I’ve been hearing a lot over the past day or so about the discovery of a new gospel fragment, and whether it means that Jesus had a wife… I have no authority in this area, nor do I really care, but the following link tells it like it is and gives you the basics on what is going on. I suggest reading it before sending your own opinion into the social media ether…
According to Daren Kemp, Christians were “among the first to recognise the existence of a New Age movement.” In the 1970s, Christian critiques of the New Age “did much to disseminate knowledge among the general public” (2004:133) and to some extent this is still the case today, where many Christians “have only second-hand knowledge of [New Age]” (Kemp, 2007:462). In this post, I aim to critically compare two contemporary Christian responses to New Age – the official Roman Catholic report Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the “New Age” [JCBWL] (2003), and John Newport’s evangelical study, The New Age Movement and the Biblical Worldview (1998). These texts were chosen because they are notably absent from Saliba’s (1999) excellent study of Christian responses to New Age and because of their extensive attention to the writing of prominent scholars of New Age.
It is worth acknowledging that, due to the interdenominational nature of the evangelical movement, it is not possible to find a document comparable to JCBWL, which delineates the official position of the church. Newport’s text cannot be assumed to speak for all evangelical Christians (just as that there will be Catholics who do not subscribe to JCBWL). Discussion of each text focuses on four main themes: the motivation/perspective of the authors; perceived positive aspects of New Age; negative assessments of New Age; and proposed methods for Christian engagement with New Age.
Before commencing this discussion it is necessary to define what I mean when I refer to New Age. The Catholic document defines the New Age Movement as “a multifaceted cultural tendency” which is “spread across cultures, in [many varied] phenomena”. Expressing concerns to not refer to a New Age “religion” the report states that New Age is not so much an organised “movement” as “a loose network of practitioners” (ibid). The authors recognise that they are dealing with “very complex and elusive phenomenon” and acknowledge that many New Agers abjure the New Age label (ibid). Whilst Newport’s title refers to a New Age Movement, most of his discussion is based around a clash of worldviews which he defines as “vision[s] of life and the world that help us to make sense of life [… and are] rooted in beliefs that are ultimate in character” (1998:41). For Newport, New Age expresses “diversity and fluidity in membership” and is characterised by an emphasis on personal transformation and universalisation of religion (ibid:35-39). These understandings of the New Age are generally in agreement with current scholarship. George Chryssides, for example, declares that “the [New Age] is certainly not a religion”, as individual interests tend to exceed any single religion and reject a “single religion[‘s claim to a] monopoly of answers to spiritual questions” (2007:19-20). And Christopher Partridge confirms both reports’ attempts to present a unified New Age by acknowledging that despite a “lack of homogeneity […New Age] worldviews do connect at certain points” (2007:232). Many subtle criticisms could be levelled at this broad delineation of New Age, however for my purposes it should suffice to acknowledge the broad agreement between both documents and current scholarship.
Kemp describes the Catholic report as “unprecedented […] in its objective and well researched approach to [New Age]” (2003:196.n.1). Even a cursory glance at the text reveals that it is not simply repeating the “second-hand paranoia” of a similar statement issued by the Irish Theological Commission in 1994 (see Kemp, 2007:462). The writers are aiming at reliability and objectivity, claiming that their intent is to provide “reliable information on the differences between Christianity and [New Age]” and that ““it would be unwise and untrue to say that everything connected with the [New Age Movement] is good, or […] bad”. Similarly, although approaching his book “from an evangelical perspective,” Newport admirably desires to “give both Christians and [New Age] advocates alike a better understanding of both sides” (1998: xv) and states that “there is value in dialogue” (ibid:51).
However, it is unlikely that the ideals of both texts will be attainable. JCBWL clearly defines its audience as “those engaged in pastoral work” with the intent “that they might be able to explain how the [New Age Movement] differs from [Christianity]”, whilst Newport’s motivation is to “provide a basis of study for churches, colleges, seminaries and lay people” (1998: xv). These religious biases inherent in the texts will understandably limit their objectivity.
Except for a section entitled A Positive Challenge, JCBWL has little to say on the positive aspects of New Age. This states that: “The search which often leads people to the [New Age] is a genuine yearning […]”, and identifies positive New Age “criticisms of ‘the materialism of daily life, of philosophy and even of medicine and psychiatry; [… and] the industrial culture of unrestrained individualism” (citing Massimo Introvigne, New Age & Next Age (2000), p. 267). However, it has previously been stated that the attraction exerted on some Christians by these criticisms/themes “may be due […] to the lack of serious attention in their own communities for themes which are actually part of [Catholicism]”. Therefore any positive affirmations made about New Age seem to be implicit affirmations of Catholicism.
