Tripp Fuller, the American founder and host of the Homebrewed Theology Podcast can take credit for advancing the understanding of more than just open and relational theologies among a portion of the Church. He should, however, surely be particularly recognised for his work popularising the work of amazing Process theologians such as John Cobb and Catherine Keller among his contemporaries. He is currently working in Edinburgh University on a project which addresses the apparently conflicting worlds of science and faith.

In this book Fuller demonstrates his own theological prowess, cleverly drawing out the theologies of others to develop a holistic Christology of his own. Fuller has an impressively broad frame of reference, having developed a deep understanding of and respect for the work of a range of theological thinkers and ideas. He pings off names both familiar and perhaps less familiar to progressive Christians on both sides of the Atlantic, and places them into discussion with their interlocutors. His writing is in places passionate, but remains clear and well expressed. At points he executes a really neat turn of phrase that will leave you wanting more.

Much like the rest of his work, which seems to be aimed at bringing together apparently diverse strands of thinking, the book is primarily developed around the dialogue between pairings of theologians. Throughout Fuller seeks to extend apparently contrasting approaches to develop something which he says is lacking from much contemporary theological discourse, a clear answer to the Christological question from the perspective of an informed ‘liberal’ Christianity. I agree that this is a live issue.

Where there are problems in the book, they are not due to his theology – unless that is you take ‘open and relational’ to mean something other than broadly process oriented, a mistake few serious theology scholars are likely to make. Even if that were the case, it’s unlikely that one would have room to take meaningful issue with the quality of his thought or the accuracy of his representation of the work of others.

At times though I felt there were terms which would have benefitted from some clarity of definition: I’ve already mentioned the word ‘liberal’ for instance, and I found it to be used generously but without clarity of definition. My view is that it is not so clear in its definition (at least not in the UK) as to pass entirely without comment. One might argue that in this case the meaning becomes clear in its context, but I think that some clarity on it from the start would have been an advantage. A smart editor should perhaps have picked this up. My other criticism is linked: I also found that the occasional textual editing error crept into the book – a minor issue perhaps, and maybe not even worthy of a complaint, but these errors of formatting and grammar were enough to occasionally catch my eye and thereby my attention.

That leads me to my main point about the book – this is serious theology, it’s not a book from which you particularly want your attention to be distracted. However, it’s also readable, Fuller sweeps the reader along very well, and through some reasonably complex territory. He does this partly by flicking back occasionally to short and pacey sentences, in places as short as just one word, and repeated mantra type phrases such as: “Christology is a disciple’s discipline” or “Christology is a disciple’s dogma”.

Ultimately, in his own development of an articulated and articulatable open and relational Christology, Fuller reiterates his initial challenge: that such an endeavour must be able to take into account the historical Jesus, the existential register of faith and the metaphysical ‘referent’ to God. In doing this the reader comes to realise that of course Fuller has already given them the answer they seek in his title, his Christology concerns the idea that God invests God’s self in the world. As this ‘divine self-investment’ occurs God receives back into God’s self “all that the world becomes” – ‘so far, so Cobb…’ one might say. Fuller expands on this however, developing on the idea that God shares in the travails of the world such that God too needs salvation. Here Fuller answers not just the question of what it means to call Jesus the Christ, but also Joan Osborne’s more personal and experiential question: ‘what if God was one of us?’

There is a lot to love about this book, Fuller has a beautiful way with phrasing and his comprehension of and elucidation of the work of some brilliant theologians is superb. I think I will be returning to it quite often. It isn’t necessarily a book that evangelicals will love, I feel, but for those drawn to an open and relational approach to Christianity, this may well provide the answer they need to the Christological conundrum.

In his feature length film ‘Hosea’, writer director Ryan Daniel Dobson adapts the ancient story of Hosea, an axial age Jewish prophet, for the twenty first century. The original story is one of destruction and redemption, and this new take follows a similar path, but with added complexities. Crucially, rather than foreground the ‘usual’ principal character, Dobson has placed at the centre of his story the complex and meaning-laden existence of Cate a woman whose story is intended to parallel that of Gomer in the original.

Where the book of Hosea is more interested in the prophet than his troubled wife, this film is really Cate’s story rather than that of her husband. Replete with stark and disturbing themes of abuse, exploitation, self harm, addiction, and intimate partner violence, Hosea as a film and Cate as a character hold up a cracked mirror to contemporary society. Pleasingly, Dobson deliberately pulls back from offering the usual easy answers that one might expect in this sort of story, without allowing spoilers into the review I can still say that even the ending defies the conventional narrative expectations.

