Jesus, Psalm 19 and Empty Words

The Sound of Silence
Jesus had something to say about empty words. We’ll get to these words a little a later after we’ve encountered some other words, as well as some silence. Simon and Garfunkel rereleased The Sound of Silence as a single some fifty-six years ago in September 1965 to some acclaim. Its previous release, in a different musical form, a couple of years earlier had not been a success. The song was written by Paul Simon and since 1965 there have been diverse opinions as to its meaning. Such ambiguity and polyvalence are often a good thing for a song or a poem’s popularity and therefore survival. This is, for example, probably part of the story behind the 150 biblical psalms which are most likely a small fraction of Israel’s hymnody.

I understand The Sound of Silence to be an expression of concern about the nature of modern society and culture. More specifically, that a clarity regarding underpinning principles, philosophy or truth is absent. There is instead just a resounding silence. This lack of words of value and words of veracity seems to fit with:

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening

The singer of the song seems to know a potential antidote to this cultural malaise:

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”

But this wisdom is met as just another voice amid the competition, and these ‘words, like silent raindrops fell’. The song goes on to allude to the creation of new gods—the neon god they made—alluding perhaps to consumerism, materialism and marketing, symbolised by the observation that “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls”.

Whether, or not, this is the meaning of The Sound of Silence, I find that any testament I make as to my faith is met by people ‘hearing without listening’ and perhaps to them my words, as ‘my truth’, are like me ‘talking without speaking’. In a world of cynicism about a guiding narrative all testimony to something bigger rings hollow or perhaps there is simply a communication failure. And so in this way the collective denial of universal truth means that ‘silence like a cancer grows’. Words as signifiers and pointers to something else evaporate if there is no possibility of belief in what they point to.

Creative Speaking and Speech
The Bible, when it can be heard, makes a very different claim right from the outset. Just a few verses in, and we find all creation being spoken into existence. And with such rhythm that words are celebrated as this unfolds. God even takes delight in naming things. Following on from such an opening, is it any surprise that Psalm 29 can make the more modest claim that God’s voice is like the loudest thunder? Although here, God’s voice is as destructive as it is creative in Genesis 1. It seems that this biblical deity can both create and destroy with his thunderous voice. Humankind echoes this potential for bipolar speech-acts as part of their reflection of God’s image. Our ability to both create and destroy with our words is part of what lies behind the empty words that Jesus refers in Matthew’s gospel (see below).

Psalm 19 also picks up where Genesis 1 leaves off. There the connection between creation and God’s speech is given a little twist. In verses 1–6 it is creation that does the talking, speaking of the God who spoke it into existence:

Day after day they pour forth speech;
  night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
  no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
  their words to the ends of the world.
Psalm 19:2–4, NIVUK

These verses push the speech metaphor to breaking point. This is both ‘speech’ (v.2) and ‘not speech’ (v.3). This recognition that we are both dealing with a metaphor and stretching it to its limit is vitally important. We are dealing with poetic (but nevertheless true) ideas in all their richness. Neither Genesis 1 nor Psalm 19 provide literal accounts of creation being spoken into existence or creation testifying to its creator. We have something that is mysteriously difficult to pin down. We have language grappling with the undeniable reality of creation as observable fact—testifying in some sense to the creator. This is a testimony that can’t be otherwise, a worldview that accepts creation without creator makes no sense here. This is a working hypothesis that explains the universe in all its wonder and magnificence. This is no mechanistic account of the way things are, or the way things came to be. This is faith seeking understanding—a faith and an understanding that is more than two millennia old but we each should make afresh day-by-day.

Instruction
The second half of Psalm 19 deepens this poetic claim of metaphysical insight. Verses 7–11 complement creation’s testimony to the creator with reflection on the creator’s words. These words are precious and sustaining to creation and its creatures:

The decrees of the Lord are firm,
  and all of them are righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
  than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
  than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
  in keeping them there is great reward.
Psalm 19:9b–11, NIVUK

Some scholars of the old form critical school see a tension between the first and second part of this psalm. But this is over-categorisation to the detriment of the richer poetry and synergy of its claims, all centred on speech. The creation and God’s instruction are twin pillars of order behind the space-time universe. They are each so very different and yet interwoven as the very fabric of reality.

In the face of God, the creator, whose creation points to him as a cosmic signpost and the claim that he has provided instruction for us, the psalmist is all too aware of their frailty (vv.12–13) and asks:

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
  be pleasing in your sight,
  Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14, NIVUK

Empty Words?
Such a laudable response to God seems worlds away from these sober words of Jesus:

‘. . . But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’
Matthew 12:36–37, NIVUK

Before we rush confidently to celebrate the merciful possibility of acquittal we would do well to pause. We all know that our words can be creative and life giving as we echo a microcosm of God’s creative capacity. It is equally clear just how destructive our words can be. Even our empty words can cause real harm and destruction. Being human means experiencing time-and-again, directly and indirectly, both the life-giving and destructive potential of words. Words after all are not heard in a vacuum. They arise from our heart (Matthew 12:35) and they signify the state of our innermost being.

