Quick review: Reading for the common good

Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish by C. Christopher Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


The surprise for me on reading this book is that it’s not about reading, not primarily. It seems to me that Smith’s primary argument is that local churches can and should aim to make their neighbouring communities flourish. As part of this – a very major part of it – is to read well and to read widely. To say that reading is secondary in this work is in no way to minimise its significance, but to place reading in service of a greater purpose.

For Smith, reading is broad. He mentions material from technical manuals, through journalism, fiction and non-fiction, as well as the Bible. He is also equally generous in acknowledging the range of reading skill levels: there’s a clear effort to avoid snobbishness.

I have a couple of niggles, though, one of these is probably just a personal preference but the other is more important.

Firstly, the less important complaint, about a matter I notice in Christian books from time to time. I sense – maybe I’m oversensitive – that there are many moments of too-easy judgmentalism. There often seems to be a hidden phrase at the end of sentences like, ‘We have been poor at …,’ or ‘The church has failed in …’: ‘by we I mean others.’

The second complaint is of theological looseness, of major terms going undefined. To limit myself to one example, take ‘reconciliation.’ This appears to be a kind of place-holder for the (true) idea that God is doing something for the whole of reality (‘the healing and reconciliation of all creation’ on p.18, or ‘a way that bears witness to the reconciling love of Christ’ on p.147). But what does Smith mean by this reconciliation? And who does it? I can’t tell if he thinks churches and Christians to some extent bring about reconciliation, or if it’s a completed work of God, or some other formulation. I expect that ‘flourish’ (used in the subtitle) will always be a flexible term, but think some terms do require more precision. Perhaps Smith covered this is his earlier work, Slow Church, but it still needs some coverage here.

But moving from these matters, I think this is a book worth reading with others to expand our view of what a church can be and do. It’s full of ideas, it set me to think of ways we can be better neighbours, and it can promote something that Smith repeatedly extols – conversation!



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Quick comment: The Quest of the Historical Jesus

The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


A book famous for being ‘important’ – make of that what you will – but not a straightforward read. It’s a self-assured survey of mostly self-assured enlightenment thinkers whose self-assured positions extremely clever-dumb.

The people Schweitzer surveys are no intellectual midgets, but all hold to starting positions and interpretive shibboleths that are frequently flimsy in the extreme.

For example of an assumed starting position is the facile division between ‘the Christ of faith’ and ‘the Jesus of history’. This seems to be pursuing ‘neutral’ historical truth – but no one is neutral, everyone is committed. There’s no justification in the method of argument that a theological or doctrinal claim is automatically non-historical. Especially if the claim of the whole Bible, including gospels, is that they relate God’s actions in history.

And example of an interpretive shibboleth is the way the theme of the so-called messianic secret is assumed to mean no-one anywhere thought of Jesus as the Christ, even as a possibility (exceptions to Peter, and later the other members of the Twelve). On this basis, other positions follow: there must not have been messianic thought on Palm Sunday’s entrance, because none thought of Jesus that way; John the baptist did not ask about Jesus being the Christ, because he would not have used that term; etc. Again and again, these ‘histories’ explain away the only real evidence they have – the texts – in favour of their accepted agendas.

In many ways, the ‘history’ Schweitzer describes exemplifies the awful dead end of seeing sources as the ‘real deal’. It’s seen in 19th and 20th century literary criticism of the Bible, as well as this historical reconstructionism. It says, texts are only hints to the blurred reality behind them, which we can reconstruct! Hooray for us!

If that seems a harsh judgement, here are two things to say. Firstly, of course there are many fascinating and insightful things written in the histories referenced by Schweitzer. But secondly, pick up the tone of this survey as given in the very first paragraph, and expressed throughout:

When, at some future day, our period of civilisation shall lie, closed and completed, before the eyes of later generations, German theology will stand out as a great, a unique phenomenon in the mental and spiritual life of our time. For nowhere save in the German temperament can there be found in the same perfection the living complex of conditions and factors-of philosophic thought, critical acumen, historical insight, and religious feeling-without which no deep theology is possible.

