Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Stacey-Interpreting the Bible

Stacey, David. “Interpreting the Bible.”
New York: Seabury Press, 1979.
Reviewed by Adrian Peetoom
There is no doubt about at least this much: The Bible has been a source of comfort, knowledge, peace and joy for almost 2000 years (even longer for that part of it we sometimes call “Hebrew Scriptures”).  For some the Psalms, for others the stories of Old Testament “heroes” and the New Testament Jesus. For still others individual verses.  Of the latter I have a deeply moving personal example.
My mother was born in 1906 as fifth child in an eventual 11-child family. Her dad (my Opa) never provided more than a meager living for his wife and children.  Moreover, the family was dysfunctional in some ways, with especially my Oma incapable of showing and passing on love. She was one stern ruler. My Dad and Mom married in 1932, and for Mom marriage was an escape from her family. However, my Dad also never managed to make much money. But Mom became a splendid mother (of four) who worked household wonders with few resources. She never became a really happy person, alas. She never had any real personal friends, and while she faithfully went to church until her age put a stop to that she rarely expressed any faith conviction. But on a visit a few years before her death at age 95, I got to know a side of her that surprised me. She told me over breakfast that her favourite psalm was 139, and her favourite verse number 14: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works.” She told me, “I sometimes look at my hand, my fingers, my nails, and marvel at their beauty, and what they can do!”  My mouth fell open, for this was so unexpected, this glimpse of her inner life in which Scripture revelation played an important part, an inner life seemingly at odds with her basic outer unhappiness, and with her low self-image. Scripture can do that, attaching an anchor for a seemingly drifting life. And it isn’t the Bible text that provides the anchor, but the source to which the text points, namely Yahweh our covenant God.
But this truth does not invalidate a seemingly contradictory notion, namely that Scripture is one tough read. Believers need help to understand it. That should not dismay us. For life is complex. Only charlatans want us to believe that human life only needs a few slogans (or products), and all problems will disappear. Not so. So any earnest focus on the meaning of human life is bound to be complex, paradoxical perhaps, and full of mystery. All that complexity is caught in Scripture.
Christians have two major sources that assist us in discovering how Scripture tells us about God and human life lived in relationship with God (or not).  The first is the Church, which over now almost 2000 years has read and interpreted Scripture. And while each generation learns yet more new aspects of it, there is also a body of interpretation which may not be ignored. And the second source is the assembly of contemporary writers who both exegete (tell us what the original words may have meant), and interpret (suggest what these old words may mean for us today).
Here are some of the problems.
1.       As the 16th century Reformers maintained in reaction to what had been standard understanding: the Bible is for everyone, and not just a book for experts. However, since then the Bible has come to be interpreted in many different ways, even within certain orthodox understandings. For instance, Baptists do not baptize infants, but other Christians do, and both groups find their authority in Scripture.
2.       “…the Bible belongs to a culture to which we are strangers.” (5) There is a wide gap between the age of, say, Abraham, and our age.
3.       The Bible is full of literary forms that may not always be understood rightly, myth for instance.
4.       We may not always be able to come clear on the original intent of a Scripture author.
In this book David Stacey tackles these and other problems, in clear and believable prose.  It makes for a splendid source book to help ordinary people better understand the Bible.  It lays bare problems of language, factuality, the place of miracles, the relationship between Old and New Testament, the concepts of inspiration and the canon, and the nature of Authority (the Church, the Word and the Text).
And here is his conclusion.
“The believer knows that the Bible is able to meet him[i] at every point of his experience, whether he is consciously interpreting or not. This is its glory and the ground of its uniqueness. No method and no system must be allowed to impede that process. No book on interpretation succeeds if it encourages readers to set limits to the Bible and to try to bring it under their control. For the believer knows that, in the last resort, the Bible is only a medium. On the one side stands the God who speaks, on the other the man of faith who hears and believes and acts. It is not given to any book, simple or profound, to furnish the full script of that dialogue.” (116)

[i] As I read this paragraph I was slightly resentful about the exclusive use of masculine language, given that I still had my Mom in mind!