Newport also highlights numerous positive aspects of the New Age Movement in his attempted dialogue: Various alternative medical practises promoted by New Age are praised (1998:52) and the New Age theme of spiritual transformation is seen as a sign of God (ibid:604). The New Age is even used as a criticism of Christianity, with Newport highlighting three key accusations posed by the New Age Movement (ibid:51-52), and acknowledging that Christianity “has not been, as a whole, ecologically sensitive” (ibid:309). However, as was the case with JCBWL, Newport contends that these positive aspects are only “half right” and that they “can be found in biblical spirituality – [… their] proper context” (ibid:142). The apparent reluctance of both texts to ascribe anything positive to New Age in its own right seems to be due to a fundamental conceptual issue on the part of the authors.
Considering JCBWL, this issue is encapsulated in two key factors. New Age is understood to be a result of “the growth and spread of relativism, along with an antipathy or indifference towards the Christian faith”, and “represents something of a compendium of positions that the Church has identified as heterodox”. This view is compounded with a statement from Pope John Paul II, defining New Age as “only a new way of practising gnosticism” (Kemp, 2003:162). Thus New Age is seen as fundamentally incompatible with Christianity, making it “[im]possible to isolate some elements of [New Age] religiosity as acceptable to Christians, while rejecting others”. Throughout the report, various attributes of New Age belief are systematically debunked. New Age health practises are defined as “an Eastern formula in Western terms”; the “real” distinction between Creator and creation has apparently been “wrongly” conceived by New Age; and New Age views on the perfectibility of humanity are identified with Nietzsche. This systematic condemnation based around dogmatic issues (Saliba, 1999:141) is unsurprising, given the supposed incompatibility of New Age and Christianity.
The issue in Newport’s text is different, but results in a similar treatment. Newport writes: “the [New Age] worldview predict[s] that it will replace modernism, or secular humanism, and what New Agers call the outdated, propositional, non-fulfilling, compromising biblical worldview” (1998:597). The New Age is therefore identified with the biblical worldview’s opponents who have been “undercut[ting] its dominance” since the seventeenth century (ibid:597). Newport is arguing on one side of this dichotomy and thus readers should be unsurprised at his unwillingness to ascribe positive affirmations to New Age in general. Newport systematically considers various aspects of the New Age worldview and either defines these elements as already present (more authentically) in Christianity, or as incompatible with it. However an additional undertone, identified by Saliba in other evangelical writings, is a “fear” that New Age poses a “serious threat to Christianity” (1999:45): New Age is described as catching unsuspecting Christians (Newport, 1998:xv); “cross[ing] taken-for-granted boundaries and infiltrat[ing]” Christian groups (47); and “hijack[ing] various images, practises and insights” (51). Such language is notably absent from the Catholic report, and suggests that Saliba’s conclusion that Catholic responses “are less hysterical in tone than many of the responses that have stemmed from […] evangelical sources” (1999:176) carries some weight.
Whilst the negative emphases of both documents cannot be denied, they do offer some positive advice for Christians encountering New Age. Catholics are cautioned to “look for the marks of genuine Christian spirituality” but, as in Newport’s book, are encouraged to promote “care for the earth as God’s creation” and to “make the most of the riches of the Christian spiritual heritage”. JCBWL emphasizes that the best thing individual Christians can do is “offer a good, sound presentation of the Christian message” (ibid) rather than point out the faults of New Age beliefs, which Newport describes as not “unlike a commitment to witness (1998:598-9). Thus it seems that the encounter with New Age can serve to strengthen the faith of some Christians, but can prove a stumbling block for those who may not realise “that the [New Age] worldview is contrary in most of its teachings to a basic biblical perspective” (ibid:xv).
Whilst neither of the documents briefly discussed here can be considered definitive in their representations of Roman Catholic and Evangelical responses to New Age, they do provide an interesting comparison. Both responses are well researched, and admirably aim at constructive dialogue. However, it appears that due to their distinct conceptions of New Age as irreconcilable with Christianity, both reports are only willing to see positive aspects in New Age if these are already representative of Christianity. At times, Newport’s text unfortunately confirms Saliba’s conclusion that evangelical responses are generally “a process of self-affirmation” which tend to degenerate “into a senseless diatribe or an emotional harangue” (1999:77), and JCBWL, “while eager to promote the approach of dialogue adopted by Vatican Council II, frequently end[s] up taking an apologetical and condemnatory stance which does not contribute to dialogue” (ibid:176). These documents are, however, an encouraging development from earlier writings which were generally “marred by misunderstandings and apprehension” (ibid:28).
- Chryssides, George D., 2007. “Defining the New Age” in Daren Kemp and James R. Lewis (eds), Handbook of New Age, Leiden/Boston: Brill, pp. 5-24
- Kemp, Daren, 2003. The Christaquarians? A Sociology of Christians in the New Age, London: Kempress Ltd.
