On Asterisks and Stars

Asterisk Years in Sport

Regular readers of this blog will know that I often find the transition into the new calendar year, with all its possibilities and uncertainties, to be facilitated through sporting events. By occasionally tuning into Sky Sports News, I managed to follow some of the festive sporty action this year, but I think my lasting impression will be of all the Covid cases and the impact this had. The pinnacle of festive sport – the World Darts Championships[1] – was somewhat affected by positive Covid tests: three big names had to pull out of the tournament, and frankly, it was remarkable this number was so few. Any visit to Sky Sports News involved being confronted by headlines and discussion about cancellation of major football fixtures, reporting of more positive Covid tests, and the effect that this was having on teams. There was palpable frustration from managers who felt aggrieved and unjustly treated because of the difficult decisions to play, cancel, or postpone fixtures.

While fortune is an intrinsic element of sport, avoiding a serious respiratory disease to be able to continue to compete is not typical, and so I have sympathised with organisers about how to proceed fairly. This, of course, has been a feature of our most unusual last 20 months. A little over a year ago when riders and whole teams in the Giro D’Italia were testing positive and being forced to leave the race, a phrase came to my mind to describe sport and perhaps life in these years of COVID: ‘asterisk years’.[2] Let me explain.

An asterisk (*) is a symbol bearing the appearance of a star (Greek: aster; Latin: astrum) which is often used to express something abnormal or unusual. In 2020, my adopted football team, Coventry City, did very well to win England’s League One. I imagine, however, that an asterisk might appear beside this feat in some football records since they did not play out the whole 46 games of the season owing to Covid. Returning to the Giro D’Italia of 2020, a young British rider, Tao Geoghegan Hart, arguably capitalised on the abandonment of several more experienced riders and the brutal conditions to secure a famous overall victory. Although I would prefer to see Geoghegan Hart’s victory as a star being born – witness also Emma Raducanu – some cycling fans might put a slight asterisk beside it because of the unusual circumstances in which the event took place.

While, like all of us, I sincerely hope that the latest variant soon subsides so that asterisks are less necessary in current editions of sporting events, sport is being affected to the extent that ‘asterisk years’ are once more a possibility. Even if sport might pale into insignificance compared to the dis-aster that COVID continues to cause, it does, I believe, offer a largely healthy distraction. We might, however, need to expect and learn to celebrate somewhat more unpredictable outcomes.

While asterisks usually denote the unusual or exceptional, we might also dwell on some of their other uses. Keeping with the sporty theme and disaster, the current Ashes series is something most people in England are trying to obliterate from memory. Unfortunately, few English batsmen have had the asterisk next to high scores to show that they are ‘not out’. Most other examples which come to my mind beyond sport, however, are from linguistics. We know that asterisks are used in place of letters in expletives (e.g., “Aussie w****r”), or when bold or italic functions are unavailable to us, they can be used to signpost *very important things*. In linguistics, an asterisk can also indicate a hypothetical or impossible word or phrase.[3] Finally, in ancient texts, an asterisk is one symbol used to indicate and correct defects. In short, the asterisk is a most versatile symbol.

Stars in Scripture

Writing about asterisks and stars at the turn of a New Year is very timely. Although the wise men or magi are usually bundled into Christmas nativity sets, many church traditions celebrate the occasion of their being guided by the star from the east with the Feast of Epiphany which traditionally follows Christmas. This astral scene is famously described in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel and forms part of many a sermon in the first week of January.[4] As we head into 2022, I want to course through a few other places where stars come into view in the New Testament and consider how they might encourage us in these asterisk years.

References to stars crop up here and there throughout the Old and New Testaments, but apart from Matt 2, the place where they form the clearest cluster is in the final canonical book: Revelation. John’s vision of Jesus Christ is filled with descriptions of stars. I haven’t the space (or expertise!) to explore all the passages but the beginning and end of Revelation merit mention. The beginning of the vision depicts seven angels who go to seven churches. They are also described as stars, as Jesus himself explains the mystery of the seven stars to John: ‘the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches’ (Rev 1:20). To the faithful of one of the churches, Thyatira, it is promised: ‘I shall give him (or her) the morning star’ (Rev 2:28). Then, significantly, at the end of the vision, the angel reports these words from Jesus: ‘I, Jesus … I am the root and the offspring of David, the shining and morning star’ (Rev 22:16).

