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On Scripture Stories | An Introduction

I may or may not have mentioned that I’m currently working my way through a part-time MA in Theology. As part of that, during the previous academic year I took a module called, Biblical Literacy in a Media Culture, thinking about all sorts of things, including the challenges of working/speaking/living in a post-Christian culture. The issue with this culture is that it has and is shaped by biblical things – art, music, architecture, literature, history, etc, are influenced by biblical stories and ideas, and yet vast swathes of the population are not actually biblically literate enough to make sense of them.

As part of the module, I worked on a wee project thinking about conversational approaches to reading the bible, and in particular, producing a Bible Overview series that I could use in 1-2-1 bible studies with students.

For my own amusement and edification (and perhaps that of you, my dear readers) I thought I’d convert some of that work into a few blog posts to share over the next few days/weeks. As always, do let me know what you think.


One of the things that I have found to be most exciting and encouraging and persuasive as I have stumbled my way through the last 17 years of faith has been the way that I have increasingly been able to see the clarity and beauty and consistency of the story of scripture.

I’ve always loved a story. As a child I devoured books and filled pages and pages of notebooks with my own stories. I had grown up hearing Bible stories in church but when I became a Christian I forgot about the stories and found myself thinking of the Bible in terms of just an endless supply of isolated verses and sayings that were chucked out in times of trouble: Have a worry? Here’s a verse to tell you not – why don’t we pop it on a poster with a picture of a kitten and a sunset and put it on your bedroom wall.

Of course that is not how the Bible works – which is a matter of great relief, since a book full of motivational poster quotes is not exactly going to be the most invigorating read in the world, is it? And after a while I did get back into the idea of reading the stories and understanding something of what it meant to read verses in context, and then I went away to university to study theology, and learnt a whole bunch of new and terrible ways to divide the Bible up.

For the first couple of years of my first degree I was swept up in study of form criticism and source criticism, and JEDP, and the Jesus Seminar, and Schleiermacher, and Wellhausen, and the rest of the gang. Names and phrases that strike terror into the heart of theology undergraduates everywhere.

Without wanting to be overly harsh – I did learn many great, and helpful things – so many of these methods and authors seemed frustratingly inclined towards wanting to dissect and reorder the text. So, it came as a great moment of joy in my Biblical Studies adventure when I was introduced to canonical criticism (popularised by Brevard Childs). To utterly simplify: canonical criticism is concerned with reading and interpreting the bible in its finished form (a.k.a. the canon).

And this is where I land. I think, not surprisingly, that there is a reason that the Bible is given to us in the order that it is. I appreciate that there are human authors and editors involved, but I also believe in a God who has the power, ability, capacity, concern to make that happen. And with that in mind, it makes sense to me then to actually read the Bible in that order. To behave and respond to verses as part of chapters, and chapters as part of books, and books as part of one, great, sweeping story about God, and the world.

One of my greatest joys in my work is to have the opportunity to introduce students to that great Story, and in doing so, to help them to meet and know its Author.

Come back soon to read about the hows and whys of the Bible overview.

In summary: stories and that.

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On Stories

Last week was all about stories.

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Durham CU ran a week of events with the theme of stories.

As well as public events (apologetic talks and discussions, interviews with a host of different people to discover their stories, and talks from John’s Gospel on ‘lives changed by Jesus’) the CU ran a really excellent social media campaign, to engage with this idea of story.

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It’s been interesting to see how positive the response has been. People seemed to really like the idea, and have appreciated the question that has been doing the rounds of the university over the last few weeks:

What’s your story?

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I found this quote from Alasdair MacIntyre, which goes some way to explain what’s going on:

Man is essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?
Alasdair MacIntyre | After Virtue

The fact is that the question, “What’s your story?” has become another way of asking, “Who are you?”
Stories are the way that we engage with the world, the way that we understand who we are, where we have come from, and why we think what we think.

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And of course, story is the way that God speaks to us.

“Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made . . . to be true on the Primary Plane.”
J.R.R. Tolkien | Letters, 100–101

We’re story people. The fact that ‘What’s your story?’ is a question that is being asked is a good thing. It enables us to legitimately point people to the Author of Reality, the one who has written the Story that we’ve found ourselves in. A story that is true and beautiful at the same time.

