In mid February I noticed a flood of tweets with the hashtag #bellletstalk inviting an honest conversation about mental health. My first thought, knowing that Rob Bell had a new book coming out, was excitement and relief that he had taken the brave step of writing something substantial on mental health issues and depression in the ministry. As it turns out, the Twitter flood was a charity drive by Bell Canada; very important work by them, but I’m afraid I came away (completely unreasonably!) feeling a bit disappointed in Rob Bell—because I think a conversation about mental health in Christian ministry is long overdue. It felt like a missed opportunity.
Now thanks to the bravery of Katherine Welby, we may be about to have that conversation.
To be honest, although I do want to see this conversation happen, I know I’m not the right person to kick it off and that I don’t have all that much to contribute personally. Still, here’s a couple of thoughts to try to push the issue onto people’s consciousness a bit more (and the point of that is to destigmatize mental illness, which we absolutely need to do.) and hopefully someone with more intelligent stuff to say can take over.
I recently reviewed Esau’s Blessing, which speaks of the spectrum of mental health states found in the characters of the Bible. I didn’t agree with all of its diagnoses, but it did show me that God can and does work with and through people whatever state they’re in. As Katherine Welby says:
I care passionately about the fact that people with mental problems or any form of disadvantage are excluded. This isn’t good enough. God created everyone. We are all designed in his image. That’s true of a person with autism, a person with cerebral palsy, a person in a wheelchair, a man, a woman. Every single person can give a glimpse of God.
One in four of us is going to suffer from mental illness at some point in our lives, (as the old joke goes, look around your house; if everyone else seems normal, it’s you.) and missionaries, pastors and other full-time religious workers are not magically exempt. These days it makes less and less sense to treat mental illness any differently to physical illness, particularly the more we understand about brain chemistry; something like depression is a fundamentally organic illness which requires professional treatment, medicine, prayer and loving support, and for which we can be hopeful of recovery—just like any other disease. In reality, though, I think our attitudes to mental illness are often colored by throwbacks to medieval notions: we find ourselves unconsciously thinking in terms of curse, in terms of weakness, or worse:
“Some Christians will say, ‘You’re not depressed’. Then they insinuate-–-or state directly-–-that you don’t have enough faith, or that depression is not biblical because the Holy Spirit gives us joy, or that you haven’t experienced the love of God. To which I just say, ‘I experienced the love of God more during my darkest period than at any other point in my life.’”
That needs to change. Can we talk?Subject tags: theologychurch
Yesterday, on the door of a local restaurant, I saw a sign very much like the bottom one of these two: (I didn’t get a picture of the one I saw, but the wording was more or less the same.)
How would you translate it? You may not know Japanese, so I’ll give you the choice of two options:
Which of these two is the better translation? If you are a fan of the King James Version of the Bible, you are morally obliged to choose answer 1: it translates the meaning of every morpheme in the original, therefore it is a better translation than the other translation which throws away information.
And this is what bothers me about the whole discussion over Bible translation. People have got more concerned about literal versus dynamic, word-for-word versus thought-for-thought, and so on that they forget that when it comes to translation, there’s really only one dimension that matters: is it a good translation or a bad translation? It’s possible to do a literal translation really well, especially in languages that are genetically similar. And this is where I think English speakers are at a disadvantage thinking about translation, because their first experiences of translation tend to be of languages like French or Spanish which have similar modes of expression to English, and therefore they’re tricked into thinking that literal translation is necessarily a good idea. But where a target language has a very different mode of expression from the source, for instance when translating from Japanese to English, or from Hebrew to English, literal translation generally ends up being bad translation.
In fact, in Japanese circles, it’s a common joke to overtranslate the honorifics into English. (お茶 as “honourable tea”, お便所 as “the honourable place of fæces” instead of “toilet”, and so on.) Lafcadio Hearn’s writing is full of this kind of stuff:
‘You-as-for! outrageousness doing - what marvellous is?
‘Theatre is not!’ ‘Juggler is not!’ ‘Wrestler is not!’
‘What amusing is?’
‘Honourable-Guest this is!’
But outside, soft laughing voices continue to plead; pleading, shrewdly enough, only with the feminine portion of the family: the landlord’s heart is less easily touched. And these, too, have their arguments:
‘Now august-to-eat-time-is; to-look-at evil matter is. Honourable-returning-time-in-to-look-at-as-for-is-good.’
‘Oba-San! O-Kayo-San! Shoji-to-open-condescend! - want to see!’