What we see, then, in Revelation is that Jesus, who was with God at the beginning of creation when the stars were formed, is described in cosmic terms as a star yet with earthly lineage. Moreover, Jesus is not the only star in Revelation: the angels, churches, and individuals within the churches also become like stars in John’s vision.

We can usefully compare this to the two places in Paul’s letters where stars (or similar) are mentioned. Although it was probably written slightly later, I start with Paul’s exhortation to the church in Philippi, following his portrayal of Christ’s example (Phil 2:14-15, AT):

Do everything without grumbling and disputation, so that you might be blameless and pure, as unblemished children of God amid a corrupt and depraved generation, among whom you shine like illuminations in the world.

As I have tried to convey in this translation which differs from the NIV (‘then you will shine among them like stars in the sky’), I think it is important to note that the verb is present rather than future: Paul believes that the Philippians’ shining is possible now. This is something which, I believe, extends to believers collectively today in testing circumstances: it is possible, through the agency of Jesus and his Spirit, to illuminate in the face of opposition.[5]

While it is possible to shine now, however, the intensity of the illumination will never be the same as at the resurrection. Conveniently, the other place where Paul talks about stars is with reference to this bodily resurrection of the believer in one of his most brilliant but complex passages towards the end of 1 Corinthians 15. His basic point is that all believers will receive a resurrection body, but these bodies will not be identical. This is the case with heavenly bodies, including stars: ‘star differs from star in glory, thus will be the resurrection of the dead’ (1 Cor 15:41-42, AT). In other words, at the resurrection, believers will receive a heavenly body like that of the stars. Paul goes on to illustrate this through a contrast between a believing individual’s earthly body and heavenly body: ‘The first person was from the dust of the earth, the second person from heaven … just as we have borne the image of the dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly’ (1 Cor 15:47, 49). While inaugurated in this life, the transformation of the believer, is only complete at his or her resurrection, when they assume a heavenly body, like a star.    

Shining in Asterisk Years

Regular readers of this blog will also know that I sometimes like to include songs that I’ve recently heard which can come from different eras, if not quite star-like eons. Today, though, it is a relatively recent song that some people at St Aldates Church in Oxford made called ‘Oh How We Need You’. It is a beautiful song full of truth. Its chorus is as follows:

Oh, how we need You, Lord,
We can’t make it on our own
Though our days are like the dust
Still Your love will carry us…

I feel it captures much of what this post has explored: principally, our need to be guided like the magi by the morning star of Christ such that we are carried along by his love. The part about our days being like the dust is especially interesting. This refers to the psalmist’s words: ‘he [the Lord] knows our form and remembers that we are dust’ (Ps 103:14). In 1 Cor 15, we saw that Paul also acknowledged humanity’s dust-like state, but he had a vision that things wouldn’t remain that way: on account of Christ’s resurrection, believers can follow him in being transformed from dust to stardust, from the earthly to the heavenly. Therefore, Christians can sing not only that ‘our days are like the dust’ but that ‘our days are like the stardust’: they are only just beginning.

This matters more than ever in these exceptional asterisk years, however long they continue. These are difficult and humbling days, but ones nevertheless where stardom is accessible not only to those elite sportspeople who evade the clutches of Covid, but to all because of Christ’s victory over death. Despite our doubts, defects, and the expletives which we might still utter, despite separation and even mortality, together we can still shine like stars in asterisk years.*

[1] For some darts-inspired reflections from last year, see: https://alexmuirblog.wordpress.com/2021/01/03/unhindered/

[2] In writing this, I became aware that this term had been negatively applied by a writer, Paul Larkin, to Rangers’ dominance in Scottish football through dubious, even illicit, financial means. In this post, I steer clear of this conflict and put a more positive spin on what asterisk years might entail.      

