About Me

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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

God as 'she'?

I recently read an interesting article by Nik Ansell from ICS in Toronto in which he argues that God is referred to with a feminine pronoun. I will not produce his argument but simply show you the passage.
Moses heard the people weeping throughout their clans, everyone at the door of his tent. And the anger of the LORD blazed hotly, and Moses was displeased. 11 Moses said to the LORD, "Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? 12 Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,' to the land that you swore to give their fathers? 13 Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, 'Give us meat, that we may eat.' 14 I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. 15 If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness." (Num 11:10-15)

The 'offending' pronoun is highlighted above in v. 15. Note the context: Moses asks Yhwh,
"Did I conceive all this people?"
"Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,' to the land that you swore to give their fathers?"

The implied answer to both questions is "No! Yhwh did!"

Yhwh conceived Israel. Yhwh gave birth to Israel. Yhwh carried Israel in his bosom to the Promised Land.

In this context Moses uses the second person feminine singular pronoun ('at) of Yhwh. Yhwh is imaged here as a mother so this makes sense. But it is also unique. Nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible is Yhwh referred to by a feminine pronoun (which leads some to think the text corrupt or that it contains a rare, contracted form of the masculine pronoun which is identical to the feminine).

So gentlefolk - what theological reflections might one draw from Num 11:15? (This is a real question not a question leading to a predetermined answer)

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

"May the Road Rise up to Meet You." Huh?

I woke up this morning thinking, "May the road rise up to meet you." Don't ask why - I have no idea. And then, in my semi-conscious state, it occurred to me for the first time ever that I had no idea what that might mean.

Isn't that weird. I have seen it for years and even prayed it a few times. I thought I knew what it meant but ... when I stopped to think I was stumped.

I can imagine a drunk chap falling over and the road rising up to meet him. I don't suppose that this is the sentiment unless it is a prayer for drunken people with a sense of humour.

I can imagine walking along a road and as I take each step ... hooray! the road is still there rising up to meet me. But that can't be right. It is so mundane.

So here is my guess. Imagine that you are going on a journey (literal or metaphorical) and the way forward is not clear. You cannot see the road. The prayer is then that as you go forward the right path would spring up as you go. That sounds plausible.

So am I right? To be honest I don't care that much but I am too tired to write anything 'profound' right now.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Introducing the Book

Stuff What I am Reading

I cannot think of anything to write a post about so I thought I would list the books that I am reading at the moment. Why anyone else could give a fig about that I have no idea but anyway - here we go. Here's my list of current books on the go:

1. Charles Dickens, Bleak House
2. Colin Dexter, an Inspector Morse novel (something about the secret of Annex 3)

Church History:
1. Meic Pearse, The Great Restoration (about radicals in 16th and 17th Cs)
2. Meic Pearse, The Age of Reason (16th-18th C global church history)
3. Just about to read What where the Crusades? by Jonathan Riley-Smith
4. Sisters of Sinai by Janet Soskice. Yes - I know that she's a philosophical theologian but this is a very well written history of the two women who discovered a NT ms of major importance at Mt Sinai.
5. Martyrdom from Exegesis in Hippolytus by . This is a study of the theme of martyrdom in the first extant orthodox Christian commentary (Hippolytus on Daniel).
5. Early Christian Worship by Paul Bradshaw. Small, clear and interesting.

1. Spirituality Without God by Harold Netland and Keith Yandell. A superb Christian introduction to and analysis of Buddhism.
2. A Trinitarian Theology of Law by David McIllroy. An exceptionally good analysis of the theology of law in Moltmann, O'Donnovan, Aquinas and then his own proposal.
3. Biology and Christian Ethics by Stephen R L Clark
4. Worship in the Best of Both Worlds by Philip Greenslade. A fabulous book on the theology and practise of worship. I'm rereading that one for fun.

1. Introduction to Religious Language by Dan Stiver (excellent though basic. His book on Ricoeur is wihtout peer)
2. Theology After NeoPragmatism by Adonis Vidu. Man this guy is brainey!
3. The Nature of God by Gerald Hughes. Kind of heavy but interesting. Good on 'existence'.
4. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Language by Michael Morris. Masterful book but Phil of Lang is just flaming complicated!
5. Divine Nature and Human Language by William P Alston. It's a very good book (but not as good as his exceptional work on religious experience)
6. Philosophical Investigation by Wittgenstein
7. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Wittgenstein and the Philosophical Investigations by Marie McGinn

Biblical Studies
1. The Suffering of God by Terence Fretheim
2. Christ and the Judgement of God by Stephen Travis
3. just about to reread Ernest Lucas' wonderful commentary on Daniel (plus Goldingay's which I have never read)

Other Stuff
1. Israel by Martin Gilbert. The classic history of modern Israel. I'm working through it - fascinating though long.
2. The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict by Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Dawoud El-Alami. The story told from two perspectives. A good idea. Informative.

