The Gospel’s relational cure to increasing tribalism

On our  trip through the USA this summer, I began to sense that as Africa becomes more global and cosmopolitan, my native America was growing more fractured and tribal. Stereotypically speaking, in Africa relationships almost always come first. With globalization, the circle of those relationships is rapidly expanding. Increasingly in America, ideology can trump relationship and end friendship. In my environment here in Nairobi, I can move from one  radically different cultural context to another within minutes, but those shifts pale in comparison to the whiplash I felt going from one isolated American tribe to another (e.g. moving from Christian Obama lovers to Christian Obama haters.) There were times I felt like if I dared disagree, the conversation might end instantly.

In a recent TED talk, Eli Pariser argued that  internet filters (Google, Facebook, etc.) will only accelerate that fragmentation/tribalization.

OR watch his talk on the TED page

What is the answer to this perennial human blight?

At GospelFutures, Neil Williams suggests that an inbuilt critique to tribalism is seen in the life of Jesus and the gospel story–relational tranformation–a just life (the concluding post to his a series on relational transformation.)

…What relationships are the hardest to transform? Where is relational failure most evident? An answer is suggested in Jesus’s words to his disciples, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:46-47).

…It is difficult to read and interact with the accounts of Jesus without noticing his relational integrity with and love for outsiders. [Neil lists a few examples from the Gospels.] …If there was one thing that riled up people, it was Jesus’s relationship with outsiders…So the gospel story has an inbuilt critique and challenge to exclusive clubs. The appeal is to transform these most difficult and problematic of relationships…

Neil also anticipates some objections: “Does this mean giving up our beliefs, values, and identity? And what about our theological reasons for exclusion?”

At a minimum: Make, keep, and love friends who see the world differently than you do and disagree with you–especially those who are likely to be marginalized by your tribe. It’s not easy, but it’s the Jesus thing to do.

Kibera’s not as big as we thought

Kibera is not as heavily populated as many (most?) people have been saying. This is old news (last year), but it’s gotten some recent attention  at Humanitarian info (for some reason, I can’t see the actual post; I only see the comments). See also Africa Research Institute’s Urban Africa by Numbers.

Posted  Friday, September 3  2010 at  22:30

It has been billed as Africa’s biggest slum and even by some accounts, the world’s largest. Some say it is home to two million people, others a million.

But the 2009 Kenya Population and Housing Census results released this week make everything you have heard about the size of Kibera improbable. Numbers do not lie, and figures from the 2009 census indicate that Kibera barely makes it to Nairobi’s largest slum.

According to the census figures, the eight locations that form Kibera slums combined host a paltry 170,070. These include Lindi, the largest, with 35,158 people; Kianda (29,356); Laini Saba (28,182); Makina (25,242); Gatwikira (24.991); Siranga (17,363); and Kibera (9,786)…

…Another major city slum, Mukuru Kwa Njenga, in Nairobi West with 130,402 people is slowly edging towards the largest slum in Kenya status. Throw in Mathare slum in Nairobi North with 87,097 people and you begin to understand why Kibera has never been Africa’s largest slum.

For a long time Kibera has been touted as Africa’s largest slum, with various ‘experts’ putting its population at anything between one and two million. But the slum does not hold a candle to India’s Pharavi with one million. Brazil’s Rocinha Farela with a quarter million is probably the closest rival…

…As for thousands of foreign visitors who trooped in to see the “Biggest-Slum-in-Africa:” You swallowed one big lie, hook and bait!

Read the whole article.

Brian Ekdale responded to the Daily Nation article with What’s in (a Name and a Number?) He offers a history of Kibara and just defended his dissertation on the subject (congratulations!): “Creativity and Constraint in Self-Representational Media: A Production Ethnography of Visual Storytelling in a Nairobi Slum.”:

First, I argue that the dominant discourse about Kibera that is constructed and circulated by authors, journalists, NGOs, and unawares is hyperbolic and simplistic. I explore this discourse by speaking with Kibera residents about the disconnect they see between their lived experiences and the representations of their community offered by non-residents and the media….[abstract]

So how did we get the million figure?

“In the absence of actual data (such as an official census), NGO staff make a back-of-envelope estimate in order to plan their projects; a postgraduate visiting the NGO staff tweaks that estimate for his thesis research; a journalist interviews the researcher and includes the estimate in a newspaper article; a UN officer reads the article and copies the estimate into her report; a television station picks up the report and the estimate becomes the headline; NGO staff see the television report and update their original estimate accordingly.” (source: via Map Kibera see also Kibera’s Census)

Although I’ve been into Kibera a number of times for various reasons (including my day in Kibera court), the population “figure” mostly comes to mind when I’m driving a foreign visitor down a stretch of Langata Road, near Wilson Airport, where you get a good, panoramic view of all the roofs. I’ve commented more than once that this is “supposedly the largest slum in Africa…they say about a million people live there.”