Cate, played by Camille Rowe, is sensitively cast and played, with some strong supporting actors in Josh Pence (particularly good) and Avi Nash among others. Her strength and fragility are at the core of the story. There is always the danger in a film like this of ending up in cliche territory at least once or twice, but my feeling was that Dobson’s script steered clear of this. There’s perhaps only the vaguest hint of polemic in his writing, although some messages come through clearly – particularly around mental illness and exploitation. The intent though seems to be to spark discussion rather than offer predigested answers, and there’s a lot to draw upon in the film: issues of religion and culture, sex and intimacy, substance abuse and mental health all spring readily to mind. Beyond that though the story explores what it really means to reconstruct, and what it means to be damaged (and indeed to damage). It asks us why we are so desperate to save things in a particular way, what is it that gives us the right and the privilege to tell others how their lives should be lived.

Hosea – the film – is really a parable, a story which lends itself to considerable amounts of unpacking and discussion. It’s a religious story for a post secular world, which turns a gentle but unflinching eye back toward the viewer.

Due to the themes and content, it’s rated 18+, and it does contain triggers and scenes which some viewers may find disturbing. Recommended.

Rewilding the Church by Steve Aisthorpe

Steve Aisthorpe’s new book ’Rewilding the Church’ takes as it’s starting point the enduring fascination in contemporary society for rewilding, a process of returning large tracts of countryside to a more ‘natural’ state in an effort to bring back lost bio-diversity and species rich habitats. Aisthorpe lives in the Scottish Highlands, the Shangri-la of many rewilding devotees who see the mountains and glens as an ideal locus for their efforts. He also works for the Church of Scotland, a historic denomination which faces many of the problems that other denominations do – declining church attendance and challenging issues to do with ministerial recruitment and elderly buildings.  An accomplished researcher, Aisthorpe has done fieldwork among those who, while professing Christianity, no longer attend church. This provided the material for his first book ‘The Invisible Church’ and further research has been added to contribute to this one. Aisthorpe has found favour within the Fresh Expressions movement, which in some cases seems to me to serve as a thinly veiled attempt to get people ‘back to church’ – that’s not his approach though: ‘I am certainly not suggesting that anyone should chase after people with the intention of corralling them into homogenised congregations!’ He declares. Aisthorpe as a thoughtful and creative missiologist seems to recognise the opportunities posed by the changes in society that are reflected in this shift away from ‘how things have always been done’ as well as facing the challenges they present.

Interested in finding out more? Join Steve for a live chat session on Wednesday the 2nd of September 2020.

His book is a good read for those who like me are keen for Christianity to move away from it’s religious trappings and to return to a more fundamental focus on the teachings of Jesus, Steve and I may disagree on points of Christian doctrine, but we’re in full agreement there. He is what some would call a ‘loyal radical’ speaking uncomfortable truths from within the fold of his historical church home. This is recalled throughout the book, not least when he remarks that the church has many unloving critics, and many uncritical lovers, what it can always use, he remarks ‘is some loving critique’. Among other things, Aisthorpe calls for an approach that values simplicity over complexity, he also calls for a place to be found for doubt, questioning and journey ‘Churches perceived as standing for certainty, dogma and fixed practises are no place for pilgrims’ he notes.  A lifelong adventurer and outdoorsman, he calls for an ecclesial outlook which values adventure, innovation and exploration.

Watch Steve in discussion with the Church of Scotland moderator about his writing and research.

One of the things that rewilding is famous for as an ideology for its call to re-introduce apex predators as a way of dealing with pests. Aisthorpe stops short of this, but does call for the culling of invasive species like busyness and fear – perhaps this is where he could have gone further, there are other invasive species I’d like to see culled that are much more human than this. My feeling is that he has pulled his punches here a little, however his call for a more contemplative, inclusive and welcoming spirituality is certainly deeply welcome. The book is peppered with quotes which demonstrate the breadth of what I think is his own inclusive and open small ‘e’ evangelical Christianity. As well as frequent Bible references he draws upon a range of popular authors, from Henri Nouwen to Rob Bell, as well as new pieces of field research to make his point. He wants to see a church that is more Jesus shaped and effectively says that unless we loosen our grip on it and allow ourselves to be guided (or lured?) in a spirited direction we will continue to see catastrophic collapse in the church as in our natural environment. “If you want to rewild the Church” he says, “don’t promote mission strategy and teach church-planting tactics. Instead foster a trust in Jesus and nurture a deeper love for those he brings across our path.” Ultimately Aisthorpe believes that God is rewilding the church, the question is whether we try to resist this, or fall in step.

Steve Aisthorpe

Steve graciously agreed to answer a couple of questions I had about the book – or rather about the concept of rewilding as it applies to the church…

Q: One of the most enduring critiques of rewilding is that it fails to take account of lives and livelihoods in the current landscape. What do you say to those who like ‘church as it is’ and don’t want to see it change?

