img_0143This week my main companions, apart from my family, have been St. Paul and James Kelman. I’ve been reading and translating from Greek Paul’s Letter to The Roman Church, while reading with great pleasure “Dirt Road”, James Kelman’s latest novel.

One of the things you notice about Paul, when you’re reading his Greek, or even a very literal translation, is his frequent use of the causal connective, “gar” in Greek, “for” in English. Sometimes it’s almost as if he can’t begin a new sentence without this word, which indicates that the previous sentence is not to be left behind by the reader, but taken along in the argument. No circumstance or idea is is simply isolated, but each is connected with what goes before and after. The translator is left trying to vary things by using “therefore,” “with that in mind” , “so then” “because” or simply omitting the connective because often the reader can be relied upon to know that successive sentences are connected.

The reason for this almost obessive insistence on linkage is that for Paul everything in the universe is linked both for good and for ill. Human life is radically open to forces of good and evil: a wrong choice can bind you to evil, whereas as good choice can liberate you from evil and bind you to good. And choice is determined by who you trust. Even a good choice does not totally free you from the grip of competing powers; so Paul will talk about “being rescued” rather than claiming that the rescue is complete. True liberty always lies in the future; this is the hope that gives people the strength to live well. The painful struggle toward new life is characterised  by Paul as the pains of childbirth which, in a flash of insight, he claims are shared by the whole universe.

Rescue does not consist of being lifted out of the connectedness of society  and the universe, but rather in finding within them a persuasive experience that enables trust in goodness. For Paul, this is the involvement of the source of goodness in the iron chain of connecting events so that goodness itself is subjected to evil and death and is not thereby destroyed but rather born to new life. Those who trust this goodness in its weakness and pain, share in the splendour of its new life, even while they remain part of the connected universe and its evils.

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Aboriginal men in prison 1902

The stylistic feature I most notice in James Kelman’s fine novel is repetition. The story  is told from the viewpoint of a seventeen year old boy, whose consciousness of the world is often expressed in overlapping repeated perceptions, each modification re-affirming but also re-defining what has gone before. It is a delicate technique for suggesting how past experience fashions consciousness but is in turn altered by new experience and reflection. For Kelman the individuality of experience, which is important to his view of human heroism, in no way denies the brute determing power of societal and historical circumstance. The hero’s economic status as part of a working class community in Scotland is one such circumstance, the deaths of his sister and mother from a type of cancer for which they had a genetic predisposition, is another.

The sense of particular human lives being subject to predetermined outcomes is as strong in Kelman’s work, as it is in Paul’s theology. Kelman also rejects any notion that the causal chain can simply be snapped, so that people may be free and self-determining. For him, as for Paul, the source of rescue has to be found, if it is found at all, within the painfully determined world, often through a miracle of individual trust, which embraces some available goodness, holds to it, and enables personal dignity and fruitfulness. There is a lot of pain in Kelman’s stories, but he might agree with Paul that it is at least sometimes, like the pain of childbirth: something is being born.

img_0144James Kelman would tell me to be very careful about any specious categories that diminish the uniqueness of persons and their pain. The hero of his book is scathing about the religious and social conventions which deny the fact of personal life and death. If there is goodness, it is neither an addition to life nor a philosophy of it, but there, in it,  within the predetermined chain of events, a grace arising from it, as the music which the hero loves arises from his culture and his character.

The hard-won nobility of James Kelman’s fiction and its characters, reminds me that a loving attention to particulars is necessary for the creation of beauty. It is also what Paul ascribes to his God.

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The good native american

One of the incidental pleasures of ministering to three congregations, as I find myself doing at present, is being reminded of the value of ordinary kindness, not only when as often it is directed towards myself, but also when it is shown to members of the congregations and to residents of the parishes.

Of course, kindness is not a virtue of Christians alone; it is demonstrated by human beings everywhere to others who share their lives, and less frequently, to strangers. Ordinary kindness to family, friends, neighbours, and fellow believers,  is the type of behaviour understood by Jewish believers in Jesus’ time to be covered by the command to love their neighbours as themselves. The “neighbour” was vaguely defined as a person to whom one had a duty through kinship, work, residence or faith.

