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.

Advertisements

Study Guide: LOOKING THROUGH THE CROSS


STUDY GUIDE

Graham Tomlin, Looking Through the Cross: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2014,
Bloomsbury Academic (2014), Paperback, 240 pages.
Also available from Amazon in Kindle format.

 +

Chapter 1: The Cross and Wisdom

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. Tomlin says that St Paul criticised the Corinthian church for living according to the wisdom of the surrounding society. Does our contemporary church adapt itself too easily to contemporary society?

2. ‘A crucified, shamed and humiliated man is in fact the wisdom and the revelation of the God who made the universe.’ (p. 25) If this is so, what does the cross reveal about God?

Activity & Prayer Cues:

Find a crucifix or picture of Jesus on the cross that speaks to you in some way of God’s wisdom. The cover picture of Looking Through the Cross may be suitable. Sit before it in silence without analysing it or using words to pray. Simply be conscious of God’s presence with you.

+

Chapter 2: The Cross and Evil

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. Can you name evidence for the ‘deep wound in creation that needs healing’? (p. 42) Where can you see such a wound today?

2. Does it make sense for Jesus to be a representative of all humanity? How can that be?

Activity & Prayer Cues:

Find the words of ‘Amazing Grace’ by John Newton (Together in Song 129) or Graham Kendrick’s ‘Servant King’ (Together in Song 256) or Thomas Troeger’s extraordinary ‘A Spendthrift Lover’ (TiS 676). Take the words to a quiet place where you will not be disturbed and read them through several times as a way of thanking God for the cross overcoming evil.

+

Chapter 3: The Cross and Power

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. Tomlin describes Albert Schweitzer’s choice to work among the poor of Africa as an exercise of power for the sake of other people. Name other examples of this kind of power. Why is it power to make a choice that the world sees as the way of weakness?

2. ‘When we are loved we are able to change. When we are unloved, we dig in our heels and refuse to budge.’ (p.78) Think of a time when you were empowered because you knew you were loved.

Activity & Prayer Cues:

Learn the ‘Jesus Prayer’ by heart: ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Use is to pray for those whom you love by substituting the name of each of these people for the word me. So, to pray for my wife, I pray, ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on Name, a sinner.’

+

 

Chapter 4: The Cross and Identity

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. In what tangible ways has your Christian faith given you a new identity? Tell the story of the different you that now lives in Christ.

2. How do you feel the pull of your old identity? What keeps pulling you back from full life in Christ?

Activity & Prayer Cues:

When Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio was elected Pope, he chose the name Francis for this next stage of his ministry. What name would you choose for yourself to signify who you are now in Christ? Have fun trying on some different names!

+

Chapter 5: The Cross and Suffering

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. Can you make sense of the idea that God in Jesus undergoes suffering but God the Father does not? How does this idea help us live with ongoing suffering?

2. When we ‘take up our crosses’ and understand the cross of Christ in a ‘deep, personal heartfelt way’, Tomlin says our hearts are softer. Has he made the right connection? Does choosing suffering increase our empathy?

 

Activity & Prayer Cues:

Pray in silence before the picture of the cross or crucifixion that you used for Chapter 1. Which suffering people in the world today call to you for a response? What is a costly and meaningful response that you can make to alleviate that suffering?

+

Chapter 6: The Cross and Ambition

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. ‘Imagine for a moment a culture where everyone’s main aim was to seek the good of their neighbour, where the only social competitiveness was to find ways to bless the person next door.’ (p. 142) What is stopping us?

2. What strategies should we adopt to learn from modern servants (‘cleaners, gardeners and dinner ladies’ p. 145)? Be ambitious to use the strategies you identify.

Activity & Prayer Cues:

Make a list of serving activities that you don’t normally do that you could undertake today. For example, I could collect cups and plates and load the dish-washer after morning tea at church. Aim to do them. Tick each one off as you do it. Destroy the list at the end of the day. Repeat the exercise next week.

