Saturday, 26 May 2007

Around the World in 80 Days

For ages now I've been meaning to stick something up about this film. (It's doubtless a perennial complaint among self-conscious bloggers, but I'll say it anyway - 'why is there never enough time to post stuff? And when there is time, why do I always want to do something else?' Probably something to do with having a high opionion of my mutterings and opinions until I actually have to share them with my readership of 4...)

Steve Coogan and Jackie Chan star in this cartoonish romp from 2004. Chan was a favourite of mine in my teenage years - Police Story, Police Story 2, Police Story 3 (nothing like a good franchise), Armour of God, Armour of God II, etc... - and he didn't disappoint in this film, which genially abused Jules Verne and raised a few laughs. The cultural vignettes and hilarious cameos (including Arnold Schwarzenegger) were definitely worth it. It seems rather too convenient that the actress playing 'generic attractive French female lead' was called Cecile De France, but apparently it is her real name.

What quite took my breath away was the startling anti-creationist slant. The character of Lord Kelvin (who appears in all the London scenes) is as an old-fashioned, obscurantist establishment figure, who confidently blusters about a young earth and about theology in contrast to the dynamic pioneer Phileas Fogg. Now, I'm no expert on Kelvin in real life, but I don't think this is quite fair to the guy. He might have made some comments regarding radio and 'planes that now seem silly, but he was hardly a young-earth creationist in the mould of Henry Morris and co., and he was an innovative scientist and engineer with a lively Christian faith. It was a cheap trick on the part of the film-makers to take a swipe at young-earth creationists and try to equate them with a denial of the possibility of heavier-than-air flight.

The icing on the cake, however, was the prostration of Fogg before the Buddha towards the end of the film, after a neat interpolation of a mini martial arts movie about three-quarters of the way through. So, rationalism "defeats" biblical thought, only to be swiftly supplanted by eastern mysticism. A remarkable tour of recent Western cultural history!

And I thought it was just a silly comedy ;-)-

chess again

When will Tim Krabbe (Dutch writer) post again!? His unbelievably (i.e. you won't believe me if you're not into chess) fascinating site needs more attention... Tim, where are you?

Meanwhile, with no TEAM this week (half term) I am back on the e-mail correspondence chess. Charles is playing the Modern Defence and I'm not sure what White is up to...
1. e4 g6
2. d4 Bg7
3. Nf3 d6
4. Bc4 Nf6 (normally I go for a very early g4 and h4, so this counts as "moderate" for me)
5. Nbd2 c6
6. c3 b5
7. Bb3 Ba6
8. Ng5 0-0 (this is a good omen: after ...0-0-0 I usually find myself losing)
9. f4 c5
10. dxc5 (I am expecting ... dxc5, to which I must play 11. e5 if I am to keep my reputation as a slightly unbalanced attacking player)

I managed to lose 7 in a row against Charles ten days ago, so it really ought to be my turn to win (if you're reading this, Charles, please note...)

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Saturday theology and the Tree of Life

The Saturday School of Theology is the latest offering from Christian Heritage. One morning a month, interactive lectures on historical theology from Chad VanDixhoorn, a British Academy fellow at Cambridge who wears fine bowties. Quite simply the best theology course I have been on in terms of its balance between academic rigour, ease of understanding, openness to discussion and freshness of material (most evangelicals don't know the first thing about church history, more's the pity). Of course we could go deeper, but as an introduction for the average Christian it is outstanding.

One of the topics that returns in the questions as well as in the lectures is the relationship between Adam and Christ. We have considered this in the early Fathers' approach to Christology, in the Ecumenical Councils, in the Augustinian-Pelagian debate, and I expect we'll look at it again this week when we turn to Aquinas and Roman Catholic understandings of fallenness. The crucial text is Romans 5.

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned— for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.

But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man's sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

What has lightly vexed us is the nature of the humanity assumed by Christ. Was is 'fallen' humanity? Does this mean 'susceptible to death, decay, etc.' but not inherently 'sinful'? What did happen to human biology at the fall? Many of the questions have been prompted by a scientific thinker who is concerned about what temptation means. Was Christ really tempted in every way, just as we are (Heb 4:15) if he had a body that was like Adam's pre-fall body, not like our fallen body? Chad has been working with a distinction between two biologies, as it were.