[3] I advocate the past participle of ‘preach’ taking the hypothetical form *praught rather than ‘preached’.

[4] For a comprehensive yet lay-friendly guide to Matt 2, see Ian Paul’s blog: https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/myth-and-history-in-the-epiphany-of-matthew-2/.

[5] My choice of ‘illuminations’ rather than ‘stars’ also deserves explanation: the Greek is phoster rather than aster which, while very similar, are not identical. While Paul almost certainly has some Jewish scriptures in mind here – principally Daniel 12:3 – it is intriguing that he departs from the Greek translation of Daniel with phoster rather than aster.

* Another use for an asterisk is for an additional or a special note – often of acknowledgment. I devote this piece to my late grandmother, Frances May Royle, who recently died after a fine innings of 91 years in which she shone brightly and, I trust, now does so in a heavenly body. She had a profound appreciation for sport (particularly snooker) and a still deeper love of Jesus and his church. These are things which this blog also aims to reflect.

Rebuilding and Finding the Colour

‘Express yourself, it’s one-on-one … love’s got the world in motion and I know what we can do’ (New Order, World in Motion)

‘Find the colour, sight, and sound / a new exposure comes around / Anaesthetic for the mind / Hear the voice that soothes away the pain’ (Feeder, Find the Colour)

‘Therefore, console one another and build up each other individually, just as you are doing.’ (St. Paul, 1 Thessalonians 5:11)

Summer and Winter Tunes

The recent changing of the seasons leads me to believe that it is now safe to bring up the subject of the delayed Euro 2020 finals again. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if England had held on for the win against Italy: the scenes which would have ensued in English cities; how Luke Shaw would now be a national hero; how thirty plus twenty-five years of hurt might have been alleviated. My dreams of playing football or running internationally may be long gone but to help keep my body in one piece, most evenings before going to bed, I spend fifteen minutes stretching, rolling, and listening to an eclectic range of music. In those heady few days of expectation, I remember listening to many of the England major tournament songs as part of the process, but it was the words of England’s 1990 – the year before I was born – World Cup song, World in Motion, which particularly struck a chord with me one evening – specifically the repeated exhortation: ‘Express yourself, it’s one-on-one’. Allow me to explain.

There have been times over the last eighteen months where Covid regulations have meant that we have been forced to express ourselves one-on-one more than usual. Perhaps, if you’re anything like me, you initially found that quite liberating. I have good memories of being able to see close friends in-person one-on-one and enjoying the deep conversation and free expression that we could have after relative confinement. Yet, sometimes it has felt exhausting, as we have tried to return to our busy lives once more, although even now more spread out. Even if we are no longer restricted to gathering one-on-one, building community still requires more thought and effort than it did previously. I think many of us realise full well that we are in a period of rebuilding that will take considerable time.

Last week, another song came to me. Recently, during said stretching routine, I have been listening to some new songs from one of my all-time favourite groups, Feeder. One morning on waking up, the melodious tune of a much older Feeder song from 2002 – incidentally, before some of my cross-country teammates were born – resounded in my ears: ‘Find the colour, sight and sound / a new exposure comes around / anaesthetic for the mind / hear the voice that soothes away the pain’.

It suddenly occurred to me that as we rebuild, we need to find the colour once more.

The ongoing COP-26 perhaps illustrates this connection: we need to rebuild through sustainable ways of caring for the planet so that we may continue to see all its colours. This is clearly a challenge facing us all. Yet, another challenge facing us all is how we might rebuild our mental health, wellbeing, and resilience after such a tumultuous period, and find colour again. The pandemic has evidently led to increased pressures in this area that has been taking a hold on the West for some time now.

Rebuilding in Thessalonica

In thinking about rebuilding and finding colour, my mind has often turned to the earliest followers of Jesus Christ to whom the apostle Paul wrote letters in Thessalonica, probably around the 50s AD. The Thessalonians had been going through a difficult time where they had experienced affliction for defying cultural norms and giving their allegiance to Jesus. Moreover, there had been unexpected deaths within their community[1] which meant that they required some assurance about their loved ones. Paul memorably offered them a consoling vision about what will happen at the return of the resurrected Jesus: those who had died believing in Jesus would be raised first, and then those who were still around would be also taken up by Jesus, and they would be all together with Jesus forever (1 Thess 4:13-18).

