Thinking Faith blogs

Sisyphus' Labour: Remembering Who(se) We Are (a holiday guide)

The labour of Sisyphus

I’m supposed to be on holiday. And on holiday we (sometimes) relax: we take stock of our lives and ‘where we are right now’. Relaxation and recuperation are implied in this word, ‘holiday’.

But when we start to relax and recuperate things can get a bit messy. We’re no longer submerged in our workaday lives, and some things which seemed like important activities and tasks are unmasked as distractions which conceal truth from us.

Driving down Spain last week I found myself thinking a lot about Sisyphus and his labour. In Greek mythology Sisyphus was King of Ephyra (Corinth) and was punished by the gods for his wrongdoing and forced to roll a boulder up a hill until it would fall down to the bottom and he’d have to do it all over again, for all eternity. In contemporary imaginations Sisyphus is connected with labour that is unrewarding, irrational, and de-humanising. 

Yesterday I was able to connect Sisyphus and my holiday because I received a(nother) journal article rejection. In academia we are told to treat rejections like a wet-weather forecast – nothing out of the ordinary. But the thing is that we’re taught to normalise an awful lot of things in academia which, once we take a step back from the environment, may be better treated as harmful: things such as competition, individualism, elitism, snobbery, exclusivity, overwork, shaming – and the list goes on.

Feeling twisted and confused inside, I texted a friend about my periodic disillusionment with the academic world. A sense of bondage – of being enslaved to someone else’s idea of who I should be – always carries with it the calling card of negative spiritual forces. We come to feel like Sisyphus – condemned to the irrationality of futile labour which serves nobody else but that (and those) which act against Christ. We become the person held upside down by the devil in one of Jędrzej Wowro’s sculptures, being ‘what we know not’. So my friend reminded me that I was on holiday, and to remember not only who I am, but whose I am.

Before I left for my holiday I had to complete an end-of-year report which helps my funders write their annual report showcasing all their students’ achievements. As academics we spend a lot of time writing monitoring reports like these. But how often do we write alternative reports, or at least consider their equivalent in more positive spiritual terms? The ‘world’ (for want of a better word) wants to value us for one set of qualities, whereas our Lover is far more concerned about who and where we are as unique persons, seeing the end from the beginning, yet expectant of the unexpected in between. I don’t think He sees us primarily as ‘academics’. Our professions are only an incidental way of helping us fulfil our vocation(s) in life: they help us to bring forth fruit from the talents God gave us.  

So in an alternative dimension, these might be some of the areas to think about:

  • How would I draw an arc of my life (not just my career) thus far? Are there any pivot points, especially beyond my career?
  • What would the last year of my life look like if I drew it terms of a circle, or in fits and starts, rather than a linear progression (as our monitoring forms require)? 
  • To what extent do I feel a slave to my profession’s ‘expectations’ of me? How might I overcome these or replace them with more profound expectations? 
  • How closely do I align with my profession’s understanding of success? Is there a healthier vision?
  • Are there any areas of my life that I feel are perhaps unnecessarily squeezed out because of my work? Am I identifying personal value with professional esteem?
  • Am I thinking of my academic career in the long-term, or making concessions for short-term security? In other words, have I sufficiently subordinated my day job to my deeper vocational journey, which may take me in unexpected directions?
  • Am I at risk of burying my talents, personal and vocational, in order to be ‘safe’?

Answering questions like these is a hard exercise because the academic world in which we live tends to operate by a compass starkly at odds with the values of the Beatitudes and the seemingly upside-down world of the parables.

I am realising more and more that to be renewed in our minds is a lifelong task, beset by obstacles within and around us, but mostly within. And still the Gospel signals freedom; there is a way out, even though it be long and winding. Writing this on Pentecost, I am further reminded that we have a Helper. Together we can ask Him – free us from the labours of Sisyphus; turn us the right way up!

