The Summer of Art

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This summer I’m going to be taking a three-month sabbatical. This is a period when I’m released from my duties in the parish to allow “time for rest, renewal and re-creation so as to return refreshed for ministry”.

I’m hoping to do a few different things this summer, so I thought I’d share my plans with you.

1) Research

The first part of the sabbatical will be spent visiting several Church of England training colleges and meeting with their Principals. I’m planing to ask them questions about what makes their college distinctive and how the selection process impacts on the training they offer. I’m doing this part of the sabbatical wearing my ‘Dean of Studies’ and ‘Diocesan Director of Ordinands’ hats. Depending on what happens in these interviews, I might put together a research degree proposal from my findings.

2) Renewal

I’m going to be spending five nights away on a personal retreat in Spain. I’ve got a couple of books lined up to read, but am open to suggestions about what to take, what to read and what to pray.

3) Recreation

I’m planning to spend the largest chunk of my time away taking up a new hobby. I’m going to be studying a bit of Art History and visiting galleries. With only six weeks I’ll be limited in what I can see, but I’ve got my ArtFund pass at the ready and I’ll hopefully be able to fit in a trip to the Louvre.

I’ll be taking The Boy with me on some of these trips and I’ll be blogging about what I’ve seen and learnt (which called for a new look on the blog). The boy will be taking my iPad with him, so I’ll post his interpretations of what he’s seen too.

4) Rest

As well as catching up with friends while I’m on my travels in the UK, we’re also looking forward to visiting Tuscany for a holiday with our Godchildren and their parents. As part of this we’re going be spending three nights in Florence, so I’m really looking forward to educating (boring to tears) everyone with my newly acquired art knowledge. There will be lots of photos.

5) Refreshed for Ministry

I’ll be back at St. Pancras just in time for the ordination service in Exeter Cathedral. This is particularly exciting as one of the new deacons will be Wendy Bray, who is going to join the staff of St. Pancras as Curate in September. I’m really looking forward to this new phase in our ministry to the people of Pennycross and Plymouth. Please do pray for my time away.

Resolution

2361057568_00795a66e6_oI don’t often find myself asked a question which I can’t answer, but I really didn’t know what I thought when Tanya asked:

“Looking at your papers now, would you have put yourself through?”

The papers in question were all the forms and reports from my selection and training for ordination, stretching back fourteen years and now neatly bound and filed away in my study. When I received two sets of application forms from ordination candidates who I’m working with, something prompted me to get out my own reports and this prompted Tanya to ask me the question.

The question stumped me because I’m sure I’m in the right job and it was right for me to be ordained into the Church of England, but it was only the seven years of theological college and curacy that allowed me to iron out those issues which, at the time of my selection, nearly put an end to the process.

One thing which the assessors thought might be a problem (or an indicator of a deeper issue) was that I’d written on some form or other that I didn’t really get angry. This translated into the following line in my selection conference report:

“Jon was unable to provide any evidence of how he would deal with anger.”

Eleven years on from that report I still don’t get angry. By which I mean I don’t lose my temper and shout when people upset me or I don’t get my way. I can control myself in heated meetings and debates and I can show immense patience with difficult or obtuse people. I don’t even write forthright letters of complaint or reply in haste to tweets and I certainly try to avoid replying in kind to moaning e-mails.

What I’m coming to realise is that maybe the report was right.

I don’t know how to deal with anger because I’m not getting angry when I should be. And that anger has to come out somewhere.

I don’t know how to deal with anger because I get angry about stupid stuff. Like when my neighbours won’t park in their own drive or when people use Sellotape on painted surfaces in the church hall or when motorists abuse disabled parking bays or when I’m subjected to bad PowerPoint.

I don’t know how to deal with anger because my anger is in the wrong place. So I’ll let stupid stuff upset me instead of doing something about the things that should make me angry. 

Things like when my MP voted against an investigation into the causes of the rising need for food banks or when I find myself in Child Protection meetings when I’m the only one (of the 20+ social workers, teachers and police) around the table offering any support to the parents. Or when I read about how disability benefit claimants are treated by the private company who run assessment centres or when I see magazines and newspapers which objectify women and excuse violence and abuse or when my hairdresser tells me about city centre shops forced to close because of the greed and lack of compassion of the management company.

These are all the result of public policy, government outsourcing (local and national), unrealistic targets, companies putting profit before people and public office-holders putting personal interest before the needs of those they purport to represent. As one of those represented people, I’m going to start by making my voice heard and calling elected representatives to account. In 2014 I’m going to deal with anger. I’m going to do it by getting angry. Angry at the right things. I’ve even got myself some nice new printer paper, because well written polite letters are so much more effective.

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Books for Bible Teachers

I’m currently putting together reading lists for students on the PGP course who will be writing essays as part of their assessment. Some of the books on my own bookshelf are beginning to look a bit dates, so I’m looking for suggestions for books for the essay titles below.

All these essays are being marked at HE Level 4 (First year of a degree course) so the level needs to be suitable for people who might not have studied theology academically before. Also, at this level, 90% of the marking criteria is aimed at explaining and synthesising views which are taught on the course. This means that the reading list should include non-evangelical views, but this will only contribute a small component of the mark. For more information about PGP’s approach and methodology, please see this statement on our website.

