Confession Worth Reading


William Peak, The Oblate’s Confession, Secant Publishing 2014.
416 pages.

$US18.54 (pre-order on-line)

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A novel set in a monastery in 7th Century Northumbria? Certainly the promise of the historical religious setting drew me to it. I was pre-disposed to enjoy the tale of Winwæd, given to the monastery at Redestone as a boy – the oblate of the title – and living through changes brought to that enclosed world by disease and by impinging politics.

William Peak’s first novel is beautifully told. Winwæd luxuriates in language, in seeing things aright. His tale is both textured and layered. The details, both of daily life in 7th Century England and in the shifting power of kings and warriors – all lovingly researched and presented – create Winwæd’s world convincingly. The guilt Winwæd carries, and which he expresses in his confession, creates the tension in the story as his understanding of his actions grows, and ours with it.

We experience the changes as he grows in the different friendships Winwæd establishes, from Prior Dagan, who takes him on as a very young boy, to the friendship with the hermit living in the mountain, and to the Brother who runs the furnace, are well drawn.

As Winwæd learns to pray from the hermit, so we too learn mystical prayer from him. The hermit’s story of the young child lost in the forest who runs here, there and everywhere, looking to find his way, is pertinent. The child eventually exhausts himself just at the moment of spying a light coming from a cleared field. He collapses before a thick hedge, unable to find a way or to move forward. At the bottom of the hedge is a small space, just big enough to wriggle through, and thus he finds his way home: such is prayer.

Redestone monastery stands for a Christianity not quite settled in its environment, just as Roman Christianity was returning to Britain, but still remembering its Celtic roots. It may be this sense of being at odds with its society that makes this work of fiction speak so clearly to the reader.

I thoroughly enjoyed Winwæd’s confession. He kept me wondering until the end.

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The end of history and the start of hope


Niels Peter Lemche, The Old Testament between Theology and History: A Critical Survey, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

From $AUD 45 online

Is held by some Australian libraries.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Niels Peter Lemche claims that about 200 years ago Western Christians started asking the question “Did it really happen?” about events in the Old Testament. About the same time the Romantic idea of the nation state grew out of revolutions and rebellions. Kings no longer defined people. We began to speak of nations as “She”, and attributed actions to nations.

 

The combination of using the Bible as a source book for a history of Ancient Israel and the rise of nationalism was a disaster. Lemche claims that imperialistic nations felt justified in treating the inhabitants of places they conquered in the same manner as Joshua had treated the Canaanites. Because Israel, that ancient nation in the story had ignored, mistreated, dehumanised and only just tolerated the ongoing presence of the original inhabitants of the land God was giving them, so the English in Australia or the French in Africa could do the same.

 

It may be that the Holocaust happened partly because European Christians had asked of the Old Testament, “Did it really happen?” The German nation put to the ban the enemies of Christ, who were defined as not even really human beings. And paradoxically, the Israeli nation may be absorbing the same thinking when she continues to expand her settlements as if there were no Palestinians living where she seeks to build.

 

Lemche, who is Professor at the Department for Biblical Exegesis at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, reveals the process by which the critical-historical method of understanding the Old Testament has unravelled. Again and again he shows that proofs of historical events in the Bible are based on circular reasoning. No evidence for a wide-spread empire based around southern Palestine in the 9th or 10th Centuries BCE has ever been found. There is no evidence for Kings David and Solomon outside of the Bible. Lemche shows how hopeful scholars make their claims for David and Solomon from the Books of Samuel and Kings and then use the same books as evidence for those claims.

 

There is attestation outside the Bible in the 8th Century for a small “House of Omri”, which the Bible calls the northern kingdom of Israel. There is precious little other corroborating evidence for the events or the personalities described in the Bible.

The Amarna letters – evidence from the time

 

What then should we do? Discard the Old Testament as simply unreliable? Overall Professor Lemche calls us to look afresh both at the original purpose of the Old Testament and at the history of the area we call Palestine.

