The end of history and the start of hope


Niels Peter Lemche, The Old Testament between Theology and History: A Critical Survey, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

From $AUD 45 online

Is held by some Australian libraries.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Niels Peter Lemche claims that about 200 years ago Western Christians started asking the question “Did it really happen?” about events in the Old Testament. About the same time the Romantic idea of the nation state grew out of revolutions and rebellions. Kings no longer defined people. We began to speak of nations as “She”, and attributed actions to nations.

 

The combination of using the Bible as a source book for a history of Ancient Israel and the rise of nationalism was a disaster. Lemche claims that imperialistic nations felt justified in treating the inhabitants of places they conquered in the same manner as Joshua had treated the Canaanites. Because Israel, that ancient nation in the story had ignored, mistreated, dehumanised and only just tolerated the ongoing presence of the original inhabitants of the land God was giving them, so the English in Australia or the French in Africa could do the same.

 

It may be that the Holocaust happened partly because European Christians had asked of the Old Testament, “Did it really happen?” The German nation put to the ban the enemies of Christ, who were defined as not even really human beings. And paradoxically, the Israeli nation may be absorbing the same thinking when she continues to expand her settlements as if there were no Palestinians living where she seeks to build.

 

Lemche, who is Professor at the Department for Biblical Exegesis at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, reveals the process by which the critical-historical method of understanding the Old Testament has unravelled. Again and again he shows that proofs of historical events in the Bible are based on circular reasoning. No evidence for a wide-spread empire based around southern Palestine in the 9th or 10th Centuries BCE has ever been found. There is no evidence for Kings David and Solomon outside of the Bible. Lemche shows how hopeful scholars make their claims for David and Solomon from the Books of Samuel and Kings and then use the same books as evidence for those claims.

 

There is attestation outside the Bible in the 8th Century for a small “House of Omri”, which the Bible calls the northern kingdom of Israel. There is precious little other corroborating evidence for the events or the personalities described in the Bible.

The Amarna letters – evidence from the time

 

What then should we do? Discard the Old Testament as simply unreliable? Overall Professor Lemche calls us to look afresh both at the original purpose of the Old Testament and at the history of the area we call Palestine.

 

Lemche believes the Old Testament was written much later than scholars have previously argued, perhaps in the 2nd or 1st Centuries BC. It was certainly written in a time of diaspora and written for the Jews to respond to the fact that they were scattered from their land. They were in possession of two foundation myths, those of exodus and exile, so the purpose in writing was to weave these themes into an exhortation to stand apart from the people around them by turning to the God who led them out of slavery and alienation.

 

Their purpose was not to write a coherent documentary of the past; it was to create an expectation that God was continuing to act among God’s people, and that a Messiah would come to rescue them. The book of Psalms, for example, is ordered to reveal this messianic agenda.

 

The first Christians often quoted the Old Testament. In the time of Jesus, there was certainly no bound volume in Hebrew or Greek called “The Old Testament”. The New Testament authors quoted usually from the Greek translation of Old Testament books. The way Christians picked up from these books the themes of Law and Gospel, Promise and Fulfilment is covered briefly. These sections were tantalising. I wanted more on this.

 

In a lengthy Appendix, Lemche uses the tools of a modern historian to sketch a history of Palestine from pre-historic times to modern Israel: using the long perspective of the geography and fauna of the land, to the middle perspective of human occupation and land use, to the shorter perspective of the social and political groupings in Palestine. History is still important; but it is found from evidence, not from books that were always intended to be read as theology and for spiritual encouragement.

 

Professor Lemche describes himself and his colleagues in the “Copenhagen School” as “radical theologians”. He asserts that the “collapse of history” in Old Testament studies has liberated the Hebrew Bible. As he says, “We now have the stories unmolested.”

 

Niels Peter Lemche

In this volume Professor Lemche has written a comprehensive survey of Old Testament scholarship of the last 50 years. As I read it, I felt he was putting into this book his whole journey of scholarship and discovery. It is not always easy to read. He wrote it originally in Danish, and then translated it himself with help from Professor Jim West and the book’s American publisher. The result is uneven. It changes register abruptly from academic style to colloquial. The sentences are sometimes long and convoluted. For such a summative work, a thorough edit or a skilled translator would have been helpful.