I guess now I know better now.

Update (17 Aug. 2012): 

See now Martin Robins, “The missing millions of Kibera” (The Guardian, Aug. 1)

…A quick search on Google finds page after page of estimates in or around the same ball-park. The White House reckon it’s “just about 1.5 million”, while the BBC claim 700,000. Jambo Volunteers say “more than one million.” The rather sickly-sounding Global Angels reckon “around 1 million.” The Kibera Tours website describes “a population estimated at one million.” The Kibera Law Centre gives “almost 1 million.”Shining Hope for Communities reckon that Kibera “houses 1.5 million people.” The Kibera Foundation talk about “a population of almost a million people,” as do Kibera UK and about a hundred other sites you can find through your friendly neighbourhood search engine.

…Kibera consists of around two square miles of densely-clustered, single story shacks. For the White House’s estimate to be accurate, Kibera’s cluttered streets and labyrinthine alleyways would have to support a population density thirty times higher than the towering skyscrapers of New York…

He too cites the above studies:

Hence the shock when a census by the Kenyan government found only 170,000 residents, a count probably not much higher than the number of NGOs that have swarmed into the area. It isn’t easy counting the transient population of an informal settlement, and of course the government don’t have a fantastic record on Kibera – if they did, it wouldn’t exist – but their figures fit reasonably well with those produced by others. The Map Kibera Project used sampling to produce an estimate of 235,000-270,000, while KeyObs deployed the cold, hard gaze of a satellite to produce an estimate of around 200,000. These more accurate figures have suffered the fate that tends to befall most inconvenient truths; they have been widely ignored.

Religious Restrictions Rising (Pew)

A recent Pew study shows that religious restrictions have risen for over 1/3 of the world’s population between 2006-2009. More than 2.2 billion people – nearly a third (32%) of the world’s total population of 6.9 billion are facing greater religious restrictions. See Executive Summary for more details.


Among the five geographic regions covered in this report, the Middle East-North Africa had the highest government and social restrictions on religion, while the Americas were the least restrictive region on both measures. The Middle East-North Africa region also had the greatest number of countries where government restrictions on religion increased from mid-2006 to mid-2009, with about a third of the region’s countries (30%) imposing greater restrictions. In contrast, no country in the Americas registered a substantial increase on either index.

In China, there was no change in the level of government restrictions on religion, which remained very high. But social hostilities involving religion, which had been relatively low, increased substantially from mid-2006 to mid-2009.

Love outlasts fear and ignorance

I’ve come to believe Love doesn’t outright defeat fear and ignorance as much as it simply outlasts them. No matter how much you give, our little neighborhood fellowship will never overcome the culture of poverty surrounding us. We are just the Resistance, wreaking compassionate havoc where and when we can, waiting for a much stronger force to come finish the job…In the meantime, we try not to push too hard, for fear of burning ourselves out. – Bart Campolo.

For some reason, this comment comforted me. Maybe it has something to do with coming back from a three and a half month tour of North America (the longest I’ve been in the US in nine years) to a place where I’m surrounded by friends feeling the effects of poverty.

The wonderful mystery of creation

My friend Simon writes:

Throughout their existence, humans declared that things they did not understand were the work of the divine. The blazing sun, without fail, appeared and disappeared by an unseen eternal locomotion…Then, as our race began to understand complexity, we began to declare we had found the reasons for these things. The sun, who previously could humble and blind us by its own power, was reduced to a dumb mechanical looping ball of hot stone. Our methods invented good vaccinations and movable type, yet bleached the world of its color. A thing’s value suddenly was established by its utility. Wordsworth saw this, lowered his eyes and muttered, “We murder to dissect.”

We have not ended the place of wonder but pushed it. The boundary where we are delighted by what we do not understand has been relegated by our scientific arrogance away from life’s center. Yet it can appear if we take enough time to stare with an open heart. This is because, thankfully, there is no end to anything. Small things are made of smaller things, tiny weaved of the tinier. Down and down the composition goes….

I want to pull the place of wonder back to where it was, back to the exhilaration of dipping my finger in the lake, back to stories of aflame angels appearing over flocks at night, back until it collapses over everything. We were right all along. The world is steeped in unknowns, and by extension is thick with miracles. This roiling race of hominids may seek to find stability by exhuming the world’s mechanism, but when will they learn that peace is found in wonder? When will we see that love of creation and Creator, the path to the planet’s health, is less a math equation than a romance?…

Read Simon’s full reflection (20 May 2010).

Islam and Christianity in Africa (Pew Study)

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has just released a study on Religion in Africa

Download the full preface (5-page PDF, <1MB); Download the full executive summary (18-page PDF, 1MB) (in  French or Portugues)

In little more than a century, the religious landscape of sub-Saharan Africa has changed dramatically. As of 1900, both Muslims and Christians were relatively small minorities in the region. The vast majority of people practiced traditional African religions, while adherents of Christianity and Islam combined made up less than a quarter of the population, according to historical estimates from the World Religion Database.