- Kemp, Daren, 2004. New Age: A Guide, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
- Kemp, Daren, 2007. “Christians and New Age” in Daren Kemp and James R. Lewis (eds), Handbook of New Age, Leiden/Boston: Brill, pp. 453-472.
- Newport, John P., 1998. The New Age Movement and the Biblical Worldview: Conflict and Dialogue, Cambridge/Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans.
- Partridge, Christopher, 2007. “Truth, Authority and Epistemological Individualism in New Age Thought” in D. Kemp and J. Lewis (eds), Handbook of the New Age, Leiden: Brill, pp. 231-254.
- Pontifical Council for Culture/Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, 2003. (JCBWL) Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the “New Age.”.
- Saliba, John A., 1999. Christian Responses to the New Age movement: a critical assessment, London: G. Chapman.
Via Stephen Bedard on Hope’s Reason – problematising the notion that all religion is to do with a quest for the afterlife:
It is common to hear the accusation that religion was created by those who feared death and needed some sort of afterlife. Really? And what research is that based on? Your neighbour who had a medical scare and decided to start attending church? I am sure that there are people who get interested in religion because of a fear of death but historically that is not a very good explanation. I will provide a couple of examples.
Ancient Egyptian religion would seem to support the afterlife hypothesis, with all its mummies and pyramids and magnificent tombs. Except when you look closely and discover that the afterlife was originally only for the Pharaoh, then gradually for the aristocracy and only later for people in general. Ancient Greek religion had a concept of Hades where the shades of the dead dwelt. But this was no source of hope for the Greeks. It was a shadowy existence that was not much fun. Even the great heroes lacked hope for a glorious afterlife.
What about the Bible? We all know Christianity is all about the afterlife. It is true that the resurrection, both of Jesus and the believer, is very important to the Christian faith. But before there was an New Testament, there was an Old Testament. Read through the Old Testament and look for evidence of an afterlife. Most of post-death existence is described as Sheol, which despite the KJV translation as hell, is really just the grave. If there is any consciousness in Sheol, it is that shadowy existence such as what we find in the Greek Hades. There are only two passages in the Old Testament that clearly provide hope for an afterlife, and both are fairly late.
“Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.” (Isaiah 26:19 ESV)
“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” (Daniel 12:2–3 ESV)
If you want to learn more about the development of the afterlife in the Old and New Testaments, see my book Finding a New Land. The point is that an afterlife does not play a central role in the Old Testament and therefore was not the motivation for biblical religion. I am not suggesting that the afterlife is unimportant, only that a fear of death is not sufficient to explain the rise of religion, either in general or in the Bible.
The Clergy Project is a confidential online community for active and former clergy who do not hold the supernatural beliefs of their religious traditions. The Clergy Project launched on March 21st, 2011.
Currently, the community’s nearly 100 members use it to network and discuss what it’s like being an unbelieving leader in a religious community. The Clergy Project’s goal is to support members as they move beyond faith. Members freely discuss issues related to their transition from believer to unbeliever including:
- Wrestling with intellectual, ethical, philosophical and theological issues
- Coping with cognitive dissonance
- Addressing feelings of being stuck and fearing the future
- Looking for new careers
- Telling their families
- Sharing useful resources
- Living as a nonbeliever with religious spouses and family
- Using humor to soften the pain
- Finding a way out of the ministry
- Adjusting to life after the ministry
I have just read the following ‘reflection’ from Lillian Daniel, the senior minister of the First Congregational Church, UCC, Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Have a read of it yourself and try and guess what might have got my heckles up:
August 31, 2011
“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
Reflection by Lillian Daniel
On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.” Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.
Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?
Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.
Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.
Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that’s who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.
Dear God, thank you for creating us in your image and not the other way around. Amen.
As someone who studies religion, this is admittedly a similar conversation that I dread (however, I have yet to have this conversation on a plane – maybe this only happens in the US). My current conversation runs as follows:
– What do you study?
– Religious Studies
– Oh, so you want to be a priest, or a Religious Education teacher?
– <Sigh>. Religious Studies is not the same as Theology. Religious Studies is a social science. It makes no comment on the truth claims of religious individuals or institutions, but considers all people and their ‘beliefs’ worthy of study. For instance, I have written a lot about contemporary atheism, and I currently study the nonreligious from the perspective of Religious Studies and would generally advocate a movement away from labeling individuals as ‘religious’ or ‘nonreligious’ as in almost every case, both labels can be shown to be inaccurate, and they don’t tell us very much about what being (non)religious might mean to that individual.
– So, you want to be the new Richard Dawkins then?
– <Sigh> Did you listen to anything I just said?