This was the first stage in the rebuilding process. The second stage involved preparation and developing the right perspective for this day of the Lord (1 Thess 5:1-10). Importantly, such a perspective was to be developed within the community and this would involve a healthy balancing of emotions within it (1 Thess 5:14). After the consoling vision, Paul had written: ‘console one another with these words’ (1 Thess 4:18). Yet, after his reflections on the day of the Lord, he adds another element: ‘console one another and build each other up individually, just as you are doing’ (1 Thess 5:11).

If you’ll indulge me to delve into some minor technicalities with the original Greek here, the difference between ‘console one another’ and ‘build each other up individually’ is significant. The reflexive pronoun that can be translated ‘one another’ (Greek: ἀλλήλους; allēlous) is relatively common, but the ‘each other … individually’ part is much rarer. In Greek, this expression is εἷς τὸν ἕνα (heis ton hena) – literally translated ‘one the one’, but which might be better rendered ‘one-on-one’.

Hopefully you can see now why New Order’s classic – ‘express yourself, it’s one-on-one’ – resonated with me when compared with Paul’s words to the Thessalonians: ‘build each other up individually’ or ‘build up one-on-one’.

Rebuilding and Finding the Colour Then and Now

I have recently set out on a fourth decade. I don’t want to dwell too much on the past here; but suffice to say that at times, the last decade was humbling and involved some stripping away of relative self-assurance and narrow-mindedness. In many ways, it was a decade of rebuilding with seasons of seeking and often – although practically never instantly – finding colour amid darkness. I’m sure others can relate to this and may even share my hope for the next decade that we shall see rebuilding and colour: particularly in the area of emotional health.

I speak as one relatively untrained in this area and I know there are many different approaches within it. Nevertheless, I believe that Paul’s words still offer us something profound as we think about emotional health. There is value for consoling in larger communities and sharing our emotions corporately, but there is also significant value in edifying and being edified in smaller contexts, and even one-on-one. In fact, many matters of the mind are perhaps more helpfully expressed in smaller contexts.[2] Having been helped by a few people in such contexts over the last decade, I would say that they are a more fertile place for rebuilding through honest and intimate expression.[3]

What gave Paul the confidence to exhort the earliest followers of Jesus to console one another and build each other up (one-on-one)? I think it was because he had found the colour. Through the revelation (Gal 1:12, 1:16) from Jesus Christ that He was the Messiah, the Son of God, a new exposure had come around for Paul. The love of Christ had set his world in a different motion: he now felt a calling to share this news with as many non-Jews, like the Thessalonians, as possible. He heard a voice that he knew would soothe away the pain of those who had limited hope in the face of death.

Yet in another later revelation (2 Cor 12:1-10), Paul was humbled: the Lord revealed some colours, but these were only partial. The lasting effect of this revelation was a greater awareness of the darkness amid the colour. For Paul, this took the form of a deliberately undefined thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:7) that went with him throughout the rest of his ministry. Generations of believers after him who have experienced their own thorns have been able to relate this experience and use it to rely on the power of God to rebuild in weakness.

On this side of Christ’s return, there is a calling to rebuild and find colour in community; but it might not always be straightforward. Following Jesus does not mean immunity from darkness, destabilising events, and even depression. Paul knew that full well. Nevertheless, today as in Paul’s day, it is the love of Christ which has set the world in motion, does not abandon us, and enables what we can do. By continuing to stand in Him, often with the help of community, we can trust that we have His Spirit in us and we can express ourselves corporately and one-on-one.

That’s what I started to learn and understand last decade and take into this one. [4]

[1] Whether these deaths were a result of the affliction or not is still debated.

[2] I realise that such community and help can be very hard for many to access; it is sadly regularly reported that the waiting times to see psychological professionals are longer than they have ever been.