O'Driscoll on Scripture

O’Driscoll, Herbert. “Living Scripture: The Guidance of God on the Journey of Life.”
Toronto: Path Books, 2004
Reviewed by Adrian Peetoom
Years ago I read a book called “Moments of Decision,” either written by former US president John F. Kennedy, or about him (too long ago for me to be precise). O’Driscoll’s book could easily have had the same title.  In it this former Dean of Christ Church Cathedral (Anglican) in Vancouver looks at a number biblical vignettes, and explores how in each the Spirit of God inspired a biblical character to act in a certain way. There are lessons to be learned from them, “…if only we stop thinking of scripture as being long ago and all about holy people utterly unlike us who have become flattened and one dimensional  between its pages.”
In his own words, “The plan of this book is simple. I have grouped together men and women whose lives show us a certain truth about human experience. There are eight of these groups, and each group is introduced by a short reflection. I invite you to meet these people.” (P.8)
Here is the list, each character caught in a moment of decision (some more than once):
Peter, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Moses, Deborah, David, Jeremiah, Esther, Priscilla, Paul, Abraham, Jacob, Samuel, the Prodigal Son, (King) Saul, Pontius Pilate, Michal, Naaman, Bathsheba, the (gospel)  woman with a medical condition, (disciples) James and John, Joab, Naomi-Ruth.
17 from the Old Testament, 8 from the New Testament.
17 men, 8 women.
A memorable easy read.  Here is s ample summary of one treatment.
The book of Judges is an ebb and flow of Israel’s loose living, their cries for help, and Yahweh’s recurring restoring grace. In chapter 4 Yahweh’s grace comes in the form of judge Deborah. She must have been a woman of extraordinary gifts, and because of her gifts became recognized as an authority, and hence was given power. But she exercised her power in community, requesting the battlefield leadership role of Barak. This experienced fighter accepts this “commission,” but only if Deborah promises to come with him to the battlefield.  Here is O’Driscoll’s conclusion.
“In our own projects and plans, success begins when we realize that we cannot always succeed in a particular enterprise alone. ..It takes inner security to invite people with gifts differing from our own…In the wedding of differences lies success.
For a Christian there is another factor. If our enterprise is laid before God in prayer, and if our prayer is not merely asking for success but rather offering our work to God so that his will may be done through it, and it four prayer is also asking for guidance in the work – then we may gain a sense of grace about what we are doing that will strengthen and enrich  the whole endeavour. “ (35)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Community ministry

Morris, Stevens, and Urquhart: Eds.  “The Word on the Street: An Invitation to Community Ministry.”
Winfield, BC: Wood Lake Books, 1991

Reviewed by Adrian Peetoom
This book contains the stories of 18 Canadians who from east to west (Vancouver to Halifax) try to be the face of Christ to other Canadians who live in the margins: the poor, the alcoholics, the homeless, the mentally ill. In various local institutions they may provide food and shelter, but beyond that they offer a human touch to those who are often isolated, ignored, avoided, dismissed. One of the authors is Larry Derkach who at that time worked in Edmonton’s Bissell Centre. He observes: “Maybe one of the most remarkable things about the ministry that we’re involved in is that it’s unremarkable. Somebody comes in for food, and you give them food! You have become part of the body of Christ ministering to another part of the body of Christ. Theologically, there’s nothing to it. It’s unremarkable. But that’s where the essence is!” (p. 8).
That kind of work isn’t for everyone, and not every Christian is called to labour at it directly. And even though HTAC supports Edmonton’s Inner City ministry with a periodic Sunday lunch (food and servers), HTACs major community outreach is towards artists in our neighbourhood, to musicians and actors. That is also a legitimate calling for a contemporary church.
But even if we’re not directly involved with this kind of ministry, it behooves us to be well aware that others are. Moreover, we can support them in two ways.
1.       By supporting others with our money.
2.       By supporting those who challenge governments of all levels to become more just.
Reading this book will help us become more involved as in it we meet not only the stories of those who are the helping hands, but also of the hands that are helped. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A new church?

