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Faith, truth and experience in art and scholarship

This post is the second of a short series summarising the three main talks given by Jonathan Chaplin and Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin at the Faith-in-Scholarship conference in February. (Summary of Jonathan’s first talk.)

Adrienne’s talk, on ‘Faith, Truth and Experience’, drew in particular on her own expertise in the field of aesthetics and the philosophy of art. The starting point was an exploration of what function the concepts of truth and meaning might serve in the context of artistic experience. There is a tendency in Western thought to view truth as something that is inextricably bound up with language; each of the dominant philosophical theories of truth (including the correspondence theory, the coherence theory and the consensus theory) is based on the assumption that ‘truth’ is something communicated through clear, grammatically correct and unambiguous sentences that relate to real situations in the world. From this viewpoint, truth is not something that can be conveyed through art, music or poetry, or through non-linguistic dimensions of experience such as the emotions.

This stance, however, is a departure from the etymology of the word ‘truth’ itself, both as an English term and in its Biblical cognates. ‘Truth’ stems from the Old English word ‘treowe’, which conveys faithfulness in a much broader sense, much as we might talk about a ‘true friend’. The term most often translated as ‘true’ in the Old Testament is אֱמֶת (emeth), which again suggests faithfulness or steadfastness – for example in Psalm 36:5: ‘Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies’. Here, truth is bound up not with linguistic correspondences but with trustworthiness, with faithfulness to an established relationship.

In the New Testament, the Greek term ἀλήθεια carries similar resonances, but it also means literally unveiling or disclosure; it is the negation of λήθεια, which means something hidden or forgotten (it is the root of our word ‘latent’). In the Bible, the ultimate example of truth as disclosure is Jesus: he is the Word made flesh, and he reveals the Father to us, not just through his teachings but through the totality of his life. Truth is thus not just about statements that correspond to reality, but rather about  lived experience.

God’s disclosure in creation is the precondition of all human knowing. Different kinds of scholarship build on this in different ways. Science uses careful observation to go beyond appearances and reveal more about a certain aspect of the world. By contrast, art engages directly with these appearances, and its focus on the totality of our experience of the world rather than a specific aspect. It is a kind of imaginative disclosure that involves all our senses.

This poses a challenge. Christian views on art have often stressed its effectiveness as a way of transcending the senses: for example, the idea that visible beauty can point us towards the invisible God. Where its sensory qualities have been acknowledged, they have often been seen as immoral or self-indulgent; this all shows the impact of mind-body dualism upon Christian thought. But if we reclaim the multi-sensory nature of art, we find that it can serve as a powerful form of intimate contact with the world. It teaches us to see things as they really are; it feeds our imagination, and as a result nurtures our empathy; it gives a voice to affective experience; and, ultimately, it can disclose truth.

Scholarship: a Christian and human vocation

At the recent Faith-in-Scholarship conference, ten participants spent an intensive 22 hours with the six FiSch Fellows and two guest speakers: Jonathan Chaplin and Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin. This post is the first in a short series giving you a flavour of the three main talks.

The first talk was by Jonathan on ‘Scholarship as a Christian — and a human — vocation’. Jonathan is a specialist in Christian political thought, and is Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE), which is based at Tyndale House in Cambridge.

Christian scholars should view their work as a ministry given to them by God. This could be because it provides opportunities for evangelism, or because Christian scholars can serve the church. But it would be wrong to see those as the principal purpose of Christian scholarship. Christians ought to approach scholarship, first and foremost, as a shared, human vocation.

Before returning to that theme, it is worth considering the context in which this scholarship (usually) takes place: the modern university, which is the site of a contest between modernity and postmodernity.

The project of modernity started out as ‘faith seeking understanding’ but ended up insisting that faith was strictly inadmissible in all disciplines except theology. Now, although there is a proper ‘differentiation’ of knowledge into distinct disciplines, which will (rightly) lead to a distinction between theology and other areas of knowledge, the dominant reason for excluding faith considerations from scholarship was more an attempt to assert the primacy of ‘objective’ knowledge over ‘subjective’ faith. However, modernity failed to produce universal knowledge, and instead gave rise to numerous warring paradigms.

The very notion of ‘objective’ knowledge has been radically questioned in postmodernity, according to which all knowledge is ultimately particular and contingent. So, while modernist scholarship remains deeply suspicious of any attempt to allow a religious faith to shape it from within, there are now some postmodern ‘cracks in the secular’. These reveal a new openness to faith-based commitments and to a diversity of standpoints, including Christian perspectives.