In his story of the neighbourly Samaritam Jesus subverted this decent morality by asking his hearers to imagine themselves mugged, destitute, wounded and in danger. In that situation, Jesus asked, who is your neighbour? And the answer is, the one who offers kindness without regard to ties of kinship or common faith. Without losing any of the warmth of kindness, Jesus pushes his hearers towards a more inclusive justice in which “neighbour” is a definition of the helper rather than the recipient. It rests on a recognition that when we are in need we do not ask the religion or ethnicity of the hands that help us. This truth is evident in Dundee in the work of the Taught By Mohammed Food Bank, which distributes food parcels to 100 or so needy non – Muslims referred by a range of statutary services. Nobody ever refuses food because it has been delivered by Muslim men and women. I do not know if there is a specific commandment in the Qur’an or a Hadith of Mohammed, but the faith of this organisation clearly pushes kindness towards social justice. Jesus’ parable of the final judgement, which is directed towards nations, clearly points in the same direction: whole societies are judged as to how they have cared for the least imporatant of those whom He calls his brothers and sisters. Because Jesus made his family all-inclusive,  family kindness is fulfilled in justice to the needy and the outcast.

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The good gay immigrant

These scriptures and many others are the basis of the church’s belief in kindly justice,  and of its practice of social care. Perhaps most church members  and their fellow citizens approve of this sort of commitment, where it exists. But when I argue that is should also be the basis of the church’s opposition to all scapegoating of the poor and denigration of people in receipt of benefits, many will disagree with me, including some church members. Yet it seems clear to me that providing the means of life for those who lack it is a primary duty of society, as part of a justice which is more than ordinary kindness, but never less than it. Indeed inasmuch as society fails in this duty, Christain believers must not only protest, but also provide.

The point where for many Jesus pushes kindness to absurd lengths is where he commands his followers to love their enemies and to do good to them. This seems to stretch a virtue beyond its capacity. Without denying that in exceptional circumstances exceptional people may do exceptional things, how on earth can love of enemies be commanded? But then again, I have heard men who served in the army in Malaysia in the 1940’s speak of how they hated their officers more than they hated the enemy, who were frightened young men like themselves. Their fear and vulnerability led them to see the enemy as human. When we remember that our enemy is also a human being, kindness towards him/her becomes possible. We do not need to forget about our own good in order to show concern for our enemy’s good. We may rightly defend ourself against his attack, while still refusing to treat him like a thing. Even in war, this justice may exist, so that if our enemy ends up at our mercy, we may be merciful.

img_0142The Geneva Accords, which govern the treatment of civilians and combatants in war are amongst the noblest documents of humanity, because they push kindness in the direction of justice, as Jesus did,  as Moses did, as Mohammed did.

 

 

The good native Australian

 

For once the House of Commons was united, with MP’s falling over each other to articulate the same message, namely that SIr Philip Green, the former owner of the defunct British Home Stores, was a disgarce to all righteous capitalists, and deserved to have his unearned knighthood removed from him, for having raised questions about an economic system that allows predatory manipulators like him to have power over people’s lives, not to mention an honours systems that licks their backsides for having done so. All the hot air expended did not produce one single proposal that the state should reimburse the many former employees of  BHS whose pension fund was looted by Mr. Green.img_0137

Meanwhile, the EU, which likes to see itself as a democratic counterweight to the USA, is struggling against popular opposition to approve a free trade deal with Canada, which amongst other things makes it more difficult for governments to oppose the might of international corporations. Free trade apparently means freedom for successful capitalists to throw their weight around.

In Britain and the USA liberally minded people ask themselves where the visceral anger that fuels support for Brexit or Trump has come from. Commentators point to the decline of the formerly powerful industrial working class in both countries. The same anger, however, and the same support for nationalistic demagoguery is evident throughout Europe, and is not altogether different from the anger of extreme Islamic groups. It seems reasonable to ask if there is not some common factor in these expressions of communal rage.