How might we avoid empty words? How might we not be silent when we should speak? Whilst we can try harder, and this might not be a bad thing, it’s not the answer. Rather, the hope we have is not only to look to Jesus Christ, the Word, to acquit us, but to also to transform us. What if praying such Scriptures as those above could work such a miracle?

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
  be pleasing in your sight,
  Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14, NIVUK

 

 

Johnny Cash’s Psalm 1: I Walk the Line

Johnny Cash the Psalmist perhaps sounds a little unlikely. And to be fair it is probably by some peculiar coincidence that there are so many connections between Cash’s I Walk The Line and Psalm 1. But the intertextual and thematic connections are worth considering. I suggest that both texts are enriched by reflecting on the other.

Both songs concern faithfulness. Cash’s song is, at face value and indeed originally was, a declaration of fidelity to his wife, Vivian Liberto. In later life after he discovered Christ it took on a new meaning as a declaration of fidelity to the God of the Bible. Psalm 1 is a statement of faithfulness, and a reflection on what that faith might look like, as well as the blessing it leads to. Some might judge it to be concerned with a dry legalism, but such a view owes more to eisegesis informed by a popular caricature of Jewish faith, than a true reading of the psalm. When we remember that law, or torah, is instruction from God we can perceive the relationship described in Psalm 1 rather than any transactional mechanism based on works righteousness.

Cash declares that he keeps ‘a close watch on this heart of mine’ and has his ‘eyes wide open all the time. One can imagine that early in his career, on tour in front of adoring adolescents, away from home that this would wisely be followed up as avoiding walking (Psalm 1:1a), standing (1:1b), sitting (1:1c) or lying in the wrong company.

The experience of Cash’s early career revealed his declaration ‘I find it very, very easy to be true’, to be rather naïve in the face of the temptations of the rock and roll lifestyle. In many ways Psalm 1 also has a naivety about it. It is sure-footed and certain in its call to integrity and piety, but later psalms revisit its certitude and make it appear naïve amidst the ups-and-downs of the life of faith. For example, Psalm 37 and 73 read as if they are penned by the same person a few years down the line—this person now questions not only their ability to do the right thing but wonders about those who seem blessed despite doing the worst of things. Closer to Psalm 1, Psalms 3 to 7 are a series of laments that cast doubt on the straightforward path to blessing promised in Psalm 1. Of course, Psalm 1 can be understood eschatologically, see Psalm 1:5, in which case it transcends naivety to become a reality in eternity.

Both Cash’s song and our psalm have a 24-7 motif:

I keep you on my mind both day and night.
Cash

. . . and who meditates on his law day and night.
Psalm 1:2b

And in both cases, this ‘meditation’ is key to happiness. Cash claims that the ‘happiness I’ve known proves that it’s right’, whereas the psalmist equates such meditation with delight (Psalm 1:2a) and the whole poem is connected with happiness with its opening word meaning this in Hebrew (Psalm 1:1a). It should be noted that the happiness of Psalm 1 is a deeper more nuanced well-being, that encompasses happiness and blessedness and everything in between. In contrast, Cash speaks of the happiness that come out of right relationship with a loving human partner.

By its very nature and title, I Walk the Line is about the correct path to follow. This is very much a moral road as it concerns perfect fidelity and loving commitment to another. This is also the exact concern of Psalm 1 as it asks the question as to which path, or line, we travel, the way of the righteous or the way of the wicked (Psalm 1:6).

You can test this synergy and complementarity, between Psalm 1 and Cash’s song, for yourself by listening to Johnny Cash sing I Walk The Line here:

Provided to YouTube by The Orchard Enterprises I Walk the Line — Johnny Cash

 

Cohen’s ‘If It Be Your Will’: Song, Prayer, Psalm

Leonard Cohen described If It Be Your Will ‘as more of a prayer’ than a song during his introduction to its performance by the Webb Sisters and Neil Larson. Here I suggest that it is not only a prayer but more specifically a psalm.

Even the title is highly suggestive of a key feature of psalmody—an absolute trust in God. As the song unfolds this trust, we see that this commitment to God is founded in a creature-Creator relationship, as the singer’s finitude is sublimely conveyed:

If it be your will, that I speak no more
And my voice be still, as it was before

The frailty of the singer is in little doubt given their own metaphorical claim to be a ‘broken hill’. Is it pushing our reflection too far to imagine this as an oblique reference and contrast to the ‘holy hill’ (Psalm 2:6; 3:4; 15:1; 24:3; 43:3 and 78:54) of the Psalter? Beyond the trust and frailty, we also have a subtle undertone of accusation. For all the trust implicit and explicit in the biblical psalms the psalmist is not slow in challenging Yahweh. Here, likewise, Cohen questions with the very refrain, ‘If it be your will’. This is no fatalistic trust in the deity but a relationship and commitment-based questioning:

