The Bible in Irish memory

One of the (many) peculiarities of Irish history, is the uneasy and ambiguous place of the Bible within Irish culture and memory.

I’m trying to do a bit of reading and writing around this theme at the moment.

A rough sketch of some ideas on Irish ambivalence towards the Bible goes something like this:

1.The strong historical association of the Bible with Protestant proselytism.

One example is the Pre-Famine ‘Bible War’ of the 1820s between the revitalised missionary zeal of the Established Anglican Church and a newly resurgent and defensive emerging Catholic Church. In this struggle of faith, politics and identity, the Scriptures were perceived as a tool in a religious zero-sum competition for converts. Few places were more contentious than schooling.

Donnelly writes that Protestant missionaries became more active after 1815

in circulating the Scriptures, in distributing anti-Catholic literature, and in establishing schools aimed at the children of the Catholic poor. The Religious Book and Tract Society for Ireland claimed in 1823 to have issued over 1,160,000 tracts and 86,000 books since 1819 alone.

Formal schooling, however, was a far more serious and contentious affair. The controversies that raged after 1819 at the national level about schools under Protestant auspices, their management and funding, and the use of the Scriptures within them were in part a reflection and in part a cause of strife at the local level. [1]

In Munster and Connacht there was particular Catholic clerical opposition to the Baptist Society schools and the London Hibernian Society “whose inspectors required that children in its schools recite the Scriptures from memory.”

And such polarisation around the Bible and social action reached a climax with charges of ‘Souperism’ (converting in order to survive via the Protestant soup kitchen) during the Famine itself – with the legitimacy of that charge continuing to be debated to this day.

And Catholic resistance to the Bible as a dangerous tool of Protestant evangelism can be traced right up to the middle of the 20th Century – with documented occasions of evangelical missionaries distributing Bibles and Bible literature being run out of towns.

2. The sacramental structure of Catholicism itself

Whereby the Bible, while revered and affirmed as the Word of God, is sidelined in the actual daily practice of living the Christian life. The altar at the heart of a Catholic Church as opposed to the pulpit in a Protestant one speaks of what is central to spirituality. The Bible has not had a central role in Catholic spirituality – for many ordinary Catholics it has been a closed book.  I think this is a fair observation that increasingly many Catholics also affirm – and want to change.

[And such has been the decline of the place of the Bible in Protestant spirituality (including evangelicals) that I wonder what % of ‘Protestants’ actually ever regularly open a Bible – but that is a topic for another post!]

3. A post-Christendom scepticism towards the Bible

Where, in a culture rapidly divesting itself of the vestiges of a claustrophobic Catholic Christendom, the Bible is seen in postmodern terms as a tool of control, power and injustice; a weapon, for example, of inequality against those of LGBT orientation. The Scriptures, rather than being seen as radically liberating for all, are viewed with a hermeneutic of suspicion as a source of institutional legitimation and self-preservation of a fading era of Church domination. The church and its Scriptures are seen as marginal and irrelevant to the pressing questions of modern life.

Now that may all sound rather negative. But if even partially right, this gives a flavour of the missional challenges in contemporary Ireland.

Some words come to mind:

Unconditional Love. Earning Trust. Transparency. Honesty. No strings evangelism. God’s grace. Integrity. Gospel centered. Jesus focused. Embrace of Irish culture and identity. Selfless service of others. Care for the poor. Listening. Humble confidence in God’s Spirit to speak through God’s Word.

These are some attitudes and actions that need to characterise mission in contemporary Ireland.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

[1] James S. Donnelly Jr, ‘Pastorini and Captain Rock: Millenarianism and Sectarianism in the Rockite Movement of 1821-4’ in Samuel Clark and James S. Donnelly Jr, eds., Irish Peasants: Violence and Political Unrest, 1780-1914 (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003) 102-142.

The greatest story

Last week a university student union invited me to give a talk on how Jesus, the OT and the NT fit together.

