http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.51533The Christmas stories in the Bible have a message – and it is neither the commodified story of contemporary culture, nor is is the cutesy baby in a stable nativity scene. It’s a story of political subversion and social reversal, set in a particular time and place.

Humans are excellent pattern recognisers. Generally speaking.

It helps though, when we have a cue letting us know what sort of pattern to expect. Many patterns are cultural, they use recognisable signs and signifiers which make sense to those immersed in the culture they are developed in. Looking at unfamiliar signs is difficult when we aren’t immersed in a culture.

When we are overfamiliar with dumbed down versions of stories we have a double problem: we feel as though we know the story, but our knowledge is entirely out of context.

One of the key and most obvious patterns in the gospels, is that of reversals. And this is firmly established in the Christmas narratives: the virgin is pregnant, the night sky invades the day time, the king is a pauper, God is a human baby, the outcasts are welcome. The writers of these stories made these reversals deliberately, pointedly, to overturn expectations and set off a narrative of an upside down way of seeing the world.

To understand the meaning (or one of the meanings) of this pattern, we have to consider the culture of the time in which they were written. What would it mean for things to be upside down?

These stories are set at a particular time, a really important time. It was in 6 CE that Judea, Samaria and Edom became the Roman province of Judea. Roman Judea was substantially larger than it’s predecessor state had been, with an eastern border which stretched as far as contemporary Jordan and even encompassed Damascus (hence Saul/Paul and his dual citizenship). It was an important part of the Roman Empire, and its good governance was key to Roman security.

One of the key groups in maintaining this order, were a cadre of Jewish leaders known as the Pharisees. When people talk of the Pharisees in churches, they will often make much of a particular type of ancient Jewish theology, and set Jesus up in opposition to that. This way of thinking misses the obvious: the Pharisees were effectively working for the Romans. They were crushing dissent and trouble because of a political need. The theology of the Pharisees is relevant, but its particular relevance is that it was far more in line with Roman theology than their rivals the Sadducees, not that they were stuck up or full of their own self importance.

Behind all of this was a corrupt priesthood – run by a figure called Annas, who was high priest in Jerusalem between 6 and 15 CE until he was deposed, but whose family continued in the role. Think: mafia. Think: contemporary despotic regime of your choice.

So this is the context – the time that was being written about, and the time in which it was being written. A puppet state, run by a corrupted priesthood, enforced by violence. And what are the writers talking about? Reversal. Reversal of everything. And if I were to ascribe a ‘meaning’ to Christmas, perhaps that would be it. It is a scene setter for the ‘ministry of reversal’ that the Jesus movement comes to embody. Tables are literally turned. The dead are brought back to life (we must talk about Lazarus some other time).

And in the midst of this – a whole host of reversed rituals, baptism, the reversal of the Roman military Sacramentum, and the core Christian rite, the shared meal: a subversion of the Roman banquet. Everything is overturned, everything is lampooned. Its incredibly subversive – social and political dynamite.

Perhaps the point is that the only way this all makes sense, is if you stand it on it’s head. Which is why I’m so keen, on an #alternativeadvent.

 

 

talents-page1.inddSome people think that reading the Bible is all about learning ‘spiritual’ lessons. When we use words like spiritual, it’s difficult, because we don’t always share clear definitions. So what you and I are meaning when we say a word like that, may be two rather different concepts.

In any case, some people do look at the Bible in that way, that it is a ‘spiritual’ text, and this often means that it has little or no ‘earthly’ application.

My view of the Bible is not one that directly contradicts this, because I think ‘spiritual’ is an important word, particularly when it comes to books like the Bible. But I also think that ‘political’ is a key idea in Bible reading too. And it rather depends on what you’re looking for, as to what you find. You won’t find raw gem stones in a field, if you’re using a metal detector to look for them.

