Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Role of Imagination and Theology in the Public Space.

This book explores the vital role of the imagination in today’s complex climates—cultural, environmental, political, racial, religious, spiritual, intellectual, etc. It asks: What contribution do the arts make in a world facing the impacts of globalism, climate change, pandemics, and losses of culture? What wisdom and insight, and orientation for birthing hope and action in the world, do the arts offer to religious faith and to theological reflection?

These essays, poems, and short reflections—written by art practitioners and academics from a diversity of cultures and religious traditions—demonstrate the complex cross-cultural nature of this conversation, examining critical questions in dialogue with various art forms and practices, and offering a way of understanding how the human imagination is formed, sustained, employed, and expanded. Marked by beauty and wonder, as well as incisive critique, it is a unique collection that brings unexpected voices into a global conversation about imagining human futures.

Imagination in an Age of Crisis: Soundings from the Arts and Theology. Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2022.

Available now at a special introductory price of 40% off. Use the code “Crisis40” at checkout through Wipf & Stock, or through customer service by phone (1-541-344-1528), or via email.

The Editors

Rev Dr Rod Pattenden is an artist, art historian, and educational facilitator interested in the connection between spirituality and the arts. He has written and lectured widely on these aspects of the arts and creativity in Australia and overseas.

He was for many years the chairperson of the Blake Prize for Religious Art and a founding Director of InterPlay Australia.

He has particular strengths in the areas of the visual arts, performance skills, movement and exploring the processes of creativity. Rod has a BA Visual Arts (Arts Practice), M Phil (Art History), M Theol (Hons), PhD and a Dip Ed. For more information about Rod go to Rod Pattenden.

Rev Associate Professor Jason Goroncy teaches in the area of Systematic Theology at Whitley College. He has served as pastor in Baptist and Uniting churches, and held academic positions in Thailand, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand.

He holds a Bachelor of Education from the University of Melbourne, a Bachelor of Theology and an Advanced Diploma of Ministry from the Melbourne College of Divinity, and a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of St Andrews (Scotland).

For more information about Jason Goroncy go to Jason Goroncy.

Rod says:

It is a rich collection of articles on culture and religion interspersed with reflections by artist and poets. A global collection that includes many Australian contributors plus leading international voices. Richly illustrated in colour – it will be of wide interest to those who take a progressive approach to faith and are interested in the role of imagination and theology in the public space.

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Book Review: Don Cupitt’s “The Meaning of the West”

Thanks to Peter Robinson for recalling this review after attending our very stimulating seminar last week with the Merthyr Explorers. If you can’t find time to read the whole review, key statements are highlighted and indented.

Greg Spearritt reviews The Meaning of the West: An Apologia for Secular Christianity (SCM, 2008) by Don Cupitt

(Reviewed April 2009)

Does Australia feel like the Kingdom of God to you? Would America? Okay, how about Sweden?

A decade ago Australian sociologist John Carroll declared the West all at sea and “lost in a crisis of meaning”. 1. He has subsequently traced the cause of the crisis to the unravelling of the mythos and authority of religion which once held everything together.2. Postmodernism and humanism, for Carroll, have much to answer for.

In stark contrast, Don Cupitt in his latest book argues that the postmodern, humanistic West just is Christianity nowadays. It’s the inheritor of Christianity, the logical and unravelled end point, the Kingdom Come (to quote another Cupitt title), and it is to be embraced and celebrated.

Who to believe?

West is best

I’ve heard people talk of exotic locations around the world as very special places that are still in touch – and can put you in touch – with the sacred, that essential dimension of life so often said to be missing from good ol’ Australian (or American, British etc.) materialist culture. I’m thinking of Angkor Wat, Mandalay, Kathmandu, Luxor and Mecca. But I haven’t heard of too many Western folk who actually want to move permanently to those places, or for that matter to anywhere outside the fold of progressive, liberal-democratic Western countries. There are plenty from elsewhere, however, who desperately want to live in the West.

