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OXFORD, is it real?
In April John and I moved to Oxford, UK. Yes, it’s a fairy tale place. Surreal enough to make-believe you might run into Shakespeare, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, or Lewis Carrol at any moment. We worship in centuries old chapels and cathedrals, listening to “classic old hymns” sung by angelic choirs. Maybe we died in a car crash in LA and don’t know it. This is definitely a version of heaven.
What Has John been doing?
We came here with 26 boxes of books and a few suitcases full of clothes. So, shopping for household fittings and furnishings was the first order of business. But as soon as John got his new desk (made from a single piece of bent tempered glass- not a fuddy-duddy 75 year old!) he was back at it.
Even in his jubilee year, he loves to answer your queries about the Old Testament (or First Testament as we refer to it around here). Here are some of his recent musings:
Forward to Dan Hawk’s forthcoming book on Violence in the OT – watch for the book from Eerdmans – post is also under “Other Papers”
A review of Christopher R. J. Holmes’s book The Lord Is Good: Seeking the God of the Psalter (InterVarsity). Also posted under “Other Papers.”
We also continue to watch movies! Here are John’s comments on Churchill:
Winston, Ike, Abraham, Sarah, Rebekah, Isaac
The movie we watched last night, Churchill, is about the days just before the D-Day landings by British and American troops in Normandy in northern France in June 1944, a couple of weeks before my second birthday. Winston Churchill was against the invasion plan. It reminded him too much of the similar invasion in the First World War, when countless thousands of young men were killed, and Churchill had felt responsible for that slaughter. Further, American soldiers were steadily advancing on Hitler’s territory from the south, through Italy, and Churchill thought that a less dangerous approach. The movie focuses on the tormented alcoholic Churchill’s failed attempts to stop what he saw as the doomed venture of Eisenhower (very neatly played by John Slattery) and Field Marshall Montgomery.
I often look at the reviews after we watch a movie, and in this case I was amazed at the critical vitriol aimed at this film that held Kathleen and me gripped for its two hours. Some of the critique was just stupid—such as the reviewer who said there should have been some battle scenes (Saving Private Ryan, anyone)? It was a revisionist account of the event, and for many reviewers it focused too much on the weaknesses of the man who has been called the greatest Briton ever. We like our heroes. The revisionist account relied heavily on the imagination of the scriptwriter (an Oxford history-graduate with other historical studies to her credit). But the standard account of Churchill is also a product of the imagination working on some facts. Someone propounded the thesis that Churchill was right that going for the Normandy approach rather than proceeding from the south colluded with Stalin’s objectives for the future position of Russia in Europe after the war. The movie emphasized (maybe overemphasized) Churchill’s compassionate concern for the young men who might die, and I wondered whether it was inviting us to be more compassionate about the young men we send to Iraq and Afghanistan.
(The movie mentioned the possibility that Churchill’s party might not get re-elected after the war. This fear was realized, a Socialist government was elected, the National Health Service was created, and some reforms took place in British education which meant that just before my eleventh birthday I was granted a place at the kind of high-flying British school that a boy from my ordinary background would never have got near, and without that I would not be in the position I am today.)
I’m writing a commentary on Genesis. I have concluded that Genesis 17 and 18 are two alternative accounts of the way God announced to Abraham and Sarah that Sarah really was going to have a baby of her own. And I have concluded that Genesis 27—28:9 provide two alternative accounts of the process whereby Rebekah came to send Jacob off to Harran. Both these understandings parallel the way Genesis 1 and 2 comprise alternative accounts of the creation. In each case, if you look at them literalistically they clash, but really they are complementary stories told from different angles (one more traditional, one more revisionist). Each version brings home a message for the era in which it is told. Like the two perspectives on Churchill, they are selective and different, emphasizing one angle rather than another, each of them offering the truth though not the whole truth (for which there would not be room, as John notes at the end of his Gospel), and not necessarily contradictory unless you try to make them something that they are not.
The big thing was that we decided to move back to the UK next year, specifically to North Oxford. Kathleen is looking forward to living in the city of Morse and Tolkien. John will continue teaching half-time for Fuller but online and via Skype. Here’s the theory.
*In January we put our house up for sale, we start looking for somewhere in Oxford, and Kathleen applies for immigration
*In February we accept an offer on our house, we go to look at houses in Oxford, and John’s successor at St. Barnabas Pasadena becomes rector
*In March we buy a house (or find somewhere to rent), Kathleen is granted immigration, and as a farewell event in Fuller the President interviews John and we eat ice cream.
*On April 1 John preaches his farewell sermon, on April 2 we send off our stuff, on April 3 we catch a plane, and on April 4 we move into our house.
