Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Book Review: Revolutionary Work by William Taylor

William Taylor. Revolutionary Work – What’s the Point of the 9 to 5?
Leyland: 10Publishing, 2016.

‘We do not need to be enslaved by our work or totally depressed by it. As we put our work in its rightful, God-given place, we will find real joy and lasting purpose as we work for God.’[1]

So writes British clergyman William Taylor in his recent book Revolutionary Work – What’s the Point of the 9 to 5? Developed from four sermons preached at St Helen’s Bishopsgate, London in January 2016, Taylor promises that a biblical account of work is liberating, exhilarating, and refreshingly realistic. At 119 pages, including three appendices and a FAQ section, Revolutionary Work is a relatively brisk overview of the Bible’s teaching regarding work. This may be the books greatest strength and weakness; amidst the sudden growth in books produced on faith and work, Revolutionary Work is accessible and quick to read. Anyone who has the time and compulsion would able to read this book in an afternoon (and also download the original talks). However, in not being an exhaustive piece of writing, there are many theological and biblical concepts and ideas which are neither explored nor considered, or either assumed or dismissed out of hand. For instance, the lack of a definition of work is a striking omission from the book. Whilst Revolutionary Work helpfully interrogates several trends at play in work today, and offers sage advice for church ministers on how to care for their parishioners who work far outside their parish bounds, the problem with Revolutionary Work lies in what it doesn’t say.

Taylor begins by asking ‘What is the Point of Work?’ Chapter one offers three answers to this question. Firstly, as originally given in creation, work was good and dignified, for God himself is a worker. There is thus no place for a type of snobbery which regards some types of work as more dignified than others. Secondly, this original goodness of work is matched by a responsibility to work in the world in a manner which is accountable, caring for what God has entrusted to us. This responsibility is both a vertical responsibility between us and God, and a horizontal responsibility between us and others. This latter point remains largely undeveloped in Revolutionary Work beyond an encouragement towards generosity. Taylor also flags that this responsibility has been fundamentally altered by sins entry into the world. Thirdly, work is necessary to provide for ourselves and others – to ‘feed our faces’. In making these three points, Taylor also pushes back:

  1. on the view that there is a specific, personal, vocation for each person to find; and
  2. on the view that work exists to help us find personal fulfillment in life. Such a view is, in the words of New York Times columnist David Brooks, ‘completely garbage advice’.
Chapter two sets the scene for why we will never fulfil our potential in work by asking ‘What is the matter with work?’ Following Genesis 3–4, although given to us a good, work is now grim, and will always be grim. Work is ‘frustrating, painful, and ultimately futile’[2]; our place of work has been cursed by God, and the work of our hands will not last. Alongside the goodness of work is much damage wrecked through our cultural and technological advancements. Accordingly, Taylor rejects the existence of a cultural mandate; sin has radically altered our place in the world. Taylor points to God’s commissioning of Noah in Genesis 9 and the conclusion reached by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert to argue that the commission of Genesis 1.27–30 is now beyond us, and humans exercise a frightful dominion over the creatures of the world. Therefore, we must be prepared to work, but approach work without any sentimental notion of finding satisfaction or fulfilment in what we do.

Given that the picture painted by Taylor is quite grim, chapter three asks ‘Is there any hope for work?’ Taylor’s answer is that whilst work may look very much the same, the Christian will be governed by the gospel in their work. The gospel offers us a new boss, a new goal, and a new reward. We ultimately work for Jesus in our work, which enables us to work hard, and adorn the gospel in the way that we work (being kind, considerate, etc.), because we are seeking to serve Jesus. When we grasp this, Taylor argues that this will enable us to fix our eyes on Jesus, even when we are manipulated or bullied in the workplace, and therefore seek to please God in our work.

Taylor then asks ‘What now matters at work?’, and answers by pointing to our identity and attitude we hold as we go about our work. Taylor follows this up with a second question ‘What will last at work?’, and warns against firstly throwing ourselves into careerism, and secondly investing too much into the creation and the works of our hands in the hope that our work will last into eternity. Taylor argues that a tangible and specific connection between creation and new creation cannot be drawn; all that will last into the new creation are redeemed people and their godly characters. This section contains a brief interaction with Tim Keller’s use of Tolkien’s story Leaf by Niggle in Every Good Endeavour, including the reproduction of email correspondence with Keller on this issue. The reproduced section of Keller’s answer indicates that Keller does not draw the specific and tangible connection between creation and new creation that Taylor warns against. Taylor concludes this section with some brief reference to passages such as Revelation 21, 2 Peter 3, and Matthew 24 to warn against investing in work which is ultimately futile and frustrated.[3]

The fourth and final chapter looks at John 4 to ask ‘What is the work of God’. In the original sermons from January 2016, Taylor considered this section as a continuation to ‘What now matters at work?’ question, a 3.b if you will. Taylor’s intention is ‘I do not want any of us to spend our whole lives labouring at something that ultimately is pure vanity.’[4] God’s work is to gather his harvest, and his will is that we are involved in the harvesting, using Jesus’ words to advance the gospel and establish new believers. For Taylor pursing this line of work is evidently possible in the banks and law firms of the City of London. This is what we are to do in our workplaces – to advance the work of God through reaping the harvest whilst also living godly lives in our occupations. Yet for some of us, our specific gifting in Bible teaching will lead us to leave aside the work of ‘selling sugared water’, and engage in God’s life transforming work. God’s harvesting is the priority of our lives in work, for this is the only type of work which will last.

The reader of Revolutionary Work will find a call to action for Christians to grow up in their work; to neither underestimate the impact of sin on their work nor to lose sight of the opportunity work provides to live for and speak of Christ. Taylor helpfully seeks to uphold the original dignity and goodness of work, and resist the sentimentality ascribed to work’s potential to fulfil our dreams and desires. There is no room for Christians to hold bourgeois attitudes which elevate more creative or conceptual types of work above manual labour or service orientated work. Nor can Christians fool themselves with the message that their work will change the world. As James Hunter Davidson has argued elsewhere, whilst possible, cultural change is exceedingly hard, and exquisitely rare. The persuasiveness of that message is evident to me every day on campus where I walk past large posters proclaiming to university students their potential to shape and change the world. Taylor’s call for an attitude to work orientated by the gospel provides a realism to our work and the world which may well guard our hearts and minds from this pervasive cultural stream.

Perhaps the thing I appreciated most about Revolutionary Work was the third appendix: ‘How Can Churches be Revolutionary About Work?’I have no doubt that this appendix flows from the distilled wisdom of Taylor's many years at St Helen’s and the unique opportunity that church finds itself in by being located in the centre of the City of London. This appendix is a must read for people in ministry to consider how they can support and minister to their congregants who work in a place different to where they live. The possibility that churches would seek to encourage and effectively send people to work and minister in their own workplaces might be truly revolutionary, and potentially reap a great dividend for the cause of Christ.

There are a few small things throughout the book that grated against me. In a few places in the book and the original talks Taylor compares working in a law firm or a bank to slavery. Undoubtedly working in a City of London bank or law firm is rigorous and entails great expectations. However, such comments seem to be unduly naive; not only are there an increasing number of people enthralled around the world, but making such statement is either exceedingly foolish or grossly unaware of history. The prosperity of the London’s financial centre can be traced to Britain’s colonialism and involvement in the slave trade.

