Victor Hugo and the French Worldview

Victor Hugo is best known outside France for two novels he wrote, Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I recently tried to read an unabridged version of the former and I may have read abridged versions of the latter as a child. The latest film version/ musical of Les Miserables is a powerful work which captures the main story line of the novel very well. However when I read the book, the level of detail (“God is in the details” according to the translator) was difficult to wade through. The book had about 1500 pages and I gave up around page 1000. Maybe I will complete it some day.

France and the UK have always stood poles apart – especially during the 19th Century. This is mainly because France had a bloody revolution at the end of the 18th Century and the UK didn’t. Victor Hugo was an apologist for the revolution. He argues extensively in Les Miserables that it was a great thing for France and for the world that it happened. On that point I could not agree. Charles Dickens’ novel “A Tale of Two Cities” which I did complete not too long ago brings out the contrast between London and Paris at the time. Dickens is distinctly not apologetic for the French Revolution. In fact you would be hard pressed to find many Englishmen who are or were.

Being Irish I understand the power of blood sacrifice in nationalist revolution. I came to live in Ireland at 12 having been schooled and reared in England until that time. I can still remember the shock of the Irish view of revolution and what it meant to the Irish. Everything in the Irish worldview is coloured by 1916 and 1922 as well as the history of revolutions extending back through 1798 and before. Around where I live there are 3 plaques and a monument within a 2 km radius commemorating battles and deaths that happened in the local area during the revolution of 1798.

Blood sacrifices have power. As Christians we should know this only too well.

The rising up of the ordinary people was praised throughout Les Miserables. Victor Hugo helped lay a foundation in French thinking that makes it perfectly acceptable for a large amount of people working in a particular industry to hold the rest of the country to ransom. He also had a wife and a mistress, another pattern of French public life he reinforced.

“Victor Hugo’s death from pneumonia on 22 May 1885, at the age of 83, generated intense national mourning. He was not only revered as a towering figure in literature, he was a statesman who shaped the Third Republic and democracy in France. More than two million people joined his funeral procession in Paris from the Arc de Triomphe to the Panthéon, where he was buried. He shares a crypt within the Panthéon with Alexandre Dumas and Émile Zola. Most large French towns and cities have a street named after him.” (Wikipedia)

The Word of God

I don’t know about you but I’ve been a long time around Christians and I’ve often found that the Word of God is used without distinction between the bible and Jesus Christ.  “In the beginning was the Word” according to John’s Gospel which confounds the two even further.

So what exactly is the Word of God?  Jesus Christ or the bible? Or some combination of both?

Why do biblical Christians emphasize the absolute authority of the Word of God?  And why do most biblical Christian churches say the bible is inspired, inerrant and infallible in its original writing?  It is only a book after all, or is it?

I was travelling down to one of our church’s connect groups last night.  I’d been asked to lead/ facilitate it.  And getting this clear in my mind was troubling me.  So then the Lord showed me a illustration which I think everyone at the meeting found helpful and which I share here because it may bless you the reader of this blog also.

Every born again believer alive on this earth is an eternal spirit, a soul being saved and a body that will be saved, i.e. replaced by an eternal one (see my previous blog on the Spirit, Soul and Body).

The Holy Spirit does not yet have a body to inhabit for eternity though the Bride, the Church is being made ready for that purpose.  So how does the Word of God (we are talking about a Triune God here) express Himself in this world?  Well, there are a few answers to that but one of them is most certainly the Bible.

So what is the Bible?  Like us it is a body.  This body is made up of the printed text, the written words, the versions of written words, the translation, the paper and the binding.  Each version of the bible represents a different type of body.  But crucially, the Bible is, like our bodies, a vessel containing the Spirit of God.

How important is this body?  Well without it there would be a lack in God’s ability to be the Word of God to us.  There would be one type of vessel less to carry His Word to us.  And there is an objectivity, inerrancy and authority that a book can bring that no human can on their own.  With the Man Jesus now seated in heaven, what better way for Him to make his Spirit known than through a book?

But let’s not get too hung up over the vessel.  Humans come in various types of vessels, male, female, African, Caucasian, Chinese, etc.  But when you or I are talking to them, the vessel is secondary as long as we can understand what they are saying.  What is important about every human is the spirit that inhabits them and how that has impacted their expression of themselves, their soul.  Similarly when I am reading a version of the Bible what I am listening out for is the Spirit of God’s Word, Jesus Christ and how that has impacted the words I am reading.  Sometimes I may know another language and that helps give another view but ultimately all I really want to know is the Word of God. And He is never wrong, nor does He ever let us down and everything He says is inspired.

So whether it is the King James Version, loved by so many, or The Message, I am not too hung up about that body that carries the Word of God.  But I am passionate about hearing what He has to say.

Is not fighting over versions something like racism or sexism?  Well it can be I think.  Lets not get too hung up about words (2 Tim. 2:14).