And for good reason. They may not be perfect, but Western societies look after their own like no-one  else does, including their weaker members and even those who dissent from prevailing political or social views. (Would you rather be gay in Abuja, Riyadh, Beijing or Sydney?) Western technology is the envy of the rest of the world, even of people like Osama bin Laden who use it to attack the West. Western medicine gives us an ever-longer, healthier lifespan. Western governments actively seek the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of their people and contribute to the well-being of the world’s poorest through (relatively) string-free aid budgets. (That’s not to mention the work of Western NGOs such as Oxfam, Red Cross, Amnesty International and Medicins sans Frontieres.) The West is innovative, constantly on the move, and – most important of all? – it loves life wholeheartedly.

For all of this, says Cupitt, we have the Christian tradition to thank.

We’re all Christian now

Western humanitarianism, for example, is a straightforward continuation of Christian ethics and derives ultimately from Jesus, who was “quite uninterested in dogma and cared only for the ethics of human relationships – and especially, for our response to a fellow human in need.” (140) Jesus’ unique attitude to women is the reason we have women’s shelters which, unless run by Westerners, are not to be found in the Middle East.

To be clear, this is not the old Church-Christianity at work:

The Church clings to its old inefficiencies, discriminations and injustices, and repeatedly demands for itself opt-outs from legislation that would require it to get its treatment of its own employees, women, gays and other groups up to decent contemporary secular standards. (34)

Organised Christian religion, always intended as a stop-gap measure, cannot let go of influence and power and deliver the final redemption from itself that it promised:

[I]n the traditional language of theology, Christ has returned and the Church is obsolete (though, as Dostoyevsky foresaw, the Grand Inquisitor is far from pleased; he loves the Church and spiritual power much more than he ever loved Christ). (10)

No, we have now what a dying Christian tradition has bequeathed: the secular West, vibrant, post-metaphysical, non-theistic and with a radical vision of the Kingdom of God. Contra Carroll, the very fibre of the West is infused with religion: it’s Christian to the core.

The place of religion in our lives “is now taken just by an intense, quasi-religious love of life and the assiduous cultivation of life skills”. (2) This world is what matters, not some future supernatural home. Cupitt contrasts the West with a theocentric, disciplinarian and less humanistic Islam: “The Islamist”, he says, “loves death, but the Westerner loves life”. (9) In truth, you see very few Australian, American or European suicide bombers.

The ancient biblical dream of a blessed future world, however, is alive and well in the West. Secular peace and prosperity for ordinary folk: that’s the goal, derived from a Christian theology of history which informed the Enlightenment view of steady historical progress. Our “indelible” belief in the betterment of ourselves and our society, says Cupitt, is Christian through and through.

Another major distinguishing feature of the West is the importance accorded to reason and critical thinking. In science and technology Western societies are second to none. Why so?

The monotheistic Judaeo-Christian tradition taught us that there is one divine Law, one Truth operating everywhere: the Creator made it all, made it consistent, and made it for our benefit. It was all made to make sense. In the creation and incarnation we see the transfer from God to man of the power to “impose language upon the chaos of experience, and so create an ordered, law-governed world” – and the impetus to see that world as valuable. (7)

Then, too, we have the monk in his cell struggling with sin and obedience, living a radically ‘examined life’ of continual self-criticism. His asceticism, says Cupitt, became in time externalized and “was transformed into the professional discipline of the scientist” (55), the same rigorous scepticism and testing that is the hallmark of the modern science. Ironically, given this origin, critical thinking means nothing is sacred: everything is open to reform and reappraisal. Christianity, it turns out, is self-secularising.

Life in the void

Critical thought is one hallmark, also, of postmodernism, in which, as Richard Tarnas describes it, “the value of all truths and assumptions must be continually subjected to direct testing.” 3.

The effect of this endless questioning is the realisation that “all human understanding is interpretation, and no interpretation is final.” (Tarnas again, 397) In Cupitt’s terms, the end of the religious life is nihilism. We “see through” it all and – like Buddhists – find nothing substantial behind our fictions, images and metaphors:

The whole point of the idea of God is that God is impossible… we have to go all the way in the religious life (guided by someone like St John of the Cross) before we can fully understand our human situation and learn both to love life and to make the most of it and to accept death.” (109)

The nihil, this Nothingness or lack of Meaning, can be frightening and depressing, but it’s not necessarily so – nor is it the last word. In the end there is not even nothingness: just the dance of life to delight in and assent to while it lasts. Cupitt’s practical advice? “Just love your neighbour and live as affirmatively as you can until you drop.” (153)

There is much more in The Meaning of the West than I can convey here to persuade us that we are indeed living out secular Christianity. Cupitt the theologian, though he has given up on the church, is enthusiastic about what it has spawned, and he describes and accounts for our secular life in theological terms with, in my view, remarkable success.

