How not to read (2)

27 08 2009

Of course, you can get things wrong the other way…

NB Before you read this poem, it helps if you know Byron’s The Destruction of Sennacherib – or at least the first two lines of it, which are:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;


Very like a Whale

by Ogden Nash

One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by the authors of simile and metaphor.
Authors of all races, be they Greeks, Romans, Teutons or Celts,
Can’t seem just to say that anything is the thing it is but have to go out of their way to say
   that it is like something else.
What does it mean when we are told
That that Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold?
In the first place, George Gordon Byron had enough experience
To know that it probably wasn’t just one Assyrian, it was a lot of Assyrians.
However, as too many arguments are apt to induce apoplexy and thus hinder longevity.
We’ll let it pass as one Assyrian for the sake of brevity.
Now then, this particular Assyrian, the one whose cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold,
Just what does the poet mean when he says he came down like a wolf on the fold?
In heaven and earth more than is dreamed of in our philosophy there are great many things.
But I don’t imagine that among them there is a wolf with purple and gold cohorts
   or purple and gold anythings.
No, no, Lord Byron, before I’ll believe that this Assyrian was actually like a wolf
I must have some kind of proof;
Did he run on all fours and did he have a hairy tail and a big red mouth
   and big white teeth and did he say Woof Woof?
Frankly I think it is very unlikely, and all you were entitled to say, at the very most,
Was that the Assyrian cohorts came down like a lot of Assyrian cohorts about to
   destroy the Hebrew host.
But that wasn’t fancy enough for Lord Byron, oh dear me no, he had to invent
   a lot of figures of speech and then interpolate them,
With the result that whenever you mention Old Testament soldiers to people they say Oh yes,
   they’re the ones that a lot of wolves dressed up in gold and purple ate them.
That’s the kind of thing that’s being done all the time by poets, from Homer to Tennyson;
They’re always comparing ladies to lilies and veal to venison,
And they always say things like that the snow is a white blanket after a winter storm.
Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a six-inch blanket of snow and I’ll sleep under a
   half-inch blanket of unpoetical blanket material and we’ll see which one keeps warm,
And after that maybe you’ll begin to comprehend dimly
What I mean by too much metaphor and simile.


Posted by Rick Creighton

How not to read

25 08 2009

I recently stumbled across an old favourite of mine – it’s lengthy, but it’s worth every word…


It is approximately the year 2790. The most powerful nation on earth occupies a large territory in Central Africa, and its citizens speak Swahili. The United States and other English-speaking countries have long ceased to exist, and much of the literature prior to 2012 (the year of the Great Conflagration) is not extant. Some archaeologists digging in the western regions of North America discover a short but well-preserved text that can confidently be dated to the last quarter of the twentieth century. It reads thus:

Marilyn, tired of her glamorous image, embarked on a new project. She would now cultivate her mind, sharpen her verbal skills, pay attention to standards of etiquette. Most important of all, she would devote herself to charitable causes. Accordingly, she offered her services at the local hospital, which needed volunteers to cheer up terminal patients, many of whom had been in considerable pain for a long time. The weeks flew by. One day she was sitting at the cafeteria when her supervisor approached her and said, “I didn’t see you yesterday. What were you doing?” “I painted my apartment; it was my day off,” she responded.

The archaeologists know just enough English to realise that this fragment is a major literary find that deserves closer inspection, so they rush the piece to one of the finest philologists in their home country. This scholar dedicates his next sabbatical to a thorough study of the text and decides to publish an exegetical commentary on it, as follows:

We are unable to determine whether this text is an excerpt from a novel or from a historical biography. Almost surely, however, it was produced in a religious context, as is evident from the use of such words as devoted, offered, charitable. In any case, this passage illustrates the literary power of twentieth-century English, a language full of metaphors. The verb embarked calls to mind an ocean liner leaving for an adventuresome cruise, while cultivate possibly alerts the reader to Marilyn’s botanical interests. In those days North Americans compared time to a bird – probably the eagle – that flies.

