Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Beatitudes: What Does It Mean To Be Blessed?

[Informal preamble]

Both our Bible readings this evening - from Psalm 119 and Matthew’s Gospel - have focused on the idea of blessedness. But what does it actually mean to be blessed? Over the next few minutes, I want to tackle the following questions:
  1. What does it mean to bless and be blessed? 
  2. Whom does Jesus say is blessed by God?
  3. How can we be more blessed?
So, Q1, what does it mean to be blessed? It’s an important question, because even in church people often say things like “The Lord bless you”, “The music was such a blessing”, or “I feel truly blessed today”, without thinking in anything but the most general way about what it means.

In contrast, the Bible uses ‘bless’ and ‘blessed’ in a very specific sense, and one that is rooted in a very practical concern for the happiness and wellbeing of others. Of the two OT words normally translated as blessing, one means to praise or wish someone well.  The other refers to a kind of happiness and wellbeing that comes when you are prospering materially and spiritually, living at peace with those around you, and fulfilling God’s plan for your life. Putting the two words together, to bless someone is to will their healing of all the consequences of living in a fallen world. And when God wills something, it cannot fail to be fulfilled.

So, Q2, if that’s what it means to be blessed, whom does Jesus see being blessed by God? To whom does God most emphatically will the joy, peace and fulfilment that are wrapped up in the biblical meaning of the word ‘blessing’? We can see from our Psalm reading that the Jewish idea of blessing was rooted in obedience to the Law of Moses:

v1:   Blessed are those...who walk according to the law of the Lord.
v2: Blessed are those who keep his statutes.

Unfortunately, like some Christians today, the religious teachers of Jesus’ time expected God to show his blessing in material ways, right here and now. If you were successful, healthy and prosperous, that was proof of God’s blessing. If you were poor, hungry, diseased, disabled or a victim of misfortune, that was a sign that you were not blessed but under God’s curse. 

And all the power structures in Jesus’ society were built on this foundation. Holiness and political power alike were validated by health and prosperity. That’s why Jesus’ words were such political dynamite. He was declaring God’s blessing on those whom the authorities declared unclean. Blessed are the poor, he said. Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the humble, blessed are those who are hungry and thirsty, blessed are those who are persecuted. They, not the rich and powerful, are the ones who will inherit the earth, who will be shown mercy, who will be called children of God.
In fact, Matthew’s version is less confrontational than the parallel account in Luke’s Gospel. In Luke’s version, Jesus actually says, Blessed are you who are poor, who are hungry, who weep, and woe to you who are rich and powerful. In contrast, Matthew’s version seems more about people’s spiritual state: “Blessed are the poor in spirit...the humble...those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.” 

But the differences are essentially cosmetic. In order to appreciate the wonderful coherence of Jesus’ teaching, we have to see that the people he wanted to reach were poor in spirit because they were poor; they were hungry for justice because they were hungry, they were unable to turn to the Temple for comfort because they were in mourning. In each case, their practical hardships excluded them from the community of faith because these sufferings were seen as evidence of God’s anger with them. In contrast, Jesus’ message was, “Come to me. I will give you the spiritual connection you so urgently need. And I will build you into a new community in which together you can tackle your material hardships.”

So for Jesus, being blessed is a circular process. To bless others is to draw them into the warmth of God’s love, to help them deal with their practical obstacles to happiness so that they too can fulfil God’s purpose for their lives. And it’s in the process of blessing others we are ourselves most richly blessed.

That partially answers my final question: “Question: How can we be more blessed? Answer: By being more of a blessing to others.” But it’s not easy in this fallen world to discern what God is calling us to, and it can be harder still to find the strength to do it. Fortunately, Jesus offers us a source of guidance and strength to hear and answer his call. “Don’t think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” he says in v17. “I haven’t come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” 

As always, Jesus has rooted his teaching in Scripture. The threat that he poses to the authorities is not in dismissing the Scriptures from which they draw their authority, but in challenging their faulty interpretation. And the key to hearing God’s call and finding the strength to respond, the key to becoming a blessing to others and so experiencing ourselves the richness of God’s blessing, is an honest engagement with Scripture. 

There are several opportunities this Autumn to recommit ourselves to studying the Bible. We have an Alpha Course starting this month, which is a brilliant opportunity for new and experienced Christians to study the Bible together. Confirmation classes have just started this evening. The house groups have been a great success and will be starting again any time now. And the leadership team would be delighted to offer suggestions for private Bible study notes. 