If it be your will, that a voice be true

Of course, poetry has an immense capacity for polyvalence and here there is a welcome poignant ambiguity. Undoubtedly other readings are possible. We are on firm ground when we note that some of the language of this song is undoubtedly redolent of the Psalms. For example, we cannot miss the allusion to Psalm 98:8:

Let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice

The specific focus of this prayer, mercy, is also a key aspect of the biblical psalms. Cohen’s psalm is, like many of its Hebrew progenitors, a plea for mercy:

If it be your will, if there is a choice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in Hell
If it be your will, to make us well

Interestingly here in Cohen’s work the call for mercy is for others, and not for himself. Of the 29 calls for mercy, I can find in the Psalter, all but four (Psalm 79:8; 106:46; 123:2 and 3) are prayers prayed by the psalmist for his own deliverance, like that most famously found in Psalm 51:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love
Psalm 51:1a, NRSV

The poetic plea also challenges the conventional notion of hell. It appears that Cohen sees many in this world in need of a deliverance from an all too tangible place of suffering. This adds to the difficulty in pinning down the polarities of trust and challenge—perhaps, like in the Psalter and throughout the Hebrew Bible, these are not polarities at all but concomitant in the God-given grace of a relationship between creature and Creator.

On another occasion when he performed this song, Cohen refers to humanity as ‘creatures of a higher order’. He is, however, under no illusion about the source of the suffering of those in earthly hell. For Cohen, just as we creatures reflect something of our Creator in our ‘rags of light’ so these same clothes make us ‘dressed to kill’ in the worst sense.

Cohen’s poem stands in the firmest of biblical traditions—there is profound questioning here as well as ultimately a willingness to surrender in trust—a response that reflects the creature-Creator relationship. Both Job and Jesus have gone before on this precarious path as illustrated here as we close with three parallel statements:

See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
Job 40:4, NRSV

“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me;
yet not as I will, but as You will.”
Matthew 26:39b, NRSV

If it be your will, that I speak no more;
And my voice be still, as it was before.
I will speak no more, I shall abide until;
I am spoken for, if it be your will.
If It Be Your Will, Leonard Cohen

X is for X-rated

Throughout this acrostic series we have celebrated how Psalm 51 has inspired great music (A is for Allegri), challenging sermons (J is for John Donne), uplifting commentary (E is for Eleanor Hull) and theological reflection (L is for Luther). Not everything that Psalm 51 has inspired has been so lofty and in tune with the cry Miserere mei, Deus. For example, the Books of Hours which were primers for lay piety had woodcuts showing the naked bathing Bathsheba with David looking onwards. In an age when this was the only mass media it seems likely that such imagery would have inflamed in some the very lust that prayer was meant to quell.

The same subject informed the Western art tradition and the naked Bathsheba provided a pious umbrella of religious propriety under which to practice voyeurism. Paintings by Rubens (c.1635), Rembrandt (1654) and Hayez (1845) are among the most famous of this very focused genre.

There is enormous irony that Psalm 51 might, albeit very indirectly, give rise to the voyeurism that was the downfall of its supposed author. Sadly, the story of Bathsheba from inception to the present bears the all too familiar hallmarks of patriarchy at its worst. The Bible has scant details about the nature of Bathsheba’s complicity in adultery. Little imagination is required to picture various scenarios that lie a long way from consensual sex, especially given the power of a king in a patriarchal culture.

This is of course speculation but what is clear is that over the centuries Bathsheba has been assumed to have invited David’s attention. Even the positive outcome of David’s penitence, contrition and compunction side lines Bathsheba as an object in the story. Too few have even paused to ask with genuine openness whether she was victim or co-sinner in the light of celebrating David as sinner turned penitent. There is of course little evidence to go on, but we would all do well to at least pause to remember that Bathsheba was a frail human being whose role as victim, sinner and penitent remain opaque.

Q is for the Quality of Mercy

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice has a speech about mercy, the central theme of our miserere, Psalm 51. It is delivered by Portia in Act 4 Scene 1 in a courtroom context. Portia is pleading, even begging, for Shylock’s mercy. It provides a rich meditation on the meaning of mercy and its relationship with justice. Such reflection is important in earthly affairs, but as is made clear in the speech it pertains closely to the mercy with which Psalm 51 is concerned—that is the unfathomable quality of mercy shown by the Creator to his creatures:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I

Advent: Love

In our modern world there are those that would challenge the very notion of love. Sadly, we see regular evidence of the failure of love. We know of, and perhaps experience first-hand, damaged relationships, broken vows and ended marriages. In the news we see celebrities, and the famous, failing to model true love in this age. Too many people can testify to the darker side of love. For some love is just a synonym for lust or sexual coercion and abuse.