Since then, however, the number of Muslims living between the Sahara Desert and the Cape of Good Hope has increased more than 20-fold, rising from an estimated 11 million in 1900 to approximately 234 million in 2010. The number of Christians has grown even faster, soaring almost 70-fold from about 7 million to 470 million. Sub-Saharan Africa now is home to about one-in-five of all the Christians in the world (21%) and more than one-in-seven of the world’s Muslims (15%).1

….While sub-Saharan Africa has almost twice as many Christians as Muslims, on the African continent as a whole the two faiths are roughly balanced, with 400 million to 500 million followers each. Since northern Africa is heavily Muslim and southern Africa is heavily Christian, the great meeting place is in the middle, a 4,000-mile swath from Somalia in the east to Senegal in the west.

….Despite the dominance of Christianity and Islam, traditional African religious beliefs and practices have not disappeared. Rather, they coexist with Islam and Christianity. Whether or not this entails some theological tension, it is a reality in people’s lives: Large numbers of Africans actively participate in Christianity or Islam yet also believe in witchcraft, evil spirits, sacrifices to ancestors, traditional religious healers, reincarnation and other elements of traditional African religions.2

Other Findings

In addition, the 19-nation survey finds:

  • Africans generally rank unemployment, crime and corruption as bigger problems than religious conflict. However, substantial numbers of people (including nearly six-in-ten Nigerians and Rwandans) say religious conflict is a very big problem in their country.
  • The degree of concern about religious conflict varies from country to country but tracks closely with the degree of concern about ethnic conflict in many countries, suggesting that they are often related.
  • Many Africans are concerned about religious extremism, including within their own faith. Indeed, many Muslims say they are more concerned about Muslim extremism than about Christian extremism, and Christians in four countries say they are more concerned about Christian extremism than about Muslim extremism.
  • Neither Christianity nor Islam is growing significantly in sub-Saharan Africa at the expense of the other; there is virtually no net change in either direction through religious switching.
  • At least half of all Christians in every country surveyed expect that Jesus will return to earth in their lifetime, while roughly 30% or more of Muslims expect to live to see the re-establishment of the caliphate, the golden age of Islamic rule.
  • People who say violence against civilians in defense of one’s religion is rarely or never justified vastly outnumber those who say it is sometimes or often justified. But substantial minorities (20% or more) in many countries say violence against civilians in defense of one’s religion is sometimes or often justified.
  • In most countries, at least half of Muslims say that women should not have the right to decide whether to wear a veil, saying instead that the decision should be up to society as a whole.
  • Circumcision of girls (female genital cutting) is highest in the predominantly Muslim countries of Mali and Djibouti but is more common among Christians than among Muslims in Uganda.
  • Majorities in almost every country say that Western music, movies and television have harmed morality in their nation. Yet majorities in most countries also say they personally like Western entertainment.
  • In most countries, more than half of Christians believe in the prosperity gospel – that God will grant wealth and good health to people who have enough faith.
  • By comparison with people in many other regions of the world, sub-Saharan Africans are much more optimistic that their lives will change for the better.

About the Report

These and other findings are discussed in more detail in the remainder of this report, which is divided into five main sections:

This report also includes a glossary of key terms, a description of the methods used for this survey, and a topline including full question wording and survey results.

HT: Roving Bandit — “Probably the best economics blog in Southern Sudan”

He’s baaaack!!! The blogger formerly known as Sibboleth (Kirk)

I’m happy to announce that Daniel Kirk (the artist formerly known as Sibboleth) has returned to blogging at “Storied Theology: Telling the story of the story-bound God.” His first post Communal Story & the Face of God.

As a New Testament scholar and a blogger, he writes:

…My guild exists for the purpose of high-level, carefully developed, carefully articulated, fully digested assessment of data and arguments. A blog entry is an impression, a first thought, a work in progress. This means that a blog is a strange genre for a New Testament scholar. We need to continue the task of cultivating a new category for “blog,” one that assumes that the author’s thought is a work in progress, one that anticipates change, adaptation and growth of ideas expressed in public…

Update your blogrolls and set your RSS feeders to:

Free access to ALL SAGE Journals till 31 Oct

Just a reminder that SAGE is offering FREE online access to over 500 SAGE journals 1999–current, until October 31Register HERE or you wait and pay $25/per day/per article ;-). (It’s relatively painless; I’ve been registered for years–no obligation.)

Biblical Studies & Theology

Some examples of SAGE journals in other fields that interest me:

Race & ClassJournal of Asian and African StudiesCross-Cultural ResearchCultural DynamicsCultural GeographiesCultural SociologyCulture & PsychologyCurrent SociologyDiscourse Studies,

DiogenesEthnicitiesEthnographyInternational Journal of Cultural StudiesJournal of Black StudiesLeadershipMemory StudiesManagement in EducationTime & Society, (many, many more)

political opinions, moral psychology, and persuasion(Haidt, TED)

In this TED interview, Jonathan Haidt sheds some light on why people hold the political views they do. It has implications for preachers and apologists of all kinds.