I used this outline:

1. What is the Bible about? 

An all-encompassing story – from Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, Spirit & Church – to our place in the story and looking forward to the END of the story (new creation)

2. What is the NT?

Here’s a suggested definition

a theological reflection on the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in light of Israel’s story as told in her scriptures.

Every NT writer is doing this in one way or another. Examples from Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Paul in Romans .. etc etc

3. Who is Jesus?

The promised Messiah in whom God fulfils his promises to Israel and accomplishes his plans for the redemption of the world.  He is the one around whom the whole story revolves. To understand the OT as Christian scripture, you start with Jesus and re-read the reconfigured story. The NT does this in hundreds of ways -the diagram is a quick sketch of some examples. Most significantly, Jesus is the embodiment of YHWH himself come to his people to redeem his world.

Jesus and the OT

4. What difference does this make?

Someone (rightly) said I didn’t earth this practically enough. So here’s another go:

Being a Christian is much more (but not less than) believing truth – it is faith in a person; being ‘in Christ’ who is the resurrected and living Lord.

This gives believers:

A new identity – the old ‘I’ is gone, the new creation has come.

A new purpose – ‘my’ story finds meaning within God’s story in Christ

A new community – my story is lived with others who are in Christ

A new hope – the story is not over yet.

Such profound identity change costs everything – it is a complete re-orientation of the self, of life, of values to live by, of meaning and of purpose. It is, in other words, a radical decision to join one’s life to one true story; the greatest story of all.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

PS to musings on the Bible: Kevin Vanhoozer

Blogging has been sparse of late, just too much going on but the scribbler’s itch is back so here goes ….

I spent 4 days of last week teaching a block week Masters module in Evangelical Identity, History and Theology at IBI. Lots of good discussion and interaction – which kickstarted this post, and a few more loosely related, on evangelicalism.

An article I went back to read as part of prep, partly in light of previous musings, was Kevin Vanhoozer’s ‘The Voice and the Actor: A Dramatic Proposal about the Ministry and Minstrelsy of Theology’, in John G. Stackhouse Jr (ed.), Evangelical Futures, (Leicester: Apollos, 2000), 61-106. [A forerunner to his 2005 The Drama of Doctrine]

Some angst about diverse interpretations of the Bible among evangelicals derives from the assumption that it should not (in theory) exist. The assumption is that the Bible itself speaks systematically and univocally and that this meaning can be uncovered by the attentive interpreter.

What Vanhoozer said back in 2000 was important and perhaps even more relevant in light of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible.

Vanhoozer talks about God being in discourse with us through Scripture and the living Word Jesus Christ. Discourse here is a living dynamic process of communication rather than a more static set of propositions. In addition, the triune God is in discourse with himself through the inter-relationality of Father, Son and Spirit.

A consequence for Vanhoozer is that Scripture has a certain inbuilt plurality. This is seen most obviously in the fact that there are 4 gospels telling the one gospel of Jesus Christ. There can be more than one ‘normative’ point of view that can disclose aspects of the truth.

Taking this more widely, Vanhoozer suggested that this plurality extends to different interpretative traditions within the church. If no single voice can capture all the truth of a text then the different voices need each other.

But this also means something else. ‘Final’ or absolutely complete interpretations of Scripture are (to coin an apt phrase) in the end only possible eschatologically. In the meantime, our interpretations are provisional, incomplete and culture-bound.

This does not mean for Vanhoozer that meaning is endlessly open and subjective. He uses the term ‘canonicity’ to emphasise the dual nature of Scripture. It is fixed and final and authoritative yet simultaneously it contains a multiplicity of genres, contexts, languages, theologies and authors.

The challenge for evangelical theology is to enter the ‘drama’ of the script, keeping within its intent while accepting that different ‘stagings’ of the play in different contexts can be complementary. The test of an interpretation’s authenticity will to a large extent be revealed through time and in dialogue with other interpretations. Without this creative hermeneutical dialogue, truth is reduced to a unitary concept. A richer alternative is a collaborative and complementary understanding of truth.

