Monday, 8 April 2019

Impactful CCM Albums: Massivivid, BrightBlur (1998)

Despite grunting appearances to the contrary, I don’t dislike contemporary worship music as such but certain manifestations of it—mostly the sort that tries to be U2 or Coldplay while promoting Jesus-therapy and self-improvement. Back in the day, I used to fantasise (too strong a word, I know) about playing bass in a worship-oriented band that took reality into account. When Massivivid popped onto the scene in 1998 with BrightBlur, I knew I didn’t need to fantasise any more—at least not about the ‘worship-oriented band that took reality into account’, anyway.

Standout track: ‘Drop’

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Everything’s Going to be Okay: A Sermon on Jeremiah 23:1-14

My church is going through Jeremiah at the moment—well, selected highlights, anyway. (Or should that be ‘selected lowlights’—Jeremiah’s not exactly a barrel of laughs, is he?) I preached today, and ’ere be my effort.

Jeremiah 23:1-24; John 7:14-18

Jeremiah—is it all doom and gloom with him? You’d certainly be forgiven for thinking so. Take this week’s passage for instance: first we have a message of judgement against the shepherds; and then we have another message of judgement, this time against the priests and especially the prophets. Clearly the Lord is not impressed with Judah’s leadership! But why? It’s quite easy to reduce the point to a single simple soundbite: If you’re a leader, don’t abuse your position or the people in your care. But behind the prophecies in this chapter lies a very particular situation—and knowing something about this situation gives us a little understanding about why the Lord is angry here, as well as giving us some glimpses of future hope beyond a dark present.

So let’s have a little history lesson. Jehoiakim was one of the last rulers of the kingdom of Judah. He wasn’t an especially good king. He had a palace built for himself but underpaid the people, his own people, who worked on it. Jehoiakim also paid tribute to the king of Egypt, but taxed his people heavily to raise the money while living in the lap of luxury himself. In 605 bc, the Lord called Jeremiah to write down all his prophecies on a scroll and have them delivered to Jehoiakim. The Lord’s intention was for the king to turn from his wicked ways on hearing the words.

This one ain’t gonna get burnt none, is it, Lord?
And so King Jehoiakim of Judah heard the words of the Lord. But he did not turn from his wicked ways. Instead, he cut the scroll up and burnt all the pieces in a fire, the word of the Lord curling and shrivelling and turning to ash. The Lord saw fit to send another message to the king via the prophet Jeremiah: Judgement is coming—and this time, I will not hold back. The empire of Babylon will destroy you and wipe you all out. (You can read all about this in Jeremiah 36.)

It’s this situation that lies behind the first two verses of today’s reading from Jeremiah 23. The shepherds are a metaphor for Judah’s kings, including Jehoiakim. The kings of Judah were meant to protect and care for the people, says the Lord; but as they had only taken care of themselves, so now the Lord will take care of them—once and for all! And the Lord’s judgement unfolded during the course of the next twenty years. First, the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem and deported all the skilled workers, leaving only a basic government and the poorest people; and then, in 587 bc, during the reign of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, the Babylonians destroyed the temple and carried off most of the remaining inhabitants. Only a few people were left to work the land. The city of Jerusalem was wasted, the monarchy of Judah at an end.

If this is what lies behind the first two verses of Jeremiah 23, what might lie behind the rest of today’s passage? Let’s jump to the prophets and priests, starting in verse eleven. ‘Both prophet and priest are ungodly,’ says the Lord. Not much else is said about the priests—but plenty is said about the prophets! Not only are the prophets ungodly, but they engage in immoral behaviour; they tell lies and perpetuate fake news; they are complicit in a system that exploits the disadvantaged and favours the privileged. And the prophecies they give are not true prophecies; they are nothing more than ‘visions of their own minds,’ says the Lord.

But why is the Lord targeting the prophets like this? Kings we can understand; they were, after all, responsible for the wellbeing of the whole nation; but the prophets were just crazy old men with long, tangled beards who stood on street corners barking at passers-by, commanding them to repent—weren’t they?

The truth is perhaps a little more unusual. In the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, there were literally hundreds of prophets, both men and women. Very often, a prophet would be part of a guild or a community, or possibly attached to the royal court or the temple in Jerusalem. The purpose of a prophet, of course, was to communicate the word of the Lord, but prophets did this in a number of ways. Prophets would help people, including kings, discern the will of the Lord. Prophets would also perform miracles; they would intercede or pray for others; they would heal people. And, generally speaking, prophets would receive payment for their services, a sort of stipend that allowed them to devote themselves to God.