The power of capital to provide a very pleasant lifestyle for its senior and middle range employees while exploiting  vast numbers of low grade employees, trashing the earth and marginalising its critics, seems to me to be the obvious answer to that question. If people are made to feel, that they or their whole communities are simply a pool of unskilled labour to be used or cast aside on the discovery of other suckers who will work for even less, rage seems a reasonable response, even if the political expression of that rage is utterly unreasonable, in the form of hatred of foreigners, homosexual people, women,   Muslims, Christians, politicians, or indeed anyone different enough to be blamed.

Decent people who are disturbed by public anger and hatred need to notice the animal which is in the room and is so big there’s not much space for anyone else. Would it be too much to recognise it as an elephant and to think of ways in which either it or us can be got outside. img_0138

CAPITALISM SCREWS YOU. IT IS DESIGNED TO DO SO. IF WE DON’T WANT SCREWED, WE HAVE TO ABOLISH IT OR CONTROL IT.

Because I have no idea how it can be abolished, I find myself searching for ways of controlling it.

Christianity used to be a powerful controlling factor. Until the late middle ages the  church’s ban on usury – the lending of money at interest- although it permitted all kinds of hypocritical exceptions – acted as a restraint on capitalist development. Islam also has had its own forms of restraint, through sharia law.

Socialism, throughout its history, especially in its encouragement of Trades Unions, has invented a variety of restraints on capitalist emterprise. State provision and enterprise whether in the US New Deal, or the British Welfare State or the Northern European Social Democracy have at least balanced the power of international capital. (Communist states abolished it, but at the cost of democratic rights)

Democratic restraints depended on public recognition of the destructive power of unchecked capitalism. The elephant had to be noticed and named. Our present manifestations of rage happen in societies where it is neither noticed nor named. Even Jeremy Corbyn for all his applauded radicalism hardly ever refers to capitalism and has certainly made no proposal to control its power. Bernie Sanders in the US made an honourable attempt to name the beast, and went so far as to advocate socialist means of controlling it. In so doing he gained unexpected popular support.

The Christian Church in Scotland is declining in numbers and influence, and its leadership may well feel that sustained opposition to capitalism would be suicidal. My own conviction is that it might just be its salvation. Yes, I know that’s a religious term and that it’s supposed to come through Jesus. Quite so. I think allegiance to Jesus involves opposition to capitalism as idolatry, and the forging of creative alliances with other groups that also oppose it. This should be done from both pastoral and theological points of view. The church is under command of Jesus to attend to the needs of the least important brothers and sister, whose lives are gravely affected by capitalist economic policies; and to recognise when some demonic power is placing the mark of the beast on its devotees.

img_0139Such opposition should be patient, peaceful and popular, encouraging people to see the source of their discontents and to channel their anger into building effective restraints upon its power. In this work, the church would not be alone. The Scottish Green Party in its conference this week, showed a grasp of economic truth and a willingness to devise policies that would limit the destructive powers of capitalism. At least they sounded as if they were living in the same world as me. And there would be other allies also. It’s time the church put its shoulder to the wheel.

As I understand him the philosopher Karl Popper taught that the thing to ask about any proposition was not, ‘Can you prove it?’ but rather, ‘Can you disprove it?’ He concluded that if a proposition could not be disproved, that is, if nothing counted against it, it would strictly speaking be meaningless.

So if I am asserting that God exists, it’s not fair of you to demand that I prove it, but it may be quite fair to demand what if anything would disprove it for me. So, if we discover intelligent life on an another planet, would that disprove my God? I don’t think so, although it might lead to quite significant changes in say, the doctrine of the Trinty. OK let’s imagine an evil that puts all other earthly evils in its shade, say, a nuclear war, would that disprove God for me? I don’t think it would; I’m used to human evil and it no longer surprises me. Or say unchecked global warming makes the earth uninhabitable, surely that would disprove the Creator and Preserver of life? His project would have failed. Again I can imagine God’s creative process leaving us behind as it has left the dinosaurs, and continuing in other worlds, with other creatures.