On earth as it is in heaven?

If Cupitt is right, however, why does life in the West not feel like the Kingdom come? Very few Westerners would claim to be living in paradise, even, I suspect, in Sweden. There is a definite downside to the West.

What, for example, of our rampant consumerism, cancerous economic growth, exploitation of poorer countries through unfair terms of trade, environmental degradation and so on? (And now, the West presents… the GFC!). They’re all well-known and oft-remarked shortcomings of Western life. However, that’s the point. They are remarked upon, examined, criticised – and ultimately acted upon. Cupitt is not saying we’ve made it: indeed, we wouldn’t be the West if we had. We’re an inexorable work in progress, going substantially nowhere much like a soap opera, but making small and what Cupitt calls “indelible” gains. And the gains cannot be denied. Slavery, sexism, racism and child exploitation all still exist, but they’re officially outlawed and for the most part swiftly jumped upon when they come to light. It’s hard to believe that any of them could ever again be accepted practice in the West.

Then there is the question of meaning, the issue John Carroll takes up with largely pessimistic gusto. There is indeed in the West psychological disconnectedness and fragmentation, not to mention the malaise of ennui. (Don DeLillo in White Noise describes us as a society in which we’re all queued, amusing ourselves with bright, trashy magazines as we await the final checkout.)

Of course that’s not the whole picture; it’s no more true than Cupitt’s positive portrait of Westerners hard at work, joyfully creating and cultivating their own lifestyles.

It’s true, however, that year by year fewer of us find any real nourishment within the churches. As Cupitt puts it, we have outgrown “the repressive boarding-school culture of the Church” (72), not to mention its ludicrous supernatural claims. But I don’t believe most of us are ready yet to just accept transience and secondariness as utterly beautiful, and at the end “be content to pass away along with everything else.” (14)

For many years, Cupitt has been trying to persuade us that we must do just this, but he knows it’s no easy sell:

[E]ven today completely demythologized thinking remains too difficult for most people… even today people remain reluctant to recognize the extent to which we construct our world and ourselves within the motion of our language. (24-5)

I’m not convinced that it will ever be possible to achieve widespread acceptance of this. The fact is, we need stories. We need to remythologise (and again, Cupitt knows it: unless we can infuse the liberal-nihilistic story with “religious feeling and symbolism” it will never win people over – 31).

Unfortunately, it’s hard to persuade ourselves that the stories we make up can be as valid and fulfilling as those that are passed down to us, even when we know those old tales to be fictions (and even, at times, outrageous and despicable lies). In fact, Cupitt acknowledges this: we do need fictions to think with, he says. But his caveat is salutary, and I see it as the rationale, short, simple and complete, for the Sea of Faith network: we don’t have to be enslaved by them.

Can we truly live by a story that we know to be fiction? It works for art; can it work for life? I regret to say that I expect I’ll still be wondering on my death-bed.

So is the West to be joyfully embraced because it’s simply the closest thing to paradise that we’re ever going to achieve? While it has much to recommend it over theocratic dictatorship and over the world-denying Christianity of the past, if I’m honest I’d have to say it still has the cast of a consolation prize, a poor second-best to the old story of Life Eternal in a Better Place. Oh well, we all have to grow up sometime. Learning to love being grown-up: that’s the challenge.

Notes

  1. Ego and Soul: The Modern West in Search of Meaning (HarperCollins, Sydney, 1998) 1. See my 2000 review.
  2. See The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited (Scribe, 2004)
  3. Richard Tarnas The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped our World View. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991) 395.

The Reviewer: Greg Spearritt is coordinator of SOFiA. SOFiA is a network of Australians interested in openly exploring issues of life and meaning through reason, philosophy, ethics, religion, science and the arts.

