Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Bank Holiday Residue: On Bournemouth beach with R. S. Thomas

Whatever 'Christian Hedonists' might say, it is misguided to seek too much happiness in this life. For that reason I opted to take R. S. Thomas with me on yesterday's trip to Bournemouth beach. Yep, it was the wife and I, and the 'ogre of Wales'. Well, not him personally, of course. I doubt he would have joined us for Bank Holiday jolly when alive. But he was present in the form of his posthumously published collection of poems, Residues
I've dipped into Residues many times over the years, but had never read the collection in order from cover to cover before. There are only seventy poems in the set and many of them are quite short, amounting to no more than eight or ten lines of text, sitting in isolated splendour at the top of an otherwise blank page. Several are more expansive page-fillers, but on the whole R.S. was austerely economical in his use of words, especially in his later works. 

Reading poetry is different from  prose. Unlike the generous limpidity of prose, poems require careful thought and meditation before they will yield their meaning to the reader, and then perhaps not. It's slow work, which, for a generally fast reader involves something of a struggle to adjust to a more ponderous pace. 

We thought that Bournemouth would be quite congested on a Bank Holiday Monday and that it would be difficult to find somewhere to park. But but nothing of the sort. The roads weren't that busy at all and we managed to park in a side street around ten  minutes walk from the beach. A quick trot down a zig-zag path and there we were, sand and sea invitingly before us. The beach wasn't too crowded either, considering the sunny weather.
Watching is the first poem, 'Are they happy?' asks Thomas. They appear to smile from a distance, but on closer inspection no one escapes misery and suffering in this fallen world. Just the job for reading on the beach. Not that Thomas is without humour, if of a grim kind. In Postcard he speaks of the runner from Marathon, 'his time unsurpassed until the arrival of steroids.'

He writes of marriage and 'love's shining greenhouses'. In Repeat, the widowed poet ponders the experience of falling in love again and of the 'gold throne' of renewed matrimony, in which he took his place 'as in an electric chair'.  The most touching and heartfelt poem in the collection is Comparisons, was written in memory of his first wife, 

To all light things
I compared her; to
a snowflake, a feather.

There is no point in visiting the seaside without having a dip in the sea. The water was pretty cold to begin with, but I soon got used to it and swam virtually the width between two of the many groynes that dissect Bournemouth beach . Dried off. Had a Mr Whippy 99 ice cream. 

R. S. Thomas was a Church in Wales clergyman and a number of the poems in Residues touch on God and faith-related matters. In Watching he reflects that no amount of distance will turn the Maker of this sad world's 'wince into a smile'. He watches us from behind the 'cross that is the astigmatism in his vision'. On occasion Thomas feels that his faith 'was a plank to narrow for me to tread.' (Space Walking),  while in other poems he conceives of prayer as so close to God 'as to open a crater in his composure'. (Launching a Prayer). It is certainly the case that the Lamb that was slain is in the midst of the throne. God's sovereignty is mediated through the Man of Sorrows. Yet, the cross shows that our Maker does more than wince at the pain of this sad world. He has acted in Christ to rescue the world from sin, sorrow, and death, and give us hope. 

It was hot enough in Bournemouth on Monday, but nowhere near as hot as the Algarve where we holidayed earlier in the month. But after spending several hours on the beach I fancied a wander. We took our stuff back to the car and headed for the pier. Didn't realise that you had to pay to enter, so we didn't. Had a fish and chip supper at the 'World Famous' Harry Ramsden's chippy. Good, but we thought that Champions at Westbury is better. 

In Class R.S. touches upon the perils of academic study. The professor may lecture on Blake and dilate on love and the other virtues, but has he forgotten what they mean? 'He who would pass the examination has dust at his heart.' warns Thomas. For similar reasons another, if quite different Welsh Minister, D. M. Lloyd-Jones insisted that there should be no examinations at the London Theological Seminary, the college he helped to found. The seminary, where I studied for the Ministry, is concerned solely with training men for pastoral-preaching work. Lloyd-Jones thundered, 'There is a sense in which it is almost blasphemous that there should be examinations in connection with this knowledge which which we are concerned.' And by that he meant experiential knowledge of God in accordance with his self-revelation in Holy Scripture. The study of biblical revelation is meant to set the heart ablaze, not simply enable a man to pass a test. What preachers need is fire, not dust in their hearts.

Maybe that's why so much of the Bible is written in poetry. As Thomas said,

...Poetry is that which
arrives at the intellect
by way of the heart.
('Don't ask me...')

