Public Lecture recording

As you saw in our previous blog post, Professor David Tombs from the University of Otago delivered a public lecture recently here at Auckland TheoRel on the subject of ‘Acknowledging Jesus as Victim of Sexual Abuse’. The lecture considered the crisis of sexual violence in contemporary culture, focusing particularly on the theological implications of Jesus’ own suffering of sexual abuse during his crucifixion.

David was kind enough to let us record the lecture and share this recording for those unable to attend. To listen to this audio recording, follow this link. There is a Q&A session at the end of the lecture which lasts around 25 minutes. You may not be able to hear the audience’s questions, but David’s responses will allow you to work out what questions were being asked!

David Tombs


Public lecture: Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse

Auckland TheoRel are pleased to announce a forthcoming public lecture by Professor David Tombs from the University of Otago. Everyone is welcome. Please advertise widely! (Link for pdf of poster is below)

David Tombs

David Tombs Public lecture poster


Early on the morning of Sunday June 12th, Omar Mateen opened fire on partygoers at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando Florida, killing 49 people and injuring over 50 others. This is the worst mass shooting in US history and the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11. Deliberately targeting the LGBTI+ community, this was, according to Barack Obama,  ‘an act of terror and an act of hate’. And, while some media outlets (and world leaders) have been chary about identifying the homophobic roots of this attack, Guardian journalist Owen Jones is so very right to insist that it was also an act of terror steeped in homophobic fear and hatred.

In the days following the massacre at Pulse, as victims are named and families, friends and communities mourn their loss, questions inevitably arise about why this horrific event took place – what impelled Omar Mateen to commit this atrocity against the LGBTI+ community? The need to know why is fundamental to our human responses to trauma, in the hope that if we know, we can stop it happening again. And, while we don’t know – we may never know – why Mateen killed and hurt people who were simply celebrating the wonderful queerness of life, we do know that this is a world where the compulsion to homophobic violence is woven into the warp and woof of our everyday experiences. This is a world where the queer community feels the need to seek sanctuary in spaces like Pulse because they feel safe there from intolerance and violence. This is a world where same-sex couples are afraid to hold hands walking down the street in case they are hurt by words, fists or worse. This is a world where legislators are more concerned about who is having a pee where than it is about the fact that murder rates of transgender people have hit a historic high. This is a world where I could face imprisonment or even execution in over 70 countries for loving another woman. This is a world where #BlackLives don’t matter and where #BlackQueerLives matter even less. This is a world where religious communities marginalise and ostracise the LGBTI+ community in the name of their god. This is a world where wedding cake makers who refuse to bake cakes for same-sex weddings can spew out their bigotry and ignorance under the guise of religious liberty.  And this is a world where churches spend years debating whether or not to acknowledge the full humanity and dignity of LGBTI+ people, all the while preaching a gospel of the God of Love. This is a homophobic world, and whatever drove Mateen to perpetrate his act of homophobic terror on Sunday morning, he perpetrated it in this world and was part of this world. And for that, the world has to hold itself to account.

Jessica Kourkouris/Getty Images

Grace and gracelessness

I’ve edited this to reflect the version that was subsequently published on the ABC Religion and Ethics Website in Australia. Nick, 15 July 2016.

The term “Evangelical” is notoriously hard to define. Grace features somewhere in most definitions; graciousness is occasionally in shorter supply.

In a poorly-timed opinion piece, Michael Bird wonders when “social progressives” will realise that they can’t simultaneously support LGBTI rights and oppose Islamophobia. Some Muslims have appalling views on homosexuality, ergo, Muslims must by rights suffer when social progressives come after Christians and other religious communities (as he thinks they surely will).

More precisely: if progressive political parties like the Australian Greens try to bring religious groups into the purview of anti-discrimination laws, Muslims will suffer, and social progressives’ heads – unable to bear the “paradox” – will simply explode.

I’m not sure the Social Progressive Cabal would let me join their bid for global domination, but I am a fully signed-up liberal democrat. So, I suspect, is Michael Bird. And while debates about the place of religion in pluralist liberal democracies will always be complicated, I’d like to suggest that it’s not quite as hard to walk and chew gum as Bird appears to think.