As Gladys Knight said:
L.A. proved too much for the man,
so he’s leaving a life he’s come to know.
He’s said he’s going back to find what’s left of his world,
the world he left behind not so long ago.
He’s leaving on that midnight train to Georgia;
said he’s going back to a simpler place and time.
[Well, we’ll see about that.]
We’ve been reading the Christmas story backwards. How extraordinary that
*people met God when they met Jesus and that Isaiah helped Matthew see one of the factors behind it.
*Jesus was born in a one-horse town like Bethlehem, and that Micah helped Matthew see why.
*Jesus had to be whisked off to Egypt, and that Hosea helped Matthew make sense of it.
*Jesus’ birth led to those babies’ deaths, but how comforting that Jeremiah helped Matthew see that it fitted into a pattern.
* Jesus then grew up in another one-horse town, and how funny that Matthew notes how this also fits the prophets but doesn’t tell us how.
In other news, John has written another book, A Reader’s Guide to the Bible.
Here are a few links to podcasts about it:
For some reason, the past few days Kathleen has been greeting me as I wake up by singing, “Get up, get out of bed, pull the covers off your head.” I’m not sure whether she realizes that this is a slightly adapted version of some lines from a Beatles song, and I’m sure she doesn’t realize that it’s from Sergeant Pepper, and she wouldn’t know that exactly fifty years ago today that song, “A Day in a Life,” was the last song ever played on the pirate radio station Radio London, when pirate radio became illegal in Britain on September 30, 1967. I was listening, at 1:50 in the afternoon that day.
It was the day after I was ordained priest, fifty years ago (which makes the opening lines of Sergeant Pepper itself, “It was fifty years ago today,” the more poignant). I don’t actually remember the collocation of the two events (the ordination and the end of pirate radio) but I know I was priested on Michaelmas Day 1967 and know pirate radio ended on September 30, 1967, because I checked it out on Wikipedia. I was looking to see what else happened that year. The answer is:
- Ronald Reagan became governor of California
- Thurgood Marshall was nominated to the Supreme Court
- The Velvet Underground albu
- m with the picture of a banana was released
- The final episode of The Fugitive was shown
- Bonnie and Clyde was released
- Sweden switched from driving on the left to driving on the right
- Disraeli Gears by Cream was released
- John McCain was shot down over North Viet Nam
- Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released
- The U.S. population passed 200 million
- Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding was released
- The U.K. started negotiations to join the European Economic Community
- The Graduate was released
- Apollo One caught fire
- Reach Out by the Four Tops was released
- A group of American leaders agreed that people needed more positive reports about Viet Nam
- 2001 A Space Odyssey was released
- Israel defeated Egypt, Syria, and Jordan and won control of Jerusalem and the West Bank
- The Songs of Leonard Cohen was released
- The first Boeing 737 made its maiden flight
- Planet of the Apes was released
- Elvis got married
And I was ordained priest. As a deacon I was already working in a parish in London and I stayed there for two or three years. One day I was walking through our local shopping center, not wearing a clerical collar. I had longish hair (not very long, but longish) and the wind was blowing and my hair was blowing with it. I happened to meet my rector and he took me on one side and said, “I have never seen anything looking less like a clergyman of the Church of England.”
I stayed in the parish for a while and then I drifted into seminary teaching for the rest of the fifty years. Six years ago I became volunteer priest-in-charge of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Pasadena, and it’s been like the completing of an arc that got interrupted for forty years ago (though I’ve always been involved in church ministry through the time in between). I am so grateful to St. Barnabas for this privilege.
We sent out an email to our Friends asking one short and profound question: What is your biggest challenge with using the Old Testament for preaching, teaching, and creative work?
Thank-you for all your thoughtful answers! If you didn’t receive the question in your email, sign up on the left side of this page and we will keep you updated.
HERE IS A LINK TO OUR FIRST PODCAST– about 10 minutes- SUMMARIZING YOUR ANSWERS WITH BRIEF COMMENTS FROM JOHN.
If you think of further comments on this subject, please email us. We are pondering ways to refresh the reading of the Scriptures, particularly the First Testament as John calls it so watch for updates from us over the next few months.
Somebody asked this on our website:
Have you written something that specifically deals with the difficulty in 2 Samuel 12:11 where in looks like God is going to push people to commit adultery and murder within David’s house?
I don’t think I have!
I guess if I were Paul, I would answer the same way that Paul does in connection with a similar remark that he makes. In Romans 9 he refers to God’s saying that he raised up Pharaoh to show his power in him, by defeating him. He was “a vessel of wrath.”
So when Pharaoh refused to hold onto the Israelites, it wasn’t just because he wanted to. It was also because God didn’t want him to. God has mercy on whomever he wills, says Paul, and he hardens whomever he wills. He’s God, so shut up.