For more information about SOFiA go to SOFiA.

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Book of interest available from author

by George Stuart

George says: “If you are wanting to buy a copy of my book, ‘Starting all over again? Yes or No?’, I have some at present, available for purchase at $25. Please contact me on george.stuart@exemail.com.au.”

John Smith has this to say about George’s book:

““Starting all over again? is a timely book from a man of faith, because it provides encouragement and wisdom for all who are struggling to find a faith grounded in honesty, integrity and most of all in compassion. George is well known by progressive Christians for his composing of modern lyrics expressing the theology that has developed as a result of his search for his unique spiritual voice. Christians seeking to express their spiritual beliefs have been blessed by George’s compositions (Singing a New Song), because they can now sing with integrity as well as passion. For all who are searching for a faith with integrity George’s book is a must read.”

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Book Review: Telling Our Faith Stories

My story and your stories within the great story of the universe.

Kevin Treston

Dr Kevin Treston, OAM has been involved in educational ministry for over 60 years and worked in many countries. He is a member of the Association of Practical Theology Oceania.

Written in the context of a crisis in Western Christianity, a global pandemic that changed social mores and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kevin Treston has provided us with a great resource. It invites each of us to reflect on our own faith journey, note the steppingstones, share the accounts, and observe how they together form ‘the story of the universe…woven into a magnificent and mysterious narrative”.

Life is lived forwards but understood backwards Kierkegaard.

My observation of Kevin over a long period is of a person who has instinctive teaching skills. He is someone who lives every day as a learning experience to which he intentionally adds his own persona and gives witness to a driving force he calls the Divine Presence. But he warns of the limitations of language to describe the nature of all that is God and locking that into an orthodox doctrine.

Kevin takes a refreshingly rational approach, as an ‘insider’ of the faith, towards dogma and doctrine and the part they play in religions. He sees the limits they place on the ‘divine expanse of an inclusive God’ and how they lock out great possibilities for growing our consciousness away from bigotry and sectarianism. Clearly, our faith stories are enriched when we allow our consciousness to evolve as a result of our interaction with new perspectives.

The author has faced many faith challenges including from the Church itself but has refused to be distracted by negativity as he continues to seek after elusive truths and to encourage others to do the same. He unpacks many key doctrines and throws light on emerging questions about the universe and the ‘evolutionary progression of all things’ and how Jesus has bequeathed to us a new consciousness, ‘a prophetic dream’ of love and compassion across space and time in the face of much gloom and cultural pessimism.

This is a book to enjoy, to study, to share and discuss and to interact with. If it leads to personal reflection on one’s own journey it has served its purpose well. The author manages to take his own Catholic faith journey and demonstrate how anyone regardless of denomination or religion can benefit from pausing to consider where their journey has been and where it may be taking them. I was greatly moved by the depth of critical thinking in this book. A great read.

Dr Paul Inglis, UCFORUM, June 2022

Can be purchased directly from Kevin Treston. Contact Kevin at 07 385 1712 or kevintreston@gmail.com. Cost $25 plus postage.

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Book Review: Does Australia Love its Neighbours?

Lived experiences of Queenslanders working with people seeking Asylum.

 

 

Compiled by Rebecca Lim

Edited by Brigid Limerick and Fiona Hardy

 

 

Article 14 (1) of United Nations Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1947 provides a guarantee to the “right to seek and be granted asylum in a foreign territory”. But the declaration leaves it up to each country to constitute its own definitions of ‘asylum seeker’, or ‘refugee’ and construct its own policies on treatment.

Rebecca Lim is a Brisbane-based immigration and community engagement practitioner who co-founded the Brisbane On Arrival Refugee and Asylum Seeker Response Group. Together with Dr Brigid Limerick, former Associate Professor of Education at QUT, Dr Fotina Hardy a qualified social worker, and 17 other writers have produced a very timely publication. A significant number of refugee related organisations related to the work of Rebecca and her team, often themselves becoming better informed by the relationship. The result is a collection of first-hand, experiential accounts of episodes in one of the most important contemporary issues challenging the world. Clearly, Australia has not demonstrated that it adheres to international humanitarian and refugee laws.

