Friday, 13 July 2018

Forthcoming: The T&T Clark Companion to Colin Gunton

The T&T Clark Companion to Colin Gunton is due to published (I think) towards the end of 2019 and one of the editors (Andrew Picard) has given me permission to reproduce the outline on my blog. You will see that I’m one of the contributors!

Andrew Walker: Foreword
Murray Rae, Myk Habets, and Andrew Picard (eds.): Introduction
Paul Brazier: Colin Gunton: A Life in Theology

Part 1: Theological Themes

Paul Metzger: Gunton on Revelation
Paul Cumin: Gunton on Mediation
Sue Patterson: Gunton on Theological Language
Paul Molnar: Gunton on the Trinity
Christoph Schwöbel: Gunton on Creation
Oliver Crisp: Gunton on Christology
Murray Rae: Gunton on Atonement
Marc Cortez: Gunton on Theological Anthropology
Myk Habets: Gunton on Pneumatology
Terry J. Wright: Gunton on Eschatology
Uche Anizor: Gunton on Ecclesiology
John McDowell: Gunton on Modernity
Andrew Picard: Gunton on Culture
Lucy Peppiatt: Gunton on Community
Andy Goodliff and Paul Goodliff: Gunton on Theology, Ministry, and the Christian Life

Part 2: Theologians

Douglas Farrow: Gunton and Irenaeus
Demetrios Bathrellos: Gunton and the Cappadocians
Joshua McNall: Gunton and Augustine
Randal Rauser: Gunton and Western Philosophy
Mark Thompson: Gunton and Calvin
Stephen Holmes: Gunton and Coleridge
Graham McFarlane: Gunton and Irving
Kelly Kapic: Gunton and Owen
Peter S. Oh: Gunton and Barth
Jeremy Ive: Gunton and Jenson
Eve Tibbs: Gunton and Zizioulas/Eastern Orthodoxy
Eric Flett: Gunton and T. F. Torrance
Ivor Davidson: Gunton and Jüngel

Comprehensive Bibliography of Gunton’s Works

There are some big names here and I am privileged to see my much, much smaller name squeezed in among them. I’m also a little nervous, as the essay on eschatology will be the first piece of sustained academic writing I’ve done for quite a few years and I feel sorely out of practice. The aim is to focus on Gunton’s constructive contribution to theology, so this Companion should prove to be a stimulating read on the whole.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

How the Beautiful Game helps us to understand the significance of the resurrection

So how exactly does football help us to understand the significance of Jesus’s resurrection?

It is a little like a football team that wins the Champions League and thus goes down in history as a great team, the best of the year. Until that point, it would be impossible to tell whether it was a truly great team – a team that loses the final is still the same team as it was all season, but it is the winning of the trophy that establishes that team as great and memorable. In the light of that victory the story of the season is retold as a story of triumph, of progress towards glory, rather than that of a team that strove for glory but failed to reach it. After its confirmation as the Champions, it is always looked back on as a great team, even in the retelling of the story of the season. In the same way, Jesus’ true glory, greatness and identity is revealed and established at the resurrection.

Graham Tomlin, The Widening Circle: Priesthood as God’s Way of Blessing the World (London: SPCK, 2014), pp. 164–165, n. 14

Change ‘the Champions League’ to ‘the World Cup’, ‘year’ and ‘season’ to ‘tournament’, and ‘Champions’ to ‘winners’, and you have a bloggable quotation that has profound contemporary relevance.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Book Notice: Super, Smashing, Great: The Theological Legacy of ‘Bullseye’

Here’s the blurb from a book coming out later this year:

James B. Owen, Super, Smashing, Great: The Theological Legacy of ‘Bullseye’ (Clumpy Snodwick, UK: Skybalon Press, 2018), 501pp.

