Thursday, 27 December 2018

Book review: “In His Own Strange Way” by Geoff Thompson

Geoff Thompson, “In His Own Strange Way”: A Post-Christendom Sort-of Commentary on the Basis of Union, 2018:  MediaCom Education.

Reviewed by Bob Faser.

I need to make one admission at the outset.  When I was asked to review this book, my initial thought was “But hasn’t the Basis of Union been done to death already?” 

However, by writing this book, Geoff Thompson has provided the Uniting Church with a strong resource for ministry, for three compelling reasons.

The first reason is that Thompson prefers to allow the Basis of Union to speak to us on its own terms, rather than placing the Basis into any particular doctrinal straitjacket, whether “evangelical”, “progressive”, “neo-orthodox”, or any other.

The second reason is in the description of this book as “Post-Christendom”.   This study takes seriously the fact that the relationship between the Christian churches and the broader society, both in Australia and in other western nations, has changed radically in the decades since the Basis of Union was written and the UCA was inaugurated.

The third reason is in the fact that this study is structured in sixteen segments that can be used for group sessions.  Each session contains a brief commentary on the relevant section of the Basis of Union, brief statements on how our “Post-Christendom” situation relates to the particular section of the Basis, discussion questions, and relevant passages of scripture. 

This book looks like a good starting point for reflection by a more ambitious adult study group in a local congregation, one which wants to spend an extended time with a single resource.  It would also work well with a group of Ministers of the Word, Deacons, Pastors, and Chaplains in a local area wanting some sustained opportunity for group theological reflection.  If a group such as this exists in your congregation or presbytery, this may be the resource for them.  In either case, competent group leadership is essential as this is not a pre-packaged small-group study.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

On the Sunday after Christmas, the Lectionary gave to me ... forty-two blokes a-begetting, ... five feisty females, ... and a passage we ignored in Seminary: a sermon (Matthew 1:1-17)

This is the first time in my life I’ve ever preached on today’s gospel lesson.  Normally, I use the three-year Revised Common Lectionary when I preach.  Today’s lesson, from the Narrative Lectionary, doesn’t appear in the three-year lectionary on any Sunday.

The only times I ever use the Narrative Lectionary for preaching are those occasional Sundays when I lead worship here at Hobart North. 

It’s the passage that, in theological seminary, we called (using a bit of King James-ish terminology) “the begats”. (“Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob,” and so on and so on.)  And there was a whole lot of begatting going on.  (Or, rather, there was “a whole lot of begetting”.  It was one of those irregular verbs:  beget, begat, begotten.)  Anyway, the passages of scripture with all the “begats” were passages I never really studied as a theological student, and neither did most of my colleagues.

But, in the midst of all these men with polysyllabic names (from Aminadad to Zerubbabel) all begetting like crazy, it now seems (according to a growing number of New Testament scholars today) that the real meaning of this passage is found, not so much in the forty-two men begetting with enthusiasm, but in the five women who are also mentioned in the passage.

As a result, I gave my sermon a title which I think is best sung:   “On the Sunday after Christmas, the lectionary gave to me: … forty-two blokes a-begetting, … five feisty females, … and a passage we ignored in Seminary.”

Two gospels give us a genealogy of Jesus, near or at the beginning of the gospel, Matthew and Luke.  While there are a number of differences in detail between the genealogies, there are two big differences between these two genealogies:

  • The first difference is that Matthew’s version of the genealogy of Jesus goes back to Abraham, while Luke’s genealogy goes back to the dawning of human life.
  • The second difference is that the genealogy found in Luke is an all-male list, while Matthew’s version mentions five very significant women.

These differences can both be seen as a result of the different cultural contexts of these gospels.  Matthew wrote his gospel for a congregation with a background in Jewish faith and culture, while Luke wrote for a congregation of Graeco-Roman gentiles.

  • Matthew wanted to demonstrate that Jesus lived within the context of Abraham obeying the command of God to venture out into the desert with the message of God’s call to faith.  Luke wanted to put Jesus into a more universal context of the life of the whole human race.
  • Luke’s readers, though, were Graeco-Roman sexists who were not terribly interested in the accomplishments of women.  On the other hand, Matthew’s readers came from a Jewish background and honoured those feisty women who, throughout the history of their people, stepped up to the plate and did God’s thing, particularly at times when their menfolk were faltering.

Increasingly, many New Testament scholars today – of a variety of denominations, and of both genders - say that the real key to the meaning of Matthew’s version of Jesus’s genealogy is found in these five women.

