Monday, 26 April 2010

Wayne Rooney – PFA player of the year 2010

For the fourth year running a Manchester United player has won the PFA Player of the Year and this year it is no surprise the award has gone to Wayne Rooney. Such has been Rooney’s importance to both Man Utd and England this season that when he twisted his ankle inrooney a Champions League match in March there was nearly a collective nervous breakdown amongst the English media and Old Trafford faithful. The award is voted for by the members of the Professional Footballers’ Association and John Terry (winner in 2005) said it was ‘the ultimate accolade to be voted for by your fellow professionals whom you play against week-in and week-out’.

Last year the award was won by Ryan Giggs and in the previous two years by Cristiano Ronaldo. Rooney has scored 34 goals for Man Utd and 8 for England so far this season and his forward play has been nothing short of magnificent. There was much speculation that Utd wouldn’t be able to mount a title challenge this season following Ronaldo’s departure, but the Portuguese winger’s move seems to have given Rooney the opportunity to demonstrate his skills and goal scoring prowess. Here’s hoping Rooney will be fully fit for England’s participation in this summer’s World Cup in South Africa.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Feast or Famine – Spring Harvest 2010

I’ve left it a couple of days before blogging about this year’s Spring Harvest in Minehead (week 3) as I wanted to take time to reflect on the experience. We got off to a rather stressed start as my daughter’s mobile phone was pinched by a psychotic seagull on the first morning; a fruitless search for both phone and cseagullulprit ensued, followed by the usual hassle of blocking the SIM card etc. My son wasn’t well on the first full day so I was rather tied to the chalet and dependent on Spring Harvest TV to keep up with events in the Big Top. By day two we were in to the full swing of the SH programme and overall it was a relaxing and refreshing time with the family and a smaller than usual group of friends.

IMG00134-20100418-0954 The programme this year swung between feast and famine; some really good meaty material and some very insubstantial fare. The daily Bible Readings are a key component of Spring Harvest, attracting large audiences for sustained engagement with scripture. This year the readings were led by Danielle Strickland, a Canadian Salvation Army officer based in inner city Melbourne. Danielle is a gifted speaker and evangelist with a great sense of humour and some profound insights. However, I found myself wondering why we had a Bible reading at the beginning of each session because the passages were hardly referred to and served as little more than a spring board for what Danielle had to say. I struggled to work out the themes and left the sessions feeling I’d been entertained but not fed. The same was true of last year’s Bible Readings and I have a real concern that SH may be moving away from the more expository approach. These Bible Readings are becoming more like the talks at the evening Big Top celebrations and it is disappointing. In the past I have been challenged and encouraged by Bible Readings from the likes of Gerard Kelly and Jeff Lucas who have engaged with some difficult texts in a lively and imaginative manner and it would be a real shame to lose this aspect of the programme.

IMG00133-20100418-0951 The evening Big Top celebrations were based on the book of Esther, a bold move given the nature of the material. A highlight of these sessions was the telling of the story each night by the Lacey Theatre Company. The speakers were a mixed bag and though some of the talks were substantial in content and application, others were, frankly, weak and a couple of speakers seemed to be very nervous and almost overwhelmed by the occasion.

The real meat of the teaching was to be found in the seminars. As last year this part of the programme was based around different learning styles; I blogged about the pros and cons of this approach last year and my questions remain. I opted for the Leadership Masterclass sessions led by Jeff Lucas and Neil Hudson and was not disappointed by the quality of the input and reflection on offer. Both leaders have an engaging style and addressed some challenging issues with a lightness of touch. Jeff in particular has the ability to communicate deep insight with what seem to be throw away comments. My approach at SH is to jot down striking phrases to chew over later and these sessions provided most of that material. Take for example the following:

What Would Jesus Do? is a question of crisis not character development.

IMG00128-20100413-1913 As usual the children and young people’s programmes were excellent. As a family we are really grateful for the leadership teams who gave so much time and energy in communicating the love of God. Our kids are already looking forward to next year and my son now knows the story of Esther, when I guess many Christians don’t even know it’s part of the Bible.

IMG00130-20100418-0941 The biggest disappointment of the week was the worship. Last year I thought the worship had taken a step forward with plenty of variety and a creative use of a range of appropriate material. This year the worship took a big step back. A narrow range of songs were used again and again and though the band were very competent musicians it all sounded the same. Loads of Edge type guitar intros reminiscent of U2’s I Will Follow had us playing guess the song and there was little in terms of variety of tempo or content. At times the worship felt like a concert in which we were invited to join in once we had worked out the tune. The worship leader has recently brought out an album, heavily promoted by Spring Harvest, and there was a sense in which the Big Top celebrations were in danger of becoming promotional events. I guess it is inevitable that an artist will push their own material but this was over the top in the Big Top. I longed to sing a more traditional hymn with a bit of depth to the theological content. I do wonder whether SH would be better served avoiding the celebrity big name worship leaders and those with an album to sell.

