Monthly Archives: October 2010

Longinus – John 19:32-34

The the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and then the other who was crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one of the soldiers pierced his side with his spear, and out gushed blood and water.

(tr. mine)

There is so much that is interesting in this passage, particularly the way that John’s community of Jesus followers used blood and water as important symbolic elements that go together. But that’s for another day. Today I want to talk about the soldier.

On Saturday we went for a family trip to the Museum of Welsh Life in Cardiff and saw St Teilo’s church.

This is a church that was rescued and moved to the museum from an almost ruined state. Amazingly, however, in the ruins were preserved some of the original wall-paintings.

Longinus at the Cross

A mural of Longinus's sight restored, in St Teilo's church, St Fagans National History Museum, Wales.

Old churches are very common in the UK: state churches in every parish. But in the reformation, the original wall paintings were whitewashed or destroyed. Go into an anglican church now and it will have a plain white interior. Almost no churches preserve the rich paintings that would have been universal.

St Teilo’s, in this restoration, shows the kinds of paintings that a small rural backwater church would have been able to afford. It is a truly amazing place, and anyone visiting Wales should go, I think (but I know I’m a religion geek). Anyway. Looking at the painting of the end of the crucifixion, I was unfamiliar with the roman soldier who looked to me liked he’d lost an eye. My wife speculated that there might be a folk-tale of the soldier who pierced Jesus’s side having been made blind by the act. So we did some research. And it is a fascinating story.

The soldier is first named in an appendix to the Acts of Pilate, a work of uncertain date (may be as early as late second century, most like to be much later, 5th or 6th century, possibly later still). He is called Longinus (a fairly simple pun on the word for ‘lance’ or ‘spear’). The character was associated with the centurion in the gospels of Matthew and Mark who says “Truly this man was the son of God” (forever John Wayne in many of our minds, I’m sure!) and Luke has saying “Truly this man was a righteous man”.

The story was concocted that Longinus converted at the cross, and then was hunted to martyrdom by his fellow soldiers. Martyrdom was a key symbol of a person’s authentic Christianity for many centuries (until surprisingly recent, actually).

Later, in around the 12th or 13th century, at the rise in popularity of Grail romances (fictions about the finding of religious artefacts, such as the Holy Grail, which could bestow huge power), Longinus acquired an extra complication to his story. He was said to have been originally blind in one eye. As he pierced Christ’s side, blood from the wound sprayed into his blind eye, instantly curing it. It is this scene shown in the image.

Longinus (as a Saint and Martyr) became fair game for the relic fervour that gripped the church in the medieval period, and bodies of Longinus were found, lost and refound. Tips of his spear (the so called “Holy Lance“) appeared in multiple places (there is still one in the Basilica in Rome). And pieces of the spear shaft were lesser relics sold by canny merchants.

He is still venerated today as a saint (in Catholicism and some Orthodox churches) and has a masked festival on the Philippine island of Marinduque.

Of course, this is all fantasy and invention. But it is striking how Longinus shows in microcosm the fetishes of the church over the millennia: from the concern for Martyrdom, to the rampant capitalism of relics, to the rationalization of saints following the reformation, to his relative obscurity today.

Had anyone heard of him before?

Edit: Added the link to Larkin’s Church Going, one of my all time favourite poems.


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Bang goes my weekend

The Society of Biblical Literature, in conjunction with the Logos bible study software, has released a new critical edition of the Greek New Testament, under a liberal license than allows its free downloading and the construction of derivative works.

This is significant because it means a modern critical edition is available for doing computational linguistic analysis legally. (I confess I’ve been working with a data-set based on the NA27 edition, of dubious legality).

So I expect that someone will syntactically tag it pretty soon. If not, and I get there first, I’ll have a go.

It isn’t uniformly good news, however. The work is based on a set of sources including “a reverse engineering of the greek text behind the NIV” – which means that the NIV translators made certain decisions about what the greek text might have originally been as they did their work. And these decisions are elevated to the level of a source. That sounds worrying to me, given that the NIV is quite explicitly an evangelical translation created for confessional use. Also the apparatus is a bit more primitive than we’re used to: more reminiscent of the older versions of Nestle Aland.

As for the very technical specific decisions made, well I’m nowhere near detailed enough to pass comment. Others seem to be making roughly positive noises however.


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What is Supernatural?

I’ve been thinking today about what constitutes the supernatural. Inspired by a blog post on whyevolutionistrue, and the resulting comments.

It is a word that just gets used, by believers and non-believers, but it doesn’t actually mean much. It is surprisingly hard to give any coherent definition without resorting to equally meaningless words (such as “transcend”) or metaphor (such as “beyond” when not talking about a physcial location).