I think there are three basic principles of moral psychology, and I find it helpful to approach any new puzzle by applying them.

The first principle is intuitive primacy: Peoples’ judgments are based primarily on their intuitive reactions — on quick gut feelings, not on reasoning. This is how we make most decisions, and Malcolm Gladwell reviewed this research in Blink

The second principle of moral psychology is that moral thinking is for social doing: We engage in moral thinking not to find the truth, but to find arguments that support our intuitive judgments, so that we can defend ourselves if challenged. The crucial insight here comes from psychologist Tom Gilovich at Cornell, who says that when we want to believe a proposition, we ask, "Can I believe it?" — and we look only for evidence that the proposition might be true. If we find a single piece of evidence then we’re done. We stop. We have a reason we can trot out to support our belief. But if we don’t want to believe a proposition, we ask, "Must I believe it?" — and we look for an escape hatch, a single reason why maybe, just maybe, the proposition is false…

That brings us to the third principle, which is that morality binds and builds. I said in my TEDTalk that morality and politics are team sports. People aren’t just engaging in post-hoc rationalization to justify their individual feelings. Rather, moral reasoning and rationalizing are done in large part to help your team, and to show that you are a good member of your team. Moral teams tend to form around principles held to be sacred…

…logic plays little role in our moral lives. Moral claims and arguments function like gang signs — they show others what team you are on, and they let you share emotions with other people, which bonds you more closely together.

…Both sides [liberals and conservatives] care about life, but in different ways. Both sides live inside their own moral matrices. And just like in the movie The Matrix, morality is a "consensual hallucination" that is very hard to step out of. But moral psychology can help people to understand that there are moral motivations on all sides. People may not be logical, but few of them are crazy…

While it is useful to rebut charges and get your arguments out in circulation, you have to understand that arguments and evidence have little impact on people as long as their feelings tilt them against you. You’ve got to create trust and liking first, and then people will be willing to listen. People can believe pretty much whatever they want to believe about moral and political issues, as long as some other people near them believe it, so you have to focus on indirect methods to change what people want to believe. You have to get them to the point where they ask themselves "can I believe it?" about your claims, rather than about your opponents’ claims…

My main suggestion is to boil the plan down to a few easy-to-understand ideas, each of which has some intuitive moral content…When it comes to moral persuasion, the way to the head is through the heart.

Jonathan Haidt TED blog, 27 Sept 2009.(With video link to his 2009 talk)

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Fewer people should be writing books

According to Jordon Cooper:

Bill [Kinnon] has a wonderful post on writing.  The entire thing is worth reading but this one got me thinking. “In 2004, Nielsen BookScan tracked the sales of 1.2 million books and found that nine hundred and fifty thousand of them sold fewer than ninety-nine copies.”

So we are looking at author royalties of a couple hundred bucks and a couple of conference speaking gigs.  In the end is it worth the effort?

Bill’s prescription to the cure is to write better stories and he is dead on correct (although writing stories is harder than it sounds, check out this editorial review from…[Jordan laments the poor quality of most of the books he is asked to review.]

…My suggestion for a lot of writers is not to bother writing a book period.  Forget the conferences, forget the interviews on Christian radio, forget the church basement book signings.  Instead throw your efforts into whatever it is that you are good at.  Chances are your ideas are intrinsically linked to your personality and your context and not as transferable as you would think…

…is the time away from doing what you do well or time away from learning something that you don’t do well, worth 1000 book sales and $5,000 in royalties?  Is the mini-book tour worth it?  Is the time spamming your friends worth it? What about moderating message boards on, and trying to get people to fan you on Facebook worth it?

Thirdly, is giving the copyright of you idea to your publisher worth it?  Especially in the church I don’t know why we don’t see more writers open sourcing their content.  If you believe your idea came from the Holy Spirit, does turning that over to FOX (though Zondervan) seem to be the best course of action?  If you want to publish at least consider negotiating so your book is published under a Creative Commons license.

I have heard Michael Slaughter of Ginghamsburg talk about writing being the best way to influence people and in some ways he is right but as Bill Kinnon pointed out, is less then 100 copies influencing anyone other than your closest friends?..Most of it is regurgitated stuff and doesn’t need to see the light of day again.  Maybe the best use of our time would be coming up with some new ideas, instead of repackaging some old ones.

Read Jordan’s whole post: Bill Kinnon on Writing and follow the links. [HT: Scot McKnight’s Weekly Meanderings. This past week, Scot linked to a similar sentiment CSM]

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Wrong’s advice to white men about writing on Africa

Michela Wrong: A bumptious guide to book writing:

. . . What gives a spoilt bourgeois, who didn’t even grow up there, the right to interpret the continent for the world?

