Here is an ancient story, from Ugarite, a civilisation that has lots in common with ancient Israel. The characters of the story are referred to during the Old Testament, because this is a tale the people would be familiar with—you might have noticed references to Baal, this is his story:
The Canaanite’s God, El, created all things. He is an old man, with a long white beard (he sat on a throne, not a cloud—but the description sounds familiar…) There is a Heavenly Realm, and El makes Yamm the king of all the gods. Yamm is a seven-headed sea dragon, known for his pride and creating chaos, sometimes called ‘Lotan’ (There is bit of a fuzzy divide between gods and monsters in some of these ancient stories. I guess they were trying to represent the things they didn’t understand with images/stories.)
Two other gods, Athtar and Baal resent this, and Baal threatens Yamm.
Baal is a young god, the son of Dagon, and his wife is Asherah (a name you might also recognise from the Old Testament). He is a warrior god, he often brings thunder and lightning, and is in control of both fertility and rain. (This is particularly interesting in the light of the OT story in 1 Kings 18.)
Baal goes to Kothar, who is the god of skill and wisdom, and asks him to make two magical clubs. Baal then uses them to crush Yamm. He’s helped by his sister, Anat.
So we have Baal—thunder and lightning, defeating Yamm—chaotic sea. Baal is less chaotic than Yamm, so this is seen as a good thing.
They have a feast to celebrate (as you do) and Anat goes to ask El if they can build a palace for Baal on Mount Zaphon. Kothar (the god of skill and wisdom—remember?) helps to build the palace.
When the palace is complete, they invite Mot, the god of death to visit. (I find this is interesting, as ‘mot’ is the Hebrew word for ‘death.’) Mot says he will come, but to devour Baal, not to celebrate. Baal is defeated and killed (but not permanently, so don’t make a cuppa just yet). Anat (the sister) then fights Mot (because this is what sisters do when their younger brother is beaten up) and she manages to get Baal’s body. She kills Mot, and scatters his body to the birds (though he pops up again later, so this bit is a little confusing). During this battle, Athtart, another sister (obviously one who doesn’t like Baal so much) tries to make one of her sons king, but they all fail.
Baal and Mot then fight again (don’t ask me how, it seems ancient gods didn’t really stay dead, even when fed to the birds). Baal is declared the winner.
I don’t feel the story has much traction as a bedtime story, but I found it interesting to see where some of the beliefs about Baal and Asherah came from. They pop up a few times in the Old Testament, because people tried to worship both them and God. The story seems strange/weird to our modern minds, but I guess the stories from every religion seem strange when you’re new to them.
There is speculation in the news today about the leader of one of the big Christian outreach organisations. It looks as if the leader did dodgy things with young men, which if proven, I guess will negatively impact the organisation. My question to you is: Does the moral life of a leader affect their past work?
At college, we have read the work of many theologians, and more than you might expect, were involved in some sort of dodgy sexual behaviour. They either assaulted their students, or were unfaithful to their wives, or were accused of abuse. This is not a current a thing—I’m talking about centuries ago. Some of the theology still taught today, was first introduced by men (it was always men in the olden days) who were later accused of improper behaviour. Does it matter? And why?
More recently, we studied the work of John Yoder, who taught about servanthood, and following Jesus’ example in caring for the downtrodden and oppressed. All good stuff. But then, it was discovered Yoder had sexually harassed more than a hundred women. Do we ignore this? Absolutely not. Do we ignore his teaching? That is the tricky part—because what he taught was good. (Not all of it, but much of what he said was good.)
Today, we were studying theology in art, and we read a book by Henri Nouwen, who was deeply affected by Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. As he sat and stared at the painting, Nouwen was emotionally touched, and through the painting he drew closer to God, understanding God’s love in a whole new way. So is the painting good? Undoubtedly. Therefore does God use the work of Rembrandt to further his kingdom? It would seem so. Was Rembrandt a good chap? Well, he wasn’t exactly faithful to his wife and seems to have had a complicated sex life! But does the life of the man nullify his work?
If you look at the work of Aimee Semple McPherson, you become even more conflicted. This was a woman who attracted a huge following in Los Angeles, built a temple and a radio station and took Pentecostal spirituality to masses of people. Did she preach the message of God? Yes, and hundreds of people were touched by the message and grew closer to God as a result of her work. Does her ministry sometimes resemble a religion of her own? Yes—and she was accused of some dodgy stuff in her personal life too. But again, does the woman nullify the work?
My own view is very conflicted. Personally, if I felt a leader/minister/vicar was morally suspect, I would not feel able to work with them. Anyone who lies to their spouse is unlikely to be honest to their congregation. I think the integrity of a person’s life matters, and TV evangelists who seem more interested in earning high salaries, or famous preachers with massive egos, are not people who I trust. And yet, contrary to all that, I notice that sometimes, God uses those people to further his kingdom.
The life of the speaker does not always nullify the message. Sometimes, God uses the narcissist, the psychopath, the egotist. Maybe starting a new organisation, ‘thinking big’ and not being distracted by all the potential problems, needs a certain personality. And maybe those personalities are more likely than most of us to then screw up spectacularly—because we all mess up, and someone who does big things maybe messes up more. I guess the essence is this: God can use anyone, good or weak, and God’s work is always good. But the extent to which a leader’s failings then nullify their work—this I don’t know. It’s a tricky one.
This is an important point for those who have suffered abuse. I imagine that when you see good work being done, then you would worry about threatening that by bringing an accusation against the leader. Yet clearly, looking at the past, this should not be a factor. The work of God continues, people are helped, even when/if the leader is removed. A dodgy leader should always be removed, otherwise the cycle of hurt continues—amazingly, it seems that this doesn’t mean the cycle of their work stops.
