Obama's faith and prophecy

I thank John Meunier for giving me a link to and extracts from the full text of a 2004 newspaper interview with Barack Obama about his faith.

This full text seems to me the very genuine testimony of a man who was brought up as a nominal Christian, had a clear evangelical conversion experience, and has an ongoing relationship with God through Jesus Christ, but is also wary of some the certainties and arrogance of many evangelical and other Christians. In fact very like me in these ways. But I would express myself with more certainty than he does on some matters, such as that there really is a future hope for Christians.

I was struck most strongly by this part:

Do you pray often?

Uh, yeah, I guess I do.

Its’ not formal, me getting on my knees. I think I have an ongoing conversation with God. I think throughout the day, I’m constantly asking myself questions about what I’m doing, why am I doing it. …

It’s interesting, the most powerful political moments for me come when I feel like my actions are aligned with a certain truth. I can feel it. When I’m talking to a group and I’m saying something truthful, I can feel a power that comes out of those statements that is different than when I’m just being glib or clever.

What’s that power? Is it the holy spirit? God?

Well, I think it’s the power of the recognition of God, or the recognition of a larger truth that is being shared between me and an audience.

That’s something you learn watching ministers, quite a bit. What they call the Holy Spirit. They want the Holy Spirit to come down before they’re preaching, right? Not to try to intellectualize it but what I see is there are moments that happen within a sermon where the minister gets out of his ego and is speaking from a deeper source. And it’s powerful.

There are also times when you can see the ego getting in the way. Where the minister is performing and clearly straining for applause or an Amen. And those are distinct moments. I think those former moments are sacred.

It seems here that Obama is attributing the power in his speeches, when he is not “just being glib or clever”, to the Holy Spirit, in the same way as the Holy Spirit is behind powerful sermons. In other words, he is claiming that his speeches are prophetic – not in the predictive sense underlying what I wrote concerning the prophecy about Sarah Palin, but in the more fundamental sense that prophecy is the Holy Spirit speaking through human beings.

The USA and the world certainly needs a prophetic President, one who spends time regularly in “an ongoing conversation with God” and follows the leading of the Holy Spirit not just in speeches but also in every decision and action. It seems that in Barack Obama we have the genuine article in these respects. Let’s hope and pray that he is able to keep this up through all the pressures of the post he is about to take up.

Another Kirk on the church

Not long ago I quoted Andrew Kirk on Mission Under Scrutiny. Now I will quote another namesake; ASBO Jesus puts these words in the mouth of Captain Kirk of Star Trek on arriving in a church:

What is… this… alien place… with it’s… strange… customs… and ways?

Follow the link to see his crew’s responses, starting of course with:

It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it. …

How many tetrarchs inherited Herod's kingdom?

A post by Bill Heroman on the obscure figure Lysanias, tetrarch of Abilene, known from Luke 3:1 and a very few ancient inscriptions, has turned up a bit of a mystery and misunderstanding. See also this post about Abilene.

It is very easy for someone with a little knowledge of Greek to deduce that the Greek word τετραάρχης tetraarchēs, traditionally transliterated “tetrarch”, means “ruler of a quarter”, that is, ruler of one of four subdivisions of a wider area. And indeed that is probably what it meant in classical Greek. But, as we shall see, this definition is rather misleading for the New Testament period.

Luke 3:1 mentions three tetrarchs (actually using the related verb for ruling as a tetrarch) ruling in 28 AD (as dated by Bill), Herod (otherwise known as Antipas) of Galilee, Philip of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias of Abilene. Luke also mentions that Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, the area which Bible readers will remember from Matthew 2:22 was ruled by Archelaus after the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC. It is well known from secular sources that Archelaus was deposed and replaced by a Roman governor in about 6 AD. It is also well known that Herod Antipas and Philip, also sons of Herod the Great, became rulers of parts of his kingdom on his death. The casual reader will easily conclude that Luke in 3:1 was listing the four successors of Herod the Great at that time, each ruling a quarter of what had been Herod’s kingdom. Indeed this seems to be the conclusion reached by the NIV Study Bible in its note on Matthew 14:1:

tetrarch. The ruler of the fourth part of a region. … At the death of Herod the Great the area [Palestine] was divided among four of his sons.

Wrong! – at least if the evidence Bill notes in a comment is correct, that Abilene had never been part of Herod’s kingdom. Actually the NIV Study Bible is inconsistent but apparently more accurate in its note on Luke 3:1:

At the death of Herod the Great (4 B.C.) his sons – Archelaus, Herod Antipas and Herod Philip – were given jurisdiction over his divided kingdom.

No mention here of a fourth son, and no suggestion that Lysanias was a successor of Herod the Great.