To live in a liberal democracy requires an act of sympathetic imagination – particularly from those who belong to majorities, and even more particularly from those who belong to powerful ones. For example, middle-class men of European descent (like me) need to imagine how we’d see things if, by accident of fate, we found ourselves in a minority – particularly in a small and powerless one. What respect and dignity would we want the majority to accord us, our way of seeing the world and our way of doing things? What could the majority reasonably expect of us in return?

It’s not my intention here to suggest that there’s something inherently virtuous about being in the minority. A temptation into which minority groups sometimes fall is to glory in victimhood and indulge in fantasies of revenge (or even its realisation). This kind of ressentiment runs deep in Christianity’s DNA, but there’s plenty to go around elsewhere. It clearly underwrites the stories that a certain kind of Islamism tells about itself as well. It’s even common among majorities who feel as though they’re losing their grip on power. That may be why we find a striking incidence of this pathology among men of European descent at the moment.

Likewise, it’s worth acknowledging that sympathetic imagination can only ever be approximate. Different groups identify and prioritise their values differently. To imagine yourself into the place of another group will always require a kind of translation, and translation, as Michael Bird knows, never works perfectly.

On the other hand, translation gets us most of the way most of the time. Fortunately, it’s helped by the fact that few of us belong straightforwardly to one group or another. So I’m not just a middle class man of European descent. I’m also a gay man, and a (lacklustre) Catholic. My experience in the latter two minorities gives me some inkling of what it might feel like to be a Muslim in the present climate. I’m also lucky enough to have good Muslim workmates and associates with whom I can talk about this, however tentatively (though I don’t want them ever to feel as though they have to justify their place in the universe, any more than I want to feel I have to justify mine).

I can’t claim anything more than a superficial understanding of Islam, but I do understand very well what it’s like to have ignorant majorities windily opine about what “people like me” think and do. This is why I viscerally detest both Islamophobia and homophobia.

It’s also, incidentally, why I would strenuously oppose most (though not all) attempts to restrict religious freedoms – especially as religious belief becomes a minority avocation in New Zealand, and maybe soon Australia. If that “not all” seems a slippery out, I’d ask Bird whether he thinks religious freedom should be entirely unfettered. Should Evangelical husbands of a certain ilk have the right to physically “discipline” their wives, as surely once they did, and still occasionally do? Should migrants from northeastern Africa have the right to mutilate their daughters’ genitals? If, as I’d guess, his answer is no, then this is not a debate between “social progressives” and “religious” people, but between citizens of a liberal democracy.

But if the rights and freedoms of liberal democracy seems too dull and cramped a framework in which to continue this discussion, then I’d suggest that generosity and graciousness of spirit would get us a lot further than unlovely attempts to divide and conquer.

Bible, Critical Theory and Reception: Glasgow, September 2016

Announcing a fabulous seminar taking place later this year in the wonderful city of Glasgow. The Bible, Critical Theory and Reception seminar is northern hemisphere sibling to the Australasia-based Bible and Critical Theory seminar and journal (of which Auckland TheoRel’s Caroline Blyth and Robert Myles are current editors). For our friends in the North, this seminar is not to be missed. More details below from James Crossley’s Harnessing Chaos

Bible, Critical Theory and Reception: Glasgow, September 2016

The sixth annual seminar will be dedicated to some of the latest developments in biblical studies. Building on the success of the Bible and Critical Theory seminar and journal in the southern hemis…

Source: Bible, Critical Theory and Reception: Glasgow, September 2016

Two upcoming lectures

Just a quick post about a couple of in the next fortnight. You’re warmly invited to both.

Detail from: Dr King preaching at Old St Paul’s before James I (1603-25) 1616 (oil on panel) by John Gipkyn (fl.1594-1629) Society of Antiquaries of London, UK/ The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: British / out of copyright

Paul’s Cross and the Culture of Persuasion in Early Modern England

Torrance Kirby, Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Director of the Centre for Research on Religion, Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, Montréal, Canada

Located at the epicentre of the City of London, the outdoor pulpit of Paul’s Cross was a key site in the expansion of a popular early-modern ‘culture of persuasion’. Paul’s Cross contributed significantly to the transformation of England’s political and religious identity and to the emergence of a ‘public sphere’ of discourse.

