When it does matter how we say "Jesus"

A couple of days ago I asked, Does it matter how we pronounce Jesus’ or God’s name? My answer was a qualified “No”, and that

when speaking English, we would do best to stick with “Jesus”.

But I realised as soon as I had written this that there were good reasons for making exceptions to this rule, in English and in other languages which already have a well-known pronunciation of the name. And those exceptions are basically when that well-known pronunciation is somehow unacceptable or scandalous to the particular audience it is being used to address.

This is presumably a large part of the reason why Messianic Jews, when speaking English, tend to avoid the name “Jesus”, and use instead the Hebrew form “Yeshua” or some variant. People who have been brought up as Jews have been conditioned to have a negative reaction to the name “Jesus”, so often used by their persecutors. So it is not surprising, and very sensible, that believers in Jesus from this background prefer to use a different form of the name, which is less of a stumbling block for them, and for the unbelieving Jews they seek to witness to. I have no objection to this practice – as long as there is a recognition that they are believers in the same Jesus as all true Christians, just using a different name.

In practice Messianic Jews, and others influenced by them, tend to use Hebrew forms not only of the name of Jesus but also of other biblical characters. Thus Jacob in the Old Testament and James in the New both become “Ya’akov” or similar. There are several versions of the Bible in English which use Hebrew names in this way: Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible which I know slightly; the Hebrew Names Version of the World English Bible, which in  fact doesn’t use Hebrew names for Old Testament characters, only for a few New Testament ones including “Yeshua”; and others which I found mentioned at a Wikipedia page.

This principle which applies to Jews and Jewish background believers applies also to adherents and former adherents of other religions – and especially to Muslims and Muslim background believers, an issue mentioned on this blog in this recent comment, and in this post and this one from over a year ago.

Muslims have a high regard for Jesus Christ, considering him to be a prophet second only to Muhammad. But most of them know him under the name “Isa (al-)Masih”, an Arabic form clearly derived from the Hebrew and Greek for “Jesus the Messiah”. However, other forms of the name “Jesus” are known and used by Christian minorities in some Muslim majority countries, for example, Yasu among Christian Arabs, a similar form among Urdu-speaking Pakistani Christians, and the Russian Iisus in Central Asia. Also of course in other countries, in Europe, North America etc, Muslim minorities using the form “Isa” live among nominally Christian peoples using the local form of “Jesus”. These Christian forms of the name are not recognised or accepted by Muslims as referring to their Isa, but instead are understood as referring to one of the idols (i.e. statues or icons) which traditional Christians are understood to worship.

It is therefore for very good reasons that Muslim background Christian believers often prefer to use the Islamic form “Isa”, rather than the form of “Jesus” used by traditional Christians in their language. This is especially helpful for them in their conversations with Muslims – including in protecting them from persecution for becoming “idolaters”.

In several languages used in Muslim majority countries special editions of the Bible have been prepared, or are in progress, which are designed to be acceptable to Muslims. For example, The Eastern Russian Scriptures Translation, published in 2003, was

designed for Central Asians and other nationalities of the former Soviet Union who read best in Russian and belong to ethnic groups traditionally considered Islamic.

Among the distinctives of this translation was

the careful attention given to the … forms of the names of central figures.

Not surprisingly one of the many resulting changes is to use Isa rather than Iisus for Jesus.

I don’t know if there is a similar Bible in English designed for a Muslim audience. But I suspect that Christian witness to many of the millions of English-speaking Muslims around the world would be considerably enhanced if the name “Isa” were used instead of “Jesus”.

Essex vicar: "worship is useless"

I don’t always agree with blogging Essex vicar Sam Norton. Indeed only a few days ago I expressed my strong disagreement with one of his posts. But in his current series Some thoughts on Worship I have found many sentiments that I can accept, along with some that I cannot but have certainly made me think. While being puzzled by his insistence on worship being “sacramental”, I agree with his concern that some charismatic (e.g. “New Wine”) worship is not explicitly Christian and not grounded in the Scriptures, and with his reasoning:

not least on grounds of spiritual warfare.

Sam’s latest post in this series, subtitled “worship is useless”, is especially interesting. Here he first expresses then expounds this rule:

Sam’s first rule of worship: worship is useless, and as soon as worship is used for something else, it ceases to be worship.

