Urban Theology 7: The Bible and the city

Part 2 of David Smith’s book Seeking a City with Foundations: theology for an urban world, turns to biblical and theological perspectives on the city. Chapter 6 is ‘The Bible and the City; from Patriarchs to Prophets’. It’s 50 pages of detailed discussion so it’ll take more than one post to sketch.

He starts with the brilliant Jacques Ellul and his influential anti-urban reading of Genesis and the subsequent biblical narrative in his The Meaning of the City. The city is linked to Cain and to the curse. It is a place of darkness that consumes its inhabitants; a technological wasteland where God is absent.

Harvie Conn, alternatively, develops an overly positive theological vision of the city using Gen 1:26-28. The ‘fill, rule and subdue the earth’, he says, is a mandate for city building and procreating to provide citizens for the city! The city, for Conn, is to be embraced.

But such approaches assume the Bible speaks with one voice on the city. The reality, says Smith, is that there a range of theological perspectives on the city within the Scriptures and this diversity ‘does justice to the complex reality of empirical cities.’

The big theme of this chapter is the alternative biblical vision of Israel to cultures of the ANE: cultures built around the power of elite rulers, kings and Pharaohs and expressed most powerfully within their cities. The Tower of Babel is best interpreted, says Smith, as an assault on Babylonian pretensions and empire building. This is not so much a judgement on the city per se (Ellul) but on the accompanying ideology of the city.

Smith has an extended discussion of the conquest of the cities of Canaan here but I’ll come back to that.

Deuteronomy, Smith suggests, is best read as an urban text as Israel enters Canaan. It would shape life in the capital city of the new nation – Jerusalem. It would be a place of Shalom in a disordered world. ZION is Israel now with her own city – a crucial tipping point in the history of Israel, the creation of the holy city of David. At last a ‘home’ to live in and to form an identity around (2 Sam 5:9-10).

God is with David and his city. Here is an alternative form of urban existence – an urban sanctuary, God’s city for which God is to be praised (Psalms 47, 48 for example). A source of joy and beauty. There is a celebration of this city. This is the city as a source of blessing to the whole nation and beyond (Ps 107:35-6).

I think this is an overlooked way of seeing God’s purpose for Israel: after tribal nomadic existence, in the Promised Land, would be a new and alternative form of urban existence – an urban culture reflecting Yahweh’s will for his people.  Where God would dwell with his people, ‘Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise, in the city of our God’ (Ps 48:1).  [This theology sets the scene for the perfected heavenly Jerusalem of Revelation.]

Yet there remains an ambivalent attitude toward the king and the city. Samuel remembers the harsh rulers of the ANE. His objection is that, like the ANE kings, the king of Israel will take whatever he wants from the people (1 Sam 8:11-17).  He would supplant the rule of Yahweh for his own ends. And as history progresses, Samuel’s original fears would be realised, both in terms of the unfaithfulness of the king, but also in the unfaithfulness of the city.

But that’s for the future post.

I guess I am an ‘Ellulite’ by disposition. How about you?

So the big point for me here is the (convincing) rejection of Ellul’s anti-urban reading of the biblical storyline.

Personally, I love escaping from the oppressive noise, squash and pace of urban life to walk in the empty beauty of an Irish mountainside or sandy beach. Being in the city can be oppressive; it sure doesn’t bring me the same freedom and joy. I can’t do much more than 1 day of a ‘city break’ – except maybe for Rome! I’d rather be in West Cork or Donegal.

But complete ‘freedom’ from urban life is probably, like Ellul’s rural dream, an illusion. Staying in the wilderness would soon turn pretty ugly (have you seen Into the Wild and the guy trying to cook a moose? ‘nough said).

This chapter poses a question to us Christians living in the (fallen) city.

Seems to me it is a calling to love the city and work for its redemption and restoration, just as one day the fallen Jerusalem will meet the heavenly city. I say ‘calling’ because that is a call to mission – to commitment, to hardship and to presence in the city, rather than fleeing the city.

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Advent People (1) John the Baptist

On this first Sunday in Advent we turn to Luke 1 for some simple Sunday reflections and focus on the story of the birth of the herald, John the Baptist.

There are at least three inter-related stories going on around the birth of John.