In addition, Revolutionary Work can’t help but come across as being written for urban professionals. Taylor admirably tries to resist this at several points, not least of all through his rejection of vocational snobbery. But the focus is largely on paid work, and a definition of work within the book would have increased its usefulness for people whose work is unpaid.

However, Revolutionary Work is far too brief a treatment of work, which lacks theological rigour. Because of these weaknesses, Revolutionary Work is regrettably a flawed book. This comes through typically not so much in what it says, but in what it fails to say. Often this comes from a surprising lack of theological reflection, coupled with an exegesis of passages that is sometimes sloppy, and other times inattention to where they fit into overall scheme of Scripture. The brief mention of 2 Peter 3.10 in chapter 3 is a case in point of the former, where Taylor follows the relatively novel but ultimately exegetically unsatisfactory interpretation that Peter has in view the dissolution of the cosmos. Taylor’s handling of the cultural mandate in Genesis 1 and 9 is a case in point of the latter. Yes, the Noahic mandate appears to be different to the Adamic mandate. Yes, for all of our cultural and technological sophistication, humanity has a great propensity to find more sophisticated ways to harm and kill each other. But just as Taylor complains that we need to read beyond Genesis 1–2 to understand work, so do we need to read beyond Genesis 9 to understand the place of the cultural mandate in Scripture. Whereas Revolutionary Work argues that the cultural mandate was so fundamentally altered by sin to essentially no longer exist, one cannot help but be struck by the echoes of Genesis 1.28 in God’s commission to Israel, such as in Numbers 32.22 and Joshua 18.1. Likewise the technological development pioneered by the line of Cain is taken up by God in the Spirit-endowed craftsmanship of the Tabernacle by Bezalel in Exodus 31–38.

Ultimately this is an under-developed conception of the nature of redemption.  Taylor is undoubtedly right to highlight the ongoing affect of sin on our work and agency. The mandate given to Adam is no longer achievable by him. However, the depiction of redemption in the New and Old Testaments (i.e. Isaiah 65–66, Colossians 1, etc.), and reflected upon by the Fathers and Reformers, considers redemption to be not only the undoing of the curse, but the enabling of God’s creation projection to be put back on track and ultimately reach the purpose for which it had been originally made. In Adam, this is no longer possible. But now in Christ, and through the power of the Spirit, God will perfect his creation. Unsurprisingly, this was prefigured in the early depictions of Solomon’s reign in 1 Kings 4, who appears as a second Adam enjoying the garden and naming the animals. The cultural mandate will be achieved in and through great King David’s greater Son.

Noticeable absent from Revolutionary Work is a definition of work. Whilst such a definition is notoriously difficult, the absence of such a definition skewers the trajectory of the book. This again reflects a lack of theological development. Firstly, Revolutionary Work exposes itself to the charge of reducing the doctrine of creation to merely Genesis 1–2. However, marriage, society, and government are all parts of the created order which gain further elucidation throughout the Scriptures. As to does the doctrine of providence, God’s sustaining of the world, which is rightly belongs to a consideration of creation. That God not only made but continues to sustain his creation, and in fact holds it together in Christ, is an indication that participating in the creation order is not antithetical to God’s will. Moreover, it suggests that there is such a thing as common grace, and that therefore there are good reasons to work in God’s world besides evangelistic opportunities. The Christian who works for the government may do so both for the opportunities it provides to reach out to people, but also with an awareness of passages such as 1 Timothy 2 and Romans 13 that God uses governments to order his world and provide for peaceful society’s to exist. In fact, the functioning of good government which maintains justice seems, at least in Paul’s mind, to facilitate the flourishing of Christian ministry and mission.

Secondly, there is a coherence between creation and new creation which Revolutionary Work pays scant attention to. Whereas Taylor resists drawing a connection between this creation and the world to come, classical theologians have held to a nexus between protology and eschatology. Where this would have aided Revolutionary Work would have been in the articulation not only of the generic usefulness of work such as ‘feeding your face’, but the telic purposes of work. I take it (following Andrew Cameron) that there are three purposes to work: to exercise dominion over the natural work, to contribute to the flourishing and good ordering of society, and to participate in the ‘work of God’. These three ends are present, sometimes in embryonic form, in the creation account. Throughout Israel’s history, and within the New Testament, the three purposes of work are evident and good. Reformed theology resisted a sacred/secular divide of vocations by insisting that all people are called to participate in all three ends of work. By holding the three ends together, the reformers were able to resist a facile prioritization of work based upon what will last or not. I take it that marriage, which is under the Genesis 3 curse much like work, and won’t last beyond death, is still a good thing to engage in. I doubt that we would characterize marriage (or, for that matter, child-rearing) in itself as futile and grim.

The inclusion of the teleology of work would have significantly altered the tone of Revolutionary Work. Taylor argues in the opening chapter that work, as originally given, was good and dignified, entailing responsibilities towards our fellow image bearers. However, one is left with the overwhelming sense that work is more futile than good, and will only ever be grim. Our work in a world groaning for its redemption will always be frustrated by the ravages of time, sin, and death. However, there are good reasons to do work in and of itself, not least of all for the opportunities it provides to love others. The teacher is able to invest in her work, seeking professional development and a high level of care for her students because she serves Jesus and out of a love for her students to grow in their knowledge of the world. The sewage worker or garbage collector’s work is an act of love for the society who is only able to flourish and stay healthy because of their work. Work is a means for loving a lot of people in a few specific ways. Work as an opportunity to love offers an approach to work which goes beyond ‘work is grim, so just grin and bear it’.

Taylor’s discussion of the Christological impact on our work in chapter 3 might therefore be considerably expanded. Beyond a brief discussion at the beginning of the third chapter concerning the nature of the gospel via Ephesians 1.9–10, Revolutionary Work largely assumes the gospel. The inclusion of the gospel in Revolutionary Work would have provided a context for the consideration of how Jesus changes our work. Whereas in Isaiah 2 the work of our hands is directed towards idolatry, in 1 Thessalonians 4.9–11 the work of our hands are directed towards love of our neighbour. Indeed, according to Ephesians 2 and Titus 3, we have been saved by Jesus in order to do good work. Not only do we have a new master in our work, and a new opportunity to display the virtues of the age to come, but a new reason to work well in our work, contributing to a world which is lost and without hope. This was Augustine of Hippo’s conclusion in City of God, that the citizens of the heavenly city are able in Christ to appropriate and superimpose a new meaning on their work, participating in God’s providential sustaining of the world. Such participation is only ever partial – there is no sense in which we send the rain and the sun on the world. But in God’s kindness, participate we do, embodying in our speech, behaviour, and very lives the virtues and characteristics of the life of the world to come when God makes all things new.