One doesn’t read a book like this for entertainment or relaxation. It provokes and stimulates and draws out the emotions because of the hard truths it presents. From the highs of the huge public response in demonstrations and voice to the lows of ever harsher government retaliation, this material will challenge readers to evaluate their own position on refugees.

So many of these stories have never before reached the public – so much of the cruel depth of treatment has remained hidden. So much of the immense cost has been buried. They are stories of an Australian government that had increasingly made ‘detentions’ more unbearable while distancing itself from the lives they were crushing.

Nevertheless, the book offers hope and solutions that would change the context and mindset towards integrity and humanity. It is an acknowledgement and exposure of the issues as well as a recognition of the volunteers while being a plea for compassion and justice. It is also an appeal to Australian governments to get back on track with the historical commitments to refugees established by Menzies and championed internationally by successive Labor governments.

This book should be read and understood by every thinking Australian. Any Australian who has an ounce of compassion for refugees should do a close reading of these case studies. Every Australian who has no feeling for people seeking asylum as refugees should read it in order to reconsider their position.

The work goes on through many faith-based and other groups and individuals including the Indooroopilly Uniting Church Refugee and Asylum Seeker Hub, the St Vincent de Paul Queensland Social Justice Committee and others acknowledged in the book.

Highly recommended.

Available from:  Gregory D’Arcy for $25 (Concession $20) plus postage. Any money from this book will be returned to the refugee community.

Paul Inglis, June 2022

A more Credible Jesus of Nazareth

Thanks to Tim O’Dwyer for drawing our attention to Lloyd Geering‘s work once again. The recent opinion post with a description of progressive christianity has provoked considerable thinking in our growing subscriber list. This time we are looking at an article in the NSW UCA Synod’s paper Insights  from 2011.

Lloyd Geering, St Andrews Trust

Christianity without God

The visit to Sydney of a grand old pioneer and brilliant scholar of progressive religion has prompted me to study this booklet which he has written as a summary of his three lectures on the subject.

In 50 pages Professor Geering presents a succinct statement of all the wisdom I need to support my decision to relinquish the antiquated Christology still being promulgated today by most institutional churches.

It has also provided me with a summary of all the material I need to reconstruct my portrait of a more credible Jesus of Nazareth.

With characteristic forthrightness, Geering has presented a Jesus we have hardly ever known; he has documented the waning of orthodox Christian belief and in its place he has described the emergence of a Christless Christianity.

Surprisingly he reveals that this apparently new approach to a Christianity without Christ finds its origins among the followers of Jesus of Nazareth — but only in the few decades immediately following his death. (This was at a time before the church had the chance to make claims about a virgin birth and a physical resurrection, or elevate him to God’s right hand, or bestow upon him divine status, or credit him with miraculous feats in defiance of natural laws, or endow him with salvific powers.)

In doing so Geering has used the latest method of searching for the most reliable evidence about the historical figure on whom Christianity was founded. Approximately 200 independent world-renowned scholars from differing disciplines, including Geering himself, came together in continuing convocation to form the Westar Institute, which adopted this research methodology.

In the Institute’s Jesus Seminar, the scholars found that the truly human Jesus had been hidden under layer after layer of Christian fictions.

The trip of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the shepherds in the fields and the three wise men were all stories that were created around the latter half of the first century in order “to satisfy growing theological interests”.

Probably only an estimated 19 per cent of sayings attributed to Jesus by the gospel writers were thought to be authentic.

The real Jesus was neither intentionally the founder of an institution nor was he divine. He was a Jewish sage whose one-liners and stories about how to live were addressed to his fellow Jews but which, once memorialised, spoke universally to the human condition.

The Church itself largely created the portrait of the divine Christ, which became frozen after the first two or three centuries of the Christian era.

Nobody has yet found how the Church began. The studies lean towards the idea that it was the work of grieving followers of “the Way”, who were endeavouring to find meaning in the tragic death of their charismatic friend by looking for predictions of his sacrificial life in their Jewish bible, the Torah.