Anyway, let’s have a quick look at the “five feisty females” mentioned by Matthew.

Tamar provided an example in the scriptures of what we, in recent months, could call a “Me Too” moment.  She had experienced incest, and it took place as part of a complicated story.  She nearly was put to death because of her irregular pregnancy, but talked her way out of it in a way that led the man who caused her pregnancy to admit his own fault.

Then there’s Rahab.  She was a prostitute, probably the “madam” of her brothel.  She wasn’t Jewish herself, but a citizen of Jericho.  She hid the spies sent by Joshua to check out the land, and lied about it when the authorities came looking for them.  There’s no two ways about it.  Rahab served God by betraying her country.

Like Rahab, Ruth was also foreign.  She was an immigrant, one of that great class of people whom the less salubrious sort of politicians today, those who inhabit the sordid underbelly of politics, like to condemn, without looking at their solid contributions to society.  The story of the romance of Ruth and Boaz (Rahab’s son, according to Matthew) became the great “romcom” of the Old Testament.  Ruth herself became the great-grandmother of King David. 

Speaking of David, we then come to Bathsheba, who isn’t mentioned here by name but is merely called “the wife of Uriah”.  This is another “Me, Too” moment in the genealogy of Jesus.  The rape of Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah definitely constituted the ethical low point of David’s reign.  And, morally, it was rape.  What with David being a king, Bathsheba would not have had the power to consent or not to consent.   It was a definite “Me, Too” moment.

And then we come to Mary, who is really much more interesting than the demure young woman in the blue dress whom we see in statues, paintings, icons, and nativity sets.  When she reflected on the significance of the child whom she was to bear, she celebrated the idea of the powerful being brought down from their thrones and the lowly being lifted up, of the hungry being filled with good things and the rich being sent away empty.  This was one radical lady.  As they say on the TV talk shows, “You go, girl!”

And the birth of Jesus took place in the context of the lives of these “five feisty females”, just as much as it did in that of the “forty-two blokes a-begetting”.  And many scholars today believe the “five feisty females” are the real key to understanding why this list of polysyllabic names is found in the gospel, more than as an endurance test for people who read lessons in worship.

Anyway, what takeaways can we find from the “five feisty females” in Jesus’s genealogy, according to today’s gospel?

The first is this:   We find God in the presence of those whom our society and culture despises.

The second is this:   We find God in the presence of those who choose to live with courage and compassion.

I’ll repeat that.  It’s important.

We find God in the presence of those whom our society and culture despises.

We find God in the presence of those who choose to live with courage and compassion.

“On the Sunday after Christmas, the lectionary gave to me: … forty-two blokes a-begetting, … five feisty females, … and a passage we ignored in Seminary.”

Friday, 21 December 2018

"Baby, It's Cold Outside!": a cultural and ethical reflection

This month, there's been some controversy in North America over a song.  A number of radio stations in the USA and Canada have been removing the song "Baby, I's Cold Outside" from their playlists over the Christmas holiday season, given concerns that the song depicts a seduction that may not be 100% consensual on the part of the woman in the encounter.  The controversy over the song follows many of the concerns of the "Me Too" movement, following the revelations concerning sexual harassment and, at times, actual sexual assault by a number of high-profile figures in business, politics, entertainment, and the law.

Anyway, the song was removed from the playlists of a few radio stations, and the strident response from some political and cultural ultra-conservatives was predictable.  (Can one of you gentlemen please inform me which amendment protects the "right of seduction"???) 

Part of me is actually rather surprised that the inhabitant of the Oval Office has not yet entered the fray on this one, describing (for example) "Baby, It's Cold Outside" as one of his "favourite Christmas carols" in a similar way as he once described "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" as his "favourite Bible verse".

It's all complicated by the fact that the song, in recent years, has become associated with the Christmas holiday season, even though the song doesn't mention Christmas (or, for that matter, any other holiday).  Because the song is set in the winter, when "... it's cold outside", it's become a song that's played a lot in the lead-up to Christmas, and then disappears from the airwaves even though (in North America) winter continues (and, in many areas, intensifies) during the months following Christmas.  (It's even funnier here in Australia, where it's played during the lead-up to Christmas in early summer.) 

"Baby, It's Cold Outside" isn't alone here.  Other songs with a generically winter theme which are almost exclusively associated with Christmas, even though they never mention Christmas in the actual song, include "Let it Snow!  Let it SnowLet it Snow!", "Sleigh Ride", "Winter Wonderland", and even "Jingle Bells".