Finally, Revolutionary Work’s refusal to endorse the ‘reach your full potential in your work’ narrative is a much welcomed corrective to a prevailing cultural norm. The responsibility of those who would enter into the realm of faith and work is not only resist this narrative, but supply our churches with an alternative narrative. The fact remains that the work place is a significant area of people’s discipleship and formation. We need to expect and encourage people that their work is a place for bearing fruit for Jesus. That will absolutely include our gracious witness. But bearing fruit in the New Testament is so much more for that, as the gospel of faith leads to love as we submit every aspect of our lives under the all encompassing Lordship of Jesus Christ.[5]

I appreciate much of what Taylor has attempted to do in Revolutionary Work. This is a book which argues that being a Christian makes a difference to how you work. But it doesn't quite manage to fully spell out what that means. It turns out that 119 pages (81 not counting the appendices, FAQ, and references) is far too brief to fulfil the job required. Instead of revolutionary, the result is the same old quietist approach to work which leaves the nine-to-five largely disengaged from the scope of the Christian life. 

[1] p.3.
[2] p.39.
[3] This section will pay careful for those interested in wider faith and work conversations taking place in the evangelical world at the moment. Two words of warning though from myself. Firstly, it would be a mistake to think that Keller makes a point solely based upon Tolkien’s work. In Every Good Endeavour, as Taylor acknowledges, Keller exegetes passages such as 1 Corinthians 15.58. While this is not uncontroversial, Keller’s use of that passage is one supported by the work of New Testament scholars such as Brian Rosner and Roy Ciampa in their 1 Corinthians commentary. Secondly, Taylor makes reference to Tolkien’s original intention to explain purgatory through Leaf by Niggle. This may well be the case, but, that is contested somewhat in Tolkien scholarship. 
[4] p.63.
[5] The inclusion of fruitfulness in the conversation opens up the consideration of whether or not our work is actually ood. Taylor briefly acknowledges that not all work is permissible on pp.52–53. The frustration of work means  work can go bad. This extends to beyond particular types of work such as being a pimp, but also how we do our work, such as the farmer who over uses their water resources and thereby damages their neighbours and the land; the university administrators who take advantage of international students and extort money from them, the church minister who abuses their position of power to intimidate and bully people. Adolf Eichmann was a diligent worker in his office day after day, but through his diligence millions met their deaths. We need to think about the essence of work to be able to assess the goodness of work.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Psalms for Sojourners

I've been reading the Psalms of Ascent of late. These are the collection of psalms that were likely sung by pilgrims in the latter half of the first millennium BC as they made there way up to the temple in Jerusalem for the great feasts such as Passover.

That may seem a strange choice given that we are a few days into Advent, associated as it is with the two comings of Christ. But that is exactly the point; These are the psalms which inspire the thirst and hunger for 'Emmanuel to ransom captive Israel'. Psalms 120—134 capture the rootlessness, the alienated identity the Advent seasons reminds us of without apology. These are the poignant prayers of exile, the hymns of those who paradoxically find themselves at home and not at home in the world. These are the words of pilgrims, waiting for God to arrive so that they might sojourn no more.

It seems plausible that this collection was pulled together sometime during the Second Temple period, giving voice to the anguish of exile that was experience long after Judah had 'returned' to their land. Some of these psalms (122, 124, 127, 131, 133) evidently originate from the monarchy, but have now been re-appropriated as prayers for Jerusalem and the restoration of David's throne. Others speaks of the pilgrim's perception of his/her situation: living in far-flung places, offering to their neighbours the peace commanded by Jeremiah but being met by continued hostility (120.5ff.), protected on his/her journey by the creator of the heavens and the earth who guards ones comings and goings (121.8),experiencing God's protection as though he were in Zion itself (125.1). Their oppression must be patiently borne (125.3), because the supposed restoration of 538 BC has proven to illusory and inconclusive (126). Indeed, this has been the pattern of Israel's history — oppression alleviated by God's protection (129.1—4; 124.7). For Israel, faithfulness will be expressed through hope that God would redeem the nation from the result of their sins.

This is the paradigm for those who faithfully answer Jeremiah's call to seek the shalom of the city (or follow the Western tradition and Augustine's reading of Jeremiah 29.7) but find themselves living in two cities (or social spaces): Israel and Babylon; and living under two sets of rules: Babylon and YHWH's. This is the paradigm for those who struggled to comply with their captors request to sing, 'How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?' (137), yet still manage to draw breath to sing that God's 'steadfast love endures for ever' (136). These psalms know what it is to long for the day when righteousness makes its home on earth, for the world to be made new, but to experience tears and affliction, vanity and anxiety, sleepless nights and being the object of gossip, of unfulfilled and unrealized promises and dreams

For those of us today who find ourselves holding a different but not dissimilar perspective to the remnant of Israel by virtue of the stretching of these last days between the now and the not yet, the Psalms of Ascent complete the picture of what it means to hope against hope. They pick up on the uncertainties of this age. They capture the reality of being rejected and yet still seeking the peace of that place. In Christ, the Psalms of Ascent become the songs of those who sojourn now as aliens and strangers. They become the songs for those hungering and thirsting for the the righteous King who came at Christmas in humility but will come again in glory.

These songs exile continue to be the songs for us exiles, because the Son of God made our exile his own. He journeyed into the far country, seeking the good of the city (122.9) but meeting those who hate peace (120.5—6). He made our exile his own, he entered into our mess, so that (to paraphrase Tolkien) whilst we still wander we would no longer be lost. These Psalms of Ascent fire the holy discontent of those who have tasted Christ's first advent and long for his second.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Faith and Work in Basil the Great

It is sometimes assumed that an interest in faith and work is a contemporary concern, driven in part by a prior over-emphasis on full-time ministry in contrast to 'secular' work. Whilst that might frame some of the current discussion around work and faith, such an assumption exhibits a lack of historical awareness regarding the development of Christianity.

The Graeco-Roman cultural crib within which the early church developed had strong opinions concerning work - particularly work of the manual kind. For example, Aristotle argued that manual labourers were not deserving of citizenship, 'for no man can practice virtue who is living the life of a mechanic or labourer.' Within Xenophon's Oeconomicus, Socrates concurs with Critobolus that manual labour defiles the body, harms the soul, and because of a lack of leisure and the absence of a connection with the land, work rendered one a bad friend and poor defender of the city. Likewise for Plutarch, it is axiomatic that manual labour is incompatible with intellectual aspirations.

Against this backdrop, early Christians developed a special place for manual labour, particularly within the Eastern monastic traditions shaped by Basil of Caesarea. Nowhere is this more evident than in Basil's Hexameron, nine sermons preached c. AD 370 on the first six days of creation. Far from the Hellenistic suspicion towards work, Basil is well aware that there were labourers within his congregation, and he devised an early form of morning and evening prayer to further their growth. (Basil's model, that what labourers needed spiritually was to hear God's Scripture as they headed out to work and returned from their labour, was to have a significant influence on Thomas Cranmer when he combined the monastic hours services into Morning and Evening Prayer for the common folk).

As Basil exegetes Genesis 1, God is said to be an artisan, who in his wisdom has made a harmonious and beautiful world. He is described as a creator, a maker or poet, an artisan, and even the master craftsman. Meanwhile the Son is revealed to be synergos - co-creator. God is likened to a builder, a carpenter, a metalworker, a weaver, a vine-dresser, and a potter, and creation is said to be his workshop.