Biblical Psychology

I’m reading Oswald Chamber’s “Biblical Psychology”, a book I read perhaps 25 years ago with little understanding then. It is a compilation of his lectures and is not an easy book to read. However I have found it easier this time around – so much of what he says rings true in my experience. Here are few excerpts expressing things that I have found to be true:

On humility (chapter 15, section 2 (b)):

“What is a little child? We all know what a child is until we are asked, and then we find we do not know. We can mention his extra goodness or his extra badness, but none of this is the child himself. We know implicitly what a child is, and we know implicitly what Jesus Christ means, but as soon as we try to put it into words it escapes.”

On the heart, memory and thinking (chapter 11, section 2 (e) and (f)):

“The brain is not a spiritual thing, the brain is a physical thing. Memory is a spiritual thing and exists in the heart; the brain recalls more or less clearly what the heart remembers. In our Lord’s parable (see Luke 16:25) when Abraham said to the rich man, “Son, remember,” He was not referring to a man with a physical brain in this order of things at all….. We never forget save by the sovereign grace of God; the problem is that we do not recall easily. Recalling depends on the state of our physical brain and when people say they have a bad memory, they mean that they have a bad power of recalling.”

“Thinking takes place in the heart not in the brain. … The expression of thinking is referred to the brain and the lips because through these organs thinking becomes articulate… We may take it as a general rule that Jesus Christ never answers any questions that spring from a man’s head, because the questions which spring from our brains are always borrowed from some book we have read, or from someone we have heard speak; but the questions that spring from our hearts, the real problems that vex us, Jesus Christ answers those.”

And my favourite so far (chapter 15, section 2(b)):

“the Holy Ghost is the only Lover of God, and immediately He comes in, He will make our hearts the centre of love for God, the centre of personal, passionate, over-whelming devotion to Jesus Christ…..until we become incandescent with the very love of God. “Keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21). That does not mean keep on trying to love God, it means something infinitely profounder, i.e., ‘Keep the windows of the your soul open to the fact that God loves you’; then His love will continually flow through you to others.”

F. F. Bruce, a Blue Parakeet and women teaching men

I’ve just finished reading Scot McKnight‘s book “the Blue Parakeet” (sub titled: “Rethinking How You Read the Bible”).  It was a timely read for me.  It addresses several topics but two were of particular interest to me – what is our relationship with the Bible and what about those difficult passages that don’t seem to fit in with our current practices (Scot calls the latter Blue Parakeets for reasons he explains in chapter 2) particularly about women teaching adult men?  

On the first one it was good to read “God does not equal the Bible” (pg. 88) .  I knew that of course but it is funny how many evangelicals don’t seem to.  Another good phrase is on page 91:  “God gave the Bible not so we can know it but so we can know and love God through it.”  It is good to be reminded of these things.  Seeing eye to eye with Scot on these issues helped give me confidence about his views on “Blue Parakeets”.

Before I read the book I had been going in depth through an issue that bothered me in the bible.  It was the passage in Acts 15:20 where James recommends that Gentiles follow certain laws (abstain from the meat of strangled animals and from blood) which Paul, for one, and I and many other Christians ignore these days.  Like all Blue Parakeets (difficult issues) in the Scripture there is an answer that is satisfying to the mind in relationship with Christ (we have the mind of Christ – 1 Cor. 2:16) and for this issue I was satisfied after studying it in depth for about a week.  These commands fall under the general command to love your neighbour as yourself, or more specifically, not to cause your Jewish Christian neighbour (c.f. Romans 14, 1 Cor. 8) to stumble.   Nowadays very few of us live near Messianic Jews and, with the understanding we and they have of the relationship between the Law and our relationship with Christ, they would probably not be stumbled by non-Jewish believer’s eating rare meat at least in Ireland.

Scot’s says about this and other difficult passages in the Bible that no matter who you are, you do pick and choose (or adopt and adapt) when it comes to interpreting them.  Of course this particularly applies to the Old Testament but it is also true about the New Testament.  No where is this more clear than in relation to the current controversies in evangelical circles about women teachers.  It was refreshing for me to read someone finally addressing comprehensively the infamous “silencing” passages of Paul in 1 Cor. 14: 34-35 and particularly 1 Tim. 2:11-15.

In reality I can’t help but think that Scot’s main reason for writing the book was to address this issue.  He addresses it in the context of rethinking how we read the bible but it is the main subject of the book.  He dedicates the book to someone he thinks was not given the opportunities to minister that she should have gotten and he spends over a third of the book directly addressing the issue of the role of women in the Bible and Church.

Of course I liked his arguments in favour of allowing women to teach adult men.  They made a lot of sense.  Also the mind of Christ, that I like to think I share, witnesses within me that of course qualified anointed women, like qualified anointed men, should be permitted to teach adult men.  The admonitions of Paul, like those of James, applied to the particular circumstances in which they were written.  That was then and this is now.

