Assembly Storytime

One of the sessions I attend at Spurgeon’s College is ‘chapel.’ This is basically an Assembly, just the same as every school used to hold at 10am each morning, the whole school gathered to sit on a cold hard floor for a bit of singing, a Bible-related talk and notices for the day. We don’t have to sit on the floor, and no one is glared at for whispering or removed for kicking the person in front, but other than that it’s identical.

One chapel service included a story, which is always my favourite thing. I believe the person leading chapel copied it from someone else, so you might know it already—but stories are meant to be copied and changed and passed on, so I will share it with you. Grab a coffee and settle back, and I will begin…

River Jordan near lake Kinneret Taken from Google Images, (c) copyright 2016 Land of the Bible

We are travelling way back in time, to where John the Baptist is baptising people in the river. Imagine a hot sun shining above, the waves lapping onto the beach, John up to his waist in water, busily baptising.

Hoards of people have come to see the weird-man-who-eats-locusts, they have heard him preach, they want to be dunked under the water to show that they believe what he has said, and they want to change, to be better people. Being baptised—dunked in the water—was not unusual in those days, it was a way to show you were changing something, ‘dying’ to the old way, and starting again. They were being baptised because they knew they were wrong. Try to imagine them, lounging against trees, some sitting on the ground watching, others jostling to a better position.

As I said, hoards of people had come, and there was a bit of pushing, a few mutterings of discontent, a bit of unfair queue-jumping. John is in the river, baptising, saying a few words to each person. The crowd of people waiting grows larger.

While we watch, a woman arrives. She’s an Human Resources manager, complete with clipboard and an officious attitude. She watches the chaos for a few minutes and decides to intervene. Marching to the front of the line, she waves her clipboard at John, and suggests a few changes. He’s a little taken aback, but he agrees she can try to improve things on the shore, while he gets on with baptising.

The woman sets up a table, and tells everyone to form an orderly queue. She then explains that before they are baptised, they will need to tell John they wish to repent of their sin, and it will speed things up considerably if instead of needing to ask, John can see their main sin clearly written on a badge. She places her badge-making kit on the table, and the first person approaches.

“What is your biggest sin?” asks Mrs H.R.

The man at the table hesitates, then confesses, “I had an affair.”

Mrs H.R. writes ADULTERER in large letters, hands him the badge, then calls the next person.

“What is your biggest sin?” she asks.

“I hate my mother-in-law,” whispers the woman in the queue.

Mrs H.R writes HATE on the badge, and the woman pins it to her clothes.

One after another, people arrive at the table, and their main sin is written on a badge, and they walk away, to await baptism. Some have ENVY, some have GOSSIP, some have SELFISH. When it’s their turn, they join John in the water, he checks the badge, asks if they want to repent, then baptises them. It is all very efficient.

Then Jesus arrives at the table.

“What is your biggest sin?” asks Mrs H.R.

“None,” says Jesus.

Mrs H.R. blinks, confused.

“Oh,” she says. “Then what is your smallest sin?”

“None,” says Jesus.

Mrs H.R. frowns, unsure how to proceed. She gestures for Jesus to pass her, and he goes to join the people waiting to be baptised.

“Here,” he says to a man wearing a badge saying MEANNESS. “Let me have your badge,” says Jesus. He takes the badge, and pins it to his tunic. Then he takes the badge saying THIEF from the woman next to him, and the badge saying CRUDE, and a badge saying CRITICAL. Jesus walks through the crowd, taking everyone’s badge, pinning them to his tunic.

Then Jesus walks down, into the water, and faces John, ready to be baptised.

John looks at Jesus. He looks at the badges that cover Jesus’ tunic, and then he says: “Behold, the Lamb of God…”

Anne E. Thompson
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Herman Gunkel Examines Psalms

Herman Gunkel’s Psalms

I have just attended a fascinating lecture about Psalms, so I want to tell you about it. (I ought to be writing an essay, but this is more fun.)

When you study at Spurgeon’s College, you are allowed to listen to any of the other lectures that they offer. So although it is not related to my course, when I heard there was a lecture about Old Testament writing, I slunk into the back and took notes. It really was very interesting.

In case you don’t know, Psalms are found in the middle of the Bible, and are songs/poems, expressing emotions and full of metaphors. A chap called Herman Gunkel (can only be German with a brilliant name like that!) decided that rather than fuss about who wrote the Psalms, and which situations they related to, we should simply examine them “sitz im Leben,” which means ‘forget all the things we cannot possibly know, and think about the general setting.’

“Ah,” you might say, “but my Bible tells me who wrote the Psalms, some of them say ‘of David’ in the title.”

Well, that is very misleading. Don’t forget, you are probably reading an English translation. The Hebrew would say:לְדָוִד  which can be translated as ‘of David’ or ‘to David’ or ‘for David’ or ‘the sort of thing that David wrote.’ So a bit uncertain really.

Herman lived about a hundred years ago, but scholars still use his findings today.

Herman Gunkel

He sorted the Psalms into three main types: hymns, laments and thanksgiving. If you pick a Psalm, it will fit into one of those categories. He then divided them up further, saying that each type would have certain features—which makes it easy to categorise them if you have to write an essay or preach a sermon—but is also simply interesting.

As you might remember, I am going to learn some of Psalm 22 every day in Lent, and in preparation I have been reading the English version and learning some of the vocab. This Psalm is a lament. If you look, it fits into the category noticed by Herman. A ‘lament’ has the following form:

*It’s addressed to God. *It describes a terrible situation. *There is a confession of trust. *There is a petition. *There is an appeal to God’s care. *There is a vow of praise. *It finishes with an assurance of being heard.