1. A personal story of God’s gracious blessing on Zechariah and Elizabeth

Into barrenness, disappointment and shame, God generously chooses them not only to have a longed for child, but to be the parents of the the final prophet before the coming of the saviour of Israel. He is their delight and joy. There is a tenderness here, a care for this faithful but unremarkable couple who had given up hope of a child, that should not be missed. God chooses to bless individuals in the midst of huge unfolding events.

2. The story of John

Their son will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He will be a prophet like Elijah, heralding the saving action of God.  He is filled with the empowering Spirit of God. The new age of the kingdom is breaking into the present. But the story of John is not an end in itself, but only a beginning. John’s calling is to be a herald, announcing the coming Messiah and preparing people’s hearts for his coming. John’s story only makes sense within the biggest story of all.

3. The story of Jesus

Zechariah’s song gets how his son’s story fits within the story of the long hoped for Messiah. God’s promises are being fulfilled at last. Israel is to be redeemed. Forgiveness, freedom and peace beckon. Salvation has come. The story of John leads to the gospel – the good news (vs19) of Jesus, the Lord. No wonder Zechariah sings.

Let’s celebrate, this Advent Sunday, as he did – with thanksgiving and joy.

The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold

5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

19 The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

23 When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25 “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

67His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:

68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a hornof salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.

A Digression: Irish Secondary School Education, Learning and the Leaving Certificate

Blogging about Perry Shaw’s argument against education as mere information acquisition provides opportunity for a rant measured criticism about the Leaving Certificate exam within Irish secondary school education.

Someone sent me a recent Discussion Paper on the Leaving Cert (Sept 2011) prepared by Áine Hyland, Emeritus Professor of Education, University College Cork and Chairperson of the Commission on the Points System 1999.

I can’t think of a more damning analysis of the Leaving Certificate and indeed the whole skewed structure of Irish Secondary education towards incentivizing, rewarding and encouraging the mere acquisition of knowledge. In the words of the Report itself, the only thing that counts is what points students get at the end of the process. Actual learning is not only marginalized, but actively rejected where it might get in the way of maximizing points.

During their senior cycle studies, students (advised by their parents and teachers) will do everything possible to optimise their potential points. Some students base their subject choice for Leaving Cert on the perceived likelihood of getting a high grade, rather than on their aptitude for the subject or its relevance to their higher education course of choice.

The Hyland Paper quotes this criticism

For too long the cart has been before the horse; final marks (i.e. the marks achieved in final examinations) have been treated by society as the ultimate goal of education. Intellectual curiosity, the joy of discovery, involvement in intellectual issues – in a word, all these activities and responses which contribute to true learning have been subordinated to, often sacrificed to, a public examination. To restore things to their proper order is the most pressing problem in Irish secondary education at the present time.

When do you think this was written? 2008? 2000? No, it dates from 1970 and rings completely true today. Why is the system so immune to reform? What vested interests are at work to maintain such an obviously inappropriate and narrow approach to education? I really don’t know.

There are many many fine fine teachers and highly motivated students working within this system. But it seems to me that real learning happens despite rather than because of the structure of the Leaving Cert. And those who learn in ways not suited to final exams are stuffed. The whole approach traps everyone within a points race that pretty no-one believes is good for learning.

Hyland quotes recent criticism from ex-DCU President Ferdinand von Prondzynski,

Here’s the situation. We have a final secondary school examination that we all know isn’t fit for purpose. It encourages learning methods that offend the most basic principles of pedagogy. Its curriculum is outdated and hard to change to something better. By all accounts it fails to engage the interest and enthusiasm of either teachers or students. It doesn’t attract any respect from the wider world, including the world of business. It has little impact internationally ….

It is widely acknowledged that the Leaving Certificate, with its focus on rote learning, leaves students ill-equipped to meet the challenges of third level. Research shows increasing numbers of students entering third level education with serious deficiencies in basic literacy and analytical skills.

Hyland refers to other critics.

The former dean of the Smurfit School of Business in UCD, Dr. Tom Begley, describing the Leaving Cert as “dysfunctional” and saying it needs to be “blown up”.