Despite its status as a high-quality end-of-the-century quiz show, Bullseye yields pulsating secrets of the divine hitherto uncaptured by institutional religions and motivational cults of progress. In Super, Smashing, Great, James B. Owen offers a parastructuralistic interpretation of all 354 episodes of Bullseye, moistly demonstrating how the show’s three main contestant-centric sections—‘Bully’s Category Board’, ‘Pounds for Points’, and ‘Bully’s Prize Board’—draw from the Nine Spectral Realms of the One-Eighty Degrees of Divinity. The denouement of the whole show, ‘Bully’s Star Prize Gamble’, in which the great cloud of septua- and octogenarian witnesses participate orgiastically, analogizes the perfect game/perfect score singularity to engenerate the perfect finish, where speedboats, caravans, and family holidays to the Mediterranean converge and apocalypsize to provide eschatological resolution to the Transcendental Clock and its persistent subdivided categorizations. Owen also analyzes the sophianic Bullseye Mantras (including ‘Stay out of the black and into the red / Nothing in this game for two in a bed’, ‘Look at what you could have won’, and ‘You win nothing but your BFH / Bus Fare Home’) to elaborate deftly on how these Enbifrenticastic Changri-doglips relate to late-afternoon rituals on the Sabbath, culminating in the provision of divine nourishment on Willow-patterned plates, and supplies a full transcription of the ethereal majesty of the programme’s theme tune. Super, Smashing, Great is, as its title suggests, super, smashing, and great.


Super, Smashing, Great makes me want to play darts and get in touch with my inner Bully.
— J. Oche-Wilson, Extinguished Professor of Arrowology at the University of Bishop’s Mullet

I read this book twice in one sitting. I had to. Someone had put glue on my chair and I had nothing else to do until help came eight days later. But that’s not to say this is a bad book. Far from it. True, some of the diagrams showing the Changri-dogliptic correlations to the Karmic Categories of Reward were startling to say the least—who knew Bully could pose so flexibly?—but James B. Owen has done the world a huge favour by writing this handsome analysis. I am certain that the speedboat is mine, and I could not be happier.
— Harrid S-Pike Cleethorpes, Third Wizard Supreme of the Monogonistic Cult of Battery Acid, Stevenage Branch

I don’t know about you, but this looks a bit odd to me.

Monday, 25 June 2018

The Holy Spirit—No Purchase Necessary: A Sermon on Acts 8:1b-25

Here’s a sermon I preached yesterday. To be honest, I’m not too happy with it (perfectionism does that to you, I suppose). It doesn’t seem to do that much or to make any particular point. But I preached it anyway. Usually, when I read through the first draft of a sermon, I have a very clear sense if I need substantially to re-write anything or to abandon it altogether and start again. With this one, I didn’t. So, for better or for worse, this is what I inflicted (twice) on my local church yesterday.

John 14:15-21; Acts 8:1b-25

The Holy Spirit! Everyone has an opinion about the Holy Spirit: about who he is and what he does; about where he is and where he isn’t; about who’s got him and who hasn’t. We pray for and look for and hope for the Holy Spirit to fill us anew, to animate us day by day, to empower us for the Christian life we cannot live by ourselves. We look for signs of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives and in the wider world around us, examining ourselves for evidence of the fruit of the Spirit ripening in our lives, and for clues as to when the next big move of the Spirit is about to start. And all these things are good for us to pray for and to look for and to hope for . . . and yet . . .

The Holy Spirit is sovereign. The Holy Spirit is not at our disposal. The Holy Spirit is the Lord and giver of life.

Simon, the man from Samaria at the centre of today’s reading from Acts, did not know this. Simon practised magic. Acts doesn’t say much about him, but it seems he was claiming to be divine and then ‘proving’ it by freaking the people out with his magic.

But one day, Philip arrived from Jerusalem and began to upstage Simon. Whatever Simon could do, Philip could do better! We don’t know what magic Simon performed to astonish the crowds, but Philip was casting out unclean spirits and healing the paralysed and the lame. And all the time, Philip was talking about Jesus the Messiah—not about himself, as Simon had been doing, but about Jesus. It was in the name of Jesus that Philip performed his ‘magic’, and it was in the name of this same Jesus that the people believed and were baptised—including Simon himself. This Great One, the power of God, who had so impressed the people; this Great One, Simon, now recognised that there was a man of power even greater than he: Jesus Christ.