Thanks for reading. Hope you have a good week. Take care. Love, Anne x
 Samuel Wells, Introducing Christian Ethics, (Oxford, Wiley Blackwell, 2017) p. 222.
 Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994).
 This theme was explored in Clara, A Good Psychopath?
As I told you in my last blog, we have been studying spirituality around the world. In our lecture, we spoke to a Coptic Christian from Egypt. ‘Coptic’ is the type of Egyptian writing that came after hieroglyphics, and became the language of Egypt, and therefore the language of the early Christians—people like Origen & Co. The chap we spoke to, spoke to us in English. Not much has been written in the past by Coptic Christians, and we were told that this is partly because it was a difficult place to be a Christian. He spoke about the ancient church in Alexandria, commenting that, “We produced more martyrs than books!”
He explained that the Coptic church is known as the church of the people, and it works with the poor people in Egypt. He said that Christ was found with the poor people, and that is where their focus is. Later, I asked him about all the money, and gilt and splendour, that I had seen in the Coptic churches in Cairo. How does that tally with their aim to work amongst the poor? He told me that it generally is the poor people who provide the money for the beautiful churches, that they want to contribute, to show how much they value God. He also said that in a country where they are the minority religion, it is very important to have a ‘presence’ and to be seen. It would be easy for the media to discount them, for governments to say there were no Coptic Christians—harder to do that when there is a stonking great temple in every city. This is something I hadn’t considered (it’s very easy to judge cultures before we understand them).
As a minority church in the country, their ‘outreach’ has to be different than in Western countries. They strive to do everything well, to live their lives authentically, and to work honestly. This is the way they hope to be noticed, and for people to be attracted to their church. (I think that in an Islamic country, you are not allowed to speak with Muslim people about your faith.) This tallies with what we saw in Cairo, where the Zabbaleen people (who are Coptic) collect the city’s rubbish, and are known for doing it better than anyone else.
When asked about people converting to Christianity, he said that they would only want people to do that who are sure they want to follow Jesus, not because they have been ’persuaded’ into it—because converting from Islam means risking so much.
He showed us his ‘Book of Hours,’ which is a tiny book of Psalms. They read it at regular intervals throughout the day—like when they wake, at mealtimes, when they go to bed. I thought that was a good practice to copy, it’s hard sometimes to even think about God during the day, even, ironically, when studying for an MA in Theology. My Muslim friends are currently fasting during daylight hours for Ramadan, and I admire their determination and wonder whether we have grown too ‘soft’ in our Christian churches. Sometimes a routine/discipline is a good thing. He also spoke about the monastic tradition. He likened this to the Bible story where Moses is praying while Joshua fights a battle. He said the monks are the ones praying, and studying Scripture, aiding the Christians who are outside the monastery. Most people go to the monastery for retreats, when they join the quiet contemplation for a while and learn from the monks (and share with them what is happening in the world). It’s different, but I can see how it would work.
As I said on Monday, we only had one seminar about global Christianity, but even the little we covered challenged some of my preconceived ideas. Churches in different countries need to find the best way to do things within the culture they live in. Often, this will be very different to how we do things in the West.
Thanks for reading. I hope you have a good week. Take care. Love, Anne x
One of my lectures this week was about Christianity around the world. It was only one lecture, and really it could be a whole course, but the little we covered was very interesting. We read various articles by author’s of different nationalities, and it was clear that their Christianity reflected the culture they lived in.
One example was the work of Sadhu Sundar Singh (1889—1929 ). He lived in India, and you could hear chimes of the Indian culture in his writing—which was beautiful. He wrote that God is in everything, and unless we ‘see’ God in the natural world, we cannot fully appreciate what we have. God is reflected in creation. He wrote that prayer prepares the soul for God’s gifts, and we shouldn’t be praying in order to ‘get’ things. When we approach God in prayer, our thirst is quenched. He painted a picture of God using examples from nature.
At times, it was fairly close to pantheism (the idea that God is everything, and everything is God—which is roughly the teaching of the Hindu religion). But he didn’t actually say that, and instead gave an example of a sponge being filled with water—the sponge and the water are intrinsically different substances, but one is able to completely absorb the other.
His title of ‘Sadhu’ means ‘holy man,’ and he taught many people. There are stories that he left society and went to live in a cave, and he is still there now, waiting until the world is ready for him to emerge. Other reports (I suspect more reliable) are that he died in 1929.
We also read some of Richard Young’s work, about Christianity in Africa and Asia. He writes about the role of ancestors in China. He suggests that the spirit of ancestors should be regarded as a force—either to help in the Christian journey or to flee from their influence—but they cannot simply be ignored. Chinese people cannot be expected to suddenly think ‘with a Western mind’ when they become Christians.
I’m not sure what I think about this. However, I do wonder if there is an example in the New Testament. If you read the Gospels, there were an awful lot of evil spirits/demon possession. And in today’s society, there seem to be less. I do not actually know anyone who has been possessed by evil spirits—do you? Yet we read of the disciples encountering such people regularly. Were they just unlucky? Or are we not noticing? Or, is it possible that those people were not possessed by spirits, they were simply ill, and erratic behaviour due to things like epilepsy was wrongly attributed to evil spirits? In which case, it is interesting that Jesus did not correct the wrong assumption. He met the people within the culture/thought-context of the time, and he knew that if he told the person they were healed, but ignored the ‘evil spirit’ then they would continue to suffer—because placebo is very strong, and a belief in an evil spirit would be enough for them to continue to suffer. Therefore, in kindness, Jesus did was what necessary, he appeared to ‘cast out’ spirits, so the person would be healed. If I am correct, then what Young suggests would fit with this example. Sometimes we expect people to change who they are before they can come to God, but this is a human requirement, not a Godly one. If God wants to change them, that’s his business, and that will happen later.