And in the end, we have to shut up, on the basis of the fact that he is not only more powerful than us, but also more caring and faithful to the world, and anything unfair-looking that he does must be in the service of some fair and loving purpose.
But the story in Exodus, and the story in 2 Samuel, suggests that there is more than can be said. Suppose you asked Pharaoh or Absalom, why did you do what you did? Did your own action seem mysterious to you? Were you being manipulated? To judge from the way the story unfolds, they would have been able to give you an entirely logical account of their action. They made their decisions, and those decisions were quite rational.
Isaiah speaks similarly about God “raising up” the Assyrians (it’s the same expression) to invade Judah. The Assyrians will invade Judah because they want to extend their empire and get control of the trade routes. But unbeknown to them, God is using their self-centered policies to achieve his purpose when he needs to punish Judah.
Maybe we think God shouldn’t use people’s self-centered stupidity to achieve his purpose. The Bible implies that God works with what’s there, or what we give him to work with, and doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty in this way.
I’ve never seen so many walking frames at a rock concert, but it was Joan Baez’s seventy-fifth birthday tour. Kathleen was surprised to see that Baez had white hair; she also had a t-shirt saying “Nasty Woman.” It was not the only Trump allusion, in the week before the election, but Bob Dylan received more references, and got one of Baez’s trademark Dylan imitations when she sang “Don’t Think Twice.”
I don’t remember another concert where the artist got a standing ovation just for coming on stage, but I guess the audience were also applauding themselves and the fact they were still alive. She started with Dylan, with “Love is Just a Four-letter Word,” but the set list was by no means just a rehearsal of old hits. It was rather a neat and impressive mixture of the sixties and the more recent. I guess the oldest song (apart from the “traditional” ones such as “House of the Rising Sun”) was Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee” about the Mexican agricultural workers who were the victims of a plane crash in 1948. The NY Times didn’t give their names, only the names of the American crew. “They were just deportees.” Nothing much changes.
You have to have a list of the people you want to see before they die. I was in time for Ray Charles, B. B. King, Etta James, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and the Beatles, but in a classical music concert I once sat next to a woman who had seen Ella Fitzgerald in that very auditorium, 300 yards from our house. My jaw dropped in jealousy. But I got the same reaction when I told a student I had seen Ella’s ex, the great bass player Ray Brown.
John Lee Hooker and Milt Jackson both died just before I was about to see them, and I missed Chet Baker, and Lonnie Donegan, Dusty Springfield, and Johnny Cash.
I’ve covered Dylan (also now 75), Leonard Cohen (82), Chuck Berry (90), Chris Barber (86), Bonnie Raitt (67), Van Morrison (71), Simon and Garfunkel (75 each), Willie Nelson (83), Emmylou Harris (69), the Stones (about 350 altogether), U2 (about 200), and Brian Wilson (born the same day as me). I’m watching out for Jerry Lee Lewis (81) and Tina Turner (76), just in case.
I’ve been thinking about Jonah. If you want to understand Jonah, think of it as a short story. A short story can be read in an hour but remembered for a lifetime—which certainly fits Jonah. Study of Jonah has been skewed because discussion of it as a story has commonly focused on whether it is historical or fictional/parabolic. But God likes both history and parable, as the Gospels show, and Jonah is inspired and authoritative either way. Telling the difference is actually really hard. I do think that the prominence of irony and humor and hyperbole suggests that the Jonah scroll is an imaginative short story. But fortunately it’s not important whether Jonah is history or parable. The insight, importance, truthfulness, and reliability of Jonah are the same either way.
If one asks what message the author of the Jonah story was intending to convey, there are many possible answers. The problem of deciding which of these understandings might be right attaches to the Jonah scroll in a distinctive way because of its distinctive nature, as a short story. The nature of a story is not to tell you what you are supposed to get from it.
The observation has been applied to the book of Jonah that understanding what a great man is saying is made easier if you know what he was opposing. And we don’t know what the answer is. Accepting the usual critical view that it was composed in Judah in the Persian period doesn’t help, because widely divergent understandings of its background and aim have been held within that framework. The narrator of the story doesn’t articulate its implications. The story is content to raise questions and not answer them. It works on us by making us think. Its closing with a question symbolizes its approach.
Leaving interpretation to the people listening to the story leaves them free to bring ideas or assumptions or questions from outside it and see how it illumines them. For instance, people may read the scroll on the assumption that Jonah stands for Israel as a people, or that he stands for the individual Judahite, or that he is a type of Christ.
