Lest we forget

AuschwitzToday is the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The event has received relatively little media attention, so I wanted to pause for a moment to consider its implications.

It is estimated that at least 1.1 million prisoners died at Auschwitz, around ninety percent of them Jewish. Approximately one in six of all Jews killed in the Holocaust died there. It’s true that these numbers are small when set against total losses in the war, or even against the number of people killed at the orders of Stalin or of the Japanese authorities. But Auschwitz serves as a chilling reminder of the dehumanising, industrial nature of the Nazis’ final solution to the Judenfrage (the “Jewish question”).

Seventy years on, Auschwitz still stands as a potent symbol of humankind’s capacity for unspeakable evil. And, along with an entire catalogue of other horrors down the ages, it raises huge challenges to many of our trite, cosy and comfortable ideas about God. Continue reading

Review: Kingdom Conspiracy by Scot McKnight

Kingdom conspiracyI’ve been a regular reader of Scot McKnight’s blog The Jesus Creed for nine or ten years now. In fact, along with the late Michael Spencer’s Internet Monk, it’s probably the blog that I’ve been following the longest. If you want a rich and varied source of comment on theology, the church, and news and current events, The Jesus Creed is hard to beat. (Just be warned that you might struggle to keep up with the number of posts that appear daily.) I’ve also read a couple of McKnight’s previous books, and enjoyed them. So I was intrigued last year when he released his latest book, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church. Given that the term “kingdom of God” seems to have become one of those bits of Christian jargon that is routinely tossed around without much thought to what it really means, I was interested to read what this highly respected New Testament scholar had to say about it. I recently finished reading the book and would like to share some brief thoughts here.

The first thing to say is that this book is not a light read. That’s not a criticism of McKnight; he is, after all, a serious scholar tackling a subject that is both deep and broad. I have to say, however, that compared to some of the author’s earlier works (I’m thinking particularly of his book The Jesus Creed, for which he is perhaps still best known), I found Kingdom Conspiracy quite heavy going. It weighs in at a reasonably hefty 289 pages, and on quite a few occasions I found myself losing the thread of McKnight’s argument and wondering why he was taking ten pages to labour a point that could perhaps have been more effectively made in two. Those who like their theology in easily digested, bite-sized chunks, then, should probably look elsewhere. Continue reading

Resurrection as a map for the journey

Darkness to lightToday I’m delighted to feature a guest post written by my good friend David Jenkins. David posted it a few days ago in a Facebook group I belong to, and I liked it so much that I asked his permission to repost it here in slightly edited form.

In my deepest wound I found you, Lord, and it dazzled me.
(St. Augustine)

It seems hauntingly apparent that there can be no resurrection unless there is death. Yet this is, historically, something I have attempted to avoid, preferring instead a victorious, suffering-free version of resurrection. And indeed, this death can be avoided, if Jesus only achieves resurrection for us and does not invite us to walk in his steps. But if we consider resurrection as “a map for the journey”, our relationship to it becomes far more participatory; it becomes a great pilgrimage into the unknown.

Jesus says that true life is found in losing our life. One way I have understood this is my need to learn to embrace the reality of my powerlessness and failure. In order to find this life or resurrection he offers, it seems there must be loss. I feel myself drawn back to an ancient Christian practice, but from a different angle: that of constant confession of sin; not in a legalistic, self-flagellating, fearful, begging kind of way, but as a repeated filial confession of weakness, doubt, anxiety, and so on, and the acceptance that I can do nothing to save (heal) myself.

I also think of loss in terms of laying my life down for others and suffering loss for the sake of love. Whatever appears to be the path of descent can also be understood as the path of death. We need only do the dying, the losing, the giving in, the confessing of weakness; resurrection itself is beyond our ability to influence. So I think we take the path of descent and hope that God will be there at the bottom. Jesus assures us, “I am the resurrection and the life”. If we meet God “at the bottom”, maybe that is where we also meet “the resurrection and the life”.

I guess this is where faith comes in. For me, faith is better understood as trust. Personally, it often feels like blind faith – trust when I have nothing left.

No strength of conviction or confidence.

A trust born of desperation rather than bravery.

A surrendering to the darkness.

So we learn, day to day, to seek out this downward humble path of trust and love; of prayer and confession; of vulnerability, honesty and weakness. We do this and we pray, “Whatever happens, happens. Lord, I am in your hands and my only hope is you now”. Resurrection in my day-to-day life is the finding of life in the depths of loss; faith in the abyss of doubt; God at the bottom, waiting for me in my deepest wounds.

[ Image: Hartwig HKD ]

Humanity at the crossroads (2)

Crossroad tracksIn the first post in this two-part series, I gave a brief overview of René Girard’s mimetic theory, focusing on the scapegoating mechanism and its central role in helping societies maintain a semblance of peace by transferring their aggression onto a chosen victim. I concluded by noting that Jesus, by dying as an indisputably innocent victim and returning from the grave announcing not vengeance but peace, exposed the scapegoating mechanism and thus irreparably jammed up its ability to create social cohesion by mythologising the violence that fuelled it.