Eventually the news of these mass conversions in Samaria filtered up to Jerusalem. This was likely to have been surprising to the apostles there: the people of Samaria had bad ancestry, dodgy religious convictions, and even a slightly different version of the Law of Moses. But now the apostles had heard that the people ‘had accepted the word of God’—their word of God!—and they needed to check out what was going on. Was Jesus’s promise now beginning to be fulfilled, his promise that they would be his witnesses not only ‘in Jerusalem’, but also ‘in all Judea and Samaria’? They had to find out.

It turns out, as we already know, that the reports were true: the people of Samaria had accepted the word of God and had been baptised into the name of Jesus. But for some unspecified reason, the people had not received the Holy Spirit, whom the risen Jesus had promised to his followers. Seeing that the faith of the people of Samaria was genuine, Peter and John began to pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit. And they did.

This is where things get interesting, because Simon evidently sees signs of the Spirit’s presence among the people, and maybe even experienced something himself—something like speaking in tongues, perhaps—and is immediately drawn to the spectacular nature of it all. Does he hear people speaking in languages both known and unknown? Does he see people falling to the floor in ecstatic, Spirit-induced trances? Does he notice people praising God for dealing miraculously with previously unhealed afflictions and ailments? Quite possibly. But with all these strange and otherworldly phenomena going on, Simon’s old desires are awakened . . .

Hey, Peter . . . can I pay in instalments?
Philip could work wonders, which is impressive enough for Simon. But Peter and John—well, Peter and John appear to have control over this power, this so-named Holy Spirit, and Simon wants in on the action. He wants not just the power of the Spirit, or the experience of the Spirit, but the authority to give the Spirit to whomever he pleases—and he’s willing to pay big money to make it happen.

But the Spirit is not Peter’s to give, the Spirit is not John’s to give, and the Spirit certainly is not Simon’s to buy or to give. The Spirit cannot be bought, the Spirit cannot be traded, the Spirit cannot be commodified. The Spirit is not a power we can just switch on or off as occasion demands. The Spirit is the Father’s gift to anyone who follows Jesus and desires to keep his commandments out of love. Thus the Spirit is the Father’s gift to us: the Father’s gift to me, and the Father’s gift to you. The Spirit is already and always at work in us, making us more and more like Jesus as each day goes by. And as we see from today’s Gospel reading, the Father gives the Spirit at the request of Jesus his Son. Jesus knows we need the Spirit for life. But we cannot buy the Spirit. Nor can we earn the Spirit. The Spirit is the Father’s gift—no purchase necessary.

And why is the Spirit given to us? Not to help us get through the day like a shot of caffeine or a can of Red Bull. Nor is the Spirit given to make our faith more exciting or to give us some kind of spiritual high. No, the Spirit is given so that we may know for sure that the risen Jesus is with us all the time, no matter the situation, no matter our mood. The Spirit is given to stand alongside us, to work within us, to transform us inside and out so that more and more we resemble Jesus. The Spirit is given to enable us to live out our baptism promises in faithful obedience, to witness to our Lord whose resurrection is the promise and guarantee of the age to come. The Spirit is given to each of us to make us part of the one body of Christ and to draw us to the Father through Christ when we pray. This is why the Spirit is given, and this is why we are who we are in Christ.

All this, I hope, encourages you. But what I’ve said about the Spirit today also means we need constantly to reassess our desires as far as the Spirit is concerned. It is good to pray for and look for and hope for the Spirit to move powerfully among us—but why do we want this? Why do we want to see the Spirit move in our lives or in our nation? Is it because we genuinely desire God’s kingdom to come? Or do we simply crave some excitement and adventure in our Christian lives? It’s all too easy to be drawn to the spectacular as Simon was, to be seduced by power and authority—even the power and authority of God himself. But while the God we worship certainly can do, and has done and will do, spectacular and powerful things, this isn’t really his stock-in-trade. Instead, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ tends to achieve extraordinary things through ordinary, everyday things: things like bread and wine and water; things like the death of a thirtysomething Jewish carpenter; things like Philip moving forty miles or so down the road from Jerusalem to Samaria; things like our own lives, which, for all their ordinariness, are used nonetheless by the Holy Spirit to give the world glimpses of the age to come promised in Christ.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