+

Chapter 7: The Cross and Failure

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. Is there a sense in which the crucifixion was a failure? Is the crucifixion a phenomenon that looked at from one side is a failure and from another side is a triumph – the means of our coming close to God?

2. Reflect on what you have learned from failure. If you are in a group, consider what aspects of these learnings you can share with the group.

Activity & Prayer Cues:

Read John 21:15-19 several times slowly, aloud if you can. Be conscious of your breathing. Put yourself in Peter’s position, remembering that he has returned to Galilee a failure. As Jesus asks the question ‘Do you love me?’ identify what Peter may have felt. Do you feel a transition?

+

Chapter 8: The Cross and Reconciliation

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. What walls dividing people in the Australian community should the Christian community be working to break down?

2. What programs or processes does your local church have in place to help people grow in moral maturity?

 

Activity & Prayer Cues:

What three specific actions can we take to make our faith community more of a ‘mother’, a nursery of Christian action and reconciliation (pp. 189-190)?

+

Chapter 9: The Cross and Life

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. Thinking of the death of your grandparent or parent or other loved one some years ago, what signs of new life do you discern in their dying?

2. Do you agree with C.S. Lewis that we are outside the real world (p. 213)? What does he mean by this image? What does he mean by saying that we shall get in?

Activity & Prayer Cues:

Using a simple medium (crayons or coloured pencils), draw seeds being buried, germinating, growing and bearing fruit. As you draw, meditate on the power of new life, the continuities and the discontinuities between seed and flowering plant, the imbalance between the old and the new life.

+

Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book Renews Engagement


Looking through the Cross

Graham Tomlin, Looking Through the Cross: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2014, Bloomsbury Academic (2014), Paperback, 240 pages.

Good stocks at St John’s Books, Fremantle. $19.95
Kindle edition available from Amazon for $10.88

Reviewed by Ted Witham. First published in Anglican Messenger, February 2014

Being a Christian requires personal engagement – with God, with Jesus Christ, with neighbour and stranger, with truth, with good and evil. For most of us, being a Christian can be complex and demanding, but we remain committed because we believe that God is eternally committed to us.

A good Lent book refreshes this sense of personal engagement with Christian living. It should encourage, inspire and inform by taking readers both back to when they fell in love with the faith and forward by challenging readers to grow spiritually. Good Lent books are often about the Cross and Resurrection clueing us into the liturgical movement of Lent and the Paschal mystery at its climax.

Graham Tomlin’s Looking through the Cross is a very good Lent book. It is about the Cross. Tomlin tells us that his early chapters are looking at the cross, trying to understand more deeply its meaning for us, and the later chapters are looking through the cross, using the cross as a lens on the world.

In the chapter headings, ‘The Cross and Wisdom’, ‘The Cross and Evil’, ‘The Cross and Power’, ‘The Cross and Identity’, ‘The Cross and Suffering’, ‘The Cross and Ambition’, ‘The Cross and Failure’, ‘The Cross and Reconciliation’, and ‘The Cross and Life’, it is not entirely clear when we change from looking at to looking through. I am sure that ambiguity is deliberate: the cross always both teaches us about itself and reveals how it has changed God’s world.

Graham Tomlin writes clearly. Reading his book is like sitting with the most patient teacher, sharing with us his understanding of how the cross comes alive for him. His explanation of the connection between the cross of Christ and our personal sin is the clearest I’ve encountered in 40 years of reading books about Christianity. ‘Those who have perpetrated evil must be held to account,’ he writes. ‘The evil that has disrupted the world cannot simply be ignored or glossed over: it must be banished, dealt with, put right. Restoration is possible, but only when sin is somehow atoned for.’

Archbishop Rowan Williams commissioned The Reverend Dr Graham Tomlin to write this year’s Lent book. His successor in Canterbury, Justin Welby, ‘could not be more pleased’ with the choice. Centred in scripture, scholarship and pastoral experience, this book seems to me to bridge some of the divides in contemporary Anglican thinking.

