Mini-Book Review: Failure Is Not Final: A Life of C.H. Nash

Do you ever have a book hanging around that you guiltily feel you ought to have read?

To some mild extent, that’s how I felt about Darrell Paproth’s book, Failure Is Not Final: A Life of C.H. Nash (Sydney: Centre for the Study of Australian Christianity, 1997). Why? Because it is the story of the founder of the theological college where I work, now Melbourne School of Theology (MST), before that Bible College of Victoria (BCV), and originally Melbourne Bible Institute (MBI). I should know about this man, I thought, whose story made my own story in its current form possible. The author, too, spent a number of years from 1986 teaching at BCV, so his ministry life also symbolized the influence of this noteworthy figure of Australian Christianity from the early days of the Commonwealth (post-1901).

Biographies don’t always leap off the shelf at you, but in time I felt ready, and especially on a recent, first-time visit to Papua New Guinea, namely MST’s daughter college, the Christian Leader’s Training College in Banz, near Mt. Hagen, I found Paproth’s book a suitable companion. Continue reading

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Days of Creation Book Launch Presentation – MST Graduation 1 Dec 2014

Time is short in graduation ceremonies. Here is what I would say about The Days of Creation, if time permitted. What can we say about Genesis chapter 1?

Slide1

Genesis 1 existed in relative obscurity when the Christian church was born, though it was far from being unknown, as passages like these remind us:

For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:6 Holman Christian Standard Bible)

As centuries passed, Genesis 1 became the focus of increasing interest, including becoming the subject of a burst of preaching and commentary by figures such as Basil the Great and Augustine around 400 AD/CE. Soon it provided the dominant paradigm for Christian explanation of the origin and nature of the physical world (and a lot of other things!).

Slide2

This remained true throughout the Middle Ages and through the Reformation era. But eventually a combination of philosophical currents old and new and a weakening of traditional authority structures began to undermine this intellectual dominance. It began to break down in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, and in the nineteenth, studies of nature that once would have been carried out with reference to Genesis became independent from it.

The causes for this sombre trend are manifold, and are explored somewhat in the book. In part they have to do with a burgeoning sense of the age of the earth from the late 1600s onward – the increasingly widespread belief that the earth, like humanity, had a history whose relics could be studied, and that in fact the earth’s story significantly pre-dated the human story. One term for this is the ‘discovery of time’, and attitudes to the days of the creation week, in simplified form, can be plotted to show a trend from a time when six literal days was felt to be too long of a time for God to create (Augustine and Origen) to a time when schemes for creation days that were figuratively extended to stand for years or even ages began to be proposed.

Slide3

Learning of this trend often prompts Christians to wonder, “How then should I regard Genesis 1 when I read it now?” In my experience, the meaning of Genesis 1:1-2:3 (as well as that of Genesis 2:4-25) has been clarified by the perspective of ‘discourse analysis’, which simply means paying attention to the literary shape of the narrative and the language signals that communicate to us how the story is moving forward. Reading Genesis 1 with this awareness shows that when creation begins, three things are lacking that prevent a world as the Old Testament would perceive it from existing.

Slide4

What is missing in Gen. 1:2, which is needed to make a world, is 1) form or distinction, clear zones in which various life forms could exist; 2) fullness, i.e. living populations, inhabitants, including humans; 3) light. Light is fittingly the first thing provided, after which increasing distinctions provide places to live, and then beings are created to live in those spaces. If you’re familiar with the scientific concept of entropy or the ‘heat death’ of the universe, where temperature (energy) and other distinctions are gradually ironed out until there is nothing in any meaningful sense, creation in Genesis 1 is exactly the opposite! Creation reaches its highest distinction with the arrival of humans, the image-bearers, on Day 6.

Such an understanding works very well for following the story of human creation in Gen. 2:4-25 also.

I would like to say, then, that Genesis 1 is not only a God-inspired biblical text, but is extraordinarily versatile, given that it stems from an ancient culture in what from our perspective is an ancient world. What other creation story thousands of years old survives as unscathed as the creation week of Genesis 1? What other example presents God’s authorship of all categories of the known world while importing so little of an obsolete cosmology, while avoiding mythology, which is so prone to obsolescence? What is simpler and more practical than to categorize life by its medium, air, water and earth?

Slide5

Where we do sometimes get into trouble sometimes, I believe, is when we read Genesis as if it was written in our time, or if that’s implying too much ignorance, as if it was written just for us, just for our time in history. We sometimes ask it to make perfect sense in the twenty-first century, to sound utterly modern. This is actually selfish; it is in effect to ask that it make little or no sense to the people of God in eras other than our own, or even people in non-Western cultures in our own time. It is an ancient text, and it shows this in various ways, not least in the way it speaks about the ‘expanse’ (raqia) and the waters above it. But in its God-givenness it transcends its ancient birth in a unique way, retaining its ability to proclaim God’s authorship of and sovereignty over physical and human creation to people of every era.

The fact that we forget how ancient it is may be a sign of just how well it succeeds at this purpose.

 

Psalm 148 in All Its Glory

Having just completed an article on this psalm for our in-house journal here at Melbourne School of Theology (called Paradosis, and due out…sometime), I thought I’d sing its praises.  It is particularly carefully crafted in the Hebrew, with not a word out of place, and sound-plays (consonance and rhyme, etc.) interweaving with number symbolism, parallelism and careful ordering to produce one of the greatest psalms in the book of Psalms.  In my article I called it the ‘pinnacle’ of the Psalms, and if that stirs debate, well and good. It is as rich as a black forest cake.  Here is a synopsis of the psalm itself:

One of my favourite musical renditions of a biblical psalm is the version of Psalm 148 performed by our local Melbourne group, the Sons of Korah.  Its virtue is a good match of musical movement to the content of the psalm.  The song begins with calm dignity, “Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights above…”  It is stately, serene, taking its time.  This is appropriate: the early part of the psalm repeats the term we know in English as ‘hallelujah’ at the beginning of every poetic line, twice per verse.  Perhaps not surprisingly, besides the initial “praise the LORD,” there are seven more hallelujahs in the first block of the psalm, verses 1–4 concerning the heavenly realms.  Then in verses 5–6 they are offered a motivation for praise—their own creation and the sheer authority and permanence of the decree of God that they should be.

Verses 7–12 begin the same way, with a call to the earth, but then the pace quickens.  The ‘hallelujahs’ are left aside.  Earthly entities are called to praise in a sudden flood of names, twenty-three in all, beginning furthest from where humans live, in ocean depths and high in the atmosphere.  The following movement is towards the centres of human life, via landscape, plants and animals wild and domestic, humans in high authority, and then the common people of all kinds that we find nearby.  The Sons of Korah song captures these verses well with a sense of ascending tension achieved through an incremental ascent in pitch.  It’s striking, then, that this deliberate build-up, this list of the thirty praising entities of creation, ends in the child.

The psalm finishes in verses 13–14 by once again offering motivation for praise, but this time it is not for the reality of creation.  It is first for the sheer splendour of the name of the LORD, his innate majesty, and then for his redemptive work for Israel, “the people close to his heart.”

The Psalms never, to my knowledge, bid us (or nature!) to praise the LORD without offering us reasons why we should.  If our praise or prayer life is running out of steam, perhaps we can allow Psalms to remind us of why God is so worth it.  A good reason to begin would be his grace in allowing we “who once were far away” (Eph 2:13) to become, like Israel here, “the people close to his heart” through his mercy extended to us through Christ.