However, this was not the same conversation Lillian Daniels purports to have encountered. I’m not going to get into whether or not her beliefs are more valid than those of the man on the plane. However, it is interesting to see how Daniels labels this gentleman as part of the ‘bland majority of people’, whilst seeing herself as part of a ‘real human community’. I am curious to know:
- how she defines real;
- what gives her a right to make this assertion;
- and how she feels that making this sarcastic diatribe will encourage individuals like this gentleman to decide that he actually wants to do as she presumably wishes and join her church…
Maybe I am getting the wrong impression here, but it seems that Daniels does not want individuals like this to be part of her ‘brave’ community. If so, why does she bother trying to engage with them online? Perhaps this is because her community would become the ‘bland majority’ if it were, in fact, the majority. Perhaps it is because her worldview is threatened by individualism. I find it personally encouraging, however, to see the leader of a mainline Protestant institution exhibiting the same tendency to sarcasm and ridicule as the rest of the ‘bland majority’.
Most importantly, however, this is a prime example of someone defining their terms to suit their own agenda. As I have just been discussing with my friend Suzanne, this is all about power… Daniels is defining her sort of belief as worthy of attention and engagement, but the beliefs of others as bland, boring and unworthy. This unjustified behaviour is one of the main objections I have to inter-faith dialogue (although I see many positives as well): groups of ‘religious’ individuals get together and talk politely about what they believe, all the time acknowledging that whilst they may have nothing else in common, at least they are ‘brave’ enough to believe in ‘something’ and belong to a ‘tradition’. This is a prime example of the Western Christianised bias to see religion as being a ‘monogamous’ commitment to some established tradition, which does not scan with non-Western traditions, and with the scene portrayed by the 21st century world at large.
We mustn’t commit the faux pas of tarring an institution, movement or group of individuals with the same brush as their leaders. However, blandness is fine by me :)
CALL FOR PAPERS: Modernism, Christianity, and Apocalypse (18-20 July 2012)
A conference organised by the Department of Foreign Languages at the University of Bergen, Norway; funded by the Bergen Research Foundation through the ‘Modernism and Christianity’ research project.
- Dr Erik Tonning
- Dr Matthew Feldman
- Professor Paul S. Fiddes (University of Oxford)
- Professor John Milbank (University of Nottingham)
- Professor Hans Ottomeyer (Former Director of the German Historical Museum)
- Professor Marjorie Perloff (University of Southern California)
- Professor C. J. Ackerley (University of Otago)
- Professor Mary Bryden (University of Reading)
- Professor Pericles Lewis (Yale University)
- Professor Gregory Maertz (St. John’s University, NY)
- Professor Shane Weller (University of Kent)
The modernist imperative ‘Make it new!’ posits a break with traditional artistic forms, but also with the entire mould of a civilization felt to be in a state of terminal decay (‘an old bitch, gone in the teeth’, as a second dictum by Ezra Pound has it). Modernism was steeped in the language of apocalyptic crisis, generating multiple (and contradictory) millennial visions of artistic, cultural, religious and political transformation. This conference will examine the continuing impact of Christianity upon the modernist thinking of Apocalypse in Western culture, covering the period of early-to-high modernism (c. 1880-1945), with glances towards the immediate aftermath of World War II and the Bomb. ‘Modernism’ is not here confined to the arts, and contributions are warmly invited from scholars across the humanities and social sciences. The modernist crisis is often depicted as emerging ‘after’ disenchantment and secularisation. Yet contemporary assessments of Christianity varied strikingly, as modernist thinkers, artists, writers and political ideologues confronted its entrenched authority and formidable capacity for self-reinvention. Certainly, as the historian Peter J. Bowler has shown, the effort to ‘reconcile’ science and religion was in no way abandoned in early twentieth century discourse. Nor, of course, did the efforts of theologians across the confessional spectrum suddenly cease: on the contrary, theology from Karl Barth to the Nouvelle Théologie and beyond delivered penetrating responses to modernity. More radical theorists and philosophers of the modern from Nietzsche onward also grappled with Christianity, often becoming further enmeshed even while prophesying the Death of God. Indeed, whether read through Frazer’s dying gods or Freud’s paternal totems, the Christian stories stubbornly resisted easy assimilation. Repeatedly, artists and writers exploring radically new modes of religious experience might find their works subtly infiltrated by biblical or liturgical language and iconography. Christianity also garnered modernist converts: for some, the promise of cultural resurrection would converge on a return to orthodoxy following the liberal dilutions of the nineteenth century; while others freely adapted the tradition to suit their spiritual needs. Even those chary of such a step, or actively hostile to Christian faith, continued to reinvent the cultural resources and imagery of the Christian past – if only in order to overturn it in favour of a new future. The political religions of the twentieth century (Stalinism, Fascism, Nazism) promulgated their own revolutionary visions of Apocalypse and a secular Kingdom, casting Christianity as a chief antagonist, or at least as subservient to a vitalist national-political will. Nonetheless, these alternative salvation histories, too, were undeniably linked to their paradigm in the Christian tradition.
