Monday, August 22, 2011

Why prayer life is important for preachers?

Prayer is important in the life of a preacher because it is a summary, really, of the vocation of being a preacher. For a preacher, to pray is an immersion of the person’s life into the sea of conviction that the great impossible has happened.

The notion that the transcendent God, who is perfect and self-sufficient in every way, would take interest, not to mention the bloody trouble, to invite the preacher and the congregation to share in the divine life through Christ is simply an impossible thought. In our daily experience, we interact with others and invest in them only to seal some of our own lack, be it in the form of emotion, psyche, finance or physic. The sense of being absolutely self-sufficient is a state far removed from our grasp. We don’t relate with others without in some way the relation benefits us.

God being entirely satisfying by his nature doesn’t need to relate to us. Our experience, which is perennially surrounded by the effort to overcome our lacks, doesn’t give us the ability or the framework to understand the rationale that God would literally desire us to death. Either by experience or rational, the cross and the resurrection remain unimaginable. Unless of course that that is really the case.

Therefore prayer, more than fostering, is to serve as the ground that nourishes the preacher to be a preacher. It substantiates rather than supplements the calling of the preacher to proclaim the impossible.

Prayer, regardless of its audibility, stays as the amplification of the impossibility that heaven and earth have been reconnected. Hence a fervent prayer life of the preacher is like the resonance that vibrates so strong that the preacher’s presence itself testifies to how God’s kingdom has come upon our earthly city by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

In this way, rather than as an address to God, prayer is God’s address to us. It is via prayer that the preacher hears anew the story that he takes as the message to which his life proclaims for the rest of its allotted time. Cultivating a habitual prayer life can then be likened to amplifying the unimaginable message of God’s desire for us. The resounding reaches first to the preacher’s own being as a preacher, continuously nurturing him into a worthy messenger who is immersed in the factuality of divine love. From the preacher’s life, the resonance bounces off itself reaching unto the ear of the hearers. This is why prayer is important to a preacher’s life.

After writing the above to hand-in as an assignment, I think I've come to agree with what is written. Now enjoy this video:

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sketching as faith seeking understanding: A reflection on drawing Rowan Williams

I sketched this last night as a break from my routine reading. Three reasons why this sketch.

First, I was curious whether I still able to sketch after haven't been doing it for many years. Second, I'm finding ways to reconnect the whatever little artistic skill that I have with the theology that I'm learning. Third, I always thought of drawing some theologians.

I took a photo and posted it on Facebook as a backup copy in case the hardcopy is lost.

A friend, Andy Lie, who is currently located in England, saw it and wrote, "You have somewhat restored the humanity into RDW compared with some of the caricatures in the British press."

Restored the humanity into RDW (Rowan Douglas Williams)? How so? All I wanted to do was to sketch.

Upon further thoughts, my friend who being in England is more sensitive to the media portrayal of Williams than I am. Therefore, it could be that this sketch though does not bear any restoring significance to me is seen by him with wider connotation and deeper meaning.

One can simply google through the various comical portraits of Williams in the British media and notice how each carries certain caricature. One can tell what is the press trying to say about it's impression of the person from the way the person is portrayed, not only through words, but also through their drawings and photos. The portraits represent in some sense the producer's attachment to the object.

Here is a reflection by Roland Chia that makes the point:

"[The] arts can be said to be that human activity which, by engaging with the materiality of the world, illumines in various media something about the world's depth and reality. Ther arts, therefore, can be said to be a way of knowing, a way of being and a way of doing. They represent knowledge of reality by reflecting on the meaning of the way things are: the world's being and becoming. Art is an activity because it is also a response to perceptions of reality. In this way, the arts, like everything else about human culture, cannot be understood in abstraction but must be located in a historical, cultural and social milieu."
(Roland Chia, 'Artistic Makings and Meanings: Contours of a Theology of the Arts,' in Sights and Sounds: A Christian Response to the Creative Arts and Media, ed. Robert M. Solomon and Lim K. Tham [Singapore: Genesis Books, 2006], p.9)