We also spoke to a Coptic Christian from Egypt—but I’ll tell you about that in my next blog. Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a great day. Take care. Love, Anne x
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 Sudhu Sundar Singh, At the Master’s Feet, (Edinburgh: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1922).
 Richard Fox Young, ‘Christian Spirituality in Africa Asia, Latin America and Oceania’, in Author Holder (ed.), The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2011).
Before I went to college, I would have described myself as an ‘Evangelical Christian.’ Now I’m not so sure. To be honest, I didn’t really know what the term meant—I assumed, as it contained the word ‘evangelical’ it meant that the person thought it was right to ‘evangelise,’ in other words, to tell other people about God. However, depending on who you speak to, it means different things. And sometimes it’s used as an insult in the Christian world. Shocking! Or maybe not…
There is a handy (if not scintillating) book that defines what ‘evangelicalism’ means, using seven points. If I am honest, I have been aware of these within churches I have attended, and they’re not always good. What do you think?
Conversion. To be a Christian, evangelicals tend to emphasis a moment in time when you committed yourself to God. They talk about ‘repenting of your sins’ and ‘changing direction’ and asking God for forgiveness. I too think this is an important step, though I’m not so sure it happens only once, and certainly not necessarily at the start. I also don’t think there’s an ‘in’ and an ‘out’ and until you have ‘prayed the prayer’ you are definitely in the ‘out’ club (if you see what I mean!) Things are fuzzier than this, in my experience.
Assurance of Salvation. This means a belief that Christ becoming human, living, dying and rising again is all that is necessary for salvation. It slightly contradicts point one above (in my view). Now, being sure you have been accepted by God is important, but I’m not sure that everyone gets there all at once, in a single leap. Nor am I sure that we agree on what ‘salvation’ is. People talk about ‘going to Heaven when I die’ but (as discussed before) that’s what Plato taught, not the Bible. Again, I think things might be fuzzier than sometimes presented. I also worry that ‘assurance of salvation’ is most often used to point a grubby finger at the person who we are ‘sure has not been saved’! Comments such as: “Oh, he was ever so kind, and he’s not even a Christian you know,” tend to be revealing.
Biblicism. Evangelicals tend to say they believe the Bible is the ‘Word of God’ and available to everyone, but then go to great lengths to explain every contradiction and to teach things the way they believe them. Whilst they might be right, they might also be wrong, and maybe a little more caution is called for. It’s easy to find verses in the Bible that support your beliefs. The KluKluxKlan did it, so did the fascists. I think that using the Bible to learn who God is, is great. I think using the Bible to make rules for other people is not so great.
Prayer. Evangelicals believe that prayer is important—both private prayers and prayers in church. The early evangelicals taught that prayer should come ‘from the heart’ (which I agree with) and therefore pre-written prayers, and especially liturgy, are not really prayer. (This part I disagree with.)
The Cross/Penal Substitution. This goes back to point 2., that Christ died to save us from our sin. This is a huge concept, and I don’t think we really understand it, so I won’t comment. I do believe Christ died, and I do believe that somehow that repaired the relationship between God and us. But I don’t know how exactly, and I am suspicious when others seem very certain about concepts which seem to me to be beyond human understanding.
Holiness. When we are saved (see point 1.) it will affect the way we behave. The ancient Methodists believed it was possible to become sinless. The ancient Baptists believed holiness should be pursued through behaviour. In the 1870’s the Keswick Convention was set up, to try and decide this issue. They stated that ‘sin is perpetually counteracted.’ (Keswick is also home to an excellent kitchen shop, which is unrelated.) All I know is, I am not perfect, some terrible people do some really good things, and some apparently ‘holy’ people do really bad things.
Mission. After conversion (see point 1.) a Christian will be dedicated to God’s service, hoping to convert others. Sometimes this can feel like ‘scalp-hunting’ if done badly. At best, it’s the sense of having something special and wanting to share it with others.
Unfortunately, the Church is made up of humans, and none of us get it right. God is very patient with us. I find it helpful to step back, and look at what defines the things I believe, and then to decide whether they are really the things I believe, or if they are simply unquestioned teaching.
 Peter J. Morden, ‘Evangelical Spirituality’, in Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones (eds.) The Routledge Research Companion to the History of Evangelicalism (London: Taylor and Francis, 2018).
When my lecturer said that the influence of St. John of the Cross was hugely significant, even today, I thought, ‘Hmm…’ I have grown up amongst churchy people, and I had never heard of him. Then, later in the week I was watching an episode of ‘Call the Midwife’ and they referred to ‘The dark night of the soul.’ Perhaps my lecturer was right; if it’s reaching as far as a series on telly, I maybe ought to know more.
St. John of the Cross, or Juan de Yepes, was a Spanish monk in the 16th century – the time of Spanish wars with the Moors, Martin Luther writing his thesis, Queen Elizabeth ruling England, the Spanish Armada and the Europeans venturing to America. His father was a converso (from a Jewish family that had converted to Catholicism) and he was rejected by his rich family when he married John’s mother. John grew up poor, and when his father died his mother placed him in a Catholic orphanage, where he was educated and taught a trade—though Burke remarks that he was, “a spectacularly unsuccessful apprentice” and all his employers fired him! He ended up nursing in a hospital for syphilis patients, which was the equivalent of nursing AIDS patients in the 1980s. He later took vows, and then joined Teresa of Avila as a ‘barefooted’ monk, trying to reform the abuses of the Church from within.
