Winners are Grinners?

The Gospel of Jesus and Christian Celebration in 1 Corinthians 1

The Gospel of Jesus and Christian Celebration in 1 Corinthians 1

The glitter has settled on the 2018 Commonwealth Games, here in Australia’s own home of humility, the Gold Coast, and all we have now are fast-fading memories of close contests and come-from-behind victories in the pool, on the track and in the velodrome. Judged by the wisdom of the leather lounge, there seems no greater adrenaline rush than victory over one’s rivals in an athletic contest.

640px-Carrara_Stadium,_Gold_Coast,_Queensland_05

The vicarious thrill of such contests is so universal that Paul can appeal to a foot race to illustrate dedication to the task of Christian life and service in 1 Cor. 9:24-26. Yet the thrill of outperforming our fellow runners is not a motive Paul wants to encourage. What is, behind the fanfare, something of an ego trip is not compatible with the spiritual ideals Paul has long imbibed from Old Testament Scripture. Paradoxically, the Christian life is a race that leaves no room for boasting.

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Reference Manager Comparison

Following up from the previous post, which offered a link to a prezi on (postgraduate, and primarily text-oriented) research workflow, with a digital tool emphasis, here is a similar link to a prezi that compares Endnote and Zotero in particular, and notes the existence of an integrated word processor and reference manager tool called Comwriter.

Ref Mgr Prezi Sshot

You’ll have to forgive the minority of instructions that are specific to our institution here in Australia, Melbourne School of Theology (MST), along with its parent accrediting body, the Australian College of Theology. The three resources treated here are those that feature our in-house citation style. Some other interesting ones include Mendeley, ReadCube, and Docear, which combines reference management and writing with a mindmapping function, though it isn’t easy to learn, in my opinion.

One point of interest in the prezi is a comparison of the relative advantages of Endnote v. Zotero, two of the most popular reference managers. In a word, Endnote has more power under the hood for large library management and mass-editing, and offers a lot more free space online, while Zotero is more user-friendly and versatile, with better notetaking, tabbing and linking of records, and of course, it’s free, even when you’re not a student. That’s hard to beat. More details in the prezi!

Research Workflow Revisited

A few years ago I prepared a prezi to explain research workflow to students at our college, and I recently refreshed it for a seminar to some of our postgraduates. It really hints or suggests a workflow rather than fully explaining it, and it indicates some of the digital tools that may come in handy. The focus is on literary studies, in connection with my own more specific field of biblical studies. I offer the link to the prezi here again for those interested.

Research Workflow Prezi 02-2018

I have also revisited two main reference managers in recent times, Endnote and Zotero, comparing their virtues in their latest versions, so stay tuned and I’ll offer that prezi with my summary of their relative strengths, life permitting.

Philosophy of Creation Class Discussion

I recently conducted a class on Creation, Fall and Redemption, with the emphasis on creation, for a colleague’s Essentials of Philosophy class. Our conversation ranged over a number of important issues in the Christian philosophy of creation, helped by some particularly sharp and engaged students. I offer the Powerpoint here in case it’s of help. (Just discovered I have to upgrade if I’m to include the audio.)

Note of a change: I’m putting the file directly into WordPress, so anyone who couldn’t reach it before should be able to access it now.

Creation, Fall, Redemption – Ess’ls of Philosophy

I’ll have to look into that audio! I received some very intelligent questions.

The key philosophical question about creation in my mind over the past 12 months or so is, “How long of a leash does God give the created order?” That is, is every event in the world God’s doing quite directly, as Luther tended to think? Is apparent cause and effect in nature really something of an illusion? Jonathan Edwards was quite strong on this too, and the classic figure who really unplugged natural events causally from one another, I understand, was William of Ockham with his ‘occasionalism’, as it’s called. Natural law, in this model, is a way of describing the regularities in God’s actions. Then if God chooses to be ‘irregular’ and do miracles, he’s not breaking any higher law, as it were. It keep the Lawgiver in charge of the laws. That’s attractive, and protects the sovereignty of God.