‘So that not-to-hinder looking-at is good.’
‘Hasten therefore to open!’
That’s not because he was making a joke; it’s because he wanted to translate the words literally: this is Orientalism, and the point of Orientalism is to emphasise the sense of distance between East and West, whereas the point of good translation is to bridge that distance. He chooses literal translation here precisely because literal translation of a language like Japanese necessarily makes the text sound foreign and incomprehensible.
But translations, after all, are things which are meant to be read by people. I’ve translated a couple of Japanese books into English. Initially, I started off by translating fairly literally, because I thought the words of the author were important and I wanted to capture every nuance that was written. Then I put the translations away for a couple of months and looked at them again. It was all “we receive from you the favour of allowing us to take a rest”—correct, in one sense, but basically unreadable. So I threw them out and started again, and this time I thought “How would the author write this if he were writing in my language?” I came out with a translation which was, of course, less accurate—but much better. And the author loves it, because of course he wanted it to sound natural and fluent, not bizarre and stilted.
So when it comes to Bible translations, I don’t really care, relatively speaking, about the methodology behind the translation. I don’t necessarily care if it’s literal or dynamic or whatever. The more important question is, is it a good translation or a bad translation? I wonder which the authors would have wanted.Subject tags: theologybibletranslation
Because I’ve just wasted a couple of hours on this and I don’t want you to:
If you have a xulrunner application, and you set it up with the directory structure described here, and it doesn’t start, and then you try running it from the command line and it says either:LSOpenURLsWithRole() failed with error -10810 for the file...
ordyld: Library not loaded: @executable_path/libmozglue.dylib
then your version of xulrunner is either too old or too new. Versions between 9 and 14 have this bug. It was fixed at 14, and reappeared after 15b1. So 15b1 is the last version of xulrunner that works as described on OS X. You’re welcome.Subject tags: programmingxulrunner
Today I was preaching on the mission of God and salvation history, and decided at the last minute to throw in a good example of (a) how God always seeks to restore relationship with those estranged from him, and (b) the principle that, because God does this, we should too. It’s one of my key themes, and a great verse which highlights it is 2 Samuel 14:14. David has become estranged from his son, and Joab sent a woman in to change his mind and gain forgiveness. The climax of the woman’s argument, in every English translation I have checked, goes like this:
NET: But God does not take away life; instead he devises ways for the banished to be restored.
NIV: But God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him.
NASB: Yet God does not take away life, but plans ways so that the banished one may not be cast out from him.
NKJV: Yet God does not take away a life; but He devises means, so that His banished ones are not expelled from Him.
You get the gist. The Shinkyodoyaku and Kogoyaku translations in Japanese render it similarly: God is always seeking reconciliation, and because God seeks reconciliation, we should do the same. Steeped in the concept of missio dei as I am, it’s a perfect summary of the big story of the Bible.
So surprise turned to horror when, a few minutes before I was about to get up and preach, I opened the Shinkayaku, the horribly-difficult-to-read version that for some insane reason most of the Evangelical churches in Japan use, and found this:
Shinkayaku: 神は死んだ者をよみがえらせてはくださいません。 どうか追放されている者を追放されたままにしておかないように、 ご計画をお立てください。
Gloss: God does not raise dead people back to life. Please work out a plan so that the banished ones do not remained estranged from you.
So because death is the end and we only have one life, we’re on our own and should seek reconcilation with others while we’re alive. Not quite the exact opposite, but pretty close.
If that Shinkayaku translation has people saying that God does not raise dead people back to life, it strikes me that that’s yet another good reason to ditch the Shinkayaku.
(Standard disclaimer: Yes, I know Bible translation is a long and thankless task, and I don’t claim I’d come up with a perfect translation. But there are other Japanese Bible translations out there, and so the list of reasons to continue using a broken one is vanishingly small.)Subject tags: theologyjapanbible
So this morning in church we looked at 1 Corinthians 16, and, in what I think is probably a first when teaching on stewardship, everyone there decided to increase their giving. How did I do it?
Well, of course, having a small church helps if you want to get everyone on board. But there’s another thing. I’ve written before about the dichotomy that comes about when people reify the church. I had a long screed here explaining this but it can basically be summed up in a picture. Most people think of Christian giving like this:
Nobody likes the idea, it causes tension, and pastors get embarrassed talking about it since they’re the representatives of the receiving party, not the giving party.