St. John was a mystic, which means he considered things that cannot be explained. He believed the soul was separate to the mind and body, and I’m not sure that I agree with him. I think people are maybe more ‘whole’ than this (in the same way that I don’t think Heaven is full of dis-embodied souls floating around). Much of St. John’s thinking seems to have been influenced by Plato (who also separated the soul and the physical). Some people suggest we should have “a hermeneutics of suspicion” when examining the mystics. (‘Hermeneutics of suspicion’ is bit of a fashionable phrase at college. ‘Hermeneutics’ simply means how we interpret the text according to our experience, so the phrase is a fancy way of saying ‘Don’t trust everything you are told.’)
St. John had a rough time, with lots of paranoia around, due to the Spanish Inquisition, and the Reformation—so when people rejected his beliefs, he was imprisoned and tortured. It was after this that he wrote a poem: ‘Dark Night of the Soul.’
The poem is similar in style to Song of Solomon in the Bible, and depicts God as a lover. The night reflects the horrors of his time in prison, but with God by his side he has no fear. Some time later, St. John wrote prose by the same name, to explain his poem. He’s fairly wordy, and writes very long sentences, but usually his meaning is clear (you do need to concentrate while reading though, and spousal interruptions are very annoying!) My feeling is that he wrote the poem in a splurge of emotion, putting words to his feelings. Later, he tried to explain the words and the theology behind them (I wasn’t sure that the explanation always fitted the poetry).
St. John believed that there were three different states of being a Christian: Beginner, Progressive and Perfect. Perfection is achieved after physical death. Many people never develop further than ‘Beginner’ as they become complacent, they enjoy using the gifts God gives them, and never seek to develop their relationship further. They are self-satisfied, they feel they know all the answers and are contented in their relationship with God. Although they strive to please God, and to pray, to give to charity, and offer penances, their religion has become more important to them than God himself, and they stop trying to develop their spiritual relationship. (This rings true.)
He describes ‘spiritual gluttony’ where Christians enjoy spiritual gifts for their own sake, and become increasingly religious whilst not being closer to God. They rely on feelings, and if their prayers or works don’t result in feeling peaceful, joyful, holy, they then consider them a waste of time. It is like they think God ‘owes’ them in return for their devotion.
To develop into a ‘Progressive’ one must pass through the ‘dark night,’ which is a state instigated by God. St. John describes a dark night of the senses, which tends to follow a time of spiritual happiness, when the person feels close to God and peaceful but is then plunged into depression, with God out of reach. (This reminds me of when as teenagers several of us were baptised, and afterwards most of us experienced a ‘low’ time, and some stopped coming to church completely.) He writes that God gives this time of depression so the person can become stronger, relying on God and not on the feelings of God (peace, joy, contentment). It reminds me of the Book of Job, which teaches that God is worthy of worship because he is God, not because it results in good things for the worshipper.
St. John views this time of depression as a purging of the soul, a time when instead of feeling good and happy, a person is turned back to honouring God through love and discipline, even though they feel they are gaining nothing in return. I’m not sure how this fits with our modern culture, where mental health seems to mean people should never be depressed. Whilst there is, I believe, a mental illness that should be treated, there is also perhaps a time when mentally healthy people feel depressed, and perhaps we shouldn’t run from this. Perhaps we can learn more from our ‘low’ times than our ‘highs.’ In the poem, the house represents the physical and mental state, which are allowed to rest while the soul meets with God. God then kindles a love, which is not necessarily felt, yet is still real. This is a good, happy thing. The soul is free to meet God without being confused by emotions, it has escaped.
La noche oscura del alma
En una noche obscura, con ansias en amores imflamada, ¡oh dichosa uentura! sali sin ser notada, estando ya mi casa sosegada.
A escuras y segura, por la secreta escala disfraçada, ¡oh dichosa uentura! a escuras y ençelada, estando ya mi casa sosegada.
En la noche dichosa, en secreto, que nadie me ueya, ni yo miraua cosa, sin otra luz ni guia sino la que en el coraçon ardia.
Aquesta me guiaua mas cierto que la luz del mediodia, adonde me esperaua quien yo bien me sabia, en parte donde nadie parecia.
¡Oh noche que me guiaste! ¡oh noche amable mas que el aluorada!, ¡oh noche que juntaste amado con amada, amada en el amado transformada!
En mi pecho florido, que entero para el solo se guardaua, alli quedo dormido, y yo le regalaua, y el ventalle de cedros ayre daua.
El ayre de la almena, cuando ya sus cabellos esparzia, con su mano serena en mi cuello heria, y todos mis sentidos suspendia.
Quedeme y oluideme, el rostro recline sobre el amado, ceso todo, y dexeme, dexando mi cuidado entre las açucenas olvidado.
Dark Night of the Soul
On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearnings –oh, happy chance!– I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.
In darkness and secure, By the secret ladder, disguised –oh, happy chance!– In darkness and in concealment, My house being now at rest.
In the happy night, In secret, when none saw me, Nor I beheld aught, Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.
This light guided me More surely than the light of noonday To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me– A place where none appeared.
Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn, Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved!
Upon my flowery breast, Kept wholly for himself alone, There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him, And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
The breeze blew from the turret As I parted his locks; With his gentle hand he wounded my neck And caused all my senses to be suspended.
