When you were a child, who or what did you want to be when you grew up? As a child, I dreaded the Christmas visits to aunts and uncles. Every year they would ask me the same question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I hadn’t a clue. In many societies, you are expected to join the family trade or you may become an apprentice to a master craftsman. That’s how my grandfather Lewis learnt his trade. My great-grandmother paid a local carpenter to take Lewis on as a young boy and teach him carpentry skills. I still have his articles of indenture. My grandfather became his pupil, a learner. Then when he too became a master craftsman, he took on my father who became his disciple. I broke the family tradition although I’m pretty good at putting Ikea furniture together. The greatest tragedy in life is not death, but life without meaning, without purpose. Many people go through life without ever discovering God’s purpose for their lives. We are not an accident. We were created for a purpose. We were made to have meaning.
“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.
17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. 21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.” (Luke 2:15-21)
There is one word that best describes the night the Lord Jesus was born – ordinary. The sky was ordinary. An occasional gust stirred the leaves and chilled the air. The stars were like diamonds sparkling on black velvet. Fleets of clouds floated in front of the moon. It was a beautiful night – a night worth peeking out of your bedroom window to admire – but not an unusual one. No reason to expect a surprise. Nothing to keep you awake. An ordinary night with an ordinary sky. The sheep were ordinary too. Some fat. Some scrawny. Some with barrel bellies. Some with twig legs. Common animals. No fleece made of gold. No history makers. No blue-ribbon winners. They were simply sheep – sleeping silhouettes on a hillside. And the shepherds? Peasants they were. Ancestors of today’s Bedouin. Wearing all the clothes they owned. Smelling like sheep and looking just as woolly. True they were conscientious, and hardy as well, to spend every night outside guarding their flocks. But you won’t find their staffs in a museum. You won’t find their writings in a library. No one asked for their opinion on social justice or the meaning of the Torah. They were anonymous, simple, ordinary people.
I was recently invited to give a series of lectures in a dozen or so universities across Iran and dialogued with Islamic scholars in Qom. The Q&A session after each presentation was a lively affair – longer in fact than my presentations. The most frequently asked question concerned the reliability of the Bible. What did I think about Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code? Apparently more than a billion people worldwide believe the views popularized in the Da Vinci Code.
They believe the message of the Bible has been corrupted and distorted, that Jesus is not the Son of God, but a prophet and that he did not die on the cross or rise from the dead.
They believe that in 325AD the Emperor Constantine commissioned the writing of the New Testament we now have which portrays Jesus as a divine figure. Dozens of other “gospels” were censored or destroyed. Constantine actually summoned the Council of Nicaea to end disunity caused by the Arian controversy. Arius taught that although Jesus was the Son of God, he was less than the Father. The Council was attended by around 300 bishops. The Arian Creed was soundly rejected. The Nicene Creed was accepted by 298 Bishops. 2 were against. (i.e., over 99% in favour). The Council of Nicaea recognized Jesus as “begotten not made, of the same substance (homousios) as the Father.”
Israel, Palestine, the Promised Land, the Holy Land, the very name we use says as much about us and our presuppositions and aspirations as about this inscrutable, hypnotic, exotic location. Historically the birthplace of the Judeo-Christian heritage, it is today claimed by two peoples, the Jews and Palestinians, its holy sites shared, at times uneasily, by three religions, Jewish, Christian and Moslem, often in close proximity as at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem or the tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem. Baraba Tuchman summarises some of the reasons why this place holds such fascination to so many,
More blood has been shed for Palestine than for any other spot on earth. To Protestant England it was not only, as Lord Curzon said, “the holiest space of ground on the face of the globe,” the land of the Scriptures, the land of the Crusades, the land “to which all our faces are turned when we are finally laid in our graves in the churchyard.” It was also the geographical junction between East and West, the bridge-head between three continents, the focal point in the strategy of empire…
Few countries attract so much media coverage, or arouse such intense religious feeling and political controversy. Yet it has been the same for countless generations. Why have people for millennia, longed to live here, or make a pilgrimage to this land? What is the fascination this land has over so many people around the world?
The term Jihad tends to be associated with Islam – indeed for some, the two words are synonymous. But the fact is violent extremism is found in all religions. I could easily quote Islamic or Jewish leaders who justify the use of violence in the name of God, but I will give you one example from a well-known Christian. Following the tragedy of 9/11 and destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York, multi-bestselling author and Christian journalist Anne Coulter, wrote,
“We don’t need long investigations of the forensic evidence to determine with scientific accuracy the person or persons who ordered this specific attack. We don’t need an “international coalition.” We don’t need a study on “terrorism.” … We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren’t punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war.”