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Brothers & sisters at war

The Bible has quite a load of sibling rivalry. Here are some examples:

  • Cain & Abel (Genesis 4). Cain’s jealousy at Abel when God accepted Abel’s offering leads Cain to murder his brother.
  • Shem, Ham, & Japheth (Genesis 9:18-29). Noah’s sons’ family discord arises after Ham disgraces his drunk naked father. It is noted that Ham involved his brothers (verse 22). The Canaanites – descended from Ham – are cursed in verse 25 and remain rivals of God’s people right through the Old Testament.
  • Isaac and Ishmael. These half-brothers, sons of Abraham, are the spark of conflict in the tents of Abraham. The problems are between the mothers, Sarah and Hagar, as well as between Abraham and the two women (Genesis 16; 21:8-21).
  • Esau & Jacob. Fighting begins in the womb (Genesis 25:19-26), it continues for life. Most notable are the birthright treated as a commodity (Genesis 25:29-34) and Jacob’s theft of the paternal blessing (Genesis 27). Read the extended Genesis account, them remember that Israel versus Edom is the nation-sized expansion of this rivalry (Numbers 20, Obadiah, etc).
  • The Twelve Sons of Jacob. The central conflict is eleven sons against Joseph. They plan to kill him, but “mercifully” only throw him into a pit, sell him as a slave, and fake his death to deceive father (Genesis 37). This fraternal rivalry undergirds the final dozen chapters of Genesis, along with God turning human evil intent to good (Genesis 50:20).
  • Moses, Aaron & Miriam (Numbers 12). Moses’ brother and sister oppose Moses, that they too might be known as speakers for the Lord. It was not their wisest idea.
  • Amnon, Tamar, & Absalom (2 Samuel 13). Children of King David, but torn by lust, rape & revenge killing. Amnon lusts for, takes, then dispenses with his beautiful half-sister. Absalom broods for two years on avenging his sister. This is not only an awful moral mess, but is a violent death to the putative king – Amnon was David’s first-born (1 Chronicles 3:1).
  • Adonijah and Solomon (1 Kings 1). There was plenty of other trouble between sons of David, not only these two, but this example shows how the trouble plays out in striving for the kingship.

I am not about to draw major conclusions from this line of intra-family discord. But it does, at least, raise a few questions or lead to further observations.

Some observations might by relatively minor. Such as the awareness that the first four disciples Jesus called, later to be apostles, were two pairs of brothers (Mark 1:16-20, Matthew 4:18-22). Do Peter and Andrew, James and John signal the need to end sibling squabbles?

Other observations are much more straightforward. Those who trust the gospel of Jesus must live a different and new way with their ‘brothers’ (also translated ‘brethren’ or ‘brothers and sisters’). Love, peace, agreement and more are to be usual among fellow Christian believers. As a small sample, note these verses of ‘brotherhood’:

  • Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honour (Romans 12:10)
  • Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace be with you (2 Corinthians 13:11)
  • Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another (1 Thessalonians 4:9)
  • For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another (Galatians 5:13)
  • Let brotherly love continue (Hebrews 13:1)
  • Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor (1 Peter 2:17)
  • We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death (1 John 3:14)

I get the distinct impression that Christian love for fellow Christian – expressed in word, in acts, with devotion, and as a foundational aspect of our new identity – is one of the more extraordinary parts of the radical change Jesus brings. It can be a challenge. It is a privilege.

Quick comment: Metaphor and religious language

Metaphor and Religious Language by Janet Martin Soskice

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This work argues that metaphor is not a simple ‘pretty’ way of saying something that could be communicated with straightforward words, but it its own legitimate and necessary way of explanation. Metaphoric statements, at their best, say things that cannot be said in other ways. They also create opportunities for new learning, reflection, and avenues of enquiry.

Extending this, Soskice argues that both science and theology are – fittingly and necessarily – fields in which metaphor plays a major part. Her argument concludes that a realist position is entirely consistent with use of metaphor, in both science and theology. It’s fine, and actually productive, to speak of electrical ‘current’ or of the divine gift of ‘living water.’ This is not a naive realism, but critical realism (I don’t think Soskice used this actual term, but I believe its current use agrees with her argument). In this, the users of metaphor – and use is always of within a community – are able to ‘really refer’ to something, even without knowing all there is about that topic. Even transcendent realities can be, in part and approximately, apprehended (be they electrons, or God).