The impression you get from Paul’s writing, however, looks like this:
People don’t give to the church, they are the church, and the church gives the money away outside of itself.
Yes, I’m aware that one interpretation of this passage is that Paul was describing one particular collection to be taken up to Jerusalem, not a general pattern of giving. I think the Περὶ δὲ construction and the use of present imperatives renders this unlikely.
I was amazed looking over this passage about how delicately Paul handles the issue. First, note that he does not stipulate how much is to be given. Then in v2 he says that giving is to be decided and set aside at home (παρ᾿ ἑαυτῷ), and so that he does not embarrass people by making a fund drive when he arrives. Next, he does not handle the church’s money himself, but he asks them to arrange for trustworthy people from within the church to administer it. They are to take it directly to the recipients. Only if they ask him to will he travel with them. Everything is done and handled by the people giving the money away and there is complete transparency in how it is handled.
So we tried it. As the church planter, I tried to model Paul’s role; I explained all that and a bit about the theology behind giving, and then I left the members to make a decision about what they would do. “I think we should go for it!” was the instant response. After some discussion about what to do with the money, they decided to make a weekly contribution to a charity which runs a local food bank for children’s and old people’s homes and local people who are struggling; one person from the church (not me, of course) would collect the contribution and take it directly to the food bank.
But the real encouragement for me was not what we decided but that, by shifting the way people think about giving, people became excited about and committed to doing more of it.Subject tags: theologybiblechurch
The various modes of worship which prevailed… were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.
The superstition of the people was not imbittered by any mixture of theological rancor; nor was it confined by the chains of any speculative system. The devout polytheist, though fondly attached to his national rites, admitted with implicit faith the different religions of the earth. Fear, gratitude, and curiosity, a dream or an omen, a singular disorder, or a distant journey, perpetually disposed him to multiply the articles of his belief, and to enlarge the list of his protectors. The thin texture of the Pagan mythology was interwoven with various but not discordant materials. As soon as it was allowed that sages and heroes, who had lived or who had died for the benefit of their country, were exalted to a state of power and immortality, it was universally confessed, that they deserved, if not the adoration, at least the reverence, of all mankind. The deities of a thousand groves and a thousand streams possessed, in peace, their local and respective influence; nor could the Romans who deprecated the wrath of the Tiber, deride the Egyptian who presented his offering to the beneficent genius of the Nile. The visible powers of nature, the planets, and the elements were the same throughout the universe.
Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Originally written about ancient Rome, although just as applicable to modern Japan.Subject tags: theologyjapanquotesbooks
So this week I have had to deal with Christian publishers who:
If you’ve got a book you want to write, and you want it to be published by people who aren’t idiots, why not get in touch with me?Subject tags: theologybooks
I was all set to write about how I wasn’t giving up Facebook and other social media for Lent. The Internet, I was going to write, is undeniably positive thing, which has led to the democratisation of information and spread of knowledge possibly to the same degree as the printing press. We don’t give up books for Lent, right? Social media has facilitated connections and conversations between friends new and old. It allows those far away from their home country (like me) to maintain friendships and keep connected. We don’t give up friends for Lent, right?
At the same time, I was reflecting for other reasons on the fact that the Internet does facilitate some spectacularly bad behaviour in certain communities; recently I came across examples in the technical and atheist communities of people mistreating each other in ways that would probably not happen were it not for the Internet. But being a technophile, I tended to assume that there was something broken about those communities, not the Internet. The Internet is just a tool. After all, we don’t have problems like that in the Christian world, do we?
So… Rob Bell has a new book out this month, and in what is rapidly becoming a pre-launch tradition, I am now having to wade through (a) posts from people who feel the need to tell others not to be arseholes before reading the book, (b) posts from people being arseholes before reading the book, and (c) posts from people being arseholes about the people being arseholes. (I may find myself in that latter category.) And while Christians are perfectly capable of being arseholes to each other before the widespread uptake of social media (this happened to Steve Chalke too), I have to reluctantly concede that, while the Internet is a tremendously positive thing, it certainly is a force multiplier for arseholery. This isn’t just about people being nasty about Rob Bell; what it is is about recognising that even good things bring temptations. The at-least partial anonymity and the fact that one can forget that one is interacting with people, not just words on a screen, seem to combine to often bring out the worst in people. And I can see those tendencies in myself first of all. I have been tremendously blessed by social media, but I have also been angered and infuriated by it as well. The Internet manages provide both the itchy trigger finger and the loaded gun.
