Well, as it has nearly been a month since the new academic year started, and given I’m going to be offline (and offshore!) for a brief interval, I thought I’d provide some thoughts about how matters have panned out to date.
Overall, I’m just sitting back right now, absorbing information, and waiting for the “Ah, ha!” moments to crystallise. Which isn’t to say that the subjects I’m studying this semester haven’t been full of interesting and thought-provoking information; it’s just that the process tends to take most of the semester, a heap of reflection, and taking on board a lot more food for thought. So, with that proviso, here are my impressions so far:
Book of Job.
Job is one of the most enigmatic, fascinating, and difficult books in the whole Bible. And, boy, is it full of surprises! For example, in Job, Satan (Hebrew: ha-satan, “The Accuser”) is not “the devil” or even necessarily an evil being. Rather, he appears as a heavenly being (in Hebrew, one of the “Sons of God”), one of God’s servants, part of the heavenly retinue. And what’s more, he gets the better of God, tricking God into a wager that causes Job to suffer unnecessarily; God ends up looking morally second-best, to say the least! Nor is God’s culpability lessened by Job’s eventual restoration; sure he gets his property back and has more children; but the fact remains, he has ten dead children to mourn, and no amount of restoration can make amends for that!
Most of all, however, Job is not (as my lecturer keeps pointing out) a meditation on why good people suffer, or why evil befalls righteous people. On the contrary, what makes Job’s suffering poignant is not the fact that he was pious or prosperous, but that he is human; his anguish is a cry from the human heart in the face of misfortune. It would be the same cry if he’d been wicked or impoverished. Job is a book about human suffering, period.
The Gospel of John
We’re still getting to grips with John’s Gospel, having only explored the historical background to the text and some of the opening passages. But what is already clear is that John is both like and unlike the Synoptic Gospels: the story arc is essentially the same (even if some of the events are chronologically re-arranged); but the theological imperative behind John’s Gospel is very different. There’s no narrative here about the disciples and others close to Jesus not “getting” who Jesus really is, whereas outsiders and aliens see clearly. On the contrary, John’s Gospel reveals who Jesus is from the outset: the Word of God made flesh, the light of the world through whom life is obtained. The Prologue to the Gospel, and the narratives concerning the first miracles (or signs as John calls them) are revelations of the divine glory present in the person of Jesus.
The Johannine Jesus is not the abrogator or rescinder of the Mosaic revelation, but its fulfilment; a fulfilment that had existed in the Person of the Word from before Creation, which was revealed in the Mosaic covenant, and which found its manifestation in Christ. Thus, Jewish sacred history (in John’s Gospel) is not rendered null and void, but brought to its fullness. This is expressed both positively and negatively: positively, in what the events of Jesus’ ministry reveal about who he is; and negatively, in the form of Jesus’ conflicts with the Jewish religious authorities. This latter had unfortunate (to say the least!) implications for subsequent Jewish-Christian relations.
Making, Housing, and Feeding Christians
This is an interesting examination of the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, their liturgical understanding and practice across Christian history, and some of the spaces (and the liturgical/theological significance of those spaces) in which they have been practiced. The first couple of weeks have focused on Baptism: it was fascinating to explore the way the practice of baptism has changed and developed over the centuries, and how this has been reflected both in the spaces (baptismal fonts) in which the sacrament has been performed, as well as the theological underpinnings (as reflected in texts) supporting this sacrament.
Most interesting of all has been the insight, provided in the first lecture, that the changes in liturgical form and practice over the last half century have not been the result of a move toward “modernisation”, but instead arose out of 19th century theological scholarship that sought to recapture the ancient common heritage of the universal Christian church. Interesting thought, given the charge of “modernism” that is often labelled against those who disagree with such changes!
So, that’s where it’s at right now. A brief break, then back to the books. Interesting times ahead, no doubt, but also exciting!