Indeed. If we make our worship a tool for doing something else, whether mission, performance or political activity, it ceases to be true worship of God. Indeed, although Sam misses this point, the same is true if we make worship a tool for teaching, whether through hymns packed with doctrine rather than adoration or through a sermon about practical Christian living. Sam is right that in worship our focus must always be on God.

But I think where I would differ from Sam is in something I infer from his words, that all of what the church does together, at least on a Sunday, should be worship in this sense. Now there is rightly also a sense in which everything that Christians do together is or should be worship. But that is a different, broader sense of the word. The church should be doing useful things, like mission and social action. It should also be teaching its members about doctrine and the practicalities of Christian life. These things, at least on Sam’s definition, are not worship, and should not be the focus of worship services. But it would be quite wrong to use this as an argument that the church should not be doing these things.

Nevertheless Sam’s point is right, and aligns well with the material I linked to yesterday from Frank Viola. The church needs to be focusing first of all on God and on Jesus Christ, and this should be the core of its worship. Then, in Frank’s words,

it no longer chases Christian “things” or “its.”

But these “things” or “its”, in so far as they are good and right, should flow out of this worship, into teaching, mission and practical service to the world.

Why real men don't go to church

I was taken aback at the vehemence with which a pacifist Methodist minister attacked me for daring to suggest, in a comment on his blog, that

men leave the church … partly because the church has too much of a feminine ethos.

I made it very clear that I did not support the controversial assertion that A church should have a masculine ethos; rather I stated that

the church should be balanced in these matters.

Nevertheless Dave Warnock has responded with

There is a frequent and loudly stated view that men leave the Church because it is too feminine. … I believe this is complete rubbish and have done so for a long time.

Another Methodist minister, Pam BG, writes that she is

genuinely trying to understand the … comment … that the church has been ‘feminized’ and so it is unattractive to men – that’s why men are staying away from church. … I am puzzled by how an institution dominated by men can be either ‘feminized’ …

I must say I am puzzled by Pam’s puzzlement, and consider part of Dave’s response to be complete rubbish.

Both Dave and Pam make the point that the church is for the most part led by men, and so cannot be feminised. But by what kind of men is it led? Men who are widely perceived as being weak wimps, and often in their pronouncements seem to do their best to perpetuate this stereotype. Men who like to wear brightly coloured dresses, at least in my own Anglican church. Men who are often rather camp, feminine in their behaviour, and perceived as very probably either gay or paedophiles while often being hypocritical in condemning such people. Men who seem happy to spend their time doing feminine style things, i.e. most church social events, with groups of mostly women. Men who gladly consume the typical church diet of quiche with weak milky tea, who are therefore not real men.

There are of course among actual church leaders huge numbers of exceptions to these stereotypes. But sadly there are also far too many who fall into this kind of behaviour pattern, perhaps partly because they feel it is expected of them, by society in general and by their majority female congregations.

Anyway, I’m sure Dave and Pam have realised by now, even if they don’t want to admit it, that at the local level churches like theirs are not really controlled by the mostly male official hierarchy, but by the armies of mostly women volunteers who keep their churches running, and who exercise their control by implicit threats to quit their activities if the minister dares to do anything which they disapprove of – which would probably include almost anything likely to attract men to the church.

So the problem is a self-perpetuating one. Dave may be right that it originated during the time of the world wars. But the vast majority of the men who don’t go to church now are too young to have fought in them, or indeed in any protracted war except for the recent Iraq and Afghanistan debacles. The men of this generation have not so much left the church as never been there, at least for any regular service. Why? Because several generations ago the church was feminised and has remained so.

So what can be done about it? Here, I am glad to say, Dave does much better. He writes:

If we want men in our church, we don’t need to become more masculine, instead we need to:

  • become more Christlike
  • support discipleship that is routed in the teaching and behaviour of Jesus
  • build strong faith that understands how God will be in the shit with us
  • build our understanding that God is found in the shit
  • build strength and depth to our faith and discipleship so that it can survive hell on earth
  • be courageous in following the teaching that Jesus actually gave, not a version built on our cultural preconceptions.
  • tell and celebrate the stories of people who found Jesus in adversity, in pain, in suffering, in hell on earth. There are plenty of inspiring tales of people who gave their lives for others; of people showing love, & forgiveness; of lives changed for the better; of courage, steadfastness and determination of faith.
  • work at honest and integrated lives that reflect the life & teaching of Jesus ie be authentic.
  • do all this within a community that is strong enough to carry us when we can’t hear Jesus and accompany us carrying the Christ light when we are stuck in the shit of life and can see no light, no hope and no God.