“For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight.”
C.S. Lewis | Myth became fact

In summary: telling stories

Oh, and they also made an amazing video.

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On mission in a ‘done to’ culture

As you may know, I’m currently working on an MA in Theology at Durham. One of the classes I’m taking is all about ‘Missional Leadership in the North East’ and I’ve recently written a blog post for it.

If you fancy reading it, you’ll find it by following this link.

In summary: theologising.

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On Depression and the ‘Professional Christian’ (or feeling disqualified)

Mental health (or lack thereof) is a troublesome bundle of confusion sometimes.

I am thoroughly convinced of the fact that depression is a medical problem, and I am delighted that clever wizards have made a drug that has (by and large) made me better.

I think that this comic by Robot Hugs is very true and useful and right:

And yet, it’s hard to get away from the fact that by the very nature of the mental aspect of this illness, there is something more than just chemical imbalance at work.

We’re mysterious beings, and we can’t separate emotions and brain chemicals into neat little boxes, and that has made things a wee bit complicated as I’ve tried to work out how depression and Christian faith mix.

Being a full-time professional Christian with depression has not been easy.

Firstly, there is something quite numbing about this chemical imbalance – there has been sadness at times, and there has been crippling anxiety at others, but there have also been days of total, apathetic, nothingness, where all I wanted to do was crawl back into bed and disappear from the world. At times like that, it’s hard to pray and sing and care at all, let alone preach the gospel to anyone else, and I found that pretty hard to deal with. I love my job a lot, and to suddenly find myself unable and frankly, unwilling, to get up and go to work was quite disorientating, and a little bit frightening.

Secondly, there is a perception that in order to be a professional Christian, one needs to be ‘sorted’. I know that isn’t true, and has never been true, particularly in my own experience. I have consistently been quite a far way off sorted throughout my life as a Christian, and that didn’t change once I started getting paid for doing ministry work. And yet, with this new malady came new doubts: could I and should I still be doing this job?

Happily, UCCF (them what pay me), were and are incredibly kind and patient and helpful, plus, the drugs started working and the symptoms eased and I stopped waking up every morning with a crushing sense of dread, and started to love my job again.

But also, during the last year I have been working my way through 2 Corinthians with a number of different people, and have seen a couple of things that have been incredibly helpful during this season of darkness.

Firstly, one of the markers of Christian life, and Christian leadership, is suffering. In 2 Corinthians Paul explains that he has been getting it in the neck from various people (the ‘super-apostles’), who are basically saying that the fact that he’s been having a hard time (beatings, imprisonment, riots, sleepless nights, hunger, etc) is because he’s not really an apostle, and so he’s not being blessed by God. Paul spends most of the letter explaining that the Super-Apostles are morons, and that everything they’re teaching is total & utter bollocks (admittedly he doesn’t use those exact words…), and that in fact, suffering is part of what it means to be a Christian leader:

We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

2 Corinthians 4:7-12

Being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted and struck down are pretty awful, but they don’t disqualify you from telling people about Jesus. He was afflicted and crushed, perplexed and driven to despair, persecuted and forsaken, struck down and destroyed for our sake, and in our suffering and persevering, we’re able to speak about him in a different way.

The gospel is a treasure beyond price. The fact that it’s being spread by such a rubbish and broken jar of clay like me, shows how glorious it really is.

Secondly, there’s this:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our afflictions, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s suffering, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.

2 Corinthians 1:3-5 

Aside from the overwhelming desire to buy Paul a thesaurus, reading these verses is and has been an immense joy and, surprise, surprise, comfort to me over the years.

God comforts us in our suffering – joyous news, for sure. But also, he uses our sufferings, and the comfort we have experienced through them, to bring comfort to others.

In the utter crapness of this serotonin-shortage season, the knowledge that God is both comforting me, but also using me is, surprisingly enough, immensely comforting to me.

I want the hard things in life to have been worth something. I want to be able to see good come from them. I want to be useful and helpful, and it is such a comfort to know that even when things look and feel like failure, God is at work and using them.

And perhaps, not ‘even when’, but ‘because’.

It turns out that being a chipped and dirty jar of clay is actually a handy thing, because it shows the beauty and perfectness of the gospel in all its brilliance.

In summary: not crushed.