Pick a Psalm, if you can divide it as above, it is a lament. The other forms (hymns and thanksgiving) also have a set structure. It’s quite fun when you know, because you start to spot the various forms when you are reading them.

However, be careful, because the occasional Psalm doesn’t seem to fit. This is probably because originally, they were two separate Psalms, and an editor has patched them together. (Or I suppose it could be that Herman was wrong, but people who know more than me believe he was correct, so who am I to argue?)

The lecture then talked about all the nasty bits in Psalms, and how we should view them today. We looked at a Psalm that ended with the hope that their enemies would suffer and the heads of their babies would be smashed against rocks. Not something we tend to preach in church today. How should we use the uncomfortable and violent sections of Psalms?

Some people simply ignore those bits, and edit the Psalm so only the ‘nice’ bits are read out. That seems like a cop-out to me.

Some people ‘spiritualise’ the Psalm, and transfer the curse to anything evil, wanting for temptation or greed or hatred to be ‘smashed against rocks.’ Personally, I think there are dangers with spiritualising things that were not meant to be spiritualised—the early writers did want to smash up babies’ heads, that is the era in which they lived and I think we should look at the Bible through the lens of history. That’s what they wanted, we don’t say things like that now, though we understand the sentiment of anger.

Some people use those bits to express anger, even though they wouldn’t actually want to smash heads today—they say the anger is a human condition, and that is still relevant. I’m not sure about that either, because the curse is so violent, I don’t feel it does express my own emotions. What do you think?

Anyway, it was all very interesting, and I think I will gate-crash other lectures in the future. Hope you enjoyed reading about it. Thank you for reading.

Take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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Book Review: The Actuality of Atonement A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition by Colin E. Gunton

As you know, I have started by M.A. at Spurgeon’s college, and part of my assessment is a theological essay. I thought this might be quite fun, as I am someone with lots of opinions (as you know) and an essay is the perfect way to inflict them on someone who is paid to read it. I chose my title from a small selection, and started to read the suggested books. The book by Colin Gunton (see above) is the first one I read.

As you will know from my last blog, the second-hand copy I bought was full of irritating under-linings by the previous owner. I shan’t mention this again. The book was quite difficult to read, as it was very wordy (perhaps I should have been expecting this given the not particularly snappy title). However, a box of Cadbury’s ice-creams helped, and I ploughed my way through.

The book was clearly aimed at readers who know more than me, because there were unexplained references to theologians (who I had never heard of). For example, he starts by describing the work of Kant (a chap born in 1724 who also had strong opinions) and Colin is discussing his views, when suddenly he writes: “… and as Barth has asked, ‘Is it possible…” Who is Barth? Had I missed something, I wondered. I checked back a few pages—nope, no mention of him. I assumed he was another theologian as opposed to Colin’s uncle, but I did feel rather bemused. I felt I should have been warned before his name was suddenly interjected into the debate, it was like everyone knew something that I didn’t. This happened a lot when I was day-dreaming at school, but I feel it’s cheating when it’s in a book. It happens again later in the book, when Colin writes about, “Dr, Carr’s querying…” and “G. B. Caird’s remark…” Who are they? People he met at the bus-stop? It was like when you’re chatting with someone and they pause to reply to a text on their phone. Oi! Introduce your readers first please Colin.

I read the book with the help of a dictionary, because Colin has a better vocabulary than me. I had no idea of the meaning of terms like ‘procrustean’ (something that forces everything to be the same) or ‘fortiori’ (a stronger reason) or ‘Pelagianism’ (Pelagius believed humans are basically good, and it is possible to be perfect/sinless) and although I had heard of Plato, I didn’t know that ‘platonist’ was another way of saying, ‘a dispassionate realist.’ I won’t use these terms in my essay, just in case … (some of them sound a bit dodgy).

Colin described various types of rationalism (helpful for my essay) and then wrote pretty much a whole chapter on what constitutes a metaphor. This was less helpful, but quite interesting. His main point was that when we take a word out of context and use it to explain an image of something else, it makes a good description, but is it reliable? As much of the doctrine of the Bible is explained in metaphors (like Jesus having victory over death—a military image, and people being redeemed—which is a slave-trade image) then do we actually have a clear understanding of what is described, or just a hazy picture/image? If God is too big to be fully known, then we cannot have the correct terms to describe him, so we have to use images/metaphors—but are these reliable? Interesting point.

One thing Colin writes (which I can definitely use in my essay) is:

“The language…does not then give us a theory, something final and fixed forever, but one way into a many-sided reality with which we are concerned. It helps us, that is to say, to come to a measure of understanding of some aspects of the way in which the Bible sets forth in language the saving action of God in and towards his world.”

I like when people are a little uncertain, when they don’t think God and theology can be packed into the little box of our brains.

Colin makes the point that we all use the language of our time and culture, and so too did the authors of the Bible. Therefore some of the images which relate to the slave market, or Roman conquest, might be misunderstood by later readers. He writes an interesting chapter on demons, and whether these are ‘individuals’ (like people but somehow spirits) or forces (as in evil influences). The words used in the ancient manuscripts meant different things to later readers. All very interesting.

I’m not sure if I would recommend you read this book, unless you are interested in studying theology, because it is not hugely accessible. However, if you are interested in reading something difficult, buy a box of ice-creams and set aside a weekend for some heavy reading. Colin makes some interesting points.

Anne E. Thompson
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