Some years ago I was part of a theology working group of the Evangelical Alliance Ireland who worked on a basis of faith for the organisation. It was deliberately diverse, across the evangelical spectrum. And it was a deeply enjoyable and rewarding experience as a group of us worked together to agree a document that captured a sense of our pan-evangelical unity. It was enriched by that diversity rather than weakened.

And it is here that us individualist Westerners can learn so much from other Christians who have a much more communal sense of identity and truth.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Sundays in Mark (61) Jesus is not good enough for God

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark, and specifically Jesus’ arrest and trial before the Sanhedrin.

With the witnesses’ evidence inconclusive, Caiaphas takes matters into his own hands and begins to interrogate Jesus directly about their claims. Talk of building a new temple was Messianic in nature since there was the expectation that the temple would be renewed in glory when the Messiah appeared.

Jesus says nothing and, frustrated at his silence, Caiaphas asks Jesus bluntly to reveal his self-understanding of his identity, ‘Are you the Messiah?’. It’s obvious from Mark’s account that this was the crux question. A claim to be the Messiah would give the Sanhedrin the evidence it required to sentence the prisoner to death.

And this it got with Jesus’ unambiguous reply – there are echoes of Ps 110 and Dan 7:13 here. Jesus’ understanding of the Messiah is finally revealed in public: a glorious Son of Man figure, enthroned and exalted, who one day will be seen for who he truly is – the authoritative and anointed Son of God.

But why the extreme reaction? Why a death sentence for claiming to be the Messiah? Is Caiaphas just hamming it up for effect? What do you think?

I think the reaction is genuine.  Caiaphas is offended and appalled at the brazenness and temerity of this Galilean nobody, abandoned by his ragtag bunch of followers, powerless and imprisoned, and yet claiming to be God’s chosen one, the hope of Israel. Such delusions of grandeur insulted the very name of God. The only just verdict was death – according to the law of Moses.


There is profound irony here. Jesus is not ‘good enough’ for God. He fails to meet the expected standards so spectacularly that he deserves to die for daring to claim Messianic status. God could not possibly have chosen this man to fulfil his purposes for Israel. Such arrogance deserves punishment, humiliation and ridicule – and this Jesus immediately begins to receive.

It is too easy to read this text and dismiss Caiaphas & co as a closed-minded clique intent on self-preservation. How could they not see the truth!? But would you and I have been much different? I wonder too if today we can have all our theology so neatly worked out that we ‘know’ with a fair degree of certainty through whom and how God is going to do things – and it usually is through people like us.

And if Jesus was fulfilling his mission today, how do you think he would be received by the church that bears his name?

Caiaphas and Jesus

60 Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” 61 But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer.

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”

62 “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

63 The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked. 64 “You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?”

They all condemned him as worthy of death. 65 Then some began to spit at him; they blindfolded him, struck him with their fists, and said, “Prophesy!” And the guards took him and beat him.

Sundays in Mark (59) A moment of truth in the garden

This week, a very simple Sunday reflection on the Gospel of Mark.

Within the Gethsemane narrative in chapter 14 are these 2 verses

50Then everyone deserted him and fled.  51 A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, 52 he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.

Despite their recent sincere and passionate protestations of utter loyalty, when suddenly confronted with the ugly reality of armed guards in the middle of the night and all that they symbolised, to a man, the disciples flee. (And whether the naked young man is Mark himself is not that important, the point is he deserts Jesus in shame along with all the others).

I think sometimes what we really believe is revealed most profoundly, not in conversations, or in statements of faith and certainly not in blog posts (!) – but in sudden unexpected ‘moments of truth’. Where you have no time to plan or theorise, but are faced with an instantaneous choice:  to act with courage and/or say something true, or to act with cowardice and not act, say nothing or perhaps even ‘run away’ from the situation.

And for many Christians around the world such moments of truth do involve life and death decisions.