But there’s also something to be said for God giving creation its own, robust existence – allowing the natural world enough autonomy that one thing can really lead to another. Billiard ball A striking billiard ball B will send it off at the appropriate angle and speed without God needing to ‘micro-manage’ that interaction. Creation is programmed to behave regularly by God, in the way it will need to if human and other life is to be possible:

As long as the earth endures,

seedtime and harvest,

cold and heat,

summer and winter,

day and night,

will never cease.

Gen. 8:22 (NIV)

Genesis 1 perhaps hints at God’s delegation of causal power to creation when it says, “Let the land produce vegetation” (Gen. 1:11), or animals (1:24). In any case, there are theological virtues that may be argued for this position as well, e.g. that it gives better assurance that we as human beings are given real existence involving genuine moment-to-moment continuity. If we follow a full-blown creatio continuua model, we might find ourselves saying that God effectively creates the world anew moment by moment. The risk there is that we become like video images, an illusion created by a rapid raster scan rate.

So for God to give natural bodies and living creatures a real moment-to-moment existence and continuity would be a true condescension and giving on his part – to introduce into existence other real entities where previously there had been none besides Him. Pondering that will rock your philosophical socks. But there is risk at this end too. Make the position too strong, and you have a creation that, once made, no longer needs God in order to ‘do its thing’. Further still, and you’re into process theology, where God is another cork in the stream of time, trying to manage things as best He can, like a very good chess player who still doesn’t know exactly what the opponent will do. I get that there are bits in the Bible where God speaks of a future that’s unresolved because of the human freedom factor (e.g. Jer. 26:3; 36:3), and we ought to take those seriously. But to imagine God as lodged in the stream of time just because we are is small-minded. I recommend Crysdale & Ormerod, Creator God, Evolving World, for an intelligent treatment of this issue. For a scientist out near the edge of a creation that’s too independent, in my view (i.e. risks dabbling with deism), but raises the same sorts of issues check out:

Van Till, H. J. “Basil, Augustine and the Doctrine of Creation’s Functional Integrity,” Science and Christian Belief 8 (1996), 21–38.

O God, Where Are You Now?

So runs the title of a David Crowder Band song from the 2005 album A Collision. The full title is appealingly quirky:

“O God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickerel Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?)”

(Now that I check the liner notes, who should have written that but Sufjan Stevens! A pretty well-known guy in alternate/folk circles. Anyway…)

So sometimes God can feel very distant, stubbornly silent or rather inert. We feel as if we’d be glad for any kind of communication from God, even if it consisted mostly of rebuke. At least we would know where we stood. Continue reading

Taking Creation Personally

At intervals through 2017 I pursued the question, “Are we on safe ground theologically to declare that not only is humanity corporately the creation of God, but you and I individually are God’s creations?”

It has been surprising just how difficult the topic of individual creation is to find in theological texts. It’s as if it is a non-issue in theology. I found brief mention in Eichrodt’s Theology of the Old Testament, and fuller mention, as might be expected, in Wolff’s Anthropology of the Old Testament (ET 1974), in section XI. Creation and Birth. William Brown is on to the issue in an essay, “Creatio Corporis and the Rhetoric of Defense in Job 10 and Psalm 139,” in God Who Creates (2000), edited by Brown and McBride.

Those two biblical passages are the best evidence for personal creation, and by themselves are enough to reassure me that we can claim to be made by God personally. But I was reassured finally to discover a theological precedent I should have been aware of before this. Martin Luther, whose 1517 door notice is being celebrated in this 500th anniversary year (surely you’ve heard!), was a big proponent of belief in personal creation. Here’s the first item from Luther’s Small Catechism (http://catechism.cph.org/en/creed.html):

The First Article: Creation

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

What does this mean? I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.

This is most certainly true.

I’m here to tell you that I don’t think the creation of the individual person is a non-issue for real people, for Joe and Jane in the pew, and the person who has never seen a pew. I believe that believing in our personal creation by God makes all the difference in the world for how we see ourselves.

I’ve explained this pretty thoroughly in a recent PowerPoint presentation, embedded hereafter.