[3] This was certainly true in Paul’s day. The ancient moral philosophers – to whom, I believe, Paul can fruitfully be compared – saw one-on-one environments as the place to challenge and rebuke, which can be a part of rebuilding. I particularly recommend Abraham Malherbe’s scholarly work here, notably his commentary on 1 (and 2) Thessalonians, which continues to be used and taken in fruitful directions.

[4] My dear friend and colleague, Dingjian (James) Xie, shared with me a wonderful quote from Confucius (The Analects, Wei Zheng 4): ‘At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven. At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth. At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.’ I’m not sure what this means for someone whose mind is still bent on learning at thirty; but I love the edifying image of standing firm at thirty.

Some Summer Reading: Douglas Campbell, ‘Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love’ (Eerdmans, 2020)

After three years of doctoral study focusing on (the Apostle/Saint) Paul, I still find that it is a daily and Sisyphean task not to drown in the sea of literature in response to the thirteen letters that are attributed to him.[1] Each summer, I have tentatively endeavoured to fill in a few more gaps in my knowledge by dipping into some ‘classic’ studies in the field.[2] This summer, I elected to read something a bit newer but which is no less weighty a contribution: Douglas Campbell’s Pauline Dogmatics. Prof. Campbell is a New Testament scholar, hailing from New Zealand, who is based at Duke Divinity School.

I have thought a good deal about Campbell’s work in recent years. While serving as a ministry assistant, I attended some lectures at St Mellitus College, London, in 2015, given by the vivacious Chris Tilling, who happens to be one of Campbell’s greatest supporters.[3] In no small part inspired by these lectures, I wrote a MTh thesis on Paul’s rhetoric on Romans 1:18-3:20 with a particular eye to the audience of this part of the letter. Owing to his viewpoint, typically contra traditional scholarship, that much of this section is voiced by an opponent to Paul’s gospel, Campbell was himself an interlocutor for my project.[4] Campbell has also produced an impressive study on the chronology of the Pauline letters,[5] which ought to be read by any serious Paulinist, although again, some of his judgements have convinced few other scholars.

Most recently, Campbell presented a version of his chapter of Pauline Dogmatics on supersessionism at the British New Testament Conference in Liverpool in 2019 before it was published. He was even due to come to Edinburgh in March 2020 around when Pauline Dogmatics appeared, but regrettably, Covid intervened. In what I have seen and read of Campbell, he has always struck me as a vibrant thinker, who is never afraid to challenge so-called consensuses within Pauline scholarship. So, when Eerdmans ran a Kindle sale earlier in the year, which included his latest release, it had to be bought and this summer provided the occasion to read it.

In fine, I greatly enjoyed Pauline Dogmatics and would recommend it to anyone with more than a passing interest in Paul. It is characteristically thought-provoking for Pauline scholars, and it is accessible for laity, and others who have thought about Paul’s letters critically.  Admittedly, it is less technical than some of Campbell’s previous work; but, as you would expect from someone of his calibre, it is packed full of ideas in dialogue with some of the most important Pauline scholars of recent times and before that too. The book consists of twenty-nine chapters that amount to over 700 pages, but by virtue of the analogies, anecdotes, and chapter summaries presented as propositional theses, it is immensely readable.

My lasting impression, however, will be how as a confessional Christian scholar of the New Testament, I found it to be relentlessly inspiring – even devotional – as well as challenging. Allow me to expand by offering a few further reflections on the book.   

As the title implies, Campbell endeavours to derive a dogmatic scheme from the letters of Paul. He helpfully considers Paul as a theologian who is fundamentally practical in his outlook in his letters – an aspect frequently overlooked by scholars. Besides the apostle, the greatest inspiration on Campbell’s undertaking is the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. Barth’s theological system works backwards from the revelation of Christ, ‘from faith to faith’ (Rom 1:17), i.e., to Christ-believers in the Church. Campbell follows in this apocalyptic vein of interpretation and is fearless in his theological reading of Paul that proceeds from the faithfulness of Christ. While confessional Christian readers are likely to be sympathetic to such an approach to Paul, Campbell realises that non-confessional readers will struggle to follow his analysis. There are, however, other insights brought out by Campbell which should both serve as encouragements for believers and represent viable readings of Paul that ought to be taken seriously by all.