I wonder, however, whether there is any need to posit two biologies. The two biologies model troubles those who believe in theistic evolution, especially those who also deny a literal reading even of Genesis 3 - but it causes other problems, too. Instead (and I am assuming at least a literal Genesis 3, if not the whole Young Earth creationism for the sake of argument, here), imagine that in the garden, Adam and Eve had mutable bodies, just like ours, bodies 'naturally' subject to decay and even death. What prevented decay and death was access to the tree of life.
Total reliance on God's word and his physical provision. Once they had sinned, access to the tree of life (via access to the garden itself) is one of the major sanctions. ...lest they eat from the tree and live forever... On this reading dependence on God characterised unfallen humanity just as it characterises redeemed humanity (and at a metaphysical, ontological level it characterises unrepentant humanity, too, if only they would realise it!). Thus we have no need of a two-biologies model to explain death post-fall. And Christ takes on human flesh in its mutability and (potential) subjection to decay/death - for without the tree of life (which was the channel of covenant blessing to those who obeyed God and relied completely on him, in other words Adam and Eve before the fall) we would/do all die. And of course the tree returns at the end of Revelation for the healing of the nations. Maybe for their feeding, too!?

Not a very clear exposition of my thoughts, but I do think there's something there.

While musing on this I came across this very thought-provoking blog. The posts on creation/evolution are very interesting. A wonderfully moderate tone! And he agrees with what I have been thinking about the tree of life! So I must be right... ;-)

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

BHWE Monday

What is this? Some sort of diary!?

Anyway, typical grey bank holiday activities. With Kate's help I strung together a set of 15 or so 30-second excerpts (try typing that one quickly!) of classical music designed to express/portray/exemplify (I'm not going to go into the philosophy of art at this point, as I don't understand it!) emotions from very miserable up to moderately happy. This was to assist a history teacher friend from church who has asked her class to present their verdict on the debate over Southern Slavery in the US: how decent were the slaves' conditions, and how well off were they?

I trust that the kids will be able to make use of the opening 60 seconds of...

Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No.6, 1st mvt (busy and cheery)
Kabelevsky, Piano Concerto No.3, 1st mvt (madcap and busy)
Rachmaninov, Suite for 2 Pianos, Romanza (yearning and wistul)
Sibelius, Symphony No. 5, 3rd mvt (noble and positive, but laborious)
Brumel, Lamentations (ambiguous; reflective but no strong minors)
Bliss, Adam Zero, The Stage (ambivalent)
Dvorak, Symphony No. 8, 1st mvt (sad but sometimes hopeful)
Bach, Violin Sonata in D minor, Allemande (busy and fairly grim)
Tallis, Lamentations I (slow and mournful)
Glass, Facade (slow and mournful)
Doyle, Sense and Sensibility, Combe Magna (sighs and darkness, but not unmitigated)
Reich, Eight Lines (hammer and tongs)
Khachaturian, Piano Concerto, 1st mvt (melodrama, noise and brutality)
Brahms Symphony No.1, 1st mvt (relentless, slow, effort)
Brahms, Symphony No. 4, 4th mvt (crash bang, hard work)
Tchaikovsky, Symphony No.6, 4th mvt (despair)

What would your sliding scale of 16 have been?

Then I assisted Kate in sorting out all the photos we used to decorate our wedding reception almost 4 years ago, returning them to their albums. Nothing like procrastination to make a job ultimately very satisfying. And nothing like old university and family photos to make me misty-eyed, sometimes sad, usually laughing, and grateful to God for his goodness over the last 27 years.

While that was going on we watched Hitchcock's Notorious with one eye each (just as stylised as Rushmore though without surprises), were occasionally interrupted by visits from friends, visits to the garden centre and food.

Monday, 7 May 2007

BHWE Sunday

Praise the Lord for another great day. A real answer to prayer. I managed to get through the tricky theological questions surrounding parables, with the help of a bowl of dodgy flour and a string of immitation pearls (priceless in the sense that I gave the word aged 7 - 'with no value' - a sense that persisted for many years...)

Celebration of the Lord's Supper - hurrah! Lots of great chat with people at church. Back home to feed 17 people, including several neighbours and a friend of ours from Japan who we hadn't seen for months. More answers to prayer and tremendous fun.

Could have carried on for a lot longer, but at 4pm rushed across Cherry Hinton to take a service at an old people's home that we visit every fortnight. Managed some lovely conversation with a couple of residents who are often unable to speak or communicate, and a really challenging conversation with one lady who is razor-sharp mentally, and sadly, still agnostic. Kate and she talk knitting and the gospel regularly, though.

Playing piano at the evening service and then off to a concert of contemporary music. Noisy and odd, but stimulating. Geoffrey Poole, Grieg (some unusual folk music that sounded very 20th century!) Ligeti, some Dutch guy for solo flute and also a big work by a friend, Edmund Bloxam (composer to watch in the future). Couldn't quite get my head round some of the sentiments in the programme notes, or some of the noises, but it was enjoyable nonetheless, and I'm always in awe of those who can string something artistic together coherently. And the concert kicked off with jazz piano by a good friend, Andy, who is a clarinet maestro but has been excercising himself at the keyboard over the last few years while allegedly training to be a doctor...