Scholarship is a shared human vocation, because all scholars are part of the same creation. In the Bible, ‘wisdom’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ are about being aligned with the created order. And the particular kind of reasoning involved in scholarship is one route to wisdom.

But the creation we are investigating is now a fallen one. We do our scholarship with a certain blindness to the true order of creation, and we are prone to lapse into all kinds of intellectual and ideological distortions. Thus there is an ‘antithesis’, not between Christians and non-Christians, but between truth and falsehood.

This leads us to the theme of scholarship as a Christian vocation. There is a promise of redemption for the fallen creation. Christ was present at the origin of creation as well as in its redemption (see Colossians 1:15–17; Hebrews 1:1–3), so in pursuing faithful scholarship we will always be moving towards Christ. And this is the deepest basis for the dignity of the Christian and human scholarly calling.

Finally, what is the goal of scholarship? It is not just about intellectual transformation: scholarship is intended to serve society and humanity.

In summary, Christian scholarship may be described as: ‘a transformational vocation to acquire critically-oriented systematic rational insight into, and to disclose truth about, some facet of created, fallen and redeemed reality, in the light of an intellectual framework responsive to the fullness of biblical revelation, in critical dialogue with others, and in service of humanity’.

Justice as an intellectual virtue

The fact that Christians put a strong emphasis on justice is nothing new. At my church we’re currently working through Amos in our home groups. Amos surveys the surrounding lands and finds great injustices occurring there. He notices that injustices are occurring in (i) the law courts (Amos 2:6), (ii) the market place (Amos 2:7), (iii) the bedroom (Amos 2:7) and (iv) religious temples (Amos 2:8). They’re all areas where justice is not being done; areas that God, so it seems, cares equally about but where His good standards are not being applied.

How does the good of justice apply in academic life? I want to suggest that it affects us in two ways: content and culture.

First, consider the content of our research. If we’re to be imaging God (Gen. 1:27) then we are to be concerned, like Him, with doing justice (in the doctrinal and social sense) in every aspect of our work. We are to be agents in His world bringing justice to those who are oppressed (Rom 13:3-5). Given God’s concern with all areas of life as demonstrated in Amos we must see all of the issues (doctrinal and social) as important. I was recently at a talk by Charles Taliaffero (a Christian philosopher) who defends a similar position to me with regards to the question ‘What are we?’ This talk was a particularly useful rebuke on this issue for me. At this talk I expected him to give a defence of the doctrinally orthodox Christian view we both share. But, instead, he called philosophers concerned with the above question to consider a more rounded intellectual strategy. Not just be concerned with defending the propositional statements they find most attractive but be concerned with thinking hard about the ramification of these positions in society.

Second, consider the academic culture. It’s no secret that the academy is rife with injustices. People take more credit for their work than they’re really due. We all live by the mantra ‘publish or perish’ and this means that people publish papers that are, let’s admit, not furthering a particular area of research but simply reinventing the wheel. People get jobs because of who they know and not because they’re the best candidate. The university wants departments to make more money – not to be seeking truth. All of these things seem to be injustices to me. How are we to be agents of justice in the culture of the academy? I daresay just not doing the above is not good enough. We need to be seeking ways to minimise injustices. In practice how might this be done? I don’t know the precise answer. Will encouraging open access be one step in the right direction? Will making use of blogs be another (they can encourage fruitful dialogue that can be hindered by the peer review process)? What I do know, however, is that there are injustices and we cannot sit idly by. Given God’s concern for justice and our imaging Him it’s surely something we can be thinking about more often.

Harmony as an intellectual virtue

Rainbow

What role does the aesthetic aspect of reality play in everyday life? As a musician, this question is obviously close to my heart. Herman Dooyeweerd identifies the intellectual virtue associated with the aesthetic as ‘harmony’, while Calvin Seerveld, an thinker in the same tradition who wrote extensively on art, prefers ‘nuance’ or ‘allusiveness’. Whichever term you use, this virtue draws our attention to the richness of God’s creation and the perfection of His works, in a way that goes beyond rational understanding and into awe, enjoyment and peace. Andrew Basden talks about a ‘delight that seems non-necessary’, which is a great summary of this virtue; a harmonious life is saturated with an awareness of God’s grace, which gives us not mere existence but life in abundance.