One matter not possible to be raised in this work, but I think related, is the possibility of historical knowledge. Looking at the science-theology parallels is wonderfully important. Soskice frequently mentions matters of religious experience as a part-parallel to scientific experiment. In this line of thought, metaphor and theory is always open to revision, at least in theory. That’s fair, to an extent, but opens up theology to too simple a comparison with science, and suggests to me that theological doctrines are as likely to change as scientific ones. Think, for example, of the disposal of the idea of phlogiston after Priestly’s discovery of oxygen: the old theory was dumped.

I think a difference between science and (Christian) theology is the historical givenness of events, especially the ministry of Jesus Christ. Knowledge of this history has everything to add to the knowledge claims of Christianity.

This is not to say Soskise should have covered this topic! She has done an amazing job in her survey of metaphor theory, as well as philosophies of metaphor use in science and theology. And all in fewer than 200 pages! What I do mean to say is that philosophies of historical knowledge will affect some of Soskice’s conclusions about the tentativeness and modifiability of religious statements. If Jesus is alive, then some religious models and metaphors are more solid and unchangeable than any scientific model.



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A chaplain’s view on sharing

As a volunteer chaplain for about 15 years now, I know there are two types of group debrief that can happen after a major event. One type is useful, and the other is less useful and (thankfully) going out of fashion.

Situation group debrief
After a major event, it’s useful for the whole team to get together and assess how the situation went, to reflect on both good and bad. This helpful group work fits because the whole group faced the same situation, even though individual responsibilities were different.

Here are some typical questions asked:

“What was the scene like on arrival?”
“What were the patients’ presenting conditions?”
“What standard procedures did we follow? Did we need to modify anything?”
“Did the communication work?”

These are all quite functional: what the team did, and why. It reinforces procedures, investigates when creativity is required, and crystallises any lessons to hold on to.

Support group debrief
The unhelpful group debrief is an attempt to provide support, or psychological first aid, with everyone present. It tends to be a whip-around the group asking everyone, “How are you?” There are a couple of ways it can be a hindrance to support, rather than a help. (That’s why we don’t do this any more!)

The first problem is that people in a group are likely to say they are OK even if that’s not true. This lost opportunity is compounded by the likelihood that managers will hear, “We checked everyone, and they’re fine.”

Secondly, even if there is honest sharing, reactions vary by individual. And rightly so! There may have been just one event, but the numerous participants all bring their own character and history. Group sharing immediately post-event can cross-contaminate responses, or even undermine one’s reaction.

Imagine the following possible thoughts in such a group:

“Adam got teary and sad. Am I sick for not feeling anything much?”
“She got angry at the situation. Maybe that is what I feel, too.”
“Jo looks as calm as she said she is. I must be wrong for this job.”

A lesson in times of Covid-19
These two styles of group debrief came to mind because, it seems to me, in lockdown to reduce the spread of corona virus, social media is playing the role of a debriefing group. That’s good, but it’s also risky.

Social media is good to the extent that information needed by anyone can spread quickly. There is significant news to hear from governments, health agencies, the media, police, extended family, the sports club, schools, churches, local business, …

What’s risky is the amplification of fear and anxiety, or of lies and hatred. I’ve sometimes felt sucked in to a vortex of paranoia and cynicism when scrolling a social media feed. Even knowing this, it can be hard to get the fingers to stop instead of scroll! Even worse, this poisonous type of ‘group’ debrief does not even have the benefit of bringing people to be with each other – we’re still physically apart!

The lesson for me – and maybe for some others, too – is not to run away from all news and information. Rather, it’s important to get the appropriate info while being wary of the subtle dangers of having our reactions contaminated by those things we know are poison.

Quick review: Retrieving Nicaea

Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine by Khaled Anatolios

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is quite a book, even though I am certain my comprehension of it is far from complete. In other words: be ready for technical detail and argument.

My summary of the aim of Retrieving Nicaea is that Anatolios wants his readers to engage with fourth century Trinitarian theological grammar, rather than to memorise theological terminology. The why of the orthodox position (ontological unity between divine persons Father, Son, and Spirit) is his interest.

To get there, he starts with an overview before diving into three deeper specific studies: Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine. The overview itself is amazingly helpful. This overview divides the approaches to divine unity into two: unity of will (such as Arius), and unity of being (the Nicaean position). Both start with the supremacy of Christ but take different paths to express this, with major consequences. I am sure the three detailed studies also will continue to be influential amongst serious researchers, too – you know, those who understand all Anatolios says!

Read slowly, because that seems to only way to understand it. But do read it as part of developing a better understanding of the history and interpretation of Trinitiarian theology.



