird concludes that for Paul homosexual practice is sinful and out of line with God’s purpose for human sexuality – but it is no ‘worse’ than any form of heterosexual sin.

On women the relevant texts have also been exhaustively dissected  but with much less agreement. So where does Bird alight? Well, he doesn’t spell things out in detail, but he heads in a generally egalitarian direction:

I say generally, because when he says that several texts speak of the husband’s authority over the wife, he does not discuss what this actually means in practice. He also says that Paul ‘for most part shared the patriarchal perspective of the ancient world – again I’d like to know what is meant here – for much of the rest of the discussion is anything but traditional patriarchy.

Bird stresses how Paul qualifies patriarchy in his emphasis on mutual submission in Ephesians 5:21; mutual authority in 1 Cor 7:4;  and blows apart cultural norms of the ancient world in Galatians 3:28. This text neither supports an obliteration of gender roles nor can be reduced to simply ‘unity in salvation’ with no implications for challenging patriarchy. But it does, says Bird, gloriously demonstrate the ‘negation of the distinctions that have separated human beings from each other’ in how ALL are equal in Christ.

On women and teaching he points to the ‘clear evidence’ in the NT that women had a teaching ministry:

– Priscilla and Aquilla both taught Apollos

– women prophets were active in Corinth

– there were women who were heads of households and who exercised some form of leadership in house churches

– women like Lydia, Syntyche and Priscilla were Paul’s co-workers (synergos) in the gospel, a word used elsewhere of key leaders

– and of course there is Junia the female apostle of Romans 16:7.  The evidence here is increasingly accepted as unambiguous. Bird quotes a major study by Eldon Epp that ‘Contemporary Christians – lay people and clergy – must (and eventually will) face up to it’ [the fact that the Bible has a female apostle].

– the restrictions on women teaching in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 are due to a local heresy, not Paul laying down some sort of blanket prohibition for all time.

Which, to come back to the post the other day on Mark Driscoll, all casts huge doubt over any dogmatically held ‘male only teachers’ position – and all the baggage which often comes with it

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Joel Edwards on Cape Town

Here’s a really good article by Joel Edwards, head of the Micah Challenge on Lausanne III in Cape Town. He does a great job of capturing how God builds his church through the foolishness of persecuted, marginalised and apparently unimportant – and that means less and less the rich west and more and more the exploding church, in all its messiness, in the Global South.

He’s coming to Dublin to speak at a joint IBI, Tearfund and IMap Conference ‘Urban Nation: reimagining the Church’ in late January 2011. Details here.

Stackhouse on Mark Driscoll

Over at his blog, John Stackhouse has a thorough and much needed demolition of Mark (and Mrs’) Driscoll’s half-baked (and oh so confidently held) view that a man who stays at home to look after his family is disobeying God and will be under church discipline at Mars Hill in Seattle where Driscoll is Pastor. All built on 1 Timothy 5:8.

Bizzare stuff.

Stackhouse concludes,

If instead, however, he persists in such troubling exegesis, theology, and preaching, the impressively innovative, faithful, and effective work done at Mars Hill will be compromised, perhaps fatally. People who find this sort of interpretation to be sexist, classist, and just plain uninformed will go elsewhere for competent Biblical preaching.

And they should.

Bird’s eye view of Paul (19) Paul’s ethics

Getting near the end of Michael Bird’s excellent book A Bird’s Eye View of Paul which offers a first class introduction and overview of Paul’s thought [bout time I put up a picture of the red-headed Ozzie author]. There is a lot of stuff packed into this chapter on Paul’s ethics. Some big points Bird makes are:

1. The Law

Being a Jew, Paul’s Christian attitude to the law is radical and complex. Complex because it has  elements of both continuity and discontinuity. Radical because it is revolutionary in relativising the unique status of ethnic Israel as the God’s nation.

-The Law highlights the holiness of God and severity of sin

-Is a temporary administration of God’s grace to govern his people

-Foreshadows and prepares the way for the coming of Jesus

-Romans 7 is best understood, NOT as Paul the Christian’s internal anguish about his battle with sin, but Paul picturing the pre-Christian experience of utter inability to keep the law. Or better, the law’s inability to produce a life of righteousness.