What surprised me about this is that I normally major on biblical studies books but right now I have hardly any on the go. Interesting. Hmmmmmm.

Oh - and I just listened to the audio books of Artemis Fowl and the Arctic Adventure and Artemis Fowl and the Eternity Code by Eoin Colfer. Long car journeys for work do have plus points. I do LOVE Artemis Fowl - highly recommended stuff!

Sunday, 19 April 2009

The Narnia Code

I watched a BBC documentary yesterday about the work of Dr Michael Ward on The Chronicles of Narnia. His fascinating thesis is that the 7 Narnia books each correspond to one of the seven planets in the the Medieval worldview (inc. sun and moon). Really very interesting and I am likely to read his book now (Planet Narnia, OUP).

You can visit his website here.

You can watch the program here but only for a few more days.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Biblical Proof that Men Should Wash Up and make Tea!

A kind reader from Scotland provided a biblical follow up to my 'On Being a Man' post. It is a biblical proof text that real men should do the washing up!

"I will wipe Jerusalem as [a man] wipeth a dish, wiping [it], and turning [it] upside down."
2 Kings 21:13b (KJV)

Notice that the dish is washed and then placed on the draining board - good biblical principles for life, eh!

Ladies rejoice!

A colleague has also pointed out that it is biblical for men to make the cups of tea. For this we have the testimony of two witnesses
He-Brews, and
Te-man (this is where Edomite men brewed the cuppas)

Perhaps the Bible is more contemporary then we thought!

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Viewing the world through quirky vision (aka, if these stones could talk)

Since I was a little boy I have had a quirky habit. I will look at a scene and pick some aspect of it and then ponder just how laden with stories that aspect is.

This might be singling out a person at random and wondering where they are from, what they love, what they do, what stories they have to tell.

Or it might be looking at the meal in front of me and wondering where in the world the different ingredients came from, who farmed them, who designed the baked bean tin, where the metal in the frying pan was mined and how much the miners got paid.

It might be walking down a street and wondering how many people would be included in the set of all those I can see in the street right NOW, plus all the people they have seen in the past day, plus all the people that they have seen in the past day. And where would they all be right now? - all over the world I don't doubt. And what % of the world's population would be included in this set?

It's all such fun. My youngest daughter groans when I start yabbering on this way. After all, if you're not going to know the answer why bother asking the question.

I ask these questions because I like to remind myself that the world around me is shaped by countless people who I will never know about.

The human stories intersecting in some way with the laptop I am now using are almost countless. I don't want to know what they are (my brain is not big enough and my time is too limited) but I do want to remind myself from time to time that they are.

This is why I have been so enjoying reading Larry Kreitzer's magesterial historical investigation into some 17th C Baptists in Oxford (entitled Seditious Sectaryes). Last night I was reading all about Richard Tidmarsh the Tanner at whose house the early Oxford Baptists met. We know little about him and he was not an exceptional man (though he put up with a lot of hassle over the years for his nonconformist convictions). He was not a man I had ever heard of. Indeed he is a man who very few people alive today have ever heard of. But he has a story to be told - a story that intersects and overlaps with so many others and so weaves itself into a grand tapestry that overlaps my own story in more ways than I yet know.

So I can put up with a little mockery from my Jessica and will keep on viewing the world through quirky vision.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Holy Saturday - a critical buffer zone

Someone greeted me on Friday with the words, "Happy Easter! Christ is Risen!" to which I was meant to respond "He is risen indeed!"
Being an awkward blighter I replied instead with the words, "But not until Sunday!"

I felt a little bad about that. The person in question was only trying to share their Christian joy.

But the serious point was that I worry about coming to Good Friday in such a way as to collapse the distinction between it and Easter Sunday. We treat Friday-Sunday as FsRuInday.

The collapsing of cross and resurrection is right in one respect: we must see the cross in the light of the resurrection the the resurrection in the light of the cross (the gospels clearly do, as did Jesus).

Nevertheless, as Alan Lewis so clearly pointed out in his book Between Cross and Resurrection, if we do not simultaneously see the events as distinct from each other we will miss much of their significance and depth. Lewis argues that we need to hear the story of the cross in stereophonic audio - simultaneously hearing the story in one ear as if we did not know the resurrection was coming yet in the other ear in the knowledge that God will not allow the story of Jesus to end in the grave.