5.30pm, Monday 29th February, lecture theatre 206-220, Arts 1, 14a Symonds Street

Patrick He, Haidan Christian Church, Beijing,

Christianity in Xi Jinping’s China

Professor Ryan Dunch, University of Alberta and Professor Richard Masden, UC San Diego

Acclaimed international scholars discuss the context and significance of Protestant and Catholic Christianity in contemporary China

6-7pm, 3rd March, Owen Glenn Building, Case Room 2 (260-057)

“Self-styled bishop”

A tweet from SecularNZ this morning reminded me about a phrase that irritated me in a New Zealand Herald article last week. In yet another story about the finances of Destiny Church, the article referred to its leader as “self styled bishop Brian Tamaki.”

Without entering into a discussion of Tamaki, his church or its finances, I wonder what the writer thought the difference was between a “bishop” and a “self-styled bishop.”

Like other men and women who get to be called “bishops,” Brian Tamaki had the title conferred on him by other leaders of his church in 2005. In this respect it makes no more sense to describe Pope Francis as a “self-styled pope.” Francis I may style himself “pope,” but like Bishop Tamaki, he also had the title officially conferred on him by other leaders of the Catholic church in 2013. Like “Bishop” Tamaki, “Pope” Francis shares his title with a number of contemporary  contenders.

Webb, Murray, 1947-. Webb, Murray, 1947- :Destiny Church [Brian Tamaki] [ca 15 December 2004]. Ref: DX-001-962. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
My guess is that the confusion comes from some expectation that “bishop” is an exclusively Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox term – that, somehow, unless you wear a purple shirt and/or a mitre, you don’t get to be called a bishop.

In fact, “bishop” comes to us from the New Testament via the Old English word biscop. Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7 refer to church leaders called episkopoi in Greek (Old English biscop is just a rendering of the piskop in the Greek episkopos).

ROME, THE VATICAN-12 MARCH 2013 : The Cardinals are leaving the Pro Engleindo Mass, which is immediately prior to their entrance into the Sistene Chapel for the voting process that elects the new Pope. Cardinal O’Malley from Boston is the one with the white beard. Image by Jeffrey Bruno. Licence:

Episkopos is notorious difficult to translate, and its origins are uncertain. It may come from the non-religious world of the early Christian era, referring to someone in charge of a building site or other group activity. In this context it’s sometimes translated as “overseer” or “superintendent.” It may come from the Septuagint (a Jewish-Greek translation of the Old Testament), where Ezekiel is called to be a “watchman” or episkopos for the people of Israel (Ezekiel 33:3). Here the office is something more like a prophet.

Of course “bishop” could have both origins. Unfortunately, though, the New Testament doesn’t tell us much about what an episkopos does, except that, according to 1 Timothy at least, he should be of irreproachable character and the “husband of only one wife.”

In the two centuries following the Reformation, most Protestant churches wanted to abandon the term “bishop” because they associated it with what they regarded as the corruption of the medieval church. But Protestants were aware that episkopos was in the Bible, and so they experimented with translating it in different ways. They also experimented with what the office meant in practice (beyond being irreproachable and the “husband of only one wife”).

John Wesley ordaining Thomas Coke as a “General Superintendent” in 1784, a move that greatly scandalised Wesley’s fellow Anglicans. They believed that Wesley, as a priest, had no right to do this. Coke later called himself a “bishop.” Anglicans felt the same way about this title as the New Zealand Herald appears to feel about Bishop Tamaki. Source:

So, for example, John Knox’s Church of Scotland experimented with an office known as the “superintendent,” before abandoning after a few decades. Some modern Methodist churches still have leaders called “superintendents.” Other Methodists opt for the older translation of “bishop.” A lot of Protestant churches who don’t use either term would still argue that their leaders and ministers met the job-description of “oversight” or “watching” implied in the Biblical Greek.

