Daily updates

I have nothing especially content-ful to report (thought my brain is in overdrive producing new thoughts, writing it all up would be too hard). I may as well give a brief summary of some of the nice things I have been able to do in the last week.

Since arriving at Cambridge, I have had plenty of time to work, read, and have fun. My main reading projects last week were Guy Brandon’s Just Sex (IVP, 2009), and Sealed with an Oath (Paul Williamson, NSBT, Apollos, 2007). Both were very good and taught me various important things.

Reading theology

To begin though, a note on how to read theology. The NSBT books represent the most academic theology that is accessible to the lay-person, and are pretty dense. It has taken me a while to work out to actually benefit from reading books like these, so I offer a couple of things I have found useful. Firstly, take notes, on a separate sheet of paper. Write down the essential conclusions and arguments. The digressions are of two forms: linguistic, which may or may not be possible to fully appreciate, but rarely are crucial for anything; and engaging with the literature, where a couple of opposing viewpoints on a controversy surrounding some verse are picked out, and are also usually not worth learning. Do read though everything in the book to pick up the techniques for analysing the passages and improve your understanding of how arguments from the original languages work and can be helpful.

Secondly, make snap judgements on how important each verse cited is to the argument, and read it at the appropriate speed. Most books on biblical theology engage particularly with one book of the bible, so read that one in its entirety. (After a few pages in, I realised last week I had to read Genesis properly for myself before carrying on with the theology.) Some chapters cited are key, and should be read as well in their context to properly engage with the book. Other references are throw-aways, and you just need to flick to it and read the first few words of the sentence to remind you which famous verse is being mentioned. To look up exhaustively all the references and read them in context is prohibitively slow, but make sure you are not skimming over too many and are aware at least of the connection being made. For the important verses also make sure you do not rush, but take several seconds’ pause and slow down before treating the scripture lightly.

Thirdly, remember the right things. There is just far too much for any of us to learn off by heart, and even the author is working from notes to remember who exactly said what, and every verse which goes into an argument. I find it helpful to split what I read up into different areas, the things I will go through properly now, and things to go through later. The first category would include things like a whole bible book read along with the theology book; you would expect to learn and spend the time to take in a substantial amount of what is said at the time of reading. The rest involves filing away knowledge for later. You would probably not have the time to read all the OT right then if the book was a survey of covenant in the whole OT. So, the references are looked up and noted, then I store them so that when I get to that bit of the OT in a few months’ time in my own reading, I have an extra consideration to make, or link to appreciate. This is one of the most useful things about reading theology, the priming of your mind to make fresh connections later on, either by remembering some specific controversy surrounding a key verse and being able to read the section with more understanding, or being able to better link a chunk into the progression of some biblical theme.

Fourthly and finally, if you are not praising God very often, try and remove some of your detachment and take things gently enough to respond. I find that as long as my reading in the bible itself is not overbalanced by outside reading, the hugely expanded arsenal of verses and concepts is not enough to outweigh the time spent on the study except if the study itself was praiseful.

Books read

Just Sex, recommended by Julian, was very good. Full of statistics and socio-economic analysis, it is Utilitarian enough to present a good apologetic for marriage and fidelity to unbelievers. On the other hand, the last chapters exploring the bible’s teaching are very pertinent and useful to the Christian especially. The book will at the least strongly model a very compassionate and sensitive way of dealing with all the issues and controversies surrounding ‘one man, one woman, for life’ relationships. Many of the gaps which so many of us have, knowing how our understanding of sex should inform and shape what we call for in public policy, will be very helpfully filled in. Finally, the picture of the church as a place of strong, deep, long-lasting relationships is very compelling. One of the contentions is that Christians get messed up about marriage because we lack deep and natural friendships within the church, and are looking to marriage to give us company and purpose in a way that should be normal in church. Whether we think we need more knowledge for our apologetics or not, that is something worth all of us hearing.

Sealed with an Oath is about covenant across the bible. It works chronologically through all the covenants made, in particular spending plenty of time on the covenants to Noah and Abraham, which are often neglected in favour of Sinai, but are in fact crucial to the NT completion of God’s promises as well as setting the essential context for all the OT. The nuances given to covenant with the kings and the treatment of future covenant references made by the prophets at the same time was also largely new to me, and very helpful. The NT material is unfortunately more technical and has less that you will not know already in terms of actual conclusions, but is still useful for the way it brings together that understanding with so many new links backwards to the OT. I especially liked this book, finding it one of the more helpful of the NSBT books I have read, and will come back its material a lot in the future I am sure. I would like to explain some of its content as well, but am not really up to the task.

Other activities

As a reward for reading through my lengthy comments on my reading, I would like to mention some of the joys of being back in Cambridge.

Firstly, Rob Dobson came and visited this weekend, which was a highlight. He probably had a quiet weekend, but for me, it involved a lot more talking than usual. Jen and he are wonderful, and are finishing the arrangements for a flat now Rob has a job with Citrix starting next week.

On Friday, I went to the Mahler 8 prom. It was good; very good, with super soloists and decent choirs, and plenty of power. I felt the tingle on my finger-tips, panting for breath, and elevated heart-beat for long afterwards. My German was not good enough to remember or follow all of the Faust, so I am glad I did not check a translation until later in the evening, at which point I felt very betrayed. This was not just Romish theology which I only wanted to quibble with, but full-blown foulness that I had enjoyed. I must remember never to think about the words in the symphony again, and suitably re-interpret it so I can enjoy it again.

I have also enjoyed Shakespeare this week. I had forgotten just how good he was, but I read Twelfth Night one evening last week and found it to be just excellent fun. The wit was great, the poetry lovely, the perceptivity really rather profound, and the side-plot very funny. I knew I liked Shakespeare, but somehow have spent years as an uncultured boor not reading anything longer than his sonnets, and forgotten how much he contributed. I have a lot more good literature to take in this summer.

Finally, I could not pass without mentioning church yesterday, as helpful as ever.