What an exhausting day!

BHWE Saturday

Prepared (losing hair in the process) to do the 'Family Focus' at Rock the next day. Series is on questions people asked Jesus, and this one was on 'Why do you teach in parables?' I already knew I didn't really know the answer to that one, which is not the best position to be in when trying to think about how to teach young children.

After going round and round in circles regarding intellectual comprehension and spiritual blindness I decided on a two-fold approach. (1) Parables had great cultural relevance and immediacy and have great enduring mnemonic value. In themselves they embody as much as they exemplify; i.e. they reach the parts that lectures and propositions don't. (2) Jesus' answer in Matthew 13 focuses on the condition of his listeners. Either you hear with faith or you don't - and many of that generation didn't (at least not then, but maybe over the next few decades they did - Leithart, building on Rodney Stark, makes a reasonable case, followed up here). So the moral of that is, ask God for help in understanding Jesus' teaching, his life and mission, and for the strength to live in obedience, in the kingdom of heaven (which is what all those parables were about).

Needless to say, this was repackaged somewhat for the meeting!

Then it was nipping out to buy lots of food for Sunday before heading off to the idyllic westerly fringe of Cambridge for a concert I had organised for all my piano students. Everyone who played acquitted himself or herself extremely well. Even the most error-ridden performances were musically convincing and remained performances. We (me, Kate, and plenty of parents and siblings) enjoyed a handful of single-line pieces and other works up to Rachmaninov's B minor Prelude and Beethoven's 'Tempest' Sonata. I was extremely pleased with how they all did! And the venue worked a treat - a swish drawing room in Clare Hall with a light and noisy Kawai baby grand.

Got home dehydrated and collapsed into bed unable to move for an hour with a severe headache. Rather an odd stroke, and not particularly pleasant! Recovered enough to assist Kate with preparation for lunch the next day, and then to watch Rushmore. Heartily enjoyed this, despite some pretty fruity and tasteless verbal porn. It is very stylised, but also very believable. Bill Murray plays himself, as usual, and Jason Schwartzman is outstanding as the precocious, old-fashioned, other-wordly, yet unhappily hormonal and male teenager around whom the film revolves. Engaging and brilliantly observed, with not a whisper or a shot out of place.

Friday, 4 May 2007

Chess and eschatology

At TEAM on Wednesday Charles and I explored an odd line in the Dutch (he was Black). Slightly fewer wild and crazy games - a more mature approach, one might say (yeah, right) - and honours even.

1. d4 f5
2. Nc3 Nf6
3. Bg5 e6
4. e4 dxe5
5. Bxf6 Qxf6
6. Nxe4
intending a swift 0-0-0 and kingside attack, since Black's pieces are stuck on the other wing.

When that ran out of steam I went for a gambit approach with 5. f3. I now wish I had a chess programme on the computer to test it all out, but I had to get rid of the excellent Chessmaster 7000 (several years ago, now) as it was stealing all my time when I should have been working. It's one solution to the self-control problem, I suppose...

Also at TEAM we had John Richardson, the ugley vicar, giving us some more thoughts on Revelation. He argued strongly against premillennialism from a robust amil position and gave us lots of insights into the numbers in Revelation and their OT background. Stimulating stuff, but there's never enough time in life (let alone in the seminars) to discuss all the implications and check all the alternatives and chew over the theology. I still need to properly assess the preterist position that sees most of the imagery 'fulfilled' in the destruction of Jerusalem, and to consider how Revelation (and other bits) support or undermines the postmil thesis that the kingdom will grow and be visibly victorious in the world before the end. JR used 2 Thess 2 as a governing passage, on the one hand to support a cyclical or action-replay reading of Revelation (which is pretty solid) and on the other hand to suggest that there will be a future time of intense persecution shortly before the end. But of course, many have argued that 2 Thess is all about AD70.

One possible way through is to see the typology as extending into the future. Perhaps we can grant a preterist interpretation of significant portions of, e.g., Matthew 24, and maybe even of 2 Thess or Revelation itself, but see the destruction of Jerusalem as a type of final judgement. That's only the most hesitant of suggestions, though, and almost certainly not original in the slightest; so many scholars and pastors and others have thought and written about this that it's quite difficult to know where to begin! (and now I see that the preterist archive website has gone and got all glitzy since I last came across it, but if you can get past that there's a lot of fascinating history there...)

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

I was Monty's Double Gender

Definitely my best title to date.