Firstly, Campbell shows that Paul’s apostleship is fundamentally missional. Indeed, one of the building-blocks of Pauline Dogmatics is the missional dimension in Paul, from which Campbell then tries to navigate some contemporary issues related to the letters. Secondly, Campbell mounts a defence for Paul’s pastoral practice and, as the subtitle of the book intimates, the triumph of God’s love in Paul’s gospel. He is not naïve to hermeneutically suspicious readings of Paul, but he shows how Paul can be viewed as an apostle of genuine kindness, contrary to some of these readings. Thirdly, Campbell sensitively articulates how Paul’s teaching on relations might be understood within the Church today. His contention that ‘we recognize clearly the heavy additional burden that a teaching of ‘marriage or celibacy’ places on young unattached Christians in our modern world, and that we craft church communities to support them’ (p. 616) is particularly well said.

In one way or another, Campbell covers the main ground within the Pauline epistles and highlights some of the most relevant secondary literature. Yet, perhaps most impressively, as promised in the introduction, Campbell does not limit himself to theological disciplines; he often draws upon other social-scientific streams. This is the ‘secret sauce’ (p. 3) of interdisciplinarity apparently fostered at Duke,[6] which is an added benefit of the book.

While I highly recommend Pauline Dogmatics, I occasionally found it challenging to navigate, and I suspect others might have similar reservations. Campbell’s style is undeniably idiosyncratic. As in Deliverance, he continues to use his language of ‘foundationalism’ to characterise many readings of Paul which differ from his own Barthian one, which can occasionally become repetitive. Pauline Dogmatics is a fundamentally theological reading of Paul, but some might question whether this is at the expense of Paul’s ancient historical context. Campbell at one point includes a short section on Paul’s ‘ancient philosophical practice’ (pp. 233-235) in thinking about mimesis, but some might call for more interaction with ancient Jewish and Graeco-Roman texts outside of Scripture to buttress some of his claims about the circumstances facing the historical Paul.

The authorship of the Pauline corpus is always a battleground. It should be noted that Campbell views Ephesians and Colossians as authentic but among Paul’s earliest material, while seeing the Pastorals (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus) as later, pseudepigraphic writings. He provides some good reasoning for this view concerning the Pastorals in the final chapter, although others may have preferred this to be treated sooner and feel that it provides a rather abrupt ending. Throughout, Campbell is not afraid to voice his convictions. Despite his originality, I suspect that more progressive readers might find his reading of Paul insufficiently revolutionary, while more conservative readers will be unconvinced by his positions around certain issues – notably, soteriology and gender.

Nevertheless, Pauline Dogmatics is a lively contribution which addresses a fabulous breadth of themes and issues in the letters of Paul from a fresh Barthian perspective. I imagine that no-one will agree with Campbell on everything; all readers will probably be delighted and frustrated at various points as they grapple with Pauline Dogmatics. This, in turn, is no doubt an indication that Campbell is one of the most stimulating scholars to have written on Paul in recent times. 

[1] Fourteen if you count Hebrews (which not many people do).

[2] Thus far, this list has included titles like: E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977); Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (1983); Elizabeth Castelli, Imitating Paul: A Discourse of Power (1991); Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit (2010); John Barclay, Paul and the Gift (2015); Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagan’s Apostle (2017).

[3] Tilling edited a volume following a symposium on Campbell’s Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (2009) entitled: Beyond Old and New Perspectives on Paul: Reflections on the Work of Douglas Campbell (2014).

[4] These claims from Deliverance are part of a wider discussion about interlocutors in Paul’s letters, especially Rom 1-3.  

[5] See his Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography (2014).

[6] This is especially true of Campbell’s colleague at Duke, Susan Eastman in her Paul and the Person: Reframing Paul’s Anthropology (2017), which impressively combines analysis of Paul’s letters not only with ancient and modern philosophy, but contemporary research from the field of neuroscience.