But ultimately the ball is in each of our courts to find a way to engage more deeply with the Bible, in the knowledge that it will guide us and strengthen us to be a blessing to others. And it seems from Jesus’ words that being a blessing to others is the most important step in being ourselves blessed.


Saturday, September 1, 2012

Book Review: Lee Child's 'Jack Reacher' Series

Lee Child is a British TV producer and author who, more than any of America’s many home-grown crime writers, has mastered what might be called the modern American outlaw novel.

His hero, Jack Reacher, is so much a composite of American literary and movie stereotypes, from Owen Wister and Zane Grey cowboy opera via a dozen Clint Eastwood characters to Jason Bourne, that it is amazing no American novelist has come up with quite such a perfect encapsulation of the loner action-hero genre.

What has always made Lee Child so readable, though, is not so much his slightly implausible hero but the cathartic quality of his storylining and the transparency of his narrative technique.

Firstly, catharsis. There cannot be many middle-aged, domesticated men who have not for a moment hankered after Reacher’s lifestyle – a total lack of any responsibility to ordered society, complete freedom from domestic chores, and a radical lack of commitments (other than to risk his life once every few months in some quixotic battle against injustice in the remote heartlands). And it’s hard to read one of these stories, however moral, liberal and pacifistic you may be, without on some level wanting Reacher to do what he does: Cripple the thugs, rescue the damsel (and possibly have carnal knowledge if to do so does not threaten a committed relationship) and summarily execute those who have persistently abused whole communities. However implausible things get, you are generally happy to suspend disbelief because you so much want it to be true in spite of yourself.

Secondly, transparency. The virtue of elegant simplicity. The complex art of making it look simple. Some people used to criticise R.E.M. for being simplistic until they tried to play the songs. Similarly, some people have criticised Lee Child for his long passages of single-viewpoint narrative and lack of complex plot-twists, while countless would-be bestseller writers have tried unsuccessfully to replicate his commercially super-successful formula. Child’s skill lies in the ability to weave familiar elements together in a fresh and appealing way, and present them such that the manner of story-telling does not come between the reader and a sense of immersion in the story itself.

In the final analysis, Child’s novels are intensely political, rather subversive, and yet strong on traditional American values. Perhaps only an outsider to the American dream, a wannabe-American like Child seems to be, could so distil into mythical landscapes and characters all that is most and least attractive about life in the USA. It is by living the ultimate off-grid lifestyle, by being the ultimate outlaw and thug, by turning his military training against corrupt members of the law & order establishment, that Jack Reacher can function as a symbol of justice and social order.

Sadly, on the most recent outing ("A Wanted Man"), both Lee Child and Jack Reacher slightly miss their mark for the first time since the series began so many years and novels ago. This happens because both author and character deviate from what they do best. Whether this is because Child has come under external pressure to evolve his creation, or because he has become bored with repetition. It remains by any standards a good thriller, but here are some clues to what has changed from earlier novels that I consider to be more successful: 
  1. A more complex and involved back-story. The virtue of deceptive simplicity has been sacrificed in favour of a seriously complicated plot premise that has just too many coincidences to swallow.
  2. A more claustrophobic setting, involving more of spoken dialogue that is not Child's strong point.
  3. A more fashionable storyline about terrorism and homeland security. Reacher has always been at his best confronting America's homegrown dark side. Middle-eastern terrorists are such a soft target for the American reading public, and in the past Child has been conscientious at defusing stereotypes like this. Here again, the new novel is at its best when inter-agency dominance games become part of the threat. 
  4. A more inclusive approach to typecasting the female characters – a good thing in itself, but it is not perfectly realised in this particular case. One gets the impression that Child is not sure how to make Reacher react to strong, self-sufficient women, but feels he has to include them. 
  5. A more self-conscious and mannered narrative technique which tends to obstruct the reader’s feeling of involvement, including a preoccupation with irrelevant facts and statistics and excessive switches of viewpoint between different characters. 
In conclusion, regular followers of the series will want this, and most will be only mildly disappointed if at all. This is not the best place for new readers to start, however. And if the trend continues, the author risks turning his back on the distinctive strengths on which his success was built.