Christmas: Lost in Translation
Living in a culture far removed both in time and distance from that in which Jesus was born, we are unfamiliar with life in biblical times and it is easy for us to accept without question the traditional romanticised images that have come down to us about the events surrounding the birth of Messiah and persons who appear in the Gospel accounts. Our lack of knowledge can leave us vulnerable to all manner of alternative and bizarre teaching. For example, I once heard a writer state that he knew "Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem" who were descended from the shepherds to whom the angels appeared!
Although some of Israel’s greatest men – including Jacob, Moses, David and the prophet Amos – were shepherds, in the great collections of rabbinic law The Mishnah and The Talmud, shepherding was a despised profession. According to tractate “Kiddushin” in The Mishnah, “A man should not teach his son to be an ass-driver, or a camel driver, or a hairdresser, or a sailor, or a shepherd, or a shopkeeper, for their craft is the craft of robbers.”
Because many shepherds were hirelings and the flocks they tended were not their own, it was easy for them to steal wool, milk and goats and blame the loss on bandits. Therefore tractate “Baba Kamma” forbids buying wool, milk or goats from shepherds. A Jewish commentary on Psalm 23:2 says: “There is no more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd.”
New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias describes a biblical shepherd’s life as independent, responsible and – in view of the threat from wild beasts and robbers – dangerous. Although some sheep owners looked after their flocks personally, the job was usually was done by hired shepherds, who often did not justify the confidence reposed in them, as Jesus indicates in John 10:12-13. Also, shepherds couldn’t help but tread in sheep excrement and touch dead animals which, according to the book of Leviticus, placed them in a permanent state of ritual impurity and ceremonial defilement. Because of that, shepherds were excluded from the temple and the synagogues.
But it was these lowiest of people to whom the Messiah of Israel and Saviour of the world was first revealed. It is true, as the Christmas slogan has it that "Wise men still seek Jesus" but it's also true that the holy Saviour continues to live on earth with" the poor and mean and lowly"!
Letters to an Atheist.
1: The Omnipotence Paradox
Exactly four years ago, I met up with the son of an old friend. Edward was interested in philosophy and had been influenced by the "New Atheists", Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and, in particular, Sam Harris. He wanted to meet up, he said, to discuss philosophy but, in reality, he wanted to flex his atheist muscles. At the end of our five-hour discussion and having consumed a lot of coffee, he challenged me to read Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape and respond to it. I challenged Edward to present an atheistic answer to the empty tomb of Jesus. We agreed to keep in contact and a few days later I received a brief email from Edward in which he asked if God could create a situation he couldn't control.
If God couldn't do that, said Edwards, he wasn't almighty. But if God could produce a situation that was out of his control, that also proved he wasn't omipotent. I don't know whether Edward's question was original or if he was being serious but I felt the question needed to be answered. This is what I wrote.
Why do Good People do Bad Things?
“We know no spectacle so ridiculous,” wrote Lord Macauley, “as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.” The recent outbreak of morality at Westminster in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations is perhaps an indication of a swing of the ethical pendulum from libertarianism to puritanism that in some ways ought to be welcomed. "Something must be done", say the politicians after half a century spent systematically breaking up the foundation of western civilization, the Ten Commandments. Now, in a rare display of inter-party unity, Jeremy Corby is backing Theresa May’s clamp-down on inappropriate behaviour.
Prevention is, of course, always better than cure and for a start, as well as encouraging those who have experienced the unwelcome attention of their seniors, the party leaders could issue a ruling that MPs refrain from inviting members of the opposite sex (or, for that matter nowadays, the same sex) to their homes or hotel rooms alone. MPs could be instructed to leave the doors of their offices open, or at least ajar, when alone with attractive females or, when it is necessary for them to speak behind closed doors, to inform a colleague. This might be regarded as ethical overkill but let's not forget that our parliamentary representatives (or at least some of them) are the cause of their own misfortune. Oh yes, and for good measure, it would be helpful if all women were to dress modestly.
Incidentally, I’m acutely aware that expressing myself in this way opens me to the charge of political incorrectness and misogyny. But it's PC that is at the heart of the current confusion about ethics and morality. Even while condemning those who behave badly, one risks being condemned for straying beyond the prescribed, pedantically patrolled borders of political correctness.
Free Speech for Christian MPs
The charity Voice for Justice UK (VfJUK) plans to deliver a petition to the Prime Minister Theresa May calling fo the protection of the right of Christian MPs to free speech, and for secular activists not to be allowed to suppress Christian belief.
So far VfJUK has just over 26,000 signatures. The online petition reads:
Increasingly we are seeing Christians ridiculed and vilified in the public arena before the relentless drive of Secular and LGBTQ activism. It is time for the intolerance, bigotry and intimidation of so-called liberals to be exposed.
Tim Farron was hounded out of office because of his faith. Andrew Turner, former MP for the Isle of Wight, was forced to resign after saying he believed homosexuality was wrong and a danger to society. The DUP was pilloried for its Christian position and robust defence of traditional morality … Unremitting pressure is being placed on the Church to reinterpret its core values so that its teachings align with current morality.
We would respectfully remind the Prime Minister that the Church of England is the established Church of this land, and the laws of this land since before Magna Carta are founded upon Christian faith and belief. More than that, in the coronation oath the monarch undertakes to maintain the established Protestant religion in the UK, and to uphold the laws of God, while Members of Parliament are required to swear allegiance to the Crown while holding the Bible in their upraised hand before taking office.
Standing on Articles 9 and 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 - respectively protecting the rights to freedom of thought, belief, and religion; and the freedom to hold and express your own opinions - we assert the right to follow and practise without impediment or restraint our Christian faith, and to express without fear of condemnation or intimidation the core beliefs on which our faith is founded and as set down in the Bible. We call for freedom of belief and of speech for all.
And we call for all political parties to uphold the right of both current and future MPs to express support for traditional Christian belief, without fear of intimidation by activist groups seeking to silence dissent by unjustified accusations of bigotry and hatred.
The online petition can be signed here.
Martin Luther: Warts and All
On 31st October 1517, a young monk nailed a large, handwritten notice to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. It was an act that would change the course of history. The ninety-five theses, or propositions, on the notice challenged the very authority of the Roman Catholic Church and would put the life of the young Martin Luther in danger. Freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of conscience were not high on the agenda of the early sixteenth century Church but the Reformation that would follow in the wake of Luther’s bold challenge would change of all that.
Had it not been for the newly invented technology of printing, Martin Luther’s broadside might have been a storm in a teacup. But printing was to Luther what Twitter is to Donald Trump. It wasn’t Luther himself who began printing and distributing thousands of the Ninety-Five Theses but there were no copyright laws in sixteenth-century Europe so there was nothing the young monk could do, even if he had wanted to, to halt the progress of truth.
I confess to having a love-hate relationship with Luther. I am in awe of the fearless young firebrand (and fearless old firebrand, for that matter). I love his life-affirming earthiness, which twenty-first century evangelicals prefer to ignore or forget.
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