Richard Vytniorgu is a PhD candidate in English Literature at De Montfort University with Midlands3Cities (AHRC). You can find him at www.richardvytniorgu.com.

Bespoke Evangelism and the Duke of Edinburgh

Gareth Jones, our TFN director and I have recently started talking about bespoke evangelism. Gareth is quite good at this but not as good as me!

The heart of bespoke evangelism is to find out what a person enjoys talking about and then to build bridges into this enjoyable chat zone. This method of 'witnessing' is to be contrasted with bible bashing that both ignores contemporary culture and often alienates people.

Here is an illustration of bespoke evangelism that seemed to work very well:

I was talking to a young non-Christian woman and it turned out that she enjoys talking about the royal family. I said to her -

"Have you heard what they are saying about the Duke of Edinburgh?"

She was intrigued and asked me to continue. I explained thus. "There's an island, called Tanna in the South Pacific where they worship Phil the Greek."

She looked alert, attentive and engaged!

I continued my creative spiel - "Years ago missionaries turned up and told the locals to repent of their cannibalism and knock it on the head with eating their neighbours. They turned to Christ in droves! They stopped snacking on each other and strangling widows!"

"Am I boring you?" I asked her. "No, carry on this is fascinating", she replied.

"So the islanders forsook their cannibal gods and turned to Jesus. Tragically all this great work has stopped. You see the locals spot the Duke with the Queen on a trip to their island and they start to believe he is a god. They write to Phil and he sends them lovely photos to help them build a shrine to the consort of Queen Elizabeth!!

She was enjoying this cheeky but evangelistic spiel.

"He is so bang out of order," I continued. "He should have told his wife and his worshippers - 'Don't worship me! Worship Christ the Lord!'"

The woman was absolutely enthralled and delighted with my parable. This led me to my final speech act.

"Do you think the Duke of Edinburgh can save people from their sins and help them out on the day of final judgment?"

She didn't respond to my question but gospel seeds had been planted and it's all thanks to bespoke evangelism.

To find out more about bespoke evangelism, read my new book and become a more imaginative disciple of King Jesus.

 

 

 

 

Richard Middleton on God's glory and his image bearers

Last week, I discussed the first half of a talk Biblical scholar and philosopher Richard Middleton gave for FiSch a few weeks ago. I will pick up where we left off. This week I've included quite a few Biblical references, because his talk linked a lot of concepts and elements of the overarching storyline of the Bible together. I would encourage you to take some time to study these, and pray this would deepen your understanding of God and your role in his creation.

We saw that God created the cosmos as his temple, and that we as his image have an important task in developing his creation. But a question immediately arises.  Why does God dwell only in part of creation - i.e. heaven and also, when it was there, the Temple? Why does he not dwell on earth, and why is the eschaton, the fulfilment of all things, sometimes described in the Bible as a time when God's glory 'will fill the earth' (Is. 11:9, Hab. 2:14, Rev. 21:3, 22-23)?

The answer is as obvious as it is stark: it is because of human sin. Instead of filling the earth with God's image and glory, humans misuse the power they have been given and are filling the earth with violence (Gen. 6:13). Note, though, that humans continue to produce culture (Gen. 4), although cultural innovations are often put to the service of oppression, preventing God's presence from permeating the cosmos. Furthermore, the image of God is not completely obliterated (Gen. 5:1-3, 9:6).

Yet regardless of the destruction we have wrought, God still loves the world he has created, including human beings, and he longs to redeem it (Acts 3:12, Rom. 8:21, 23, Eph. 1:10, Col. 1:19). He does this firstly by sending his perfect image, Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15, Heb. 1:3), into the world, to restore the image of God in us. Last week we saw a parallel with Israel as a royal priesthood. Here we find another parallel with Israel (see Ex.2): Israel was in bondage and needed to be redeemed, to be restored to their 'garden', the land of the promise. This parallel of bondage can be applied both to creation as a whole, longing to be redeemed from its human oppressors, and to human beings specifically, enslaved to sin.