Scripture is full of aesthetic contemplation. It’s there in the places you’d expect, like the psalmists’ joy over God’s works, or the warmth and delight of the Song of Songs. But it’s just as present in the Law, where God’s commandments about the Israelites’ various festivals add up to rituals that encompass every sense; or in the Prophets, whose exhortations to God’s lost people draw on every metaphor available (some quite shocking!) to portray their desperate state. It’s even there in Paul’s letters, where statements about God’s character and actions are punctuated by outbursts of poetic wonder and praise.

How can we bring harmony to our lives and work as Christians in the academy? Here are a few principles:

  • Remember the limits of rationality. In a world increasingly obsessed with objective measures – league tables for schools and universities, headlines dominated by (often misunderstood) statistical judgements – it is important to remember that God’s ways are higher than ours, irreducible in their multi-dimensional richness. Alongside the pithy clarity of his teachings on subjects such as prayer, giving, or forgiveness, Jesus’ parables stand as miracles of allusiveness that bewildered his audiences and provide food for years of contemplation even today. The Pharisees, with their dogmatic insistence on the letter of the law, lost the harmonious whole. We too need to be careful not to elevate our own rationality above God’s plans.
  • Harmony is not always easy. Debates around modern art often revolve around the contrast between provocation and entertainment, with some wanting artists to break every taboo, and others seeking out aesthetic experiences as an escape from the difficulties of everyday life. This dichotomy is one that we can challenge as Christians. Jesus entered into the darkest places of the world and suffered so that we can know him in the midst of joy and pain alike. The harmony of God’s plans is not undermined by the reality of our broken world, and we do need to run from this brokenness; nor do we need to surrender to it.
  • Research can be beautiful. There are many pressures on researchers to justify the value of their work in a host of different ways, whether economic or social or ethical. Each of these is important, of course, but it can be easy for the aesthetic dimension of research to be forgotten in the scramble to be clear, to be useful, to do good. Understanding our research as an act of worship, an outburst of praise at God’s gifts and His work in creation, can give us a fresh perspective on its intrinsic value and protect us from burnout or discouragement.

Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences in Cambridge

CHAS

Chris Watkin, Senior Lecturer in French Studies at Monash University, Australia, recalls the origins of CHAS:

The Cambridge CHAS group (Christians in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences) began in 2008 as an occasional and informal gathering of postgraduate students with a common interest in exploring what it means to be a Christian scholar. The “agenda” of the early meetings (a word somewhat over-formal for the “let’s get together with some friends and have a chat” vibe of the group) was a combination of prepared reflections from group members on their own research, conversations about books we had elected to read and discuss together as a group (George Marsden’s The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship was one of the first, and I think we also discussed John Stott’s Your Mind Matters), and free-form conversations about research-related issues that our non-Christian colleagues either would not understand or would not be interested in.

As I reflect back on those early days there are five main reasons why I am thankful for it:

  • At a very basic level, it kept the priority of thinking about what I was doing from a Christian point of view on the agenda, at a busy time when the pressures of completing a PhD could have been all-consuming.
  • In the context of a secular university where the idea that research in arts and humanities could be conducted from a Christian point of view would have been met by most people with incredulity or derision, it was an encouragement not to drift along with the flow, and the group formed its own modest little counterculture standing against the prevailing assumptions around us.
  • It introduced me to some stimulating thinking on what sometimes gets called the “integration” of faith and learning, both from published authors and from other members of the group.
  • It was somewhere to point Christians who were struggling with questions around faith and learning (this was a huge help).
  • Finally, though by no means incidentally, the craic was good.

David Parry, currently teaching English literature for various Cambridge colleges, continues the story:

Like many graduate student groups, CHAS has had ups and downs as enthusiastic new postgrads have got involved and key players have moved on to other places or responsibilities. En route, we have tried a wide range of formats and strategies, including at different times a weekly reading group and a seminar series bringing in academics from across the UK and visiting international scholars to provide a Christian perspective on their fields.

More recently, we have felt the need to get back to basics, fostering conversation and community over food. While Cambridge is blessed with an abundance of lectures and seminars by often eminent speakers, including many on faith-related issues, we feel that there is still a gap to fill in providing space where Christian graduate students can think through their faith and studies in a supportive peer group.

CHAS has a mutually supportive relationship with the Christian Graduate Society, which hosts weekly Bible study groups and outreach events. Although our active membership remains relatively small numerically, we believe that it is not insignificant. Taking the long view, for even a handful of people each year to catch the vision of thinking Christianly about our studies and about all of life can have abiding fruit over a lifetime. Just as in Jesus’ parable, the seemingly insignificant mustard seed of a small group of graduate students can grow into a tree that gives home and shelter to many.

