Reflections on the Water - The 2016 Laing Lecture
Date added: 26/02/2016
Reflections on the Water
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!””
I was privileged to be able to combine my previous and present employment (both within the sphere of theology generally) and attend the 2016 Laing Lecture, hosted by the London School of Theology (LST) and given by Dr. Anna Robbins (Associate Professor of Theology, Culture and Ethics at Acadia Divinity College in Canada), at Emmanuel Church Northwood on the 23rd of February. The Laing Lectures are a long-running series of creatively evangelical theological lectures, given annually by an invited theologian to the faculty, students and friends of LST. As a former staff member, it was personally good to be back amongst friends, and intellectually and spiritually challenging to hear the fruits of Dr. Robbins’ provocative research.
Following a warm introduction to Anna Robbins, a small ensemble took the stage. This trio serenaded the church gathered with a haunting rendition of ‘Rivers of Babylon’, from whence Dr. Robbins drew the title of her lecture. Starting the evening’s theology with a song was a powerful choice. ‘Rivers of Babylon’ is often best known through Boney M’s 1978 cover, rather than the 1970 original by Jamaican reggae group The Melodians. Resonating deeply with Psalms 19 and 137, the lyrics sat amongst the haunting jazz arrangement. The deep biblical imagery, carried by Dr. Perigo’s saxophone, set the table for Dr. Robbins challenging and stimulating lecture. I reproduce part of the refrain by way of introduction:
“Let the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart
Be acceptable in thy sight here tonight
By the rivers of babylon, there we sat down
Ye-eah we wept, when we remembered zion…”
As LST’s impromptu trio’s rendition faded away, and Dr. Robbins rose to speak, the gathered listeners were caught in a strange in-between place, as the arrangement harkened back to the original reggae, and the words stirring memories of Scripture even as they interacted with our questions over the title and topic of the lecture. This sense of cultural dislocation - a haunting song in a well lit church, cover of a cover - was a valuable ‘way in’ to what was said.
The lecture opened with Dr. Robbins gently critiquing the way in which Christians in the West understood our cultural, political and social location. the observation that ‘it is so hard to be a Christian out there today…’ was identified as possibly being the lament of our times for many Christians in the West. From early on, Dr. Robbins was calling us to be wise in our approach to culture and freedom, particularly freedom of speech. Riffing directly from the musical introduction’s Old Testament resonance, the theme of exile and questions around its meaning began to emerge. For those with a literary bent, Robbins put it particularly well:
“to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumours of our exile have been greatly exaggerated…”
To paraphrase Robbins, she raised the question of how ‘post-Christendom’ the Church in the West actually is. In the UK, for example (where Robbins has lived and talked, and the Lecture was being heard) Churches have charitable benefits, can meet freely, senior religious leaders (Anglican Bishops) are involved in Government, and there are laws regarding freedom of speech. It is hardly the same, arguably, as the situation facing believers across the world. As Robbins pointed out, “When we compare our situation with those worshipping Christ at risk of death, we see we are not in exile”. There was a genuine humour, threaded through with conviction, regarding her cultural references to how we bemoan ‘persecution’ as Christians perched on comfortable seats in a heated building located in a country where the head of state is a Christian.
As an academic and Church leader with experiences across cultures, Robbins demonstrated a Christ-centred awareness of why and how she thought (and taught) what she did. Her lecture made powerful use of narratives of persecution and abuse she has heard from brothers and sisters globally, from Ghanaian Baptists to indigenous children in Canada. As someone listening, I felt the way Robbins had engaged with the subject, how her exploration of ‘exile’ theologically had led here beyond the conventional emotions of research, demonstrating the reality and resonance that really ethical theology can inspire. Psalm 137 was never far away from the thrust of the lecture. In my own reflection, I have subsequently re-read the section on Psalm 137 from the Africa Bible Commentary. Here, Tewoldemedhin Habtu, an Eritrean Wesleyan scholar, writes powerfully of grief and defiance, something that he particularly identifies with African Christian experience. The intermingling of church and state, a topic in the background of this lecture and many debates and discussions, is echoed in his comments:
“Overwhelmed by their loss, the captives sat and wept… It was the destruction of God’s house, the centre of their national life, that caused them the greatest grief. As believers, we should care as deeply about God’s church, and should weep and mourn when we see it persecuted or desecrated”
Readers of this piece should note what I am saying and doing in reproducing Habtu’s words: they speak far better than I can of the way in which we all to easily substitute institutions and worldly cultural power for the true power and reality of God’s church.
It was at this point in the lecture that Robbins’ words turned from sketching and outlining the possibility of a theology of collective repentance, showing us the shape of her work, to constructive challenge and exploration of ‘exile’ as a biblical and theological theme. Whilst observing that “Many Christians are approaching ‘exile’ as a means to take the mission of Christ to culture, seriously’, Robbins challenged us prophetically that “if we are seeking influence, we are seeking the wrong thing”. The dissonance between authentically Christ-focused understandings of situations and the story we find ourselves in offers a profound challenge to the Church of the West: “When we consider a Biblical view of exile: does it REALLY look like our lives today?”. The way in which Robbins unpacked her lecture from this juncture unpacked her point powerfully.