Which is all a long way of saying that there isn’t a standard blueprint for what a “bishop” is, does or wears. There’s also no regulating body, patent office or copyright agency that gets to decide who can and can’t use the title “bishop.”

More broadly speaking, in a secular, liberal democracy, all religions deserve equal treatment under the law. So if I want to call myself the Dalai Lama, Pope or Jedi Master, the law has no interest in this. Nor, I think, does the secular media – except, perhaps, as a matter of curiosity.

But if I were to use my church’s money in ways that looked legally questionable, then both law and media would have an interest, and both would entitled to call me to account.



Murderous Texts: Call for Papers

We are delighted to announce a call for papers for an exciting new volume being organized by Auckland TheoRel’s Caroline Blyth and Dr Alison Jack from New College School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. Murderous Texts: The Bible in Crime Fiction and Drama will be an edited volume of essays that will consider the complex ways the crime genre in literature, film, television, and theatre engage with biblical texts, stories, and themes. More details below!

Murderous Texts: The Bible in Crime Fiction and Drama

Call for papers

rankin2Religious themes and motifs have, for many years, been grist to the mill for creators of crime fiction and drama. In particular, the Bible has enjoyed a certain notoriety within the crime genre, where a biblical story, text, or motif serves as a thematic focus within the plotline to explore contemporary concerns of criminality, violence, and the search for justice.  In Stieg Larsson’s novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005), and its film adaptations (2009, 2011), a list of biblical passages hold the clue to identifying a ritualistic serial killer. An episode of ITV’s police drama Vera (‘A Certain Samaritan’, Vera, Series 2, 2012) retells the parable of the Good Samaritan, re-evaluating its significance within the context of a contemporary secular world. Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø cites a biblical passage (Isaiah 63.1) at the start of his 2005 novel, The Redeemer, using this as a starting point from which to explore the ethics of violence, retribution, and redemption, while in a scene from Ian Rankin’s first novel, Knots and Crosses (1987), police inspector John Rebus sits reading the book of Job, pondering its themes of suffering and divine justice in light of his own personal and professional traumas.

This frequent and fascinating engagement with the Bible in fictional crime texts newbo(including novels, film, television, and theatre) deserves further investigation. Exploring the explicit and implicit use of biblical texts and themes offers insights into the multiple layers of meaning that may be present within the crime text itself, including the complex intersections understood to be present between violence and religion. Additionally, it also raises fascinating questions about the significance of the Bible as a religious and cultural text – its association with the culturally pervasive themes of violence, intolerance, guilt, and atonement, and its relevance as  a symbol of the (often fraught) location that religion occupies within contemporary culture.

Despite this relative popularity of biblical themes and allusions in crime fiction and drama, there has been little sustained scholarly engagement with this subject to date. In our proposed volume, Murderous Texts: The Bible in Crime Fiction and Drama, we seek to redress this, bringing together interdisciplinary scholarship from the fields of biblical interpretation, literary criticism, and studies in film, television, and popular culture. We are therefore looking for contributors who are keen to explore the different ways cultural crime texts (including literature, film, television, and theatre) The-Girl-with-the-Dragon-Tattoo-2009engage with biblical themes or traditions. Essays may consider explicit references to the Bible in these texts, or focus instead on their implicit biblical allusions, including explorations of biblical themes such as sin, redemption, and sacrifice. We are defining ‘literature’ broadly here to include both traditional novels and more contemporary literary forms, such as graphic novels and comic books.

Contributors should submit an abstract of their essay for this volume (c. 200-300 words) to the editors Caroline Blyth (c.blyth[at] and Alison Jack (A.Jack[at] by 30 April 2016. Final essays should be 5000-6000 words in length and submitted by 31 December, 2016.

If you wish more information, or have any questions about the volume, please contact Caroline or Alison.