For Lewis Easter Saturday stands there as a buffer zone simultaneously holding Friday and Sunday apart from each other and at the same time holding them together.

So whilst I feel a little bit bad about my gentle 'correction' I do think that there is something important at stake here. Namely, we must resist the premature collapse of death and resurrection which can so easily manifest itself in a triumphalist theology of glory with no space for a dark road that must be taken before glory. Sunday may be coming but let's not pretend that it has arrived when we experience the pain of Friday and the cold emptiness of Saturday.

The gospel story and the Christian liturgical tradition carefully hold Friday and Sunday together and apart. Wisdom is found in doing the same.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Tenebrae, Tenebrae, wherefore art thou Tenebrae?

I have been trying to find a Tenebrae service to attend this Holy Week but to no avail. Most churches do not have them and those that do seem to hold them just before or just after I can get near to them (grrrrr).

Tenebrae (Latin for 'shadows') is a service going back to the Mediaeval period. It originally took place very early in the mornings over Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday (it was moved to the evenings of the previous days - Wed-Fri - by about 15th C).

During the service there are set readings from the Psalms (9 Psalms per day), Lamentations (3 readings per day), Augustine's commentary on the Psalms (3 readings per day) and the NT (3 readings per day).

After each of the 9 Psalm readings a candle is extinguished (Tenebrae was traditionally followed by Lauds during which a further 5 candles were extinguished). By the end of the service a single candle is left to illuminate the building. This candle is then taken and placed in a side chapel until it is brought back on Easter Sunday ... and light comes back into the world.

The whole service has the feel of a funeral as the events of the Last Supper, Gethsemane, Golgotha and the burial of Christ are recalled (often indirectly via OT texts).

During the Renaissance the Lamentations readings were set to music and one can find a vast range of beautiful and haunting vocal renditions of the text of Lamentations (check out Spotify now if you'd like to hear one. I even found a modern setting in English on an album called "The American Spirit").

There is a lot that I appreciate about this service. Two things deserve mention now:

1. I appreciate the suggestive and unexpected juxtaposition of certain biblical texts reframed within a Christian liturgical setting. The connections made by placing these texts side by side opens up new vistas for interpretation. I could wax lyrical about this for a long time - especially on how Lamentations is opened up for reappropriation (so I won't).

2. I appreciate the space created for darkness (metaphorical and literal) in the liturgical calendar. Being a charismatic we 'walk in the light' all day every day so we never get to see darkness (a touch of light sarcasm there [plus a bad pun in this little note]). For this reason I perhaps welcome such worshipful spaces more then other who possibly take them for granted.

The tradition made space for the darkness but, by locating it within the narrative framework of Holy Week, does not allow it the last word. It is given space to breath and to be itself - there is no premature collapsing of sorrow into happiness - but in the end sorrow lasts for a night but joy comes in the morning. The grave has its victories but they are never God's last word. God's last word comes on Sunday.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

"God is X but he is also Y" (a plea for integration in theology)

I must confess that my warning bells go off when I hear people say, "Well God is x but he is also y." Here's a few examples.

"Well, God is loving, but he is also holy"
"Well, God is merciful, but he is also just."
"Well God is immanent, but he is also transcendant."

Such talk is not without merit – its goal is the very worthy one of balancing theology so that we embrace more of the fullness of divine revelation rather than picking parts and dropping other parts (God is nice and loving so he would not hurt a fly).

Such talk is also predicated on the intuitively correct belief that the qualities of love and holiness, or mercy and justice, or transcendance and immanence (etc) are not the same as each other. (Of course, according to the classical notion of divine simplicity all of God’s properties were identical with each other and with God’s existence. I have not the confidence to write off the classical doctrine of divine simplicity as wrong but it certainly has some mammoth hurdles to jump to convince people of its truth. I’m open to persuasion but I think that God’s love is not the same thing as God’s justice, say.)

Nevertheless, my worry with all these “x but also y” reminders is that they feel like the speaker’s doctrine of God lacks integration. It sounds like, “sometimes God is x and but sometimes he is also y”. Or perhaps like, “God is x with some people but y with others.”

For instance, what does it mean to say that “God is loving but he is also holy.” Does it mean, “God is sometimes loving, but he is also sometimes holy”? Does it mean “God loves some people but he is holy with others?”

What does it mean to say that “God is loving but he is also just”? Does it mean that God is sometimes loving but that at other times he is just? Does it mean that he is loving to some people but just towards others?