"Baby, It's Cold Outside" was never intended to be a song for the Christmas holidays.  The Broadway songwriter Frank Loesser (best known for "Guys and Dolls") wrote the song in the mid-1940s as a party piece for himself and his wife, the singer Lynn Garland.  In this piece, the sleaziness and sliminess of the man, and the naivete of the woman, were exaggerated for comic effect.  One factor in the comic effect of the song as a party piece in its early years was that the people hearing this song were well-aware that the two participants in that mock seduction scene were, in fact, a married couple.  A few years later, Loesser sold the song to a Hollywood studio for use in a film and it became a popular "lounge" standard, rather than merely the Loessers' party piece.

Once "Baby, It's Cold Outside" entered the public zone, rather than the social zone of the Loessers and their friends at private cocktail hours and dinner parties, the potential creepiness of the song began to speak for itself.

Contrast "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with another song from the mid-'40s with a generic winter theme, but which has also become a Christmas season standard, Sammy Cahn and Jule Stynes's "Let it Snow!  Let it SnowLet it Snow!"   The "Baby, It's Cold Outside" guy is definitely trying to manipulate the young lady into bed, while the "Let it Snow!  Let it SnowLet it Snow!" guy is far more of a gentleman, knowing that he and his girlfriend will not be spending the night together but, instead, realises that "... all the way home, I'll be warm."

All of this points to changing moral standards within our community.  In some ways, our moral standards have become more flexible since the days of my youth (and I happen to be a proud "Baby Boomer"), while in other ways, our standards have become far less flexible.

Ways in which our community moral standards have become more accepting and flexible since my own "Baby Boomer" youth include:
  • a greater acceptance of LGBT people, 
  • a greater acceptance of unmarried couples cohabiting, and of single parents,
  • a greater acceptance of couples, married or otherwise, of different racial, religious, or cultural backgrounds.
My response to these social changes is, simply:  "Brilliant!"

Ways in which our community moral standards have become more demanding include:
  • far less tolerance regarding adults sexually preying on underage people (with this change of values reflected in a number of high-profile court cases in a number of countries, some of which are still sub judice, so I'll say no more),  
  • far less tolerance of married men having a "bit on the side", 
  • far less tolerance of men seducing women who are not completely enthusiastic re the arrangement (even when the seduction falls short of actual rape or sexual assault), as illustrated in "Baby, It's Cold Outside".
My response to these social changes also is, simply:  "Brilliant!"

I believe that both sets of changes in values are definite improvements for the well-being of our culture.  The relaxation within some attitudes is very good.  The tightening up within other attitudes is equally good.

I'm not a fan of censorship, but I realise there's a significant difference between censorship and quality control.  If a radio station removes "Baby, It's Cold Outside", with its tale of a clumsy, ham-fisted seduction, from its December playlist, I believe it's less of an act of censorship than it is an act of quality control. 

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Christmas with the “Caganer”

Being a self-confessed “Christmas nerd”, it isn’t every day I learn a new fact about Christmas.  I learned a new Christmas fact a few weeks ago watching a TV panel quiz on the ABC.
In many places in Europe, public Nativity Scenes are large, involving an army of shepherds, a huge choir of angels, many hangers-on in the Wise Men’s entourage, multiple guests eating and drinking in the inn, and a variety of people working on nearby farms.  In many areas of Spain, there is also a figure of a man in an obscure corner of the Nativity Scene engaged in relieving himself.  This figure is called a “caganer”.
I’d never heard of the “caganer” until a few weeks ago.  I checked the facts.  I didn’t just trust the TV presenters, even if the programme was initially shown on the highly salubrious and reliable BBC.  I consulted with that noted authority on all things factual, Professor Google.  It checked out.  It wasn’t “Fake News” (as the man with the funny comb-over says).
In many Spanish communities, the “caganer” helps to engage the interest of children in the Nativity Scene, as they try to find the hidden and obscure “caganer” in a “Where’s Wally?” sort of way.  

Theologically, the “caganer” has an important and profound message for us.  When God chose to come into our world as a human being, the Christ-child was born into the midst of our real world, not in some artificial, prettied-up, Disney-style world.  The “caganer” attending to an urgent call of nature at the same moment when the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us bears testimony to this. 

Have a Bless├ęd Christ-Mass, a Merry Christmas, and some Happy Holidays.

The Word has become Flesh, and lives in our midst.

Have a good one!