For me probably the best passage in the book was where Scot quotes F.F. Bruce.  Here are excerpts from the text on pages 206 – 207:

In the spring of 1981, as a doctoral student in Nottingham, England, I piled Kris and our two kids, Laura and Lukas, into our small car and drove to Buxton. Professor F. F. Bruce, perhaps the most widely known evangelical scholar of the previous generation and a specialist on Paul, had invited our family to his home for late-afternoon tea. When we arrived, we were welcomed into the home by Professor Bruce, and we sat in the living room for about two hours. During that time our son managed to spill a glass of orange squash on the Bruce’s rug, which Professor Bruce dismissed with a “whatever can be spilled has been spilled on that rug.” During a break, as Kris was talking to Mrs. Bruce, I asked Professor Bruce a question that I had stored up for him (and I repeat our conversation from my memory):

“Professor Bruce, what do you think of women’s ordination?”

“I don’t think the New Testament talks about ordination,” he replied.

“What about the silencing passages of Paul on women?” I asked.

“I think Paul would roll over in his grave if he knew we were turning his letters into torah.”

Wow! I thought. That’s a good point to think about. Thereupon I asked a question that he answered in such a way that it reshaped my thinking: “What do you think, then, about women in church ministries?”

Professor Bruce’s answer was as Pauline as Paul was: “I’m for whatever God’s Spirit grants women gifts to do.”

McKnight, Scot. The Blue Parakeet, 2nd Edition (pp. 260-261). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

John’s Wonderful Gospel

“In the beginning was the Word….”

So starts the sublimest of the Scriptures.  For me there is no greater writing than the Apostle John’s in all of the Scriptures.  In this Gospel he explains the deepest of truths in the simplest of terms.

The first 12 chapters of John’s gospel consists of a series of vignettes and cameo appearances.  Every chapter contains one or two.  There is the calling of the disciples, John the Baptist’s declaration, the wedding feast at Cana, Nicodemus coming at night to see Jesus,  the woman at the well, the centurion’s servant, the invalid at Bethesda, the feeding of the five thousand, the great day of the feast, the woman caught in adultery, the man born blind, the parable of the Good Shepherd, Lazarus rising from the dead and his two sisters different reactions.   Then there is the wonderful teaching passages of chapters 13 -16, washing the disciple’s feet, behold I go to prepare a place for you, the True Vine and  the Comforter.  The prayer of chapter 17.  The crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection of chapters 18 – 21.

In all the Gospel of John it is Jesus that we see in ways He cannot be seen anywhere else in Scripture.  There is an intimacy and level of detail about this Gospel that is not found anywhere else.  Jesus’ response to people and events is brought out in all sorts of ways, wonderfully expressed.  For example, Jesus supplied abundance at the wedding feast of Cana, taught Nicodemus spiritual truths in depth, gently elicited the truth from the woman at the well, explained a blindness to the disciples,  wept at the difficulties death had brought to people’s lives.

Jesus is declared to be wonderful things in this gospel:  the Word of God, the Bread of Life, the Resurrection, the Way, the Truth and the Life.

This gospel is wonderful because of its main character purely and wonderfully expressed in its pages – Jesus.

Books and the Bible: The Shack

I’ve spent the last many years not reading books except the Bible and those connected to work with few exceptions (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbons being one notable one).  However this year instead of my normal reading of the bible in a year (like for the last 30 years) I’m listening to it for most of the 2 hours every working day I spend travelling to and from work in my car.  The version I listen to is the excellent Word of Promise dramatised NKJV version which I would highly recommend.  The MP3 version is compact and great value.  I reckon I’ll have listened to the New Testament three times and the Old Testament twice at least before the end of the year. 

Another reason I haven’t been reading books is that I’ve found since children entered the equation I’ve wanted to prioritise my time.  Reading can be a rather solitary and selfish pastime if indulged in as much as I like to.  But with the time in the car freeing up reading time I have time to read some other books.

I believe God put The Shack my way for this time.  It’s been in the house for some months.  I started to read it over last weekend and found it hard to put it down and finished it on Monday evening.  I reckon I’ll read it again at least once which for me is the strongest recommendation I could give any book since I never do that except for the Bible of course :-). 

It is hard to explain why a book with so many so obvious heresies – some might say blasphemies – (God the Father being portrayed as a black African American woman being one of the more obvious ones) should be so witnessed to by the Holy Spirit when I’m reading it.  I guess He isn’t quite as defensive as we might be.  Maybe He feels He doesn’t have to be defensive.  I also believe God the Father can appear in any form He wants to to anyone, as obviously the authors of The Shack do too.

The section that stands out most for me and, on the surface at least, blessed me the most is the part where Mack is interviewed by Sophia, the personification of wisdom.  I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it.

The Shack in combination with other events in my life at this time has left me with a deeper sense of God’s grace than I can remember experiencing before.  I feel more loved than ever.  It was definitely the right book at the right time.  I confess that had it come at an earlier time in my walk I may have been tempted to condemn it.  By earlier I mean last year…..

My apologies to anyone who has felt judged by me in the past.  Perhaps the biggest legacy The Shack has left with me is a realisation of just how much I’ve done that, how much it was a part of my approach to life and how wrong it is.

30 years since I was born again.. so what?, read the bible every year..pooey, listen to it for up to 2 hours a day… phoney.  All useless unless infused by love and grace.

Never mind, we’ll get there, won’t we Jesus?  Yes, He believes in me.