Residues R. S. Thomas, Bloodaxe Books, 70pp, 2002

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit by Michael Reeves

Kindle e-book

I first came across Michael Reeves at the Banner Ministers' Conference earlier this year. His addresses on Mission and the Trinity and Augustine were among the highlights of the event. In fact, I was so impressed that I was moved to write up my conference reports as a kind of pastiche of Augustine's Confessions. That's my excuse, anyway. Since hearing him at Banner I had been eager to to read one of his titles. Friends recommended The Good God and so I downloaded a copy. Still seems strange to speak of 'downloading' a book, but I'm getting a dab hand at this Kindle lark and e-reading doesn't detract from my pleasure of getting stuck into a work, certainly not this one, which I enjoyed immensely. 

They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but you should be able to judge a book by its title. Reeves' basic thesis is that God is good precisely because his is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A monopersonal God could not by definition overflow with life and goodness. Before the creation of the universe, he would have no one to whom he could be good. However, the God who has revealed himself in Holy Scripture is not a divine loner. In the one God there are three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. From eternity the Father has overflowed with life and goodness to the Son, and the Father and Son to the Holy Spirit. For the triune God, loving communicative action is not contingent upon his creating the world, it is at the very heart of what it means for him to be God. 

In fact, there is little reason to believe that a monopersonal God would have created the universe. Why would he, unless it was because he needed company, or simply because he wanted people to act as his minions. On the other hand, Reeves cites the Puritan theologian, Richard Sibbes to show that it makes perfect sense for a tripersonal God to communicate his goodness by creating the world,

If God had not a communicative, spreading goodness, he would never have created the world. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were happy in themselves, and enjoyed one another before the world was. Apart from the fact that God delights to communicate and spread his goodness, there had never been a creation or redemption. (Location 592). 

In salvation, the triune God not only forgives his rebellious human creatures, he brings them into fellowship with himself that they might share in the love that the Father has for his Son by the presence of his Spirit in their hearts. Our calling is not to hunker down and grimly serve our divine Master, but to enjoy and delight in the triune God of the Gospel. We become what we worship. Those who worship Father, Son and Holy Spirit will overflow with life and goodness towards his people in fellowship and towards the world in mission. 

Some works on the Trinity are dryly technical and do little to stir the soul to worship and adore the God of whom they speak. As his subtitle indicates, Reeves wants his readers to enjoy Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The tone of the work is suffused with wonder and praise. The author's style is vibrant and fast paced, with a touch of gentle humour here and there, but his lightness of touch  is placed at the service of real theological depth. Reeves' work is steeped in Scripture, while mindful of the rich theological heritage of the church. He draws on a range of theologians from across the gamut of church history to give added colour to his exploration of the good God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

This is not a book simply for Ministers and theological students. The Good God is a fine example of theology for everybody. And that means you too, dear reader. If you've got one of those newfangled e-readers, why not download a copy now?

Mike Reeves has recently joined the faculty as 'Theologian-at-Large' at WEST

Monday, August 19, 2013

Go WEST?


For a little while I've been eyeing the Mth Theology in Scriptural Context offered by Wales Evangelical School of Theology, AKA WEST. It's not something I could contemplate doing in the short to medium term and it would have to be as a part time student, but there's no harm in having dreams, is there? I like the look of some the modules and an idea for the dissertation is slowly forming in my mind. Have any readers done the course and if so, any thoughts? Should I go WEST?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Forthcoming title: The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan


The book challenges popular paradigms for thinking about the nature and function of church pastors. It sets forth a positive alternative picture, partly through reclaiming pictures from the past, and claims that pastors (in particular, senior, teaching or preaching pastors) should be Evangelicalism’s most prominent public theologians – the “prime ministers” of the word of God. Academics, including biblical scholars and theologians, have too often become specialists, making it harder for anyone to speak with authority about the big general questions (i.e., what is the meaning of life?). The pastor’s work is necessarily integrative inasmuch as it involves the theological interpretation of Scripture, namely, the application of God’s word to all areas of life and thought. The present situation calls for a paradigm revolution in the very idea of what a pastor is and does – liberation from the picture that currently holds pastors hostage and prevents them from fully exercising their vocation.

I've been asked to contribute a short chapter on The Drama of Preaching. Release date, June 2014. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Millennium by Tom Holland

Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom,
 by Tom Holland, 2008, Abacus, 476pp

Tom Holland's Millennium was my 'big read' for the summer hols. I managed to stow the weighty tome in my EasyJet hand baggage without exceeding the airline's limits. Most of the book was read airport departure lounges or on one or another of the Algarve's wonderful beaches between dips in the sea to cool off after baking in the heat. 

