Whether we’re believers reading the Scriptures for our personal devotions, pastors preparing to preach sermons to our congregations, or Christian writers seeking to form our readers, our reading of Scripture is always an attempt to hear its voice speaking to us within the resonance chambers of our lives, communities, and cultural contexts. This is a necessary task, yet one fraught with challenges and dangers. Virtually every reader of Scripture comes to its texts with a set of pronounced cultural stories. We have a sense of the things that are wrong with the world, the errors that need to be addressed, the goods that need to be protected, and the questions that need to be answered. We have a sense of the things that are of pressing importance and the things of secondary concern.
While we need to hear the Scriptures speaking to us within our contexts, we can all too easily make our contexts a straitjacket for them. Even when our interpretation of our cultural contexts and moments may be informed by the Bible in various ways, it’s very easy for our reading of the Scriptures to become subservient to or even conflated with our more immediate cultural concerns and stories. Coming to the Scriptures with the pressing concerns, questions, and frameworks of our immediate contexts, we can force the Scriptures into an alien mold. Rather than putting our own questions, concerns, and expectations to one side and listening attentively and receptively to the Bible’s own voice, we may merely be listening for whatever within it answers the concerns that most animate us. Approached in such a manner, we’ll make it very difficult for ourselves to be surprised by the Scriptures, to hear the complex character of its witness, or to perceive the balance of its teaching.
In the latest Theopolis Conversion we are discussing how Christians should respond to vaccine mandates and other such policies. Douglas Farrow kicked off the Conversation with his essay. Mine is the first response, which you can read here. Make sure to follow the whole discussion: there are several more responses to come!
It is entirely possible to take COVID seriously without being driven by irrational fear or elevating it to the level of a god (and, on the other hand, quite possible to treat opposition to COVID measures as a shibboleth that divides Christ’s church). Even as we challenge measures that we deem excessive, it shouldn’t be at all difficult to put a charitable construction upon many of our governments’ policies. Nor should it be difficult to have measured responses, even as we oppose excessive or unlawful measures, to honour authorities and to submit to their laws as far as conscience allows. Indeed, on those extraordinary occasions when we are conscience-bound to resist otherwise lawful authorities, it is imperative that we seek to honour and uphold their authority in our manner of resistance. Where we fail to pay close regard to the threat of anarchy or of delegitimating authority in our manner of resistance to its excesses, we are falling dangerously short of a truly Christian political ethic.
At the end of 2021, I thought it might be good to reflect briefly upon the past year, which has been an extremely full, productive, and rewarding one for me, on several fronts. I’ll be spending January of 2022 in the US, largely reading, writing, teaching, and enjoying the opportunity to catch my breath before the plunge into the immense and exciting challenges I have lined up for 2022.
Daily Reflections Project
Two years ago, I began a project going through the lectionary of the 2019 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. The initial intention was to offer some brief and assorted reflections upon each biblical reading for Morning and then Evening Prayer. That soon morphed into a more thorough commentary upon each chapter, as the first stage of a larger project to produce a free and easily accessible audio commentary on the whole Bible, informed by the best scholarship and resourcing Christian meditation upon and devotional reading of Scripture. Later still, a published physical version of the commentary became a further goal.
Over the last two years, every single day, I have spent about seven or more hours studying commentaries, writing extensive notes, and recording my brief reflections. In the process I have used quite literally several hundreds of commentaries, I have written over a million words of notes, and have recorded hundreds of hours of material.
At this point, I have completed reflections upon the entire lectionary, save for some of the Psalms and the readings from the Apocrypha. I have produced reflections on every chapter of the New Testament and most of the Old. Over the next few months, I intend to finish producing reflections upon the remaining chapters of the Old Testament. Almost all those chapters are in the books of Leviticus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Psalms, and Ezekiel. If you ever wanted to learn more about the deep logic of the sacrificial system, about obscure laws, about the importance of genealogical material, about those unsettling stories at the end of the book of Judges, or the meaning of Ezekiel’s visionary temple, there is a lot to look forward to! There is also so much of the richness of the Psalms to get into and enjoy.