If you haven’t yet read the first part, please do so before continuing: we have more ground to cover, and I simply don’t have the space to bring you up to speed first.

In short, the Gospel has been permeating societies for the past two centuries, undoing the power of sacred violence and the scapegoating mechanism by increasingly giving voice to victims at all levels. (For those who have ears to hear, the voice of the victim first made itself heard in the Hebrew scriptures that we now know as the Old Testament.)

Think about it: rare is the television or radio news bulletin that doesn’t include a story about victims seeking and/or being granted redress because of their suffering. The reason we find ourselves increasingly awash with abuse scandals that have lain dormant for decades is that what Girard calls “the modern concern for victims” [1] has, in fact, become the overriding concern by which social progress is measured. Girard’s contention is that, whether irreligious moderns are aware of it or not, this concern for victims has its roots in the Gospel revelation that originally exposed and undid the victimage mechanism. Continue reading

Review – Exodus: Gods and Kings

Exodus-Gods-and-Kings-2014Yesterday I went to see Exodus: Gods and Kings, directed by veteran British director Ridley Scott and starring Christian Bale as Moses and Joel Edgerton as Ramses. I offer below a few general observations, followed by some comments with a more theological slant on three specific quotes from the screenplay. before ending with a brief conclusion.

Spoiler alert: since this film is based on a well-known Bible story, it would be difficult to say anything that might spoil it as regards the overall plot. However, if you haven’t seen it yet and are waiting on tenterhooks to find out how it handles some of the theological aspects of the story, you may do better to wait until after you’ve seen it before reading the rest of the post.

General observations

First off, I thought Exodus was a good film overall. When I looked up its IMDB entry, I was surprised by the number of scathingly negative reviews I found. I can only assume that some people are looking for a perfection that will never be achieved, especially given the subject matter, and/or for something that perfectly coincides with their own preconceived ideas of how the story ought to be portrayed. If you approach it with an open mind, however, I think you’ll agree that there is much to commend.

Some things I especially liked:

The portrayal of Egyptian civilisation: Scott makes masterful use of CGI and modelling to recreate the splendour of Pharaoh’s palace and its environs and to show just how relatively advanced Egyptian civilisation was (its enthralment to primitive religion notwithstanding). Continue reading

Humanity at the crossroads (1)

CrossroadsThis post is the first in a two-part series. A link to part two can be found at the bottom of the post.

For the past two days, the world has looked on in horror and alarm as French security forces have hunted down radical Islamist terrorists who had murdered twelve people at the offices of a satirical news magazine in Paris. As I write this post, there have been a number of further connected incidents, culminating in the “neutralisation” of the three men believed to be involved in the attack.

But my purpose is not to tell you the news.

Shortly after the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo took place, I shared the following thoughts on my Facebook timeline:

Anyone who thinks the threat of apocalyptic violence is not real need only watch today’s news.

Once again, we see violence used as a means to attempt to defeat an opposing ideology and generate support and solidarity among the community of the perpetrators. The ironic thing is that that last sentence could just as well have been applied to the West’s violent intervention in the Middle East as it can to today’s events in Paris.

I tend to eschew alarmist thinking. But it’s becoming clearer by the day that humanity is faced with an increasingly stark choice: either learn the way of forgiveness, reconciliation and tolerance, or risk self-destruction.

I must emphasise that as a rule, I am not someone who buys into alarmist thinking. The world can be an alarming enough place as it is without pouring oil on the fire. However, I really do feel that humanity is at a crossroads in history where the stakes are frighteningly high – and where most of the western world is happily sleepwalking towards its fate. Continue reading

New year, same old you

ContentmentFirst of all, I’d like to wish you, dear reader, a very happy New Year. May 2015 bring you a greater measure of peace and well-being. (I reckon those are things we could all use more of.)

Traditionally, of course, the New Year is a time to make resolutions. Like turning over a page full of messy scribbles to reveal a fresh, clean sheet waiting to be written upon, we shake from our feet the accumulated dust of the old year’s failures, frustrations and disappointments, and confidently tell ourselves things will be different this year. At least, that’s the theory.

We humans are easily enslaved by habits that either contribute nothing positive to our lives or, indeed, are outright destructive both to us and to those around us. As such, that times and seasons provide us with opportunities to cast off the old and bring in the new is, in my opinion, a good and necessary thing.

And yet, in spite of our desire to put our most optimistic face forward as we once again pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and promise ourselves that we will do better this year, for many of us New Year is always tinged with a sense of inevitable disappointment that no amount of manufactured optimism can fully dislodge. It’s as though we’re trying to convince ourselves of a positive outcome that we know deep down probably isn’t going to materialise. This is why, as they get older, people generally end up discarding grand notions of resolutions: they begin to know themselves well enough to realise that some things just aren’t going to change by virtue of a simple rational decision. And, as they look back over the years behind them, they’re forced to conclude that life and experience bear out this realisation. Continue reading