The complexities and ambiguities involved in such historical transactions are obvious: and interdisciplinary insights are essential in mapping them. Modernism, Christianity, and Apocalypse thus invites contributions by scholars in all relevant fields. New archival information and empirical research on this period is welcomed alongside broader theoretical and historical re-evaluations of the modernist crisis, or novel readings of central texts. A concerted effort to recover the complex interwovenness of modernism, Christianity and the apocalyptic imagination is especially urgent today, as the very idea of a ‘post-secular’ culture is being interrogated anew in a global context. Indeed, the recent Norway terror by a self-proclaimed crusader for ‘European civilization’ is a horrifying reminder that the contestation of history, and the proclamation of eschatologies, can still turn bloody.
Suggestions for individual papers/panels (others also welcome):
- America, the UK and Ireland: W. H. Auden, Samuel Beckett, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, David Jones, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Virginia Woolf
- France: Georges Bataille, Paul Claudel, André Gide, Charles Péguy, Simone Weil
- Germany: Thomas Mann, Alfred Döblin, German expressionism
- Russia: Anna Akhmatova, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy
- Scandinavia: Knut Hamsun, August Strindberg
PHILOSOPHERS AND THEORISTS OF THE MODERN
THEOLOGY AND THE CHRISTIAN CHURCHES
MODERNISM AND THE BIBLE
SCIENCE – AND RELIGIONS OLD AND NEW
THE NEW MAN AND THE OLD ADAM: MODERNIST AND CHRISTIAN ANTHROPOLOGIES
MODERNISM AND POLITICAL RELIGION
VITALISM, MODERNISM AND CHRISTIANITY
A CIVILIZATION IN CRISIS? MODERNISM, HISTORY AND APOCALYPSE
MODERNISM, CHRISTIANITY AND NIHILISM
APOCALYPSE AND THE FIN DE SIÈCLE
WAR, AND RUMOURS OF WAR, 1914-1945
REVALUATIONS OF THE APOCALYPSE AFTER WWII
APOCALYPSE NOW? CLOSING PLENARY ON CONTEMPORARY RELEVANCE
Conference venue: Hotel solstrand (outside Bergen, Norway) http://www.solstrand.com/english/articles.asp?segment=3&ID=139
CONFERENCE FEE (early bird rate): NOK 3700: This covers all expenses, including conference pack; two nights at the hotel; three lunches, two breakfasts and two dinners at the hotel (famous for its food); access to excellent sauna, pool and steam-room facilities; and a direct conference bus (at c. 11 am, c. 25-30 mins) to the hotel from Flesland airport (18th), with a return on Friday afternoon (20th, at 4 pm). There is also a postgraduate rate of NOK 3200 available. PLEASE NOTE: This subsidized rate is offered through conference funding provided by the Bergen Research Foundation. Registration at this rate is therefore limited to 75 delegates. Once this number of total delegates has been reached, additional registrations will cost NOK 4400. All delegates registering after 1 May 2012 will also be charged at this higher rate. Early registration is thus strongly recommended.
To register: Please send your title, abstract (100-200 words) and biographical information to email@example.com for consideration. Upon acceptance of your proposed paper (20 minutes), payment details will be emailed back to you. You will then have three weeks to complete your registration by making your payment: after this time, your place may be offered to someone else. Should you wish to cancel your registration at a later stage, a refund will be available (minus a service charge).