One may call Andy's reading of the sketch a 'dimensional disobedience'. This disobedience is not negative. It is disobedience, nonetheless, because the sketch does not carry the dimension perceived by the observer (Andy) when it is produced by the artist (me). In Williams' own words:

"The degree to which art is 'obedient'---not dependent on an artist's decisions or tastes---is manifest in the degree to which the product has dimension outside of its relation to the producer, the sense of alternative space around the image, of real time and contingency in narrative, of hinterland. [...] The artist does not exhaust the significance of his or her labour, but creates an object, a schema of perceptible data, that will have about it the same excess as the phenomena that stimulated the production in the first place. Art moves from and into a depth in the perceptible world that is contained neither in routine perception nor in the artist's conscious or unconscious purposes."
(Rowan Williams, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love [UK: Continuum Books, 2005], p.147, 149-150.)

When I was sketching this piece, I found my hand being moved by various self-directed insistences and concerns: the face has to be thinner, needs more shadow at the bottom of the nose, the coat needs to be sketched in another direction to prevent the dwarfing of the body, and... the beard.

The most wearisome of all was that I would end up drawing Karl Marx.

There is always risk and fear throughout the process. For one, the pressures and insistences that moved the pencil in the best envisioning did not actually provide any glimpse of how the product would look like in the end. All that I had at that moment is solely the desire to see how would the finished work be, and the imagination that is driven by this desire.

Therefore to sketch is always to risk deviant representation of the object. With a few careless strokes, Rowan Williams becomes Karl Marx.

Monday, August 08, 2011

What's up with a group of Dutch Christians and Richard Hays and arts?

It has been a while I has not written a What's up? post that highlights and comments on news that came to my attention. Here is a new one.

It is reported by BBC a group of Dutch people who identify themselves as Christians yet does not believe that God exists. Here's how one of the leaders describes their idea of God:

"When it happens, it happens down to earth, between you and me, between people, that's where it can happen. God is not a being at all... it's a word for experience, or human experience."

I think those who lived through the 60s, 70s, and 80s would be familiar with such 'God-is-dead' theology. It's nothing new, hence I puzzled over the news report to call this phenomenon 'new Christianity'. The media-giant BBC has amnesia?

Those Dutch clergymen featured in the news seem to have no idea that Don Cupitt and his cohort have tried this decades earlier. For that, I wouldn't expect them to have read Rowan Williams' critique on Cupitt.

Recently Richard Hays, one of the foremost New Testament expert of our time, writes on the relation between Christians and the arts. Here is the portion that I am intrigued by:

"How does the architecture of the buildings in which we live and work shape us? How do iTunes and Netflix tell us stories about who we are and what we should desire? How does the diction of advertising stunt our capacity to speak kindly and truthfully to one another? If theological education focuses only on ideas and fails to reflect on their artistic milieu, we will be quite literally tone-deaf or insensible to major elements of human experience, and we will fail to perceive ways in which the gospel may challenge and transform us."

Hays highlights something we often miss: the aesthetically pleasant things or beings around us tell stories. It tells us who we are and what we are becoming. Have we ever wonder why do we attracted to something and not other things? For that, possibly our preference for which visual and audio stimulant says more about us and our deep-held beliefs than the creed we profess.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Book Review: 'The Enduring Word: The Authority and Reliability of the Bible' by Robert M. Solomon

This book is written to educate the general Christian population in order to help them deal with the issues raised by popular works by scholars in textual criticism, particularly Bart Ehrman.

Solomon in this work tries to cover all the major pertinent concerns surrounding the Bible such as the theology of scripture, the canonical process, the textual variants, and translation. With his gifted writing style, Solomon makes these topics easily accessible to those who have no exposure to them previously.

That is the strength of the work. It is a popular-level work meant to counter popular-level challenges.

