Dylan at 80

This is a rich weekend for Dylan fans like yours truly.

The great man’s 80th birthday is the catalyst for an outpouring of all sorts of broadcast programmes, events and articles.

Here’s a little flavour of ones I’ve listened to or plan to.

These five 15 minute podcasts on BBC Radio 4 by Sean Latham, Director of the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa, and editor of The World of Bob Dylan, are rather wonderful. They trace Dylan’s music, poetry and life in five periods from the early 60s to 2020.

What came across, to me anyway, is the man’s single-minded devotion to his craft. In a world of endless distraction and noise, he has followed his vocation relentlessly – and still is. Thus lie the seeds of true greatness. Know what you want to do and follow your passion. In Dylan’s case never allowing himself to be boxed in to others’ agendas or expectations.

Also on Radio 4 over the weekend was Verbatim, Dylan in his own words

And Front Row on BBC Radio 4 has a programme discussing his music and legacy with Bob Geldof and others

On BBC Radio 6 Cerys Matthews, she of a Welsh lilt and great taste in music, hosted a birthday tribute to saint Bob

And she also has a programme on BBC Radio 2 on Bob Dylan Blues to mark the occasion

The BBC World Service has a ‘Heart and Soul’ programme looking at his Gospel period, broadcast last Friday

In Dublin, tomorrow night there is a free livestream event from the US Embassy on You Tube and Facebook to celebrate his birthday.

That’s enough to be getting on with …. time spent with Bob is time well spent.

Happy Birthday Bob!


A couple of other things to add from today, Dylan’s birthday.

This article from Declan Kiberd in the Irish Times

And this charming letter from the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins – ‘one 80 year old to another’

Very short musings on beauty and love

This was the view over Belfast Lough the other night. The vista from the Craigantlet hills above Holywood is a favourite of mine but last night was a pretty special show.

A connection between beauty and love goes back a long way – for example to Plato’s Symposium where beauty is the highest or primary form of love.

Here’s a very short musing evoked by this beautiful scene that goes in a slightly different direction.

One of the most popular sayings about love is that “true love is unconditional”. But what is meant by that phrase is often left unclear.

It could mean that love just loves with no strings attached, with no expectations of the other at all. Yes, this expression of love does occur – but it is pretty rare.

One example is a devoted daughter caring for her terminally ill mother, who cannot communicate or do anything much for herself at all. The relationship is very much ‘one-way’ – the giver selflessly giving out of love that does not expect anything in return (unconditional).

But let me suggest that generally human love is anything but unconditional. Typically it is conditioned (evoked or dependent on) specific qualities in the object of love.

Take the scene above. It is a lovely view. There is a tight connection between beauty and love – think of a place that you love to go to. Why? I bet it is not generally an anonymous industrial estate on the fringe of city. It will probably be beautiful, or it will have a deep personal connection in the story of your life. I love this view not only because of its beauty but because this is where I grew up – it links to many good memories and connects to stories and people.

Or take a person you love. A son’s love for his dad is conditioned on the fact that he is his father. It is anything but an unconditioned love. Human love tends to be very specific in direction. It is far from random.

Or take two lovers. They are drawn to each other for specific reasons. It’s a pretty cold sort of relationship where partners have nothing to say about the special, attractive qualities of the other!

Think of the woman from the Songs of Songs chapter 5 extolling at great length the unique physical characteristics of her lover:

My beloved is radiant and ruddy,

outstanding among ten thousand.

Song of Songs 5:10

Her love is obviously conditioned on who he is, just as his love is conditioned on who she is – both are intensely attracted to each other and pretty well the whole book is a celebration of their delight in one another.

And if we jump forward from their relationship to modern relationships today, for a couple’s bond to last and flourish both individuals need to be loving the other. Relationships die if only one partner actively loves (cares for, is kind to, acts for the other’s good). Love in this sense is conditional on the other person loving back. Yes there are many examples of one partner relentlessly loving the other even in the face of betrayal and coldness, but generally for love to survive and develop it is conditional on reciprocity.

So the next time you hear the slogan ‘True love is unconditional’ maybe ask the person, ‘What do you mean?’ and see where the conversation goes.