In the 1980s the pop duo Eurythmics captured the darker side of so-called love in a song which claims to define love. In the words of Love is a Stranger (1982):

It’s savage and it’s cruel
And it shines like destruction
Comes in like the flood
And it seems like religion
It’s noble and it’s brutal
It distorts and deranges
And it wrenches you up
And you’re left like a zombie

Such a view of love might match some experiences of modern relationships, but it’s also a parody of the Bible’s most famous passage about love:

Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking,
it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
1 Corinthians 13: 4–7, NIV

Both Eurythmics and the Apostle Paul describe love. I know which definition I prefer. For Christians, Saint Paul has the final word because his understanding of love is its truest form – for it is a view of love defined in the very nature of who the God of the Bible is. As the New Testament claims elsewhere: God is love (1 John 4:16).

It is perhaps in worldly love that we see most clearly the damage of humankind’s selfishness. As broken human beings when we aim at patient-and-kind love it is only a matter of time before we fall into savage-and-cruel love. Which of us has not said something to our dearest in the heat of the moment? Sometimes such words cannot be forgiven and even if they can, they are seldom forgotten.

Of the estimated 107 billion people who have walked this Earth, it is only Jesus Christ who continually eclipsed selfishness with selflessness. Though we might want to fix our eyes on the baby Jesus as we think on the noble theme of love. To fix our hearts requires a broken Jesus on a cross.

As Jesus knew all too well:

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
John 15:13, NIV

We are Poetry in Motion

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Ephesians 2:10, NIVUK

Introduction
The film Memento came out in the year 2000. It is directed by Christopher Nolan. He is now famous for doing strange things with time in many of his movies. Memento is no exception. It tells a story where some scenes are chronological and others are in reverse order because of a memory issue for the story’s lead character. Only at the end does it finally make sense as the reverse scenes arrive at the start of the story.

This post, whilst not as complicated as a Christopher Nolan time-twist, proceeds backwards through one verse—a single sentence—of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.

Why look at this verse backwards? Well, the last part of Paul’s sentence can be easily misread or misheard. And the first part of the sentence is the place where I want this post to end—to marvel that we are God’s handiwork.

At the outset of this look at Ephesians 2:10 we should note that all three elements of this verse are the work of God in Christ our Cornerstone:

• We are God’s handiwork.
• We are created in Christ.
• Our good deeds are prepared in advance by God.

God’ action here is both excellent news, but also potentially confusing. What place is there for us if God does all of this?

Prepared in Advance
Such a short crisp verse. And yet for many it comes with distracting baggage. For seasoned and new Christians alike the final phrase, ‘good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’ distracts us with its apparent affirmation that our lives are predetermined by God. For some young Christians I know, it can be an immense barrier to faith rather than just the subject of idle musing.

Predestination is hardly a new debate. Some answers to this question have been labelled as heresy, for example Pelagius’ teachings at the turn of the 4th to 5th BCE, and other answers have founded denominations. Both extremes of accounting for predestination are problematic.

I suggest that the Bible does not tell us that all of our good works are already decided by God. For a start this would contradict both the freedom that God gave humankind to choose to love him, or not. Perhaps more problematic still, it would kill dead the freedom of the gospel that Paul speaks of elsewhere:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.
Galatians 5:13-14, NIVUK

If we think Ephesians 2:10 tells us we have no choices, we are not seeing it on its own terms. This is because we wear glasses with a narcissistic prescription. We are so used to being individuals that we read ourselves as an individual into every biblical claim.

Contrary to what we are told from cradle-to-grave in Western culture, we are not even the centre of our own lives—it is Christ the cornerstone who should be central. To Paul we would all look like self-obsessed narcissists. The predestination of Ephesians does not refer to our individual deeds, played out frame-by-frame with the inevitability of a Christopher Nolan film—our lives are not one inevitable cause-and-effect after another. Ephesians refers to God’s beautiful plan for this world. The plan to create a single people, to reverse the expulsion from Eden and the stupidity of Babel. This universal and corporate perspective is seen in Chapter 1 if we suspend our self-obsession for a moment:

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.
Ephesians 1:11–14, NIVUK

Paul’s concern in Ephesians is with the building of the people of God, built on Christ as the cornerstone. A few verses after Ephesians 2:10 Paul goes on to talk about the dividing wall that lay between Gentiles and God’s first family the Jews. Jesus Christ has torn down that wall—the first of many. It is a wall demolished, in order to build one people, with him the measure and foundation—our cornerstone.

Our baggage does not end when we put on corporate glasses, rather than our default individualistic ones.

The phrase ‘good works’ also has baggage of its own. Our culture would not only attempt to have us redefine God’s work to create a universal Church, as the creation of a lot of self-obsessed individuals. Our culture also misreads the good news because it has misread ‘good works’.

Our culture has a pervasive myth that Christianity is about earning entry to the afterlife by doing ‘good deeds’. This is not the message of the Bible. This myth goes back to the Middle-Ages when the Church did teach something like this. Although the Reformation produced a new perspective on justification it also created another myth.