And so when in our passage today the Lord is speaking against the prophets, the Lord is not condemning the guilds of prophets as such, but the exploitation or the manipulation of this sort of set-up. The prophets here, it seems, were quite happy to assure the people of prosperity while continuing to receive payment. But the Lord had not given these prophets that message. They had not stood in the Lord’s presence to hear what he had to say to them. They were putting words into the mouth of the Lord; they were saying, ‘It shall be well with you’ and, ‘No calamity shall come upon you’, even though the Lord himself had said through the prophet Jeremiah that the end of Jerusalem was nigh. The prophets heard the people’s worries about the future—they probably had the same ones—and were quick to give them what they wanted: a message of peace.

So notice, too, that the people themselves were not entirely blameless. Verse seventeen makes it clear that the prophets were prophesying falsely to people who wanted someone to kiss the hurts and make everything better. They had heard that the Lord intended to put an end to the city—but this was not a message they could bear. And so they paid the prophets whatever they could to assure them that everything would be okay—and this is exactly what the prophets did. They told the people that everything would be okay, even though they knew, and even though the people knew, that at least one prophet, the prophet Jeremiah, was telling them that judgement was coming. And the Lord’s judgement did come, in 587 bc, when Jerusalem was destroyed.

So is it all doom and gloom with Jeremiah? Well, no—not all doom and gloom! It seems that with Jeremiah, a message of judgement is never too far away, but that’s because of the desperate times he lived in. But there are flashes of brightness in the darkness, glimpses of future hope beyond the impending devastation. Let’s turn back to the opening verses of Jeremiah 23. In verse two, we see that the Lord plans to scatter the shepherds who had not cared for the sheep; but in verse three, we see that the Lord eventually plans to bring his people back to the land—and more than this, that they will return and will prosper, all under the gaze of shepherds who will actually care for them. This is good news!

Yes! It’s me and my golden locks!
There is another promise, too: there shall also be ‘a righteous Branch’, a man who ‘shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.’ Under this king’s just and true leadership, the people ‘will live in safety’—so much so, that the freedom experienced under this king could only surpass the freedom experienced by the Israelites when they were freed from Egypt. This king is that good! I wonder if this reminds you of anyone . . .

So what does all this have to do with us? Knowing a little bit more about sixth-century-bc politics and society in Jerusalem is all well and good, but how does it help us to live today in twenty-first-century-ad London? Well, the times we live in are not too dissimilar. I don’t want to force any like-for-like comparisons between now and then; it’s enough for me simply to point out that the present day is just as uncertain for us, politically and personally, as past days were for the people of Jerusalem. We can all do with some assurance that things will pan out alright. But the question is this: Where do we find this assurance? In whom do we place our trust?

The ultimate answer, of course, is Jesus, the righteous Branch, the king who executes justice like no other monarch ever has or ever will. But trusting Jesus does not automatically make everything alright—not if by this we mean the clouds of uncertainty should part to allow the light of God to bathe us in its warmth. No, this is unrealistic. There could be and probably will be tough times ahead of us, even as the times we live in are already tough in many different ways. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask God to guard us from all that harms and hurts, as today’s collect says; we’re not masochists. But there are still a couple of temptations to avoid, two sides of the same coin. The first is for us to tell people that everything will be okay when it might not be. Having faith in Jesus is not protection or immunity from this world with all its pain and suffering and uncertainty. We can’t avoid the cross any more than Jesus could. And the second temptation is for us to seek out others to tell us that everything will be okay. Again, everything might not be okay, and looking for someone to tell us the opposite when this might not be true is to place our trust in someone other than the crucified one.

But as doom-and-gloomy as all this sounds, let’s not forget that the crucified one is also the risen one: our King Jesus! In our Gospel reading today, we see Jesus teaching in the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem during the Festival of Tabernacles. The Jewish leaders are concerned: Jesus is teaching without any appeal to his own teachers; in effect, he is like a false prophet, spouting, as Jeremiah 23 might say, ‘visions of his own mind, not from the mouth of the Lord.’ But Jesus isn’t like a false prophet at all because he learnt from the best; his teaching comes from God his Father, and he teaches in order to glorify him and not himself. And those who follow him—his disciples, the early Christians, and all of us here today who accept Jesus as Lord—know that he only tells the truth, even when the truth hurts.