Marva Dawn – a joyful Christian life

Marva Dawn

Back in 2008 it was a pleasure and rare privilege to spend some days with Marva Dawn and her husband Myron Sandberg. With my IBI hat on I had invited her to come over from America and speak at our annual Summer Institute.

It was a delight to get to know her and Myron. I recall reading in The Atlantic some time ago that research showed that marriages that flourish have kindness at their heart. A lack of kindness is the surest indicator that a relationship is in trouble. Theirs was a kind way of being that brought others into its generous orbit. And a michievous wit and sense of humour as well.

She taught on themes related to her books on worship such as Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture (1995), A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World (1999) and my favourite Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God (2002) which won a Christianity Today annual book award.

If you haven’t read any of Marva’s work then you have something to look foward to.

In class yesterday by coincidence I was talking about Marva’s book Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting as an example of a rich, thoughtful and life-giving theological response to our restless and frentic culture, driven by an insatiable desire for more.

Today I learnt from a friend that Marva had recently passed away (April 18) aged 72. She had suffered from an array of serious illnesses for many years. I think it was polio that meant that one leg was in a brace, and she had had a kidney transplant, cancer, blindness in one eye and other ailments. She wrote a wonderful book called Being Well When We’re Ill: Wholeness and Hope In Spite of Infirmity that has been a help to many many people. But she was not defined by her infirmities! She was a far from infirm thinker and she displayed fierce courage not only in dealing with her frail body but in her bold and uncompromising call to the church to spiritual faithfulness in an age of compromise and confusion.

It is hard to think of a more joyful Christian. She radiated joy – joy in the Lord, joy in being with fellow brothers and sisters, joy in her marriage with Myron and joy in teaching. She leaves a rich legacy – not only of significant books, but in and through many lives enriched by encountering her along the way.

She was a prophetic voice in calling the church to authenticity, prayer, humility, connection to the Great Tradition of historic church worship and liturgy – and to love. We need voices like Marva’s – and Eugene Peterson with whom she worked closely – more than ever. Gentleness, kindness, joyfulness, love, peacefulness, patience – these are characteristics of the power of God’s Spirit at work. How ironic that so often such characteristics are dismissed or despised as not ‘strong’ enough or not ‘effective’ enough in so much church ‘leadership’ practice.

In several different ways these last couple of weeks I’ve been reminded of how short life is. As the Psalmist says

As for mortals, their days are like grass;
    they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
    and its place knows it no more.

Ps 103:15-16

Marva lived with a close awareness of her mortality. Even back in 2008 I remember her wondering how long she had left and if that would be one of her last trips abroad – travel was simply becoming too difficult physically. But death was not feared. We are back to joy again – because of Easter she had a joyful hope that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has already opened up a new future for all joined to him through faith. Death has lost its sting.

She is now in that future. Her ‘light and momentary’ troubles are over. And I can imagine her now in the presence of Jesus her Lord and his words of welcome,

‘Well done good and faithful servant’.

Love in Paul (13) Conclusions and suggestions for a love-audit of our lives

This is the final post in a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

We’ve covered a lot of ground. The evidence is overwhelming that love is central within Paul’s own experience and plays a determining role within his entire theological framework.

That’s a significant claim, but the supporting evidence is strong. Too often love in Paul has been overlooked, downplayed or marginalised as some sort of ‘second order’ doctrine.

There are reasons for this – not least the dominance of soteriology in Pauline theology. Centuries of polemical debates about justification – whether RCC/Reformers, New versus Old Perspectives – have tended, particularly within Protestant/evangelicalism, to make one’s position on justification a touchstone of ‘soundness’ or orthodoxy.

E.G. – if you like N T Wright over John Piper you’re suspect on ‘the gospel’ of justification by faith alone. And therefore suspect (not to be trusted) in general.

But, ironically, this passion for orthodoxy can miss the wider purpose of justification in Paul’s thought. Love is not a nice ‘by-product’ of justification – it is the entire point (Galatians 5:6).

What would it look like I wonder if there was equal passion for ‘soundness’ regarding ‘faith working in love’ as in a correct understanding of righteousness by faith alone?

Paul is first and foremost a missionary-pastor. His priority is the moral formation of believers in the fledgling Christian communities that he planted or helped to grow. And that moral formation is framed within a comprehensive theology of love.