It seems that by the time of Jesus the term “tetrarch” had acquired a less specific meaning, perhaps “ruler of a subdivision” or simply “ruler of lesser status than a king”. It also seems that there were only three subdivisions of Herod the Great’s kingdom, and so only three tetrarchs within its boundaries, reduced to two when Archelaus was deposed. Lysanias was simply a low status ruler of a rather small neighbouring territory.

But I think the question must also arise of how Luke understood the situation. He may have understood “tetrarch” in its more classical sense. The form of Luke 3:1 suggests to me that he considered Lysanias to be a successor of Herod the Great like Antipas and Philip, and so one of the originally four tetrarchs. Or perhaps he took Abilene to be part of Palestine and so listed Lysanias as a ruler of one of four divisions of it. In fact Abilene lay a little to the north of the traditional boundaries of the Holy Land (and the borders of modern Israel), on the northern side of Mount Hermon. But then we shouldn’t insist on Luke being entirely accurate as a historian and geographer, although he has been proved to be much better at that than many liberal scholars used to think.

It seems to have been a popular misunderstanding that Herod the Great’s kingdom was divided into four. It is one which until today I shared with the author of the NIV Study Bible note on Matthew 14:1. Assuming that this really is an error, it is one which needs to be corrected with good publicity. So perhaps I can play my part in doing that.

Rowan Williams, 9/11, and the women in his life

The Times has published today an article about and a moving extract from a new biography of Archbishop Rowan Williams. The largest part of the article recalls Williams’ experiences on 11th and 12th September 2001, when he was an eyewitness to the attacks on the World Trade Center, and the next day preached without preparation in the nearby cathedral.

Ruth Gledhill posts only a small part of the article and of the extract, with the interesting title Rowan Williams: ‘Haunted by Suicide’. This title refers to one of the three women in Rowan’s life, a woman with whom he seems to have had a relationship which might have been described as inappropriate although not apparently physical (yes, Jay, such relationships can exist!) shortly before she committed suicide. The second woman was a German Lutheran ordinand to whom he was engaged for a time. And the third woman is Jane Paul who became his wife.

I knew Jane slightly when we were undergraduates in the same year at Clare College, Cambridge. Rowan’s biographer writes that

she had held fast to her evangelical roots, and was active in the Christian Union at her college. … She came from a tradition where speaking in tongues was relatively common …

But during her undergraduate years she was rather on the fringe of this Christian Union, in which I was an active member. She was I think more involved in the college chapel, under Arthur Peacocke and Charlie Moule. Maybe she became more active in the CU as a graduate student, after I left in 1978, and when perhaps speaking in tongues would have been more acceptable in that group which was very conservative in my time. Ironically it is only after I left Cambridge that I too started to speak in tongues. But I can’t help wondering if the prayers of more charismatic fellow students like Jane Paul were partly involved in the softening of my heart towards the gifts of the Holy Spirit and my eventual acceptance of them.

To remember should be to work for peace

I want to start this post by expressing my admiration for the courage of those who have given their lives in military action in “defence” (which at least in the case of US and UK forces in Iraq and Afghanistan means “attack”) of their countries. And I have great sympathy for those who have lost loved ones. I also feel a great sadness that most of their lives have been given in vain, or at best in partly successful attempts to undo the damaging results of previous wars pursued by their own countries.

But I do object to the way in which remembrance of war heroes has been brought into churches. Yesterday almost every church in my country would have included in its morning service an act of remembrance. Now I suppose it is good in church to remember those who have died, but what is the reason for specifically marking the deaths of those who have died in war? Is it not some kind of glorification of war? But any kind of glorification of war is totally contrary to the spirit of Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament. It is also contrary to the teaching of the early church, as demonstrated by Anglican priest Tim Chesterton in a series of posts over the last few days Christians and War: The Early Church Speaks #1 #2 #3 #4 #5. See also the Mennonite badge which Tim posts a picture of: To remember is to work for PEACE.

If military people wish to have their own parades to mark their fallen comrades, they are welcome to do so. But please can they do so well away from the churches, whose fundamental attitudes are, or should be, completely at odds with theirs. And please can churches stop pandering to the expectations of those in the world outside, and of those among their own numbers, who hold anti-Christian militaristic views and expect the church to hold ceremonies for them, and disrupt its own regular programmes to do so.

I am prepared to attend my own church on Remembrance Sunday only because we have a very low key act of remembrance, with no military symbols displayed. For the last few years I have quietly absented myself from the main hall for the act of remembrance. This year I was on duty at the back, so stayed in the building but remained seated, in a place where I could not be seen so I didn’t give offence.