The Kingdom of God in a Nutshell

And here’s what the kingdom of God is all about:
In Jesus’ proclamation the kingdom is not coterminous with Israel or any geopolitical entity; neither is it styled as inner spirituality or a utopian dream. The kingdom is a metaphor for God’s dynamic sovereignty throughout eternity (Matt. 13:36-43), already yet secretly erupting in human history (Matt. 13:18-23; Mark 4:22; Luke 17:20-1). Its timing is ambiguous: the kingdom is variously described as on the verge (Mark 1:15; 9:1), already present (Luke 6:20), and yet to be consummated (Matt. 13:24-30; Luke 13:29). A gift from God, not a human achievement (Mark 10:23-7; Luke 12:32; John 3:3), the kingdom upends conventional expectations (Matt. 20:1-16; Luke 9:59-60). It requires radical acceptance (Matt. 18:23-35) and infant dependence (Mark 10:14-15). Those with faith anticipate its surprising future with joy and wonder (Luke 14:7-24); the faithless are hardened in their rejection (Mark 4:11-12, 25).

C. Clifton Black, ‘Kingdom of God’, in The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology, edited by Ian A. McFarland, David A. S. Fergusson, Karen Kilby, and Iain R. Torrance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 265–266; quotation from p. 265

Not quite the kingdom of God: Esch-sur-Sûre, Luxembourg.

Friday, 1 June 2018

On Babel, Pentecost, and Persecution

This is undoubtedly an oversimplification, but the story of the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9) points to God’s desire that the human race should spread over the whole world (cf. Gen. 1:28). At Babel, fallen humanity aims for homogeneity, whereas God wants diversity—hence the scattering and confusion of languages.

Soichi Watanabe, The Coming of the Holy Spirit
It’s often argued that the effects of Babel were undone at Pentecost, when the Spirit came and the people began to speak in different languages. But the link with Acts 1:8—‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’—is too great to ignore. The Spirit enabled people to speak in different languages precisely in order to communicate ‘the wonders of God’ (Acts 2:11) to others. So while it’s not inappropriate to speak of Pentecost being the undoing of Babel, I don’t think this is the dominant theme here.

However, it’s possible there could be a broader Babel dynamic at play in the early chapters of Acts. We see that the earliest Christian believers did all they could to live out the meaning of the gospel message in their lives (e.g. Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35)—in Jerusalem. There doesn’t seem to be any attempt to move from the city; the apostles seem content to stay where they are and welcome people to them, including people from outside Jerusalem (cf. Acts 5:36). The apostles and believers are doing good things, for sure; but there’s apparently no intention to move from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth in accordance with Jesus’s command (or is it a promise?) in Acts 1:8. It’s only once Stephen is executed and the believers are persecuted (Acts 7:54–8:1) that the gospel begins to spread beyond Jerusalem—indeed, into Judea and Samaria, just as Jesus expected.

All this surely echoes the Babel dynamic, at least to some extent. The people stay in one place, in defiance (conscious or otherwise) of God’s command to spread themselves across the land. And so the people need to be scattered. In Genesis 11:8-9, God does the scattering; in Acts 8:1, it’s persecution that scatters the apostles. Luke doesn’t say that it’s God who does the scattering in the latter passage, but given some of his other ‘divine determination’ passages (e.g. Acts 2:23; 13:48) and the very strong sense of the Spirit’s direction of events (e.g. Acts 8:29) in the Acts narrative more generally, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that this is what he thought. This doesn’t mean that the apostles’ scattering was specifically God’s judgement on the early church, but it could indicate that something drastic was needed to push the apostles beyond Jerusalem—and persecution, the ‘natural’ response to the presence of the resurrection community in ‘the present evil age’ (Gal. 1:4) is nothing if not drastic!