The God revealed in Jesus and by the Holy Spirit is the only one who truly knows the future—and this God is truly the only one who promises to be alongside us, loving us, no matter what the future brings. There are tough times ahead one way or another, as well as, I’m sure, some easier times. But whatever our future holds, let’s cling to the one who holds the future. Our God has promised us an eternity of resurrection peace and safety with the once-crucified, now-risen Jesus. This is our ultimate future hope; this is the good news we tell others in the dark times. And why? Because Jesus is alive and because he reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

My Review of William J. Abraham’s Divine Agency and Divine Action, vols. 1–2

If you’re so inclined, you can read my JTS review of the first two volumes of William J. Abraham’s Divine Agency and Divine Action here.

I happen to have the third volume to review for JTS, too. Hopefully this review will be out later in the year.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Impactful CCM Albums: The Prayer Chain, Mercury (1995)

The Prayer Chain is, for me, the band of CCM—although remember how I’m using the term ‘CCM’! Every album represented a significant departure from the previous one—the angsty Shawl (1993) upended the indie-poppish Whirlpool (1992); Mercury changed direction from Shawl; and Antarctica, a collection of songs that didn’t make the cut for Mercury and some live material, was sufficiently different to make the CD stand out.

Mercury, only the group’s second full-length album, is a wonderful blend of effects-laden guitars and crisp basslines. True to form, some of the lyrical imagery is a little . . . obscure—but it works. It all works, just as much now as it did in 1995. And although ‘Sky High’ is my standout track, I want to draw attention to ‘Humb’ and ‘Shiver’ as well.

Standout track: ‘Sky High’

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

David Fergusson on Evil and Aesthetic Analogies for God’s Providence

I’m not the biggest fan of non-biblical analogies for providence and/or divine action, so this quotation from David Fergusson’s recent book on providence cheered me no end:

Theologians have sometimes reached too swiftly for aesthetic analogies which suggest that everything in creation contributes to an overall harmony. The danger here is of transposing moral and religious objections to suffering into artistic descriptions of the shadow in the painting or the discordant note in the music which comprise a richer and more poignant performance. The problem of evil resists such categorisation, for much the same reason as we hold that the end cannot always justify the means. Although an account of the rich tapestry of creation might accommodate a modicum of pain and discomfort to facilitate the emergence of greater goods, such considerations can cope neither with the intensity of some forms of suffering nor with the depravity of some of our actions. The distribution and depth of innocent suffering prevent the easy deployment of a theodicy oriented towards an aesthetic resolution.

David Fergusson, The Providence of God: A Polyphonic Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), p. 315

The fact is that too many theologies of providence fail to take seriously what Fergusson refers to as ‘dysteleological suffering and failure’ (p. 314). There are some things that just cannot be explained or accounted for by an all-encompassing analogy.

The dysteleological suspension of the musical

That said, Fergusson goes on to say that ‘the musical analogy of a cantus firmus might serve a theology of providence’, insofar as this is ‘a steady and underlying melody to which the other contrapuntal tunes relate’ (p. 315). I can appreciate this in and of itself; but given Fergusson then goes on to connect this cantus firmus to ‘the story of Jesus’ (p. 315), I fail to see why he needs then to explicate this latter in terms of the former. Or perhaps I’m being too biblicist here!

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Impactful CCM Albums: Roadside Monument, Eight Hours Away from Being a Man (1997)

I was quite sad or moody or [insert related adjective here] during the second half of 1997. Of the many CDs I no doubt bought at this point, Roadside Monument’s Eight Hours Away from Being a Man chimed with my emotional state—not least because of the line in the song ‘Crop Circles’: ‘Where are all my friends?’ Despite being at King’s College London at the height of the Colin Gunton era and having some good and close friends (most of whom I’m still good and close friends with today), I remember how much this lyric captured (so I thought) this period of my life. It’s a shame I don’t really remember much about why it summed up this period! Either way, Eight Hours Away from Being a Man was on repeat play.

Standout track: ‘Crop Circles’

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

New Books for 2019

Here are some forthcoming books that have caught my eye, all listed in the latest Skybalon Press catalogue:

The Forgotten Psalms by Professor Morten V. Litenwinkel
In 2016, Professor Litenwinkel began to translate some mysterious texts that he had discovered in the archives of the library of the University of Oymyakon. These texts turned out to be fragments of Hebrew poetry that may or may not have been part of temple worship in Jerusalem. Professor Litenwickel’s at once highly accurate but rather speculative translations capture the essence of the typical Judahite at a time when Jerusalem was continually oppressed by imperialist war dogs. Highlights of The Forgotten Psalms include ‘The Psalm of Heman of Eternia’ and ‘Hey, ho, it’s Babylon again’.