And by the way if we got these things even half way right we might well see more women in church as well as men.

Indeed, Dave. But this is largely what I mean in practice by becoming more masculine, in the stereotypical way. For a start by using the s**t word, three times in this extract, you are being masculine, as people understand it, and certainly breaking that stereotype of the feminised minister. Actually, apart from the poor exegesis of 1 Corinthians 16:13, this is not all that different from the thoughts which originally raised your blood pressure.

Of course what we are talking about is not a matter of real masculinity. But those “real men” types will not go near a church which they perceive as feminine.

Dave, I join you in objecting to the stereotypes of masculine = courageous, feminine = wishy-washy like church tea. But these ancient identifications (going right back to the etymology of the controversial Greek word in 1 Corinthians 16:13) are still with us in popular culture, and are still a major barrier to a greater penetration by the church into western society today.

Faith in Public

The past week has been interesting for discussion of faith in the public arena. I haven’t written about them here, but have made some comments on them on other blogs.

The nurse Caroline Petrie was suspended from her job for offering to pray for a patient – and then reinstated, as reported in The Times. It seems that she wasn’t doing anything wrong – and indeed under new guidelines the colleague who reported her could be accused of religious harassment.

Government minister Hazel Blears gave a speech to the Evangelical Alliance which has provoked various reactions. Eddie Arthur sounded rather negative about this, but in my comment on his post I pointed out the positive side to what she said:

See also this report from the EA, which has a link to the full text of the speech. I note that Blears started by quoting from Isaiah “beat our swords into ploughshares, and our spears into pruning hooks.” She also quotes “faith without works is dead.”

The EA seems critical of her for saying “The charter would mean faith groups who are paid public money to provide services … promising not to use public money to proselytise.” But this seems fair enough to me. This kind of separation doesn’t require completely separate charities, just separately accounted for funds like the building funds in many churches.

Now David Keen has written a post which, as well as commenting on these two stories, gives extracts from a speech given by our former Prime Minister Tony Blair to a prayer breakfast in Washington DC. Here are some extracts from the speech:

Today, religion is under attack from without and from within. From within, it is corroded by extremists who use their faith as a means of excluding the other. I am what I am in opposition to you. If you do not believe as I believe, you are a lesser human being.

From without, religious faith is assailed by an increasingly aggressive secularism, which derides faith as contrary to reason and defines faith by conflict. Thus do the extreme believers and the aggressive non-believers come together in unholy alliance.

How sad! I have seen too much of the first kind of attack even on this blog. But Blair continues:

And yet, faith will not be so easily cast. For billions of people, faith motivates, galvanises, compels and inspires, not to exclude but to embrace; not to provoke conflict but to try to do good. This is faith in action.

Then we have the following, which is so reminiscent of the TV show Yes, Prime Minister; I can hardly imagine Tony Blair as Jim Hacker, but it seems that there are real Sir Humphreys in the civil service:

I recall giving an address to the country at a time of crisis. I wanted to end my words with “God bless the British people”. This caused complete consternation. Emergency meetings were convened. The system was aghast. Finally, as I sat trying to defend my words, a senior civil servant said, with utter distain: “Really, Prime Minister, this is not America you know.”

God is alive & well, and on the side of a bus

Everyone (at least among Church of England clergy) is getting into it using this site, or so it seems from the examples of Bishop Alan, Sam Norton, Maggi Dawn, Doug Chaplin, and my old friend Martin Jackson, plus a whole competition from Madpriest. So, not being one to miss a blogging bandwagon, I must show off my own example of this, and not just in an edit to an old post which hardly anyone will notice. To mark the day when the real Agnostibuses are off the road at least in London, here is the slogan written by a friend of mine for our church, as it would appear on the side of a bus:

bus-god-is-alive-well

Darwin, Wedgwood, Alpha and the anti-slavery movement

A chance to blog today on an unexpected day off because of snow

The Wedgwood family is in the news. The famous pottery firm founded in the 18th century by Josiah Wedgwood is currently in administration, i.e. just short of bankruptcy. Now two eighth generation descendants of Josiah, both called Tom Wedgwood, are bidding to take back family control of the firm.

