The other day I discovered that my research supervisor of twenty years ago, Richard Bauckham, now has his own website. (No blog, alas!) When I studied under him he was already a respected and renowned scholar, not least for his commentary on Jude and 2 Peter, and his work interpreting Jürgen Moltmann. It was the latter interest, and his work as a theologian rather than a biblical scholar, that made me want to have him as my supervisor. I was relating the doctrines of ecclesiology and eschatology, and Moltmann’s book ‘The Church in the Power of the Spirit‘ was probably the most important text at the time for me, along with Howard Snyder‘s less technical volumes.
Richard went on to become much more well known, not least in the last four years for his book ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses‘, which claims to turn many long-prized assumptions of New Testament scholarship methodology on their heads. But what was it like to have him supervise all those years ago?
The simple answer is that it was a wonderful privilege. Richard doesn’t merely have ‘a brain the size of the planet’, he has a humility and gentleness about him. I recall once turning in some work that really wasn’t up to snuff, but the way he let me know that was so gracious that I didn’t go away crushed but felt I had a way forward.
He is also a man whose faith and scholarship are deeply entwined. One consequence of being registered as a Manchester University student then was that you were entitled to attend any lectures you liked outside your own studies. I chose to audit two of Richard’s undergraduate courses. One was on Christology, the other on the Holy Spirit and Eschatology. I used to come away from those lectures knowing I had been both academically stimulated and spiritually fed.
The nature of his supervision and his faith came together in the way he drew together four of his research students, all of us ‘mature students’. We met every couple of weeks to discuss Moltmann’s then latest book, ‘The Way of Jesus Christ‘. Not only did we have an hour of lively conversation, we then went for lunch together in a university refectory. Over lunch and coffee we often discussed important matters of faith. It was there that I first discovered his passionate commitment to green issues as intrinsic to Christian faith. Richard is an evangelical, and while such a commitment is much more common today thanks to organisations like TEAR Fund and A Rocha, it wasn’t then. I knew he was clear about the Bible’s political dimensions – I had read his book ‘The Bible in Politics‘ – but this was a new departure. One of that research group was Celia Deane-Drummond, a former botanist working on her second PhD, studying Moltmann’s ‘God in Creation‘. Celia is now a leading lecturer and writer in the field.
So if you haven’t discovered Richard’s work yet, why not start? Try his website. There are essays, lectures, sermons and poems to read. Then why not treat yourself to one of his books?
Neil Young was interviewed in November’s Word Magazine. They questioned him about his new CD Prairie Wind and in particular about a song called ‘When God Made Me’. Apparently it sounds like a hymn and the interviewer, Robert Sandall, goes on to ask him whether he is a Christian. He replies:
‘I don’t know. I don’t think so. I certainly don’t say, don’t be a Christian. Everybody needs something to hang their hat on. But I really don’t buy into any particular story. The Indians had something going on with their ‘great spirit’ as a term for God. They were more concerned with the trees, the grasslands, the animals and a sense of balance. It’s a pagan thing and there’s nothing bad about paganism. It only became bad because of the insecurity of the church. That song is about the self-righteousness that makes certain people think God created man in his own image. What a conceited idea! What about the squirrel? What happened to him? We’re all here together, we’re all nature. One big thing.’
A quote, then, that may continue to give the impression that this blog is turning into the squirrel blog (see last two entries). It would be easy to be smug with Young on his views, given that in the same interview he makes much of the importance of the full moon. ‘I am a strong believer in the full moon as a good time to be creative so I try to record all of my albums based on that timing. It’s an old thing in farming: if you plant on a full moon you’re going to get a good crop … when the moon starts waning is when everything starts falling apart … Look at the way the moon affects the water in tides. Since we’re mainly water we’re bound to be affected if we open ourselves up to it.’
Rather than dismiss Young due to those apparently strange views it would be better to look seriously at what he says. Of course as a Christian I don’t believe that the doctrine of God making humankind in his image is about conceit or arrogance: it’s an act of pure grace and it should not make us careless with the rest of creation. But the problem is, that is precisely the way it has been taken for centuries and we now have an environmental problem. It is an idea that still lingers in extreme conservative circles. I recall a few months ago reading a transcript online of an American TV interview featuring both Brian McLaren and Tim LaHaye in which the latter said that the environment was made for man – not a view McLaren shared.
Some Christians have wanted to anchor their doctrine of creation in a different place due to this misuse – see for example Creation Through Wisdom by Celia Deane-Drummond. But maybe we also need to rediscover the imago dei and interpret it in a more humble way. And such an interpretation will not be solely the task of lectures, seminars, books and journals, but the interpretation seen in human flesh. We need to hold this together with Young’s statement that ‘We’re all here together, we’re all nature’, except that I would just change that last word from ‘nature’ to ‘creation’.