The discussion seemed to centre around the idea that it referred to some class of things or phenomena that were not-natural. I.e. that were not part of the natural cosmos, or natural order. I guess that’s one definition. But the obvious problem with this is that it simply begs the question. What makes something not part of the natural cosmos or order?

If anyone wants to give it a shot, I’d be interested.

In the car this evening I asked my wife what she understood to be supernatural. A little background: my wife identifies as Christian, although shares many, if not most of the same beliefs as me (if that is confusing, it might be worth knowing that I am not essentialist – I think labels such as Christian and atheist are things we give ourselves based on a whole slew of influences and intentions).

Her immediate response rather floored me. The supernatural, she said, was the name we give to anything we can’t explain. It is a purely subjective description. So things that are supernatural today (feelings of transcendence, for example) are very likely to not be at some point in the future when we understand how they work, neurologically and hormonally. Similarly lightning was once supernatural but isn’t now. Supernatural is different for different people, one person’s supernatural healing is another person’s natural recovery.

I have to say that blew through my complex attempts to rationalise an ontological category for the supernatural, and reminded me that supernatural too is just a label.

If the supernatural is the domain of God, then God’s domain shrinks with every passing journal paper and every piece of research. But there will always be things we don’t, and can’t understand. Those things will always be supernatural, if you choose to label them as such.

And the brilliance of this idea is it shows in stark contrast the choice inherent in belief in the supernatural. I don’t believe in the supernatural, not because I can explain any more than anyone else, but only because I don’t choose to use that word when my explanations run out.

Some extras that didn’t fit in the narrative above:

I suspect that believers in the supernatural are less willing to try to find out (supernatural belief seems to often go hand in hand with a belief that calling something supernatural explains something).

I also suspect that many believers in the supernatural would object to this definition, however apt. Many believe the supernatural is an ontological category.

And finally I think that this doesn’t differentiate very strongly between other terms such as paranormal and Dawkins’s perinormal. That’s not a problem for me, but might be for some.


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In Praise of Wikipedia

From Jim McGrath.

I presume that Wikipedia is here to stay, and so perhaps the most important and appropriate questions for educators to ask are not along the lines of “How can I get students to stop using it?” but rather “How can I and my students contribute to making this public resource better and more reliable?” If this were the Encyclopedia Brittanica or some other such traditional encyclopedia, and we were invited to write an article, as academics we’d probably welcome the opportunity. And so why not take the opportunity to contribute when we don’t have to wait for an invitation, do not have to meet a deadline, probably won’t have to write the whole article, and do not need to write our contribution all at once?

Amen. Wikipedia is the single largest work of knowledge ever accumulated in the history of the earth. It is arguably one of the most significant achievements of humanity.

I have zero patience with buffoons with no edits decrying it as worthless or fundamentally flawed.

There is no better way to familiarize yourself with a topic than to look at its Wikipedia entry. And its over-hyped inaccuracies and biases are actually positive. Of course wikipedia entries shouldn’t be trusted without question. But what escapes the luddite nay-sayers is the fact that no writing on any topic (particularly summary articles which have to sacrifice accuracy for brevity) should be trusted.

There are some pretty obvious heuristics for using Wikipedia. An article with one or two authors, which is short, poorly referenced and contains opinion statements, bad spelling and grammar, or incoherent prose, is obviously highly suspect. An article locked is likely to be contentious. And the quality standards information is very useful. Teaching with Wikipedia in the classroom basically requires you to help students appraise information that they have no prior understanding of. But that is an essential skill in all academia.

Wikipedia wrestles away control over information. And that is a universally good thing. As an educator in advanced studies you should actively teach your students how to appraise everything they hear: including the information you yourself are giving them.

Let’s show support for the modern equivalent of the Library of Alexandria.

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The Fundamental Arrogance of Karen Armstrong's Religious Liberalism

Just got back from an afternoon discussing Karen Armstrong with a group of religious liberals (Unitarians and Quakers particularly). It was a great meeting, with interesting people and it made me think hard about questions I hadn’t dwelt on in those terms before.

The first part of the session was a talk Karen gave. Now, I’ve never been able to really like Karen’s writing. I know I should. I basically agree with lots of what she says, and with almost all of the consequences of her opinions. But she somehow rubs me up the wrong way.

Today was a great example. We watched this TED talk. And it struck me what she was doing, and what lots of liberal religious folks appreciate about her.

She is saying that large numbers of religious people are wrong. They don’t understand their own religion. They think it is about this or that, but actually it isn’t. Karen knows what their religion is *really* about (The Golden Rule, as it happens), and she can cherry-pick the quotes to prove it (using Augustine to talk about religious inclusiveness particularly is somewhat shameless!). If you happen to be a Christian thinking that the purpose of your religion is to bring people into personal devotion to Christ to share in his redeeming sacrifice to avoid them being condemned to hell by their own sinful nature; well, you’re wrong. The real purpose is to increase your compassion, because in doing so you see that God is really a sense of transcendence that results from the most noble humanistic connections.