In fact it’s much more likely that I would consider God disproved by something terrible happening to people I love. I know people who regarded God disproved by this kind of personal tragedy and I have no criticism of them, but I don’t think I would take that view. After all, I know that God did not prevent Auschwitz or Pol Pot or Stalin or Mladic, and have recognised that in respect of preventing evil God has all efficiency of a chocolate fireguard. So much so that when some idiot tells me their prayers procured them a parking space in the busy shopping mall, I want to drag them kicking and screaming to the local children’s hospice to see all the kids God hasn’t managed to help because he’s too busy organising parking for the pious.

No, my story of God has him/ her giving total freedom to his creation and never intervening except through the actions of his/her creatures. ( Do I include Jesus as a creature? Well, I know it’s a heresy, but yes, I do)

At this point, readers may ask what on earth the value is of this deity, who not only cannot create a perfect universe but can’t even mend the broken one he has made. They may think that Mr Popper has made a good point, and that the proposition “God exists” is meaningless. This however ignores the Biblical witness to a God whose main activities are commanding, advising, threatening, persuading, cursing amd blessing his human beings. In this way it can be said that God makes a difference to the world, through influencing people. It can also be said that God suffers from the refusal of human beings to live by his/ her wisdom. The biblical God who may be omnipotent but knows power cannot make the universe he/she wants, is a credible character,  and in my view, the greatest creation of human beings….

Hang on! Did you just say that God has been invented by human beings?

Yes, I did.

God is an invention of human beings as black holes are an invention of human beings. It doesn’t mean they don’t exist,  but that our description of them is certainly inadequate and possible misleading, although it’s the best we can do, and can be used as a kind of space probe to investigate further. Scientists will say that black holes were  invented in response to recorded data from observations. And yes, it’s the same with God: observations of the universe and of its living creatures as known here, have led the people of my faith tradition to tell their particular stories about God, which they know to be inadquate to the reality of God, but can help people to investigate further.

God is an exploratory word which does not refer to an individual being but to the source of all being, not to another fact about the universe, but to the meaning of all facts. I use the word to interpret the universe and my own life in it. One of the results of my own investigation is my conviction that if there is not some reality that corresponds to my faith in life beyond death, God does not exist, because I cannot accept that what most people get here is worthy of God. So ultimately there is a test of the truth of God.

If I turn out to be right I’ll be happy; if I’m wrong, I won’t be worrying about it.

Readers of this blog will not mind a reference to my Bible Blog on its special anniversar y. Yes, this is my two thousandth blog on my other site, emmock.com. With some gaps for holidays, family joys and sorrows and work commitments, it has continued at the rate of four or five blogs per week for some eight years. It has engaged my mind on good days and bad, acoompanied me through times of profound sorrow, travelled with me to Italy, Spain, Cumbria, Wales and Scotland, reminding me of my ignorance while demanding I use my knowledge to the full. It has introduced me to other bloggers and readers of blogs, whose warmth, faith, agreement and disagreement has become one of the happiest aspects of my journey. The blog has never had a huge readership but it is read over a huge area of the globe, from Scotland to Japan, from Russia to Australia, with the greatest number of readers always in the United States. The support and interest of regular readers in particular is an extraordinary privilege for which I record my thanks. Often their own blogs have become regular reading for me.img_0127
The writing of his blog has become my favourite daily discipline and pleasure, outstripping my run and my yoga, as it continually reveals to me the truth and relevance of the Bible. My readers will know that I have no time for the idea that the Bible is written by God and therefore is inerrant; it is written by erring human beings and only as such can it be the word of God. The spirit tells me as it told the grovelling Ezekiel, “Stand on your feet, and I will speak with you!” Nevertheless, the process of daily interpretation has only increased my love and respect for the Bible and its words in turn have nourished my life.

While I have been writing this blog terrible events have taken place in the life of the world and in my own life: so-called Islamic State is alive and my best friend is dead. For a large number of these blogs I noted the imporatant news of that day, as biblical interpretation can only rightly be done against the grain of world events.The news of the world and the joyful news of the Bible are mutual provocations.