For Paul love does the following:

> His understanding of who God is is revolutionised in light of Jesus Christ. God demonstrates his love in the cross. Out of love the Father, Son and Spirit work together of effect salvation.

> The Spirit works to transform believers into the likeness of Christ – a process that has love at its core

> Believers living in communities of love fulfil the Law

> Christian freedom takes the form of self-sacrifical love

> Christian worship revolves around love for God and love for one another

> Love is God’s ‘spiritual weapon’ in an eschatological conflict between the realm of the flesh and the Spirit

> Love is the ‘oil’ which enables the church to function. The apostle knows that without love communities made up of diverse social, ethnic and religious groupings will fall apart.

> Communities of love are missional in that they form a counter-story to the hierarchies of power that shaped the Greco-Roman world

> Love is inseparable from Paul’s theology of financial giving to help fellow brothers and sisters in need.

> Love for God and being loved by God give a robust framework to withstand suffering, persecution and even death

> Love is the primary motive for Christian mission

> Echoing Jesus, love for enemies is to mark a Christian’s response to injustice

> Without love, all Christian ministry is worthless

> Love describes ultimate eschatological hope for believers – it is love alone which will endure forever

In other words, theology and ethics in Paul must not be divorced. They are inseparable.

A Love Audit of Our Lives

Reflecting on this final list again I’m challenged to think about what a ‘love-audit’ of my – or any Christian’s – life would look like

Perhaps something like this: and feel welcome to add your own comments or suggestions – this is very much a thought experiment.

  1. Consider honestly and self-critically each point above and reflect on your own life in light of them.
  2. Move to prayers of confession and repentance (if you have nothing to do here may I suggest you haven’t done point 1 very well!)
  3. Ask the Spirit’s help to deal with areas of un-love in your life – grudges; unforgiveness; arrogance; lack of action; selfishness; disobedience; lack of generosity; bitterness; despair; greed; where unloving means have justified even good ends.
  4. Be accountable – a life of love is a corporate journey. It is to be shared with others – our failures and weaknesses as as well as successes. Have a friend / mentor who can ask you the hard questions and expect truthful answers.
  5. Write down some concrete actions in light of your reflections and act on them
  6. Repeat 1-5 on a continual basis. In this way make love central to your Christian faith and life since this is God’s agenda for his people.

Romans Disarmed – a review

This is a review I did of Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh, Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019 that was recenly published in the journal Studies in Christian Ethics.

My description and critical assessment are contained in the review so I won’t repeat here what is said below – save to say that while I was unpersuaded by the authors’ relentless politicisation of Paul, many important and controversial questions about the meaning and contemporary relevance of the apostle’s magnificent letter to the Romans are addressed within its pages.


This ambitious book stands in continuity with Keesmaat and Walsh’s Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (IVP Academic, 2004). I use the word ‘ambitious’ in that since probably no other New Testament book has had as much written about it than Romans, it is a daunting task for anyone to write seriously on the letter, let alone do what the authors are attempting to do in this volume. Namely, to use that historical, theological and exegetical work as a basis for articulating a comprehensive anti-imperial interpretation of Romans (ch. 1 ‘Reading Romans and Disarming Empire’) from which to explore how the apostle’s words continue to challenge various expressions of what the authors identify as ‘modern imperialism’ such as: colonialism and the conquest of the Indigenous peoples of Canada (ch. 3 ‘Empire and Broken Worldviews’); home and homelessness (ch. 4. ‘Homeless in Rome’); ecological destruction (ch. 5 ‘Creation and Defilement in Rome’); the economic destructiveness of modern capitalism (ch 6. ‘Economic Justice and the Fabric of Life’); systematic injustice against the poor and marginalised (ch. 7 ‘Welcoming the Powerless’); a culture extolling nationalism, racism, identity politics, power and violence (ch. 8 ‘The Pax Romana and the Gospel of Peace’); and injurious and exploitative sexual behaviour (ch. 9 ’Imperial Sexuality and Covenant Faithfulness’).