In between the celebrations, seminars and Bible Readings there was plenty of time for family, food, wine, swimming, the amusement park, go-karting, chatting with friends, watching the footy, reading and some sleep. Despite the reservations I’ve mentioned, we’ll be booking up for next year and look forward to experiencing again the delights of Butlins Minehead.

Details about Spring Harvest 2011 are now available and I think some of my concerns will be addressed. Gerard Kelly writes:

In 2011 Spring Harvest is going ‘back to the Bible’, to explore the treasure chest of texts. We won’t be doing it wistfully, longing for an age long past, but hopefully, positively – looking to the future and knowing that our Creator still speaks… Join us as we free the Bible from the cages we have held it in – and ask the truth of God, in turn, to set us free.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Is Jesus history bunkum?

One of the thoughts that struck me while reading Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was that it was all very familiar. That may seem a surprising comment given the rather contentious title and the central idea of the narrative, but it may also explain why Christian reaction to the book has not been as overtly hostile as some, including The Church Mouse, had expected.

Firstly, a great deal of the story is a fairly straightforward retelling of the gospels and in particular the parables and teaching discourses of Jesus. There are a few tweaks to some of the teaching and yet nothing which really alters the character of the discourses. I guess those unfamiliar with the teaching of Jesus won’t spot most of the changes made by Pullman and I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few Christians don’t pick up the alterations either.

Secondly, despite the striking idea of Mary having twins called Jesus and Christ, the basic theory being played out by Pullman is nothing new. The Jesus presented by Pullman will be familiar to anyone who has studied the various quests for the historical Jesus going back to the scholarship of the eighteenth century. In these quests Biblical scholars have tried to get behind the gospel texts, the Jesus of faith, to the Jesus of history. The quests have taken various forms at different times but the basic underlying presupposition is that the Jesus we encounter in the scriptural texts presents a picture of Jesus heavily influenced, if not distorted, by the theology of the early church. Miracles, for example, are dismissed as natural events misunderstood or invented to make a theological point about the person of Jesus. This is the approach taken by Pullman, a good example being his retelling of the feeding of the five thousand which becomes little more than an exercise in teaching people generosity. The Jesus we encounter in the gospels isn’t the real Jesus, but a Jesus embellished and creatively reworked by the gospel writers and the historical Jesus has become obscured or hidden under all the gloss.

Now the question which arises with these quests for the historical Jesus is this: Can they ever find what they are looking for? The reason is quite simple; the Jesus discovered in many of these quests tends to look very like the people looking for him. I would suggest that Pullman is no different and that the Jesus he presents in his book is the sort of Jesus he would be quite comfortable with because Jesus looks quite a bit like him; a good, decent, moral man with a healthy contempt for political and religious institutions and establishment!

This morning I read an interesting article The Jesus We’ll Never Know published in Christianity Today, in which the Biblical scholar Scot McKnight argues that the quests have failed and that it is impossible to find the real historical Jesus. McKnight makes a powerful case and with some authority as one who had devoted a great deal of his studies to the quests. The article gives a helpful brief summary of the approaches of what has been termed the new quest before unpacking why McKnight believes they are no longer tenable. What is most interesting is McKnight’s conclusion in which he makes the following comment in reflecting on a book he had written:

I had tried my best to see where the methods would lead if I sought to examine if and how the historical Jesus understood his own death. Some of my results disappointed, because I wanted to be able to prove some texts as authentic that I found stubbornly resistant to the methods available to us. Historiography, I concluded, can only do so much. One day, while editing the final draft, I came across these words from Romans 4:25: "He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification."

This is what I said to myself: As a historian I think I can prove that Jesus died and that he thought his death was atoning. I think I can establish that the tomb was empty and that resurrection is the best explanation for the empty tomb. But one thing the historical method cannot prove is that Jesus died for our sins and was raised for our justification. At some point, historical methods run out of steam and energy. Historical Jesus studies cannot get us to the point where the Holy Spirit and the church can take us. I know that once I was blind and that I can now see. I know that historical methods did not give me sight. They can't. Faith cannot be completely based on what the historian can prove. The quest for the real Jesus, through long and painful paths, has proven that much.