Find out more from the Facebook Group…

Christian postgrad groups in action: Cardiff

Cardiff SPCF

We continue our journey around the country in search of Christian postgraduate groups, and today we are visiting Wales, where a group of Christian staff and postgraduates named ‘CriSP’ has been meeting for a number of years. Founding member Caleb Woodbridge recalls:

Back in 2009, I was working as an administrative assistant at Cardiff University, and was eager to start a Christian staff network. In church one Sunday at the start of term, I met a new PhD student, Mike Newton, who was asking around about the idea of a Christian postgraduate group. We got chatting and quickly found we had a shared vision for Christian staff and postgrads to engage the university, and advertised a first meeting to explore the idea, in the university chaplaincy as a meeting place.

With support from local churches and a few established Christian academics at the university, a group began to gather which gained the name “CriSP” (an acronym of Christian Staff and Postgraduates, sort of!). It established weekly meetings, mixing prayer, Bible studies, presentations and discussions. I went on to do a masters in English Literature, switching to the postgraduate side of things, and found the group very encouraging and helpful exploring the interface between my faith and studies.

Sarah Johnston is currently involved in the group, and she picks up the story:

When I started my PhD in 2013, CriSP was in the rather unusual position of having to start again, almost from scratch. Most of the group had almost simultaneously finished their studies and moved on from Cardiff, and some practical changes had to be made to reflect the change of circumstances (such as moving from an evening to a lunchtime meeting). We now meet for a drop-in hour on Tuesday lunchtimes, under the name SPCF (Staff and Postgraduate Christian Fellowship). Although we are independent from the Chaplaincy, we meet in the Chaplaincy building and the chaplains join with us whenever they can.

The focus of the group is fellowship, Bible study and prayer, and we seek to apply the passages we study to the university context, and to pray for events, situations, and people in the University. I have found these Tuesday lunchtimes are a sanctuary from the whirlwind of PhD life, an opportunity to explicitly bring a Biblical, Gospel perspective to academic life and commit it explicitly to the Lord. The group members come from different churches and denominations, and each bring their own perspective and experiences to bear on what we are reading and discussing.

We are at present a very small group but aim to have a visible presence on campus, and welcome anyone and everyone who would like to come. Above all, we want to seek God’s will for the group and trust Him for the future – our main purpose is to glorify Him and be ambassadors of His grace on campus.”

Christian postgraduate groups can go through ups and downs. Many groups rely on a small number of enthusiastic leaders, and run the risk of fizzling out when the leaders finish their postgraduate degree and move elsewhere. I hope the story of the Cardiff group is an encouragement to those who are struggling to keep a group going. I would advise those who are currently leading groups to be actively looking out for people who could take over leadership when you move on, and to forge links with more ‘permanent’ members of the academic community, such as members of academic or administrative staff and chaplains, who may be able to support the group through the lean times. And if your group is small, remember the promise of Christ: ‘Where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.’ If you’d like an opportunity to discuss the joys and sorrows of leading a Christian postgraduate group with others in a similar position, may I remind you that there is still space on the Faith-in-Scholarship conference next month! See our News page for more information and to book online.

For updates on the meetings of the Cardiff SPCF, follow them on Twitter at @CardiffSPCF.

Efficient scholarship

Popularity of FiSch blog posts plotted against their length

Popularity of FiSch blog posts plotted against their length… Are we obsessed with our economics?

Please help us to measure the value of this research output! You can demonstrate quantifiable public benefit and impact by liking or sharing this blog post on social media. On a scale of 1 to 10, how transformative has it been in terms of changed attitudes or behaviour? If you would like to join the conversation, please do so on Facebook or Twitter, or by leaving a comment below. Your feedback will help us to use our resources to maximise the return for our investment. Thank you!

So far in our series, we’ve seen that good scholarship will make appropriate distinctions (avoiding category errors); it will be communicated with clarity; it will innovate and build on existing scholarship; and it will be done in community, in critical solidarity with fellow researchers. But another way in which we can describe scholarship is using the language of economics. What would it mean for a piece of research to be virtuous, in economic terms?

