Saturday, August 2, 2008

Crikey!

Strewth! The Sydney Harbour Bridge & some crazy blogger
G’day mates! Owyergoin? Orright?

Isn’t the internet great? An Australian Anglican is guest writing for a North-English Lutheran to an assorted audience throughout Britain, Europe, and America – as well as people from every other corner of the globe. While I doubt anyone reading this has ever physically met me, thanks to the blogosphere many of you have become dear friends, and people from wildly diverse backgrounds, circumstances and countries can share ideas – and ourselves - unhindered by the vast distances between us.

Yet many of the old problems of communication remain despite our modern technology: in some ways I think that they’re perhaps at times the ease and immediacy with which we can interact makes them worse. Most of us here speak the same language – English – in our day-to-day lives (and those bloggers who don’t have my unbridled respect), but as suggested by my opening greeting, we use that language in very different ways.

As an example: at school we found the American expression of support “I’m rooting for you” hysterically funny – in Oz “root” is a rather rude expression for what might politely be called “fornication”. I’ll never forget the earnest missionaries whom newly arrived from somewhere in America (it may have been Kansas, but perhaps that's just a detail which emerged in the story's retelling) showed us an evangelistic film in which a group of clean living mid-western teenagers announced they were “rooting for Jesus” – the outbreak of smutty mirth among an assembly of 13 year old boys was so great that our teachers had to intervene and cancel the presentation. Even they had difficulties suppressing their smirks, and thirty-something years later I still can’t recall the event without chuckling.

On the other hand, I have memories of travelling through Yorkshire and discovering if I spoke quickly the locals often found me incomprehensible. Or there was the Californian whom I deeply offended by calling him a “bloody good old bastard”, which here is an informal term of endearment and tremendous respect – as opposed to simply calling someone a “bloody bastard”, which means the reverse. Although in neither case is “bastard” considered a particularly offensive expression, unlike in many English speaking countries (and my apologies to anyone in one of those places who’s currently feeling disturbed by what you see as my profanity) – some years ago an Australian political party quite successfully campaigned under the slogan “Keep the Bastards Honest”.

All of which reminds me that communication is never quite as simple a matter as we often like to imagine. Consequently as a Christian when it comes to following the Bible, and seeking what is often called “the plain meaning of Scripture” I can never help but be a bit cautious: it’s all too easy for any of us to unconsciously assume an author was speaking from within our own cultural and theological context, when they were in fact coming out of a world very, very different to ours.

The reality is that Bible was written by a number of different people, who despite acting under the inspiration of the same God (which is itself a concept open to many different interpretations) came from diverse cultures and contexts: the semi-nomads of the Torah occupied a drastically different world to that of the post-exilic Prophets, whose society was vastly different again to that of the Gospels or St. Paul. They wrote in different languages, which most of us read in translation, which we then understand through our own interpretive matrix.

None of which should be construed as implying I think Scripture can’t be trusted, or relied upon as an authentic revelation of God. Despite the fact that my own little corner of the web (“Caliban’s Dream”) is routinely described by critics as a “liberal” blog, I'm in many ways quite boringly conservative – the positions I hold on issues often described as “divisive” in the Anglican world have been largely been reached because of what I see taught in the Bible, even though those positions might be very different to what some also professing to “believe in the Bible” hold.

And therein lies the rub, to use another Aussie expression. I can’t recall meeting many Christians who don’t see the Bible as fulfilling an integral role in their understanding of faith and God, but I’ve witnessed a tremendous number arguing about their brothers and sisters in Christ who, they claim, “don’t really believe in the Bible”. All of which recalls a conversation I once had with my grandfather.

Like most Australians my parents came here from somewhere else: my father was an East Yorkshireman from Hull, while my mother is Swiss. Her father spoke English well; very well indeed for a true Basler who considered intelligent conversation logically impossible in anything other than Baseldytsch. I shall never forget him despairingly asking me as a child “Why don’t you speak in English?” Uncomprehending (I must have been about 10 at the time) I replied that I was, and in disbelief he turned to my mother and asked if children in Sydney were allowed to speak our strange dialect in school. I don’t think she was ever able to really convince him that as far as everyone here is concerned we speak perfect English. Alright, so our grammar might get a bit strange around the edges, and our slang might make a upper-class London (or Boston) school ma’am explode in fury, but we know what we mean, and it works for us.

Which is exactly how I pray more Christians might approach each other’s theology. If it’s working – empowering others to serve and love, to wonder about God and respond to the risen Christ in faith – then it’s real. Instead of rejecting as absurd (or worse) each other's theological idiom when it is unsuccesfully transplanted into our own contexts, the challenge is to seek an understanding of how and why that idiom has developed, and what nuance it sheds upon our own exegetical dialect.

We might do the theological equivalent of pronouncing our vowels differently, and on Monday mornings some of us might greet our colleagues with “Dijya avagoodweegend?” but in the end God determines who’s fair dinkum - not us. An’ Blind Freddy can see from ‘ere to back o’ Bourke that Bob’s yer uncle God’ll sort it out better’n youse fellas or us mob ever will. An’ I’m tellin’ yer that f'nuffin’.

God Bless! 'Alcibiades Caliban'