According to Basil, the creation can fill those who recognize it as creation with wonder and love for their creator; moreover, humans can become participants in God's creative act.While God's workmanship is different from our own - he creates ex nihilo - nonetheless that God laboured entails for Basil a dignity to our work. Rather than being irreconcilable with God, labour is consonant with God's dignity and pre-eminence. Work is therefore so much more than a necessary evil. It is a way of representing God's image in the world, exercised through humble dominion over our co-creatures for both their good and ours. This is why manual labour became a core element in the monastic communities influenced by Basil. Influenced by his sister Macrina, Basil's asceticism valued the work of one's own hands (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2.9, 4.11). In contrast to the sophistry of the prevailing Hellenistic culture in which Basil had been educated, work became a means for philosophy, contemplation, and controlling the body.

For Basil, such work could have only one true end: love. Rejecting self-sufficiency as a value, the end of labour was to strengthen the community, providing charity with an opportunity to bear fruit. Basil's Asiatic ascetic communities therefore were both a hive a of silence and production; a place for contemplation and study alongside incredible industry as the community members, who would have previously given away their possessions to the poor, worked for common good of society. Alongside farming, the community would have undertaken carpentry, weaving, leatherwork, metalwork, and medicine. Tools were carefully maintained. Children were educated and taught crafts. Prices were to be kept low. And in trying to balance 1 Thessalonians 5.17 with 2 Thessalonians 3.8-9, Basil counselled that prayer and work were not mutually exclusive:
In this way we fulfil prayer even in the midst of work, giving thanks to him who gave both strength of hand to work and cleverness of mind to acquire the skill and also bestowed the material with which to work, both in the tools we use and in what is requisite for the crafts we practice, whatever they happen to be. And we pray that the works of our hands may be directed to the goal of being well pleasing to God.
Given that the material, the tools, the strength, and the art are gifts from God, to work for Basil is to immerse oneself into the charity of God. Never an end in and of itself, to work with your own hands is to be purposed towards loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Greatest Gift of Christendom

Arguably one of the greatest challenges facing Christians today is how to respond to secularism. Whilst this is not a particularly new phenomenon, what Christians are finding in 2016 is that the plausibility structures which make faith seem possible have changed, shifting the conditions of belief. It's potentially harder to be a Christian now then it was 500, 100, or even 50 years ago because belief in God has not only been displaced as normative, but is now positively contested.

This age of contested belief is fuelled in part by what we might call the 'secular myth': modern society continues to progress and advance both scientifically as new discoveries are made and technology is increasingly harnessed to solve our problems, and morally as society becomes more fair and equal. This myth suggests that as society advances, religion is culturally replaced or displaced, demoted in importance to the point of redundancy. Our institutions (well, what's left of them) increasingly become neutral ground, forming an objective, unbiased, and a-religious sphere (broadly equivalent to the French concept of laïcité).

Behind all of this is what Charles Taylor refers to subtraction stories: accounts which explain the secular as merely the subtraction of religious belief, as if the secular is what’s left over after we subtract superstition. Subtraction stories are those tales of enlightenment and progress and maturation which see the emergence of modernity as jettisoning the detritus of belief and superstition. Once upon a time, as these subtraction stories rehearse it, we believed in sprites and fairies and gods and demons. But as we became rational, and especially as we marshalled naturalist explanations for what we used to attribute to spirits and forces, the world became progressively disenchanted. Religion and belief withered with scientific exorcism of superstition. And what we have left from this is the secular, modern world, devoid of such superstition.

It's a powerful myth. It's a shame that it has little correlation with history. In his book A Secular Age, Taylor goes to great length to argue that the secular is not merely distilled, but produced and created. That we could go from a world where disbelief in God was implausible to a world where belief in God was implausible is not the leftovers of a distilled society, but the accomplishment of new accounts of reality and meaning.

However I think that it is possible to go further. Secularism is in fact the one of the greatest gifts Christendom gave to the world. That is to say, secularism is not what comes after Christendom in spite of Christendom; Christendom was the first was the creation of the secular, the first implementation of a secular age. This might be controversial to say, because Christendom and secularism seem to be diametrically opposed to each other. The enlightenment project was a self-conscious repudiation of Christian political settlement which had preceded it. But there would be no secularism without Christendom - not in the sense that one the reaction to another - but perhaps in a more classical understanding secular, Christendom creates the secular conditions. Oliver O'Donovan puts this succinctly:
Jesus has ascended in triumph to God’s right hand; yet the subdued “authorities” of this age, St. Paul held, “persist” (Romans 13:6). This, he said, was to approve good conduct and “to execute God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” The reign of Christ in heaven left judgment as the single remaining political need. We should observe that this was an unprecedentedly lean doctrine of civil government. Judgment alone never comprised the whole of what ancient peoples, least of all the Jews, thought government was about. Paul’s conception stripped government of its representative, identity-conferring functions, and said nothing about law. He conceded, as it were, the least possible function that would account for its place within God’s plan. The secular princes of this earth, shorn of pretensions to our loyalty and worship, are left with the sole function of judging between innocent and guilty. 
The political-theological achievement of the Roman world in the fourth century was the recognition that the announcement 'Jesus Christ is Lord' is the announcement that he has dethroned the powers and authorities. It is this recognition which creates the secular. It is the government of the age, (knowingly or unknowingly) charged with task of judgment until creation's perfection at Jesus' return. This recognition dispels all government pretension to be the most true thing, the ultimate reality of totalitarian regimes. It dispels the possibility of theocracy, for Christ is the one Lord. According to O'Donovan again:
The most truly Christian state understands itself most thoroughly as “secular”. It makes the confession of Christ’s victory and accepts the relegation of its own authority... The essential element in the conversion of the ruling power is the change in its self-understanding and its manner of government to suit the dawning age of Christ’s own rule. 
Modern societies have inherited this political institution of the gospel, although they may not know it. This unintelligibly of secularism by secular states may account for the fraught socio-political situations we witness today as nations which had assumed one thing about secularism (such as its homogeneous nature) are confronted on the one hand with an increase of pluralism, and on the other different experiences of secularism around the world (secularism in India and China look different not only from each other but also from secularism within Europe or the United States).