If you’ve got any suggestions, please leave them as comments or send them via Twitter, FB, e-mail, etc. If you are able to include the full bibliographical information then it makes my life much easier – but the suggestion is more important. Please use the essay code to say which essay your book is for.

Thanks

Jon.

Module PPTC01- Applied Biblical Theology

C01-1. Is it possible to identify a single storyline throughout the whole of the Bible?

C01-2. ‘The Bible doesn’t make any sense without Genesis chapters one to three’ To what extent does our interpretation of the Bible stem from an understanding of its first three chapters?

C01-3. “The Psalms are a mirror for the soul – every human emotion is there.” How does an emotional engagement with the Psalms help us interpret and apply them?

C01-4. How do the Old Testament prophets speak beyond their own situation and into the contemporary Christian Church? Illustrate your answer with examples from the books of Isaiah or Ezekiel.

C01-5. ‘The new is in the old, concealed – the old is in the new, revealed.’ How important is an understanding of the Old Testament for a responsible reading of the New?

C01-6. How does an understanding of different literary genres help us apply the Gospels?

Module PPTC02 – Biblical Theology for Christian Ministry

Doctrine

C02-1-1. “St. Patrick said the three leaves of the shamrock represent the trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That’s why four leaf clovers are so lucky, you get a bonus Jesus.” – Stephen Colbet. Explore the usefulness and limitations of using illustrations to teach the doctrine of the trinity?

C02-1-2. “The cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith” – Steve Chalke. Using both Old and New Testament passages, discuss the importance and relevance of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.

C02-1-3. Explain which Bible text or texts you consider to be most important when teaching about the role of women in the Christian church.

C02-1-4. “That which he has not assumed, he has not healed” – Gregory of Nazianzus. Discuss whether Jesus needed to become fully human to redeem humanity.

C02-2-1. “The next time you see a clean-shaven fundamentalist wearing a poly-cotton shirt and eating a shrimp, remember to shout ‘Abomination!’” – Jeffrey John. How does the ‘six act’ division of the Bible contribute to our understanding of the ethics of human sexuality? Answer with reference to either homosexuality or marriage and divorce.

Ethics and Pastoral Ministry

C02-2-2. What role should the Bible have in Christian Counselling?

C02-2-3. How should an awareness of the culture of our hearers influence our teaching of the Bible? Illustrate your answer with reference to communicating with children, teenagers or people with a postmodern worldview.

C02-2-4. How do the pastoral epistles (1&2 Timothy and Titus) challenge Christian leaders today? Illustrate your answer by reflecting on your application of these letters to your own life and ministry.

C02-2-5. Can prayer be taught or just caught? Illustrate your answer by reflecting on the development of your own prayer life.

Copyright Notice: All the above material relating to the PGP course is © Peninsula Gospel Partnership, 2011. Please feel free to link to this post, but please do not reproduce or copy anything without written permission from the Training Course Director (me).

The forgotten allure of the Bible in a culture suspicious of words.

A few days ago I wrote about whether post-modernism might be waning as the predominant worldview in contemporary culture. This gave rise to some interesting suggestions of what might be replacing it, which you can read about here. However, even if we are beginning to see the tail end of the post-modern movement, it is still deeply embedded as a worldview so we can’t afford to ignore it just yet.

With this in mind, my second question as I came to lecture this week (on communicating ‘the written word to a visual culture’) was how the Christian church should respond to those who have a post-modern mindset, especially when it comes to Bible teaching.

Contrary to the view that many people hold, much of what takes place in the church is actually very attractive to Post-moderns. Authentic worship, genuine community, enquiry through discussion, and even the visual (and sensual) mystery of sacramental worship all tick the boxes on a checklist of ‘what post-modern people should like’.

But it is the Bible which should be our biggest asset when it comes to reaching post-moderns, because it is primarily narrative, and ‘story’ is THE defining method of communication for post-moderns.

Before I go on, I need to qualify that last statement, and it will come as no surprise that in an attempt to define post-modernism, I turn to Jean-Françis Lyotard, who in his 1979 essay ‘The Postmodern Condition’ writes “simplifying in the extreme, I define postmoden as an incredulity towards any meta-narrative”.

For Lyotard, a meta-narrative was a demythologised story, and what he was reacting against was the sort of the formula which Rudolf Bultmann had applied to the Bible. Bultmann was looking for a kernel of meaning in the text, but he sought to strip the story away to uncover this meaning (or truth) “so that modern people could still find the gospel relevant to their existence in the world without having to accept its miracle-laden stories” (view source)

Now with that definition of a meta-narrative, it seems incredible that evangelical Christians could claim meta-narrative as a Christian distinctive. But this is exactly what our natural response to post-modernism has been. In reaction to the claim that meta-narratives are bad, we have been quick to point out that the Bible is not a collection of unconnected stories, but the unified, unfolding, revelation of God by himself. Isn’t this a meta-narrative? Don’t we need to understand the meaning behind the story? Can we find a unifying system for understanding the text?