And, crucially, because those religionists are wrong (i.e. they don’t merely have a different understanding, they have a wrong understanding – she even claims they are abusing their religion by having those opinions), she can then claim that her understanding is a superset of all religions. To believe as Karen believes is to embrace all religions, to stand above them and be inspired and appreciative of all of them.

What she is really doing is making up just another religion, a combination of religious universalism and humanism. But by claiming those who disagree with her have their religions wrong she can claim to have some higher authority. She can become an important voice in discussion of religion. If she were honest about the nature of what she is doing she’d be a largely irrelevant advocate of another fringe religious viewpoint.

Not everyone can be right – there are directly competing claims out there. Karen’s approach is to pick a subset that is consistent, from as many religions as possible, label that as correct, and condemn the bits she didn’t pick as being abuses of their own religions. It is worse, in fact, than being a fundamentalist Christian. They at least have the balls to say they think Islam is wrong. They don’t try and claim that devoted Muslims are doing Islam wrong.


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What Did Jesus Sacrifice?

In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s lots-of-fun Jesus Christ Superstar, the crowd (in the guise of journalists at Jesus’s arrest) sing

“Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, who are you what have you sacrificed?”

It is part of a certain subset of Christianity to focus on the sacrifice of Jesus. I’ve heard sermons preached with statements such as “Jesus gave up everything, even his life, for your sins.” or “It cost God everything to restore relationship with you.”

Now, I’ve written (and excoriated) penal atonement theory before (the idea that God sent himself to kill himself to atone to himself for the sinful nature he’d created in human beings in the first place).

But that’s not the purpose of this post. I want to ask about the sacrifice of Jesus. Was it costly?

This paradox has been pointed out by lots of people before, but I’ve been thinking about it this evening. What did it actually cost?

Before launching into some thoughts, let me just say that I may slip into language describing what Jesus did and felt here. Of course, everything should be prefaced with “accordingly to the portrayal of the gospels” or “according to orthodox Christian doctrine”. I’ve said before that I don’t believe these accounts are historical. I’m really interested in how these things can be understood on their own terms, when they seem to hold so little water (at least for me). So read what follows with those disclaimers in mind.

1. Jesus was fully human. And was, therefore, able to feel pain as a human. It hurt a lot to be crucified. So let’s give the doctrine this: Jesus suffered a day of agony on the cross. (Skipping lightly over the fact that many Christians, from the earliest records we have onwards, believed that Christ didn’t have a real body and didn’t really suffer).

2. Jesus has foreknowledge of his coming death. So it would have been a really miserable run up to his execution. For reasons I might share another time, I know a little about this feeling. And it does suck.

3. Jesus also knows about his resurrection. So, like childbirth, he would have known that after a period of intense pain, fear and powerlessness, the outcome was really joyful, and ultimately wonderful.

4. Jesus doesn’t die. He doesn’t end. I’ve said before that “being raised from the dead” means you didn’t die, by definition. You may have experienced heart-death, but we’ve long since left that concept behind as a culture (interestingly except for some highly religious countries or states that still use it). Dying is the end of a person, brain and personality death. It isn’t death if you are raised 2 days later.

So the total of Jesus’s only claim to sacrifice is pain and anguish. Now, I’m not saying being crucified is a walk in the park. But really? For the God of the universe, a finite amount of human pain followed by being raised into glory in the sure knowledge that the battle for the universe is won? That hardly qualifies as epic sacrifice, surely?

Anyone got a reasonable rationale for understanding the doctrine of sacrifice?

Edit 2010-10-15: I obviously don’t know my musicals as well as I thought. I confused the arrest song with this. The line comes a little later…


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Best Practice for Forms, Registrations and Documentation

It has been interesting over the last few years seeing how the Zeitgeist has changed regarding gender and sexuality issues. I’m proud to be living in the time when we’re really addressing, and winning the arguments. At the same time I’m ashamed to be in one of the last generations where institutionalised and cultural bigotry is the norm.

This week I’ve been putting together the web-site registration for a new project. I did a lot of searching for best practices regarding registrations and gender. I found very little useful material.

There are several different ways services can ask for gender / sex information.