As Christians, we have this thing that we do when something which is tremendously positive also carries the temptation for abuse. We fast; we give up the undeniably good thing for a period of time, in order to reflect, reclaim, and reassert that–for instance—food is for the stomach and not the stomach for food. In other words, we deliberately exercise discipline, even over something which is a positive thing, in order to remind ourselves that we do not need to accept it wholesale, its negative temptations as well; to step away from that world for a while and regain perspective. To see the people, not just the words on the screen.
So I love the Internet. I love social media. I think they’re fantastic things. I’ve benefited from them immeasurably. But I don’t have to have them. And I don’t have to let them own me. So I’ll see you after Easter.Subject tags: theology
So, an acquaintance shared this on Facebook and there was much approbation:
We seem utterly devoted to avoiding the question of evil, to misdiagnosing it, completely committed to a childish view of the world. And our foolishness is proving very costly. For as Chesterton went on to say, “The great human heresy is that the trees move the wind.” By this he means the heresy that it is economics, race, poverty, a political party or doctrine that are the real causes of evil in the world; in this case, that it is the lack of gun control that causes evil in the world. Is the evil therefore located in the gun? Far more people are killed by automobile accidents each year in the U.S.—is the evil located in those vehicles?
There is a lot of wisdom in here. We need to be serious about the problem of evil. We need to be aware of the Powers, the social and structural problems which contribute to and perpetrate evil, and we need to be aware that the root of most of the world’s problems is the evil in the heart of men. I know this; I’ve just published a book about it. I think it’s a very insightful statement. So far, so good.
But something about all this made me deeply uneasy, and the more I reread it the more I realised quite how spectacularly, not just spectacularly but dangerously, wrong it was. Because the problem is evil in the hearts of men, the writer argues, attempts to deal with the problem through gun control are “naive” and “foolish.” The argument echoes very closely the catchphrase of the NRA—guns don’t kill people, people kill people. This is trivially disproved, by the way; there’s a reason the army uses guns instead of, say, bananas. Here is the problem: people and guns collaborate to kill people.
To blame the issue solely on the transcendental nature of evil is equally to misdiagnose it. It is a simple and convenient answer to a complex and multifaceted problem. For starters, even knowing that evil is the root of our problems does not tell us how to solve them. Eldridge assumes that as Christians we have the solution to evil—“Because we have answers.” By which I presume he means that the answer to the problem of humanity is more Christianity. And that is the natural consequence, isn’t it? If you believe that the problem is solely the evil in mens’ hearts, and you decide to apply yourself solely to solving the transcendental problem, you have no need to get involved in proximate solutions. You do end up seeing them as “naive” and “foolish.” Gun violence won’t be solved by legislating, if it’s a matter of evil. If the root of human trafficking is actually sin, then the International Justice Mission are naively and foolishly wasting their time breaking up networks and freeing people instead of actually dealing with the real cause of the issue. Perhaps they should be evangelising instead.
And this is the classical Evangelical position. Billy Graham is the poster child for this—no point doing any kind of social work because if people get the Gospel, their sin problem is fixed. (Really? So Christians don’t sin any more?) But it’s based on the depressing and frankly insulting contention that Christians are incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. It’s a shame, because I tend to think we’re better than that. IJM is a great example: they work for justice, and they advance the Gospel.
Eldridge has found a deeper problem, and he’s right to highlight that. But he isn’t right to utterly dismiss proximate solutions as well. We can work to heal the evil in the hearts of men; we can also help to secure our children from the consequences of that evil. It’s neither foolish nor naive to try to do both. Nor is it naive or foolish for legislators to work on a legislative solution, because that’s how they, in their contexts, can best contribute to their part of the puzzle.
Yet far worse than this just being a recipe for inaction and lack of appropriate involvement, it’s also a recipe for incuriosity as well, as Eldridge himself demonstrates brilliantly. Yes, gun violence is a matter of evil. But is that it? Case closed? No mention, for instance, of the fact that random gun massacres are overwhelmingly an American problem. If Eldridge were right, that gun massacres happen purely because Humanity Is Bad, then the whole of humanity would be suffering from them to a similar degree. But they are not, and so that really ought to give one pause before making such pronouncements. The brilliant and insightful answer has unfortunately blinded him to the more interesting questions: Why here, why us, why now, and what can we do about it?