 

But I found the book well worth persevering with. For some Christians, the idea of “the collapse of history” will be challenging; but for most of us, refocusing the Bible on its theological foundations and letting go of the need to find dates for the Exodus or prove Abraham existed clears the way to read afresh the Old Testament and its promise of a Messiah.

Sing a new song to the Lord


Hymns – traditional hymns – have sculpted my theological and spiritual landscape. I’m happy to worship with Dan Schutte (“Holy Darkness‘), Graham McKendrick (‘Beauty for Brokenness’), George Bullock (‘The Power of Your Love‘), and all the other contemporary praise-singers, but they have not dripped steadily, obsessively and repetitively into my heart over 60 and more years as hymns have done.

There was a time in my life when I knew the number of every hymn in Hymns Ancient & Modern Revised. If I saw the number 372 on a bus or number plate, I would immediately think ‘Almighty, Invisible, God only Wise’, and often involuntarily blurt it out – to the amusement of friends.

Many hymns have been with me since childhood. I remember beefing out ‘For Those in Peril on the Sea’ (A&MR 165) at Tambellup Primary School Anzac Day services, and singing – very slowly, with my Mum on the harmonium, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ (A&MR 160) in the little church of St Mary in Tambellup.

But there are other hymns that I remember by the person who introduced me to them: Irvin Phillips, organist extraordinaire at St Matthew’s, Armadale, thought my repertoire was incomplete without the tune ’Lucius’ and the lovely words of community that accompany it: ‘All praise to our redeeming Lord, // who joins us by his grace, // and bids us, each to each restored, // together seek his face.’ (TiS 442(i)).

David Overington, my mentor in the Franciscan Third Order, was surprised I did not know the tune ‘Blaenwern’. Together in Song suggests that we should sing ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ to ‘Blaenwern’,(TiS 590) and, David was right, it adds a depth to that old crusade song that you don’t find with the usual tunes. David also recommended singing ‘Once to every man and nation // comes the moment to decide’ to this tune; and it certainly gives the words a drive towards decision that the curly Welsh tune ‘Ton y Botel’ lacks.

Michael Pennington, Rector of Applecross when I was his curate, introduced me to Samuel Stanley’s great hymn of re-dedication: ‘O thou who camest from above // the pure celestial fire to impart…’ Michael chose it for the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, now 15 years ago. It deeply touched my own determination to continue as a priest, offering my life as a sacrifice and knowing that service brings its own reward. ‘Still let me guard the holy fire,// and still stir up the gift in me, // ready for all thy perfect will.’ (TiS 527)

I probably will never know the depth of spirituality that hymns have given me. I will continue to explore new worship music, and I will try to give new life, by giving new words, to old tunes. But it is the old hymns I credit with sustaining my faith through difficulties (‘Great is your faithfulness,’ – TiS 154) and joys (‘Hail thee festival day’, or ‘Christians, lift up your hearts’ in TiS – 423).

May the Lord grant me the joy of continuing to sing hymns; I do hope that they will be one of the options for praise in the eternal worship of the saints.

Christ’s truth


The truth about Christ

 

They wanted a Christ to blaze out the Romans,
a warrior, a men amongst men, a giant.
A Christ to right all wrongs, to fight all omens,
To end all nightmares, ultimately defiant.

 

They wanted a Christ who was nice to people,
a yes-man, a crowd-pleaser, indiscriminately tolerant.
A Christ to suit the moment, a respectable sample,
To grace society, selectively competent.

 

They wanted a Christ who hated their foes,
on our side, a party man, with the vision of a tunnel.
A Christ to back our bias, who our way goes,
To be our justification, an upside-down funnel.

 

Jesus lives with an all-blazing love,
a heart saturated with God and endless understanding.
A cruel cross joining below with above,
To be our other side, our way to God’s landing.

 

© Ted Witham, 1998

 

 

Emerging Butterfly?


Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God, Paraclete Press 2006. E-Book 2012

Reviewed by

Ted Witham

The key idea of How (Not) to Speak of God is that many Christians in the “Emergent Church” movement embrace paradox. The first few chapters unpack the implicit idea in the title: that the moment we speak of God, we deny who God is. All attempts to define or describe the Christian God are doomed.

This is, of course, not a new idea, but it is unusual for evangelical Christians to push the point as hard as Rollins does. Essentially, Christians are atheists, because our God is beyond human category. At best, we can glimpse God in icons which often appear to point away from the reality of God, but which express metaphors that are self-consciously metaphors and not definitions.