In my opinion, too many evangelical leaders have also been quick to endorse Mr Donald Trump’s threat to “totally destroy North Korea.” Thankfully, many Christians in the USA as well as Europe and Asia repudiate views such as these as a gross distortion of Christianity and grave insult to the teachings of Jesus the Christ.
This year’s ReNew conference was organised by Anglican Mission in England, Church Society, and Reform and held in Leeds under the title Gospel Advance. The major theological theme of the conference explored the Atonement. Contributors included Christopher Ash, Sam Allberry, George Crowder, Matthew Mason, Vaughan Roberts, Rob Scott, Glen Scrivener, William Taylor, Rico Tice, Robin Weekes, and Paul Williams.
I bought this book in March 2014, soon after it was published, at the bookshop at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem. Although Verso have recently published it as a paperback, its title and length (313 pages) may not immediately appeal to many readers. I wanted therefore to write a fairly full summary of the book (not a review or a critique) because I believe it sheds so much light on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If ten pages are too long to read, just read this first page to get an idea of what the book is about!
This is how the blurb explains the title:
‘Since its foundation in 1948, Israel has drawn on Zionism, the movement behind its creation, to provide a sense of self and political direction. In this groundbreaking new work, Ilan Pappe looks at the continued role of Zionist ideology. The Idea of Israel considers the way Zionism operates outside of the government and military in areas such as the country’s education system, media, and cinema, and the uses that are made of the Holocaust in supporting the state’s ideological structure.
‘In particular, Pappe examines the way successive generations of historians have framed the 1948 conflict as a liberation campaign, creating a foundation myth that went unquestioned in Israeli society until the 1990s. Pappe himself was part of the post-Zionist movement that arose then. He was attacked and received death threats as he exposed the truth about how Palestinians have been treated and the gruesome structure that links the production of knowledge to the exercise of power. The Idea of Israel is a powerful and urgent intervention in the war of ideas concerning the past, and the future, of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.’
In his short but passionate little book, Chosen? Walter Brueggemann addresses some of the important questions regarding God’s purposes for Israel and the Church. For example, are contemporary Israeli citizens the descendants of the Israelites in the Bible whom God called chosen? Was the promise of land to Abraham permanent and irrevocable? What about others living in the promised land? Who are the Zionists, and what do they believe? The subtitle of the book tells us where he intends to look for answers, “Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” His publisher, Westminster John Knox, promises,
“The reader will get answers to their key questions about how to understand God’s promises to the biblical people often called Israel and the conflict between Israel and Palestine today.”
Chosen? comprises 59 pages of scripture commentary in four short chapters, a Q&A with the author, a glossary and 20-page study guide to facilitate group discussion around each of the chapters. The four chapters are:
- Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
- God’s Chosen People, Claim and Problem
- Holy Land?
- Zionism and Israel
The book also contains very helpful guidelines for respectful dialogue first published by the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1992. Significantly, the title includes a question mark. I added a question mark to the titles of two of my own books: Christian Zionism: Roadmap to Armageddon? and Zion’s Christian Soldiers? The Bible, Israel and the Church.[i] Walter is recognising, as I did, that views differ on whether the Jews are God’s chosen people, even though, unlike me, he personally concludes that they are.
The late Tony Judt described this book as ‘the best modern history of the Balfour Declaration,’ and Eugene Rogan of Oxford sees it as ‘the most original exposition of the Balfour Declaration to date.’ It deserves a wide circulation as we live through the centenary of the Balfour Declaration on 2 November, 2017. The author, Jonathan Schneer, is an American historian who specialises in modern British history and teaches at Georgia Tech’s School of History, Technology, and Society.
This is an attempt simply to summarise the contents of the book with a number of quotations. If it were a review, my only criticism of the book would be that, in concentrating so much on the politics behind the Declaration, there is no discussion of the religious beliefs of key players like Lord Balfour and David Lloyd George which made them so open to supporting Zionism.
The Balfour Declaration (BD) needs to be understood in the context of World War I
By the time the BD was issued on 2 November 1917, Britain and Germany had been at war for over three years. Millions had been slaughtered in the trenches and neither side seemed to be winning. The Battle of the Somme had been fought between 1 July and 1 November, 1916, and Passchendale between July and November, 1917. The British government was seeking for ways to turn the tide in the war. Some in the cabinet believed that all their energies should be concentrated on the western front on the continent (‘the westerners’), while others believed that new initiatives in the Middle East could break the deadlock and give Britain the advantage (‘the easterners’). After the fall of the Asquith government in December 1916, Lloyd George, an easterner, became Prime Minister.