The cross demands that we clearly separate Christian faith from the surrounding culture. In the powerful chapter on identity, Tomlin describes how our experience of family christenings obscures the radical change God makes in us in baptism when God gives us a new identity. Using the image of a protected witness or juvenile criminal with a new identity, he reminds us how hard it is to live out of a new identity, and how the old identity will continue to exert a pull on our lives.

But the cross is ultimately the path to life. We are made not to end in death, but in life. Tomlin reminds us of the leap in imagination we need in order to lay hold of this reality, but also rallies us with the knowledge that the new life of the cross and resurrection is ultimately God’s work and not only ours.

It is helpful if a Lent book has some guidance for its use: questions to provoke reflection or small group discussion, suggestions for art response, even a reading program. Looking through the Cross has none. This is a significant drawback in a book promoted for Lenten reading. Even without this, individual laity, clergy and groups will find Dr Tomlin’s book refreshing, challenging and clear. At the end of Lent, the book will help readers emerge at Eastertide re-engaged with their Christian faith.

Novel Readings of Australian Men’s Emotions


 

I’ve been reading two new and extraordinary Australian novels: Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North and Tom Keneally’s Shame and the Captives. Both deal with the Second World War.

My brother and I were born just after the War. He remarked recently how much the men we had grown up with had been marked by that war. We grew up on a farm, and we saw farmers who spent their time drinking not farming; our nearest neighbours lived with their grandparents, but they turned out to be paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather who shared their house. On a remote farm, one farmer loyally cared for ‘Mad Jack’. Today this eccentric would be recognised as an untreated sufferer of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The novels by Flanagan and Keneally take us to events that damaged many Australian men: the Burma railway and the Cowra break-out.  Both novels, though explicitly fiction, describe the events fully, but exploit what novels do best: they humanise the characters. Both novelists are unusually ambitious. Flanagan’s main character Dorrigo Evans is a doctor who ends up as Officer Commanding the prisoners building the Thai-Burma railway. This is dangerous ground. Australians have made ‘Weary’ Dunlop into a hero and this character is too like the legend of ‘Weary’. But Dorrie Evans believes he is no hero. He is a man just managing to hold himself together in the extreme conditions.

Flanagan shifts the time backwards and forwards between the doctor’s pre-war infatuation with his uncle’s young wife, and his serial womanising after the war. His one real act of heroism may be some years after the war when he saves his society wife and children from a Tasmania bushfire.  But on his death-bed, he has a kind of vision of his heroism on the railway. He remembers when the Japanese guards force him to select 200 men to march to another camp. The men are sick and dying, and he must make selections knowing that he is sending the men to a certain death, others he is saving. Yet he moves through the parade, putting his hand affectionately on the shoulder and naming each man chosen. He gets up early next morning, feeling the heavy responsibility for his choices. In his dream, each man comes up to him, shakes his hand or salutes him with a cheery ‘Thank you, Sir,’ or ‘All the best to you.’ Somehow the little he does, even the mistakes he makes, are seen as heroism, and Flanagan shows us how hollow he feels, almost as though he is a fake, or has been mistaken for someone else.

I was gripped by Flanagan’s depiction of loyalty between ordinary men. Just trying to stay alive in a hellish world, they both helped each other and sometimes failed to help each other. The profound cruelty inflicted on these men created something of beauty, a tiny bloom in the dark jungle. We all know and feel the barrier to giving this bond of mateship its real name. Flanagan dares once in the novel to call it love. The novel also acknowledges how the hardships also ravaged Australian men in ways that their children who are Flanagan’s generation – my generation – are only beginning to understand.

For Richard Flanagan, behind unexpressed emotions the laconic Australian male hides a vulnerability, and many are not only vulnerable but fragile too.

 

Our emotions are unexplored territory, and Tom Keneally, from an earlier generation, knows that our lack of familiarity with the world of emotions makes it difficult for us to explore the emotional lives of others. The Italians and the Japanese in the POW camp at Gawell, the fictional palimpsest for the real Cowra, provide Keneally with contrasting case studies.