A pdf of the call for papers can be located here: Murderous Texts CFP

Advent offering 15 December

Today’s advent image is brought to us by English Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais. Titled, Christ in the house with his parents, Millais appears to be following the Pre-Raphaelite tradition of bringing realism into his work, using bright jewel tones to depict this fabulously detailed domestic scene. Set in what appears to be a carpenter’s workshop, we see a young russet-haired Jesus being comforted by his parents after he has cut his hand (presumably on some tool or rough piece of wood in the workshop). This is a very human Jesus, caught in a mundane moment – very different to earlier artistic works which preferred to present Christ in more glorified or esoteric forms.

John Everett Millais, Christ in the house of his parents (1850)

John Everett Millais, Christ in the house of his parents (1850)

And yet, while the sawdust and blood roots this image of Jesus very much within the earthy realm, Millais also hints at the divinity of Christ through his use of various signs and symbols within the painting. The young chap on the right is John the Baptist (identified by hjs little animal skin skirt), carefully carrying a bowl of water presumably to wash Jesus’ wounds – might this prefigure the gospel tradition of John’s baptism of Jesus (Matt 3.13-17)? Perching on a rung of the ladder that leans against the wall behind Joseph, we see a dove, reminiscent of the spirit of God, which descends ‘like a dove’ upon Jesus once he has been baptised (Matt 3.16). Despite the domestic and very earthly setting of this family, Millais seems to suggest that God is most assuredly in their midst. Meanwhile, Jesus’ wound looks ominously like those wounds he will receive on his hands and feet at the crucifixion; indeed, in his father’s hand we see what looks like a large metal nail, akin to those that will later be driven through Jesus’ flesh into the cross. And speaking of crosses, the workshop is stacked with wooden planks; innocent enough, but they may remind us of the two planks of wood that will be used to construct the cross on which this young redheaded boy will one day die. Yet, in the background of the picture, a flock of sheep bustle forward to see what’s going on in the workroom. Perhaps this is to reassure the viewer, inviting them to recall Jesus’ legacy as the ‘Good Shepherd’ who, despite his death, will remain saviour and messiah for the Christian community.

Thus, Millais’ Christ in the house of his parents is an image that is both  poignant and hopeful. At the time of its exhibition, however, it was also controversial. Its domestication and humanising of Jesus and the holy family was considered blasphemous by some viewers, most notably Charles Dickens, who was particularly affronted at the ugliness of Millais’ Mary. Poor Millais, and poor Mary Hodgkinson, his sister-in-law, who had modelled as Mary for the artist. Personally, I think she looks lovely.


Advent offering: 8 December

Fresco of the Virgin Mary, Kariye Camii, Müzesi or Chora Church, Istanbul

I’d been intending to continue with my theme of “Advent” as Second-Coming and Judgement today, but, on reflection, it seemed a bit gloomy.

So, given that 8 December is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Catholic church, I thought I’d head down another arcane historical alleyway , and look at some of the iconography associated with the Virgin Mary in Orthodox art – specifically the inner narthex (a kind of porch) of the Chora Church in Istanbul, Turkey.

These mosaics (and the above fresco) were produced in the 13th century. In the early 16th century, the Turks turned the church into a mosque (Kariye Camii) and whitewashed over the mosaics. But the artwork was rediscovered after the Second World War. In the 1950s restoration of the frescos and mosaics began, and the mosque was turned into a museum.

The mosaics in the inner narthex show a sequence of stories about the Virgin Mary. These stories are probably unfamiliar to most western Christians – Catholic or Protestant – but are familiar to Eastern Christians, as well as to Muslims, through the accounts of the Virgin Mary in the Qur’an. They come from the so-called Protoevangelium of James or the Infancy Gospel of James, a 2nd century Jewish-Christian text written as a kind of “prequel” to the synoptic Gospels.

The Protoevangelium didn’t make it into the various canons of Scripture, but it was used by “orthodox” Christian writers like Clement of Alexandria (2nd-3rd cent.) and John Chrysostom (4th-5th cent) as a source of information about the family of Jesus, and particularly his mother Mary.

The first of these mosaics shows Joachim and Anna (or Anne) the parents of Mary cherishing their newborn daughter. Anna’s story in  Protoevangelium 1-5 parallels that of her namesake Hannah in 1 Samuel 1. She is barren and is promised by an angel that she will conceive. She promises to devote the child, male or female, to the service of God in the Temple.