In the introduction to his recent book ‘The Christian Faith – A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way’ Michael Horton argues that to call the Bible meta-narrative in this way is to misunderstand Lyotard and so misread the post-modern reaction to the Bible. If we do this then we are in danger of a serious breakdown in communication with our culture, as we confirm their view that the Church has nothing to say to them.

For Lyotard, a metanarrative is a certain way in which modernity has legitimized its absolutist discourse and originated or grounded it in autonomous reason. “In philosophical discourse,” notes Merold Westphal, “meta signifies a difference of level and not primarily of size.” Biblical faith, however, does not legitimize itself or ground itself in this way. “Now, undeniably Christianity is a mega narrative, a big story. But the story that begins with ‘Let there be light’ and ends with the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ under the baton of the angel Gabriel is not a meta narrative. (view source)

“The prophets and apostles did not believe that God’s mighty acts in history (meganarratives) were dispensable myths that represented universal truths (metanarratives). For them, the big story did not point to something else beyond it but was the point itself.”

Does this undermine our insistence that the Bible has ultimate meaning? Not at all, I think it reinforces it. In fact we need to see that a ‘modern’ approach to Bible teaching presents just as many pitfalls for the Christian.

“Christianity has at least as good grounds as Lyotard to be sceptical and suspicious, sceptical of claims to be the voice of pure reason … and suspicious when … modernity’s metanarratives are seen for what they are, the self-congratulatory self-legitimation of modernity.”

“Metanarratives attempt to justify “us” and judge the rest of the world, while in biblical faith God judges us as well and justifies the ungodly” (view source)

If we agree with Horton (which I think we have excellent grounds for doing) then our response to teaching the Bible in a post-modern context will not be to insist that we have a meta-narrative to be accepted, but rather to show that our personal story is wrapped up in the biggest story, and that this mega-narrative enriches and gives meaning to our lives.

So much for the theory, what does this look like as we stand up and try to communicate the Bible to our culture. Well, first of all we might want to suggest that ‘standing up and trying to communicate’ is a fairly modern way of operating, and that we would get further by ‘sitting down and exploring together’.

While this is undoubtedly helpful (see what I did there – in Post-modernism things are no longer true or false, they are helpful or unhelpful), I am going to spend the rest of this post thinking about how we prepare for teaching. Maybe the comments could develop practical ideas for taking this further to dialogue and more ‘inductive styles of preaching.

As I said at the start, the Bible ought to be our biggest asset in reaching post-moderns, because it is narrative. That means that we need to let the story speak for itself, allowing the divine commentary to shape our interpretation and application.

At a recent PGP study day, David Jackman shared a very helpful equation, which has re-energised me to preach narrative (and to teach others to do so too).

Event + Explanation = Revelation

The Bible’s narrative passages come with their own commentary. These are the explanations which accompany the recorded events. Sometimes these are comments from the inspired author, sometimes more directly from the mouths of God’s human prophets and angelic messengers, but in every case they allow us to see the story from God’s perspective.

Take as an example, the passage I’m going to be preaching on this Sunday, 1 Samuel 13:1-15. This passage is a description of how King Saul (Israel’s first king) finds that his military skirmishes result in the full force of the Philistine army marching out to fight him, and as his courage and his army ebb away, Saul offers sacrifices to God.

Now as an event, there are a lot of lessons which we might want to draw out of Saul’s behaviour. It seems that his pride has led to the opposition from the Philistines. It seems that what today we would call ‘a serious failure of leadership’ has led to the desertion and demoralisation of his army. It might even seem to some that Saul’s hesitation to trust God and attack have already lost him the battle.

But none of these lessons are what I will be trying to draw out of the story, because this is looking at the event, without listening to the explanation. Because in the final verses of the passage the prophet Samuel comes to Saul and says (1 Samuel 13:13-14):

“You acted foolishly,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’S command.”

Suddenly the story has meaning, and we can see that all of the events recorded in verses 1-12 reveal that Saul is not a ‘man after God’s own heart’. So we see that Saul’s actions (his disobedience to God’s commands) point us to someone whose actions show us that they are ‘a man after God’s own heart’. In the case of 1 Samuel, this explanation points us first to David, ultimately to Jesus, and then (as we receive what Jesus has done for us and seek to fellow his example) to ourselves.

So-far, so modern, but once we’ve seen this we can then retell the story and dwell in the narrative, but at each point showing how this small story is part of the bigger story, and how this encompasses our story as well.

I need to credit Nick Gowers for much of what follows, but my outline for this sermon will probably be along the lines of:

The man after God’s own heart:

  • Doesn’t panic in the face of insurmountable opposition (vs1-10)
  • Doesn’t attempt to justify himself (vs11-12)
  • Has a secure future in God’s plans.

(This isn’t a sermon writing blog, but of course, any comments that will help my preaching will be gratefully received.)

So, in summary, are we confident to let the Bible speak for itself? In a culture incredulous about reducing the story to a statement of belief, we have all the tools we need to connect with our post-modern culture.

So let’s tell our story, and lets help our hearers to discover how their story can be caught up in the greatest story ever told.