I was surprised to learn that most of the detainees were not internees but were prisoners of war. The Italians and the Japanese were kept in separate compounds and had very different attitudes to being captured: the Italians were on the whole relieved. Their allegiance to Mussolini was not deep, and in any case Italy was about to fall to the allies. The Japanese seethed with resentment both towards themselves and their captors. Their ambition as warriors had been to kill or be killed in the service of the Emperor. To be so weak as to be captured was shameful, and they bore their shame with difficulty.

The Japanese despised the Australians for looking after the camp according to the Geneva Convention. This compassion was weakness. They refused to cooperate and found little ways to make life difficult for their captors.

The Italians by contrast were happy to work on Australian farms, to attend Mass with Australian families and to reach out for human contact. We follow Giancarlo, or “Johnny”, the work-release prisoner on the farm of a widower and his daughter-in-law. An affair develops between the two, leading to confusion in the novel’s climax when Tengan is re-captured on their farm after the “break-out”.

Keneally shows us the emotional deafness of career Colonel Abecare and his subordinate Major Suttor, whose main interest was writing a popular radio serial, both to their own feelings and to the cultural-based emotions of their prisoners. The shame of Japanese warrior Tengan and his hatred for his enemy is well-drawn. On the other hand, the contempt of the Koreans for their Japanese superiors is hidden from the Australians. They saw the warrior mentality and loyalty to the Emperor as dangerous and meaningless.

The killings and suicides in the break-out shock the Australians who are not prepared for such extreme expression of emotion. Abecare, the old English soldier, is slaughtered, and the Australians are left to muddle through. And the novelist continues to hint at a kind of cultural autism, an inability in Australian men to read the emotions of others, because they cannot read or articulate their own.

My brother is right. We accepted that generation of damaged men just as eccentrics. It has taken a life-time to begin to understand their impact on us and to learn to love and hate, and fear and enjoy, to be angry and disgusted, and to know that these emotions are the essence of life.

Moving Stories


REVIEW:  Robert Béla Wilhelm, Perfect Joy in Holy Week: Walking with St Francis of Assisi in the Footsteps of Our Lord, Storyfest Productions 2013 (Volume 3 of the Collected Works of Robert Béla Wilhelm).

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Dr Robert Béla Wilhelm was our keynote presenter in the Third Order Conference in Perth in 2006. People warmed to Bob and his gentle style of telling stories about St Francis.  Quite a few Tertiaries have kept in touch with Bob since then.

Bob’s style of story-telling moves me, sometimes to tears. I sometimes find them hard to read to others without tearing up. His story-telling evokes an emotional depth to help the listener connect with the richness of his stories.

Perfect Joy in Holy Week is a series of six stories about St Francis for the six days of Holy Week. Each story has a short version and a long version, and each story is introduced by the Scripture readings set for the Eucharist of the day and concluded with provocative reflections.  These stories are accessible to anyone and speak strongly into anyone’s life.

The stories can be used in worship, particularly at an appropriate Eucharist, at an Area/Region meeting or in your private devotions. You can read or tell the story yourself, or, in the iBook version, hear Dr Wilhelm himself bringing these stories to life.

Bob is also an icon writer. Perfect Joy includes traditional icons and paintings as well as some of Bob’s own. So prayerfully are they written I find I have to look carefully to see which are the traditional icons and which are Bob’s.

The attention to detail in this book is obvious. He includes not only the lections for his home Roman Catholic tradition, but also the Anglican and ecumenical lections where they differ. Design values are high even in the E-book versions. The pages were lightly textured and the layout easy to use, colourful and easy on the eye.

While they follow the great events of Holy Week, the stories and reflections can still be enjoyed at any time of the year. Rae and I didn’t get around (typically) to using these stories until Easter week, but we still found them to be fresh, inspiring and encouraging.

The easiest way to obtain either a print or electronic book is by visiting the Storyfest bookstore at http://www.sacredstorytelling.org.