The is the idea that the Judaism of the Bible was all about earning salvation by good deeds. We might have learned this in our formative years. Judaism then, and Judaism today, is not about good deeds and earning salvation. Jews believe they are chosen, elected, by God—predestined to know God in the age to come.

When Paul says in the preceding two verses to Ephesians 2:10:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.
Ephesians 2:8–9, NIVUK

He is not comparing Jew and Gentile; he is pointing out something that all the community of faith can agree on. Both Jew and Gentile are saved by grace not by works.

Created in Christ
The gospel is the news that God, through the work of Christ Jesus, has established a single people. In Paul’s day best expressed by the impossible dream of Jew and Gentile being made one. This is good news, Isaiah’s good news, or evangelion:

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
‘Your God reigns!’
Isaiah 52:7, NIVUK

The Incarnation, Jesus’ ministry, the cross, the resurrection, his ascension, all testify to this good news. In Jesus’ person and in his deeds, there is new creation. All of humanity can be created in him to join the one people of God. Whatever our views on predestination, good works, philosophy, whether we are catholic or protestant, our one foundation is Christ incarnate, Christ crucified, Christ resurrected, Christ ascended.

We are created not by the actions of a man, but they work of God. Created upon one sure foundation, Christ our cornerstone. In being created in Christ Jesus we are to do good works. They flow from relationship with the one God, through Christ. There is no better work than telling this news.

There can be a temptation to make the gospel a little simpler, to oil the wheels. Have you noticed that there is a difference between sharing ‘Jesus’ and sharing ‘Christ Jesus’?

It is relatively easy, and culturally acceptable, to speak of Jesus the man. The amazing carpenter from Nazareth. The great teacher. This is the Jesus who even the atheist Douglas Adams admired and gave a role to at the start of The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy:

“one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change . . .”

Yet, if we speak of his miracles, we stray from acceptable polite conversation. If we move on to anything, like the resurrection, that claims Jesus was not a good man but the God-Man, then the shutters often come up. But Jesus the man can only inspire. Jesus the God-Man provides a foundation, a cornerstone, for our lives.

Our faith, our foundation as God’s people, the gift of the Holy Spirit, all centre on Jesus being The Christ, being both man and God.

Of course, proclaiming the gospel is not the only good work. All sorts of good wholesome deeds are central to being God’s handiwork.

God’s Handiwork
What does it mean to be God’s handiwork? Firstly, we need to pay attention to this at a corporate level. We are God’s handiwork as the universal Church and as a local church. In Paul’s language we are Christ’s body and Christ is our head. We can go further, both forwards and backwards in time too. The universal Church breaks the boundaries of time in a way that Christopher Nolan can only dream of.

Lying behind the NIVUK’s phrase ‘God’s handiwork’ is the Greek word poiema. Paul says that the local communities he writes to are poems and by extension so are all its members.

The language of being poems fits perfectly with the wider passage. As poems we are both established in Christ, just as a poem has rules, convention, and a framework that make it a poem. At the same time poems have a freedom, a beauty within a framework.

Being founded in Christ means we are poems, with Christ the cornerstone as our framework and foundation. The language of a cornerstone for the messiah comes originally from Psalm 118 and is used by Paul in verse 20 of Ephesians 2.

God has done his part of the poem by establishing us in Christ our cornerstone. Our dependence on him will enable us to rhyme and resonate with our cornerstone. Our lives will sound and look right when this happens.

Mercifully, there is room for redrafts when we do not rhyme with our cornerstone.

Reel Spirituality: My Top 10 ‘Theological’ Films

Top 10 lists can be rather self indulgent. And if you find them so you might want to skip this post! I am hoping, however, that this post might have some value in celebrating the role that good cinema can have on our personal spirituality. I am hoping that this post will inspire some dialogue—please comment below, politely please!

The films below are not ‘Christian films’—although a small number are meant to be religious, or spiritual, to some extent. They are films that have been made by people at the top of the cinematic game who want to shed light on the big issues of life, as well as no doubt having other motives too. Such films when viewed through our vision of Christ, and imagination informed by faith, have the potential to enrich our minds and hearts. Films can also be a tool for sharing our faith.

This is not a film review and I want to avoid spoilers, but some elements might be given away so please don’t read the supporting text if you are a purist and have not seen one of the films.

Number 10 on my list is The Thin Red Line. This film seems like a typical, albeit very good, war film at the start of viewing. It is towards the end of the film that events and words work to achieve a special depth and profundity. The film’s conclusion also makes sense of other earlier elements in the film. Even if you normally don’t watch war films why not give this one a go? Like many of the films below it does have some gritty aspects—these help root the film appropriately in the full horror that is war. I would recommend you check all of the film’s below in terms of their rating/classification before watching—I know not all Christians approve of various adult themes in cinema.