The opportunity for the church as it negotiates with and responds to secularism will be to explain the political institutions and modes such as the secular which the modern world has assumed from ancient Christian world but does not quite know why it values them. In making the institutions of modernity intelligible to the modern world, the church will need innovative ways to announce and embody the truth of Christ's Lordship, and that the secular is no mere neutral space, but one which exists for his purposes in the world.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

The Unnecessary Necessity of Arts Degrees

*This is developed from a recent talk I give.
His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants in the divine nature. – 2 Peter 1.3

Peter talks about escaping the corruption that is in the world because of desire, and as Christians we’ve been trained to read that as meaning the creation is evil. That is this world, this creation, the thing God said several times over at the beginning of time was good, good, very good, but which Paul's says in Romans has now been subjected to decay.  The world is corrupted; therefore the whole of material existence is evil. But that’s not quite where Peter takes it does he? That has more to do with Gnosticism or Buddhism than with the gospel of the resurrected, embodied, Jesus Christ. The world is corrupted not because of something inherently wrong with materiality, but with human desire and our malfunctioning hearts:

“In sin we divide the good world God has made into two “worlds”, one good and the other evil, and we make our own contingent perspectives the criterion for the division. And this gives a new, negative sense to the term “world”, which we have hitherto spoken of positively as God’s creation. This negative sense is characteristic of the New Testament, and points to the reality a constructed world, a world of our own imagination, pitched over against the created world and in opposition to it.”[1]

The Biblical account holds that God made all things not under compulsion or out necessity, but as a gushing forth of love. God's gracious action in creation belongs from the first to that delight, pleasure and regard that the Trinity enjoys from eternity, as an outward and unnecessary expression of that love; and thus creation must be received before all else as gift and as beauty. God is not grey; and he does not create a grey world. ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’ as English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote. Creation wasn't just what needed to be done and no more; it was an excessive and even decadent act. It was more than a bit unnecessary.[2] 

Moreover, we must maintain that God entered into the world, and experienced pain and death to rescue the splendour of what he had made – including you and me. He did not sit idly by as creation was plunged into death and decay, as we fooled about fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, half-hearted creatures like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.[3] He condescended himself into our decay so that we might share his life.

This theological conviction concerning creation and redemption is, I believe, profoundly connected to the vocation of Arts students. Understanding the world rightly – that it was created by God, who loves his world, who sustains his world, who will one day rescue his world from sin and decay rather than allow it to slide in nothingness – that is what sustains the task of universities generally, and the B.A. more specifically. 

I spend a lot of time in my work with postgrads thinking about the university: what is the university? Why does it exist? Arts students are, in many ways, a relic, a fossil, from a by-gone era. The Arts degree is the remnant of the original degrees awarded by universities (developments of the Trivium and the Quadrivium), deposits of a time when universities where established across Europe by Christians in order to facilitate a depth of knowledge and insight into God and his world. That was the original vision of the university, interested in the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge because all truth is God’s truth, and thereby holding together the ordered reality of the universe. It was a thoroughly Christian vision – one which has long since been replaced by universities driven by economic rationalism, where universities now exist on the one hand to develop the next generation of leaders of the welfare states which sustain the universities;[4] and on the other to facilitate the kind of research which will make money and fulfill that vague category of ‘being good for the nation’, which mostly equates to science and engineering.

For art students, their mere presence within the university is a constant reminder of the original purpose of universities: towering spires pursuing the knowledge and love of God. You can find slight echos of this even in Sydney University, which has always been secular. The next time you’re in the great hall, look up at the two angels that hover of the dais at the front, and try and make out the Latin on their scrolls. To the left: Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth; to the right: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Arts students are fossils to this vision. But much like the Wollemi Pine or crocodiles, they are living fossils, a very present reminder of a different age.

I want to place the emphasis on the word LIVING fossils. The university has plenty of inanimate sandstone around the place to pretend that it's Oxbridge and Hogwarts. Their vocation as Arts students is not exhausted by just turning up to campus 1-2 days a week. Instead their calling is testify to the goodness this rich and diverse creation by studying it at depth. Whether you study modern philosophy or Aztec philology, whether you research the events of history or the currents of political science, whether you're researching drama or music or gender or sociology, classics or anthropology, there is a dignity and worth in studying each of these thingsnot because our culture deems them to be economically viable or productive, but because they are each part of God's world. God’s world, which God is not indifferent to; his world, which he has created with complexity and meaning, and has endowed us with the intellect and brains to deliberate, to examine, to study all these things. It’s easy to pay Arts students out, by predicting their future as McDonald’s employees. (I somehow was offered the position of manager at a different fast food store on the strength of being an Arts graduate alone; I declined). 

But they are not studying just an Arts degree: their study is one of the most human things one could do [recalling especially Adam's task in Genesis 2.1920, which was not merely scientific, but required linguistics, hermeneutics, and so on). It’s part of our calling as God’s representative ruling presence in the world. Therefore be people who engage with your mind: read books which no one else in the university will read; read deeply and widely; talk to people across diverse disciplines. Immerse yourselves in your study of God's world. Engage well; Augustine was right I suspect when he said that to know something is to love that thing.

Their challenge is to not rest content with just learning things, but doing the hard, integrative work of connecting what your study with the gospel? How does modern history connect with the gospel? How does sociology, anthropology, or linguistics connect with the gospel? What does the death and resurrection of Jesus have to say about geography, or English? How does the gospel both affirm and challenge the stories my major tells about itself? How are all these things completed in Jesus? How can I use the logic of the gospel re-narrate what my discipline is to my friends in a way that is compelling?  The world is made up of languages and ideas, creatures and events.Study those things. Engage with words and ideas, taking every thought captive for the obedience of Christ. That is not where the problem of sinful desire lies. The problem is not with materiality. Don’t fall into the sub-Christian trap of thinking that God’s going to abandon his creation. As God’s representative ruling presence, and as Arts students, your calling is go about studying and knowing God’s world at depth. As I said a few moments ago, this is a sidebar, a discursive. But engaging with God means engaging him with our minds as well as our hearts, and necessitates engaging the world he has made. 

That God made the beautiful when it was unnecessary to do this is love. To study the logic and rhythm of that world in all its complexity and beauty is the task of the student, and the Arts student especially. 

[1] Oliver O’Donovan, ‘Admiring’.
[2] My thanks to Michael Jensen's second year doctrine lectures for some of these ideas.
[3] Cf. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: “…it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
[3] I owe this idea to Dr. Mark Hutchinson.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


A year ago today Alison and I were jumping on a plane bound for Europe. It was long hoped for but unexpected - it was only thanks to the wedding of a friend and the generosity of our family that we were able to go. We had three delightful weeks taking in culture and seeing friends in London, Oxford, Paris, Rome, and Florence. We even had our own hashtag: #MoffittGrandTour. For me especially, on my first European trip, and as a long time Anglophile, there was something special about being in England - gazing at St Paul's Cathedral (this hope for the resurrection which rises out of the midst of the city); drinking cider in the evening in Kensington Gardens as the fading summer light ran through the long grass; wandering through Christ Church Meadow, glistening green after a downpour. The smell of the roses, the taste of the raspberries, the 35° summer heat had never felt so good. Nor had the rabbits, the foxes, or the deer felt more in their place. - there was an allure about being in the home of my ancestors. 

It felt almost decadent to be experiencing so much beauty.

That is the allure of travel. Travel provides us with stories to tell, and experiences to gather. And yet, isn't it more than that? Are our overseas trips really just about curating the perfect Instagram collection? 

