On Saturday February 7th I went to a theology morning led by The Bishop of West Yorkshire and the Dales, Nick Baines, whom I have heard on occasions on Thought for the Day. His subject was to be ‘Flesh made Word.’
We have been given free will to make our own mistakes and exploit our world, not sharing our resources fairly. Nick wondered how we articulate an understandable Christian faith to those who have no faith. If we can’t communicate then what is our purpose? We need to communicate for the world to understand who we are. We need to pay attention to the language we use and how to communicate. Many preachers do not have enough time or training in how to communicate. Helmut Schmidt the former German politician wrote at the age of 91 of what he had learnt through politics; his advice was that no one should enter politics unless they could speak at least 2 foreign languages fluently. We can only truly understand another country if we have a good grasp of the language.
Before he was ordained Nick was a professional linguist. A word like kairos in Greek has no literal translation into English. He has preached in German but he had to get a Swiss friend to translate an English joke into German, when the punch line would be different. We are limited in our comprehension by the time we live in; the world 2000 years ago would have been completely different. We take the filters through which we see things for granted. Conversion is like a slow regrinding of the lens behind the eyes so we gradually see things differently. (I remember that when I first took Jesus into my life that I suddenly realised what the Christmas carols I had sung for years actually said; it was as if a veil was lifted from my eyes and I believed. We need to pay attention to how we communicate and use the appropriate language).
He told us how his wife, a health visitor and artist looked at the world in a different way from him. She asked him to draw a banana so he did and she said he had just drawn a banana. She then asked him to draw a chair and he took trouble to draw what he saw; she said he had just drawn a chair and he was puzzled as he had done as she had asked. She told him to draw the spaces between and around the chair and then he began to understand as he tried to do that a chair emerged. I am not sure I understood what his wife meant but my beloved as an artist probably does. We need to look at the world differently. Nick enjoyed the book, ‘A bigger Message’ by David Hockney where he had conversations about space and how to look at it. As a painter he painted layer upon layer and I know my beloved does that in any drawing or painting he does. However old photography just took static pictures, although digital photography can now be manipulated more.
An Indian wrote about a ‘3 mile an hour God’ as in the East there is less hurry and more time to look around; a ‘Water Buffalo’ theology. Nick wrote a book which looked around in our society, ‘Speed boats and Potholes’ a title more relevant to us. Where we start with theology will dictate where we go? If we study theology in a library we will look at our world in a different way. In our contemporary world there is a more visual narrative, film, theatre and on the internet; it is all about the story. We need both imagination and the intellectual to look at our world.
When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he did not say the Kingdom of God is ….. but he said the Kingdom of God is like a story, an image like the mustard seed becoming a great tree. Once Jesus had said something like that he let it go for people to understand or not. What is said can be misused or abused but Jesus just told stories. If we are told a story we might remember it. Nick Baines had just been inducted in the House of Lords and then the next day he gave the thought for the day on Chris Evans’ show. The language used in both situations was very different. He needed to say something that might grab the attention of the audience on Radio 2. The thought for the day can be a ‘clunk’ factor in the excitement and fun of Chris Evans’ show with often a number of guests and he needs to say something relevant which they might remember.
Nick found Mark’s gospel’s first chapter was very exciting and set the scene for his gospel. John’s opening chapter set the scene through great theology and the rest of the gospel described what was seen and heard and the choices put to people. Mark’s gospel goes straight into action in chapter 1. He explained that this was the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God. He only had one verse saying that he was tempted in the wilderness. In verses 14 and 15 Jesus returned to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God. Nick wondered what would have been good news for those in the northern hills of Galilee. They would have hated being occupied by the Romans whose coinage proclaimed Caesar as God totally blasphemous for the Jewish people who only worshipped one true God. The people wanted the Roman occupiers to leave. Jesus came preaching about how the kingdom of God was near. The time was now. God was among his people again. All they have longed for is here; now the time was fulfilled. Why were the Romans still there? How can God be present when such blasphemies are there? However the Holy cannot be contaminated by the unholy. Jesus calls the people to repentance, to change their mind. Now the time is fulfilled and God’s presence is here whilst the Romans are still here. God contaminates them with love and grace. How do they learn to see God’s presence? They believe in the good news by committing themselves body mind and spirit to the new situation. Those who could look and see differently responded to Jesus; they were often those of no account. Those who could not see differently and respond to Jesus nailed him to the cross.