Holland is an acknowledged master of narrative history and his skills were well deployed in telling the story of what happened in the period that spans a hundred years either side of 1000 A.D. He traces the development of Christendom from the conversion of Constantine in 312 to the capture of Jerusalem in the First Crusade in 1099.  Along the way he describes the repeated attempts on the part of rulers from East and West to recreate the glories of the old Roman Empire, and the rise of the papacy as the dominant force in Christendom. Holland introduces his readers to some of the big players of the time including Charlemagne, Rollo the bloodthirsty Viking 'convert' to Christianity, Fulk Nerra, the Godfatherish Count of Anjou, an assortment of Ottos and Henrys. Then there's 1066 and all that. All the familiar elements of Medieval history are here. Want to know how knights first won their spurs? Why power hungry potentates started building castles? Maybe it's blood-spattered battle accounts that you're after? Look no further. 

Now, in the period leading up to the end of the first Millennium, folks in Christendom weren't looking forward to big parties and fireworks displays, all set to a Robbie Williams soundtrack to mark the advent of the year 1000. Rather, it was feared that the dawning of the 1000th anniversary of Christ's birth might mark the end of the world, or at the very least, the coming of the Antichrist. When neither happened, attention was fixed instead on 1033 A.D., the 1000th anniversary of Christ's death and resurrection. Augustine of Hippo (not to mention the Bible) warned believers of the folly of predicting when the End will come, but people will never learn. That apocalyptic visions had such a hold on the Medieval imagination is only one of the ways that makes the so-called Dark Ages seem so different from our own. However, as Holland points out in his preface, we who live at the beginning of the third Millennium are not without our secularised doom laden scenarios, such as the threatened devastation of human life by global warming. 

There is much that could be said in response to reading Holland's work, but what especially struck me was just how spectacularly wrong-headed the was the whole notion of 'Christendom'. It began with the conversion of Constantine, with the Roman Emperor attempting to Christianise his realm. In its origins Christendom was Erastian. Yeah, yeah, that's an anachronism. Thomas Erastus was a sixteenth century man. But it's the Swiss theologian's name that's associated with the view that the church should be a servant of the state. After Constantine successive 'Holy Roman Emperors' meddled in church affairs, appointing bishops, removing popes and so on. Figures such as Charlemagne, the Ottos and the Henrys believed that they had been specially  anointed as priestly-kings to defend Christendom and rightly order the church in their domains. But over time the papacy developed big ideas of its own. Gregory VII claimed that the Bishop of Rome had absolute power not only over the church, but also the right to remove emperors'should the need arise. And when it did, Henry IV had little option but to grovel before him a Canossa.

In the preface, Holland argues that Canossa was a watershed moment in history, when church and state first began to divide into distinct realms in the West. The thought is not developed later in the book and I'm not sure that it can be justified by the evidence. If anything Canossa represented at attempt by the church control the world of politics. But having the pope lord it over the emperor was as bad as the church being treated as the plaything of earthly potentates. Church and state are two distinct institutions, ordained by God for two very different ends. The two should not be confused or conglomerated. The power of the state is political and may legitimately include the use of force to uphold the law and in defence of the realm. The power of the church is solely evangelical. State power must not be used to advance the mission of the church. Her weaponry is not carnal but spiritual, a lesson that the Medieval Church tended to forget. And so to the crusades, an account of the first of which brings this book to an end. 

Not even the Magisterial Reformers were clear on this point, hence their title, meaning that they were willing to utilise the power of the Magistrate to further and defend the cause of Reformation. English Separatists such as John Greenwood and Henry Barrowe had a better insight into the New Testament's teaching on the relationship between church and state. Rather than waiting for the Elizabethan state to reform the church Erastian-style, they argued for Reformation Without Tarrying for Anie and paid for their principles with their lives. The church may be called upon to die for it's beliefs, but she should never be prepared to kill for them, or ask others to do so on her behalf. Christendom with its 'Holy Roman Emperors' bearing their 'sacred lances' into battle and lordly popes preaching up the crusades tragically ignored the words of the Prince of Peace before Pontius Pilate, 'My kingdom is not of this world.' (John 18:36). I'm not saying that the Church of the Middle Ages was totally devoid of gospel light, but as Holland's narrative of the period demonstrates, there was far too much of 'this world' and far too little of Christ in Christendom.

To conclude, Millennium is an absorbing and instructive read. But the book also served another vital purpose when we were on holiday. I used it to squish the pesky mosquito that had been greedily gorging itself on my blood during the night, leaving me covered in nasty bites. Kind of a fitting use for a book oozing with the guts and gore of ancient battles.

Highly recommended. Mosquitoes beware.