The notes to the PowerPoint don’t show, so here they are for your reference, with slide numbers:

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An Intimidating Psalm

Psalm 119 is kind of infamous, isn’t it? It’s by far and away the longest of them all, yet by reusing its Law/Torah vocabulary systematically in each new stanza, it gives us that feeling we get where a public speaker turns a five-minute point into a thirty-minute talk. (Those of you who were at the same public function as me last night, any resemblances to the speaker there are purely coincidental.)

In my latest biblical quest, that of reading our canonical books in the Greek Old Testament (OT) or Septuagint (LXX), I have been making heavy weather of reading the Psalms, proving unable to keep up with the teaching schedule in my Psalms subject just completed at Melbourne School of Theology. I’ve been lodged just in Psalm 119 for two weeks, just finishing this morning.

It still is not an easy psalm. Just how deliriously joyful can the study of the Law be? For one thing, we probably need to broaden our understanding of ‘law’ and the similar terms used so often in the psalm. Another of this often reused set of words is, well, ‘word’, and perhaps that isn’t a bad one to focus on. The thing prized here is not just the set of prescriptions contained in our Pentateuch between Exodus and Deuteronomy. It is really “every word that comes from the mouth of God,” that is, every indication of his nature, his will, and his attitude toward us. It assumes that God has taken the trouble to let us know what he thinks of us and what he wants from us. And that’s inherently precious, and naturally to be celebrated. It’s a claim that God reaches out to us across the vast ontological gulf that naturally separates us. That’s a source of hope.

Beyond that important principle, which can help us understand a potentially inscrutable psalm, I have found a few things that help me appreciate it more:

  1. This I knew already, but half the fun of this psalm on a literary level is its acrostic acrobatics. Each stanza has eight lines, and in Hebrew, each of those eight lines begins with the Hebrew letter designated in the heading. This involves some linguistic tricks that, I’m sorry to say, only Hebrew readers really get to enjoy.
  2. Along with the parallelism that is so obvious within each verse, I notice that pairs of neighbouring verses often closely parallel one another, needless to say with plenty of Hebrew word fun along the way. Here are verses 169 & 170:
    • Let my cry come before you, O Lord;
    • Give me understanding according to you word!
    • Let my plea come before you;
    • Deliver me according to your word.
  3. The psalm is a microcosm of every other psalm genre. There is praise, of course, but there is lament over suffering, pleading for intervention, expressions of confidence, ‘imprecations’ or cursing of evil people, thanksgiving for God’s intervention and help, in a word all the different kinds of discourse we find elsewhere in the psalms. I won’t list examples, being under time pressure (as always), but read a few lines and you’ll see what I mean.
  4. On a similar note, the psalm is very personal. V. 149 pleads, “Hear my voice, Lord, according to your mercy, and in keeping with your judgment, let me live” (from the Greek). It’s all like that: intimate, raw and real, notwithstanding the device of mentioning God’s ‘law’ by some synonym in every verse.
  5. As a curiosity, I don’t actually know how we got our English numbering system; I have a vague sense that the number shapes are thanks to Arabic somehow. But I noticed that the LXX used what looks like a final-form sigma for six, then a zeta for seven, then an eta for eight. That can’t be coincidental, can it? But I’m revealing a gap in my education there. Someone better informed can add a comment telling us all where our numbers come from.
  6. Finally, the Greek of the psalm keeps using the term ‘melete‘ (with a long last ‘e’), which means something like study or close scrutiny. “Your commandments are my melete,” says v. 143. For me, one of the best ways to relate to God is through Bible study and reading, but I worry that that might be some poor egghead substitute for real, spiritual interaction with God, which leads me to a final comment.

I think that one reason that we struggle to appreciate this psalm might be, aside from a much lower tolerance of repetition than an ancient Jew, that we read the ‘law’ references in Pharisaic terms. “The letter kills,” we feel, “but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). This expresses a tension inherent to the spiritual life of the Christian, and the pendulum of church practice has swung between these two extremes. But Psalm 119 reassures us that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The letter is capable of serving the spirit as well as resisting the spirit.

Studying your Bible can be a spiritual act, a devotional thing to do, a window on the will of God. It need not be a dead letter.