But ‘liberty from law is not licence to sin’.

2. The motive and framework for the Christian life comes from 4 areas:

– The example of Jesus: Christians are to live to serve others. They are to be generous, hospitable, reconcilers and forgivers.

– The teaching of Jesus: Bird interprets the ‘law of Christ’ mentioned in Galatians 6:2 and 1 Corinthians 9:21 as referring to Jesus’ whole teaching programme on life in the kingdom of God.

– Life in the Spirit: This is the empowering for the Christian life. For Paul the transforming presence of the Spirit in the life of a Christian will be evidenced by the ‘fruit of the Spirit’. Not being under law does not mean lawlessness, but a fulfilling of the law by a life marked with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control.

– The law of love: Love is central to Paul’s ethics. All of the law is summed up by loving God and loving neighbour. Christians are to love one another, walk in love, build one another up in love, do everything in love, work out their faith in love.  Love is what being a Christian is all about. The sign of authentic Christian faith is a ‘life of love’.

At the heart of Paul’s ethics is this tension between freedom and the imperative of love. Christians are set free in Christ [Galatians 5:1]. But free to love others with sacrificially, seeking their best and serving joyfully. Free not to do whatever they wish, but free to honour God with their lives, bodies, and thoughts.

Again and again while reading this book, it has struck me afresh what a distance exists between popular perceptions (and expressions) of what Christianity is (obligations, moral straitjacket, duty, conventionality, institutionalism) and Paul’s revolutionary gospel of Spirit empowered boundary-breaking love, graciousness and service. And how Christian spirituality is measured in the quality of our love – love for one another, for others and for God.

He has some comments on Paul, Sex and Women which I’ll come back to in the next post.

Sundays in Mark (34) 10:46-52 Bartimaeus the blind man

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the gosepl of Mark. This week, the account of Jesus meeting Bartimaeus, the blind beggar.

The journey south to Jerusalem brings Jesus and the disciples to the city of Jericho, a large crowd in their wake. Our familiarity with what happens can cloud its remarkable content.

An insignificant beggar outside the city is the one who truly ‘sees’ who Jesus is (Jesus’ identity being a constant theme in Mark). The restoration of his sight is literal but also an indication of his ‘spiritual insight’.

But it is Bartimaeus who identifies Jesus as the Son of David – a Messianic title. He knows Jesus is the one in whom the hopes of Israel rest. It is Bartimaeus who confidently trusts that Jesus can heal him, he knows Jesus is empowered by God. It is Bartimaeus who enthusiastically follows the Messiah up the ascent through the Judean wilderness towards Jerusalem and all that awaited there.


What is left unexplained is how Bartimaeus ‘saw’ what others were blind to. The response of the Messiah is to welcome a marginalised, poor, insignificant and apparently annoying distraction as one of his followers. Such is the surprising grace of God, a grace that extends to you and to me.

Blind Bartimaeus Receives His Sight

46Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (that is, the Son of Timaeus), was sitting by the roadside begging. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

48Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

49Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” 50Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.

51“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”

52“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.

James Davison Hunter on Yoder, Hauerwas and co

In his important and big book on Christianity and culture To Change the World: the irony, tragedy and possibility of Christianity in the late Modern World James Davison Hunter turns his attention to the neo-Anabaptists.

This will be a longer post on what is a significant chapter.

The main difference, he says, between Christian Left and neo-Anabaptists is their attitude to the state. The former seek to use and transform it to aid justice, the latter have an innate distrust of political power. Similarities are an intense dislike of the Christian Right and a highly sceptical view of Western capitalism.

Neo-Anabaptism has its roots in radical Reformation, the rejection of hierarchy and of the structures of Christendom, and the vision of authentic Christian communities. If the Anabaptist tradition is still found in Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites etc, the neo-Anabaptist movement is wider – drawing theologically on Anabaptism’s vision for how to engage the wider 21st world.

Two names best known names [to me anyway :)] are the late John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas.