Professor Brian MacCraith, President of DCU, stated that it discourages independent thought and critical thinking. It does not deliver the type of rounded education that will be required for Ireland’s economic recovery, in that it fails to develop strong skills in literacy and numeracy as well as excellent generic skills in communications, digital intelligence, adaptability, critical thinking and innovation.

Rant over.

Change is afoot. But don’t hold your breath.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

What is theological education for? (3) The cognitive domain

The third domain of learning that Perry Shaw discusses in relation to theological education is the cognitive domain.

This is the one much education focuses on, whether from pre-school to post-graduate levels. It is easy to plan, control and deliver. How well information has been ‘learnt’ can be assessed relatively easily can’t it?

Well, yes and no. To easily such ‘learning’ is just regurgitation, quickly forgotten. This is just acquisition of information. [The Irish Leaving Certificate Exam anyone?].

Shaw refers to Bloom’s famous 1950s taxonomy of Educational Objectives with its 6 levels:

Knowledge: the simple remembering of facts.

– Comprehension: understanding of what is being communicated, and ability to make use of the material at a simple level.

– Application: the ability to use abstractions in particular and concrete situations.

– Analysis: the ability to break material down into its constituent elements or parts.

– Synthesis: the assembling of elements and parts so as to form a cohesive whole.

– Evaluation: quantitative and qualitative judgments about the extent to which materials and methods satisfy criteria.

And it is only when you get into application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation that students will be challenged to “think more deeply and take steps towards living and leading theologically” and so develop the qualities of effective leadership.

And so Shaw appeals for a holistic integration of the three domains for true excellence in theological education

a focus on the affective domain leads to ignorant pietism; a focus on the behavioral domain leads to empty technical excellence; a focus on the cognitive domain leads to the pride and irrelevance that are endemic among our graduates. Excellence in theological education will recognize the need for a holistic balance, which will lead to the healthy dispositional formation of the emerging leaders entrusted to our care.

Some musings on the Spirit and the Chrisitan life

Last night in our wee church we had our monthly ‘Forum’ on an issue related to the Christian faith. It was my turn to lead and I proposed 6 things and we had a really good discussion which continued over a pint afterwards. He’s a skeleton summary for what it’s worth.

CONTENTION 1; The blessing of the Spirit is the eschatological fulfillment of God’s promises and includes both Jews and Gentiles

CONTENTION 2: The Christian life begins and continues in and through the Spirit

1.   It is the Spirit who reveals the gospel

2.   The Spirit brings the believer into an objectively new position before God

3.   The Spirit brings the believer into an ongoing relational experience of God

CONTENTION 3 :The church is essentially a fellowship of the Spirit

CONTENTION 4. Christians belong to the new age of the Spirit as opposed to the old age of the flesh (which is not some sort of inner existential struggle between two natures within the believer)

CONTENTION 5: sanctification has  past, present and future aspects

i. A Finished Reality (‘This is who you are’)

ii. Ongoing spiritual and ethical transformation by the Spirit (‘Be who you are’)

iii. Future Glory (‘This is who you will be’)

CONTENTION 6: Perhaps the biggest differences among Christians is how much spiritual progress Christians should make through the empowering presence of the Spirit

And I have to bring in Gordon Fee here [note his wee dig at Luther’s ‘justified sinner’ ( simil iustus et peccator)]

‘Paul expected people to exhibit changed behaviour … because the Spirit empowers this new life, Paul has little patience for the point of view that allows for people to be “justified sinners” without appropriate changes in attitudes and conduct … Nor would Paul understand an appeal to helplessness on the part of those who live in and walk by the Spirit … in which the “flesh” continually proves to be the greater power.’ Fee, Empowering Presence, 879-80

But the last word to Paul

‘And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.’ (Colossians 1:10)

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The human cost of the debt crisis

The spiralling European debt crisis has a very human face. Ireland is in deeper than most and things are getting worse.