But Romans Disarmed is ambitious in other ways as well. The authors note that the ‘disarmed’ in the title is a deliberate double entendre on the way Paul’s epistle ‘disarms’ both the violence of the first-century and modern empires and the way in which Romans itself needs to be disarmed, ‘after centuries of being used theologically as an instrument of oppression and exclusion’ (p. xiii). What they mean by this surfaces regularly throughout the book. The following gives a flavour of the emotive strength of this critique. ‘For this is a text that has been used to justify the tearing of the church asunder … Romans has been wielded as weapon, often in service of theological violence’ (pp. 105-06). Romans has been domesticated by ‘a pietistic interpretation preoccupied with individual salvation or personal righteousness’ (p. 278). As ‘the church has wielded this epistle as a sword within its own theological wars, the letter itself has been strangely (and paradoxically) rendered powerless’ (p. 252). The text has been ‘betrayed’; the church’s preoccupation with the ‘justification’ of the ‘sinner’ has led it to lose sight of Paul’s ‘radical message of how in Jesus Christ those who are unjust are made to be anew, equipped and empowered for lives of justice’ (p. 252). ‘If we are going to disarm Romans, then we will need to disarm the language of salvation and of its exclusionary judgmentalism’ (p. 368).

Chapter 1 is key to the authors’ project in that it unpacks and defends their reading of Paul intentionally seeking to confront and undermine the story of the Roman empire. They do this through a fictional dialogue with a sceptical observer who asks a series of questions. The questions are obviously ones that the authors are anticipating from scholars, readers and reviewers (such as this one). How convincing one finds their answers will largely dictate how persuasive one finds the rest of the book and so I will pay particular attention to this chapter.

Debates about ‘empire criticism’ have been swirling around New Testament studies since the 1990s, particularly associated with Richard Horsley and the ‘Paul and Politics’ group at the Society of Biblical Literature and later with N. T. Wright. Via their interlocutor, the authors engage with John Barclay’s critique of Wright’s account of Paul and Empire (pp. 13-14). They reject Barclay’s argument (Pauline Churches and the Diaspora Jews. Mohr Sieback, 2001, ch. 19) that, for Paul, the Roman empire was effectively insignificant in that it was merely an unnamed bit-part player in a much bigger cosmic conflict between God and the powers (death, sin and the defeat of evil through the victory of God in Christ). They side with Wright in seeing this cosmic battle being embodied in the specific form of Roman idolatry and injustice (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, book 2. Fortress, 2013. pp. 1307-19). And so Romans is interpreted as a deliberate counter narrative to that of Empire; ‘the symbols, vocabulary and structure of the empire underlie the world’ that Paul describes in Romans (p. 14). Despite Paul never mentioning Caesar and his empire, the original recipients living under the cruel injustices of Pax Romana would have ‘got’ the message loud and clear. It is modern readers who need the epistle’s clear anti-empire implications spelt out – which is what the authors then proceed to do in great detail in the rest of the book. They do so in a highly political manner, going beyond Wright’s softer view of implicit subversion to seeing Paul engaging in a systematic programme of cultural, social and political negation against Rome. The result is that Rome is everywhere in Romans. To give one example, ‘Greet one another with a holy kiss’ (Rom 16:16) is a kiss ‘breaking down the racial, political, gender, and economic boundaries of the empire … the loving and respectful kiss that characteriszes the family of Jesus, in contrast to the imperial family of father Caesar’ (p. 137).

The force of this political hermeneutic is earthed in imaginary stories of Iris (a slave) and Nereus (a Jewish believer named in Romans 16:15). It is also expanded in a number of lengthy ‘Targums’ imagining how Paul would write Romans today in our context of empire, racism, nationalism and economic injustice. It shapes a reading of Romans through the lens of home, homelessness and homecoming where traditional themes such as justification and the status of Israel are set in the context of how a diverse community make home together amid empire. It reads creation groaning as Paul referring to destructive Roman environmental practices. It interprets economic themes as crucial to Paul’s letter that then speaks directly into the injustices of contemporary global capitalism and Pax Americana and related issues such as MAGA. It sees Paul’s ‘creational vision and prioritizing of economic justice in the face of imperial economics’ as underpinning a contemporary ‘economy of care’ that will require ‘full-scale paradigm shift in economic life’ (p. 263). It rearticulates salvation as ‘nothing to do with an eternal home in heaven or the release of a guilty conscience’ but as a matter of justice, especially for the poor (p. 368). It interprets the ‘dominion of death’ of Romans 5:14-17, not as a cosmic power, but as ‘an end to the imperial rule of death’ (p. 369 emphasis original).