Meanwhile an article links Josiah’s anti-slavery views with those of his third generation descendant, Charles Darwin. Darwin’s wife was also a grandchild of Josiah. The Wedgwood family’s campaign against slavery was based on the Bible verse which they used as a slogan, “God Hath Made of One Blood All Nations of Men” (based on Acts 17:26 KJV; “blood” here comes from a textual variant which is probably not original, but “of one” is certainly original and probably refers to Adam). This same concept of the common descent of humanity is evident in the caption of the anti-slavery medallion designed by Josiah, a kneeling slave asking “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”

So Darwin took this biblical concept of the common descent of humanity from the Wedgwoods and used it as the basis of his own anti-slavery campaigning. But also, when he observed differences between animal and bird species analogous to those between human races, he extended this concept to the animal kingdom:

Since species were only extended races, they too must share an ancestry. He moved from talking of the common “father” of mankind to an “opossum”-like fossil as the father of all mammals.

Darwin was one of the first to suggest this common descent of different species of animals. And indeed this lies at the heart of his theory of evolution. Since this theory is seen so widely by Christians as opposed to biblical truth (I don’t agree, by the way), it is ironic that it was inspired in part by a Bible verse.

Meanwhile I have just received a new copy of  Alpha News, reports about the Alpha course and testimonies from those who have done it (November 2008-February 2009 issue; there is no online edition but some of the articles, not the ones I mention in this post, are online at this site). There are two things in it which relate to this post.

An extended testimony in this newspaper (which I haven’t read yet) is entitled “I was a slave trader”. No, this isn’t about 18th century converted slave ship captain John Newton. Amazingly, it is the story of a man of our own times, Dave Blakeney from Manchester, who was involved in slave trading in Angola in the 1970s. This is a reminder that Wedgwood’s campaign is by no means over.

Also in the paper is a news article about the new office building for the 150 staff of Alpha and of the church that set it up, Holy Trinity Brompton. The article is also on the HTB website, but sadly without the pictures. The interesting thing about this building, in Cromwell Road, London, is that it is immediately opposite the Natural History Museum.

Unlike some people I don’t see a fundamental opposition between science and Christian faith. Indeed I commend Doug Chaplin and Henry Neufeld for pointing out the fallacies in this approach. But I can’t help seeing something of the bravery of David facing Goliath in Alpha setting up their offices right opposite one of the world’s great temples of Darwinism.

Snow!

This morning in southern England we have more snow than we have had for 18 years, they say – a whole 10 cm or 4 inches in London, and about the same here in Chelmsford. This is of course nothing to my friends in North America, who have been blogging and twittering about being snowed in for months, it seems. Here is what has fallen here, as seen from my back window:

Not a day to eat in my garden!

Not a day to eat in my garden!

In fact the snow seems somewhat local. Only about 60 miles north of London there is so little snow that Dave Warnock has set off on a 30 mile journey on a bicycle! And from Newcastle, 300 miles north, Madpriest offers some humorous observations on the “state of panic” in the south.

But there is a silver lining to this cloud, and not just for the local children who are having fun in the snow (and throwing snowballs at me, but then I did provoke them) because the schools are closed. In countries where snow is common, life would carry on more or less as normal after a fall of a mere 10 cm – especially as the temperature is only just around freezing. But, as reported by the BBC, the result in London is that

The entire bus network and three Underground lines – the Circle, Hammersmith & City and Waterloo & City lines – have been suspended.

And so, as Steph has pointed out in a comment from summery New Zealand, that means that London’s infamous Agnostibuses are off the road – because of what would still officially be described as an act of God!

God is alive & well …

From the latest presentation on my church‘s electronic noticeboard (a plasma screen inside the foyer but visible from the street), which we had long before digital picture frames became the latest in gadget:

God is alive & well

If you don’t understand the context here, or recognise the bus in the top right insert, see this post by David Keen, and his first and second roundups of reaction.

Personally I think the “Agnostibus” campaign is great because, just like the Alpha campaign with its questions like “Is this it?” and “What am I doing here?”, it makes people think. But I doubt if it will stop anyone worrying.

The Agnostibuses are not only in London; I saw some a few days ago in Dawkins’ home town of Oxford. But there are none in my home town of Chelmsford, only buses asking those Alpha questions.

UPDATE 2nd February: This slogan can now be seen on the side of a real bus, courtesy of this site:

bus-god-is-alive-well

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.