At the heart of the 2016 Laing Lecture was the question of the possibility of collective repentance. And a misunderstanding of the nature of exile was intimately linked to why this is important. As Robbins observed of many elements of the Western Church; “A motif of exile can lead to an unhelpful dichotomy of ‘us and them’… far from the reality of Biblical exile”. For the Church’s mission, Robbins challenged the way in which some Christians “talk about growing churches rather than serving people”, as she opened up the question of what the Church is actually doing and for. In terms of the shape and thrust of the lecture, this was another key point; “Christendom is not as far past as we think.. We can engage the culture best when we realise that we are at home in the Kingdom of God”. This citizenship does not affect the way we are or aren’t in ‘exile’, however we understand that, but rather challenges the very way we live and be the Church in the world.
I have listened to or read many papers,books and sermons that lament the way the Church is, without offering suggestions or much more than a lament. Many of us have read dozens of articles about the death of the Church, depending on our denomination or movement, these affect us in different ways. To us in the West, generally speaking, then, Robbins’ words come as a challenge, but a challenge infected and infused with hope: “We have been at home in this world in way that have denied our Lord and His wide embrace”. Too often, as Robbins notes, “We have been given much… and have used it to shore ourselves up rather than bless others”. Again, this challenge regarding the content and implication of the Kingdom of God is an important constructive suggestion for the Church. Because of our complicity in this, historically and presently, Robbins offers the charge that “We are Babylon… Instead of finding our security in Christ we have built it on institutions and structures”. This, then, is why “we need to develop a theology of collective repentance”.
Robbins’ suggestions around repentance are informed by theological and biblical research, and powerfully presented in her lecture by being framed with stories of suffering and genuine persecution shared with her by members of indigenous communities. As a result of this, reminded by the way (for example) that different races have treated each other, Robbins offered the suggestion that “Repentance is necessary because we are guilty. Repentance is possible because we may yet be forgiven”. The seeds of a new approach to repentance were sown as she observed that “Rather than repentance being something we have done, it is more an attitude that we adopt”. With particular resonance for the difficult process of reconciliation and unity ongoing across the global Church, and in particular the Anglican Communion, this is a constructive suggestion. This is an attitude that shapes our relations to one another: “Repentance must be a continual posture… A surrender of the self that frees the other to be who God intends”.
It was good to be able to live-tweet the lecture, interacting with an audience more global and diverse than gathered in the church. This, in the way that internet innovations such as usage of social media cannot replace all the functions of Christian community and theological formation, meant that those following my own tweets, or those of @LSTheology, or even the official hashtag #LSTLaing, heard a different set of ideas than the live audience. Yet this flawed window had a different reach and effect - with a range of people from across the church retweeting, liking and commenting on various snippets from the lecture.I was reminded of the #Primates2016 meeting, as Robbins spoke of the power of repentance for reconciliation, that ‘siting before the Lord’ is done by brothers and sisters; “when we sit before the Lord as Christians, we have to be willing for Him to forge a new narrative, together”. Amidst the talk of collective sin and collective repentance, there was a powerful thread of hope emerging.
Continuing the vital theme of being self-aware and self-critical, Robbins noted the danger of evangelical theology to tend towards (in an unhelpful echo of the culture it so often finds itself in) the individualistic. This is the challenge of a collective repentance - to name and change the ways that sin affects institutions, cultures, and even whole churches. It was poignant, then, that this recognition was being voiced in an evangelical theological lecture, paid for by the well known Laing trust. The evening lecture acted as a teaser of a wider day of theological engagement - student friends spoke warmly of a lively chapel service, whilst former colleagues enjoyed a stimulating and rich academic seminar. What if all theology could be so rich? So rooted in context, challenged by voices unfamiliar, and aimed where it is needed according to content and context.
Overall, this was a powerful and stretching evening, a lecture that transcended the form, with a tinge of prophetic challenged shaped by real, deep engagement with God’s Word for the sake of God’s world. For a Church so often shaped by and reflecting cultural norms, there was a powerful reminder that it is the Kingdom of God that should shape the Church, in order to change the world, rather than the other way round. The challenge to our desire for influence, which I would observe can often be about ‘relevance’, is one I hope that many will here. The meat of this meal, though, for a Church concerned with unity and reconciliation, is the notion of repentance as being a corporate posture for the People of God as they are transformed by the Spirit of God into the Image and Body of Christ as the Father intends.
Scripture used from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION® NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
ed. Adeyemo, Tokunboh, Africa Bible Commentary. grand Rapids: Zondervan, 201G
Cho, Youngmo. Spirit and Kingdom in the Writings of Luke and Paul: An Attempt to Reconcile These Concepts. Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005.
Goldsworthy, G. “Kingdom of God.” Edited by T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner. New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
Hossfeld, Frank-Lothar, and Erich Zenger. Psalms 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101–150.
Ladd, George Eldon. The Kingdom of God - Reign or Realm?, http://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/jbl/1962_ladd.pdf
Robbins, Anna. Laing Lecture 2016
Articles by Thomas Creedy
Reflections on the Water - The 2016 Laing Lecture (26/02/2016)