Mead, Loren B. “The Once and Future Church: Reinventing the Congregation for a New Mission Frontier.”
New York: The Alban Institute, 1991.
Reviewed by Adrian Peetoom
Once in a while one comes across a book that truly hits the spot, a morsel of caviar amidst plain horse d’oeuvres, a sip of extraordinary vintage while filling up with plonk. This was such a book for me. It articulated what I had not met articulated before, so clear, in plain language and in under one hundred pages.  What a book for a Saturday morning Parish Conversation!
The author’s focus is on “mission.” Not only because “church” cannot be thought of without thinking about “mission” (see the Gospel of St. Matthew 28:16-20), but also because whatever it understands its mission to be at a certain time determines how it will become organized. As for church today, it seems in transition but doesn’t quite know yet what the end result will be. This book describes the transition/confusion. The old understanding of mission is disappearing, local congregations don’t quite know what their mission is/will be, and familiar roles of laity and clergy seem inadequate (pp 4-5).
He describes three previous paradigms.
1.       The apostolic one (the first three centuries of church). In those centuries believers developed local communities out of house congregations in the midst of a hostile, antagonistic and (at times) persecuting socio-political environment. The Boundary between congregation and the world was precise. Inside “a community formed of common values and shaped by a story within a larger, hostile environment: that was part of the story of the Apostolic Paradigm (11).”
2.       The Christendom Paradigm. This begins to develop with the “conversion” of Emperor Constantine and took shape in the aftermath of the collapse of that empire.  With the Christian faith now the ruling religion, and bishops and princes replacing the remnants of the Roman Empire governing structure, mission changed from being a tight-knit community inviting others in, to a “far off enterprise.” Wasn’t  everybody in the neighbourhood a Christian already? Congregation became “parish,” a geographic term.  Unity became essential, as did a pyramidal structure of church governance, which diminished the role of the laity. The calling of laity was to obey, and be a “good, law-abiding, tax-paying, patriotic citizen (22).[i]
3.       But this second paradigm began to die some 150 years ago. The “unbelievers” were no longer far away – they walked by the church buildings in ever greater numbers. The world resided right outside the church once again. We’re aiming for a third paradigm, but (according to the author), it’s too early to describe it with any confidence. What he does know is this: mission in that paradigm is being mission in the place where a congregation finds itself.
The author sees three polarities at work (polarities being “differences you live with but never resolve – 44).”
i.                     Are we “parish” or “congregation?”
ii.                   Is mission about “servanthood” or “conversion?”
iii.                  Are we to be exclusive or inclusive?
In the rest of this book he spells out the consequences of living within these polarities. Required will be changes in thinking about the role of laity, clergy and institutional arrangements, as well as in theology. Tensions will be great, for a great many current church members reside within the structures and thinking of the Second Paradigm. Arguments about the Lord’s Prayer in public schools and the Ten Commandments carved on monuments are clear examples.
Here is how he ends his book. “In the final analysis, the issue is one of mission. How do we as Christians – whether mainline or sideline, liberal or conservative, connectional or free – find a community that forms and sustains us in an authentic faith and move out bearing that faith into the structures of our ambiguous society? How do we pass those forms of community on to the next generation?  (92).
By the way, the author is an Episcopalian (Anglican)!

[i] As a Protestant my first reaction was: what about the Reformation? Did it not change this paradigm? The author argues that it didn’t. Presbyterian and Episcopalian governing structures do not differ in essentials. Roman Catholics and Protestants went about foreign missions in much the same way, and organized their congregations/parishes in much the same way.  

Monday, January 23, 2012

Southcott on Parish Life

Southcott, E.W. “The Parish Comes Alive.”
London: A.R. Mowbray & Co. Limited, 1956.
Reviewed by Adrian Peetoom
Judging by the blank library card in the back of this book, and its old book smell, no current member of HTAC has ever opened it. Well, I highly recommend that some of us do. It was written by a Canadian-born British clergyman who, much earlier than many of his British peers, addresses the collapse of Anglican membership and Anglican consciousness after World War II. In this he anticipated by about three decades similar concerns being raised in Canada. 
I read this book not so much for particular liturgical and parish-organizations suggestions Southcott makes,  as his writing is set in British parish conditions. It’s his rationales that make this manageable book interesting, his discussions about the nature of church and parish life. In “Let the Liturgy be Splendid” he lays out the power of Eucharist, observing on p. 36 for instance, that “I believe that we are meant to be trained in the liturgy in order that we may take corporation action outside the communion service.”  Such an observation echoes what a friend of mine once observed, namely that we go to church so as to be fed for weekly journeys.
What sets Southcott apart from many of his peers is his insistence that each parish should develop a regular program of weekday communion in parish homes (parish meaning the geography within which a particular church operates). Recognizing that many people can’t come to church on Sunday, church should accommodate others with a liturgy in their own place, however sparse that liturgy may be. He sees how church has become a compartmentalized human activity, something for Sunday while during the rest of the week we think and act with categories not likely to be those of Scripture. Here is how he puts it on pp. 73-4:
                Where [Eucharist] celebrations take place – in the church or in the home – is largely irrelevant: it              is the community that celebrates them that is important. But to such an extent we have lost our          roots in the soil that the only way to recover the integral connection of the Eucharistic offering   with daily work ,may be to take the whole thing back into the midst of the sweat and muck it is meant to be offering and transforming.
It was an idea not without its critics, as some newspaper clippings testify.
He also advocates regular and frequent parish meetings that concentrate on the church’s teaching and training.
And here is how he sums up his concerns, citing a report. “The Church is a community with a common life whose source is God…They share it because they are made members in Baptism, and their membership means that they have one heart and soul. In the early church the evidence was marked and led to early demonstrations that they had all things in common.” (142) And on p. 143: “The Parish Communion and the parish meeting are means by which the Church might be helped to fulfill its mission of teaching people how to live and work together. “
This book may be a quick and simple read, but it has a profound message, also for us at HTAC.         