Such moments expose faith and character. And this moment in the garden exposes the disciples’ promises as empty words. To be blunt, deep down, when tested, they simply didn’t believe or trust Jesus. Arrest, torture and death did not form part of their expectations of following this Galilean Messiah.

The question this text asks me and you is, deep down, when confronted with a ‘moment of truth’ that may test your faith to the limit, will you keep trusting and believing in Jesus?

Sundays in Mark (58) Jesus Arrested

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark and the events in the Garden of Gethsemene.

This is a dramatic scene, full of pathos and utterly believable in its simultaneous tawdriness. It brings to mind a phrase I heard somewhere on ‘the banality of evil’.

An armed group are led by Judas under cover of darkness to Gethsemene. It is significant that they are sent by the three named strands of Jewish leadership – presumably with the authority and knowledge of the Sanhedrin. Israel has decisively rejected its Messiah; Judas is doing as Jesus predicted – and through their actions the Scriptures are being fulfilled.

The group have probably little idea of who Jesus is or why he is to be arrested. Jesus challenges the courage and legitimacy of their actions. Just as much today as then, the powerful want to keep suppression of their enemies well hidden from view.

Judas’ betrayal and Israel’s rejection raise deep questions around God’s election and human choice. The text simply states the facts but does not explain them. Israel and Judas are responsible for their actions, but their actions fit within the salvific purposes of God.

What do you make of this? (a small question I know!)

Jesus’ rhetorical question is an extraordinarily important one, especially in light of later church history.

It explicitly distances his mission, life and teaching on the kingdom of God from the use of violence. (In John’s account, Jesus heals the man’s severed ear and Peter’s use of the sword is rejected). The mission of the Messiah will not be achieved through coercion, threat, or political or military power.

And this means that followers of Jesus must follow the same path.

What challenges to you see for the contemporary church here?

Jesus Arrested

43Just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders.

44 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” 45 Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. 46 The men seized Jesus and arrested him. 47 Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

48 “Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? 49 Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.”

Sundays in Mark (57) Gethsemene (2)

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark and the events in the Garden of Gethsemene.

Jesus detaches himself from his three companions and prays audibly that he might be exempt from ‘the hour’ and ‘this cup’. Both refer to his betrayal, impending arrest and execution. Back in 10:38 Jesus had referred to ‘the ‘cup’ with which he would drink – a cup of suffering and wrath. His prayer to his Father here shows that this cup is a cup that ‘belongs to God’ – a cup of divine judgement.

His ‘Abba’ prayer reveals a unique, close Father-Son relationship, yet this closeness does not mean the Father takes away the cup, or that the Son refuses to drink it. Jesus’ mission is a triune partnership: the obedient Son, sent by the Father, empowered by the Spirit.

A joint mission that is now leading straight towards Jesus’ voluntary, self-giving confrontation with all the physical, spiritual and political powers allied against him.

So while Jesus appears to face this fate alone (the disciples fail to ‘get’ what is going on and are asleep every time Jesus returns), behind the scenes, and despite appearances, his Father is with him.

The looming cross will be no accident or merely a verdict of ‘sinners’ (vs 41). Against all logic and expectation, it will reflect the astonishing decision, planning and self-giving action of God.

No wonder Paul later would talk of the mystery of God’s salvation being revealed.

The cross? No-one sees it coming but the Son of Man.


35 Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36 “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

37 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? 38 Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

39 Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. 40 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him.

41 Returning the third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 42 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”

Sundays in Mark (54) Last Supper 2

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark. This week part two of the Last Supper in the Upper Room.

With Easter Sunday next week, there are few more appropriate texts to consider than the significance of the Last Supper.

Jesus does a remarkable thing by taking the bread and identifying it with his body to be broken, and the wine with his blood to be poured out for the many. These are deeply Christological words; Jesus attaching profound spiritual significance to his impending death. This is a deliberate and symbolic inauguration of a new Passover, this time centered around the Son of Man. As long hoped, God has ‘returned’ to his people to bring liberation and redemption.