Jesus' alternative to the Religious Right

As a follow-up to the points on religion and politics which I made towards the end of my previous post, I present this interesting article.

I found it quoted in full on the RSS feed of a blog I regularly follow, from a Christian blogger who has expressed strong anti-Obama opinions in the last few weeks. I was pleased to see that he had apparently had a change of heart in endorsing these sentiments. But he seems to have deleted this post from his blog. Perhaps he understood how inconsistent these thoughts are with his anti-Obama views. Or possibly he realised, or was reminded, that by reproducing the full article he was breaching copyright. (Since there is no longer a mention of this on the blog, I will not identify the blogger.)

The article is in the Jewish World Review, written by Cal Thomas (who I initially assumed to be a Jew, but I am now told is an evangelical Christian). The title is Religious Right, R.I.P., and indeed the initial thrust of the article is to proclaim that after 30 years this movement is at an end. But it is encouraging to see the alternative put forward to a primarily Jewish audience (and using the Jewish convention of writing “G-d” for “God”):

If results are what conservative Evangelicals want, they already have a model. It is contained in the life and commands of Jesus of Nazareth. Suppose millions of conservative Evangelicals engaged in an old and proven type of radical behavior. Suppose they followed the admonition of Jesus to “love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison and care for widows and orphans,” not as ends, as so many liberals do by using government, but as a means of demonstrating G-d’s love for the whole person in order that people might seek Him?

Such a strategy could be more “transformational” than electing a new president, even the first president of color. …

Evangelicals are at a junction. They can take the path that will lead them to more futility and ineffective attempts to reform culture through government, or they can embrace the far more powerful methods outlined by the One they claim to follow. By following His example, they will decrease, but He will increase. They will get no credit, but they will see results. If conservative Evangelicals choose obscurity and seek to glorify G-d, they will get much of what they hope for, but can never achieve, in and through politics.


UPDATE: Thanks to Tim and Barry for clarifying that Cal Thomas is not in fact a Jew. In fact I found the same article, but with “God” instead of “G-d”, on his own website. So it seems that this article was in fact not written specifically for a Jewish audience. But I am astonished that the presumably Jewish editors of the Jewish World Review chose to publish it, unedited except for “G-d” and an excellent change from “Scripture teaches” to “G-d teaches in His Word”.

When Barack met Gene

Ruth Gledhill has an interesting report (see also her newspaper article) of three meetings between now President-Elect Barack Obama and the controversial Bishop Gene Robinson. Apparently Obama sought out Robinson – but I think only as one of a series of meetings with many religious leaders, so this should not be taken as an endorsement. Ruth writes that these meetings took place “in May and June last year”, but I think she means this year, although pre-Lambeth and pre-US election campaign May and June 2008 must seem at least a year ago!

Ruth’s account is taken from an interview she had with Robinson. Here are some extracts from Gene’s words about Barack:

I must say I don’t know if it is an expression here in England or not but he is the genuine article. I think he is exactly who he says he is. …

He is impressive, he’s smart, he is an amazing listener. For someone who’s called on to speak all the time when he asks you a question it is not for show, he is actually wanting to know what you think and listens, or at least gives you that impression. I think we’ve had eight years of someone who has listened to almost no-one. …

He certainly indicated his broad and deep support for the full civil rights for gay and lesbian people but frankly we talked more about – I pressed him on the Millennium Development Goals. …

The thing that I liked about him and what he said on this issue is that he and I would agree about the rightful place of religion vis-a-vis the secular state. That is to say, we don’t impose our religious values on the secular state because God said so. Our faith informs our own values and then we take those values into the civil market place, the civil discourse, and then you argue for them based on the constitution. You don’t say to someone, you must believe this because this is what God believes. I think God gives us our values and then we argue for those on the basis of the constitution and care of our neighbour. …

He has no hesitation whatsoever to talk about his faith. I find that remarkable not only in a politician but also in a Democrat. For years it’s only been Republicans who wanted to talk about religion. …

One of the things Barack and I did talk about when we were together was just  the experience of being first and the danger of that and we talked about being demonised by one side and, I don’t know if the word is angelicised, by the other. Expectations are laid on you both negative and positive and neither are true. And the importance of remaining centred and grounded in the middle of that so that you don’t begin to believe either your negative press or your positive press.

Good material which, I must say, raises both Barack and Gene in my estimation, although I continue to believe that practising homosexuals should not be in positions of leadership in the church. I particularly like this:

we don’t impose our religious values on the secular state because God said so. Our faith informs our own values and then we take those values into the civil market place, the civil discourse, and then you argue for them …

But of course I differ from Robinson, and perhaps Obama, in believing that among the values which should be informed by faith are recognition that homosexual practice and abortion are not God’s will for his people.