Authentic Church arises out of our responding to the call of Jesus, ‘follow me’. No blueprint or road map exists. Yes, we can discern certain trajectories and get fleeting glimpses of the destination, but his call is an invitation to join a holy adventure. So the Church is always ‘an interim Church, a Church in transition’ as Hans Kung put it. To go back to the rewilding metaphor, if something carries the label ‘church’ but is committed to remain unchanging I would suggest that it is time for a radical reintroduction programme! Just as the reintroduction of a keystone species impacts the whole ecosystem, individual disciples and any expression of the Church need to allow the one C.S. Lewis called ‘The Great Interferer’ to transform and regenerate the landscape.

Q: A significant barrier to rewilding is the question of ownership, which resolves to ‘money and power’. The church is home to the same issues, how do we tackle that? And how do you approach that personally from your position within a historic denomination?

I live in a valley where the owners on one side manage the land as traditional sporting estates. The land there is managed to ensure that optimum numbers of a very small number of species (deer and grouse) are available at key times of the year. In contrast, the landowners on the opposite side of the valley have entered into a shared commitment to a 200 year plan to rewild the landscape. Ownership makes a huge difference, but it can work in different ways. There are real choices and occasionally owners make courageous, personally sacrificial and radical choices. When it comes to the Church, this is the time for such courageous choices.

Having said that, whether in land or church, I am convinced that ‘small is beautiful’. See below! In my first book, The Invisible Church, there is a cartoon by Dave Walker which pictures a huge ship named ‘The Church Unchanging’. It is sinking and surrounded by a haphazard host of small vessels, life rafts etc. To me, this sums up the current situation. Where ‘ownership’, power and money are centralised in large institutions, this is the time for divesting, decentralising, refocusing resources on the emerging etc.. Personally, working in ‘a historic denomination’ I want to be part of God’s rewilding: subverting traditionalism (not to be confused with tradition, as explained in the book), fear of change and the veneration of things that have ‘always been this way’ wherever I find em – and encouraging and celebrating the faithful rhythm of listening and responding to the one we follow – whether that looks ‘traditional’, innovative or whatever.

Q: Rewilding really requires scale in order to take hold. Just making a hole in your garden fence may encourage biodiversity but it isn’t the same as ‘rewilding’ – how do you address the problem of scale when you’re encouraging people to think ‘small’?

The question of scale is an interesting one. My observation is that God’s rewilding of the Church is reflected in a simplification, a flourishing of the small and simple and the rapid decline of the large and the complex. While the increasing interest in cathedral worship is one of many indicators that large institutions will continue to be part of the overall biodiversity that is the Church, there is no doubt that the overall balance is shifting towards the small and the simple. Rewilding the Church will involve a revolution of small things. The Church (and that includes us, because we are the church) needs to recapture a sense of its identity as the global body of Christ, but also foster the small and local, where Christian community can be sufficiently agile to respond to the Spirit’s life. If all you are able to do is the ecclesiastical equivalent of making a hole in your garden fence, do it! Who knows where it’ll lead!

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v80), default quality

A short break from the usual light hearted blog posts to let you know about my lent series on ‘deconstruction’ which starts on the 26th of Feb. I will be using my regular ‘weekday meditations’ email series to explore the idea of deconstruction, what it is, why people go through it, what to do if you find yourself in the middle of it, all that good stuff.

Touching on issues of social control, power, loss, love, failure and other good stuff. You can sign up here, (it’s free and I won’t misuse your data) I’m also aiming to produce some supporting material to go with it as we go along…

I hope you can join me!

Welcome to Chronicles March 2019

This is my monthly newsletter which gives an glimpse of some of the things I’m up to, as well as one or two of the things that have absorbed my attention over the last few weeks.

IN THIS EDITION… 

The Wheels Fell Off ●  Sympathy for the Devil?  ●  House Conferences  
Throwback: Mint Royale – On the Ropes Tax collectors and toll collectors   

The Wheels Fell Off

It seems to me that most people go through a time when they find themselves trapped in a cage of certainties. Its often a cage of their own making, probably first put together as a kind of scaffolding, to support them through difficult times.

This is true of religious or spiritual people, just as its true of others who have constructed a supportive network of ideas of any other sort that help them through life. The trouble comes when these ideas become restrictive, unable to adapt to or move with the changing circumstances, or experiences of life.

This is what happened to Charles Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, and the writer of a hymn which in my house became known as ‘the bicycle song’. You can find his story here, you might find it’s your story too.

Sympathy for the Devil?

I started writing my weekday meditations as a Lent project last year. I enjoyed the project so much I continued it through the year, and at Christmas I did my first ‘special series’ which I called ‘Alternative Advent’.