And so, if we trust in Christ, he redeems us, breathes his Spirit into us once more (Acts 2:1-4, cf. Gen. 2:7) and renews our humanity so that we can become God's temple again (1 Cor. 3:16, Eph. 2:21, 4:24, Col. 3:10) - the locus of his presence on earth. We reign with Christ in the kingdom of God as his body.

The new Jerusalem comes down from heaven, and God will come to dwell with us.  Our calling as the renewed humanity, conformed to the image of Christ (Phil. 2), is to embody an alternative culture to the violence and injustice that now fills the earth. As scholars in particular, our aim is to do our work faithfully so that we will be able to bring the glory and honour of our scholarship into the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:26).

This is both a challenge and a great calling. How does your research aim to extend God's presence in his creation?

Richard Middleton on the royal human task

A few weeks ago, Biblical scholar and philosopher Richard Middleton visited FiSch as part of a UK tour. This got me very excited, as I've read some of his work and found it very helpful, and Anthony and I managed to go along to a talk in Durham and two in Leeds. Here I'd like to share what Richard spoke about in one of the Leeds talks, as it provides encouragement and a solid theological foundation for scholarly work. The talk was entitled 'Why are we here? Our sacred calling in God's world' and was based on Richard's book 'A new heaven and a new earth, Reclaiming Biblical eschatology', which, incidentally, is a great book[1]!

Richard went back to the beginning: the first few chapters of Genesis describe the creation of the universe using building imagery. The first verse of Genesis 1 is all-encompassing: God created the heavens and the earth. Remarkably, this implies that heaven is part of creation. In a number of places the Bible says that 'God's throne is in the heavens'. God therefore chooses to indwell his creation. The creation is God's house. Indeed, it is a temple!

Humans, in Genesis 1 and 2, are not created to 'worship God and enjoy him forever', at least if you understand 'worship' to be singing God's praises in church! No, humans are created with a task, and this task is their 'reasonable worship' (Rom. 12:1). Their task is to image God by 'tilling and keeping the garden'. This is both a royal task and a holy task.

In the ancient Near East, 'the image of God' used to refer to the cult image of the God in the temple. However, besides this image of inert material, there was also a living image: the king[2]. Besides being the ruler of his people, he was usually also the high priest. In this context, it is significant that the people of Israel initially did not have a king: they were to be a royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9). Instead of one elite person, the entire human race is called to manifest God's lordship over the earth.

Genesis 2 explicitly states that 'God planted a garden', starting the first human cultural project. The creation is declared to be 'very good', but this leaves space for development. Creation thus has an eschatological element to it: it is going somewhere. God breathes life into the human beings he has made, so that they would be sites of God's presence in the world to prepare the world for God's eschatological filling of it. Humans have the important task to image God by 'tilling and keeping', developing his creation. Prov. 3:19-20 says that God constructed the cosmos by wisdom, understanding and knowledge. In Prov. 24:3-4 the exact same words are used to describe the human project of building a house, and in Ex. 31 these qualities are ascribed to the craftsman Bezalel, who oversaw the building of the tabernacle.

Of course this is precisely what we are doing in our scholarly endeavours! A proper understanding of creation leads us to affirm and encourage the cultural activity of developing God's creation, whether that is the non-human creation, or things that have been created by humans, such as art, literature, cities, or bridges. How does your scholarly work reflect God's work in creation? How does it develop his creation?

[1] Some of the ideas discussed here can also be traced back to his earlier book 'The liberating image: The imago dei in Genesis 1' and the book 'The transforming vision: Shaping a Christian worldview', which he co-authored with Brian Walsh.

[2] For example, the name of the famous pharaoh, Tutankhamun, literally means 'living image of [the god] Amun'.

PS there are still spaces available for Transforming the Mind, the National Christian Postgraduate Conference. Warmly recommended!

