Biblical politics

Can the Bible speak usefully and clearly to contemporary political issues? There are enough examples of people who want to insist the answer is yes, and then display a powerful conviction that one or another secular slate of partisan positions is, astonishingly, completely supported by Scripture. (For a very generous review of a particularly unfortunate recent example, that apparently even manages to defend the practice of torture as Biblically sanctioned, see Krish Kandiah’s blog here…) Perhaps there is an alternative way of addressing the question: if we took a good sample of people, and mapped their political beliefs against their practices of Bible reading, would anything significant be observed? A recent sociological study seems to suggest yes, according to an interesting report doing the round on the web. A good source, by the original author, is the Huffington Post here; it references an unpublished study by a postgrad student at Baylor on the relationship between frequency of Bible reading and a whole series of political/social attitudes amongst American Christians, using a data set gathered in 2007. (Apparently – see comment 3 on this post, the original source, I think – the study is presently under journal review.) The data set (the Baylor Religion Survey, which is well-known and credible) ranked people’s practices of Bible reading on an eight-point scale: ranging from opening the Bible never or yearly, through monthly and weekly, to ‘several times a week or more often’. Assuming the reports are right, there are strong positive correlations, visible and statistically significant moving up the scale, on the following points: frequent Bible readers are more likely to believe in the importance of social and economic justice; frequent Bible readers are more likely to believe that using or consuming less is an important part of being a good person; frequent Bible readers are less likely to see a fundamental conflict between science and religion; frequent Bible readers are less likely to approve of same-sex marriage; frequent Bible readers are more likely to be opposed to abortion; frequent Bible readers are more likely to be opposed to both the death penalty, and harsher sentencing policies more generally. The most striking thing about this is that the positions apparently promoted by frequent Bible reading do not align at all with a simple left-right political division: pro-life, but also green; opposition to same-sex marriage, but also commitment to social justice and penal reform. (It is also a set of positions that I would regard as pretty normal amongst British evangelicals – perhaps we all just read the Bible a lot? [if only…]) I am sure that any particular person’s political beliefs are a complex interaction of all sorts of factors, and that the live options they perceive are largely determined by cultural context (consider how easy it is to call oneself ‘socialist’ in Europe compared to the USA); this study suggests, though, that, within a particular culture, personal engagement with the Bible does have a genuine effect on people’s political beliefs. Interesting – I will try to find the original paper and link or reference when it is...

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How much Scripture to preach on?

It won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows me, virtually or in real life, that one of the (fairly few) things that annoy me about the contemporary, ‘soft-charismatic’ style of worship that represents the British Baptist mainstream these days is the relative lack of Scripture heard in the services. I’ve written elsewhere about my desire to return to, at least, ‘Old Testament, Epistle, Gospel’ patterns of lectionary reading as opposed to just reading the passage preached on. (We’re just back from holiday in the Lake District, which allowed us to return to the delightful little fellowship at Hawkshead Hill Baptist Church. Three passages of Scripture, read and allowed to mutually interpret, during the sermon; another read and used to shape the worship. Many fellowships could learn from that…) I observe further a strange phenomenon, that in contemporary church life in Britain, the more a particular church/preacher trumpets their high view of Scripture, the less actual Scripture we hear read in their services. The reason for this is rather simple: there is an recent British tradition of ‘expository’ (meaning of scare quotes will become obvious) preaching, traceable back to Martyn Lloyd-Jones, although not much further, and presently reinforced by currently-popular neo-Reformed¬† writings, that measures commitment to Scripture by, roughly, how slowly you preach through it. The practice of spending several years preaching through Romans or Philippians verse by verse-fragment demonstrates, it is held, a high view of Scripture because it is being taken seriously, mined slowly for all of its meaning. I confess to being profoundly unimpressed by this argument, I take it as a theologically-necessary claim that it is impossible to mine the Scripture for all of its meaning; we might get, by such slowness, everything a particular preacher has been able to discover from Scripture, but that is a rather different, and much less interesting, body of insight. And it seems like bad, or at least lazy, preaching. The preacher’s task is to determine and proclaim God’s word for this people, in this place, at this time; to do this, she must necessarily be selective. Her text might well, for instance, be significant in offering a refutation of Melchior Hoffmann’s Christological errors, and at points in history (even British Baptist history), that might have been vital. It is not now. It should be left out, so that what is vital is not obscured in the noise. Further, it has always seemed to me that (roughly) the less Scripture preached on, the more there is a danger of the sermon becoming thematic, rather than expository. I once had the misfortune to worship in a church where the preacher had been working desperately slowly through Colossians; the Sunday I was present (I never returned…) he had reached the injunction ‘Fathers, do not exasperate your children’ in 3:21, and was giving four Sundays to this verse, to examine ways in which we might ‘exasperate’ our children. (He had twenty. All beginning with the same letter.) None of this, of course, was exegesis of Colossians; the text had become the occasion for a thematic discourse on child-rearing. Earlier sermons in the series would, of necessity, have been thematic discourses on Christology, or sanctification. Such thematic sermons might be Biblical, instructive, or edifying (although the one I heard failed fairly badly on each of these criteria); they are not the mark of a commitment to the disciplined interpretation of Scripture as the foundation of the church. The church in question would have described itself as thoroughly committed to Scripture and to expository preaching, but their practice meant that there was no exposition of Scripture at all in their pulpit. I take it (whilst being aware of arguments, ancient and postmodern, to the contrary) that the task of exegesis is, roughly, the determining of the meaning inherent in a chunk of text. (And the task of exposition is the restatement, illustration, defence, and application of this meaning.) Meaning inheres in texts at almost every level, from the whole down. At one extreme, we can ask ‘what does Paradise Lost mean?’ and give a reasoned and defensible answer. Indeed, such work of precis, summary, or abstract is a standard task, set by instructors to teach students the reading and writing of English (and, I presume, other languages), and routinely engaged in by journalists, academics, and other professional writers (‘In his speech he argued…’ ‘This book claims …’ or consider the endlessly popular form of the book review). At the other extreme, how small a text-fragment may still contain meaning? The obvious answer is the sentence; after all, the grammatical function of the sentence is, roughly, to...