I have just received the following through a mailing list, so I don’t have a link to the source. However, it seems incredibly bizarre. Whilst I can see the potential benefits – I have witnessed some utterly atrocious ministers in my time – it seems like an avenue which could allow certain fundamentalists to organise mass votes to oust more liberal clergy, for example. Just one more example of ‘Rational Choice Theory’ and ‘pick-and-mix’ religion, I think. As every other sector of our society becomes dominated by feedback forms and ‘satisfaction’, it was only a matter of time before churches jumped on the bandwagon…
Is this a good thing? What does it spell for the future? I haven’t decided yet…
Ecumenical News International
17 August 2011
German website allows congregations to rate clergy
Berlin (ENInews)–Does your pastor set a glowing example to his or her flock? Or does the herd tend to drift? A new website launched in Germany allows churchgoers to rate their “shepherd’s” performance on worship, youth work, work with seniors, credibility, and engagement with current issues. “The idea behind Hirtenbarometer [shepherd barometer] is that pastoral work should be and often is qualitative,” one of the website’s founders, Andreas Hahn, said in an email interview. “We wanted to create … an open platform for dialogue between priests and the members of congregations.” [391 words, ENI-11-0432]
When Bad Christians Happen to Good People: Where We Have Failed Each Other and How to Reverse the Damage – by Dave Burchett
Just a quick post to acknowledge that this book sounds like it is a must read for both Christians and non-Christians. It should flag up many of the problems endemic in churches across the world – let’s face it, the main reason that people object to their message. It should also emphasise to those who already see churches in a negative light that there are good people there and that all is not lost…
From Publishers Weekly
A cursory reading of Burchett’s expos‚ of the pitiful condition of the American Christian church shows the book to be stinging, acerbic and slightly flippant. But careful attention to Burchett’s painful message that “bad Christians” have done, and continue to do, great damage to others in the fold reveals the truth of his accusations. For openers, Burchett tells his own story of callous rejection by a church he attended when his terminally ill daughter was only months old. The congregation in question decided in no uncertain terms that Burchett’s daughter was not welcome in their nursery, despite the fact that baby Katie posed no threat to the other infants. Such behavior is the first of many examples where Christians slammed their church doors at the first sight of discomfort. Burchett’s style is critical, sometimes overwhelmingly so. Yet he supports every claim of Christian shame, and does so with evidence solid enough to convict. He describes churches as frequently elitist, unfriendly and fearful. He also takes issue with lazy Christian-ese, countering that true faith is measured not merely in words but through acts of humility, service and self-sacrifice. Some sensitive Christian believers will surely take issue with Burchett’s tone and the one-two stabs of witty humor that are often aimed at Christians themselves. Yet his call to reform is so solidly founded on biblical principles that his severe words must be heeded.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
Proper blog posts are still a long way off… but here is a selection of interesting things I have spotted on the internet over the past week or so:
A worrying discussion about abortion in the state of Kansas.
Another atheist complains about an infringement on church-state separation in the US.
Apparently fish can use tools!!!! Does this cause any ‘vegetarians’ who eat fish to reconsider their position?
Understanding the current situation in the Middle East… with cows. My personal favourites are:
You had two cows that were lost decades ago. Lament them.
You have two bulls. Pretend they are helpless calves.
And finally, the periodic table of atheists… chuckle.
I’m pretty busy with my thesis right now… hence the sudden fall off in proper posts. However, one of the good things about getting back into the office and working on the University computers is that I had a dig through my old documents and came across some essays and assignments that I submitted as a first year undergraduate. During that time I took some Theology courses… and some biblical studies courses. I thought it might be interesting to share some of the things that I submitted… in an attempt to show that you don’t have to believe in what you are studying to engage with it. Especially with biblical studies… some of the stories are just absolutely fascinating. Here is a piece that I wrote on II Samuel 13: 1-22 – a quite shocking (and thus, unfortunately, often overlooked) story about David’s son and daughter, Amnon and Tamar.
Power and Powerlessness in II Samuel 13: 1-22
The story of Amnon’s rape of Tamar is one of the many passages in the Hebrew Bible that can prove shocking to the modern reader. This is illustrated well by the fact that, in the opening paragraphs of many commentaries, the authors feel compelled to highlight the nature of the account as “exceptionally tense” (Hertzberg, 1964:322), “frighteningly realistic” (Evans, 2004:220) or even “revolting” (Kirkpatrick, 1930:341). However, when looking at the passage in the form in which we have it today, it is important to not become distracted by subject matter, but to see the story as it is in its context. In this passage, the doom pronounced on David’s house in the previous chapter [2 Sam 12:10] begins to receive its fulfilment (ibid), and the passage also “stands as a prologue to the account of (Absalom’s) rebellion in chapters 15-20” (McCarter Jr., 1984:327).
Much modern scholarship (particularly Christian scholarship) tends to focus on the character of Tamar and her tragic fate, but, as Hertzberg points out, whilst Tamar is indeed the “tragic figure of the drama, (…) in the general context she is merely a subsidiary figure whose fate is only important for the light it sheds on the struggle between the two oldest princes and its further consequences for the history of the kingdom of David” (Hertzberg, 1964:322). Marie Evans believes the focus of the text to be “the use and abuse of power” (2004:222) and it is the intention of this essay to build upon this belief by identifying and discussing the various manifestations of power and powerlessness in the text, rather than focussing on one individual character.
At the very beginning of the chapter we are made aware that the recorded events related to the previous chapters. Whilst “in the course of time” [2 Sam 13:1] does not denote a precise duration of time, the phrase “was intended to provide the link between chapters 12 and 13” (Mauchline, 1971:259) – these chapters, along with David’s indiscretion in chapter 11, are connected as cause and effect (Kirkpatrick, 1930:341).
The main characters of the story – Amnon, his father David, Amnon’s half-sister Tamar, and her brother Absalom – are introduced in verse 1, and we learn that not only has Amnon fallen in love with Tamar [v. 1] but that Amnon became “frustrated to the point of illness” because “it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her” [v. 2].