That went pretty well, so I’m doing another special series for Lent 2019, which I’m calling ‘Sympathy for the Devil?’

Ultimately Lent has a lot to do with the Devil, but he remains a deeply confused figure: The Satan of the Old Testament is one of God’s court, the Satan of the New Testament, meanwhile is a different figure, and the Devil of 21st century Christianity owes at least as much to John Milton as he does to the Bible. So my weekday meditations throughout Lent will be taking a closer look at this idea, and asking, ultimately, if we might begin to have sympathy for the Devil.

The series begins on March 6th, but you can join in any time through the 40 days.

House Conferences

“House conferences” are my small way of trying to reinvent the whole idea of what a conference should look like. Of course there’s a place for large scale conferences held in big rooms, but I tend to think that often the best learning takes place in small intimate environments, like someone’s lounge. That’s why I’m booking house conferences throughout the year, and across the UK.

The first house conference of 2019 takes place in March, it’s a special conference for a group of people who are keen to deepen their spirituality, and to think about their rhythm of life. I’m really looking forward to it.

House conferences are definitely the ‘way forward’ as far as I am concerned: informal, experiential, personal, they give the opportunity to develop relationship and to get to grips with some deep learning, while also having a comfortable chair. Get in touch if you want to think about booking one.

Throwback: Mint Royale – On the Ropes

On the Ropes (Mint Royale - cover album).jpg

A disc that’s been getting a few spins this past month has been this classic from Mint Royale. On the Ropes was Mint Royale’s debut in 1999, and it captures a lot of the big-beat bounce that was around at the time.

Perhaps Mint Royale’s most enduring contribution to the pop music canon was their later remix of ‘Singing in the Rain’, but On the Ropes has some classic tracks that are still worth revisiting.

Fans of Lauren Laverne, the current 6Music Breakfast Show host will know her as the lead singer in punk popsters Kenickie, but she actually scored her biggest hit with the Mint Royale track ‘Don’t falter’, which is probably the stand out track on the album, although it has less of the overt turn of the century optimism (despite it’s upbeat lyrics). Anyway, well worth checking out in whatever way you tend to listen to music these days.

Tax collectors and toll collectors

There are lots of ways to read the Bible, and the way one approaches it depends very much on what preconceptions one holds. An academic approach favours a rational, critical reading, which I find helpful and enlightening at times. From this perspective, there are many questions about the texts, including concerning the authorship. Who actually wrote the gospel books for instance? Those of us interested in the role of social class within Christianity may have particular questions about the ‘class’ of the writers. The New Testament contains some pretty sophisticated literature, Matthew’s gospel for instance has a complex series of literary references to Hebrew scriptures, and for various complicated reasons was clearly written by someone schooled in Greek literature, but from a Jewish background.

The author of Matthew must have been a well educated person capable of reading and writing in a complex manner. For those who assume that Jesus’ disciples were the authors of the gospels which bear their names, this clashes with the characterisation by some of Jesus’ disciples as lower class peasants, who were much less likely to be able to write sophisticated texts.

One argument that is sometimes made against this is Matthew’s designation as ‘tax collector’ which some see as a job which would have meant he was educated and relatively wealthy. This well written article addresses this question, taking a look at the words which designate the sort of tax collectors that Matthew and Zaccheus were, for instance. Written as a conference paper, it’s very readable, and worth a look.

At the end of 2018 I did a small survey of some people who regularly read the stuff that I write. One of the things I asked was – ‘what can I improve on?’ I got a number of answers, including: “get better at grammar”, but it also became clear that some people wanted to read more on some of the more complex topics that I write about.

I usually write short articles, blog pieces are never more than a few hundred words, and my daily emails are only three paragraphs. So yes, there is room for me to write some more lengthy articles.

I’ve had a good think about how best to do this, and I’ve come up with a new project: ‘longform‘. Basically I’m going to write a longish article each month, in the region of 2000 – 3000 words. And that will allow me to go into a little more depth on some interesting topics.

I’m a journalist by background, as you may already know, but I’m also working on a PhD, so these articles are likely to be a mixture of essays and articles, with maybe an interview or two thrown in.

As usual with my work, it will be free to access. But something else that was made clear to me last year is that some people want to contribute, now and then, towards the work that I do. Which is nice. So there is a button for you to donate, if you wish to, when you download an article. Or if you prefer, you can pay a small monthly subscription, and I’ll send you the article by email.

The longform project will kick off on January 26th, with an essay giving a political take on an interesting Bible story, it’s called “Swine Flew: the curious case of the Gerasene Demoniac“. I can’t promise perfect grammar, but I’ll try.

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.