In fact, those questions are utterly uninteresting to him; he explicitly rejects the need to consider “sociological, psychological or political explanations” for human behaviour. Sin alone is the explanation, and the Gospel alone the answer, and we need not think about it, nor deal with it, in any other way.
That’s the Evangelical approach, folks. That is apparently what putting away childishness and naivety looks like.
A friend of mine likes to say that “the perfect is the enemy of ‘done’,” and this is no more true when it comes to gun control. People say “would this solution have prevented that massacre?” Who cares? Not a relevant question. Preventing any massacre is a good start. But the perfect is the enemy of ‘done’ when it comes to Kingdom work as well. Yes, the root of the problem is evil. If you want to concentrate on fixing that, go right ahead. But don’t trample on those who are trying to fix the effects of evil as well.Subject tags: theologyevangelicalism
Prouser, Ora Horn, Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible embraces those with Special Needs, Teaneck, NJ: Ben Yehuda Press, 2012.
As an able-bodied person, it is easy for me to fall into the trap of seeing disability in the Bible either as something that God has not miraculously cured yet, or more often, of not seeing it at all. We read the tales of Moses, the great leader of the Jewish people, forgetting that he lived with a speech impediment which he felt disqualified him from the job; how did this daily reminder of his weakness inform his leadership? We read the stories of the Patriachs, somehow forgetting that amongst their number were the blind and the lame. Understanding the effects of physical disability upon these characters gives us important insights into their relationship with God, and thus into the character of God. It also gives us a more nuanced understanding of disability—beyond simply the black (abominations and curses of Leviticus) and white (healing narratives).
In Esau’s Blessing, from the Jewish publishing company Ben Yehuda Press, Ora Horn Prouser seeks to deepen our theological understanding of disability. She also attempts to extend this investigation beyond simply those with physical disabilities, and looks for evidence of stories of mental disability within the Hebrew Bible. While any attempt to retroactively diagnose or psychoanalysis literary characters based on fragmentary bibliographical details needs to be tentative and speculative—as Prouser is the first to admit—at the same time this does not stop her from moving smoothly between analysis (“People with ADHD tend to display these behaviours”) to insinuation (“Could it be…?”) to outright assumption. (“Esau’s ADHD…”) While I agree that there is much fruitful value in applying disability as an interpretative lens to illumine our study of the Bible, and I found much about the book inspiring and thought-provoking, I am not quite ready to concede that this approach is viable whether or not the characters actually had the disability—this must be established first, and since it cannot be established with anything like the degree of certainty the author assumes, this tension made me uncomfortable throughout the book. Seeing disability within the Bible—even opening one’s eyes to the possibility of disability within the Bible—certainly does lead, as Prouser argues, to a more sympathetic reading, a more inclusive reading, making visible and normalising the marginalised and discriminated, and allowing us one to see both the work and the image of God within the disabled. But imagining disability where it may not actually be present is no help to anyone… is it?
Accordingly, the book is strongest when investigating those who are positively described as having some kind of physical disability. And yet—some of her diagnoses of mental illness do make sense of some of the Bible’s mysterious moments. With an estimated one in four suffering from mental health problems at some point during their lives, it ought to be highly likely that, amongst the characters in the Bible stories, we would see some with some kind of mental disability, and Prouser’s attempt to make this possibility visible within the Bible is an extremely valuable contribution. However, I wonder if it would not be more reflective of the tentative nature of retroactive diagnosis, and more useful in terms of general applicability, to position mental illness in terms of a continuum, and to see all of the Biblical characters on this spectrum—an obvious application of this would be the character of Naomi, who certainly behaves like someone with depression, and yet it would be more obvious to ascribe this depression to circumstantial rather than clinical factors. Similarly, Samson’s destructive, self-destructive and unempathetic behaviour is made less confusing if we accept the possibility that he may have had a conduct disorder, and God’s role in strengthening, sustaining and enabling Samson in such behaviour requires deep contemplation; but we do not need to necessarily engage in a diagnosis, so much as open our eyes to the possibilities that not everyone in the Bible is mentally “like us.” I believe this is what Prouser is trying to do, and she most certainly succeeds in this—I will never read the Hebrew Bible stories in the same light again—but I found that her rush to a certain diagnosis, probably motivated though it is by attempting to find sympathetic correspondences for the real situations of her readers, detracted from this essential point.
Despite this caveat, I would highly recommend this book as a very readable and sympathetic introduction to the concepts of disability theology, and as an insightful and devotional reflection of the work of God within the lives of the disabled.Subject tags: theologybooks