These are rather unformed thoughts, so do feel free to comment.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Book Review: James Webb, The Second Listening Book: Loaded Question & Other Stories

James Webb, The Second Listening Book: Loaded Question & Other Stories (Canterbury: Lioness Writing, 2016)

I am grateful to Elsa Lewis at Lioness Writing Ltd for a review copy. Also, for the sake of full disclosure, I should note that I have known the author since we studied together at King’s College London in the 1990s. I have sought to be as objective as possible in this review.

James Webb is quite the storyteller. I have already reviewed his first collection of short stories, The Listening Book: The Soul Painting & Other Stories, here, and I am pleased to say that much of what I noted there applies to The Second Listening Book as well. The stories in the first Listening Book were presented as opportunities to hear God’s still small voice. In this second volume, Webb suggests that his tales are taken as honest and truthful nourishment for the soul.

The twenty-seven stories here range from two short paragraphs and eight pages in length. Each narrative is well written and instantly opens the mind’s eye to the world Webb wants to communicate. Webb knows what he wants to say and for the most part uses an appropriate amount of detail and even whimsy to connect with his readers, though I found his shorter stories tended to achieve this more effectively than the longer ones. The fables that I appreciated most are those which prompted me to reflect on my character (‘Losing the Edge’, ‘Of Myself and Others’, ‘Narrow Road’), but other standout entries include ‘Loaded Question’, where a man discusses miracles and God’s existence with a squirrel; ‘Signs and Wonders’, in which melons figure prominently; ‘Date of Birth’, concerning the when of surrendering one’s life to Christ; and ‘Happily Ever After’, which closes with the sharp line, ‘People would rather have a happy ending than the right ending’ (p. 91).

The Second Listening Book, as a compilation of short stories, should not be read from cover to cover in one sitting (something I also said of its predecessor). Ideally, they should be read carefully and reflectively; they should be savoured, not devoured. The volume also contains a number of original black-and-white illustrations and photographs from Carys Jenkins, Alice Journeaux, Joshua Gauton, and Mark Lewis. These are very well done, but I would like to have seen at least some flashes of colour, as with the first collection, which contained many full-colour photographs. Also—and this is surely the most minor of quibbles—I would like to have seen more variety in the way the stories are laid out in the book. The format of The Second Listening Book follows that of the first one, but for some reason it does not work quite so well for me this time. Perhaps some of the illustrations could have been reproduced on a smaller scale and incorporated within the text layout.

Overall, this is another excellent collection of short stories from James Webb, and The Second Listening Book is worth adding to your bookshelves.

Monday, 14 May 2018

The Ascension and the Apostles: A Sermon on Acts 1

The local church where I worship has just started a short sermon series on Acts 1–8. I happened to be given the preaching slot for the opening sermon, which not only had to introduce the series, but also deal with Ascension Day and the apostles to cover the lectionary passages. Here’s my effort.

John 17:6-19; Acts 1:1-26

Of all the strange events and happenings recorded in the Bible, the ascension of Jesus is one of the strangest. Think about it: after leaving some brief instructions to the eleven apostles about what to do next, Jesus takes off—perhaps like a rocket, perhaps like a hot air balloon—and disappears. Indeed, this is surely one of the strangest events recorded in the Bible. What should we make of it?

Are you ready to imitate Christ?

First of all, however strange we may find this story from Acts 1, it’s in line with how the Gospels present Jesus, especially Jesus after his resurrection. He comes and goes, appears and disappears, breaks bread and eats fish. Even though he is resurrected a man of flesh and blood, there is something . . . different, very different, about Jesus after his resurrection. It’s as though his body is no longer limited to the physics of this world but follows the physics of the world or the age to come. When we keep in mind that the Jesus of Acts 1 is the risen Jesus of the Gospels, his ascension really doesn’t seem all that unusual. It’s all part of the same package.