I write the above as if everyone will say, “Of course it does not mean those false things!” but I have to be honest and say that in the contexts in which I hear such sentences as “God is loving but he is also holy/just” used, they regularly seem to mean precisely such questionable things to the speakers. They seem to be saying, "Sure God is loving, BUT ..." Hence my alarm bells.

And perhaps here is where the right instinct that motivated the classical doctrine of divine simplicity might lie: the integrity of God. I want to say that all God’s actions are loving, are holy, are just. His love is a holy love, a just love. Similarly, his justice is holy and loving. He treats all people with justice and with love. And his mercy is not unjust nor does it trample justice.

And the God who is immanent within creation is the transcendant God who is transcendant in his very indwelling and closeness to his world.

It may be that I am shooting my mouth off without thinking through the implications of this idea adequately (and I certainly do not wish to dissolve all tensions in our doctrine of God), but I do think that we need to seek to integrate our view of God better. I want to embrace a theology according to which God is unfailingly just, impeccably holy, unremittingly loving and whose nature it is always to have mercy.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and Possible Worlds

So I was walking around our local pond, looking at the ducks and thinking about Paul Ricoeur (as you do) when a little puzzle struck me. I was pondering Ricoeur's phrase, 'A text means all that it can mean' when I was 'arrested by the present tense of the word 'means' (OK, I'm thinking of the English translation - I have not read Ricoeur in French) - a text currently means all that it can mean.

Ricoeur is trying to navigate between the idea that a text means only one thing (e.g., what the author intended) and the idea that a text can mean anything at all. Texts, says brother R, constrain meaning - they cannot mean just anything. But textual meaning is not tied to authorial intentions. Texts mean all that they can mean. Meaning exists not in texts, nor in readers, but in the interplay of reader and text.

So - back to the quote: 'texts mean all that they can mean'.

Imagine a text, say the book of Lamentations.
Now imagine all the logically possible worlds which are identical up until the completion of the book of Lamentations but, after which, diverge in an infinite number of ways, little and large. Call the set of such worlds L. Our world is part of set L but so are an infinite number of other possible worlds. Many of these worlds contain people who will never exist in the actual world and other contain people who have existed (or do exist) in the actual world but in circumstances different from those in the actual world.

Now the book of Lamentations is read (and its meanings are 'generated' in such reading-encounters) by perhaps an infinite number of people in perhaps an infinite number of ways. I myself, in other possible worlds, have read Lamentations in many different contexts.

So is Ricoeur saying that the book of Lamentations not only means now, in this possible world, whatever it has meant so far in this possible world when people have read it, but rather; it means now, in this possible world, everything that it could ever mean, in every possible world? WOW! Talk about a 'surplus of meaning'! We could hardly even begin to scratch the surface of its meanings.

And is this almost infinite number of meanings not merely potential meanings but actual, though unrealized, meanings? Or is it that a text can (rather than does) mean all that it can mean?

I guess my question concerns the status of meanings that will never be realized in the possible world that God has chosen to actualize (i.e., this one).

Do I care a lot about this? Not really but it gave me something to think about at the pond.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

On being a man

Warning: this is not very theological

It must be a personality thing but for as long as I can remember when Christians (usually Christian men) start talking about being 'proper men' and 'picking up our responsibilities as husbands and fathers' I want to pack up my bags and leave.

It's not that I have a problem with men being men or with husbands and fathers carrying their responsibilites. What I find objectionable is the sometimes over-prescriptive suggestions as to what those responsibilities are.

For instance, my wife does most of the finances because she is better with that kind of thing than I am. We have been told several times that this is wrong; that God wants me to do the finances because that is part of my role as a husband. Really? Yes, you know the story of Moses and the income tax return?

I must confess that I even get a bit miffed when people talk about 'the headship of husbands' (headship being some abstraction from the biblical metaphor of the husband as the head of his wife). When I ask what it means I am told that it means that I am in spiritual authority over my wife. When I ask what this means in practise I am told that if there is ever a disagreement over what to do then the final decision lies with me. Well now I feel cheated! In 17 years of marriage we have never had to make a decision that we did not both find agreement on in advance. So the headship thing has not brought me many benefits of command yet. Grrrrr.

I recall a sermon in our church in which we were told that we husbands - as head of the house - would be judged by God for all the thoughts and actions of our wives. Holy COW! I think I've got enough sins of my own to worry about without being judged for hers as well!!! I think I'll duck out of that part of 'headship' if you don't mind.

Maybe I am not manly enough. But I don't care. I am very happy for manly men to do their thing but I don't see why I should be required to aspire to such giddy heights also.

So let men be men but please leave a little wriggle room for different ways of being men. Let manly men be manly men and let gentle men be gentlemen.