The only answer can be: I have devoted years on the continent to listening and learning; I have done my homework as conscientiously as I know how; and it’s just possible, because I have spent so much time learning to write accessibly about foreign cultures, that I may be able to serve as a bridge between two cultural viewpoints.

My caller saw no need for any of this. With the chutzpah of the privileged young male, he believed he could bypass it all and still produce something for which the public would be duly grateful. In fact, there’s only one way of writing a book in these circumstances: you deliver a manuscript that is all about you, with Africa as a picturesque backdrop to your macho derring-do.

HT: Chris Blattman, Why women make better foreign correspondents

Let me encourage you to travel by . . . scaring you to death

Kristof (NY Times) tries to encourage students to travel, and in response to the concerned question, “is it safe?” gives the 15 pieces of advice:

9. When you arrive in a new city, don’t take an airport taxi unless you know it is safe. If you do take a cab, choose a scrawny driver and lock ALL the doors — thieves may pull open the doors at a red light and run off with a bag.

10. Don’t wear a nice watch, for that suggests a fat wallet and also makes a target. I learned that lesson on my first trip to the Philippines: a robber with a machete had just encountered a Japanese businessman with a Rolex — who now, alas, has only one hand.

12. If you are held up by bandits with large guns, . . .

13. Remember that the scariest people aren’t warlords, but drivers. In buses I sometimes use my pack as an airbag; after one crash I was the only passenger not hospitalized.

14. If terrorists finger you, break out singing “O Canada”! . . .

There, feel better? The White African gives 15 pieces slightly more positive tips (with the comments adding many more good points.)

e.g. 7. Bargain for everything. . . 10. Eat local.  . . 15. Toss out your expectations, embrace the differences.

If you want to be in the know about Africa and development . . .

. . . subscribe to the following links in Google Reader:

More general economics, but often hits on Africa

(Plus the links in the blogroll under Kenya and Africa)

What other ones would you add??

I don’t know anything about economics (I’m a New Testament student), but I’m very interested in economics and social justice –  especially as it relates to Africa and American attitudes and actions towards “Africa.”

In response to my post yesterday,  I was ambushed by two friends – Eddie (Kouya) and Rombo (What an African Woman Thinks) – to get on Twitter.  I guess they got tired of clicking on my “Links of the Day” on the right sidebar (maybe the most useful aspect of this blog). I gave in without too much of a fight, but I thought it would be more helpful to point you to the sources of all my great links regarding Africa, aid in development. (Besides, I’m going to magically “disappear” next week.)

Side note: sometimes I feel a little schizophrenic. I wonder which group of my friends I’m going to drive away first – the biblical studies friends or the Africa friends.

In other news: For two days this week, I introduced two friends from One Horizon Foundation to people I know here so that they could explore things like how microfinance programs are working, how NGOs (Christian and otherwise) are meeting basic needs (health, food, education), and how churches are functioning both in terms of   outreach/discipleship/nurture and justice/development ministries.

Here are a few of the reflections I had coming out of some of these conversations and visits.

  1. I have really incredible friends doing amazing things here. Some of them are world-class experts on things like microfinance, peacemaking and reconciliation, and worldview transformation (I feel very blessed.)
  2. We are going to have major poverty with us for a long time; the poverty stricken informal settlements (slums) seem to have the biggest baby booms and the capacity to provide jobs seems to be lagging far behind.
  3. The most effective efforts seem to be when local, entrepreneurial visionaries mobilize their community resources and get some boosting from outside “friends” for building construction, boreholes, generators, workshops, etc.
  4. Changing worldviews and mindsets is as important as anything else – opening their eyes to the realm of possibilities. As a Christian, I feel like ethics, self-sacrifice, and dependance on God are also important – freedom from fear.
  5. The most dramatic stories I hear always seem to have a little bit of  “miracle” in them; God rewards their efforts with a big break of one kind or another.
  6. A little bit of money can go a lot further here than it can in the US.
  7. Nairobi is an easy target for foreign donors – easy access, developed infrastructure, the “glamor” of a “Kibera,” a growing middle class (examples to follow right before your eyes), competent entrepreneurs, numerous churches and christian organizations active locally, etc. Plus the people here do a really good job of marketing their dreams.
  8. It’s a good thing that people don’t believe in the adage “If you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all.” A lot of people have just started with what they have and have done as much as they can. The results are pretty remarkable.
  9. We tend to demand much more from the poor than we do from ourselves. We want them to be self-sacrificing and entrepreneurial. (I don’t know about you, but I’m not much of an entrepreneur and I like my comfort.)

Feel free to add additional thoughts below.

Carl Trueman brags about his political maneuverings against Peter Enns (Westminster)

At the bottom of this essay about the Church of Scotland, Carl Trueman brags about the strategies he used against Peter Enns.