***

Review first published in the Pentecost 2013 Newsletter of the Third Order, Society of Saint Francis, Australian Provinnce.

More than Human?


Martin Higgins, Human+,

Kindle E-Book $US 3.99, Paperback 230 pages (online) from $AUD 18.26

Reviewed by Ted Witham

This book and I did not start well together. The narrator initially sounded like science fiction’s clichéd young male narrator who is attempting to channel Raymond Chandler and whose only friend is the barman.  But within a few pages, I was surprised to realise that I was inside the head of a schizoid drug-user with heightened paranoia. I changed from groaning to admiring the writing.

David, the drug-user, turns out to be a select adept at psychological precognition – mind-reading. He has the ability to tune into people’s thoughts, moods and memories. A mystery organisation recruits him and offers to train his precognitive gifts. He befriends the trainers and discovers that his talents outshine theirs.

The organisation engineers a high-profile position for him, inventing a back-story with academic papers and university records. Lawrence, one of the trainers, seemingly deserts the organisation, and David is left to wonder whether being caught up in the world of high capitalism is the best use of his supra-human gifts.

To its credit, the book does not give a pat answer to this question, but leaves the reader with complex possibilities: with the help of nanotechnology, will human beings ever develop advanced communication abilities? Can capitalism deliver the most ethical future for humanity? Will there always be people left behind by human progress – will the poor always be with us despite all the promises of technology? Are reading and story-telling technologies by which we enter the thought-worlds and moods of other humans and transform ourselves into more than humans?

At the end of the book, I was surprised how much I had enjoyed it. I enjoyed the company of the first person narrator, I was intrigued with the bigger questions raised by his experience, and I continued to wonder where the hard science ended and the fiction begun. That’s a mark of good science fiction.

The book was professionally presented, so I did not have the common experience with E-books of being confronted by spelling and grammar clangers. The story kept me interested until the end, and it was altogether an enjoyable and worthwhile read.

Hope for Palestinians


 

Michelle Cohen Corasanti, The Almond Tree, Reading, UK: Garnet Publishing

Paperback from $AUD 11.22 (online) or Kindle E-book: $US 3.49

Reviewed by Ted Witham

I wept frequently while reading this outstanding first novel.

The Almond Tree tells the story of Ichmad Hamid, a gifted Palestinian boy whose family home is destroyed to make way for Jewish settlers. They lose their orchard and, after some years in a tent, are able to build a one-room cement-block house on the tiny patch of land the Israelis leave for them. Ichmad’s beloved Baba is sent to prison for 14 years after 12-year-old Ichmad helps radicals bury weapons in their backyard.  Their small home and all its possessions are again destroyed by Israeli soldiers.

In his father’s absence, Ichmad takes on the role of provider for his family, working on Israeli settler construction sites for far less wages than the suspicious Iraqis and Russians who work with him. Following his father’s advice Ichmad tries to choose always the way of peace, and despite endless provocations, not to return hatred for hatred.

Teacher Mohammad offers to tutor the gifted boy every evening after work. Ichmad wins a scholarship in Maths and Physics to Hebrew University, and sets out on a stellar academic career. He collaborates with his Professor, a bitter Jew whose family was murdered in Auschwitz. Eventually the two become close friends and win the Nobel Prize jointly for their work on nanotechnology.

Ichmad continues to support his family on his Professor’s wage at Harvard, and maintains close contact with his village. He identifies with their life-giving almond tree with its roots deep in Palestinian soil. At every turn in his story  he encounters tragedy, much of it caused by the brutality of Israeli occupation, and Ichmad’s desire to choose peace almost always – eventually – turns the tragedies into something deeper and positive for his people and his family.

This is a powerful first novel by a courageous Jewish-American woman. I did not need to be persuaded that the occupation of Palestine is anything but a disaster for the Palestinians. It would be wonderful if this novel helped others to see the human cost of providing a secure and secular state for the Jewish people. It may just be sufficiently powerful to do so.