I remained, lost in oblivion; My face I reclined on the Beloved. All ceased and I abandoned myself, Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.
Translation by Edgar Allison Peers
I’m finding the writing of these ancient monks to be challenging. Whilst I disagree with the way they tried to find God, it’s hard to reject some of the things that they learnt along the way. I have noticed that it’s often in our hardest times that we draw closer to God, but I’m not sure I agree that without this ‘dark night’ people are limited in their spiritual journey. I also don’t know whether the monks’ rejection of marriage and society (and shoes!) was a sign of holiness or of being weird; but I do respect what they were striving to achieve.
Thanks for reading. I hope that when you have a ‘dark night of the soul’ it will be something precious rather than destructive. Take care. Love, Anne x
 Gregory Burke, St John of the Cross (Alba House Publisher: New York, 2001) P.35.
 David Stewart, The Hermeneutics of Suspicion, in The Journal of Literature and Theology 3, 1989, Pp. 296-307.
Early on in the Christian religion, after the books of the New Testament had been written and the message spread abroad, some people wanted to explore their relationship with God in detail. These were the monks and nuns who set up communities in the Egyptian desert, from about 350 AD. We still base lots of our theology on what they decided (so, you might think that you learned about ‘original sin’ from someone in your church, based on the Bible, but that was one idea which was introduced by one such monk).
The monks/nuns lived in communities, and their ‘spiritual life’ was connected to their ‘physical life.’ Although they removed themselves physically from contemporary society, they lived amongst other monks and nuns, and were dependent on each other. They considered their spiritual welfare to be closely entwined with other people. For example, one monk stated that he tried to focus entirely on his own sin, because then he would never be tempted to judge anyone else—how could he complain that dinner was burnt if he always had in mind that he had broken a plate yesterday? (Seems like a good rule.) They also talked about ‘putting the neighbour in touch with God’ which to be honest I don’t really understand. How can they claim to focus on this when they seemed to live in such remote places? I assume their ‘neighbour’ was restricted to other monks, which is rather limited. Though some monks were visited by people seeking advice, so maybe those were the ‘neighbours.’
They do seem to have been a very tolerant bunch, very accepting of differences. They spoke about people following different vocations, and that a life spent praying was no better or worse than a life spent mending shoes, if that was what you had been called to do. The book is named after the practices of two monks, one who worshipped God with silence, and another who worshipped by eating honey cakes with his visitors. (I know which one I would like to be.)
They also had great names! The book describes ‘Moses the Black’ who was from Ethiopia and before he was a monk, he was a highwayman. Another was ‘John the Dwarf’.
I think I might suggest we devise similar names at college for our fellow-students. I shall be ‘Anne the Old,’ as most people (including the lecturers) are younger than me.
In addition to giving each other names, the monks were also answerable to a mentor. This seems like a slightly dodgy idea to me. I can understand why they believed having a human to confess to, someone to be completely open with and to take advice from, might make people more accountable (because let’s be honest, although we say that we confess directly to God, how many of us do, diligently, every single day?) However, I think the risk of abuse, of the mentor taking wrongful control, or representing their own view rather than God’s, is too great. I know some modern churches have a similar idea, but it’s not something I would want to be part of. I don’t think I trust another human with those things.
They spent time considering some of the knotty problems of Christian theology. For example, when Jesus was in Gethsemane (praying in the garden the night he was arrested) did he have the option to change his mind and escape crucifixion? If he did then he cannot have known the limitations of humanity, and being trapped in a situation of temptation. If he didn’t then how could he be fully God, who is unrestricted? It might sound a bit silly, a bit convoluted, to us today. But it was the tackling of such issues, and the finding of sensible answers, that provides the basis of much of our theology.
(In answer to the above question, they decided that the ‘will’ cannot be separated from the person as a whole. Therefore, Jesus would always ‘choose’ what was right. In the same way as a mother feels intensely protective towards her child, and if a gunman was to burst into the room, in theory she could choose to hide, but in reality, she would throw herself in front of her child to protect them, because that is her nature. Choosing to abandon her baby would be impossible.)
The book discusses what is ‘personal’ as opposed to what is ‘individual.’ It gives examples of people who lived lives in tune with their own personalities, without necessarily striving to be different. ‘Self’ was not something to be flaunted, ‘different’ was something natural, not something militant. I think they were not trying to ‘find themselves’ but rather trying to find who God had created them to be. Sometimes what I read sounded like navel-gazing, a bit too much looking inside and not enough looking to God, but it’s hard to understand a lifestyle from a book written centuries later. Certainly they were on a quest to find truth—the kind of truth I wrote about a few weeks ago. ( https://anneethompson.com/2023/02/06/should-politicians-tell-lies/ )
The book considers several more ideas that arose from the desert monks/nuns. It’s a little book, but it took a while to read because I needed to keep pausing, pondering the ideas presented, deciding whether I understood them and whether I agreed with them. It’s worth the time spent; if you see a copy, I suggest you read it.
I thought I would share with you one of my essays, written for the Ethics course. I have slightly altered it, and it has no bibliography, but this is the sort of essay that I write for my course:
In what sense is truth a social and political virtue? Explain your answer from a Christian ethical perspective and use illustrations from contemporary society and politics.
This essay will define the biblical concept of truth, and consider how it is a political virtue. This will then be applied to a social and political setting. Political groups that have an opposing view of truth will be examined, and the outcomes of this considered, thus showing that usually society suffers when truth is excluded from politics; though there are exceptions.