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The oddness of living post-Christendom

Iain made a comment on the previous post about the post-Christian cultural context in which we now live, and the sheer lack of understanding of Biblical/theological references that is now general amongst the Scottish population. I take the point, but it is more complex than just ignorance… Pre-Christian societies are simply ignorant of the gospel. Nobody knows anything; the evangelist must start from scratch, finding culturally-meaningful resonances that start to make gospel narratives comprehensible. Meeting a new person, it is a very safe bet that they know nothing of the gospel, have no memory of Biblical narratives, and have no inkling of central theological concepts (‘grace’; ‘redemption’; ‘incarnation’; ‘creation’; ‘resurrection’). Christendom societies – which perhaps still includes some or even much of the USA – are contexts where one may not assume that someone one meets has faith, but one may assume that Biblical stories and theological concepts are meaningful to them, even if those stories and meanings are misunderstood or distorted. Post-christian societies – the whole of Europe, except perhaps Poland; Canada too, I believe – are more complicated. Certainly one must be prepared for astonishing ignorance of the basic grammar of faith and of the most foundational stories. My old friend Stuart Murray-Williams collects and distributes anecdotes to remind us of the extent of the ignorance we might encounter; one concerns an English tour party being shown Gaudi’s magnificent Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (it’s the only thing in Barcelona more stunning than what goes on on the pitch of the Nou Camp – could there be higher praise?). The details of the decoration are being pointed out, including a magic square, with everything adding up to 33, because, the guide explains, that’s the age at which Jesus died. A teenage lass at the back comments, ‘That’s very young – what did he die of?’ Certainly, that’s a significant part of the reality of living post-Christendom: an ignorance as complete as any pagan living before the first missionaries arrived. Equally, however, there are pockets of remembered faith. Iain mentioned specifically the non-denominational schools in Scotland; I know what he means, but I also know that the village school our daughters attend does a fair job of introducing its pupils to the basic stories and grammar of Christianity. It is fashionable in some circles to criticise the Alpha course because of how much it assumes about the basics of Christianity. The criticism is in one sense fair, but the course in its origin was designed by someone whose education ran from Eton to Oxbridge for others with the same sort of background. In the public schools (=’expensive and exclusive fee-paying schools’, if you’re not up on the curious British vernacular) chaplains are employed, Religious Education is extensive and straightforwardly Christian, and chapel attendance is often compulsory, or at least normal. When these kids get to university – we see it in St Andrews; it’s more pronounced in Oxbridge – they still regularly attend college chapel, because that is what one does of a Sunday. They have a selective, but ingrained, knowledge of Biblical narrative and Christian concepts; to reach them with the gospel one should assume this, and build on it, as the Alpha course does. Pre-Christendom, meeting someone new, I could assume they knew nothing; in Christendom, meeting someone knew, I could assume they knew much; post-Christendom, I can make no assumptions; she might be completely ignorant; she might have plentiful knowledge. In front of a crowd of British students, particularly, the challenge is to be relevant to both the extremes and everything in between. And it is...