The Romantic in me makes me want to say that travel is part of our search for something more. We travel around finding the extraordinary in the most ordinary of things, and beauty in the sublime. It is this quest, this syndrome of Romanticism, which underwrites our devouring of travel. The contemporary British author Ali Smith, reflecting on a period of many overseas journeys, speaks about this search like this:
Also, the gallery had a very lovely café/restaurant; there was leek soup the day I went, very nice, and even its toilets are works of art, with little plaques outside them like paintings have next to them for their title/artist information.
But pretty much the whole time I was there, I was still trying to get elsewhere.
Amidst all the beauty and wonder that Smith saw in places like Naples and Rotterdam, she was still searching for this place - this place she calls 'elsewhere'. Even when standing there in one place, she was looking for another place of perfect beauty and transcendence. She goes on to describe 'elsewhere':
Elsewhere there are no mobile phones.  Elsewhere sleep is deep and the mornings are wonderful.  Elsewhere art is endless, exhibitions are free and galleries are open twenty-four hours.  Elsewhere alcohol is a joke that everybody finds funny.  Elsewhere everybody is as welcoming as they’d be if you’d come home after a very long time away and they’d really missed you.  Elsewhere nobody stops you in the street and says, Are you a Catholic or a Protestant, and when you say neither, I’m a Muslim, then says yeah but are you a Catholic Muslim or a Protestant Muslim?  Elsewhere there are no religions.  Elsewhere there are no borders.  Elsewhere nobody is a refugee or an asylum seeker whose worth can be decided about by a government.  Elsewhere nobody is something to be decided about by anybody.  Elsewhere there are no preconceptions.  Elsewhere all wrongs are righted.  Elsewhere the supermarkets don’t own us.  Elsewhere we use our hands for cups and the rivers are clean and drinkable.  Elsewhere the words of the politicians are nourishing to the heart.  Elsewhere charlatans are known for their wisdom.  Elsewhere history has been kind.  Elsewhere nobody would ever say the words bring back the death penalty.  Elsewhere the graves of the dead are empty and their spirits fly above the cities in instinctual, shapeshifting formations that astound the eye.  Elsewhere poems cancel imprisonment.  Elsewhere we do time differently.Every time I travel, I head for it.  Every time I come home, I look for it.- Ali Smith, The Art of Elsewhere
It's ideal. It's transcendent. It's never discovered. It's never arrived at.

Smith is searching for a place where we can be at home - we are yearning for it. If Smith is correct, then our journeys overseas, our fascination with art, our love of things which point beyond mere immanence, are fueled by our innate desire for something more. 

The syndrome Smith diagnoses experientially has been recognized theologically for some time. One of the books which we appreciated the most on our travels last year was The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis. We engaged with so much beauty as we traveled, and Lewis helped us respond to this cultural wealth as worshipers, rather than consumers. He writes that:
"...our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.
And this brings me to the other sense of glory—glory as brightness, splendour, luminosity. We are to shine as the sun, we are to be given the Morning Star. I think I begin to see what it means. In one way, of course, God has given us the Morning Star already: you can go and enjoy the gift on many fine mornings if you get up early enough. What more, you may ask, do we want? Ah, but we want so much more— something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves—that, though we cannot, yet these projections can, enjoy in themselves that beauty grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that “beauty born of murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet. For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in."
Lewis captured for us the tragedy of fleetingly taking in the beauty of this building or that artwork or this landscape: we were viewing it for a moment, before moving on to leave it all behind. To witness such things and to be parted from them immediately was melancholic. But Lewis gave us the language to process this.  Our desires weren't wrong, but were designed to direct our hearts towards the God for whom they were made, and the future he has prepared for us in Christ when we shall be united to him, and the Holy Spirit has perfected the creation. 
I read Lewis as an answer to Smith. Her 'elsewhere' is real. We live in a world which is simultaneously a world made for us and a world which we feel estranged from. We are not at home in this world. But one day we shall be, when elsewhere is brought home, and the creation overflows with the abundance of God's perfect peace. We look, as the Creed puts it, for the life of the world to come, a life that is secured by righteousness himself making his home with us. This end of the world and the beginning of another enables us to live well now, as it gives us back our present. For we know that 'elsewhere' will not be found by ourselves, but only in Jesus Christ. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

World Without End? A Theological Playlist

Last year I spent a lot of time sitting with 2 Peter, particularity 3.5-13. I translated and re-translated the Greek. I analysed every textual variant in the passage. I slowly exegeted the text. I read every commentary and journal article I could find on 2 Peter 3. I tried to understand Peter's eschatology as a whole. I worked my way through the theological and ethical implications of the passage. The result was a 15,000 Moore College Project: World Without End? Continuity and Discontinuity in 2 Peter 3:5-13.

I spent a lot of time digesting 2 Peter 3. It is a difficult passage, which has sparked several debates in over the last two centuries over the substance of the world to come. Yet in spite of these controversies, 2 Peter 3 has a simple message: Jesus Christ will return to judge the whole earth. Using vivid language, Peter depicts the lid being ripped off human affairs so that every human activity is evaluated and scrutinized from God's perspective; and every human eye sees how God intends life to be lived.

It is, quite frankly, a fairly positive image of evil removed and a transformed created order. In a world where justice is not always done, and then not always seen to be done, 2 Peter 3 describes a world set to rights, a world where justice makes its home. With this future in view, Peter fuels our imagination for life now, since 'holiness and godliness' are the apparent obvious responses to a world set free from sin and malfunction desires; they are the habits befitting creation perfected.

Whilst the piles of books felt never-ending, one of the things that sustained my writing was the 2 Peter 3 playlist I curated throughout last year. In the spirit of my fourth year project, I gravitated towards songs of dissonant eschatologies and apocalyptic themes, the playlist becoming an extension of the conversations that were happening around me. In recognition of this, here are a few notable mentions:

Sufjan Stevens - The Transfiguration
It was inevitable that Sufjan was going to feature on this playlist; but at the start of 2015 I did not realize the significance of this song. Central to my argument is that 2 Peter 3's description of the Parousia is a theophany, the paradigm for which Peter had previously established in his own account of the transfiguration 1.16-18. 

The eerie beauty of this song easily captured something of the confusion and wonder of that moment when Jesus was manifested in full magnificence. Hearing this each time on the playlist was always a distracting moment, but a welcome one as it reminded me each time that the true object of my task last year was not knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but worship.

Bon Iver - Bon Iver
Yes, I decided to include the whole album on my playlist. When I was re-listening to the playlist at Easter, Alison asked me why I had included Bon Iver, since it doesn't seem particularly apocalyptic. The reason was quite simple: the whole album is about place and space, people and time. Given that each of these four elements are significant features of creation, it felt quite fitting to include the whole. It was a constant reminder to me that what I was writing about eschatology needed to connect somehow with a doctrine of creation.

With 2 Peter 3 serving as the locus classicus for those who want to argue for the total destruction of the world and a second creatio ex nihilo, the epic scale of songs like Perth and Minnesota, WI stopped that from conversation from being just theoretical, but for me at least kept my thinking focused on actual places.

Paul Kelly - Meet Me In the Middle of the Air
Like 2 Peter 3, 1 Thessalonians 4 is passage which is used in curious ways to explain various eschatological schema. What is often missed is Paul's employment of a Roman custom to comfort the Thessalonians with the hope of resurrection and the glory awaiting the living and the dead. I'm not sure if Paul Kelly is Christian, but his song perfectly brings together 1 Thessalonians 4 with Psalm 23. There's an amazing Christology involved in this, which provides a picture of his provision and care as our good shepherd.