The author of this piece, moreover, makes clever use of word associations. For example, the term glamorous is etymologically related to grammar, a concept no doubt reflected in the comment about Marilyn’s “verbal skills.” Consider also the subtleties implied by the statement that “her supervisor approached her.” The verb approach has a rich usage. It my indicate similar appearance or condition (this painting approaches the quality of a Picasso); it may have a sexual innuendo (the rapist approached his victim); it may reflect subservience (he approached his boss for a raise). The cognate noun can be used in contexts of engineering (e.g. access to a bridge), sports (of a golf stroke following the drive from the tee), and even war (a trench that protects troops besieging a fortress).

Society in the twentieth century is greatly illuminated by this text. The word patient (from patience, meaning “endurance”) indicates that sick people then underwent a great deal of suffering: they endured not only the affliction of their physical illness, but also the mediocre skills of their medical doctors, and even (to judge from other contemporary documents) the burden of increasing financial costs.

A few syntactical notes may be of interest to language students. The preposition of had different uses: casual (tired of), superlative (most important of all), and partitive (many of whom). The simple past tense had several aoristic functions: embarked clearly implies determination, while offered suggests Marilyn’s once-for-all, definitive intention. Quite noticeable is the tense variation at the end of the text. The supervisor in his question uses the imperfect tense, “were doing,” perhaps suggesting monotony, slowness, or even laziness. Offended, Marilyn retorts with a punctiliar and emphatic aorist, “I painted.”

Readers of Bible commentaries, as well as listeners of sermons, will recognize that my caricature is only mildly outrageous

From God, language, and Scripture, by Moisés Silva (p11-13)


Posted by Rick Creighton

Turbo links

1 07 2009

These are well worth the click:
(most have an ethical flavour…)


Tiananmen Tanks

A brilliant set of photos that remember Tiananmen Square 20 years on.


Chris Wright lectures
Chris Wright on Theology, Ethics and Mission.1


50 best business ethics blogs
50 Best Business Ethics Blogs

Fun (& slightly weird)

Strangemaps - Shoe World

Strangemaps Blog (it does what it says on the tin…)


1 Thanks to Mark Meynell for the link!

“Why is my radio so cheap?” – The darker side of consumerism

17 06 2009

I don’t know much about Annie Leonard, but I stumbled across this video she’s done. It’s an easy watch – kind of animation-meets-lecture – and she does a good job of uncovering the hidden costs of consumerism.

Here’s a 60 second taster (if you want to see the whole 20min monster, then click on the banner above):

Reading Scripture Corporately

25 05 2009

Oliver O’Donovan has a new book out: “A Conversation Waiting to Begin: the Churches and the Gay Controversy“. At the launch, he gave a lecture entitled, “The Reading Church – Scriptural Authority in Practice“.

In the lecture he’s picking up on a phrase from the “Jerusalem Declaration” issued at GAFCON: “We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God written and to contain all things necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading.”

Here are a couple of tasters from O’Donovan’s article:

  1. “Another requisite for the public reading of Scripture … is a public reader. A task once confined to the clergy has now largely been made over to lay members of the congregation, but far from dignifying lay ministry, this has, on the whole, merely marginalised a task on which a great deal in the act of worship depends. I confess that I know of no church that trains its readers; its reading readers, that is, for when we call people “readers” and say we train them, we have something different in mind, which is itself eloquent! When I hear a lesson read with careful thought, with pace, articulation, pause and pitch all placed at the service of the sense of the passage, I make a point of thanking the reader, since the effort made will not have been asked for and probably not appreciated. Yet many a church may stay alive by the ministry of its readers which would otherwise die by the ministry of its preachers.”
  2. “All authority arises from mediation of reality. The free imagination and ranging purposes of the human mind are brought to heel by an interruption of something that simply and unnegotiably is the case. And the authority of Scripture is the moment at which the attested reality of God’s acts disturb the ideal constructions and zealous projections of human piety. Those who are anxious about the church’s weakening attachment to Scripture do not anticipate a loss of piety, but a rank growth of it; they fear the promiscuous multiplication of religious images in which history and fantasy are blended in equal measure, in which Star-Trek and Jesus are equally apt for our devotion. Attending the Eucharist as a visitor at a strange church on Palm Sunday, I was surprised to find the reading of the Gospel dispensed with altogether, and in its place a devotion in which members of the congregation stood up one by one and imagined the biographies and experiences of various objects that figure in the passion story: the tree from which the wood of the cross was made, the nails used to fasten the victim to the cross, etc. The fact that this exercise was embarrassingly insipid is, of course, neither here nor there; religious imagination has had more than its fair share of insipidity in the past, and recovered. The important point was why the Scriptural narrative was displaced from its customary place of honour in Eucharistic worship: it was to free up the religious imagination, to ensure space for the mind to wander freely through the gallery of images without being inconveniently summoned back to what has actually been told us of those events.”

