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.

doorway1I hear from a lot of people who have been through, or are going through, a period of deconstruction. I’ve come to realise that, as with many things, there are stages, and one or more of those stages involves a strong desire to reconstruct.

It’s natural – anyone who has had to pull down an edifice around which they had built their life, is likely to reach a point where they think ‘ok, that’s all gone, now I can rebuild.’ For some this means seeking out a church or other religious space where they can feel at home. For others it becomes about latching on to a particular spiritual or religious leader or movement with which, or with whom, they identify.

In some circumstances, this is positive. For instance, the discovery of a safe, supportive and nurturing community can be a real boon. Particularly when one has been without such a support network for an extended period of time.

This is not universally the case, however, and it can indicate that the individual has not yet reached a point of maturity where they feel able to engage with the causes of their deconstruction in genuinely grown-up terms. Over the years I’ve observed, in myself and others, the desire to strongly attach one’s self to a figure head or cause, something which is, ultimately, indicative of a lack of spiritual maturity. It speaks of our desire to deify ideas and people, which is natural for a child, but in an adult quickly becomes unhealthy and unhelpful.

At best, reconstruction is very helpful – it allows us to develop our questioning narrative in a safe place, and in community rather than in isolation. But it can easily dull the senses, and give us a sense of security which we don’t want to lose by doing too much questioning. Dogma is safe, solid, and secure – or at least it has that illusion, but when you feel safe, you’re much less likely to take a risk with a step in to the unknown.

I don’t discourage anyone who feels that for them the time is right to reconstruct, if they can make that work, I’m glad for them. However, I am deliberate in my refusal to prescribe it: the great story of Jesus in the desert tells how he was tempted in a number of important ways. The unwritten, but implied temptation was the temptation to run back to civilisation, to a place of safety. Had he done so, it would have spoiled the story, of course. So I encourage people who are in the desert, and have the capacity to remain there a while longer, to do so. Face the reality of who you are, what you have built up around you, your motivations, and your desires. That’s difficult – I recognise that, and if you can find someone to walk with you, it’s a good thing.

The story of Antony of Egypt, a renowned ‘Desert Father’ goes that he stayed in the desert for twenty years, before returning to found a monastery. And even then, the cells were scattered and the monks were solitary for much of the time. That is because, when/if the time comes to reconstruct, that which we rebuild may be quite different to that which went before.

When I teach stillness meditation I teach people to neither resist, resent nor retain any thoughts, for its amazing how many wonderful ideas flood into your head while you sit in meditation. Better to let those thoughts pass by, than to try to grab them. If they are as marvellous as they seem, they will return in time. Likewise, when you’re in a period of deconstruction, don’t rush to reconstruct. If in time a natural opportunity comes your way, then by all means walk with it a bit, but don’t cling to it too firmly, and don’t allow a new dogma to replace the old one.

Finally, there is a koan that goes: ‘If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him.’ The Buddha, the road, and the killing are all symbolic: it means that if you find precisely what you think you are looking for, be careful, for what you are looking for may not be what you really need.


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. 

file000606541737.jpgThere comes a point in most people’s lives, when things have to be taken apart. Beliefs, world views, ways of understanding yourself, and what life is all about.

This is because the structures we build up become too restrictive. We reach the point where they no longer holds us properly, and that chafes.

The things you know, the experiences you’ve had, the stuff you’ve learned… you need a new framework to hold it all.

Its like in the old days when they used to keep wine in bags made from the skins of animals, called ‘wine skins’: you couldn’t keep new wine in old wine skins. Because they would split, they were only good for the old wine.

New wine had to go in new wine skins. New ways of seeing the world, require a new structure.

The same process is true of us when we are conscious of our religious or spiritual beliefs. The structures we built up, sometimes from childhood, will eventually need to come down in order to accommodate our new, wider, more mature understanding. That doesn’t mean our old structure was bad – although it can feel that way, because the restriction is uncomfortable. Really though, it just means that it doesn’t fit anymore. Like the yellow jumper I begged my parents for when I was about twelve. I loved that jumper. It doesn’t fit me now, and anyway I’m no longer convinced yellow is my colour.

The process of deconstructing a religious or spiritual world view is often difficult, sometimes very painful indeed. If you’re lucky, it’s easy. But we’re not all lucky, because these things have built in defences against deconstruction, often involving feelings of guilt, doubt, and existential dread.

For various reasons, conscious deconstruction is way better than unconscious deconstruction – (when you just go “this is all b*llocks”, and chuck the lot). The problem is that sometime later you will find yourself wishing you had a certain part, and then you have to go looking in the bins. And there’s always disgusting stuff in the bins. Much better to take it apart carefully, being aware of where the bits are, and what they do. Conscious deconstruction for the win.

I’m running a deconstruction retreat in November to help people do just that, find out more or book here. I’m planning on it being a small affair – intimate. Because this stuff is personal, and I prefer to work with small groups.

I’m also in the process of setting up a number of house conferences on the same kind of theme, a house conference is a conference… in a house. A bit like a house concert, but without a band, and fewer hairy roadies. If you’ve got a house (or other nice, friendly space), and you know some people who might like to come, then let’s talk about doing one at your place.