Here are a sample of conversations I’ve had with people over the last while:

– someone being made redundant at Christmas

– someone self-employed with no work in sight

– someone having to keep working part-time despite post-viral exhaustion

– someone with young kids having to sell the family home

– someone unable to afford to go to the doctor

– someone unable to buy Christmas presents for their children

– someone having sleepless nights about an unpayable mortage and house repossession

– someone sending off endless job applications with few if any replies

– someone struggling with depression and hopelessness about the future

– someone unable to pay college fees

– someone whose business has lost 50% of its turnover in 2 years

– a church leader not knowing if they are going to be paid each month

– someone working for free just to get some work

– someone having to sell a treasured collection in order to pay the bills

– someone working for a company doing significantly longer hours for significantly less pay

– and someone telling me that people are now queuing up outside job agencies in the early morning, dressed up for work, and waiting all day in case a temp post opens up

And I could go on.

Each conversation  is just a slice of what is going on across the country. Many churches, charities, businesses, families are under increasing pressure. Where I work is no exception. Due to the property crash and tenants subsequently moving out, IBI faces extra costs of €100,000 pa which is unsustainable for a small institution. We’re praying and working hard towards a way forward but nothing is certain.

And in the midst of this, last week I was at an Irish premiere of ’58’ – a film made by Tony Neeves with Compassion International on global poverty (ref to Isaiah 58). It tells the different stories of what abject poverty looks like and does to people across the globe. And those stories are framed within a larger story of human dignity and an appeal to help end such poverty.

So Irish hardship needs to be kept in perspective. There’s hardship and there is abject poverty. But that’s not minimising its reality in the faces of the people I’ve been talking with.

In our church home group last night we were looking at Romans 5:1-11 which contains these words from someone who knew suffering up close and personal:

1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

This isn’t sentimental, soft, wish-fulfilment. Here’s future hope transforming the very real (and for Paul, often brutal) but temporary trials of the present. Here’s the reality of the present experience of God’s grace, peace, justification, love and empowering Spirit, giving hope for the future.

That’s good news that shines like a blazing beacon into the gathering storm-clouds of bad news over Ireland and the rest of Europe.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Urban Theology 5: City skylines, City meanings

This is the last chapter in Part 1 (The Urban World) in David Smith’s book, Seeking a City With Foundations: theology for an urban world.

The big theme here continues to be the meaning of the city. And in this chapter Smith traces the shifting patterns of meaning within modern Western cities and takes Glasgow as a case study.

Big points here:

The skyline of spires in Western cities from Medieval times on reflected sacred spaces and unified sense of meaning at the heart of the polis.

Contemporary postmodern city skylines now reflect a ‘forest of symbols’. The sacred places of the past are now monuments  [see this post on Christianity as a curious tourist relic of the past].

He tells the story of Glasgow city extremely well – with John Knox’s statue looking down over the city holding the Bible over it reflecting the Reformed vision of the ‘Holy Commonwealth’ – where the prosperity of the city would only come with the preaching of God’s word and the praising of his name.

And he unpacks the complex relationship of this vision with money – the growing power of industrialisation, capitalism and secularisation.

New symbols of power and meaning emerged: The giant cranes of the shipbuilding industry; Glasgow’s impressive City Chambers (Town Hall); and later modernist housing projects like the infamous Gorbals (demolished 30 years later). By 1982 Glasgow had 321 tower blocks – echoes of Le Corbusier’s ‘machines to live in’.

And since then, as a post-industrial city, Glasgow has set about finding new meaning in the city in the form of the regeneration of the centre into a ‘city with style’. Smith argues this reflects the new values of globalisation and consumerism.

Thus, the iconic buildings of the early twenty-first century can be viewed in the shopping malls that now encircle Glasgow, retaining in their design reminders of previous sacred buildings, and shamelessly plundering sacred language in promotional campaigns ..

And Smith contends, such ‘cultural renaissance’ leaves untouched the urban deprivation of working class estates in the city.

What then is the meaning of the post-industrial city?   

It is full of iconic and technologically impressive buildings.

He quotes Jencks saying that such secular ‘shrines’ are the inevitable result of a global culture driven by the ideology of consumerism and “without common religious beliefs of shared culture.” Such buildings have no meaning beyond themselves, apart from perhaps ‘inflating’ the ego of the city or even nation.

[My comment – think the Burj Kalifa in Dubai. Think the Millennium Spire in Dublin – technologically clever, signifying nothing very much?]

All this remind you of an OT story perhaps?

What iconic buildings characterise your city? What do they mean do you think?

Comments, as ever, welcome.