Andrew Basden describes the economic aspect of reality in terms of ‘managing limited resources frugally’. This will be a familiar notion to anyone involved in academic research. How should funding be allocated to best advance research in my field? Which department should the university invest in? Which candidate will best advance our REF submission if we offer them the lectureship? How can I complete this piece of research in the shortest possible time, and making the best use of our equipment? Or even, more selfishly: how can I use up every last penny of my budget before the end of the financial period?

God has made the world in a multifaceted and varied way. So it is right that we try to learn to think about the world in a similarly multifaceted way, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do in this series. But there is such a thing as idolatry. Perhaps we could describe idolatry as follows: it is when you take one aspect or element of God’s good creation, and turn that into the ultimate centre of everything. It is, echoing the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:25, when you worship and serve the creature, rather than the Creator. So what does this have to do with frugality?

I wonder whether the economic aspect – getting good value for investment – has become an idol in our culture? If you found the introduction to this post amusing, it is probably because it is not a million miles from where we are. Our jargon and our methods of evaluation betray our obsession with efficiency.

What then might it look like to pursue economically good scholarship – not to waste resources – but to do so in a non-idolatrous way?

I suppose it would involve keeping the other aspects of good scholarship in mind. Two papers might be better than one, measured in a simplistic manner. But maybe one good paper would be better than two mediocre papers? After all, is it even possible to measure the quality of a paper in simple numerical terms? And what is ‘good’ scholarship? This piece of research might well advance my own career, or strengthen my department’s reputation, but does it provide a good return on our limited resources in the broadest possible view – does it benefit humanity as a whole, and does it help to build the Kingdom of God?

But I’m pushing dangerously close to 600 words, and I could find myself in the land of diminishing returns. So, in order not to waste any more of your time, I’ll sign off, and allow you to return to Facebook…

Social virtues for academics

Q: Why did the social scientist talk to her colleague?
A: To reveal her ontological security

OK, the one about a broken drum being the best Christmas present is a better cracker joke – in fact you just can’t beat it. However, like many jokers our social scientist does reveal something about our social interactions: academics are rarely recognised for their social virtues.

Last year I was discussing with fellow Christian postgrads about how we related to undergraduates, PhD colleagues and academic staff in our departments. It became clear to me that the social scientists were far less adept at it than the organic chemists. It was a small, unrepresentative and not statistically significant sample, but it clarified the distinction between studying society and undertaking a research project as part of a community. The distinction is between a social aspect in creation and acting in a relationally and intellectually constructive manner.

Being socially virtuous covers a panoply of activities, emotions and motivations. Here we’ll look at just two ideas:

First, critiquing other people’s work is a common task of an academic, whether formally in double-blind review or informally at conference presentations and in departmental seminars. However, very few us provide feedback in a relationally and intellectually constructive manner. Virtuous feedback would work on at least two levels; engaging personably with the presenter/author and seeking out aspects that are worthy of affirmation as well as providing criticisms. Danie Strauss argues that the idea of critical solidarity and not just critical thinking is key for scholarly communication. We find it very easy to find a point of departure from a presentation, but much harder to find elements we agree with.  Unlike the social scientist in the cracker joke, our purpose in dialogue is not to reinforce our own position, but to seek to understand, to grapple with ground motives and to pursue the benefit of the whole community.

Second, developing positive relationships with colleagues (both within the university and in the wider research community) is an integral part of virtuous scholarship. Developing these relationships may support the advancement of our ideas, projects and careers, but do not merely operate at this level. Social virtues for academics involve giving of ourselves to support other people’s research flourishing and will involve developing affirming as well as instructive relationships with students we teach.

A social virtue, when worked through each facet of an academic career, will bring pertinent questions to bear on: research topics; research teams; conference presentations; published critiques; treatment of undergraduates and support staff; and of course those who disagree with us. At Christmas we celebrated a God who left a comfortable position, to be with us, to live alongside us, to show us what it means to love, and to bring us into those loving relationships. A socially virtuous academic will mirror that love in their scholarly critique and academic relationships.

Making good progress

Continuing our series on values for scholarship, David Hanson looks at God’s calling for humans to innovate.

Scholarship is subject to cultural-formative norms. Humans never fabricate ex nihilo – only God does that. Yet the bringing of ‘new things’ into existence reflects God’s creative power in our calling to stewardly dominion of the world. Cooking a meal, composing music, writing a nation’s constitution: all respond to this calling.

In Hebrew, God’s “till and keep” command with reference to Eden (Gen 2:15) employs precisely the verbs that repeatedly call Israel to “serve and hearken to” Jahweh. This effectively spikes the guns that blame “dominion” (Gen 1:28) for human habitat-destruction. Mastery must listen to serve!