Nick had gone to a modern art exhibition and was impressed by a one video display; he went into a dark room and sat down; there were 3 videos which lasted 30 minutes; the first showed his mother in the last 30 minutes of her life and on the other side was a video of the last 30 minutes of his wife’s labour and the birth of his child. In the centre video there was a man swimming. Whilst Nick sat there for the time recommended of 30 minutes he noticed others popping into the installation for a few minutes and therefore not really experiencing the full impact of it. He found the 30 minutes was needed to experience the installation as the artist had intended. Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert and in the same way we might be led by the spirit into our own personal desert. We need to take time in the desert to see the flowers only grown there; that is that we can have new growth in a desert experience which can transform our lives later.
Theology can be seen in pictures such as a painting in Wittenberg in Germany, painted in the time of the Reformation, where Luther had preached or was buried. The painting showed the side of the Church Cardinals next to barren land and the side of the Reformation where the field was in full growth. The picture told the less literate people what the reformation was about. A more controversial painting was found in a church which showed a Jew being baited in a pigsty; the church did not know whether to sell or hide it away after the Second World War; in the end they decided to display this anti Semitic picture and underneath it they shone a light on a plaque which commemorated the Jews who died in the holocaust.
Nick said if we cannot repent in the church for past wrongs how can we expect those outside the church to repent. The word became flesh and God communicated in a way we can understand. God takes our world seriously and gives us space and time to make a mess. If our task is put the word into flesh then how do we do we put that flesh in word and image? We need to paint pictures with words to capture people’s imagination. We just have to scatter the seed as Jesus did but we cannot control it. It is a messy eclectic world we live in.
Nick looked at 3 elements of Biblical theology. In Genesis 1 God spoke and his word became the action of creation. We use language all the time; words can be creative or destructive; words can open a person up or close people down; words are never neutral. The second element is Jacob wrestling by himself; he has sent his family on ahead; it is only at the point of complete exhaustion that Jacob asks his wrestling partner who he is. After there is no response Jacob recognises that he has wrestled with God. There is mutual self exposure and Jacob is left wounded. You cannot encounter God without risking being hurt; we are called to carry a cross. It takes 2 to wrestle; God wrestles with us. God wants us to use our imagination and wrestle with his message.
Revelations spoke to a church under pressure and today the church is still under pressure all round the world in places like Iraq and Syria. It is our responsibility to tell good stories instead of being consistently on the defensive. Revelation was an apocalyptic writing. We have to recognise the type of literature we are reading, such the prophets, historical narrative or poetry. John was writing from Patmos to persecuted Christians who were suffering terribly and John was telling them that God has the final word. The resurrection shows that death is not the end and the Christians just had to hang in there. There are many stark images in Revelations like dragons. God had the last word not the emperor in all his brutality. There were vivid pictures and images. The digital media is vibrant in the world of contemporary communication.
If someone asks us what God looks like, we can tell them to look at Jesus in the gospels or look at us. People don’t expect a monologue from the church telling them how to live. They want to be engaged in a conversation through social media. We need to learn from any criticism. We need to have a church website to make our church known as people will often look up a church on the internet before visiting a church. If we don’t listen to people we don’t know which language they are speaking. We need to paint pictures with words which people understand. Now the world is changing so rapidly with the instant communication of the internet. However we have visuals in our church in paintings or stained glass windows we could point out. We can create spaces for people in the church. Some people can find space in choral evensong others need a screen presentation; each person needs to have an individual experience. It is not just about those who lead worship as we are all messed up and need to confess our mess and receive forgiveness so we are ready to listen and learn from the Bible and the preaching. Then we find the peace in the Eucharist reminding us of God’s redemption. We come with empty hands and receive what money cannot buy, the grace of God; filled again we are sent out to serve others.
I found Nick Baines’ talk challenging and informative.