Truth is complex, and the meaning varies between people. It might be defined as speaking factually. There are instances when ‘speaking factually’ will conflict with the commandment to love. For example, when I was diagnosed with a brain tumour and in passing people asked, ‘How are you?’ it would have been inappropriate to dump unexpected information, and was instead appropriate to answer ‘Okay,’ even though this was not factually true. A more extreme example would be when people lived and spoke falsely in order to protect Jews hiding from Nazis. There are also instances when people do not want to know the truth themselves, such as in medical prognosis, and it is loving to respect this. There are instances in the Bible when God did not appear to be speaking the truth. There is also an instance when Jesus appears to lie, which is unlikely given that he is described as being, ‘full of grace and truth,’ and himself states that he is, ‘the way, and the truth, and the life.’ ‘Truth’ must therefore be more complex than the simple speaking of factually accurate information.
In the Hebrew Bible אמת  is the word used for ‘truth.’ It combines a sense of faithfulness, of lack of deception and of honesty. This was been called ‘thick truth’ by Kempson in a lecture, who said it epitomises more than the speaking of facts. Gushee describes it thus: ‘truth is not simply something that is believed or spoken, but instead is a character quality, a way of being.’ He continues the definition by saying it is proved by actions. This essay will use this definition; therefore in the social and political arena, it is the ethos of truth and faithfulness, rather than simply whether or not something is factual, that will be considered.
Plato thought that legislators (the equivalent of politicians in his time) should be wise and rational. Taking the definition of truth above, it could be argued that a legislator might be wise whilst also dishonest, suggesting that Plato did not consider truth to be essential in politics. Aristotle’s views are closer to thinking that truth is necessary for politicians, as he viewed ethics, morals and politics to be intertwined. His understanding was that: ‘Good actions produce good habits; good habits and moral training create good dispositions; virtue names the ways good habits become inscribed on a person’s character.’ As he considered the state to be a ‘moral project’ for the benefit of the community, the truthfulness of its leaders would implicitly be part of this. Kant was more specific, believing in categorical, universal, principles. Hence, his view was that, ‘lying is never permissible, even to save a person’s life’, which implies a narrow definition of truth. Whilst Plato, Aristotle and Kant are part of history, their teaching survives today, and I suggest that contemporary society still bases some of their expectations on these models.
Our politicians today do not always fit the model of truth above. Boris Johnson, during his election campaign, was accused of visiting a hospital to raise support, whilst his party had left them underfunded. It was during a news broadcast, and he protested that there were ‘no cameras’ with him. The television camera then turned, showing a bank of photographers. Yet this appeared to have little impact on his election, people still voted for him, even knowing that he lied. People today sometimes vote according to which political party will deliver the policies they want, rather than according to the virtue of the politicians.
Another example is when Donald Trump was elected as president, despite his alleged propensity for mistruth. McGranahan writes that politicians have always lied, but Trump’s lies were in excess of any other, and he often spoke ‘alternative truth.’ Again, the electorate knew this before the election, yet many still voted for him. Trump stood strongly against abortion, and I suggest that many voters voted according to this single policy, deciding that ‘truth’ was less important. In this instance, ‘truth’ was less a political virtue than delivering certain policies. (Though of course, some people believed Trump, and thought the allegation itself untrue.)
Sometimes when the lies of governments are revealed (such as when secret documents become unsealed) the population condones the lie. An example would be when Churchill moved model vehicles around the coast, hoping to deceive the enemy that the planned D-day attack would be in a different place. This was not acting in ‘truth’ as per the above definition, as the intention was to deceive. Yet the perceived ‘greater good’ of defeating the enemy outweighed the lie. Thus was the consequential ethic of ‘outcome mattered more than the process.’ (A pacifist view would suggest that nothing justifies war, and therefore lies used to support war are immoral. However, I suggest that those with a Jewish heritage, who would not be alive had the allies not invaded Europe, mostly believe a greater good was served.)
Given these examples, one might question whether truth is necessary within politics. Hays quotes Niebuhr as saying: ‘Christianity really had no social ethic until it appropriated the Stoic ethic.’ This suggests that Christian truth has no place in wider society and politics. However, there are dangers when truth is withheld. The rise of fascism under Mosley in the 1930s used lies, in the form of ‘anti-semitic conspiracy theory’ [sic]. By lying, twisting the truth and spreading propaganda against the Jews and other immigrants, the fascists gained support for their party. People wanted to belong, they wanted an enemy to blame for their troubles, and were keen to believe that life had been better in the past. People who challenged the false information were themselves called liars, and it became difficult to know what was true and what was false. Society became unstable, and hatred in the form of racism began to grow. When people do not know what to believe, when truth is hidden or ridiculed, there is space for evil regimes to grow.
Society relies on laws, and laws rely on truth. An example of this is the method used for deciding justice in a court of law. Witnesses give evidence, a jury decides whether the accused is guilty. The truthfulness of witnesses is essential for justice. A witness is asked to swear they will tell the truth, which echoes the Ten Commandments. Whilst it could be argued that Jesus spoke against swearing in court, I agree with the view that the meaning behind his words was aimed at the custom of swearing unnecessarily to undermine truth, and the ‘thick truth’ is unrelated to the practise of swearing in a court today.
I would therefore suggest that truth is a social and political virtue. As has been shown by the rise of fascism, when populations cannot rely on politicians for truth, a country might be led towards morally abhorrent behaviours. Whilst there are situations when the withholding of facts is wise, this does not contradict the wider understanding of truth as a virtue of honesty and faithfulness. Hence truth is a political virtue. The upholding of law depends on the truth being spoken in court, and if a society cannot rely on law (and by default, truth) then there is no solid structure on which to build. Hence truth is a social virtue.