The 16th-century Reformation freed European minds from the idea that history is just unimportant ‘natural’ activity within which rare gemstones of a ‘spiritual’ reality are laid. Hitherto, Bible and Church had seemed to sparkle with alien light from an eternally static perfection where history – the forging of new things from creation’s wealth – had no place. But now Biblical ‘calling’ could inspire creativity wherever believers went: in gardening and pottery, trade, scholarship and politics.

After all, God once covenanted with “day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth” (Jer. 33). Earthly things aren’t just fascinating; they are revelatory, worth investigating with a passion. And such passion will not be resented by the Christ who reconciles “all things, in heaven and earth” to God. No other creature is so mandated: humans alone are called to convert experience, via investigation, into bodies of new interwoven knowledge that outlive their builders, whether pygmies or giants.

So, now, notice that tiny parenthesis interrupting the Genesis story: “(the gold [of Havilah] is good).” Gold, along with the onyx and aromatic resin, is useless stuff unless knowledgeably exploited. Here, one minute into reading your Bible, an author of undoubted piety relishes the thought of luxury, hinting at all kinds of productive skills. Such skills are irrelevant to the alien ‘spiritual’ life that un-reformed Christendom aspired to! Serious expertise is required to assess what’s good in such things: we need knowledge of natural environments, skills of smelting, distilling, fashioning, quality-control and trade.

Implicit in that parenthesis, then, are canons of practical anecdotal wisdom to which new observations accrue daily. Yesterday’s certainty is revised. Suggestions will need testing and peer-review. And cultural-formative power appears both in the golden or perfumed artefacts and in the burgeoning edifice of knowledge supporting the crafts. Knowledge expansion demands new vocabulary and meaningful descriptors. Guilds of recognised crafts-persons must arise.

Dooyeweerd’s philosophy identifies this cultural-formative (or historical) aspect in all human activity. It distinguishes the freely designed projects of Adam’s children from the instinctive fabrications of beavers and spiders – intricate and impressive though they be.

Readers of this blog will be especially interested in the elaboration of scholarly, scientific or theoretical knowledge, where personal, anecdotal input is largely replaced, for universality’s sake, by abstracted, analysable material. Properties of things are investigated, not unique entities. Yet all kinds of scholarly work are normed by cultural-formative challenges as well as logical-analytic ones. How to recruit the new idea and integrate it with existing knowledge? How to link it with ideas from other disciplines? How to imagine new shapes in interpretation? How to get stuff published? How to express these results? How to make my daily effort intelligible to others – not least to other members of “the household of faith”? Even: are some discoveries best undisclosed?

Festive Zeal and Earthly Hope

I wonder why you praise God for sending his son at Christmas. Is it because of the forgiveness that Jesus’ later death and resurrection would afford? Is it because Jesus was the means by which we can have a restored relationship with God? Is it because we remember how the first stage of the promise of a (distant) future to be spent in God’s new creation was beginning to be put into action? These reasons are good reasons to praise God for sending his son into the world. But going to this year’s carol services and hearing the typical Christmas readings each week has made me, yet again, re-evaluate my reasons for praising God at Christmas.

Zechariah, in his song at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, sings of his delight having foreseen the arrival of Jesus. What makes his song particularly interesting are his reasons for praise. Of particular note is that these have nothing overtly to do with his own forgiveness, his own sin, his assurance of eternity. No, Zechariah’s reasons are much ‘earthier.’ Here’s his song:

68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
73     the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

Zechariah’s reasons for praising are because his (and Israel’s) enemies, ‘those who hate’ him and whom he fears will be done away with. He will be ‘redeemed’ and ‘rescued.’ ‘Salvation’ from them has come. Zechariah’s reasons for praise are far from reasons of personal piety. Zechariah’s reasons are that God has, in sending King Jesus, brought about a new age. An age in which the world’s enemies will be overthrown and God’s people can serve him without fear.

This was a great encouragement to me as I read this passage. The stresses and strains of writing a PhD, of keeping up with teaching, of being anxious about that job I hoped to get were put into context. And the fears, hatred and fighting of our world at the end of 2015, like the oppression of the Middle East when Quirinius was governor of Syria, can also be understood in a new light. The King of the universe has arrived. I need not spend Christmas reflecting upon these things as one who has no hope, but as one who has seen the King arrive and beginning to conquer.

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