So depending on how you look, you find different things. And I do have a habit of looking through a political lens: it’s one of my biases. When you look at certain passages in that way, you can make some extraordinary discoveries. And that’s the case with the parable of the talents. The conventional take (Sunday School) is that it’s about not burying your talents, making the most of what God gave you, etc etc. But that’s based on a bit of a weird view of God, actually. And if you are willing to flip the script, and look at the parable through a political lens, all of a sudden it becomes a story about economic oppression and injustice. Surely the poor will always be with you…

Read this comic book version my pal Steve and I wrote years ago for A Pinch Of Salt Magazine, to see what I mean.  Click the links to download or open the PDFs Talents Page One  Talents Page Two

(For a deeper analysis of this stuff, and generally more of this kind of thing, seek out William Herzog’s “Parables as Subversive Speech.”)

end_is_nighThere’s a thread that runs through much of the Old Testament, which sees conflict between the perspective of the prophet, and the perspective of the king.

Prophets and kings were basically two sides of the same coin, they had a kind of symbiosis. And they both had much to fear from the other too: mainly death, of one sort or another.

Whereas kings represented the rule of earthly law, and were all about gathering power and wealth,  prophets on the other hand lived a marginal existence, eschewed power and privilege, and spoke instead of the primacy of God’s law, and of the ultimate rule of justice. There was little profit in being a prophet.

When it comes to the considering the archetypal prophet, certainly the one that looms  largest over the Hebrew identity, is Moses. He is the one who, according to the Exodus story, ushers the Israelites out of Egypt, through the desert and on to the promised land. Matthew of course draws a number of direct parallels between the hero figure of Moses, and the new hero: Jesus. Matthew is depicting Jesus as the new Moses. (Miraculous birth, divinely appointed role, comes out of Egypt, water miracles, feeding miracles, goes up a mountain to deliver God’s rules, etc.)

For some people these clear comparisons are an example of the way in which Jesus fulfils Old Testament prophecy, and from a faith standpoint that’s a perfectly valid way to look at it. An alternative, and similarly valid way of looking at this however, is to say that “Matthew” is using the tropes of Moses to develop his portrait of Jesus in a way that shows him to be the new Moses (the new liberator). In other words he uses the Torah as a means of retrospectively foreshadowing Jesus’ story. There’s probably a technical literary term for this, but I don’t know it.

Adding weight to (either) of these two theories/approaches is the way that the same thing happens with Jesus and King David, again the similarities in Matthew’s Gospel are notable (Bethlehem birth, tribe of Judah, ‘Shepherd’ role, wilderness battles, betrayal by trusted friends, and of course significance of the Mount of Olives for both, etc.) This sort of thing doesn’t stop with David and Moses, but they are suitable for illustrating the point. *

The writer of Matthew is, in my opinion something of a master of clever literary devices. (One of the best being the way he portrays the choice of the crowd when it comes to the crucifixion: do they want ‘Jesus’ or ‘Jesus Barabbas’? This is clear word play, bar Abba means ‘son of the father’, so the question is: do they want Jesus, or Jesus son of the father? Sadly this word play has been lost in translations which use newer versions of the Matthew text.)  So my suggestion is that Matthew is using a sophisticated literary device to paint a picture of Jesus as both the new David (important politically too), and the new Moses. And its the Moses bit that’s important here, because what I want to do is get to the idea of Jesus-as-Prophet.

If and when we talk about a prophet today, there tends to be an idea that we are talking about someone who can ‘see’ or ‘predict’ the future, in the sense that a clairvoyant or soothsayer might be said to do. But really the role of the prophet is to speak truth to power, to stand up to the powers that be and announce the word of God. This is the role of Moses. Of course there is a sense of prediction here, but its mainly in the sense of consequences, rather as I might have said to my children when they were younger: ‘don’t do that, or else you’ll hurt yourself.’ (Now they say it to me.)