My hope for the project is that it will become a comprehensive chapter-by-chapter audio commentary on the entire Bible, a free and easily accessible resource for people around the world and throughout the Church. To improve the accessibility of the project, most of my reflections are now available (those from the second half of 2021 still need to be uploaded), ordered by chapter and easily searchable and downloadable here. The Bible is a book of immense treasures, by which many Christians are needlessly daunted. I’ve long felt that my vocation is primarily to help fellow Christians to love, trust, and delight in the Bible more and to read it with greater confidence, skill, and attention.
The project is entirely funded by donations of supporters (Patreon/PayPal) and publicized by word of mouth. Besides keeping it as a free resource, I would like to improve its accessibility in various ways in the future and to make more people aware of it.
Besides the biblical commentary, I’ve done several other things this year. Here are a few.
This year, I’ve had conversations on the subjects of free speech, gender, scapegoating, intertextual reading of Scripture, Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, music and Exodus, whether empathy is a sin, the book of Esther, Jordan Peterson, doctrine and life, work and worship, eating and faith, Christian reconstructionism, and the history of Christian Ireland.
I’ve taught courses for the Theopolis Institute on the biblical theology of the Law and on the Sabbath, and courses for the Davenant Institute on Exodus and Biblical Literature and on Natural Law and Scriptural Authority.
On a personal front, 2021 has been a happy one. I’ve been able to do more travelling and, now that the USA is letting visitors back in, am enjoying the New Year in New York. I’ve visited many friends, seen a number of sights, and knit several large items. There have been some wonderful family events (and exciting things to look forward to in 2022). Here are some pictures and videos of various happy memories and milestones.
By leaning into identifying the Logos with God revealed in the singularity of his act (and even declared prior to any act), John immediately chastens any visions of plurality that might give rise to a ‘social Trinity’, for instance, while still maintaining personal differentiation. One consequence of this is the theological load-bearing that prepositional differentiation start to perform from the outset: God’s works are from the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit (this is also a notable feature of the Apostle Paul’s theological account of Christ’s deity). God’s works are not the collaborative work of a team of different unified agents, but the multiplicity proper to God is such that it is appropriate to represent him as a single purposeful Agent throughout the creation account, as elsewhere in the Scripture…
I conclude the latest Theopolis Conversation on the subject of sexual identity in this piece.
While O’Donovan’s primary critique in his treatment of the task of interpretation of homosexual desire is directed against those rejecting historic Christian sexual ethics, his critique also needs to be heard by many contemporary supporters of such ethics. I suspect that the term ‘gay’ has become so vexed in part on account of the failure of conservative Christians to undertake this interpretative task carefully and attentively enough. As our interiority is elevated as primary and self-interpreting in our society, it is not merely sexual revolutionaries that neglect the task of interpretation. Too many orthodox Christians have taken the desires of homosexual Christians as self-interpreting and simply pathologized both the desires and, by extension, those who possess them (here I must register my discomfort with an approach that traffics heavily in disgust in such an environment). ‘Gay’ is a very slippery term, but it has always named more than mere sexual desire, being connected with shared sensibilities and the like. If we are to condemn the use of this term, I think it is essential that we equip people to tease apart and interpret the tangled threads of desires, sensibilities, aesthetics, and perceptions that ‘gay’ represents for them. A lot of cruelly inflicted distress can result when this is not done.
I have written a piece to open the latest conversation, on the subject of sexual identity, over on the Theopolis website.