If today, we voted for leaders based on their truthful character, their אמת, rather than their ability to make good speeches or deliver the policies we desire, then I believe countries would be stronger and ethical standards would be upheld.
Thanks for reading.
I hope you have a good (truthful) week. Take care. Love, Anne x
 Corrie Ten Boom, The Hiding Place (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 2004). This book shows how lying was necessary to protect those in hiding.
 Gen 2:17. God tells the man that on the very day he eats of the fruit he will die. As understood by the man (physical death) this was untrue.
 John 7:8 compared with John 7:10. As Jesus did know the future/his mission (John 8) it is unlikely he did not know that he was going to attend the feast.
 אמת is translated as ‘reliability, dependability, trustworthiness, truth’ by David Clines. English Bibles tend to use ‘truth’ as the translation in most contexts, with the other words being examples of the kind of truth being discussed. Ed. David Clines, The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield, Phoenix Press, 2009) p. 26.
 Emily Kempson, Postgraduate Seminars: The nature of truth in Christian theological thinking, 7/12/2022
 David P. Gushee and Glen H. Stassen, Kingdom Ethics, (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans Publishing, 2003) p. 296.
 Samuel Wells, Ben Quash and Rebekah Eklund, Introducing Christian Ethics, (Oxford, Wiley Blackwell, 2017) p. 66.
As promised, I will tell you about the two papers which I enjoyed the most at the SOTS conference. They both helped to shape my understanding of who God is—and are far removed from the way God is presented at Sunday School. As before, please note that I am describing the lectures as per my own understanding, with apologies if I am not accurately describing what the papers said.
Peter Hatton: ברית as treaty
The Hebrew word ‘beret’ (ברית) is frequently used in the Old Testament, and is usually translated as ‘covenant.’ Therefore, God made a ‘covenant’ with Noah, that he would not flood the world again, and he made a ‘covenant’ with Abram that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars, and so on. However, Peter Hatton suggested that our understanding of ‘covenant’ is misleading, and ‘treaty’ would be a better word. He said, “You don’t make covenants with friends, but with enemies.” There is an element of threat when a covenant is made—and we tend to forget this today. A ‘covenant’ or treaty is very different to a contract, which is an agreement between two equal sides, with no underlying threat, and with a right to appeal if things change.
He then discussed the treaty made with Noah, which was symbolised by a bow in the sky. A bow was a sign of power, a threat of attack. Peter showed several examples of pictures of bows from the ancient world, and each time they were signifying threat and power. The bow shown to Noah is a bow (not a rainbow) and it is immediately after God has murdered/executed all the people and animals in the world (so definitely something of a threat would be understood). [This is not something my Sunday School teachers emphasized, with our songs about ‘When you see a rainbow, remember God is love…’]
The treaty with Abram included a sign too. Abram had slaughtered animals, and cut them in half, and fire had gone between the halves. In the ancient world, people sometimes walked between divided carcasses, to symbolise the idea that if they went back on the agreement, they would be like the dead animals. [A little like in a Court of Law, we swear to tell the whole truth ‘so help me God’ in other words, only God will be able to save me if I lie.] In the example of Abram, God was saying that he would be like a divided carcass if the covenant was broken. [I am unclear here as to who the he might be. According to my notes, Peter Hatton said that Abram would be like the dead animals, but when I later read a commentary, they said that it was God himself who was saying he (God) would be like the animals if he didn’t fulfil the covenant. I think the Hebrew can mean either, so you can decide for yourself. Either way, the covenant/treaty held an element of threat.]
Peter’s paper then considered why this element of threat might be important. When people are in situations of conflict, pretence tends to disappear, and people are very real/honest. Peter said that when he has counselled couples with marriage problems, they are in conflict, and they tend to be honest about the hurt and difficulty. He remarked that in this situation, when people are genuine about the pain, they can start to rebuild. He also said that marriage is a covenant/treaty between people who are different (because individuals are different). [He lost me a little here, perhaps I was tired, but I don’t entirely see the same link with a marriage covenant and conflict/threat. But maybe you can work that out for yourself.]
Philip Jenson: Mathematical Monotheism
For me, this was the most helpful paper of all, because I have been struggling with the idea that the Old Testament is very clear that there is ‘One God’ and yet Christians are very strong on the Trinity (which to my mind, is basically three Gods working as one).
Philip Jenson pointed out that ‘monotheism’ is a term that first arose in the 17th century, which is when understanding of mathematics and science was developing rapidly. The idea (rather than the word) of monotheism first arose during the exile. Before then, people held a belief in monolatry (that only one God should be worshipped, above all other gods).
The Hebrew word for ‘one’ is אחד and it means more than the mathematical idea of quantity. אחד is about quality, about being incomparable, being in a position above all others. ‘God’ is not countable. Numbers are unhelpful here. God is known by power. אחד might be better translated as ‘unique’ rather than ‘one.’
[I think some of these comments about inappropriate translations maybe arise because language is not static, and our understanding of words changes over time. Therefore, when Hebrew is being translated today, words like ‘one’ or ‘covenant’ have slightly different nuances than they did during the reign of King James and the Authorised Version.]
Another problem with this is our understanding of the word ‘god.’ What is a god? Modern people don’t like to think that there could be lots of different gods floating around. However, the Bible speaks of ‘Heavenly Beings’ and some are named (Eg. Seraphim). These might be who were understood to be ‘gods.’ Or perhaps the ‘gods’ were man-made, anything that was worshipped and revered, anything that people treated like a god. Anything that rivalled people’s loyalty to God. Therefore, they did exist, but not in a way that was separate from human perception. A carved animal was a god, because it was worshipped as a god but if placed on a shelf as a mere ornament, it was not a god.