When dealing with the theology of scripture, the author summarizes the various approaches to understanding the nature of the scripture. (Chapter 2)

Scripture is understood as the result of special revelation, that is the process proceeded from God's keenness to "make Himself known---He is keen to reveal His thoughts and purposes" directly to humans (p.20-21). The scripture is an inspired book which means it is "the unique inspired book in the world, in which God revealed Himself to humankind." (p.24)

Following Rene Pache, Solomon asserts that the "Bible does not merely contain the Word of God, but is itself the Word of God." (p.24. Emphasis original) Yet there is a difference between the scripture and Jesus Christ who is also recognized as the Word of God. Therefore the bible should not be worshiped in the same way as Christ.

There are several theologies of scripture that Solomon rejects. First, the 'Spiritual Principles Theory', which teaches that only the spiritual principles in the Bible is inspired. 2 Peter 1:20 is quoted by Solomon to show that "All Scripture is inspired". (p.25. Emphasis original.)

The second rejected theology is the mechanical 'Dictation Theory' that affirms that the authors of the scripture are merely recorder of God's words and have no input of their own. Solomon thinks that inspiration is a "more complex and dynamic process than God merely dictating words to the writers," where the "human individuality" is involved. (p.25-26)

Solomon thinks that the most satisfactory theory to think about inspiration is one that he calls "Verbal-Plenary Inspiration" that affirms all scripture to be inspired dynamically. He thinks that this theory is confined only to the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts and is "not generally extended to the transmission (copying) and translation of those original autographs which are now not available to us." (p.29)

Besides inspiration, Solomon also stresses the theology of illumination that says that the Holy Spirit helps readers of the Bible to understand what they read, and the theology of inerrancy that teaches that "the original manuscripts in Greek and Hebrew were error-free and totally trustworthy." (p.30)

On top of that, Solomon seals his theology of scripture in divine providence to preserve the Biblical texts:

"Because of the nature of divine inspiration, the autographs or original manuscripts written in Hebrew (and Aramaic in a few places) and Greek cannot be with error. This protection against any error cannot be said of copies of the originals and translated versions. However, divine providence is still at work in the process of transmission and translation." (p.31)

Moving onto Chapter 3, Solomon turns his attention to the canonical process by laying a confessional statement that the Protestant canon is closed by referring to Deuteronomy 4.2 and Revelation 22.18-19. (p.38) Though his appeal to these two verses are anachronistic yet he can hardly be faulted since his appeal is on confessional ground. Nonetheless I think Solomon is assuming too much in this chapter. Three examples to show what I mean.

First, on page 41, Solomon writes:

"Jesus declared, "'Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.' Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures" (Luke 24:44-45). We have already seen how the Hebrew Bible was divided into three major sections---the Law, the Prophets and the Writings (the key book being Psalms). Jesus, in referring to all three major sections of the Hebrew Bible, gave further confirmation of the canon of the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament). This confirmation comes from none other than the Lord Himself."

There is an assumption in the above quote that (1) the word "Psalms" in Luke 24.44-45 refers to the "Writings" category of the Hebrew Bible, and (2) the Hebrew Bible was divided into three major sections---the Law, the Prophets and the Writings---in the time of Jesus.

Craig A. Evans provides several reasons why these two assumptions are doubtful:

(a) 4QMMT, a letter from the Dead Sea Scrolls collection, seems to list 4 categories of the Hebrew canon: 'Book of Moses', 'books of the Prophets', 'book of David', and 'chronicles of every generation'.

The category 'book of David', since it is separated from the 'chronicles of every generation', could well refers only to the Psalms and not the 'Writings' as Solomon assumes (as per the quote above and his list of the 'Writings' on page 38). Therefore we cannot be certain if there was a clear three division of the Hebrew Bible as Solomon assumes.

(b) Due to (1) the close correlation of the Psalms to the Prophets as seen in Dead Sea Scrolls, (2) that David is seen as a prophet (Acts 1.16, 2.30, 4.25), and (3) Psalms is recognized as prophecy (Acts 1.20), the phrase "the Prophets and the Psalms" in Luke 24.44 may best be read as one category.