Despite the fact that the gospel record does not provide a substantially reliable account of who Jesus was and what he said and did, it has been possible to use it in conjunction with other ancient documents like the Didache and the Gospel of Thomas to describe what Geering calls “the footprints” and “voice prints” of the historical Jesus.

And, although this has meant the discrediting of much of traditional Christian doctrine and the “decline of Christianity”, it has provided a new foundation for Christian practice.

Far from being a relentlessly deconstructionist approach to traditional religion, these studies acknowledge the fact that the passing away institutions of Christianity have shaped a whole civilisation, given the world a Divinity which was and still is “an ultimate point of reference in terms of which all else is grasped” and helped people “practise their highest values” as Jesus must have done.

Lying deeply buried in cold orthodoxy, however, the real essence of what inspired the first disciples has been sensitively unearthed.

This way of loving and being has been minimised by a misrepresentation of the life of Jesus, whose words and actions have been masked by an ecclesiastical system.

This system was in many respects inconsistent with what Jesus said. But, underneath the mythical framework, the essence has remained.

It is ready to be revived and reclaimed by those who are willing to attempt to do what Jesus taught without relying on divine help from an imaginatively created Christ figure to do it.

In conclusion, Lloyd Geering throws down the gauntlet to modern-day followers of the Way, whose task is to keep the mission of Jesus alive and to witness to unconditional love in human relationships — which is what Jesus called the reign of God.

Eric Stevenson is a retired Uniting Church minister and Coordinator, Centre for Progressive Religious Thought (Sydney), www.cprtfreedomtoexplore.org.au.

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Recommended Book: About the Making of the Western Mind

Dominion

by Tom Holland, 2019, Abacus, London, 594 pages referenced.

We can highly recommend this book. It is a big read, but totally interesting, entertaining, and history with purpose and punch. This giant of a work of literature tells how Christianity changed the way humans understand life and is superbly written. Paul Inglis, May 2022.

“Dominion tells the epic story of how those in the West came to be what they are, and why they think the way they do. Ranging from Moses to Merkel, from Babylon to Beverley Hills, from the emergence of secularism to the abolition of slavery, it explores why, in a society that has become increasingly doubtful of religion’s claims, so many of its instincts remain irredeemably Christian. Christianity’s enduring impact is not confined to churches. It can be seen everywhere in the West: in science, in secularism, in gay rights, even in atheism. It is –  to coin a phrase – the greatest story ever told.” Publishers comments.

“Written with terrific learning, enthusiasm and good humour. Holland’s book is not just supremely provocative, but often very funny.” Dominic Sanderbrook, SUNDAY TIMES

I purchased from Dymocks for $24.95

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Sharing of more on truth telling and the Bible.

At last month’s gathering of The Merthyr Explorers (New Farm Q), Tim O’Dwyer took home from the table of free books this slim volume:

WHAT JESUS DIDN’T SAY by radical biblical scholar GERD LUEDEMANN.

Booksellers Barnes & Noble give this overview:

Biblical historians have long held that the New Testament abounds in sayings incorrectly attributed to Jesus. In order to assemble as complete a collection of authentic sayings as possible, they have, for the most part, been intent on seeing how the sayings deemed authentic are connected to one another, and attempting to picture their specific contexts. In What Jesus Didn t Say, Gerd Ludemann flips the coin and focuses on the inauthentic words of Jesus not only those thought to be clear inventions, but also sayings that exhibit noteworthy alterations to their original form and intent. For his selection, he uses sayings that: are attributed to Jesus after his crucifixion; presuppose a pagan rather than a Jewish audience; involve situations in a post-Easter community; reflect the editorial influence of the author. According to Ludemann, the sheer abundance of inauthentic Jesus-sayings demonstrates that, soon after his sudden and dramatic death, he became the center of a new faith. From the very beginning, Christians imagined what answers Jesus would offer to the questions that arose among them. When the words they recalled no longer seemed adequate, they revised or invented new sayings to suit the existing situation.