The paper then considered texts that possibly contradicted this idea, such as Isaiah 44: 6, “…beside me there is no god.” This seems to exclude the possibility of other gods. But this ‘exclusion formula’ might refer to power rather than the existence of other gods, so is inconclusive.
The conclusion was that God, YWH, is incomparable, and his multiple titles add to the hierarchy (because a lack of names implied a lack of status in the ancient world). The implication in the Bible is that other gods were created by God, and were potentially mortal (ie. not eternal).
I found it all extremely interesting, with lots of ideas to mull on. I also find it helpful when thinking about the Trinity, because I don’t need to try and explain an apparent contradiction between ‘one God,’ and that I believe Jesus was God, and yet he prayed to his Father, who was God. I can stop worrying about how many I can count, and focus on the unique, incomparable being who is God. I am very happy to admit that this God is beyond my understanding, and leave it there.
Hope you have a great week. Take care. Love, Anne x
As promised, here is a brief overview of some papers presented at the SOTS conference that I attended last week. It is all new to me, so please be aware that I may have misunderstood some of the points being made, but these are the main highlights from my point of view. [I will add my own thoughts in square brackets.]
Moritz Adam: Ecclesiates
Moritz thought that Ecclesiates was well-introduced by the book of Proverbs. Solomon is sometimes linked to Christ, in an attempt to understand the books (though obviously this adds a whole layer of later history). Solomon is alluded to, but not named, possibly to widen the book’s appeal to later generations. However, the authorship is firmly linked to Solomon, ‘even if Solomon was not an historical figure’. [The scholars presenting papers often added this caveat—I don’t know whether they themselves doubted that Old Testament figures actually existed in history, or if they were ensuring their paper would be accepted whatever the reader’s view.]
There was a lot of discussion about how Ecclesiates potentially had Greek influence, such as the Hellenistic style of linking people with deeds: Moses—Exodus, Solomon—Proverbs. He suggested that the idiosyncrasies in Ecclesiates reflect a Greek style, as Hebrew doesn’t ‘do abstract’ very well. [I took notes, but found all this difficult to grasp as my own knowledge of Greek history is very limited.]
Moritz suggested that themes within the book reflect Greek thought, with no context for the ideas that are presented. He also quoted an Egyptian saying: ‘That which is crooked cannot be made straight.’ [I think this implies some of the thoughts may have come from Egypt, but to be honest, I didn’t really catch that bit!]
One idea that I enjoyed, is that ‘paradise’ is linked to the gardens of Persian courts.
Megan Daffern: Psalms
Megan was considering how the Psalms use self-reflection. [‘Talking to yourself’ in other words.] She said that sometimes this allowed the author to distance himself from the Psalm, and examine what was being presented. Sometimes it is used as a device to reassure oneself, to remind oneself that God offers security.
It was suggested that psychology today uses self-distancing to aid motivation [like when we talk to ourselves, saying we can achieve something].
David Firth: Psalm 40 and Psalm 70
Psalm 70 is basically the same as Psalm 40: 14-18. [I have never noticed this, have you?] David remarked that the Masorites [the scribes who added vowels and punctuation to the Hebrew texts] added a title to Psalm 70. Apparently, if a psalm has no title, it was possibly linked to the psalm before. [I didn’t know that, either!]
The paper then considered whether these two psalms were a copy of each other, or if both are original. It’s possible that both are included in the collection of psalms because they are very similar. Or, one may have been altered to be like the other.
The Hebrew word: ישב is a common verb in psalms 69, 70 and 71, which is some evidence that psalm 70 stands alone, and is not just an extract from psalm 40.
[Personally, I suspect that someone was feeling a bit desperate, read the extract in psalm 40 and wrote it out as it fitted his mood. He tweaked it a bit, and this then became part of the collection of psalms, because people liked it. But obviously I have no evidence for this.]
Kirsi Cobb: ‘Using Fiction to Fill the Gaps’
I hoped that this paper would be about how fiction writers can aid understanding by writing stories based on Bible narratives. But it wasn’t. The paper was basically a slating of a fictional book, stating that the concepts are badly presented. The whole paper made me furious, especially as at times it seemed to be a personal ridiculing of the author of the book being reviewed. There is a lot I can say, but I will leave it there.
[After the seminar, I remarked on the apparent personal attack, and I was told that this is normal. Scholars consider each other fair game for insults, and they don’t consider politeness to be a virtue when reviewing each other’s work. I hope I am never like this. Whilst I admire their brains, I did not always admire their manners.]
Paul Joyce: Inappropriate Optimism
This paper considered the unrealistic optimism that was presented by the false prophets, such as in Jeremiah. It discussed optimism as a cognitive illusion, and suggested that people tend to ignore evidence and lean towards optimism. [I feel I should introduce him to some of my family, as this seems very much a generalisation to me.]
He did note that biblical criticism and psychology share similar concepts, which I found interesting.
There are two other papers that I really want to tell you about. One was about covenants (you will never look at a rainbow in the same way again) and one was about whether the Hebrew Bible presents monotheism (there is only one single God). I will write about them in other blogs.
As you can see, most of the papers were full of information and ideas, and even though I am not as scholarly as most of the audience, it was extremely interesting. Thanks for sharing it with me.
Have a good rest of the week, and take care. Love, Anne x