Fantastic reviews of my new book by a scholar and a vicar

I was incredibly chuffed by these two reviews of my new book. Richard Middleton is a superb Old Testament scholar who is a seminal thinker in both worldview and eschatology. Recently Richard came to the UK and delivered some riveting, brilliant and edifying lectures on a new heavens and a new earth and the psalms. Richard is not only a scholar and a gent. He is also a very warm and witty follower of Jesus who hails from Jamaica. I love his accent!

I have not met Steve Divall. He is the vicar of St Helen's in North Kensington.  

Mark Roques is an astute philosopher and storyteller; and he is very funny, to boot. I found The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails to be a brilliant introduction to the rationale and art of storytelling in a postmodern world as an entrée to communicating the gospel.

Richard Middleton

What do George Cadbury, Simeon Stylites and Imelda Marcos have in common?  Gripping stories that are waiting to be told, as they are with humour and imagination by Mark Roques.  Stories that get under the radar of cultural cynicism, that provoke response and that lead naturally to conversation about Jesus and His Kingdom.  Mark not only shares many examples of stories that he has told, he also opens up how stories engage with their hearers to challenge, suggest, inspire and provoke and so how we might best tell them ourselves.  In his words: ‘Telling stories and asking questions is natural, disarming and fun. This approach has liberated me to talk about the incredible hope I have in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Steve Divall

'Descent into Hell' and the value of academic work

Descent into Hell

Does academic work matter? This is a question most academics come up against at some point in their career, and in day to day life: while most of us at least started because we love our subjects, everyday work in the lab or the library can be monotonous and frustrating, sometimes seeming pointless. At the same time, academic culture often encourages us to make our identity as intellectuals into an idol, and this makes any doubt or difficulty feel like a personal failure.

Today I want to share an extract from a novel which crystallized the perils of both extremes for me: Descent into Hell, a 1937 ‘supernatural thriller’ by Charles Williams.

Descent is a very odd novel and difficult to summarise, but in brief it follows the residents (living and dead) of the fictional suburb of Battle Hill as they face supernatural interventions of various kinds. The character I am interested in here is a historian, Wentworth. He and his academic rival are introduced in the following passage:

Aston Moffatt was another military historian... and Wentworth and he were engaged in a long and complicated controversy on the problem of the least of those skirmishes of the Roses which had been fought upon the Hill. The question itself was unimportant: it would never seriously matter to anyone but the controversialists whether Edward Plantagenet's cavalry had come across the river with the dawn or over the meadows by the church at about noon. But a phrase, a doubt, a contradiction, had involved the two in argument.

Aston Moffatt, who was by now almost seventy, derived a great deal of intellectual joy from expounding his point of view. He was a pure scholar, a holy and beautiful soul who would have sacrificed reputation, income, and life, if necessary, for the discovery of one fact about the horse-boys of Edward Plantagenet. He had determined his nature.

Wentworth was younger and at a more critical point, at that moment when a man's real concern begins to separate itself from his pretended... He raged secretly as he wrote his letters and drew up his evidence; he identified the scholarship with himself, and asserted himself under the disguise of a defence of scholarship. He refused to admit that the exact detail of Edward's march was not, in fact, worth to him the cost of a single cigar.

This is a striking and chilling portrait of how attitudes to our work can shape character. The two figures are obviously somewhat exaggerated, but the different ways they relate to their research certainly ring true. Moffatt, we are told, truly en-joys his work: it gives him a deep and unselfish joy to know the truth about history. Wentworth's main motivation, on the other hand, is hatred for his rival. He lacks any respect for the content of his work, instead seeing the controversy as a personal grievance.

Rather than valuing historical research for its own sake, he ‘identifies the scholarship with himself’, seeing it only as a way to assert his own superiority. Throughout the novel, this angry selfishness eats away at Wentworth, leaving him eventually less than human: Williams is illustrating a vision of Hell as complete inversion into the self.