A prophet then is not really there to say ‘this is what will happen when you die’, or ‘this is when the crops will grow’, the prophet is there to critique the king, particularly when the king slips into injustice, as they more or less all did. The King role is the establishment role, the ‘state’ role, while the prophet is the outsider, the reformer: it’s a deeply political role of course. Depicting Jesus as the new Moses says to the reader that this is Jesus’ role, to critique the action of the state, to lead a reformation, to usher in a whole new way of living. Depicting him as both king and prophet casts him as a Platonic style philosopher king, a vital idea for Matthew’s gentile readers.

* Readers will understand that I don’t necessarily see the figures of either Moses or David as ‘genuine’ historical figures, from my perspective, they are both mythic figures from the Hebrew tradition, who occupy important places in the collective imagination. It’s not whether they ever lived that’s important to me, it’s what people understood about them that matters.  

angelsThe book we now call the Bible is an edited collection of books – a library if you like, which has been compiled over time. For a long time there was no single collection of books, and instead there were a multitude of books which belonged to different traditions. Even today different branches of Christianity use different Bibles, with different books in, and favour different translations of individual texts.

So the books which make it in to the Bible, as you may already know, are called the ‘canon’ (from a Latin term meaning, according to rule). They have been accepted over time as being particularly special. But there are other books too, which date from Old and New Testament times, which fall outside of the canon (precisely what the canon is depends somewhat on your tradition, but there y’go). These extra-canonical books are known as ‘apocryphal’, and one of the oldest of the New Testament era apocryphal books is the gospel of James, also known as the protoevangelium of James (click through to read a version of it.)

It’s a short book, and to be fair it’s quite a good read, short sentences, lots going on. It is also very old, best guesses seem to have it pegged to the middle of the second century of the Common Era. It is written in the name of James, the brother of Jesus. That is to say a half-brother, being a son of Joseph by a former wife. There’s no particular reason to think it was written by the same person, or people who wrote the epistle of James (which, incidentally, was one of the least favourite books of monk-bothering anti-semite and reformer in chief Martin Luther, he called it a ‘right strawy epistle’).

James’ gospel tells the story of the birth of Mary, her upbringing in the Temple, her betrothal to Joseph and Jesus’ miraculous conception and birth. Key to it is the establishment of the purity (virginity) of Mary, as checked upon by a midwife. Among other interesting factors, the book contains the story of Jesus being born in a cave, which remains a popular trope to be found here and there, particularly in paintings.

It also seems to have directly influenced the writing of the Quran, containing as it does, details of Mary’s upbringing in the temple, including her angelic visitations. Mary is of course very highly regarded in Islam, and is the only woman named in the Quran. Early Islamic writers certainly seem to have been familiar with the tradition found in James’ Gospel, as well as the Gospel of Thomas, another non-canonical book, demonstrating that it was well known in the early Christian world.

Like many of the apocryphal books, James’ Gospel has some unusual details, which somehow make the book all the more fascinating. One can’t help but wonder if they rather went against it’s inclusion in the eventual canon though. The fact that there are also mentions of breasts, menstrual flows and internal examinations, with the midwife giving Mary and understated warning: “position yourself, for not a small test concerning you is about to take place”, probably didn’t help make its case.

If I were a literature-of-the-Bible teacher, I would call the idea of reading James’ gospel, ‘reading around the text’, or ‘wider reading’. And there is a lot to be gained, I think, by reading these texts. As another example, wider reading around the Old Testament Canon gives us the books of the Maccabees which, among other things, explain the origins of Hannukah. All these readings provide an amount of context to the stories with which we are so familiar. I’m not making an argument for them to be given some sort of different status to that which they currently have. But they do cast the Bible in a slightly different light, making it seem more like the kind of living dynamic text it certainly once was.

My #alternativeadvent project starts on the 2nd of December, and will run all the way through to Christmas.  I’ve been trailing this on social media for a little while now, and I recognise that some people are not entirely sure what the general idea is.

So I put together a short video this morning, just to give a little bit of explanation.