Talking Heads - Heaven
This is one of the songs which originally featured on a playlist Alison created about clashing eschatologies. Talking Head sing 'Heaven is a place/A place where nothing/Nothing ever happens', and a little later 'It's hard to imagine that/Nothing at all/Could be so exciting/Could be this much fun'. Heaven is beautiful but tedious - perhaps purposefully so. Which stands in such contrast to the picture of the new heavens and new earth described by 2 Peter. The future envisioned by Peter, which Christians begin to inhabit at least behaviorally now, is far different from the bland nothingness of Heaven. It is instead one of beauty and justice, one which inspires the imagination and praxis of people today.

The National - Fake Empire
Whilst 2 Peter 3.10 is about every thought and deed of humanity being disclosed, Fake Empire is about 'where you can't deal with the reality of what's really going on, so let's just pretend that the world's full of bluebirds and ice skating.' It speaks of a generation disillusioned and apathetic. The soaring but simple poly-rhythm of the song inspired the Obama campaign in 2008 to use an instrumental version of the song - ironic given that the song decries modern America.

Dvorak - New World Symphony 
There's nothing like a late-romantic European symphony combined with the optimism and passion of America. Whilst Dvorak drew on several influences (such as Native-American and African-American) for his ninth symphony, it's the possibilities of the dawning age of America that he seems to capture. From the wide open planes to rising industrial might, the opening brings it all together.

It's hard not to listen to this symphony and not be caught up in the idealism, the Hegelian romanticism. Surely the Christian gospel has the resources to respond to this appeal of our imagination and desires? Herein lies the significance of articulating not just the right kind of eschatology, but also teleology, which longs indeed for a new world, but one from freed from the sin and corruption we see around us.

Michael Nyman - MGV: Musique à grande vitesse
To be honest, I only discovered this piece this year after the Australian Ballet's performance of DGV©: Danse à grande vitesse. But I like to imagine that it would have made the list last year. In many ways MGV is not too dissimilar to Dvorak's New World Symphony. Commissioned for the opening of the TGV Paris-Lille train line in the early 1990's it's hard not to get swept up in the ambition, the movement, the progress of Nyman's creation, And having traveled on a TGV last year, this is music that's as irresistible in its energy, speed, and sheer noise, as any journey by TGV.

I like to think that with a century between, MGV is perhaps more chastened in it's optimism than New World Symphony. Nonetheless MGV is still hopeful, and that hope is inextricably tied via the TGV to the advancement of society through technology. I found myself appropriating the composition though; as the music captures journeying through landscapes I imagine myself not progressing towards modernity, but travelling through a world made new. It's the challenge of interacting with the narrative modernity - of maintaining hope without equating that hope with the story of progress. To do so we need to not lost sight of the apocalyptic, that God will intervene in history to establish his new heavens and new earth.

My Brightest Diamond - In the Beginning
I think that it is fair to say that there was a particular flavour to the posts on this blog in 2015: holding together God's work in creation and redemption as two distinct but united realities (i.e. here, here, here, and here). Shara Worden manages to achieve that in this song. She begins with slow, but majestic recounting of Genesis' account, which calls to mind the poetic insights of Tolkien and Lewis in their own creation accounts in The Silmarillion and The Magicians Nephew. 

But before long the song moves to 'This glorious day the earth is shaking hallelujah/And I will join the unending hymn hallelujah'. Bringing creation and eschaton together is brilliantly insightful, for the Christian doctrine has more to say than the opening chapters of Genesis. It has a distinct eschatological shape which is determined at the center by Christology. For it was for Jesus that all things were created, and through him by God's power and sovereignty the creation in bound for resurrection glory. As Calvin wrote in his commentary on Romans 8: '‘No part of the universe is untouched by the longing with which everything in this world aspires to the hope of resurrection.'

The Decemberists - 12/17/12
This song takes it's name from President Obama's national address in December 2012 after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I'm writing this in the wake of the latest gun tragedy in Orlando. The final lines of the song lend their name to the album: 'And O my god, what a world you have made here. What a terrible world, what a beautiful world. What a world you have made here'.

The Decemberists manage to capture the fragility of life in the fragility of 12/17/12. And the background to the song adds to the emotion of the piece - perhaps all the more so as we continue to see such tragedies in America. The challenge for me coming out of this song is not to rest satisfied with shallow answers about suffering and evil. 2 Peter 3 envisions the total removal of evil from the created order; God does not sit idly by in the face of such wickedness and tragedy, and his patience should not be mistaken as such. Instead, the terribleness of this world we be held to account when it is overwhelmed with Christ's righteousness.

Five Iron Frenzy - World Without End
Five Iron are more Alison's band than mine. But having listened to them on countless car trips over the last decade, they have grown on me. And with the phrase World Without End appearing in my project title, this song was always guaranteed to be on this list. A translation of Ephesians 3.21, and based on the Latin phrase in saecula saeculorum, world without end as it was used in English liturgy was connected to the idea of eternity - forever and ever. Connected with God's creation, human or not, the phrase speaks not of our immortality, but God's election to be our God forever, not only God with us, but God for us. It was this conviction which lead the church over 1800 years to read 2 Peter 3.10 in light of other passages such as Romans 8, and hope that this travailing world would be transformed and renewed rather than annihilated and destroyed.
In the soundless awe and wonder,
Words fall short to hope again.
How beautiful,
How vast Your love is,
New forever,
World without an end.

Other honourable mentions:

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Servant in Word and Deed

Several weeks ago I was ordained as a deacon in the Anglican Church of Australia. It was in many ways a curious occasion, baffling as much to some who were there as it was to those who watched via the immediacy of social media: 27 men and women dressed in long, flowing robes on a warm, Sydney summers day; a formality in a service amidst a city which does not handle gravitas very well; a seriousness of commitment and vocation from members of a generation who easily default to irony, sarcasm, and cynicism. For all these contradictions it was for me the culmination of 15 years of prayer and discernment, a reminder of God grace calling me out of darkness and into his light, and a delight to share the day with my family and friends.

The office of deacon is an ancient one, originating in the days of the Apostles, with a particular charge to care for the welfare of the church. Whilst the record of the early church testifies to attention of the deacon towards widows and orphans, the rise in prominence of the mass obscured the once prominent role of aid and care in a deacons vocation. One of the recoveries during the reformation in the English Church was to return this purpose to the diaconate. The is was reflected for instance in Book of Common Prayer 1662, whilst deacons where to be placed in local churches to assist in preaching, reading, catechizing, and distributing the Lord's Supper, their peculiar task where applicable was 'to search for the sick, poor, and impotent people of the Parish' that they might be relieved through the parish alms. In many ways this represented the thinking of reformer Martin Bucer, whose presence in England in 1549-1551 left a lasting impact on Cranmer and the production of the second Book of Common Prayer in 1552. Bucer believed that the priority of a deacons work was in the care for the poor of the parish. This formed an integral part of the church's work, rather than a periphery activity, bestowed upon the church by divine right and commandment. This was reflected in the the service for Holy Communion, during which the deacons were to collect alms not for the needs of the church, but the welfare of the poor.