Within the scroll itself, there are three key themes. First, the story is about God’s relationship with a great and violent city. God is prepared to act against it for its waywardness but glad to remit its punishment if it turns from its waywardness. (It’s often been said that the message of Jonah is that Israel should be more open to other peoples, but there’s no reason to think that the average Israelite was more xenophobic than the average Christian, or that the average Prophet would object to the idea of Nineveh repenting and finding Yahweh’s forgiveness. One has to be wary of anti-Judaic inclinations finding expression in this understanding.)
The story is about the sort of person God is. He’s insistent on his moral authority but also characterized by grace and compassion, and he’s capable of being flexible about his intentions in interaction with nations over which he is sovereign. The story portrays Yahweh’s manifold involvement with nature (the storm, the fish, the animals, the plant, the worm, the wind, the sun. The theodicy question presupposed by Jonah is “Are God’s compassionate actions just?” Jonah’s problem is that Yahweh doesn’t fulfill his declarations of judgment on the great oppressor (Assyria, Babylon, Persia). The people of God have to hold onto the reality of both God’s judgment and God’s compassion, and both God’s sovereignty and God’s flexibility.
The story is about the kind of person a prophet can be. Prophets can be resistant to their vocation yet also willing to do what God says; they can be quite conflicted people; they can be simultaneously knowledgeable and slow on the uptake. Prophets need not to take themselves too seriously, and people in general need not to take them too seriously.
There’s a new movie about Chet Baker which is on our Netflix list, but somehow I also put there the old documentary about him, Let’s Get Lost. So we watched it thinking it would be the new movie with Ethan Hawke as Chet and found it was the old movie with Chet as Chet (apparently the new movie is a movie about the making of that old movie…).
It started with scenes in clubs in Los Angeles in the 1950s and reminiscences about those clubs from the era of the West Coast Sound, where Chet played in little store front establishments with people such as Dizzy Gillespie, before he became the victim of his drug habit, and aged and waned before our eyes.
Old jazz guys in Los Angeles bemoan the fact that the jazz and club scene isn’t what it once was, and when they do that, I roll my eyes, but the documentary enabled me to see what they mean. They complain regularly about the places that have closed down, and I can make a list from the time I’ve been here. The third night after we moved to Pasadena, we went to the Pasadena Baked Potato (yes, that’s what they serve) and I noted there weren’t many people there; the next day it closed. We used to go to the Hollywood Baked Potato; it closed. We went to Charlie O’s, and one evening found it was closing that very night (the singer for the evening was pretty bewildered, too). The Pasadena Jazz Institute lost the plot and closed down. The Vic in Santa Monica just closed. While sometimes the places lose clientele, as often as not it’s because the owner gets bored.
I am as struck by the new places that open. On Monday we were at the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo (don’t ask me why it’s there), in a street called after Ellison Onizuka, the Japanese American astronaut who died in the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Vocalist Jessica Vautor was celebrating her birthday and her CD with the most original and creative arrangements of standards by Vardan Ovsepian on piano and extraordinary jazz cello playing by Artyom Manukyan (there were non-Armenians in the band as well). That was only Monday. Tuesday there was the New Breed Brass Band from New Orleans doing a free outdoor concert, and on Thursday Sara Gazarek and the New West Guitar Group doing another free outdoor concert, and on Friday Asian American Connie Han’s lively piano trio at Red White and Bluezz. Don’t listen too much to the old jazz guys.
I’ve just finished translating the Old Testament. “Excuse me?” you ask. Well, about eight years ago Philip Law (then of Westminster John Knox) invited me to write a series of commentaries called “The Old Testament for Everyone.” When I was nearly done (the last ones will come out this year) he asked if we could bring together the translation elements in each volume and produce the complete translation on its own. It would also mean my translating the remaining twenty per cent that wasn’t included in the commentaries.
It didn’t seem a big task, but it took much longer than I thought. The bits I had omitted were often the difficult bits. But also I hadn’t needed to worry about consistency when I was working book by book. When the translation was in one volume, there needed to be consistency. So I’ve spent several hours almost every day over the past year or so just working through the translation of the Old Testament again with nothing much on my desk but the Hebrew text and a dictionary.
It’s been an extraordinary experience. The depth and the wonder of the words I have been reading have come home to me more and more. I’ve sat there marveling that I’m privileged to let this sacred text soak into me. I’ve felt more and more that I have been on hallowed ground. Yes, they are holy scriptures. Of course it’s because they’re all about God. So simply reading them for hours every day has made we wonder at the God whose activity lies behind them and who is the most prominent character in them.
(Until it’s published next year, the translation is on my website, under the tabs for different parts of the Old Testament. There’s also a paper about translation which includes some reflections, under the “Interpretation” tab.)