I like this image: the distribution of the broken bread speaks of Jesus’ presence with the disciples. And so it anticipates the resurrection and speaks of his presence as Christians celebrate the Lord’s Supper today.

In the Passover ritual,  the third cup of wine would have been taken by the leader of the household with these words:

“May the All Merciful One makes us worthy of the days of the Messiah and of the life of the world to come. He brings the salvation of his king. He shows covenant-faithfulness to his anointed, to David and to his seed forever. He makes peace in his heavenly places. May he secure peace for us and for all Israel. And say you, Amen.”

Jesus linking of his blood with the cup, connects his death to covenant sacrifice. His death will be violent. It speaks of a new covenant for the redeemed people of God. It will have a spiritual significance far beyond one man’s life.  It will be vicarious, ‘for the many’, bringing to mind texts like Is 53:12 and Mark 10:45 as well as new covenant hopes of Jeremiah 31:31-33.

This second word therefore, tells the disciples that the suffering and death of the Son of Man, rather than being a disastrous defeat, will establish a new order and will fulfil the saving purposes of God.

Verse 25 is significant: this new order is itself not permanent. As Christians re-enact this Last Supper, they therefore do so with joy and thanksgiving, but also in hope – looking forward to the return of the glorious Son of Man and the final establishment of the kingdom of God in all its fulness.

The Last Supper

17 When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. 18 While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me—one who is eating with me.”

19 They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, “Surely you don’t mean me?”

20 “It is one of the Twelve,” he replied, “one who dips bread into the bowl with me. 21 The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”

22 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”

23 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it.

24 “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. 25 “Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

26 When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Sundays in Mark (53) Last Supper 1

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark.

This week Mark 14:12-16 and the preparations for the Last Supper

The text is written strongly indicating that the meal Jesus and his followers are about to eat is the Passover.

It also reads that Jesus has prearranged things. A man carrying a jar of water would have been unusual. He could have been recognised and followed discreetly. These steps speak of the context of tension and potential arrest in the precincts of the city.

The owner of the room was presumably taking a risk getting involved with the controversial, radical and dangerous Galiliean prophet and healer with messianic pretensions.   Also presumably he had prepared the room for the disciples, perhaps also providing the sacrificial lamb.

The disciples would have laid out the spices, bitter herbs, unleavened bread and wine and the roasted lamb, ready for the others’ arrival.

I read these verses and think of the innumerable Christians through the centuries who have followed the example of the unnamed man carrying the water jar. Like him, unnoticed, anonymous, and uncelebrated …. But like him, willing to risk everything for the honour and privilege of serving and following Jesus.

And that call is as real and searching today for all disciples of the Messiah.

The Last Supper

12 On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”

13 So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. 14 Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15 He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”

16 The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.

Sundays in Mark (52) Enter Judas

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark. This week 14:10-11 and the sudden introduction of Judas’ act of betrayal.

In 10:1-2 the chief priests and teachers of the law were seeking to arrest and kill Jesus without causing a public uproar. Here Judas is seeking to betray Jesus and so two parties’ interests meet. ‘External’ opposition is joined by ‘internal’ betrayal. Judas would have opportunity to arrange a surprise arrest out of sight of the crowds.

Mark’s sparse text gives no real hint as to Judas’ motive. Money is promised as a reward but it is not clear if this was just a ‘bonus’ or the actual reason. Had Jesus’ upside kingdom message deeply disillusioned him?

Whatever the truth, Judas acts out of ruthhess personal self-interest in utter contrast to the immediately preceding beautiful act of selfless devotion by the unnamed woman.

One sacrifices Jesus to his own agenda, the other sacrifices the most precious thing she has for Jesus.

One resorts to lies and subterfuge, the other to risky and transparent vulnerability.

One chooses the route of power and violence, the ofter of service and love.


Judas’ Betrayal

10 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. 11 They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.