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On serotonin shortages (or resolutely not using the D-word)

I’ll be honest and say that one of my greatest irritations with this whole depression malarkey has been the fact that it is called depression at all. It’s just such a crap word. Having to repeatedly use that word to explain what’s wrong with me feels so feeble.

Oh, you’re depressed are you? Poor you. Well, nevermind dear. Pull yourself together, and I’m sure it’ll pass.

No one, I hasten to add, has actually been so crass or uncouth as to say this to me. This is simply my patronising internal monologue from time to time.

The problem is that the word is too weak to communicate the utter crapness of what has actually been going on.

Apparently the wizards (you may know them as ‘scientists’) don’t really know what causes depression, but the common assumption is that it’s all to do with a shortage of serotonin in the brain, and the happy pills, also known as SSRIs, are believed to increase the extracellular level of the neurotransmitter serotonin by limiting its reabsorption into the presynaptic cell, increasing the level of serotonin in the synaptic cleft available to bind to the postsynaptic receptor.*

Or, probably, by magic.

I’m inclined to believe this particular theory, mostly due to the fact that the drugs surely do work.

With that in mind, I may start referring to my illness as chronic serotonin shortage, on the off-chance that I’ll get rid of that unpleasant internal monologue.

In the meantime I have been trying my hardest to ignore all of my natural cringing inclinations, and so telling people what’s wrong, in an attempt to do my little bit towards undoing some of the terrible taboo of talking about mental-health-type things. In doing so I’ve been staggered by the number of people who have shared similar struggles – particularly amongst the student-types, with whom I spend a considerable amount of my time. The official figures of those struggling with a mental health issue in the UK is 1 in 4, and I reckon I might believe that now.

How terribly common.

More wise thoughts coming soon, including something about depression and being a ‘professional Christian’.

Aces.

In summary: serotonin-deficient

* So sayeth Wikipedia

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On happy pills & the D-word

When I stopped blogging 18 months ago there were a couple of reasons for it.
The first, was that after 365 days of posts, I was rather sick of my own ‘voice’.
The second, and honestly, the main reason was that I had just been diagnosed with depression. It felt like that was the only thing that was really going on in my mind at the time, and I just wasn’t ready or able to write about it, but I had nothing else to write either, so the blog had a holiday.

18 months later and I’m back. I’m still not sure I’m actually ready to write about it, but I’ll give it a bash anyways. Bear with me, won’t you?

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Working out the whys of this whole thing is as yet an unsolved mystery. I’ve been depressed before and I’ve been anxious before, but it has always, always been for a reason before. This time it just came out of nowhere.

December 2013 arrived and I was feeling a bit run-down, but after autumn term with its freshers, CU weekends, events’ weeks, carol services, as well as a couple of other fairly large spanners that were thrown in the works of work, that wasn’t a massive surprise. But then a couple of days before my Christmas holiday started, while sitting in the Sage concert hall, listening to Kate Rusby and her band, I had an anxiety attack.
If you’re not familiar with that particular treasure of human experience, then I’m glad for you. It’s an odd thing – breathing is hard, your heart starts racing, pins and needles, or something like it attacks your hands and feet, you feel hot and cold, all at once, and all you want to do is run, except that you’re in the middle of a row of people, listening to some lovely music, and since there’s nothing to cause the feeling, there’s also nothing to run from, so you just sit there and wait for it to pass (and then have a big glass of wine during the interval, to take the edge off).

By the time I made it back to my mum and dad’s for Christmas I was feeling terrible, but had convinced myself that it was probably a virus, and so spent most of the holidays in bed, googling my various symptoms and convincing myself that I had either glandular fever or MS (and steadfastly ignoring the ‘depression’ diagnosis that was popping up at every turn).
Eventually I made it to my GP, had some blood tests done and got signed off work, but of course the bloods came back clear, and after a bit of prodding from various members of my family, and a few baffling bouts of uncontrollable weeping, I went back to the doctors and got a diagnosis (the D-word) and a prescription for a very wonderful drug, called Citalopram.

Happy pills

These tiny white pills are magical. It wasn’t an immediate fix, for sure. It took 8 weeks and an increase in dosage before I started to feel somewhat normal again, but eventually they did kick in, and all in all, I’m doing grand.