Posted by Rick Creighton

Every blessing? (3) – truth and communication

5 05 2009

{After something of a delay, I’m returning to my previous posts on the Prosperity Gospel…}

“When you’re confronting error it’s not enough simply to speak the truth.”

I’m sure there’s lots of ways in which that statement is false.  But there’s at least one important way in which it’s true…

Here’s the issue: “to speak the truth” does not (necessarily) equal “to persuade”.

When you are dealing with an error like the Prosperity Gospel, there are lots of true things you can say in reply.  (Thanks to those who suggested several interesting ones earlier!) But – lots of approaches don’t seem to “work”.  You can say true things, and not persuade anyone of anything.  Discussions can degenerate into a barrage of proof-text-swapping, with neither side really engaging with the other.

When we want to persuade anyone of anything – truth is necessary, but its not sufficient.

On one level that’s obvious.  At the very least, we need to say things that are both true and relevant.  So, as a silly example, it’s no good replying to the Prosperity Gospel by saying “Genesis is the first book of the Bible.”  That’s true, but it’s not relevant.  But even truth and relevance together aren’t enough – if that’s all we have, we can still talk past one another.

What are the missing ingredients?  It’s not that easy to pin down exactly, but it’s got to do with “connecting” – saying something that makes sense, given where people are coming from, but also challenges where they’re coming from.  (Bruce is giving us an interesting worked example of this in his “Conversation with an Atheist Friend” posts.)

So for the Prosperity Gospel, that’s what I was attempting to do with my comments about death, and even more pointedly, that’s the direction that Michael’s suggestion about martyrdom leads.

Everybody knows about death.  You can try to ignore it, but you can’t suppress that knowledge very far.  I think the approach of speaking the truth about death “works” because it connects with something people already believe/know, and helps them realise there’s something fundamental they haven’t taken account of.  (And, ultimately, can’t take account of with the Prosperity system.)1

Why does truth often not seem persuasive?  Sometimes2 it’s because it hasn’t connected.

1 Even though I haven’t tried it out, I’m sure the same would follow with the issue of martyrdom, and might be even sharper.

2 Of course, this is not the only perspective we need to bring to bear on such matters. Not least there is 2 Cor. 4v4. But these perspectives are complimentary, not mutually exclusive. One of the ways the god of this age blinds the minds of unbelievers is precisely by hiding from them the relevance of the gospel’s truth.

Every blessing? (2)

4 03 2009
Visiting Writtle during the Starburst activity...
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The quickest way into the Prosperity Gospel issue that I’ve found is to up the stakes – and talk about death.  Consider this statement:

Jesus has won every blessing for us at the cross.  In particular, Jesus has defeated death at the cross.  He has won for us victory over death.  So that means no Christian should ever have to die, if they’re putting their faith in Jesus.

I haven’t yet come across anyone who’s willing to let that argument stand without modification.  But once someone’s accepted the principle that this argument needs qualified in some way, then that often opens the door for a productive discussion about how “already/not-yet tensions”1 apply to blessings in general.

Sickness is small fry compared to death.  Yes, Jesus came to defeat sickness – but even more importantly he came to defeat death and sin.  So if the argument above needs modified in regard to death, it will need modified in regard to sickness as well.  (And also sin: the holiness movement2 made the same sort of mistake, but with sin instead of sickness.)

Now in some ways, this goes against my instincts.  My instinct is to begin with a verse from the Bible – that’s our ultimate authority after all!  But, on this Prosperity issue, I’ve found that people are more willing to take on board a specific Bible verse, after they’ve wrestled with a more general biblical concept first.  (Like the issue of death, above.)