Williams was active in the academic and literary circles of mid-twentieth-century London and Oxford, including the Inklings, and he uses scholar characters in several of his novels to explore the value of intellectual work and its relationship to character. Wentworth, however, is perhaps his most alarming creation. He is given chance after chance to break free of his extreme narcissism, but rejects them all, and is eventually damned:

'If he had hated Sir Aston because of a passion for austere truth, he might even then have been saved... He looked at Sir Aston and thought, not “He was wrong in his facts”, but “I’ve been cheated”. It was his last consecutive thought.'

Descent presents, I think, a warning to academics about the temptations I’ve described: on the one hand, letting our work define us, and on the other discarding the real value of our subject beyond what it can do for our careers, our reputation, or just our self-image. It calls us to respect the dignity of God's world, and to cultivate humility in response.

Can evangelism be fun?

Thanks to wordsmith, poet and great friend Rachel Lawrence for this review of The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails.

The theme of James Bond that runs throughout this book, provides a universal, cultural reference point which is woven into the whole text of this book and acts as a touchstone for a wide variety of worldviews which are succinctly, humorously and skilfully illustrated by the use of real life stories. The whole book lives and breathes storytelling and fully immerses the reader in this technique as well as pointing to the fundamental importance of Jesus the teller of stories and God the creator of the story we currently inhabit.

This is a user-friendly, accessible book where the author’s enthusiasm for stories and storytelling is infectious. It makes you want to rush out into the street and engage people in conversations about belief, provoking such questions as, ‘What is my neighbour’s story? How does it make them engage with the world around them? How can I imaginatively share my story of a loving God who loves us and wants us to follow in God’s way and bring blessing to the world and my neighbour without sounding like a ‘Bible basher’?’

Mark Roques, as well as unmasking the beliefs behind some of the motivating ideologies of our times, equips us with the materials to talk about faith in creative and imaginative ways through a plethora of exciting, funny and moving stories and inspires us to think of our own. A refreshing approach to evangelism, the author provides us with a thoroughly worthwhile, practical and uplifting read.

Spotlight on… Transforming the Mind 2017

About two years ago I wrote on this blog about the annual National Christian Postgraduate Conference, and for several years now I and others have written up some of the talks that were presented at this conference for the FiSch blog. This year the conference will take place from Friday 16th to Sunday 18th of June, in beautiful Ilam, Dovedale, in the Peak District. You are warmly invited to join us there!

The conference has as its strapline ‘Transforming the Mind’, taken from Romans 12:1-2, which states: ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.’

The conference was founded to encourage Christian postgraduates to fulfill the stewardship that God has entrusted to human beings in the particular context of the university. This means that God's perspective should direct our assumptions, our manner of inquiry and learning, our striving for excellence with humility. We are called to engage with God’s creation around us, whether that is by focusing on natural phenomena such as atoms, genes or ecosystems, or by studying human culture and life. Most significantly, our calling is to seek God's Kingdom. The conference helps us to think through what this may mean in practice as we follow our calling as Christian scholars.

This year’s talks will be given by the Rev. Dr. Joanna Collicutt, the Karl Jaspers Lecturer in Psychology and Spirituality at Ripon College, Cuddesdon and Oxford Diocesan Advisor for Spiritual Care for Older People; Dr. Maithrie White, Chair of Transforming the Mind, and former lecturer in Literature, Critical Theory and Cultural Studies; and Dr. Mike Clifford, Associate Professor in Engineering at the University of Nottingham. Besides talks, the weekend features times of worship, group discussion, free time in the beautiful surroundings, a barbecue, and above all, much time to share with other Christian postgraduates.

Previous speakers have commented:

"Transforming the Mind’ is the key annual national event for Christian postgraduates who don’t want to compartmentalise their faith from their academic vocations. Fine speakers, stimulating discussion, creative worship and a great setting. Strongly recommended."

Dr Jonathan Chaplin, Director, Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Cambridge.

"This is a wonderful conference. The atmosphere is warm, welcoming and friendly. I greatly enjoyed speaking there myself and meeting everyone. This conference will inspire you and may change your life!"