Because of the clarification that Amnon was so frustrated because he wish to do something to Tamar, it is clear that Amnon’s is confusing lust with love (Conroy, 1978:23), and that he is “dominated by the same sensuality as his father” (Hertzberg, 1964:322). Not only is he presented as being powerless against his desires, he is also powerless to do carry them out because she was a virgin [v. 2] – “unmarried girls, and particularly those of the royal house, would be carefully guarded” (McCarter Jr., 1984:321).
In verse 3 we are introduced to the only other character in the story, David’s nephew Jonadab, indicating that whilst this whole affair will have far-reaching consequences, it is essentially a family affair. (Conroy, 1978:28) Jonadab notices how Amnon’s frustration is affecting him physically [v. 4] and addresses him as “the king’s son” – emphasising the dichotomy between the powerlessness he was feeling, and the power he should be experiencing “as a prince with all the privileges of royalty” (Mowley, 1998:182).
Before the plot is developed in verse 5, the reader is subtly reminded of the ominous presence of Absalom – Amnon identifies Tamar as his “brother Absalom’s sister” [v. 4], emphasizing to Jonadab just how bad the situation is, and alerting the reader that Absalom is very much involved in the story, even though he is currently ‘backstage.’
From verse 5 onwards, Amnon is presented as exerting power and authority, albeit for his own selfish ends and, as throughout this entire passage, always subject to the power of his own lust. Here, Jonadab provides Amnon with a crafty plan to see Tamar in private, but one that will require the (innocent) collusion of King David. In actuality this presents no problems, and verses 6 and 7 describe how David believes Amnon’s feigned illness and sends for Tamar. Apart from illustrating the power of Amnon and Jonadab, who successfully manage to trick and manipulate the king, these verses also say something about the power of King David: this is the first instance in this passage where David is seen as a power that must be appealed to – whilst the exercising of this power is overshadowed by Amnon’s manipulation, the important notion here is the necessity of appealing to David, and the potential that had David exercised his power in a different way, the following events would not have occurred (Evans, 2004:221).
Tamar arrives at the house of her brother Amnon [v. 8], silently obedient and submissive to the wishes of her father, the king, and her brother, the crown prince. Amnon, however, refuses to eat the food that she has prepared for him [v. 9], and orders everyone to leave the room – an action which Hertzberg regards as “a whim of the crown prince, who is so used to giving orders” (Hertzberg, 1964:323).
After dispensing with the servants, Amnon continues exerting his power, effectively ordering his sister to bring the food to him in his bedroom [v. 10] and again, physically grabbing her saying, “Come to bed with me, my sister” [v. 11].
What follows in verses 12 and 13 is an impassioned speech from Tamar. She recognises that she is powerless to stop her much stronger [v. 14] brother carrying out his wishes, so she appeals to two more powerful authorities – custom [v. 12 & 13] and the king [v. 13]. The reason Tamar gives for condemning Amnon’s wishes as a “wicked thing” is that “such a thing should not be done in Israel.” Regardless of whether she is referring to incest, or premarital sexual relations, it is worth noting that in this case “morality (…) finds its sanction in custom, not in a written code,” (Kennedy, 1905:252) – here she is referring to “serious violations of custom [Gen 20:9; 29:26] that threaten the fabric of society” (McCarter Jr., 1984:322) She makes no reference to the Law, or to the authority of God, and it is at this point that the reader first realises that God is mysteriously missing from this ‘revolting’ story. When looking into the subtext of Tamar’s statement that Amnon would be “like one of the wicked fools in Israel” [v. 13], Kirkpatrick tells us that the term “fool denotes not merely one who is stupid and ignorant, but one who has abandoned the fear of God, and cast off the restraints of decency and morality” (Kirkpatrick, 1930:343) Whilst this description certainly fits with the character of Amnon presented in the text, and whilst the narrator may indeed have intended the reader to pick up on this meaning, if we accept the apparent absence of God in this passage, this places more responsibility on the individuals capable of changing the situation, and their use and misuse of power.
Tamar’s appeal for Amnon to speak to the king [v. 13] has provoked much academic discussion. This discussion is generally directed towards the nature of Amnon’s sin (incest or rape), but it can also prove useful in discerning how much power David would have had in this matter. Numerous questions arise: Was the law stated in Leviticus 18:9, prohibiting sexual relations between siblings and half-siblings, in place? If so, does Tamar assume David would use his power as king to overrule this law? If not, is David to be appealed to as a father or as a king?