  • Sex: male or female. – This is the absolute worst of all cases. Sex refers to biological sex. It is none of your damn business what is down my pants. You do not need to know if I have a penis or a vagina. Some folks who use this actually think they mean gender, others use it deliberately to make a nasty point about gender identity.
  • Gender: male or female. – This is better, because it at least asks the person what gender they are. Why do you need to know this? Well in most cases it is so that you can address the person correctly. Gender is the correct criteria then. I can be biologically male, but identify as female, and I’d want to be called Ms, not Mr. Still, it is a problem, because gender identities are quite often non-binary (sex is also sometimes non-binary, but less often).
  • Gender: male, female or transgender – This is a stab in the dark at political correctness, mired by a lack of understanding of what people with non-binary genders actually identify as. I’m no expert, but I’ve come across people who identify with various forms of gender that come into neither of these three categories. On the other hand, we don’t need to have all possible positions and variants included.
  • Gender: ‘male’, ‘female’ or ‘its complicated’ – That’s better, and is the one I went with (the better suggestion below wasn’t quite applicable, for reasons I can’t explain here). It is still nowhere near perfect, because it explicitly states that someone with a non-binary gender identity is complicated or somehow doesn’t have a simple understanding of gender. That may be true, but on the other hand may not.
  • Form of address: ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘neutral’ – That is about the best I can think of, because it is specific about what the information is going to be used for. The only slight issue is that “neutral” sounds a bit like “neuter”, which isn’t what I mean.

And my favorite, in the sign-up for the online game Echo Bazaar:

So what is best practice? At the moment for me it is “Form of address: ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘neutral'”, unless we really need to know the person’s gender, in which case I’ll stump for “Gender: ‘male’, ‘female’ or ‘its complicated'”.

Anyone else got a better suggestion, or resources?


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This is My Church

An email from a friend this week asked me a simple question: “what would your ideal church look like?”

My ideal church would consist of maybe three hundred people. It would gather around 10:30 on a Sunday morning. Everyone would arrive in a dribble, to sit together, in a kind of cafe format. There would be good coffee, pastries, and a general breakfast atmosphere for at least half an hour before anything formal kicked off.

Then, from a dais on one side of the cafe, there’d be brief introductory music or a song. Then the minister would welcome everyone and rehearse the church’s dedication to the worth of all people, and its shared quest for meaning and growth. She or he would explain that this place isn’t about gods or spirits: every person is free to bring whatever god they choose with them, but no person should fear being confronted with one belonging to someone else. That neither brains, nor problems, should have been left at the door. She or he would explain how this, most unusual of churches, works, and how to get the most from it.

After no more than 10 minutes, the church would separate into smaller groups focussed on individual proclivities. Some weeks I’d feel like going and singing. The singing group would sing, but they’d also learn to sing. It would be somewhere between a choir rehearsal and traditional worship. Many people do love singing, but music is better if you feel you doing it together: becoming more of a group and producing an increasingly beautiful result.

Some weeks I’d feel like going to the meditation room, and spending the time in silence, meditating by myself in a room with many others. This meditation time would begin with a few words from the meditation leader: help and advice for how to get more from my meditation. But otherwise it would be silent. There would be no need to meditate on anything, and nobody would feel the need to break the silence with their thoughts.

Many weeks I’d feel like going and hearing the sermon. These sermons wouldn’t be moralizing. They wouldn’t assume there are easy answers to be had, or even that the right questions could be asked. I imagine a kind of long-format TED, where one week the speaker talks passionately about Joyce’s Ulysses, another week we are treated to the wonders of gene signalling networks, and another we hear about a relief agency’s struggles to provide basic contraceptive and STD education to poor communities in the developing world.

There may be times I’d feel like joining some others in a ritual. Here I’m imagining a blend between a tea-ceremony, a communion meal and the mutual washing of hands: a structured dance of the physical and mental that focuses the mind, makes the profane into the profound, and draws from a well of symbolism with no claims of fixed or ultimate meaning.

During this time my 3 year old would join with his peers playing games, doing craft, and singing songs. When he’s older he’ll join the group of older children who’s personalities, goals and moral senses are being challenged to grow. Still older still he’ll join the group where he can hang out, express his social needs, and have his natural teenage activism nurtured.

And there’ll be weeks where what I really need is just a good chat. And I’ll stay in the cafe, drinking and talking. Until everyone files in once more from their activities. The dais would once again be occupied, with music or a song to naturally bring people’s attention in. Someone would introduce that week’s (or month’s or season’s) charity or development project, and members of the church would be encouraged to financially support that specific project over and above the day-to-day running of the church. (It would be a church who’s financial success is measured in how much it gives away, and the leanness with which it runs).

And, as it began, there would be a closing word, an exhortation to use any growth we’ve experienced for the good of all humanity, and to cherish the relationships we’ve formed and nurtured that day.

It would take a while to finish my last coffee of the morning, to file out to the car and go home with my wife and son. But that is the kind of church that I’d want to be a part of, and I’d look forward to going back to.

Would any of you join me?

The title is a reference to this song:


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