Christians are defined not so much by what they believe as by how they believe; and this dynamic faith will manifest in works of mercy and restorative justice in the real world.

The second part of this encouraging book is a series of liturgies designed by the house church in the Menagerie Bar, the pub that Rollins calls his spiritual home. The themes range from Judas to Corpus Christi to Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani. The description of each liturgy is preceded by a reflection introducing the theme. The liturgies emphasise imagination and emotion and are described in practical detail, so that readers could use them as they are, or adapt them for their own setting.

If this is the coming, emerging church, then I would not mind belonging.

Rollicking journey to Eternal Life


Eternal Life coverJohn Shelby Spong, Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven…, Harper One 2009, Hardcover 288 pages. (Under $20 on the internet.)

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Bishop Jack Spong takes his readers on a long journey to “Eternal Life“. His vision of eternal life is broad: it includes a plan for the church’s mission in the world, a plea for mysticism, and a vision of human beings transcending the limitations of the individual for a oneness with God and with others. Overall, I like his vision.

Eternal Life is a rollicking ride of the sort we have come to expect from Bishop Spong.

Jack Spong believes that religion has prevented us from seeing the grand vision by keeping us in unhealthy dependence, waiting on a father who knows best, and who in fact often manipulates us into even more dependency.

This paternalistic dynamic played out in the news as I was reading Eternal Life. It was sad to see the wonderful and feisty Sisters of St Joseph waiting on a Papa in Rome to declare that Mary McKillop was sufficiently saintly. The Sisters already consider McKillop a saint, and it appears demeaning for them to be forced to wait while a far-off authority decides whether post mortem miracles are valid or not.

Eternal Life is in part an engaging memoir. Spong traces his journey from an evangelical home in North Carolina through his teenage years in a more “catholic” Anglican parish. At each step of the way from deacon to priest, to pastoral work in parishes and to diocesan Bishop, Spong’s intellectual curiosity deepens. He is no longer content with the church’s easy answers. He liberates himself energetically from the literalist view of the Bible he inherited. More importantly, he discards the triple-decker universe of the Bible, and along with it, the concept of the transcendent God. For Spong, God is not beyond us; God is within us.

Bishop Spong describes the church’s journey as it moves from childhood to maturity and invites others to join this journey. I sense some impatience on his part with those who haven’t travelled his particular road, or who are perhaps embarked on a different journey. In interviews he often says that his intended audience are those who have left the church unable any longer to swallow the literalism and infantilism they have experienced in the church.

He criticises priests like me who understand his journey, but in order to avoid offence, sometimes cloak our language in ambiguity. I do understand the Spong dilemma, but I am trained as a pastor and educator: I try to communicate by taking people with me.

Spong is an iconoclast. He tears down superstition and pre-modern thought and clears the way for a Christianity with intellectual integrity in the modern world. Like all iconoclasts, the Bishop skirts the edge of orthodoxy. However, if a Panel of Triers in a diocese somewhere tried him for heresy, I have no doubt that he could show that all his theology accords with scripture and can “be proved thereby” and thus satisfy the canonical claims of the Anglican Articles of Religion. Iconoclast he may be, but not apostate.

I agree with Bishop Spong that the church stands on tiptoe at the edge of great changes. We need iconoclasts like him to undo our tight grip on inadequate concepts of the past, but we also need gracious guides who will inspire us and lead us confidently into that future. Spong is the first, but not, crucially, the latter.

Bishop Spong convinces me that all scripture is poetry, but fails to read scripture with the depth and sympathy that would make it sing anew.

He is keen to remind us that God is not “up there”, and demonstrates that we should instead look within to find God. This, as he says, is Mysticism 101. But he does not account for our need to reach outwards to find God. Even if the proper direction is not up, most of us feel impelled to look outwards to our fellow humans and the wondrous creation, and to listen there for God speaking to us.

He is enthusiastic to show us that faith and science are compatible, but ignores science’s scepticism for its own methodology and conclusions. Even the brashest scientists admit that science doesn’t have all the answers. Blind belief in science will not serve faith well.

Maybe all these expect too much of Bishop Spong. We should accept that his ministry is more to tear down our conceptual idols than to build up our spiritual future. We should read Spong and clear our minds, and we should also listen to our hearts and shape our own mature vision of God and God’s future. Of that, the Bishop would approve.