The next film, Of Gods and Men, is closely based an a true story. This adds to a sense of growing concern for the monks, who are centre stage, as you watch this film. It becomes increasingly apparent that there won’t be a classic happy ending. This film, like a number of others here, raises questions about the value of life and to what extent we stick with the calling that God makes on us in the face of extreme hostility.

Number eight on my list is a film that I find to be as beautiful as it is at times harrowing. It shows the gospel and the Church being worked out in South America. To my mind, it simultaneously celebrates the gospel whilst casting an immense shadow on some aspects of the Church as institution. The film also has one of the most remarkable portrayals of conversion to Christianity that I have ever seen on screen. Like all the films here it contains tears. In each film the tears are shed in different contexts. Here the tears are shed as awareness of sin comes home to someone who has trafficked uncountable people, and even killed his own half-brother.

Number 7 on the list, Silence, takes place at a similar time to The Mission. I can’t say a lot without giving too much away. What I can say, is that it is difficult to watch the terrible experiences that so many converts to Christianity experienced in Japan’s early years of engagement with Europeans. It raises profound questions about how to respond to religious persecution in its most life-threatening forms.

Signs is an unusual film. And it is one where it is important to play close attention to what’s going on right from the outset, otherwise the deeper aspects of the film will be missed. In particular the opening minute, or so, reveals key information about the main protagonist, Graham Hess, played by Mel Gibson.

Next, at five, on my list is Life is Beautiful. This film tackles the most disturbing events of the Twentieth Century. Some viewers might find its handling of the subject matter of the horrors of the holocaust have overstepped a line. It is certainly vital to note that from the outset it claims to be ‘a parable’. Never has a film had a more bittersweet conclusion.

Less controversial is the next film on my list, Bladerunner. This film has become a cult film and I won’t get into the issues surrounding the existence of multiple versions of the film. I will however recommend the Director’s Cut for those who need to make a choice without wanting to investigate further. Like other films on this list the real (reel?) revelation occurs in the closing minutes. These closing minutes contain some of the most amazing dialogue in any science fiction film, as well as some less than subtle imagery. The philosophical questions explored in this film are also central to this film’s wonderful sequel, Bladerunner 2049.

Number 3, Gran Torino, is another film which seems to be something different at the outset than what it is later revealed to be. The film does have a lot of bad language, because of the realistic portrayal of one of the sub-cultures that it a key part of the film. The film has, in my view, one of the profoundest ends to any Hollywood film. When I watched this with one of my teenage son, last year, the closing credits felt like a religious experience.

I struggled to choose between the next two films and I’m having second thoughts even as I type. But a ‘joint first’ seemed inappropriate. Terrence Malick is the only director to appear twice on this list and I know he does not appeal to everyone. But please give this film a go if you haven’t seen it. It is a truly amazing film and is undeniably unique. It’s weakness, for some, is that the plot is difficult to piece together on the first viewing. Once the plot is pieced together it reveals an amazing and rich journey of faith. A faith journey as messy, complex, yet full of grace, as many of us in the audience can testify to.

A dialogue spoken at the beginning of the film is a vital lens through which to see the whole film:

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

My top choice proves to be a difficult film for some. It is certainly long, but not overly so for me. It has Tom Cruise playing a ill-spoken misogynist who make me cringe. Yet, this film is nothing less than biblical in some ways. Most obviously, all of the film’s many characters are united by an event straight from the Book of Exodus. Even the title is a deliberate play on the Latin term magnalia Dei, the Mighty Acts of God—a reference to the God of Israel’s deeds in the exodus of his people from captivity in Egypt. At a more subtle level, the lives of the characters, like those of the Patriarchs, have repeating patterns. The film can be understood as a reflection on Providence, but of course its probably not quite what Paul Thomas Anderson had in mind. Like number two on this list, The Tree of Life, this film is meant to be seen through the lens of an opening dialogue, After the portrayal of some remarkably unbelievable stories the narrator concludes:

It is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just “something that happened.” This cannot be “one of those things”. . . This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can’t. This was not just a matter of chance. . . These strange things happen all the time . . .

In faith, of course, such words connect with us with the central faith and hope we have in Christ.

Please feel free to disagree and offer your own suggestions below.

Already I’m concerned that I’ve found no place for A Hidden Life . . .

Once Upon a Time in . . . Bethlehem

I Samuel 16: 113

Introduction

The story of David starts in Bethlehem, the place of his birth and childhood. As soon as we think of Bethlehem our minds tend to switch to that later king of Israel born in that town. Once Upon a Time in Bethlehem, sounds like a Christmas story and there is indeed a children’s Christmas song with this title. But this morning our story has more in common with Quentin Tarrantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood than Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem.