Professor Sir Colin Humphreys (Former Chair "Christians in Science")

If you are a Christian postgraduate (masters, PhD) or early career academic, we would love to see you there! The early bird registration date has been extended to 15th May, and you can register online. We heartily recommend the conference!

Conference report: 'The Bible and Literature': Skopje, Macedonia

In the week after Easter I had the privilege of travelling to the Republic of Macedonia to take part in a conference on 'The Bible and Literature'. It was co-hosted by the Macedonian Academy of the Sciences and Arts - a research university in the capital city of Skopje - and the Balkan Institute for Faith and Culture, a Christian organisation seeking to engage with academic circles and promote interfaith discussions in Macedonia and surrounding areas. This was the first time the two organisations had worked officially together and the result was a fascinating and wide-ranging bilingual conference touching on scholarship from manuscript studies to feminist theory.

The two keynote speakers represented two different ways of taking the title of the event. The first, my fellow guest Professor Simon Horobin of Magdalen College, Oxford, looked at Biblical aspects of literature - specifically, the genre of the saint's life in a fourteenth-century collection he identified for the first time only ten years ago.  The second, our host Academician Katica Kulavkova of MASA, examined literary aspects of the Bible, pondering the discourses of the sacred in the parables of Christ and their modern adaptation by the twentieth-century Serbian writer Borislav Pekić.

I also had the opportunity to present on my research, analysing the use of the Psalms in a thirteenth-century text. Other topics included the 'feminine principle' in the Bible and apocryphal texts; the Book of Malachi in James Joyce's Ulysses; creation in Marilynne Robinson's novels; the image of the suffering Virgin Mary in medieval frescoes and contemporary Macedonian poetry, and various others. I found it particularly stimulating to hear from Eastern Orthodox perspectives, and also from a number of academics who are also poets. This pairing of vocations seemed much more common in Macedonia than has been my experience in the UK!

The Balkan Institute for Faith and Culture stems from the small minority of evangelical believers in Macedonia, and is committed to fostering real and productive dialogue between different expressions of Christian faith, other religions, and more secular elements of society. This was certainly a feature of the conference, and for me also provoked the question of how this could be done more effectively in academic and literary spheres in the UK. The humanities have certainly seen a 'religious turn' over the last several decades, which (in my discipline especially) has borne fruit in history, theory, and interpretation which takes seriously the living power of religion. In a world where, in the West as well as the East, the centrality of religion in human decision-making and lifestyle is ever more obvious, Christian academics have an opportunity to speak into what can be a self-deceptively 'secular' academy with the authority of personal experience as well as disciplinary expertise.

The conference took place on 20-21 April 2017.

Virtual Lifeworlds and Mission

I was delighted with this excellent and very insightful review of my new book by Australian friend Geoff Beech.

We live in an age and culture where belief in the God of the Bible, and knowledge of the Bible, are at a particularly low level. Within a secular humanist, individualistic, consumerist culture Christians often struggle to find an apologetic that will be appropriate. Mark Roques has studied philosophy and understands the power of the worldview assumptions that underlie our systems of belief and action. The development of our worldviews depends so much on the lifeworld environments that surround us and that we take on board to develop an understanding of what is “normal” for us. Through the use of stories, Mark, a consummate story teller, provides us with a wide range of “virtual lifeworlds” that may be entered. Stories, and the understanding of what is “normal” in them, challenge our own sense of “normal” and therefore challenge our beliefs about the world and the meaning for us of living in it. But Mark does not leave us only with stories. In The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails, Mark encourages us through practical examples, to use stories in our engagement with others and shows us how they may be used effectively. This book, therefore provides a practical guide to sharing our faith in Jesus Christ. As well as its practical application, Mark’s easy-going narrative style, as well as his selection of stories and illustrations, make this work an engaging read.

Geoff Beech, Education Consultant, Lifeworld Education

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