For the Reformers like Bucer and Cranmer, this was in many ways a recovery of the apostolic church's commitment to the gospel, and the priority to preach the gospel in word and deed. The Apostles of course had taught that true faith and a right grasp of Holy Scripture would evidence itself through deeds of mercy (James 2.1-23). Materialism was condemned as a grievous sin (1 Timothy 6.17–19; James 5.1–6), whilst the church would gain a reputation for its love of and care for the poor. A special class of officers—deacons—were established to coordinate the church’s ministry of mercy. We should not be surprised then that the first two sets of church leaders were word-leaders (apostles) and deed-leaders (the diakonoi of Acts 6).

The Acts of the Apostles is a case in point. One way to summarize Acts is as the triumph of the word, as the gospel spreads from Jerusalem outwards into the world, unbound and unhindered even under the nose of Caesar in Rome (Acts 28.30-31). In Acts evangelism is the basic and foundational form of ministry, as the eternal, objective, reality of Christ's Lordship is extended to people's hearts. Nevertheless, in Acts ministries of mercy are inseparably connected to evangelism. So much so that Acts draws a close connection between the sharing of possessions and the multiplication of converts through the preaching of the word. The descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the explosive growth in numbers (Acts 2.41) were connected to radical sharing with the needy (2.44–45). After the ministry of the Seven diakonia was firmly established, 'the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly' (Acts 6.7).

Ministry of the word is the most basic as it is the ministry which most fully remedies the roots of 'the human condition'. Whilst God while redeem both our souls and our bodies, it is the ministry of the word and prayer which cuts to the heart, killing the root of sin and death. However, the Acts of the Apostles teaches that ministries of word and deed are both necessary, inseparable, and interdependent.

Whilst there is always a danger within the threefold order that word will overwhelm deed, it is fitting that within the present arrangements the office of deacon should seek to combine the priority of these three principles; that is the unity of word and deed. The first deacons, Stephen and Philip, are exemplars of this.Thus, the priority of the deacon's vocation within the church is to embody God's provision to the church of ministries both in word and deed.

ALMIGHTY God, who by thy divine providence hast appointed divers Orders of Ministers in thy Church, and didst inspire thine Apostles to choose into the Order of Deacons the first Martyr Saint Stephen, with others: Mercifully behold these thy servants now called to the like office and administration; replenish them so with the truth of thy doctrine, and adorn them with innocency of life, that, both by word and good example, they may faithfully serve thee in this office, to the glory of thy Name, and the edification of thy Church; through the merits of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and for ever. Amen.
       - Collect from the Ordering of Deacons, Book of Common Prayer.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Incarnation and Passion: On The Annunciation and Good Friday

This Friday marks a curious occasion for observers of liturgical calendars. For whilst this Friday is Good Friday, the day recalling Jesus crucifixion, this Friday - occurring on March 25 - is also the Feast of the Annunciation, recalling the day upon which the angel Gabriel appeared to the Blessed Virgin Mary. By extension, this day was considered to be day on which Jesus was conceived; a deduction arrived at through the early celebration among Christians of Jesus' birth on December 25. So significant was the Feast of the Annunciation that until 1752, it was regarded in England as the commencement of the New Year.

This confluence Good Friday and Annunciation, whilst rare, is not unheard of. The last time this occurred was in 2005; but it won't happen again until 2157 (although if recent attempts to set the date of Pascha/Easter are carried through, it may never happen again). This is a rare occurrence and a special one, because it means that for once the day falls on its 'true' date: in Patristic and Medieval tradition, March 25 was considered to be the historical date of the Crucifixion.* Whereas today many churches will celebrate the Annunciation at a later time, in Patristic and Medieval practice the celebration/commemoration were combined. What this provide us with is an opportunity to consider together Jesus incarnation and death in a way we would not normally do. In Australia there has been a type of this in the appearance of Hot Cross Buns in supermarkets from Boxing Day. But much more than than, we have an opportunity to reflect on the one who did not exploit his equality with God, but became human, learnt obedience and died on a cross. It is the trajectory we see in a passage like Philippians 2, and discernible in the Gospel's account of Christ's temptation. Faced with the opportunity to be the Messiah and not face death, Jesus turned down the advances of the satan and pursued the route which would lead to his death.**

That the incarnation and redemption are bound together is actually on view from the beginning of Matthew's Gospel. In Joseph's annunciation we are told that Mary 'will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.' Jesus assumed our nature, so that from within our flesh we might be redeemed: 'Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death' (Hebrews 2.14-15). Made human in every way, he was to make atonement for our sins.

By the fourth century in the thinking of Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus this would be crafted into the phrase 'What is not assumed cannot be redeemed'. The sharpness of this statement reflects that a lucid awareness of the connection between incarnation and redemption was long present in the early church. Earlier, in the second century, Irenaeus had said:

For it was incumbent upon the Mediator between God and men, by His relationship to both, to bring both into friendship and concord, and present man to God, while He revealed God to man...For it behooved Him who was to destroy sin, and redeem man under the power of death, that He should Himself be made that very same thing which he was, that is, man; who had been drawn by sin into bondage, but was held by death, so that sin should be destroyed by man, and man should go forth from death. 
This concurrence of Annunciation and Passion took place in 1608 and was marked by John Donne with his poem: Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day, 1608. Not as well known as other Donne poems, it is nonetheless a rich piece of work which explores the interplay set out in the second line: the ‘hither and away’ Christ comes by the word of Gabriel through the Holy Spirit, and is taken away on the cross:
Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came and went away;
She sees Him nothing twice at once, who’s all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall,
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive yet dead;
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen;
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity,
At once receiver and the legacy;
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the Angels’ Ave and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God’s court of faculties,
Deals in some times and seldom joining these!
As by the self-fixed Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where the other is and which we say
(Because it strays not far) doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to Him, we know
And stand firm, if we by her motion go;
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud, to one end both.
This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one:
Or ‘twas in Him the same humility
That He would be a man and leave to be:
Or as creation He had made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating Spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, He is gone:
Or as though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords;
This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.
The coincidence of feast and fast gains rather than loses from being a rare occurrence, as Donne suggests - falling 'some times and seldom'. Although these coincidences often have their origin as much in pragmatic decisions about the calendar as in theology, with the kind of approach Donne exemplifies here they can be read in meaningful and imaginative ways. Through such eyes, a meeting of feasts like this year's is not exactly a coincidence, but perhaps one of those 'occasional mercies' of which Donne writes elsewhere: 'such mercies as a regenerate man will call mercies, though a natural man would call them accidents, or occurrences, or contingencies'.

Whilst it leaves Donne unsure as to whether he should feast or fast, the combination of both holy days brings together two gospel events which are often held apart. There are, in fact, two parts of the same move by the Lord who condescended himself first in human nature, and then in human death. 'This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown | Death and conception in mankind is one: | Or ‘twas in Him the same humility'. This overlay of incarnation and crucifixion, feast and fast, fixed date and movable observance, offer us an insight into the economy of God's salvation: that for us and our salvation, he came down from heaven.

[Update: A Clerk of Oxford has, independently and several sources, published on this here]
* See Augustine's explanation here.
** With thanks to my teacher, Dr David Höhne for this point.