 

Lemche believes the Old Testament was written much later than scholars have previously argued, perhaps in the 2nd or 1st Centuries BC. It was certainly written in a time of diaspora and written for the Jews to respond to the fact that they were scattered from their land. They were in possession of two foundation myths, those of exodus and exile, so the purpose in writing was to weave these themes into an exhortation to stand apart from the people around them by turning to the God who led them out of slavery and alienation.

 

Their purpose was not to write a coherent documentary of the past; it was to create an expectation that God was continuing to act among God’s people, and that a Messiah would come to rescue them. The book of Psalms, for example, is ordered to reveal this messianic agenda.

 

The first Christians often quoted the Old Testament. In the time of Jesus, there was certainly no bound volume in Hebrew or Greek called “The Old Testament”. The New Testament authors quoted usually from the Greek translation of Old Testament books. The way Christians picked up from these books the themes of Law and Gospel, Promise and Fulfilment is covered briefly. These sections were tantalising. I wanted more on this.

 

In a lengthy Appendix, Lemche uses the tools of a modern historian to sketch a history of Palestine from pre-historic times to modern Israel: using the long perspective of the geography and fauna of the land, to the middle perspective of human occupation and land use, to the shorter perspective of the social and political groupings in Palestine. History is still important; but it is found from evidence, not from books that were always intended to be read as theology and for spiritual encouragement.

 

Professor Lemche describes himself and his colleagues in the “Copenhagen School” as “radical theologians”. He asserts that the “collapse of history” in Old Testament studies has liberated the Hebrew Bible. As he says, “We now have the stories unmolested.”

 

Niels Peter Lemche

In this volume Professor Lemche has written a comprehensive survey of Old Testament scholarship of the last 50 years. As I read it, I felt he was putting into this book his whole journey of scholarship and discovery. It is not always easy to read. He wrote it originally in Danish, and then translated it himself with help from Professor Jim West and the book’s American publisher. The result is uneven. It changes register abruptly from academic style to colloquial. The sentences are sometimes long and convoluted. For such a summative work, a thorough edit or a skilled translator would have been helpful.

 

But I found the book well worth persevering with. For some Christians, the idea of “the collapse of history” will be challenging; but for most of us, refocusing the Bible on its theological foundations and letting go of the need to find dates for the Exodus or prove Abraham existed clears the way to read afresh the Old Testament and its promise of a Messiah.

Losing Our Religion?


Losing My Religion

Tom Frame, Losing My Religion: Unbelief in Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2009

337 pages, paperback.
RRP $34.95

Tom Frame is not afraid that Australia will “lose its religion”. Not really. But he is concerned that Australian Christians will pay a high price if they do not engage in a vital conversation about belief and unbelief.

Losing my Religion has won the 2010 Christian Book of the Year prize – and deservedly so. It is not only a heartfelt plea to Christians to put energy into thinking about faith and its place in a pluralist society, but it is also a comprehensive history of the interactions between religion and the Australian community.

Dr Frame is balanced in his description of the tensions surrounding religion in the convict days on the east coast and in the lead up to the framing of the Commonwealth constitution. But where the book shines, in my opinion, is when Tom Frame teases out the contemporary scene. He takes issue with anti-theists like Richard Dawkins for their lack of respect for their opponents, but he engages with the Australian unbelievers like Philip Adams. He demonstrates respect for their view but has no fear in putting forth his own.

Dr Frame is well qualified to explore belief and unbelief. As a former bishop to the Australian forces, he has ministered at an important interface between public life and the Church. Now Director of the St Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra, he writes lucidly on these complex issues. He draws on some of the same materials that he used in Evolution in the Antipodes (2009), but here with different intent.

Frame teases out the thread in atheism that claims it is not a belief and therefore a guarantor of reasoned tolerance. He shows this as specious reasoning both because atheism is a belief borne out of theism and also because atheism has no monopoly on reason. The presence of religious people in secular society is therefore more likely to bring tolerance and harmony than their absence, because they can take the beliefs of others into account.

Losing My Religion will make you agree and it will make you disagree. Frame knows that keeping your religion involves being confronted by a Christ who asserts his divinity; and for all of us, believers and non-believers, when we think seriously about it, that is controversial.