Our Cheeky Faith Journey by the Cheeky Girls
Romanian twins Gabriela and Monica Irimia, otherwise known as pop superstars The Cheeky Girls, may have struck a chord with Europe’s disaffected youth through sharp political and anti-consumerist satires such as their hit songs ‘Cheeky Song (Touch My Bum)’ and ‘Take Your Shoes Off’; but in recent years they have been walking the earth in an attempt to discover the meaning of life. In Our Cheeky Faith Journey, the Cheeky Girls reveal how they have encountered various faith traditions, from Christianity to Raëlism to Auntie Maisie’s Cosmic Club, and what the prospect of faith means to them in a universe seemingly governed by the implacable and dispassionate laws of physics. Comes with a double-sided poster.

The Dictionary of Words and Terms Not Found in the Bible edited by Lee Pofaif
While there are many different theological dictionaries available, Lee Pofaif, Professor of Biblical Studies and Advance Equestrianism at the University of Toad Suck, AR, and his team of tweenage scholars have found a sizeable gap in the market for a new but important reference book. This enlighteningly wonderful volume contains over 2,000 entries ranging from ‘aardvark’ to ‘Zarak’ via ‘mereological nihilism’, explaining why the Bible, when considered as the inspired and inerrant Word of God, has neglected to include such vital keywords and terms.

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

Christmas Inspiration from Colin Gunton

Because God surprises earth with heaven by sending his only Son as light shining in the darkness; because in Christ the holy city comes into our midst; because the Jewish child in the manger is the impinging of eternity upon time and thus the movement of the eternal to be with us; because he is that light by which the nations may walk and by whose grace and power they are healed – because of all that, your words and your acts, your decisions between greed and grace, between lies and truth, can in their turn become the impinging of heaven upon the hell that we make of our world.

Colin E. Gunton, Theology Through Preaching: Sermons for Brentwood (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), p. 77

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Impactful CCM Albums: Various Artists, The Heaven’s Metal Collection (1992)

In the early 1990s, in the days before the internet, the easiest way for me to hear new CCM was either to listen to new albums in my local Christian bookshop, take a risk, or buy compilations. And so in my collection I still have such gems as Ultimate Rock 1 & 2 and Ultimate Metal 1 & 2—and the focus of this post, The Heaven’s Metal Collection.

This two-cassette box set gave me the opportunity to hear bands I’d only ever read about in the Word Record Club magazine. The collection is a chronicle, really, of some of the most significant CCM rock and metal bands to that point. Inevitably, Stryper are included—but the accompanying booklet and tapes remind us that they were not the first and most definitely (in my view) not the best. This is the compilation that introduced me properly to Tourniquet, Bride, The Crucified, and Mortification, among others.

The early 90s was, musically speaking, a time of genuine transition. On the one hand, there was Guns ‘n’ Roses; on the other, Nirvana. And this shift had its parallel in CCM, as the photograph from the accompanying booklet shows: pop/glam metal on the left (Holy Soldier, whose eponymous debut album is worth listening to) and the increasingly popular extreme forms of metal on the right (Tourniquet). Strangely, the different stylings of rock and metal on these two tapes do manage to sit alongside one another without jarring too much. Perhaps this indicated something of how difficult it was to pledge allegiance to a particular music genre to the exclusion of all others.

I’m not going to list the standout track from this compilation as this will likely be the standout track on a future post; I want to avoid unnecessary duplication duplication. But the track I’ve selected is still very good.

Standout track: Trytan, ‘Genesis’

Monday, 3 December 2018

Impactful CCM Albums: Mortal, Fathom (1993)

Twenty-five years ago, Mortal released Fathom—and my world changed.

Fathom was the album that convinced me dance rhythms and hard guitar could work together. Fathom was the album that convinced me that in terms of creativity and originality, CCM could surpass anything the so-called ‘secular’ world would put out. Fathom was the album that convinced me that . . . well, let me put it this way: Fathom was, and is, in my not-so-humble opinion, the greatest CCM release ever.

I find it hard to identify a standout track on this album. ‘Rift’ was my favourite for a long, long time, but these days, twenty-five years on, I am reluctant to talk in terms of ‘favourites’. Besides, my opinion changes every time I listen to the CD. Today’s standout track is ‘Bright Wings’, with its setting of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s ‘God’s Grandeur’, but tomorrow it could be ‘Neplusultra’ or even the untitled hidden techno track.

Standout track: ‘Bright Wings’