Monday, January 9, 2012

Cahill's account of the Irish

Cahill, Thomas. “How The Irish Saved Civilization: The untold story of Ireland’s heroic role from the fall of Rome to the rise of medieval Europe.”
New York: Doubleday, 1995. Review by Adrian Peetoom
Occasionally one come a across a book that illuminates a topic ne has never thought about, and does it in language so inviting and engaging that one sighs at the end: “How could I not have known about this until now?” This is one such book.
Cahill takes us back to the last few centuries of Imperial Rome, and its demise.  Yes, the northern European Barbarians crossed various rivers (Rhine, Danube) to overwhelm the erstwhile seemingly invincible Roman legions, but they managed it only because the Imperium had been fatally weakened by a number of factors (Cahill describes for us).  The tax collection system was one, and he pouts into a wider context those folks we meet in the Gospels. They were poor sods, actually, not just the brutal exploiters we’ve had implanted in our minds by sermons and church teachings. No wonder that Jesus embraced at least one (Levi or Matthew) – see pp 24 ff.
The Barbarians did their barbaric things, which included destroying books and libraries, as well as works of art. In doing so they destroyed not only the representations of Greek philosophy, but also the body of theological works already built up in the Christian Church’s still short history.  They scorched Europe barren of learning.
Except in Ireland. This isolated island was largely spared this kind of destruction.  Enter Patrick, a slave boy born in England but transported to Ireland, whence he escaped to become a wanderer, until he felt called by God to serve him as pries, and returned to Ireland. He never did become all that well educated himself, but as he set out to convert Ireland, his followers assembled in monastic communities, and began to copy whatever books they could lay their hands on: bibles (in Latin), commentaries, works of philosophy written in Greek and Latin, whatever. And once established and with ample available manpower, they entered first England, and then continental Europe, for form similar communities with similar mandates. Without them so much literature we know take for granted would have been lost forever.  And my own Dutch forebears might never have become Christians but for Irish missionaries like Boniface (who, I was taught in my Christian elementary school, was murdered in a small old community called Dokkum in Frisia – a myth I have been told much later).
A fine, fine read!

Mouw, civility

Mouw, Richard J. “Uncommon Decency:  Christian civility in an uncivil world.”
Downers Grove, ILL: InterVarsity Press, 1992
Especially in the light of recent political (and in the US Tea Party and Christian Fundamentalist war-like behavior), I would wish this book in the hands of every HTAC member. (Alas, it is out of print.)
Richard Mouw is President of Fuller Theological Seminary in California, and author of many books, some academic. In this slim volume and in plain language he tackles the life of a Christian in a culture not all that civil anymore. He lauds the importance of civil attitudes, not just a set of behavours, but behaviours welling up out of a deep commitments. That the love of God never ceases. That we ought to follow Jesus in meeting all human beings with respect, patience and a willingness to listen. That we human beings don’t need to win.
He tackles pluralism, amongst others, the challenge of other religions on our street, but also has wise things to say about the limits of civility, when our patience and non-judgmental stance threats would have us slide into wishy-washiness and even indifference.
Citing another writer, he observes that perhaps the revelation that human beings are created in the image of God should not be interpreted in such an individual sense as we often do. Maybe the whole of humanity is reflective of God. Given that, he observes that,
“God cares deeply about cultural diversity. This means that Christians need not be threatened by cultural differences as such. These differences are to be sanctified, not eradicated…To cultivate that spirit of affirmation is crucial to our growth in civility.” (79).
Sprinkled throughout the book are many stories, Mouw’s encounters with a wide variety of other people, Christians and non-Christians, even atheist. He demonstrates both how we might deal with similar encounters, but also owns up to not always having done it right himself. It makes the book a talk from a sympathetic friend.
Once again, highly recommended.