Fascinating stuff, but what is just as interesting is that Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham and another formidable Biblical scholar associated with the new quest for the historical Jesus, has responded and argues strongly that we do need historical Jesus studies. In his response Abandon Studying the Historical Jesus? No, We Need History Wright suggests that McKnight’s article actually proves his point and he concludes:

history cannot compel faith. But it is very good at clearing away the smoke screens behind which unfaith often hides. History and faith are, respectively, the left and right feet of Christianity. Modernism hops, now on this foot (skeptical "historiography"), now on that (unhistorical "faith"). It's tiring, dangerous, and unnecessary. Puzzle: I think Scot believes this too.

Those who know me will not be surprised if I say that I find myself leaning towards Wright, though I have a great deal of sympathy for McKnight and his critique. Here's the quote from Wright which gets to the heart of the issue:

How will we ward off the next generation's dangerous follies (not just Dan Brown, though he matters too) if we don't do history?

h/t Phil Groom for drawing my attention to the Christianity Today articles.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

More Dark Materials?

I happened to have a book token in my wallet yesterday so acquired a copy of Philip Pullman’s latest offering The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ. In big letters on the back cover it says This Is A STORY so you can’t say you haven’t been warned. The book is an enjoyable and stimulating read, doesn’t take long to get through and much of the material is familiar, with an occasional twist that suddenly brings one up short.

pullman A central theme of the book is that fiction, or at least a creative reworking of history, can help to reveal deeper truth. This seems to be what Pullman himself is seeking to do in his fictional account of the Gospels, seasoned with an underlying polemic against the institutional church. Not surprisingly Pullman’s Jesus turns out to be little more than the demythologised eunuch characteristic of the quests for the historical Jesus; a good man with a pithy turn of phrase and some acute social/religious observation. For me, such a Jesus is more a semi domesticated pussy cat, rather than the roaring lion of the Gospels who has consumed the lives of so many followers over two thousand years.

Pullman raises some challenging questions for the church about what we have done with the Good News of Jesus Christ. However, I can’t help feeling that the answer lies not in filleting out the uncomfortable and difficult bits, but in submitting ourselves again and again to the searing light of the Gospel in all its richness, diversity and fullness.

For a detailed review of the book check out Bishop Alan Wilson’s excellent The Goodman Philip and the Scoundrel Pullman? and his further reflections From Jesus to Church?

Update (8/4/10) I'd missed Rowan Williams superb review of the book in The Guardian which is well worth a read.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Easter hope – Mark Ashton

I’ve read and heard a lot about our Easter hope over the last few days but nothing has come close to the words in this video. Mark Ashton, who was vicar of St Andrew the Great in Cambridge, died early on Holy Saturday after a long illness. I had the privilege of serving with Mark on the leadership team of a CYFA venture back in 1986. Mark’s enthusiasm for the Gospel and for youth work was infectious and he was an inspiration to be around. That was nearly twenty five years ago and yet I can still recall clearly some of the insights and wisdom he shared and lived out on that fortnight. Along with many others, I give thanks to God for Mark’s life, faith and ministry and remember Fiona and the family in my prayers.

Mark’s book Christian Youth Work is a distillation of his theology, experience and practice of youth ministry and is well worth a look.

‘For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.’ Philippians 1:21

Thursday, 1 April 2010

It’s always been messy

I’ve been reflecting on a comment from Bishop Christopher’s sermon at the Chrism Service this morning in Chelmsford Cathedral. He pointed out that Messy Church is not some recent initiative for outreach and worship coming from the pages of a glossy magazine; it’s what the church has always been called to be. God, in Christ, engaged with the world and it was a messy business. The messiness of slopping water from a bowl as feet are washed; the messiness of the blood, tears and earth at Golgotha; the running, stumbling, breathlessness, confusion and garbled exclamations of Easter Sunday. The church runs the risk of treating messiness as an inconvenience and an embarrassment, when it should be a characteristic of what we are called to in proclaiming the Good News and engaging with the world around us.

As +Christopher spoke I remembered a Maundy Thursday service at Waltham Abbey where I served in the early 1990s. The then Bishop of Chelmsford had come to preside at the evening service and as part of the liturgy there was a foot washing ceremony. The chairs were carefully set out by the vergers, preselected members of the congregation came forward with their feet already scrupulously clean. Shoes and socks were carefully removed and the bishop, in a spotless purple cassock with a perfectly ironed clean towel tucked in his belt, knelt before each and washed their feet. I confess that before the service I had been tempted to tell those chosen for the foot washing to run barefoot around the field next to the Abbey church and tread in some nicely maturing dung. The whole experience was of an expertly choreographed ritual embedded in the liturgy. Was this really what Jesus was about? One of my colleagues commented that a more powerful action would have been for the bishop to go and make the tea for the refreshments after the service and then wash up!

If we follow the example of our Lord then things are bound to get messy; they always have. Messy Church is something we should embrace and rejoice in, not shy away from or try and tidy up.