Luedemann eventually reaches this prophetic conclusion:

FICTIONAL JESUS-SAYINGS AND THE QUEST FOR TRUTH

“We cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.” Paul, Ephesians 4:25

Any contemporary person who turns to the New Testament for objective information about Jesus is bound to come away feeling queasy. Although early Christians acclaimed truth as a component of holiness and condemned lying as one of the sins they had supposedly overcome, the utterances attributed to Jesus in the New Testament Gospels are for the most part heavily redacted or wholly invented sayings intended to edify the earliest Christians, many of whom were waiting for Jesus to return from Heaven. Unfortunately, the Church today often proclaims these texts to be the Word of God, even though scholars – many of them committed Christians – long ago discredited them as inauthentic.

It must be remembered, however, that the revisers and inventors were persuaded of the authentic nature of these sayings. Thus they were not acting deceptively, but rather believed that by their actions they were responding to a higher truth. Still, it is beyond question that by today’s standards these Christians propagated lies and that, since the lies remain part and parcel of Christianity’s received Scriptures, the Church’s transmission of falsehood continues unabated.

Clearly, this preponderance of spurious Jesus-sayings gravely undermines any assertions of their religious validity, and obliges the serious reader both to reassess the New Testament Gospels, and to recognise that apart from a relatively small number of authentic reports they are to be valued primarily as museum pieces.

Finally, it would seem axiomatic that the search for ultimate truths cannot afford to have its foundations riddled with untruths. Therefore, since these many falsely ascribed sayings remain fundamental elements of the Christian tradition taught in both church and seminary, it seems evident that only a radical and sweeping exegetical reform can save that tradition from increasing irrelevance and eventual self-destruction.

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A further Reflection after a reading of God and Empire

God and Empire – John Dominic Crossan

Rodney Eivers

8th February 2022

Given my minor role of bookseller, an enquirer had wondered whether I had any copies available of God and Empire. I did not, but the topic sounded interesting so I acquired a copy and set out to read it myself.   While written in 2007, I found the argument this book puts is very relevant to the state of world affairs in 2022.

In delving into God and Empire, one comes soon to discover why John Dominic Crossan has such a pre-eminent place in Bible scholarship. His is a wide and generalised view of history but well backed up by anthropological and literary research to support his claims. An example of such detail would be in relation to the claim that Paul and fellow Christians upset the Roman hierarchy by referring to Jesus as “Lord” or “Son of God” when such titles were owned solely by the emperor of the day. This is a view commonly stated.  Crossan, however, provides numerous examples which can still be seen today where such titles for the emperor are inscribed in stone monuments from that period.

As the title implies, the book takes a broad sweeping view, as other writers also continue to do, of those first few centuries of the common era. * As the subtitle says it was “Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now”.  But this is not a treatise akin to other popular studies over the years seeking to tell the story of the triumph of Christianity over the Roman Empire. It is much more a warning directed at Christians today to be careful and selective about how they read and understand the Bible. The empire, which he explores and draws as paralleling the power of Rome, is that of the current United States of America. In its conclusions and perspectives, it is an observation of the growing polarity of American society.

Given my own ethnic origins and nationality I had been expecting more generalisation so as to include the relationship of Christianity to other historically dominating entities such as the British and Islamic empires, but that is not even hinted at. Such comparisons by other writers elsewhere could make interesting reading.

“God and Empire” introduces a theme which Crossan expands in his later book, “How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian” (previously reviewed here). This is to draw the contrast between retributive justice (ill will and punishment) and distributive justice (goodwill and the sharing of resources and responsibility) attributable to God as told in the Bible. Within the Bible there are as many depictions of a God of violence as there are of a God of peace and love.

The big reminder to us, including me, is to be wary of the claim that we can stick to the New Testament with the Jesus story as a recipe for an environment of peace and harmony. We may be tempted to discard, or at least downplay, by contrast, whatever we may derive from the Old Testament.

Crossan’s message is that the New Testament with its climax depicted in the book of Revelation can hold its own for savagery with the Old Testament stories. And he reminds us that the protagonist in Revelation is revealed clearly as Jesus himself.

I write this at the very time when Russia and The United States are facing off each other with the prospect of war in Ukraine. Crossan notes one ancient writer’s observation in relation to the wars which shaped the middle east at the time of Jesus. We can anticipate the prospect of major conflict.  He quotes the danger given from that period being demonstrated when one power, in his case, Greece was rising in influence when another power (Persia) was waning. This, of course, is the very situation we are facing with the rising influence and belligerence of China and the decline and loss of direction in America.