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Church, church, church

In the last three weeks, we have had three completely different Sunday meetings as Albury Bible Church.

Week One was ‘normal’, as we used to describe it. In the hall at Albury High School. Sunday school in a classroom. Set up and pack down, including signage, PA and music. That was our week in Hebrews 9, the reminder that ritual does nothing for Christ is the real priest who does everything.

Week Two saw rules intended to slow the spread of corona virus, including a government ban on meetings over 100. We are not that large: no change for us! So we thought, until the education department decision to halt community use of buildings as another useful public health measure. Hastily, we arranged a Sunday gathering outside at the church office (aka, my backyard).

In a beautiful touch, we knew this would likely be our last gathering like this for some time, even as we turned to Hebrews 10 (“not neglecting to meet together …”). As the kids enjoyed more than 4m2 each inside the office, we discussed options for our church life. How will we stir one another up towards love and good deeds?

And so to Week Three – the ‘new normal’? – meeting online from home. Perhaps the most remembered verse of Hebrews 11 tells us that the experience of faith apprehends what we hope for and yet cannot see. Real things, that are beyond sight and touch, are known as real through trust (see Hebrews 11:1).

I love church and seeing my fellow church members. Here was ‘church’ when not one of us left home, and the ‘sight’ of my family in faith was via a screen. The gathering was not real, but virtual. The sight was also not real, but virtual. Yet, through faith, our gathering and mutual recognition were real.

Each of these three weeks differ significantly. And there are obvious downsides to every way we gather. Despite these, each week encouraged me to press on for Christ, and each week left me thankful for the body of Christ of which I am a part. At the most profound level, there is no difference between what happened any Sunday.

On the last three Sundays, we had church, church, and church. And it was wonderful!

Backyard church
Outdoor church

Quick reaction to re-reading ‘Christus Victor’

Christus VictorChristus Victor by Gustaf Aulén

This is a very influential study of the atonement that I haven’t read since theological college. Aulén claims that his aim throughout was ‘an historical, not an apologetic’ one but that’s hard to believe. He’s really positive about Luther (not Lutherism, so much) and the ‘classic’ idea of the atonement, but not so positive about the so-called Latin and subjective views.

Rather than a review, here are some of my reactions to the book.
* Aulén presents the three positions as choices or alternatives, whereas more recent atonement books treat the theology of atonement as multi-faceted. Still, Aulén’s book reminds us that there are some incompatible theologies.
* The presentation of the argument feels all out of order. The final chapter presents the three views – why not the first? Even so, the book does not start with the New Testament but with the church fathers and then the NT evidence. It feels to me that the evidence does not prove his arguments, but has been assembled to make his position.
* Some distinctions that Aulén insists upon don’t really seem as sharp as he makes them, especially between aspects of classic and Latin.
* Penance. Aulén claims the idea of penance was essential to the development of the Latin view. While not convinced of that, I found it very helpful to read how human penance radically changes one’s formulation of how atonement occurs.
* Aulén is insistent on seeing atonement as a work of God not humanity. I have the feeling a more robust Trinitarian theology might mean his accusations against the Latin theory hold less weight. Overall, a worthwhile read but not as ‘the’ presentation of atonement theology. It’s a book to provoke more thought, deeper reading, and prayer.

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I believe in the church

Picking up the creed, Karl Barth speaks of the significance of the local gathering, the congregation:

[I believe in the church] means that I believe that the congregation to which I belong, in which I have been called to faith and am responsible for my faith, in which I have my service, is the one, holy, universal Church. If I do not believe this here, I do not believe it at all. No lack of beauty, no ‘wrinkles and spots’ in this congregation may lead me astray.

Dogmatics in Outline, page 144.

God’s surprising injustice

Shock & surprise – about God. Some detail to show the surprising thing in Romans 4.

Deuteronomy 25:1 describes judges: “they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked”.
In 1 Kings 8:32 Solomon prayed for God to judge just like that.

Isaiah 5:23 says, Woe to those who acquit the guilty for a bribe.

Back in Exodus 23:7 the Lord says “I will not acquit the wicked.”

Then there’s Proverbs 17:15 He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.

BUT Romans 4:5 calls God “him who justifies the ungodly”.
Grace & forgiveness is such a (beautiful) jolt, surprise & shock!