Jonathan Swift, looking back at his early work, The Tale of The Tub, said that he could not believe “what a genius he had then.” I make no such claim for the blogs I have lately re-read, but some of them, for an averagely coarse and sinful fellow like me, are not bad stuff, although I say it myself, and may even be proof that the Holy Spirit works in unlikely pkaces. These are not scholarly interpretations, but the fruit of an intelligent wrestling with the material by someone who tries to remain open to 21st century events, science and arts. As such I hope they may continue to be of some use to others.img_0129

Blogs 1-1612 are based on one of the available Daily Lectionaries, because it was good to feel in tune with other readers across the world.

blogs 1612- 1717: are a simultaneous commentary on Genesis and Mark’s Gospel, using the Schocken Bible translation of Genesis, and the John Darby of Mark.

blogs 1718 – 1770: are a commentary on the two Letters to Corinthians

blogs 1772-1802: are a commentary on The Revelation

blogs 1803- 1843: are a fresh translation and a commentary on Psalms 1-43

blogs 1884- 1957: are a commentary on Luke’s Gospel

blogs 1958- 1966: are a commentary of The Fiirst Letter of John

blogs 1968- 1973: are a commentary on Ruth

blogs 1974- 1976: are a commentary on Jonah

blogs 1977- 1886: are a commentary on James

blogs 1887 forward: are a fresh translation and commentary on The Letter to Romans

IMG_0130.JPGThese are not scholarly commentaries. I have of course read many of those and benefitted enormously from them, but my blogs are simply evidence of how I read these writings “under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and within the fellowship of the Church” as my tradition urges me to do. They are closer to what used to be called “devotional reading”, a claim that will arouse derision amongst those who know my impious character.

The cynic philosopher Diogenes, who lived in a tub in the street, being reproached for his uncouth behaviour, replied, “if my naked arse brings honour to the truth, what then?”

I’m happy to adopt that saying as a motto for these blogs.

The bible blog website is:

emmock.com

Individual blogs can be accessed thus:

emmock.com bible blog x

This site is:

xtremejesus.co

IMG_0124.JPGWhen I’m tired, as I am for some reason this morning, I choose to read rather than write, and more often than not I read one of the Maigret novels by Simenon, which are being re-issued by Penguin. He is one of the masters of plain storytelling, combining speed of narration with an incomparable skill in inventing the right detail to engage the reader’s imagination. His sentences have an elegant logic, mapping the minutiae of events clearly for the reader to follow. Once he gets you hooked, you stay hooked.

Why is a good crime story so addictive?

Most people agree that it’s because of the denouement, which even if does not supply legal or moral justice, usually supplies a narrative justice, an explanation of the main events of the story. We may be patient with the detective/ police squad/ amateur investigator failing to nail the culprit, we may excuse the narrator who has hidden essential facts from the reader, but we will reject a story that fails to explain itself. We may agree that few things are explained in life as they are in most crime novels, but we do not read crime novels for a profound truthfulness to life, we want the special pleasure of being mystified and then enlightened.

That is why the events narrated in a good detective novel have such luminosity; we know that they are pieces of a jigsaw that as yet we cannot put together, but that they will be shown to fit into each other and to compose a recognisable picture. The very best writers will arrange that the pieces ultimately seem to fall together rather than being forced, and that perhaps there are a few pieces even at the end that are left over.  The events of the story shine not because we know the whole picture, but because we do not yet know it and trust that it will be revealed.

One of my brothers has been questioning the eschatological elements in the New Testament, especially in the letters of St. Paul. The term is derived from the Greek ‘eschaton’ meaning the end, and is used by scholars to refer to passages about the “end times” when God’s rule will established and Jesus will return. The first Christian believers, and perhaps Jesus himself, imagined that the arrival of the rule of God was imminent, within their own lifetimes. The later church abandoned belief in its imminence while holding to the conviction that it would arrive sometime. Only a few sects today still think that we should watch and pray in case it catches us sleeping.img_0125

I still hold the conviction that God will ultimately gather all the strings of universal history together and bring it an end which may also I guess be a new beginning. Indeed I could not trust in any God who did not do so. For I recognise the randomness of the events of energy as revealed by quantum physics, as well as the huge waste and pain of evolution. I find my knowledge of the present suffering of sentient beings very disturbing, and even more my knowldege of human evil, including my own. Any God who failed to make sense of all this would not be worthy of the name. Buddhism doesn’t imagine that any sense can be made of it, and therefore it has no God.