. . . before launching any public campaign, I would have looked at the history of those churches and institutions that have turned themselves around to see what actually works as opposed to what merely seems like a good idea at the time — say, the Missouri Synod Lutherans, the Southern Baptist Convention, Southern Seminary, and even my own small place, Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia). The changes in those places had a number of things in common: the reformers organized and prepared for every eventuality, putting into place safety nets and multiple `Plan Bs’, they identified the places where influence could be wielded, mastered procedure, fought like the blazes when they had to, stood strong and immovable in the face of violent opposition, and outmanoeuvred their opponents by continual attention to meeting agendas, points of order, procedural matters, and long-term coordinated strategy. They did not waste time and energy on irrelevant sideshows like rhetorical petitions that merely provided the material for public relations disasters.

There you have it – straight from the horse’s mouth.

Daniel Kirk gives gave a good biblical response here – Cruciform Ethics and Evil Done in Jesus’ Name (part 1) (part 2). (Stay tuned for more at Kirk’s Sibboleth blog is no more 😦 and follow the discussion there.)

Background (with other links) herehere, here, and here.

Interpretive assumptions – ancient and evangelical (Bailey)

Scott Bailey:

. . . In his book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now James Kugel offers four assumptions of ancient interpreters:

  1. They assumed the Bible was fundamentally a cryptic text
  2. They assumed the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day
  3. They assumed the Bible contained no contradictions or mistakes
  4. They believed the entire Bible was essentially a divinely given text

. . . . these assumptions have come down from antiquity to many modern Christians except for one: assuming that the Bible is a fundamentally cryptic text. Instead, for modern Christians the belief that the Bible is simple dominates, so a “plain” reading of Scripture is favored in a lot of circles. Therefore, I would posit that the four interpretive assumptions of many modern evangelical Christians look something like this:

  1. They assume the Bible is fundamentally a simple text easy to understand by the Holy Spirit
  2. They assume the Bible is a book of lessons directed to them
  3. They assume the Bible contains no contradictions or mistakes
  4. They believe the entire Bible is essentially a divinely given text in its canonical form

The Authority of Scripture in Practice: Reading, Hearing, and Doing (O’Donovan)

Here is a lecture by Oliver O’Donavan that ministered to my soul as I read it – The Reading Church (27 April 2009):

The authority of Scripture is emerging once again as a topic for theological reflection after a long eclipse. From a variety of recent literature I may mention the valuable little essay by Professor John Webster, Holy Scripture, as well as the more complex study by the young American theologian, Telford Work, Living and Active. [1] This follows a century or more during which theological discussion of the bible was led by a self-consciously scientific-historical and literary-critical line of questioning which deliberately abstracted from normative considerations. That tradition left us a handful of hugely important discoveries, a fair collection of helpful insights and a huge mountain of over-confident speculative rubble. But it also taught some indispensible reading disciplines, for it encouraged an attention to the text as close, perhaps, as at any time of Christian history. In reaction to that school of scholarly enquiry there arose a doctrinal and apologetic way of talking about Scripture, one driven by the pastoral need to secure the church’s respect for it as the revelation of the mind and purposes of God. Attributes of divine perfection were ascribed to Scripture, the negative epithets, “infallible”, “inerrant” etc., playing the same role as negative epithets do in the doctrine of God. The problem was not that these epithets could not be persuasively argued for on their own terms, but that they had no more to say about the authority of Scripture than did the scholarly tradition they challenged. They offered an icon of revelation for us to wonder at and worship, but no sense of how it could and must direct and shape the lives we have to lead. “Authority” is a term of practical reason, and it needs to be discussed within a context of practical reason.

Theology is no longer stuck in those opposed positions. Let me point to one small but interesting straw in the wind, blowing from a direction where the most old-fashioned views on Scripture are commonly supposed to prevail. The “Jerusalem Declaration” issued last June by the GAFCON conference included the following brief clause: We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God written and to contain all things necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading. [2] I have not seen any public remark on these words; yet I should have thought they merited serious interest. To anyone not tone-deaf theologically it must be clear that the key, even the tune, has changed. Where have the negative epithets gone to? In their place GAFCON has combined a formula of Reformation origins that speaks of the function of the Bible in salvation with a new statement about the practical requirements Scripture lays upon the life of the church.

. . . The five verbs of the Jerusalem Statement, “translated”, “read”, “preached”, “taught” and “obeyed”, no less than the famous five verbs used about Scripture by Thomas Cranmer in his Collect for Advent II, “hear”, “read”, “mark”, “learn”, “inwardly digest”, which, no doubt, they self-consciously complement, circle around the single verb, “read”. . . a church which is shaped in any measure by the authority of Scripture will be a reading church. . .

. . . so becoming a living expression of the law, circumcised in the heart, not dependent, as they ironically comment, on legal counsel that must be sought either from the heaven or from beyond the sea. The word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart. Delicately the Psalmist contrasts the independence of mind enjoyed by the reader with the subjection to social influence of those whose culture is formed laterally, by those living around them. These walk in the counsel of the wicked; they stand in the way of sinners; they sit in the seat of scoffers. . .