It has been an odd experience. Baffling, frustrating, frightening, and miserable at times; but also interesting, and challenging, and I suspect, perhaps a wee bit good for me.
More on all of that in future posts, I reckon, but for now, let’s leave it there.

In summary: medicated.

Beautiful

On permanent ink

In the first few posts of this new site I thought I might fill you in on a few of the things that are new in the last eighteen months.

First up, a new tattoo.

I got my first tattoo when I was 20 years old, on somewhat of a broken-heart-induced whim, and much to the consternation of my friends, who were rather worried that I’d come to regret it.
Happily, I haven’t, and practically ten years to the day, I got tattoo number 2.

Tattoo number 1 was a very simple butterfly. 12 lines, no colour, and for the absolute bargain price of £10. I very much doubt that you could get even a prison tattoo for those kind of prices these days, and so the latest one was a bit pricier, and a bit more detailed. And, with ten years to ruminate on it, a wee bit more thought through.

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It’s on my right inside-wrist, and as you can see from the picture, consists of two lilies, the word ‘Therefore…’, and a bible reference (Hosea 2:14). This is my absolute favourite verse in the bible (whether one is allowed to have favourite verses or not is of little importance to me), because of the ‘therefore’ that kicks it off.

The verse in its entirety is this:

“Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.”

Odd favourite verse? Maybe, but allow me to explain myself. The verse is part of a book called Hosea, about a prophet (called Hosea) who is commanded by God to marry a prostitute, Gomer. The reason for that odd instruction is that God wants to show his people, Israel, how they are treating him. God describes himself as a husband, and Israel as his wife, and chapter 2 of the book describes in graphic detail exactly how she has behaved: he has given her everything she could ever want or need, and she has responded by whoring herself out to other gods.
She is like a wife who takes the wedding ring her husband has given her, gives it to another man, and then becomes a prosititute, allowing the man to pay her using that very same ring. It’s a terrible story, which becomes even worse as one reads it and comes to the realisation: I am the whore.

As you reach the midway point of chapter two the mood is pretty bleak. God has made it clear exactly how his people have behaved, and verse 13 ends like this:

“…she burned offerings to them and adorned herself with her ring and jewellery, and went after her lovers and forgot me, declares the LORD.”

Verse 14 begins with a ‘Therefore…’ and you think you know what to expect.

Perhaps, ‘Therefore I will turn my back on her and have nothing more to do with her again.’

Or maybe, ‘Therefore I will grudgingly take her back, but I’ll put her in corner and make her feel bad about it for the rest of eternity.’

And yet that isn’t what we get. This is what he says.

“Therefore, behold I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.”

Which is mental, but wonderful, obviously. But the thing that really gets me is the ‘therefore’. It’s not, ‘even though she did it I’ll take her back’ but ‘because she is a whore, I will go and woo her and win her and make her my wife again.’

That’s the kind of God he is, you see. One who loves and acts, when winning and wooing means bleeding and dying.

And not to rub our faces in it, or hold it against us, or make us feel bad. But to restore us, to make us clean and beautiful again, and to turn thorns into lilies.

That, my friends, is good news.

In summary: ink.

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On starting back.

524 days.

That’s how long it’s been since I last blogged.

Sorry about that. Still, I’m back now, and with a beautiful new design, and a fancy new web address. For which we must thank dear Fiona , and her great technological wisdom.

Do look out for new posts coming soon, but in the meantime, have a look around, and commence rejoicing at my return.

In summary: back, baby.

Nieces
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On Snapshots: sister pictures.

New Year’s Day has mostly been spent with my family, which is an unexpected delight, since the planned Christmas reunion was on Boxing Day (a day spent in bed, ill).

Happily, that gave an opportunity for the annual photo for me and my beloved sistren. And another for the other three sisters (my nieces).

Here’s one of the younger two of those three, getting ready for their portrait.

In summary: sisters.

Randomness

On 365 in 2013

The year ends today, and if you take a glance over my blog you will find that there’s a post for every day.

#win

It wouldn’t be fair to say that I have actually blogged every day, since there have been days when the blogging happened in advance, and I scheduled the posts to appear, and there have been days (especially recently) when I have blogged retrospectively, if you will.

But the point is, there’s a post for every day and so I win.

Thanks very much for reading along, I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

This year, the blog will continue, hopefully daily again, but we shall see…

In summary: done.