There is a difference between a house and a home. A house is an architectural edifice, often one of several constructed according to the same plan. A home is a house that has been rendered a personal habitation, a unique realm of life, communion, and indwelling. In discussing matters of contemporary sexuality and gender, Christians have all too often been narrowly concerned to defend the edifice of Christian doctrine (indeed, many have contented themselves merely with the protection of the façade of the edifice, allowing much of the actual building to fall into decay). However, they have provided people with scant imaginative and practical resources by which to make it their own home, which is an acute challenge when that edifice must be built on the soil of contemporary West society. Yet this is the task that we must undertake.
In recent years, speaking in terms of a wider cultural preoccupation with identity, many evangelicals have spoken of the need for us to ‘find our identity in Christ.’ What form such a self-discovery in Christ might take, or how Christ might make practically possible the formation of an integrated self, is far from clear. While sounding—and being—good in principle, how such an idea is to be made flesh is seldom well elaborated. The resources for identity formation offered can often be principally ideological. Exemplars, templates for action, narratives, and communal practices can often be weak, leaving people largely forming identities with what is offered to them by their surrounding culture, somewhat chastened by their Christian beliefs.
Each of the supposed negative freedoms we now enjoy have their threatening flipside. Freedom from isolation has brought a stiflingly dense sociality in which the rapid and reactive movements of mass opinion squeeze out the space, time, silence, and solitude in which reflection and deliberation might once have occurred. The pace of discourse online and the ease of publication has weakened us against our passions. The attenuation of both the power of institutional gatekeepers and of the walls of individual solitude that allowed for the formation of independent opinion, have empowered the far more capricious power of the mob. Release from obscurity has left us increasingly exposed to surveillance, scrutiny, and social judgment. Felling the forests that once sheltered diverse and complex conversational ecosystems has produced a monoculture of discourse, in which local discourses are drowned out by the wild winds of vast ideological conflict that sweep across the now denuded plains of the universalized public square. The humbling of old exclusionary institutional authorities has left us with a rabble of self-proclaimed authorities and a lurch towards conspiracy theorizing.
The imperial ambitions of the papacy have long been criticized as hostile to the integrity and the peace of peoples—Marsilius of Padua was making this argument two hundred years before the Reformation. Reformation support for nationalism arose in part from the recognition that a people’s ordering to the ultimate good required the creative, imaginative, and pragmatic task of orienting the specific forms of their actual peoplehood and place to the reign of Christ, to which distinct national identities were contextually more conducive. This differed significantly from subjecting them to the quasi-imperial authority of a distant yet meddlesome Rome. Nationalism was in large measure a reassertion of the dignity of the lay estate and the laity against the tyrannical clericalism of the papacy. One of the most immediate achievements of this vision was the translation and dissemination of the Bible in the vernacular.
What the manosphere and others of the teachers that Renn identifies recognize is the importance of manliness, of the traits that make a man apt for the exercise of dominion in various spheres of his life. A man who can act with mastery, competence, assertion, confidence, honor, courage, strength, nerve, and the like—especially if he acts as a skilled possessor of a behavioral repertoire, which he can deploy with discrimination, discernment, and self-mastery—compels respect as a man. Such traits, well-exercised, are manifestly attractive to women. Yet churches provide little training in, contexts for the formation or exercise of such traits, or purpose for their employment. This neglect results from and perpetuates a neglect of the broader, outward-oriented task of dominion. It also means that many Christian young men will turn to pagans to learn manly virtues, often picking up perverse notions of masculinity that glorify lording over others, or despising the weak, in the process.
Our relationship with the Scripture can also be flattened out. We don’t (or shouldn’t) merely read the Bible. We sing the psalms. We pray the Lord’s Prayer. We practice the Lord’s Supper. We meditate on the Law and hide its words within our hearts. We hearken to God’s instructions and observe his commands. We discern the meanings of proverbs. We proclaim the gospel. Using the words of Scripture, we recount, we lament, we exhort, we teach, we comfort, we rebuke, we absolve, we encourage. While what we conceive of as “reading” is generally a sedentary, solitary, and uniform activity, the relationship that Scripture calls us to have with it is anything but!