That said, Jesus doesn’t seem to ascend by using his own skills or abilities—Acts 1 says ‘he was lifted up’. Someone else did the lifting. We can assume this was God the Father, drawing his Son to his side by the power of the Holy Spirit. The mention of clouds and heaven in this passage indicates that the resurrected Jesus was entering the presence of his Father. Whatever we think about this passage, whether we take it to be heavy in symbolism or not, we should keep in mind that this is something the eleven apostles claimed to have seen. The apostles saw Jesus ascending, saw him moving into God’s presence before their very eyes. Like the resurrection, the ascension of Jesus was a strange event—but an event nonetheless; something that happened.

But the significance of Jesus’s ascension doesn’t lie in how it may or may not have happened; it lies in the fact that the risen and ascended Jesus now sits at the right hand of God his Father. The ascended Jesus has power and authority over all the nations; he is sovereign. The ascended Jesus has made it possible for us to enter God’s presence for ourselves through him without the need for fastidious rule-keeping or elaborate blood rituals. The ascended Jesus sympathises with our weaknesses and prays for us in the presence of God his Father. And the ascended Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit, pouring out the Spirit over the whole earth, drenching us all with the presence of God himself. So while the ascension is undoubtedly a strange event, it is also highly significant for the Christian faith—because without the ascension of the risen Jesus, there would have been no giving of the Spirit at Pentecost; and without the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, there would be no Church; and without the Church, there would be no Holy Trinity Beckenham. There would be no us.

But there is an us. There is a Holy Trinity Beckenham. There is a Church, the Church, the body of Christ. There was a Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was given. And this same Spirit of Jesus is still with us, giving us Jesus through bread and wine, equipping and empowering us always to be faithful to the Son who sits at the right hand of God the Father. Jesus sends each and every one of us to walk in the steps of the apostles—of Peter, James, John, and the rest—and follow their lead, even as they followed the lead of Jesus himself. This is what we see in today’s Gospel reading from John: just as the Father had sent Jesus into the world, so now Jesus sends his apostles into the world. Acts fleshes this out even more: the apostles are sent into the world—first, Jerusalem; then, Judea and Samaria; and then to the ends of the earth—to tell anyone and everyone who’ll hear: Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!

This task which Jesus sent the apostles to do was not an easy one. The apostles would face all sorts of difficulties and hurdles arising not only from those who didn’t believe, but even from their fellow believers. They would be mocked, tortured, imprisoned, slaughtered. But they would know that the risen and ascended Jesus, who himself had suffered and died while staying faithful to God—they would know that the risen and ascended Jesus was praying for them, praying for their protection from the evil one, praying that they would continually tell the truth about the strange things they had heard and seen. And with the Holy Spirit working within and among them, the apostles would do just this.

And let’s be honest: little has changed! In the same way as the risen and ascended Jesus sent the apostles as witnesses to him, so he sends us now to declare with confidence the same message: Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!

You see, even though we are separated from Peter, James, John, and the others by two thousand years, we are still the same Church. And because we are the same Church, there shouldn’t be any need for us to long for a return to some mythical golden age of Christian evangelism and mission—the book of Acts shows us there never really was such a golden age. The Church just had a good start. Far more important is that we tell others about the good end God has planned for the world when the risen and ascended Jesus returns in glory.

I started by saying that the ascension is one of the strangest events and happenings recorded in the Bible. But let’s be clear: the story of the Church is stranger still. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be going through the early chapters of Acts. We’ll see how the Spirit came and transformed the apostles’ witness. We’ll see how the apostles healed both the sick and those afflicted by so-called unclean spirits before being thrown in prison by the authorities. And we’ll see how the apostles dealt with issues of corruption and segregation—and even bad administration. But more than this: we’ll see how the Spirit inspired the apostles to declare the good news of Jesus, so much so that the number of believers grew from 120 to 3000 to 5000 and countless, countless more in Jerusalem and beyond.

It’s an exciting story—and it will be good for us to listen out for what God has to say to us over the coming weeks. But let’s keep one thing in mind: the book of Acts is not just the apostles’ story. Nor is it simply the story of the beginning of the Church. No, the book of Acts is our story, too—and our story, however strange or wonderful or tedious it might be at times, is fundamentally the story of Jesus, our risen and ascended Lord, who rules over all. Let’s tell the world all about him, as often as we can, until he comes again.