And let me nail my colours to the wall here – I have great sympathy for the Anabaptist tradition and huge admiration for contemporary exponents like Stanley Hauerwas. I find him a truly prophetic voice; an authentic voice; an honest voice; an inspiring counter-cultural voice who articulates the deeply subversive nature of what it means to follow Jesus in late Western culture. You don’t have to agree with all he says to see that we need prophets like him.

Hunter is right to say that it is not that neo-Anabaptists have no interest in changing the world, but that they have a fundamentally different vision for how to do so.

Main characteristics:

1. Constantinian Error: While Jesus announced and inaugurated the upside-down-Kingdom of God, the story of the church since Constantine has been anything but radical – one where it supports and has been too often corrupted by the status quo. Rather than being radical it became conservative, power-obsessed, wealthy; a custodian of a civil religion while simultaneously losing its prophetic voice to fight for the weak and the vulnerable.

And this submission of the church to the state is nowhere seen more starkly than in the story of capitalism. So dominant has capitalism become, the state’s role and even existence depends on propping it up. [This is right – have you noticed it is our patriotic job to be good consumers so as to help the Irish state survive?].

Capitalism oppresses the poor; panders to greed and selfishness; destroys the environment; leads to a global financial crisis; promotes an insatiable desire for more; replaces God with things as the chief goal of desire. And the American church is up to its neck in sanctifying capitalism. Thus says Hauerwas, ‘God is killing Protestantism and perhaps the church in America, and we deserve it.’

2. The identity of Jesus: big important neo-Anabaptist themes revolve around Jesus. Authentic Christianity will be marked by

the way of the suffering servant who gives up his life for others

the rejection of force and coercion

– a Jesus-like challenge to the political and spiritual powers of the day. The concept of ‘powers and principalities’ is important here. Governments have overstepped their mark, becoming an end in themselves, demanding wholehearted allegiance. Yoder says that the spiritual grip of the powers must be broken. Jesus defeated the powers, his followers are to be free from their grip. Such a calling is communal – when the church is fulfilling its calling it will bear the brunt of the hostility and disdain of the world. The Christian response is one of forgiveness and peace.

a free church that embodies authentic Christian community as a counter-culture to the world. That refuses to endorse and participate in the power structures of the world and is therefore committed to non-violence.

3. The church versus the world

Flowing from this is a strong antithesis between church and world. The present world order is broken, rebellious and violent. Over against this the church is to be the visible foretaste of the kingdom, marked by baptism, Eucharist, preaching, forgiveness, service, peace, justice, love. Hence Hauerwas and his ‘Resident Aliens’ theme. The first and greatest task of the church is to be the church.

So to Hunter’s critique.

His main gripe is that neo-Anabaptism, in a strange parallel to both the Left and Right, still frames its vision in a deeply political way. Discipleship to Jesus is equated with social non-conformity. The very identity of the movement is drawn from opposition to the Christian Right, to the State, to capitalism. The vision for the church is framed against that of the sinful world. It is a ‘passive-aggressive ecclesiology’ – one which depends on the status of the church as a marginal minority community fighting democratic capitalism.

And in tone, the movement is negative. Negative about the world, negative about the failures of the church and its compromises with Christendom, negative about the idolatry of the Christian Right and so on. Hunter uses words like ‘anger, disparagement and negation’ as well as a ‘relentless hostility to all that is not God’. Shane Claiborne gets a mention as an example of the perfectionist, pietistic and separatist tendencies within neo-Anabaptism. In this way, Hunter concludes, neo-Anabaptist joins the ‘politics of negation’ that so dominate American contemporary culture.

Yoder when alive rejected such criticisms, as does Hauerwas today. The church living as an alternative community living a different way of life poses ‘a fundamental challenge to the way of the world’. Far with being pietistic and separatist, such a way of life is deeply political and is radically engaged with culture as it offers a foretaste of the kingdom to come.

We’ll get to Hunter’s own proposal for what he calls ‘faithful presence’ in the next post.

So is this a fair summary and critique of neo-Anabaptism?  Do you agree with its main themes? Why?

My tuppence worth: it seems to me that Hunter is not so much dissenting from any of the three key themes described above, but from the tone and political focus of the movement. It also seems unpersuasive to criticise a movement for being shaped by what it opposes. All theology is contextual, all reform movements are by definition seeking to change the status quo.