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On not being in love with ‘Judas’

My friend Pete Philips has a typically thoughtful and worthwhile guest post on the Church Mouse Blog a little while back, looking at Lady Gaga’s recent single ‘Judas’. Pete lamented the lack of Christian engagement with this song (& they accompanying video), suggesting Lady Gaga is a significant cultural icon whose invocations of Christian themes should be missionally important to us both as guides to where the wider culture stands, and as points of engagement with the wider culture. Pete was perhaps right to lament the lack of discussion, but I wonder how much of the lack stemmed from what in academia we call a ‘null result’: having given time to investigating something, you sometimes discover that, actually, it wasn’t that interesting, and so probably don’t publish your investigations. I have to say that I don’t find the song that interesting, but then it is probably worth reflecting why. If you missed it (how?!) the video is worth watching: [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wagn8Wrmzuc] The production quality is supreme, the song an extraordinarily well-crafted piece of up-to-the-minute pop (although it doesn’t reach the heights of Gaga’s breakthrough single, ‘Poker Face’ (2008), and certainly not of her anthemic ‘Bad Romance’ (2009) which marked her out as a genuinely great pop performer). Religious images drip off the lyrics, the video, and indeed the CD sleeve (should anybody be so last century as to be still buying CDs…). Is the song about an engagement with religion, though? At one level, obviously not. Let me first consider it simply as a song (the modern pop song is a complex cultural artefact, that might be encountered via radio or MP3 (or even on CD by dinosaurs…) as a purely audio experience, is most likely to be encountered via video (You Tube; MP4; MTV & equivalents) as a recorded and repeatable AV experience; and will be encountered by some, in live concert, in a different way again. All need to be taken seriously for an adequate reading of the cultural text). Like all great pop songs, the lyrics are sufficiently ambiguous to admit multiple exercises in eisegesis: the song that seemed, when you were x-teen, to narrate your first love affair, was not written about that relationship, but was cleverly crafted to allow you to find in it an expression of those complex emotions for which teenagers cannot find words; ditto the songs about teenage rebellion and angst. So Gaga’s lyrics: for the one in the middle of a conflicted love triangle – him or him? (or indeed, ‘her or her?’,¬† or ‘him or her?’) – the contrast in the song between the idealistic desire for Jesus and the persistent love for Judas offers a narrative into which one might read one’s experience; equally, the lyrics do invite a more existential, or even moral, reading: ‘Jesus is my virtue, and Judas is the demon I cling to’ – if this line is taken as determinative, the lyrics express, not a love triangle, but the existential angst of one struggling with a desire to kick a cherished bad habit. Again, one might find a straightforwardly religious meaning – the struggle for faith in the (post)modern world. I suppose that none of these are ‘right’, in the sense of ‘authorial intent’; I suppose that Gaga writes deliberately invocative and imprecise lyrics – great pop lyricists do, and, anyway, it is the zeitgeist in our generation: here are some symbols; can you read something into them? The video seems to determine the song in a religious direction, with the disciples named explicitly in the colours of the biker gang, and a climatic dramatic moment in the gun pointed at Judas turning out to be a lipstick, painting his lips in readiness for the kiss of betrayal. There are scenes of footwashing, although Gaga (pictured, apparently, as Mary Magdalene) is washing the feet of Jesus and Judas only. The repeated aquatic imagery might be read as a (post?)ironic reference to baptism; water overwhelming Gaga but not changing her actions or nature in any respect. That said, the imagery is all fairly tired: mostly reminiscent of Madonna back in the 80s in its ironic/playful/blasphemous appropriation of Biblical themes; even the camp Jesus, crowned with safe and golden thorns as if dressed for the dancefloor of a gay club, seems boringly borrowed from Wallinger’s Ecce homo – far more powerful and shocking, because of its context. Gaga’s video’s, actually, have generally been triumphs of style over substance. ‘Bad Romance’ was beautifully produced, but seemed mostly to reference rather standard soft sado-masochistic themes, in unsubversive ways. At best, one might say (or hope) that the references were nicely playful, but the...

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