Whatever we might feel about Tarrantino’s films, they have some similarities with many Old Testament stories. In this case, there’s a monumental unexpected plot twist. Samuel has already anointed one king, but now God wants another one anointed. No one saw that coming. In these events in Bethlehem, there’s an undercurrent of violence. Samuel fears Saul’s reaction to his anointing of a rival. Will Saul seek to have Samuel killed? There’s a community in fear as they meet Samuel making an odd detour from his usual place of ministry. They were asking, “what does this powerful political figure want with us?”. You can sense their apprehension, we’re told that the elders trembled.

There also plenty of blood. In this case it’s that of a heifer being sacrificed. But there’s the anticipation of human blood being spilt now that there are two kings. There’s a key allusion to how human judgement is prejudiced by appearance, whereas God sees the heart. This philosophy or theology is the key to understanding this episode. There’s a clunky piece of theatre that feels decidedly awkward, worthy of a pantomime. Seven sons are paraded before Samuel and each is found wanting. Then there’s a rather uncomfortable and lengthy pause as everyone awaits David being located out in the field. How long might that have taken without a phone and transport? Then there’s another plot twist. The person with the right character turns out to be rather good looking anyway.

Unexpected plot twists, violence, fearful communities, blood, difficulty in understanding characters’ morality and motives, clunky theatrics and good-looking people. These are often the features of Old Testament narrative, and just as often the features of Tarrantino’s films.

Unlike the godless universe of Tarrantino, however, our world—the world of the Bible—has a theological significance and an ethical backbone which can inform, and better still, transform us.

The Homely Eight

As we encounter Jesse and his family for the first time in the Bible, we find he has a large family. Eight sons are mentioned here. Elsewhere, in 1 Chronicles 2:16, we find he also had two daughters. The patriarchal story of David’s anointing has no concern with daughters. We cannot work out too much from the story about other aspects of this family. There is a suggestion that this family has done what many have others have over the past few millennia. It might be that they have seen the sons as fulfilling various roles according to the order of their birth. There are known psychological and societal reasons and consequences for the first, second, third, and last child having particular character and occupation. David—son number eight—appears to so far down the pecking order as to be all but invisible. At the start of the story of his anointing he is literally not visible; being left out in the fields tending the sheep. If he was sociable, charming, outgoing, attention-seeking, and fun, as ‘lastborns’ characteristically are, it seems unlikely that the sheep would have noticed.

In David’s culture, as in some many others, the first handful of sons are expected ‘to make something of themselves’. They are the expected to be the self-made men who will keep their parents in the future and perpetuate the fortunes of the family.

God however seems to have an aversion to the self-made and indeed to judging by appearances. God ‘looks at the heart’. He looks to character. To virtue, to use an old-fashioned term. Fortunately, salvation does not depend on our hearts but here God chooses a person of character for kingship and indeed founding a dynasty. God delights in a good heart.

When anyone is successful in anything it is natural to ask, ‘how did this happen?’. There are three means to success in just about any venture:

  • Innate gifting and fortuitous circumstances.
  • Hard work.
  • Dubious means.

For example, a world class athlete will have to have a set of physical attributes, some circumstances that make training and advancement possible, the will power and desire to work hard day-in-day-out. They might be tempted to add into this mix dubious means such as drugs.

For example, a businessman who founds a business empire will have to have some innate talents. Perhaps a novel insight into a new product or service. Or perhaps just that ability to win people over and persuade them to invest in something. They will have to work hard. They too might be tempted to try dubious methods to. The odd threat and/or bribe perhaps.

The story of David adds something else into the mix. Something that we would normally want to be careful of claiming—he is chosen by God. It turns out he has the physique to be a warrior, a key attribute for a king at this particular point in the life of Israel. As it happens, he has years of training ahead of him in living as an outlaw warrior. Later in life he will resort to dubious means to get what he wants. And yet behind all this human cause and effect lies the hand of God. If God had not sent Samuel to an obscure family to pick an obscure eighth son smelling of sheep dung he would not have become king.

True ‘Romance’

The hand of God would have been an encouragement to David when times were hard. But we centuries later might well ask what is the basis of this David-God ‘romance’. The text simply tells us that God chose David on the basis of his heart and not any of the usual visible traits that make people successful.

This leaves lots of questions. Why was there a false start with Saul? Why is Saul doomed to failure and David to success? The Bible has different concerns—it tells us ‘things’ about God and about all of humanity. It tells as that God looks to the heart. The counterpoint being we look to external appearances.

The problem of the heart is of course that ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). That goes for David, Saul, Samuel, you, and me. God didn’t choose David for his perfect heart. He picked David because his frail human heart was good enough to make a good king—albeit one who made some terrible mistakes. His heart was not a heart that desired power for prestige and selfish ambition. It has been said that “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” others have suggested that “Power attracts the corruptible”. The evidence of these two anecdotes is never far away. Yet, for all his failings David did not fundamentally usurp God’s authority.

At the heart of today’s story is the human condition. The sinfulness that means that we think, and do, wrong; the brokenness that turns our hearts to things that are less than healthy; the weakness that means we do not do as many things of value as we might.