On a related, but different tack, the authors contrast the degradations of imperial sexuality against a calling by Paul to sexual relationships of faithfulness, justice and covenant love and conclude that committed, faithful Christian homosexual relationships should be seen, not as a threat to marriage but as a witness to its restoration.

Keesmaat and Walsh write with a passion to see Paul’s ancient words speak with relevance and power into our 21st century world. Whether you agree with their arguments or not, a strength of this book is to ‘defamiliarize’ Paul and make readers think afresh about their prior reading of Romans. Few would disagree that the call of all in Rome loved by God to be saints (Rom 1:7) involves participation in a profoundly subversive way of life within diverse communities bonded together by love. Many readers may find themselves in broad agreement with large swathes of their politics. However, if you sense an impending ‘but’ you would be right. In fact, there are several.

Despite the authors’ anticipation of objections of confirmation bias, it is difficult not to conclude that their methodology is open to such criticism. If you are looking for Rome ‘behind every bush’ then you are going to find it. Repeatedly through the book there are arguments from inference. For example, Paul’s words about creation in Romans 8 ‘could only’ have been understood as a critique of the ‘land-destroying’ practices of empire because he visited Judea and Roman cities and must have been aware of the environmental impact of Roman economic exploitation (pp. 172-3). This is a threadbare basis for such firm conclusions. In this vein, the Targums are in significant danger of literally re-writing Romans along the lines of what the authors judge Paul should be saying. I suspect there is not a lot of daylight between the authors’ politics and those of Paul reimagined for our day.

As noted above, there are highly polemical statements made about how others have ‘armed’ Romans. However, apart from general assertions there is no critical engagement with specific representations of such voices. This weakness extends to a lack of detailed engagement with exegetical scholarship, a symptom of where the scale of the book’s ambition becomes problematic. If such a radical re-reading of Romans is to stand up it needs critical dialogue with alternative voices. It also, dare I say, could do with a more gracious tone.

It is not clear what place is left for eschatology in Romans Disarmed. When death in Romans 5 means imperial rule, creation groaning is primarily about Roman environmental malpractice and salvation equals justice, this question becomes a very real one. There is little discussion of the ‘first fruits’ of the Spirit, life in the Spirit versus life in the flesh in the overlap of the ages, divine conflict with hostile powers, nor of the eschatological implications of resurrection, baptism, the Adam / Christ contrast, Israel in the plan of God, and God’s wrath and future judgment – all significant themes in Romans. At one point angels, demons and the powers are specifically excluded from Paul’s list of things unable to separate believers from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (pp. 378-79). The book closes with an invitation to imagine the future world in the present, but such is the weight put on economic justice that one cannot but feel that Paul’s pervasive eschatological emphasis has been flattened out into a this-worldly horizon.

Paradoxically, given the authors’ critique of Christendom and the captivation of the church to the imagination of empire, the broad political ambitions of this book raises questions about how consistent it is with Paul’s understanding of the church’s mission. Such is the strength of the apostle’s focus on the inner integrity of the community, it is a moot point how much room there is, if any, for transforming the Roman world. Based largely on Romans some scholars like T. Engberg-Pedersen (‘Paul’s Stoicizing Politics in Romans 12–13: The Role of 13:1–10 in the Argument’, JSNT 29 (2006): 163–72) and R. Thorsteinsson (‘Paul and Roman Stoicism: Romans 12 and Contemporary Stoic Ethics’, JSNT 29 (2006): 139–61 and Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality.Oxford University Press, 2010) argue that, in contrast to the universal scope of Stoic ethics there is no ‘love for others’ ethic in Paul, the furthest he goes is exhortation to treat outsiders well. Others, like D. Horrell (Solidarity and Difference: A Contemporary Reading of Paul’s Ethics. 2nd ed. Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016) see some common universal ethical norms such as a shared recognition of the good. But generally, the vocation to be an alternative peaceable community in a world ruled by empire is much closer to Barclay’s judgment than Keesmaat’s and Walsh’s expansive political programme. Paul’s silence about Rome may be the most counter-imperial stance of all.

This is the Original Submission of the review. The final published edition was first published online April 20, 2021. Issue published 01 May, 2021. Studies in Christian Ethics 34(2), pp 267-270.