The reading of this verse should be something like this: "Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets (including the Psalms)."
(See Craig A. Evans, 'The Scriptures of Jesus and His Earliest Followers' in The Canon Debate, ed. Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders [USA: Hendrickson, 2001], p.185-195)

Second, on page 44, Solomon writes:

"Jesus and the apostles, though they quote extensively from the canonical Old Testament books, never refer to the Apocrypha. Also, the New Testament writers, in quoting verses from the Septuagint, never used the Apocrypha."

Yet when we turn to Jude 14-15, we find parallels in 1 Enoch 1.9 and 60.8. Then we have early Church authorities like Athenagoras of Athens, Irenaeus of Gaul, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian of Carthage who recognize 1 Enoch as canonical, if not almost with the same status as the Old Testament. (See James C. Vanderkam, '1 Enoch, Enochic Motifs, and Enoch in Early Christian Literature,' in The Jewish Apocalyptic Heritage in Early Christianity, ed. James C. Vanderkam and William Adler [Netherlands: Van Gorcum & Comp. B. V., 1996], p.35-60.)

Although it is debatable whether did Jude actually refer to 1 Enoch or a tradition he received, the point is that Solomon is assuming too much that this issue is settled.

Third, we find on page 45:

"When it came to the Apocrypha, [Jerome] clearly differentiated between the Old Testament canonical books as authoritative in the canonical sense, and the Apocrypha as books that were not canonical but which had some spiritual value. [Solomon went on to cite Jerome's 'Preface to Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs']"

Solomon's selective usage of Jerome's work misrepresents Jerome's position. There are three letters that are dated to be written later than 'Preface to Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs' show us another side of Jerome.

In these letters, passages from the Apocrypha are quoted side-by-side with Old Testament canonical works as if they bear similar authority:

At least that is what Solomon says: 'wisdom is the gray hair unto men’ [Wisdom 4:9]. Moses too in choosing the seventy elders is told to take those whom he knows to be elders indeed, and to select them not for their years but for their discretion [Numbers 11:16]? And, as a boy, Daniel judges old men and in the flower of youth condemns the incontinence of age [Story of Susannah 55-59].
(Letter to Paulinus.)

I would cite the words of the psalmist: 'the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,’ [Psalm 51:17] and those of Ezekiel 'I prefer the repentance of a sinner rather than his death,’ [Ezekiel 18:23] and those of Baruch, 'Arise, arise, O Jerusalem,’ [Baruch 5:5] and many other proclamations made by the trumpets of the prophets.
(Letter to Oceanus.)

Does not the scripture [Sirach 13.2] say: 'Burden not thyself above thy power'...
(Letter to Eustochium.)

A five-points summary regarding the issue of Apocrypha is given on page 48. Although this book is not entirely about canonization, yet the discussion of these issues could be handled with more care.

The next two chapters are detailing the manuscript record of the Old and New Testaments. We are introduced to the various oldest copies of surviving manuscripts and their implication to the confidence to trust that the current biblical texts in our hand are reliably transmitted.

After that, Solomon dedicated a chapter discussing issues surrounding problematic texts like the ending of Mark's gospel and John 7.53-8.11, which apparently are not found in earliest manuscripts. In tackling these problems, Solomon relies heavily on the work of Bruce Metzger, who was the teacher of Bart Ehrman.

Next, the book describes and compares the different version of Bible widely used at the present. Solomon helpfully summarizes the translation philosophy of each version and provides a chart to guide readers to understand the differences between each version. (p.164)

The final chapter carries on what is being discussed in Chapter 2. After expressing his appreciation for the works that have been done and still doing in the field of textual criticism (p.172-173), Solomon raised three important theological aspects of scripture to the Christian community: (1) The Bible ought to be read, (2) the scripture is accessible and can be understood even after a long process of transmission and translation, and (3) God's Word is to be obeyed.

Overall, this is a remarkably easy-to-read book which lives up to its intended purpose. The author has also provided a Glossary section at the end of the book to facilitate readers with technical terms that are used in the book. This book can be used as a brief introduction for catechism in Churches. It is a good prelude on the extensive issues surrounding the Bible.