Jesus Christ, the ultimate heir of David’s line, dealt with the ultimate consequences of sin once and for all. Our turning to him in repentance and faith removes the barrier between us and God. This is the gospel and we should praise God daily for this gift of grace. This is not, however, the full gospel. Too often we have made the gospel one dimensional. Last time I looked we the Church are a company of the broken. We still sin, we still do what we should not, and we still do not do what we should.

God did not finish with David when he was anointed King; he’d just got started. Neither does God finish with us when we first bow the knee to Christ. Our initial repentance and faith are the start. For us, as for David, the Spirit is given as a sign of things to come. The Life of Faith and our ongoing development in Christ is something that the Church has historically spoken of in different ways. Whatever language we might use it is vital we look to God for ongoing transformation.

In being so adamant against the critics of Christianity that it is not about being good and thus earning salvation, we too often neglect goodness. The most fundamental attribute of God is that he is good. God delights in goodness, his perfect goodness and the good heart that is growing in us.

Different Christian traditions use different words to describe our ongoing Christian transformation. Discipleship is the term we are most comfortable with in my context. Becoming more Christlike is another. Although too often this seems to become What Would Jesus Do, which is not the same thing at all. The latter is about primacy of action and not character. It can also be oddly legalistic. Sanctification, until the last 20 years, was a popular term rooted as it is in the theology of Saint Paul. Spiritual Formation is a term used in some circles and recognises our need to be transformed; that we are not a finished work. It also tends to link to actual disciplines that will enable it to happen. The cure of souls is a very old-fashioned term but is helpful in recognising that we tend to carry around aspects of character that are unhealthy and need fixing in Christ. For whilst God can transform us in the twinkling of an eye, we all carry degrees of frailty that need an ongoing work of Christ that require prayerful effort in the form of self-honesty and discipline. The cultivation of virtue is another way of speaking of our transformation. I like this term. With terms like virtue and vice we can cut to the chase of what we mean without hiding behind generalities and slogans.

David Unchained

In I Samuel 16: 1–13 we read of David being released to be who he is. His indirect encounter with God, through Samuel, sets him on the path to be king. His surrender to this anointing marks a new life. David is no longer slave to family or cultural expectation. His encounter with God has turned expectation upside down. This is the effect of the gospel today. We don’t have to be constrained by things that enslaved us in the past we can move forward, having broken free.

David went from being a shepherd to shepherding God’s people. In Christ our gifts can be used in a variety of ways, but we all have things to offer the world at large and the community of God’s people.

What does it mean for us to be more Christlike, to fulfil our potential in Christ? What do we need released from? What virtue should we be cultivating? What cure does your soul need? What do you need to step into to mature in Christ? The terminology matters less than the recognition and openness to a transformation that comes from God. It is firstly about who we are, and only secondly about what we do.

David was first a person with a right heart—not a perfect heart. This led to him being appointed and anointed king. The road ahead was a very long one. As he journeyed with God he was refined and transformed. Compared to David, we can fix our eyes on Jesus Christ and a clearer destination. In so doing we can be transformed by the living God to be what he created to us to be.

Reading the Psalter with Captain America

Yes, an odd title to be sure. It was last summer that I found myself reflecting on the character Captain America in the films collectively known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. I know these films well, in part due to my previous publication on the fictional material vibranium [1]. In my moment of reflection I wondered at the similarities between Steve Rogers (Captain America) and the psalmist. This started simply with the thought that both are often judged harshly because of a thirst for righteousness that is all too easily misunderstood as arrogance. Today some readers of the Psalter react negatively to Psalm 1’s call to meditate on God’s torah or instruction. Due to a misunderstanding of torah and its relationship to righteousness as framed in the Bible. This is especially problematic given Psalm 1’s hermeneutical importance at the opening of the Psalter [2] and the psalmist’s ongoing self-understanding as being righteous before God.

Shield

This led to significant further reflection that culminated in a paper. This paper can be downloaded below. Whilst the paper will hopefully interest some readers of this blog (please add a comment below if this proves to be the case) it turned out ill-suited for more formal publication. Importantly for me it has seeded something bigger. It has galvanised some ideas for a book on the Psalter that I have been grappling with for around 5 years, or so. I hope to have more news about this later in 2019.

For now I hope some readers might persevere and see what can happen when we read the Psalter with Captain America. Please click on the text below to download the paper as a pdf.

Rereading the Psalter with Captain America 23rd March 2019 PsalterMark

 

References

  1. Mark J. Whiting, ‘Is it a Ceramic? Is it Graphene? No it’s Vibranium’ pp.93‒110 in The Secret Science of Superheroes (Eds: M. Lorch and A. Miah), London: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2017.
  2. Mark J. Whiting, ‘Psalms 1 and 2 as a Hermeneutical Lens for Reading the Psalter’, Evangelical Quarterly, 85 (3), 246‒262, 2013.