Readers may react by asking what right I have to invent the God I want. Well, that’s faith, isn’t it, inventing the God you want? Most of us do this along with a tradition which has invented and re- invented God over the centuries and is likely to be broader and deeper in its inventions than any one of us on our own. Trivial religion invents God or gods that answer trivial desires; profound religion answers more profound desires. But we should never forget that all our stories about God are our own invention, and that we  are responsible for them, if for example they cause suffering or injustice.

As it happens the  Christian tradition has invented a God who will take full responsibility for the universe, and will bring it to perfection. The tradition also identifies Jesus as the prime actor in that perfecting, in his historical life, in risen life now,  and in the end time. The book of The Revelation, much misunderstood by its readers, gives me the clue to the nature of the perfection by saying that Jesus the victim and sacrificial Lamb is at the heart of God’s rule, and promises me in the final image of God in our Bible, that, like a mother, he will wipe away all tears from the eyes of his children.

BELGIAN WRITER GEORGES SIMENON

That means for me that the events of my life and all the events of which I have knowledge are not mere happenstance, but elements in a story whose culmination I do not know, but which I trust will have a culmination. “Now we see puzzzling reflections in a mirror; then we shall see face to face” ( 1st Corinthians 13).  No event in the story is any longer complete in itself for it may be changed by the culmination. No event is banal – like the routine crucifixion of a Judaean prophet in CE 33 – for it may turn out to be crucial to the outcome of the plot. History is not just tragedy or farce, but shimmers with possibility, like the details of a Montmartre night club described by Simenon. If I was more daring than I am, I might suggest that it all added up to a divine comedy.

Paul Gascoigne Playing the fool of is that the flute while playi

Not since Gazza’s infamous imitation of a flute band has there been as big a kerfuffle at Rangers Football Club, as has been caused by Joey Barton’s self – opinionated public rubbishing of his fellow players at Ibrox. I had wondered if adding a notoriously hot-headed and somewhat ageing player to the Old Firm mix might turn tasty, but I’d expected that the hackles raised would be at Celtic, rather than his own club. The incident, albeit reported ad nauseam in the Scottish  press, remains unclear, but certainly involved Mr Barton speaking back to his manager. At present he has been sent to the naughty step for a period of time, possibly with the hope that he may return contrite.

There has been endless comment on this matter in the sports pages of the newspapers and online, and I had almost stopped paying any attention to it, when I came across a remarkable article by Barry Fergusson in today’s Daily Record. He is himself an ex-Rangers midfielder, who also played many times for Scotland. More relevantly however he was also involved in a footballing stramash entitled “Boozegate” which along with his public disrespect of critics, finished his football career at Rangers. In his piece today he refers to those incidents, and offers some advice to Joey Barton. Nothing new in that, you might think, but you’d be wrong.

Scotland versus iceland 2009
Barry Fergusson to his critics

Barry Fergusson is utterly honest about his own bad behaviour. He writes in some detail about the four days he spent at home, without distraction from newspapers or TV, looking steadily at himself, and as he says, not liking what he saw. He saw that there was no one to blame but himself, because he had chosen to do the things that had brought him disgrace. He goes further, by mentioning that he realised that these bad decisions were part of a pattern that he needed to break. He expresses gratitude to the manager who allowed him to remain until the season’s end and to the other manager who took the risk of signing him for his club. It is the most sensible and honest reflection I have read for some time.

Modern sporting gurus are forever telling sportsmen to “man up”, meaning that they should at least match the aggression of their opponents or counter their superior skill by force. The expression rests on a strange view of what it means to be a man, having little to do with courage and a great deal to do with testosterone. Barry Fergusson has proven his worth as a human being by his initial courage in looking steadily at his own character, and his greater courage in writing publicly about a painful episode in his life. I would be happy for a my grandchild to be influenced by this man.

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Fergusson scores for Scotland

As it happens, Jesus was a man. It is part of Christian teaching that he was without sin, yet when a prophet took to the wilderness and urged people to repent, he was able to  man up and join his fellow sinners at the River Jordan. The capacity to see and admit our faults and follies is is a prerequisite for goodness.