But before I get too carried away with self-congratulation, I need to quote from I was Monty's Double, by E. Clifton-James (Panther, 1958). James was a WWI veteran and actor, serving in the Royal Army Pay Corps during WWII, suddenly called upon to impersonate the Allied Commander during the build-up to D-Day. [It's the current bathroom book of choice.] Speaking of his MI5 'minder', who constantly encouraged him, he writes:

When I remembered this scene later I realized what a clever man I was dealing with. The whole essence of cleverness in handling human problems is knowing the way people are going to act and react. Really, it is a process of getting inside their minds. Whether you are a doctor, or a politician, a barrister, a General or a publicity manager, you will get nowhere unless you have this gift of tapping people's thoughts and feelings. (70)

James also attributes this gift to Monty himself. What struck a chord with me was the emphasis placed on empathizing in this male-dominated military world (and then extended by implication to significant career families). Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen's influential thesis regarding brains and autism categorises this type of thinking as a trait of the 'female' brain (suitably qualified with comments about statistics, 'on average', etc). Is this an example of what Baron-Cohen thinks is a privileging of the female brain at the expense of systemizers (and those with autism) in twentieth century society (The Essential Difference, pp.171, 184-5)? Does it thereby undermine the fears of those who oppose gender essentialists and evolutionary psychologists, claiming among other things that their discourse values 'male' characteristics, while paying lip-service to both sexes? (e.g. Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers, Same Difference, p.185) Or was it only in the 50s that empathizing was valued in these high-powered careers that Barnett and Rivers want women to succeed in? Or was E. Clifton-James the only person to think that?

Before I and my questions get really silly, I'm going to read some more about gender (and maybe another chapter from I was Monty's Double...)

Citizen of God

Patrick then helpfully reminded me of this passage...

I noticed the other day that the verb politeuomai occurs one other time in
the NT, in Paul's opening to the Sanhedrin in Acts 23: 1. ... Paul's Roman citizenship has been brought into prominence immediately beforehand 22: 25-29 at some length. However, it is Paul's 'Judaism' which is in view with pepoliteumai. "I have lived as a citizen for God with an entirely clear conscience upto this day." The explicit mention of God makes this statement seem to be one of service or worship (in all of life) similar to Paul's other comments about "being a better Jew than the rest of you" (paraphrase of Gal. 1: 14, Philippians 3: 2-11, 2 Cor. 11: 21 ff.). There is certainly much more than merely being a good citizen here. What do
you think of this passage?

Yes, there is more involved than merely being a good citizen. But perhaps that is because we have a truncated view of 'citizenship' (or 'subjecthood', as it may more properly be) in British culture today (and probably in many cultures). It may be that, in general, to live well as a 'citizen' of the UK, being law-abiding and doing a bit of voluntary work on the side is all that is required. But this is because so much is taken for granted, and because the idols of this age and this place are diffuse (state, consumerism, comfort, etc.) rather than bare-faced and monochrome like Turkmenbashi or Kim Jong-Il. But these idols still make their claims to complete lordship. The formal, explicit political structures of the UK are not much of an idol in themselves. Those structures are not well understood, and we are all familiar with the lament regarding declining participation in democracy. (And I think there is a further complicating factor regarding the establishment of the Church of England and public language/ceremonies that invoke the Trinity: are they politically relevant or desirable?) But when we defer to the state, or to the space created and guaranteed by the state in which we can worship our other idols (individualism, hedonism, etc), or to localism, or tribalism, then we may find ourselves living as good citizens, according to our national/birth culture, but not according to the city of God.

To put all this more succinctly: perhaps living well as a citizen encompasses more than we imagine. Perhaps we cannot live well as a citizen when all the terms are defined by secular liberals (or secular totalitarians) because we will not compromise on the lordship of Christ over everything and we will not give up our citizenship in heaven in order to gain the privileges offered by the various 'cities' here on earth. And at the moment in the UK that is largely overlooked and the rubber rarely hits the road - first, because we live in a post-Christian and generally tolerant sort of place, and second, because the idols around us are diffuse and disorganised so we don't need to be attacked for compromising on the world's definition of citizenship when Satan can distract and undermine us with a bewildering variety of activities and distractions that we don't realise are 'political' (because we forget about the claims of Jesus and about our being part of the body of Christ).

To bring things back to Acts 22. Paul's use of political language was more comprehensive than ours, because the prevailing system in the first century was not one that claimed to be neutral, merely providing a space for citizens to fulfil themselves. So, service and worship in all areas of life was considered 'political': politics was not the word for distant governmental wranglings, it was the responsibility of the citizen.

And the challenge for us is, how do we recognise and act on our citizenship today? It seems that the church should take priority, since we are first and foremost citizens of a heavenly city, not of earthly kingdoms. Political activity should be directed towards life in a community of believers, where the rules are different (peace, love and forgiveness rather than dog-eat-dog or hierarchies or pride) to those in worldly political communities. The pressing question of our interaction (as individuals and as churches) with those communities is one for another day, though, unless you live in Iran, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Turkey, China, North Korea...