So let’s avoid demonising or angelicising either Barack or Gene but let them “remain[] centred and grounded in the middle”.

UPDATE: It’s only an hour since I posted this, but I have more good news about Barack Obama. Ruth Gledhill reported Gene Robinson “was guarded” about Obama’s attitude to the Millennium Development Goals. But Dave Warnock pointed me to Obama and Biden’s new “Change” website, where, on this page, I read:

Fight Global Poverty: Obama and Biden will embrace the Millennium Development Goal of cutting extreme poverty around the world in half by 2015, and they will double our foreign assistance to $50 billion to achieve that goal. They will help the world’s weakest states to build healthy and educated communities, reduce poverty, develop markets, and generate wealth.

Halving extreme poverty is in fact only one of the eight Millennium Development Goals, but it is surely the most significant, and probably the most expensive. It would be good to see if Obama and Biden have declared policies relating to the other seven goals, but their foreign policy agenda document is incomplete on the web page.

Congratulations, Obama!

Congratulations to Barack Obama on his convincing win! The people of the USA have spoken, and the peoples of the world will be glad, because Obama promises to seek peace and reconciliation worldwide, and to act on climate change. Here are some of his international and environmental policies as summarised by Avaaz.org (in an e-mail I received):

  • Reduce the US’s carbon emissions 80% by 2050 and play a strong positive role in negotiating a binding global treaty to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol
  • Withdraw all combat troops from Iraq within 16 months and keep no permanent bases in the country
  • Establish a clear goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons across the globe
  • Close the Guantanamo Bay detention center
  • Double US aid to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015 and accelerate the fight against HIV/AIDS, tuberculoses and Malaria
  • Open diplomatic talks with countries like Iran and Syria, to pursue peaceful resolution of tensions
  • De-politicize military intelligence to avoid ever repeating the kind of manipulation that led the US into Iraq
  • Launch a major diplomatic effort to stop the killings in Darfur
  • Only negotiate new trade agreements that contain labor and environmental protections
  • Invest $150 billion over ten years to support renewable energy and get 1 million plug-in electric cars on the road by 2015

Now I don’t agree with Obama on abortion. However, abortion was not a real issue in this election, but the matters above were real issues, and ones about which Christians should be just as concerned as they are about abortion. Let’s pray for Obama and press him to put into practice policies like the ones listed above which will make our world a better place.

Mission Under Scrutiny

Eddie Arthur, posting from a remote mountain location in the Philippines, is in danger of losing his humourless readers with a picture and references to Starbucks before they get to the meat of his post – and then in danger of losing his more humour-loving readers by presenting this meat as “One last thing”. So I will rescue this strong meat from oblivion by reposting it here.

The meat in question is a quote from Mission Under Scrutiny by J. Andrew Kirk. (The author is not a close relation of mine, but there is some evidence that we have a common ancestor in or before the 15th century.) Here is what Eddie quotes, complete with typos and missing question marks, understandable from a jet-lagged visitor to the Philippines:

… how well does it (the church) communicate with its context? Is the church reviewing the efficacy of its attempts to transmit the good news of Jesus Christ within its neighbourhood? How aware is it of the distance between the Gospel message and the beliefs and values of most citizens today. Has it really taken on board the fact that the vast majority of people living in Europe now are no longer lapsed Christian believers, or even the un-churched in the sense that belonging to the church would still be culturally appropriate? Neither Christian belief or moral values nor belonging to a faith community are remotely within their horizon. There is little or no residue of a common language that could form a bridge between the Jesus story and their own stories. The church often gives the impression that it is content to minister to an ever dwindling population. Christians have to learn how to make the unchanging message of salvation in Christ meaningful to generations preoccupied with other concerns. (p.95)

Indeed! Too often our churches here in the UK, even those like mine which have a heart for evangelism, content themselves with evangelistic methods which work reasonably well with the minority of the population with some church background. An explicit example is “Back to Church Sunday”, but even initiatives like the Alpha Course tend to assume some kind of Christian upbringing. Methods originating in the USA, which so often attract cult followings over here, tend to have this problem simply because in the USA, at least in the more conservative parts of it, it is still possible to assume much more Christian background than is possible here in England.

These methods do bear fruit among people brought up in contact with the Christians, and so are pronounced successful and embraced by many churches. But they barely touch the growing majority of our nation who have no Christian background at all, and are often in fact repelled by anything they do see of church culture, whether traditional or modern style, as being completely outside their cultural expectations.

I don’t know how we can reach such people, but the first step towards doing so is to recognise that even our apparent success stories are in fact failures.

UPDATE 5th November: as Eddie tidied up his typos, I have updated this to his tidied up version.