A version of the same story can be found in the Qur’an 3:36. There Mary’s father is named Imran. His wife is given no name, but she likewise dedicates the child in her womb to the service of God.

Joachim and Anna cherish their new daughter, Kariye Camii, Müzesi or Chora Church, Istanbul

The second image shows Joachim and Anna presenting their daughter to Zechariah, the high priest in the Temple (Protoevangelium 7). The child Mary then dwells in the Temple, miraculously educated by a dove and fed by an angel (Protoevangelium 8) – that’s her and the angel under the canopy at the back.

Again Qur’an 3:37 refers to both the presentation to Zechariah and the miraculous feeding of Mary.

Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple, Kariye Camii, Müzesi or Chora Church, Istanbul

When the Virgin Mary reaches puberty at the age of 12, the priests become concerned that her presence in the Temple will “defile” the sanctuary, and so they decide that she must be married off. Zechariah assembles the “widowers of the people” and has them all bring their staffs to the Temple. The episode echoes God’s choice of Aaron and the tribe of Levi as priests in Numbers 17, except that in this case the widower Joseph’s staff doesn’t flower, as Aaron’s did. Instead, God chooses Joseph as a husband for Mary by making a dove alight on the staff. Joseph betroths himself to Mary, then goes away to build a house for her (Protoevangelium 8-10).

There is an oblique reference to this episode in Qur’an 3:44 when God mentions to Muhammad that he [Muhammad] was not there when “pens” or “lots” were cast to see who should have responsibility for Mary.

Joseph wins the hand of Mary in Marriage. Here, interestingly his rod seems to bloom like that of Aaron in Numbers 17. No sign of a dove. Kariye Camii, Müzesi or Chora Church, Istanbul

In the final image, Mary, together with the “undefiled virgins of the House of David,” are given wool to spin and weave a veil for the Temple (Protoevangelium 10). It is while she is weaving the veil that the archangel Gabriel appears to Mary and announces that she is to be the mother of the Saviour. At the same time, Mary learns from a new high priest, Samuel, that Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, is also to bear a child: John the Baptist (Protoevangelium 11-12).

The Qur’an does not mention the story of the spinning of the veil of the Temple, though Qur’an 19:1-11 does mention that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist was struck dumb (Protoevangelium 10; Luke 1:20-22). It also gives two accounts of the Annunciation of Jesus’s birth to Mary (Qur’an 3:45-51; 19:17-21), though with  details that differ from those in the Protoevangelium or the Gospel of Luke.

I could go on, but the other pictures I took in the Chora Church are not of a very high quality, and this is already a long post.

However, the reason I thought I’d show these images on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, is that they give a sense of the incredibly complex typological readings of Scripture that puzzle or scandalise modern readers, but are so characteristic of Early Christianity.

The idea that Mary was conceived “without sin” (the Immaculate Conception) seems at arbitrary and improbable to anyone who assumes that Scripture is only to be read literally. To be fair, even Thomas Aquinas was sceptical about the Immaculate Conception, and Catholics weren’t absolutely required to believe in it until 1854.

Even so the idea arises out of an ancient and complicated Early Christian hermeneutic which connected the Virgin Mary symbolically with the Daughter of Zion, the Temple, the Holy of Holies, the Church as the new Israel and the Heavenly Jerusalem. To expand on these connections in any detail is far more than I can do here. Suffice it to say that, from the second century onwards, Mary began to stand for God’s eternal choice or “election” of Israel as the means by which redemption would come to the whole world, and for the heavenly Jerusalem which would mark this work’s completion.

Moreover, when we recognise the authority of the Protoevangelium in early and medieval Christianity, the passages relating to Mary in the Qur’an become less unfamiliar to modern Christians; it becomes clear that this was one of a number of common sources on which both religious traditions drew.

For more on the relationship between the Protoevangelium and the Qur’an, see: Hosn Abboud, Mary in the Qur’an: A Literary Reading. Routledge Studies in the Qur’an. London: Routledge, 2014.