All this current war talk upsets me. Have we not learned from the slaughter of the previous century? With the United Nations and other international groupings, we have the structures for international cooperation. Despite this, nationalism continues to reign supreme. I was most disappointed by the withdrawal of Britain from the European community – Brexit. Instead of confronting Russia and China with threats of military reprisal why not invite them to join NATO and other consultative bodies?

Even more disappointing is it that our Christian churches gives this issue little priority. The threat of war is right up there with destructive climate change as an issue to be faced by our children and grandchildren. And yet I see only token protest by our mainstream churches at the rhetoric of violence which we have been seeing in our news headlines over the past twelve months and more.

I see very few attempts to highlight the issue. Recently in looking down a list of intercessory topics suggested for the Uniting Church Assembly the issues of bringing God’s attention to the prevention of war between nations was right at the bottom of a very long list.

In a rare exception, at the micro level, however, it was heartening to view the ABC’s TV Compass programme recently depicting the action by a small group of Catholic lay people. They risked jail for bringing to the attention of the Australian public the military purposes of the surveillance establishment at Pine Gap near Alice Springs.

But to get back to Dominic Crossan and the American empire. His great concern is that fundamentalist, Christian America is living the biblical God of war rather than the God of peace. It is noteworthy that this book was written before the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. Trump appears to receive strong backing from many fundamentalist Christians in that country. Apparently, he still does retain their support. It seems that about half the American electorate would be prepared to vote him back into office. Furthermore, regardless of personal inclination, whoever is leader of that nation, still has to deal with that nation’s powerful military-industrial complex. This can weigh heavily on any decisions on international relationships. And for us in Australia as has become our national habit, with general agreement of both major political parties, we can expect to follow the United States into any war.

So, do the Australian churches have a contribution to make here? Surely rallying for peaceful responses to international problems is called for in being Jesus people.  We are reminded by our founder that even bad people love their friends. The challenge for us, as followers of the man from Galilee, by contrast, is to love our enemies.

Moreover, in using the Bible including the New Testament, as a recipe for living, let us be sure to be selective in our claims when we conclude our scripture readings with the assumption “This is the Word of God”.  Reason to be wary of this is well explained by John Dominic Crossan in “God and Empire”.

“God and Empire” is published by HarperOne

*A current title of this nature brought to the attention of Australian readers this year has been “After Jesus Before Christianity” by Vearncombe, Scott and Taussig.

Note: A Review of this book by Paul Inglis is available here.

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Book Review: How the World Thinks

by Julian Baggini

Apparently a better understanding of ourselves comes from having knowledge of how others think. For Baggini’s tour de force of the world’s philosophies and cultures, as they have evolved, there is much value in a willingness to listen and learn. He critiques philosophies and philosophers and for those of us in the West there are many lessons we have not learnt because of our pre-occupation with our own tradition to the exclusion of all others.

Reading this book I was reminded of the time when I surveyed 50 people on the question – Who or what is God? I received 50 different answers ranging from a physical person somewhere in the universe to a notion of love. All the answers could have been defended with biblical evidence. Our understandings, insights and points of view are hugely influenced by the context and the ‘influencers’ from which we gain knowledge. For the Western world, philosophy has distanced itself from the insights that the Indian philosophical gurus utilize. Baggini is quite critical of this failing in Western philosophy. He claims insight without analysis and critique is “just intuition taken on faith”. Analysis without insight is “empty intellectual game-playing”. His key argument is that we would profit by “sympathetically but critically engaging with both”.

One of the key debates has been whether religions (theologies) are philosophies. His thoughts on this make great reading for progressives.

Similarly the author presents a case for the overemphasis on logic in Western philosophy. He assumes that reason and logic are synonymous. We should therefore focus more on reason and rationality in our philosophizing.

This is a grand journey from Greece and earlier through Eastern to Western philosophies, secular reason, and enlightenment, truth seeking, metaphysical and rational thought  and on to modern philosophy now impacted by global influences. It is a journey I would recommend to any thinking person.

I purchased my copy from Dymocks for $27.99.

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