In the next post, I’ll try to sketch out why I think that is.  Again, I’d value your thoughts on that in advance – so let me ask a specific question:

2 Tim 3v12 is pretty clear: “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” – but quoting it, or verses like it often isn’t enough.  Why not?

1 The language of “already/not-yet tensions” is a way of trying to describe how everything in history pivots around the coming of Jesus.  The Bible speaks of this “present age” and also of the “age to come”.  And it’s Jesus who moves us from one to the other – but with an overlap.  The cross and resurrection marked the beginning of the new age to come; but the present age won’t come to an end until Jesus returns.  So now, we are living in the overlap between those two ages.  The new age is already inaugurated, but not yet consummated.  The blessings of the new age are already inaugurated, but not yet consummated.  E.g. we are already co-heirs with Christ, but we have not yet received the full inheritence that will be ours in the new creation.  Death has already been defeated, but it has not yet been banished.

2 The holiness movement said that if you were really trusting Jesus then you should be able to eliminate sin entirely from your life, because Jesus has defeated sin at the cross.

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Every blessing? (1)

24 02 2009
Satellite image of Nigeria, generated from ras...
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I was in northern Nigeria for a big chunk of January. The church there faces 3 big challenges:

It’s the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ that I’d like to focus on in the next couple of posts.  One of the common ways it comes up in Nigeria, would be people saying things like:

Jesus has won every blessing for us at the cross.  “By his wounds we are healed.”  That means Christians can expect to be healed, if they’re putting their faith in Jesus.  During Jesus’ ministry (i.e. before the cross), he never turned away anyone who came to him, and asked him in faith for healing.  He’s the same yesterday, today and forever.  So he won’t turn us away now if we come to him in faith.

Now there’s a whole range of things you could say in response to this.  But the question is – where do you start?  It some situations I’ve had the luxury of taking time to tackle this in depth. But other times I’ve needed to get something basic across within a few sentences.  I’ve got some thoughts on this which I’ll put into my next post.  But I’d be interested to hear what ideas everybody else has.  What are some effective ways into tackling this false teaching?  (Especially when you need to say something brief, but telling.)


If you were speaking to someone who’d be influenced by the Prosperity Gospel, how would you start to tackle the issue?


RJ, in the first comment, made explicit something I was thinking but didn’t say: One really useful way to begin is by asking a question. It’s not the only way to begin, but it’s a great way. So suggested questions are welcome!

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An apology

24 01 2009

Sorry for my failure to post in recent weeks. I’m in Nigeria at the moment, teaching some Moore College correspondence courses. The internet connection there isn’t great, this is the first time I’ve managed to get through to this blog (too many graphics, etc, I think). I’m keeping a limited blog here:

Posted by Rick Creighton

Keeping in step with the Spirit – Christologically

15 12 2008
Depiction of the Trinity

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Do you think Christologically about the the Holy Spirit? Suppose we’re talking about our New Testament freedom, in the Spirit, to learn to live as God intends. What difference does Jesus make to that freedom (over and above the difference made by, e.g. Moses or Isaiah)? Is it just that Jesus made Pentecost possible – and so the Holy Spirit was given after him – and the Spirit makes obedience possible?

If so, your understanding of the Spirit isn’t Christological.

Revival movements – even ones which start well – need to beware of this danger: rightly speaking of the inward moral power of the Holy Spirit, but doing so unchristologically. That way lies the worst sort of legalism. (The Montanists1 were an early example.)

The antidote? Reflecting more deeply on what it means for us to be in Christ. Through his Spirit, we enter into Christ’s freedom. We participate in Christ’s authority within the created order.

Or, to put it in Paul’s words, we are no longer slaves, but sons.2

For more on this, see Oliver O’Donovan’s book, Resurrection and Moral Order, p22-27.

Posted by Rick Creighton

1 Montanism was a prophetic movement within Early Christianity, dating from approx. 150AD. (See for more.)

2 Cf. Galatians 4v1-7: ‘What I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.’ (NIV)

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