The Bible in Today's World

It was a very real honour and joy for the NRCBR and Newman University, yesterday (09/01/2020) to host the launch of the Birmingham diocese ‘The God who Speaks‘ programme for the Roman Catholic ‘Year of the Word (2020)‘.

The God who Speaks

The theme of the event was, ‘The God who Speaks: The Bible in Today’s World‘ and three talks that explored the (sometimes surprising) ways in which the Bible functions within the contemporary world.

Professor Susan Docherty (head of the Theology and Philosophy at Newman) extended a warm welcome to all and introduced the day.

The first talk was by Dr Richard Goode (senior lecturer in Theology) on the Bible in the social media world. This drew attention to the diverse uses of the Bible within public spaces and discussed how recent trends in the use of the Bible within the political arena reflect those within social media, suggesting not so much a decline in biblical literacy, but differences in its use. The session concluded with the challenge raised by extremist white nationalistic groups and their often overt use of the Bible to promote their ideology and message.

Richard Goode speaking about the Bible in the digital (social media) world. Image: Jim West

This was followed by a fascinating (and packed!) workshop led by David McLoughlin (Emeritus Fellow in Christian Theology, and Movement of Christian Workers). David helped us to read a number of the parables of Jesus in a new way that would help us to explore how they might relate to the world of 21st century work. David set each of the parables within their social and historical settings that allowed us to understand their ‘real world’ context of Roman-period Palestine and how that might relate to the contemporary working world.

David McLoughlin discussing the parables of Jesus and the world of work. Image: Jim West

At the midpoint, at the wine reception, Fleur Dorell (national co-ordinator for the CBCEW and Bible Society) officially launched the Birmingham diocese ‘The God who Speaks’ programme to mark the Roman Catholic ‘Year of the Word’ 2020. As well as introducing the various activities and events that are planned – and still in the planning – Fleur talked passionately about the importance of the Bible to Christian faith and the need for much closer engagement with the Bible and encouraging its wider use.

Fleur Dorell (Bible Society and CBCEW) launching ‘The God who Speaks’ programme. Image: Jim West
The launch of ‘The God who Speaks’ at Newman University. Image: Jim West
Jim West speaking on the Word that Abides. Image: Helen Ingram
Jim West introducing reception studies at the ‘God who Speaks’ event. Image: Hywel Clifford

The key note address was given by Dr Jim West (MingHua Theological College and Charles Sturt University). It was great to have Jim back with us and his illustrated lecture examined the way the Bible has been used and understood in no-textual ways, looking at a wide range of examples from art, music and film. The lecture raised a number of questions relating to the relationship between the Bible and different cultural arenas, and also the power of these interpretations on how the Bible is understood today. A very stimulating question and answer session included issues about the relationship between academic biblical studies and the church.

Half a shekel and 2 unlikely messiahs

Students of religion and politics have had a mountain of material to consider recently. One particularly notable theme is the use of Christian/biblical language by the Trump administration and its supporters.

One noteworthy example emerged in the spring of 2017 when allusions to Donald Trump as a messianic figure began to circulate both mainstream and social media. For many, this appeared strange and provocative language. Within Christian tradition, the Hebrew word ‘messiah’ (מָשִׁיחַ – mashiach) , which literally means ‘anointed’ or ‘anointed one’ (rendered in Greek as χριστός – christos), has primarily come to denote the specific figure of Jesus Christ, with its allied associations of sonship, moral perfection and divinity. Consequently, any attempts to attribute messianic status to Donald Trump could be viewed as inappropriate and even blasphemous. Nevertheless, certain religious groups have continued to refer to him in this way. This is particularly interesting as it occurs against a backdrop of an increase in use of religious (Judeo-Christian) language to articulate and justify policy decisions (see earlier post – Weaponising Romans 13), suggesting a closer convergence between religious and political spheres than we have seen in recent history.

Although, many of the Christian leaders who support Trump specifically avoid using the term ‘messiah’ when speaking of him, they frequently refer to him as being anointed by God to lead the nation. This is exemplified by evangelist Paula White‘s comments recorded in 2017:

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Weaponising Romans 13

One of the oldest methods of using biblical texts is ‘proof-texting’. This is when a specific text is used to legitimate or ‘prove’ a particular argument or position. The early Church fathers were fond of it and it can be frequently found in the writings of the Bible. It is therefore not surprising that most of the references to biblical texts today take this form. Particularly important texts are even referred to as ‘clobber texts’ (originally associated in relation to the homosexual debate) as they are known to deliver the knockout blow in a debate, thereby rendering the opposing side speechless. Follow any theological argument, whether that be abortion, sexual orientation, or female ministry (and countless others) and you will quickly begin to recognise each side’s favourite ‘clobber texts’.

As someone who makes a living from studying and lecturing on the Bible, I have to admit to finding proof-texting often rather irritating and unsatisfactory – whether that is Matthew’s use of them (although I do recognise they also have other functions), Justin Martyr’s or from a participant in the latest Facebook/Twitter argument. I do, however, accept that this practice has a long heritage and, like it or not, has a place within the community of faith. It is the trend towards clobber-texting that I find very concerning. Whereas proof-texting seeks to advance a scripture that neatly encapsulates a particular viewpoint (albeit in an often simplified shorthand form), clobber texts are often grabbed texts that are used to support an existing ideological view (in other words to argue that that viewpoint is ‘biblical’) and they are employed to shut down the debate. Anyone encountering an argument between two Christian positions will be familiar with this tactic.

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Migrants, Refugees & the search for a Biblical Perspective

This summer has been darkened by the catastrophic events surrounding the thousands of refugees attempting to find asylum in Europe. The release of images of the tiny body of 3 year old Aylan Kurdi lying face down on the shoreline has galvanised opinion and, more than that, helped to put a human face on the events.

Many Christian groups have been responding for some time to this crisis and recently their voices are coming to the fore. A lot of my friends and associates on social media have also been adding their voice and, as one might expect, biblical texts are being widely quoted. But what is the biblical perspective?

Is it possible to make a truly biblical response to the images that we see? Continue reading