There is a lot of disagreement amongst scholars about whether the law of Leviticus 18:9 is in place. McCarter Jr. (with Mowley, 1998:182) believes that the most defensible position is that the laws were in full effect, and that unless Tamar is merely temporising, her “assumption that David would be willing to overlook such a prohibition in order to accede to Amnon’s request is consistent with what we know of David’s attitude elsewhere [v. 21]” (1984:324). Whilst this is based slightly more recent scholarship, by the simple fact that Tamar makes no reference to God or any legal code, it seems more reasonable for us to accept the opposing position of Mauchline (with Kirkpatrick, 1930:343) that Amnon “could have married her in the ordinary way” for “the marriage of a brother and half-sister was possible at this stage of Israel’s history” (1971:260). If we accept that this is the case, it is reasonable to conclude that Tamar is appealing to David as a father who has the power to grant or refuse a marriage proposal.
After clearly demonstrating his physical power by raping Tamar [v. 14], Amnon continues to treat her like a servant, ordering her to “Get up and get out” [v. 15]. We are told that, not only did Amnon suddenly hate her, but that “he hated her more than he had loved her.” This sexual, psychological factor is a natural progression of Amnon’s (now fulfilled) lust from verse 2, for “it is human nature to hate those whom you have injured” (McCarter Jr., 1984:324,citing Tacitus). This demonstrates how powerless Amnon really is against his base, human nature.
Amnon refuses to listen to any further protest from his sister Tamar, and has his servant unceremoniously throw her outside outside, and bolt the door behind her [vv. 16-18]. Tamar, who has acted blamelessly throughout because she did everything in her power to stop Amnon disgracing them both, then tears her robe, puts ashes on her head and goes away weeping aloud, performing “all the signs of mourning, not for the loss of a loved one, but for the loss of her virginity” (Mowley, 1998:184).
In verse 20, Absalom takes an active part in the story for the first time. It is interesting to note that Tamar turns to her brother Absalom after the incident, and not to her father, David. Conroy suggests two possible reasons why this might be the case – there may be have been more solidarity between siblings than between a father of many offspring and his children, or Tamar may have held David partly responsible for what happened (1978:18). Both of these alternatives diminish David’s power and influence over his children, the only difference being that in the first case this was always so, and in the second it is the result of these recent events.
Some translations, such as the New International Version, do not include the full version of verse 21 (included in the Septuagint and the ordinary text of the Vulgate (Kirkpatrick, 1930:345)), which reads, “When King David heard of all these things, he was very angry; but he did nothing to harm his son, for he loved him, because he was his firstborn” (Hertzberg, 1964:322). However, the inclusion of the italicised text makes little or no difference to how we interpret the text. Whether David did not act because of his love for his son, or because “he was reminded of his own misconduct and could hardly punish his son for a similar offence” (Mowley, 1998:185), it is clear that David, who had the power to intervene as both king and father, did not do so.
In the final verse of this passage, we see Absalom, Tamar’s actual brother, silently hating his half-brother Amnon. According to Kirkpatrick, by oriental custom, Absalom had both the power and the duty to avenge his sister’s wrongs (1930:345). However, Absalom chooses not to exercise this power – this could be seen as a sign of weakness (maybe he feared that the house of David would be discredited if he made a sharp protest ) but it is far more likely, given his eventual murder of Amnon, that he is exercising his power wisely, by biding his time (McCarter Jr., 1984:326)
Power has clearly been a major theme running right through this text. What we have been presented with is a situation where four human characters all use, or misuse power in various ways, in a situation in which God plays no active, recorded role: Amnon is the powerful crown prince, who is powerless to resist his sexual urges, and uses his royal powers and physical strength to satisfy this lust; Tamar is the powerless victim who tries everything within her power to prevent the events taking place; David is the powerful king who fails to appropriately use his power to prevent the situation; and Absalom wilfully withholds his power, preferring to bide his time and take revenge at a more suitable moment. There is a clear “pattern of reversal, upset and contrast” (Conroy, 1978:36-37) at work here – those who have power (Absalom, Amnon and David) misuse it, and Tamar, who is powerless, is the only character to emerge blameless, albeit as “a desolate woman” [v. 20].
• Conroy, Charles, Absalom Absalom! (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1978)
• Driver, S. R., Notes on the Hebrew Text and the Topography of the Books of Samuel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913)
• Evans, Mary J., The Message of Samuel (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004)
• Hertzberg, Hanz Wilhelm, I & II Samuel (London: SCM Press, 1964)
• Kennedy, A. R. S., Samuel (Edinburgh: TC & EC Jack, 1905)
• Kirkpatrick, A. F., The First and Second Books of Samuel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930)
• Mauchline, John, 1 & 2 Samuel (London: Oliphants, 1971)
• McCarter Jr., P. Kyle, II Samuel (Garden City: Doubleday, 1984)
• Mowley, Harry, 1 & 2 Samuel (Oxford: The Bible Reading Fellowship, 1998)