. . . Speech is potent for good or ill, and therefore Christ says, Take care how you hear! Reading is a kind of hearing, yet it does not hear voices around us or speak directly to us. The voice the reader hears is from another place and time. As we read the historical and geographical dimensions of the world are opened up to us. . .

. . . Reading is serious to the extent that it exploits the power of text to span history. Much hermeneutic theory has taken immediate communication as the paradigm for all communication, and so assumed that difficulties in reading increase with distance of time and circumstance.   In my view, the opposite is the case.   New literature is more elusive.   Not yet detached from ephemeral communications, the importance it may have for future generations is not at once apparent.   Literature is quite different from music in this respect, which, as a performing art, always depends in part on immediate effect for its communicative power.   With literature communication is constituted essentially by distance, whether historical, cultural or simply philosophic. . .Reading is serious to the extent that it exploits the power of text to span history. . .

. . . The art of writing, Leo Strauss insisted, is an art of concealment, not of making plain. It aims at postponing the encounter with some truth. Perhaps he had in mind the prophets . . . Jeremiah, in compiling his collected works, meant them not for Jehoiakim, who tore them up and burned them, but for those who would read them seventy years on, when God’s purposes were ripe for accomplishment. What was written in former times was written for our instruction, wrote Saint Paul,. . .

. . .The text has its purpose beyond its own age and circumstance, and no text can be interpreted merely by careful evocation of the moment in which it arose. Interpreters who reduce the meaning of written words to a note about their provenance, merely misunderstand them. But neither is the text interpreted by what our age makes of it. . . .

. . What was written in former times was written for our instruction, that by patience and the comfort of the Scriptures we might have hope. The patience that endures the span of history, the comfort that belongs to the community of thought, yield hope for the coherence of time and for the fructifying of God’s long purposes. . .

. . . Acts of reading that refuse the text patience invariably miscarry. . .

. . . For Christian thought the idea of a canonical text has depended for its intelligibility upon that of a central, normative strand in history. The privileged book witnesses to privileged events. The end of the ages is not only the fulfilment of the promise of the text, but the Christ-moment which fulfils the promise of history, the moment at which history’s direction is made clear, the lurking promise of past events breaks surface in what God has done on earth through his Son. . .

. . . We must speak, therefore, of God’s self-emptying into Scripture no less than of his self-emptying into humanity. It would be the worst mistake to imagine the textual form of Scripture as a kind of straitjacket imposed upon the Incarnation.

I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. In that pregnant saying law and saving-history are mutually co-involved. We must think it through from both sides:- . . .

. . . the authority of Scripture is the moment at which the attested reality of God’s acts disturb the ideal constructions and zealous projections of human piety. . .

. . . I pass on quickly to the last of the five verbs, which may seem to be the most self-evident but is the hardest to come to grips with: we are to obey the Scriptures. Here is brought most sharply to our notice, what all the other verbs suppose, that the authority of Scripture is a ground of practical reason. It has obedience in view from beginning to end, and obedience is a way of acting. Precisely for this reason there is an element of indeterminacy in what the authority of Scripture requires of us. In a wholly determined world there would be no obedience. For there would be no need for thought about how to act consistently with what we have heard. If we were excused the work of thought, we should be excused obedience, too. Thought “how to” does not merely replicate what we have been told; it devises action, and forms it, conceiving of an act that will respect the norm within the material conditions we find ourselves in. . .

. . . “If it is revealed religion we want to think about, it is to do with an agency, a freedom.” And it is because God freely summons us to obedient freedom, that “there will always be more questions put to us by what we encounter.” [Archbishop of Canterbury] How could there not be questions put to us if authority is genuinely a practical, not merely a speculative category, and if obedience is the final term of revelation, not merely assent? Obedience is never predetermined, it has always be thought through and sought after. . . .

. . . The encounter with Scripture is an encounter with what God has done in liberating us to work the works of God, as St John’s Gospel puts it, to work them here in our time and place, to work them here in our time and place, far removed as this may seem from the works of which we read in the Gospel text. The distance is not only of time and place, but of kind, too. Whoever has faith in me, will do what I do himself; and will do greater things than these, because I go to the Father. Disciples shall do more than simply replicate what Jesus did. . .

Lest you think I’ve quoted the whole lecture (The Reading Church), I’ve merely scratched the surface (and no doubt done it a serious injustice). Tags: ,

Interpreting the bible can be hard; dealing with difficulties (Tilling)

Reading is not a simple act of recognizing codes and cues inked onto parchment or engraved in stone.  Apprehension of human communication through written texts, especially across time and across cultural boundaries, can be so complex as to defy description.