Sorry about my dodgy filming skills, but hopefully it gives you the general idea. It’s an email every day through advent, with four themes running through: the first set of emails will be on the subject of an ‘ahistorical advent’, then I will write about an ‘absurd advent’, then about an ‘anarchic advent’ and finally about an ‘atheist advent’. Essentially it’s a reflection on advent through a historical/literary lens, then through a more philosophical lens, then a political lens, and finally through a more theological lens.

I hope you’re able to join me for this, and that as we go you feel able to share your own thoughts, using the hashtag #alternativeadvent, because anything like this needs to be a conversation. And if you know me, you’ll realise I’m pretty much always up for a conversation, until about 10pm. After that, I might still be up for a conversation, or I might just be asleep. Sometimes its hard to tell.

calfThere’s a story in the Hebrew scriptures, about the people of Israel after they had escaped from Egypt. In the story, which is absurdly rich in symbolism and image, the people are making their way through the desert when their leader Moses climbs a mountain to commune with God.

To cut a complicated narrative unreasonably short, the impatient Israelites get fed up waiting for Moses to return, and decide to melt their golden jewellery to create an idol – a golden calf, which they then proceed to worship.

Moses, who has spent 40 days on the mountain eventually returns to find all this going on, loses it a bit, and a load of the Israelites pop their clogs. When you read serious Jewish interpretations of the story, it grows more complex around the edges, considering the motivations of those who built the calf, and so on.

So here’s the thing: as with many Bible stories, there are two predictable dangers when we read the story: 1) The story is written off as complete nonsense: “It didn’t happen, and it has nothing to say to us.” 2) The story is taken totally literally, as though it is a modern historical account: “This is exactly what happened to a ‘real’ people, in a ‘real’ place, at a ‘real’ time.”

Neither of these two approaches manage to capture the complex subtleties of the story, which was almost certainly written down or collated from oral tradition as part of the process of nation building while the Israelites were in captivity a few centuries BCE. While this whole question – the historicity of the text – makes for fascinating reading and discussion, I’m not about to run through all that here.

I’m more interested in the question of the Golden Calf: what does it represent?

I think there’s a strong case to be made for the Golden Calf as representative of certainty.

Moses’ disappearance up the mountain was for ’40 days’ a term used to represent a long time. Faced with the disappearance of their spiritual leader, the people grew upset, and eventually chose what they felt to be a logical course of action.

“Give us a god to go before us,” they said, “for we don’t know what has come of this man Moses.” (Exodus 32:1)

What the people wanted was some sense of security, a kind of certainty that they could cling to. Moses, a man who had difficulty communicating at the best of times, had left them to wait for him while he communed with an invisible, unknown God. Would he ever return?

To put this in to a framework with which people who read this blog are familiar: Moses led the Israelites into a period of major league deconstruction. He took them out of the brutal certainties of Egypt, where they had suffered, but at least they knew what was what, and into the wilderness.

And then he had left them…

Extended uncertainty, lets be honest, really gets to you. It grates. maxresdefault

And after a while – a long time – they began to crave some sense of certainty. ‘It’s time to reconstruct, to rebuild: give us a god to go before us…’

When they eventually came to act upon this craving, they constructed something which would have been culturally very familiar – and they gave a lot to it – this was no petty endeavour. A lot of gold went into making that statue.

This is precisely what happens to many who try to find some solid ground on which to stand after deconstruction, they go for something familiar, they invest in it, they give it their all, and in the end they create another idol.

I feel huge sympathy for the Israelites, mainly because I think I may have felt just as they did. And yet from the benefit of some elevation, looking down from Mount Sinai, Moses who was a somewhat absolutist sort, could see the futility of this search for comfort. And lost his rag. Understandable yes, but harsh, Moses, harsh: dwelling in uncertainty is difficult.


Are you struggling with deconstruction? Taking apart beliefs and ideas with which you’ve lived for years?