–Carolyn J. Sharp, Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible (Indiana University Press, 2009) 10. (Thanks: Awilum)

For those of you that haven’t already seen it, or read it carefully, Chris Tilling has a brilliant post on dealing with tension in the Bible. He writes:

. . . One popular strategy for dealing with biblical tensions is to slot them away in the ‘mystery’ box, hoping they won’t come out to haunt you at night. While there is some half-grown wisdom here, you’ll end up cramming quite a lot of the bible into that box before long…

Another strategy is to claim that the bible is a secure stash of stable proposition. ‘Jesus is Lord’, for example. Safe and secure; truth to stand on. This approach is often coupled with the assertion that all tensions in the bible are ultimately reconcilable; that none really exists when you study them properly. Certainly this is often true and many supposed ‘contradictions’ do indeed vanish on closer inspection. But . . .

So another approach is to pretend the bible is unconcerned with revealing truth in propositions, that it merely witnesses to God’s saving actions or true religious experience and is not itself a channel of God’s revelation. Scripture is just human, nothing special about it except that to which it points. But why bother reading and preaching from the bible if that is the case? Does it really encourage us to handle it with care, as text itself fully inspired by God?

Here are some things to bear in mind, . . . [at this point I’d better send you to his post because I’m tempted to quote the whole whole thing. . . how truth is eschatological and  relational, . . . what  Hays, Barth, and Enns, say, . . . how we are messed up, etc. ]

. . . With these points in mind we can turn to tensions in the bible.

  • If we struggle with tensions in the bible, we may need to examine our expectations in light of the eschatological nature of truth. We may need to reframe our concerns according to the relational nature of truth. Put this way, we can perhaps avoid the scissors approach to the bible, one which early church heretic Marcion attempted, as he sought to exorcise all Jewish elements from the bible (talk about a doomed project!)
  • If truth is a complex beast, one not easily pinned down, we may need to move beyond a simple treatment and comparison of ‘biblical propositions’ to an appreciation of the living complexity of truth.
  • Perhaps our struggles with biblical tensions can help us to reformulate our thinking about the nature of the bible, one that takes more seriously our commitment to the practice of bible reading.
  • The longing for the bible to make sense, for tensions to be explained away, is entirely legitimate, perhaps reflecting something of our longing for the coming of the Lord when we will ‘know fully’. Yet we must guard against an over-realised eschatology, one which thinks the things that will happen at Christ’s return have already happened. Acceptance of an over-realised eschatology will tend to end in discouragement, and Paul had therefore to combat it occasionally (2 Thessalonians).
  • Thinking of the inspiration of scripture in light of the secretaries letter may help us to embrace a fully human and occasionally contradicting text while at the same time fully embracing the text as written under the authority of God.

A prayer

With all such questions that cause us problems and disquiet our faith, the best place to go is to God in prayer, to unload our concerns, pray for wisdom, protection and deepening of our faith. Our struggles can be an opportunity to deepen our relationship with God. Here is a prayer you may like to pray with me:

“Father, there is so much that we do not understand, so much that confuses us in the Bible. We surely only know in part. So we pray for wisdom, for a closer walk with you, for deeper maturity in our faith, that we would be passionate lovers of truth. Protect, strengthen and develop our faith, that it may bear fruit in our lives, that we truly play our part in the evangelisation of the nations and the transformation of society, remembering always that it is you who carries us; you are our foundation, not we ourselves, not our understanding of biblical tensions nor the strength of our often failing faith. We give you glory for hearing our prayer for the sake of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen”


Chris Tilling: Negotiating Tensions in the Bible (has a brief list of helpful resources too.)

I hate to break it to you world, but Obama is still American

Obama Unlikely to Find a Quick Fix for U.S. Global Image (Pew Research Center):

No question that Barack Obama has a great personal following around the world, especially in comparison with President Bush. But to restore the global image of the nation he now leads, the new president must overcome a number of fundamental criticisms. And issues arising from the global economic crisis and other world problems on Obama’s agenda seem likely to resonate with key criticisms about America’s leadership in the Bush years. . .

. . . While President Obama has been extremely popular personally, his international agenda may not be, given the global mindset about the U.S. Take for example his desire to gain more European support for the war in Afghanistan. In 2008 most Europeans surveyed by Pew Research, save the British, favored withdrawing NATO troops from that country. An American president urging reluctant Europeans to use force is hardly likely to allay concerns about U.S. militarism.

Then there is Obama’s economic stimulus plan encouraging consumer spending and entailing greatly increased budget deficits. This apparently strikes at least some European leaders as reckless. The new president’s efforts to sell this policy approach may well feed into the prevailing notion of the U.S. going its own way in dealing with mega international problems.

Even more importantly, . . .

. . . while it seems likely that other nations will, in general, react favorably to Obama’s style and more conciliatory approach compared with President Bush, that will only go so far and so long in changing minds about what America stands for and its global leadership. In the end, actions — and their consequences — will resonate more widely and strongly than words.