Are you considering reconstruction, and wondering if that is right for you, now? I’m running a retreat for people like you in November, you can book here. Or alternatively, contact me to find out about other ways I can help. 

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An evangelical pastor, who was going through something of a evang-exit process of his own, once asked me if I thought evangelicalism was a cult. My response was “no,  it lacks many of the markers of being a cult, but I think it is, to some extent, an addiction.”

This sense of being addictive is strongly linked to its association with certainty. There is definitely a sense in which people positively want certainty at particular points or stages in their lives, in some ways they even need it. But the danger that this comfort blanket is never dispensed with, and one becomes addicted to, or reliant upon it. And this is tough, its a tough process to go through. I recognise it in myself at times too, I can feel uneasy at times living with uncertainty, and I know that in some ways I’m a certainty addict too. And part of the recovery from any addiction is to recognise it, as long as we deny it, we will never be free from it.

So in the natural process of spiritual development, there comes a stage for an individual or community, where their maturity must lead them to recognise the problems of certainty. And due to the strong link between the tradition and the condition, this is very often a first stage exit point from evangelicalism, or indeed from any social structure that relies upon certainty as a founding dogma.

The diagram below shows a curve which represents movement from spiritual knowledge, to spiritual wisdom, from certainty to uncertainty. We are all somewhere on this curve, and the general idea is that as we mature, we move upwards from bottom left and then tip over the top, and begin to fall down the other side. But as anyone who has fallen down a hill knows, this process can be a profoundly uncomfortable experience. Particularly if there is nobody to help you.  Very often we get stuck at one point on the curve for a protracted period of time (clinging on).

certainty2

On this journey, the point marked as the Christian ministry stage is the most productive place, this is where a lot of the ‘work’ of the church gets done. This is also where the majority of adult evangelicals are too, and it reflects the remarkable and laudable productivity of that tradition. Bluntly though, it pays churches to keep people there.  Keep people certain, and they will remain productive. Let areas become gray, and you have trouble on your hands!

And of course once people do tip over, they can sometimes demonstrate the apparent folly of their move by becoming insufferably arrogant – looking down on those who are at the stage they have just left. ‘I pity the fool…’ as Mr T might say.

 

Very often, what precipitates a movement from the more comfortable stages at or around the top of the curve, is some kind of crisis. Possibly the death of a loved one, or maybe an episode of mental or physical illness. This is important, because it’s once again about certainty. Crises can also move people forward or backwards on this curve, it’s not as linear as the diagram makes it look, its not simple, its dynamic and complex.

After tipping over the curve, to save their sanity, the individual may need to leave the church or deconvert altogether. This is difficult for all concerned, those who are at a stage of certainty can look on in horror at this process, wondering what has become of their friend/loved on. The person undergoing the transition feels the intense discomfort of leaving their addiction to certainty behind, as well as their community, and to some extent free falling into an abyss. It’s notable that many people who have gone through this process eagerly pick up some new form of addiction, or obsession. Witness the very many young progressives with a strong penchant for cigars, whisky, real ale, or a particular genre of music, or even a new religious tradition for instance. Now this departure is not always necessary, a wise pastor or parent may be able to help people who are part of a community or family to go through this process with support, with the potential result that they may remain part of the tradition, but with a new understanding of its dogmas. If all concerned are comfortable with that, then great.

But that’s not usual, generally the process leads people out of fellowship in some way. And that’s difficult, and often painful. There is though, a word of comfort for those looking on: this is a natural process. And it’s not the last word, towards the bottom of the curve is a greater acceptance, a universalising sense of self which recognises the value of a variety of spiritual expressions, and often even finds renewed energy in Christianity. People at this point are moving beyond the duality which is at the core of certainty to a very positive place indeed. But it takes time, sometimes it takes a very long time indeed, to get there.

Next time I write about this, it will be about the usefulness of silence in this journey, and the importance of finding someone who can act as a guide.

Interested in coming on a retreat to explore deconstruction with me? Express your interest here…