On Purism: Running as Gift

For a long time now, I have considered myself to be something of a purist.[1] Current debates within running circles have prompted me to reflect about the benefits and limits of a purist outlook on the sport and more widely, which I share here as part of the ongoing conversation.

Running as a Pure Sport

I think most people would view running of a competitive nature as a pure sport. In essence, you race a certain distance and, if completed, there is a result: a time and, provided you run with others, a position. Sometimes, the time is more important (e.g., an open track or road race against the clock); but, other times, just completing the distance or the position is more important (e.g., an ultra-distance event or cross-country race on difficult terrain). Although there are occasional complications and tactics, running is pure and simple. Its simplicity as a form of exercise has been of great benefit to many over the last year; and it will be interesting to see if people keep running, both recreationally and competitively, when other more ‘exciting’ sports and activities can be played and undertaken again.

For all its apparent simplicity and purity, I can understand how save for the most competitive races (e.g., the Coe-Ovett middle distance rivalries of the 1980s), some might see running as dull – or at least not sufficiently interesting to justify the exertion. Running of a more serious nature requires a certain mindset and successful individuals tend to be disciplined and goal-driven individuals who embrace the pure aspect of the sport.[2] Signing up to run multiple laps of a tartan track or a mud-laden cross-country course is, to some extent, evidence of such a disposition. The simplicity and the purity of competitive running is not for everyone.

Defining Purism

In my search for greater theoretical analysis concerning purism, I came across a book written by a philosopher, Stephen Mumford, Watching Sport: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Emotion (London: Routledge, 2011). Mumford writes to defend watching sport as a virtuous activity by conceiving of sport as art. He argues that a ‘purist’ mode of watching sport enables this. As part of his argument, he distinguishes between partisan and purist views of sport. For Mumford, ‘the purist is a fan of sport, and may love deeply the sport concerned, but has no allegiance to any particular team’ (10). This contrasts with the partisan who does have such an allegiance. While the partisan is more interested in the competitive dimension of sport and its purpose, namely winning, the purist focuses on the aesthetic; thus, purism is ‘detached aesthetic pleasure’ (12).

This conception of purism struck me as astute; but there was one further definition which really resonated with me. Mumford argues: ‘The purist is one who values the sport itself and wants to see it played in the best way possible’ (16). In a year where few of us have competed in sport and been confined to watching professionals ply their craft, we have marvelled at the aesthetic quality of sport, but also been frustrated when it has not been played in the best and purest way possible. For those of us who both practice as well as watch our sport, such marvelling and frustration has likely been compounded by not being able to play in the same way ourselves.

Back to the Shoe Issues…

I know that this has been the case for many of us in running circles over the last year.[3] Such emotions have been made more acute by the continued debate over new brands of ‘super shoes’.[4] While many of these shoes are now available for general purchase, new prototypes continue to be manufactured and worn by certain elite athletes. There are a whole range of issues here; but I want to consider whether these shoes are an affront to the inherent purism of running: do they allow the sport to be played in the best way possible?

As a self-professed purist, I have been somewhat surprised that these shoes have entered the sport relatively unopposed. Twitter is not an ideal forum for meaningful debate; but, unlike the seeming majority, I feel Tim Hutchings has been one of the few to ask some serious and valid questions about the mind-boggling times we have been seeing on there. While Hutchings does not advocate the banning of these shoes, he asks whether we need a new era of records to reflect the relatively seismic improvement in times, which comes – at least in part, if not in whole – from these new carbon fibre plates.

In the back-and-forths that I have observed on social media, however, I have never seen the issue considered in terms of the purity of the sport. A few points come to mind.

Firstly, on an aesthetic level, some (although not all) of the brands of trainers are ugly; they are closer to a pair of springs than a pair of shoes! Gone in the West are the days of barefoot running but the technology in these new shoes, I believe, outstrips anything we have seen since records seriously began.

Secondly, another facet of the purism of running is its historical aspect. It is a fundamentally atavistic sport: this is to say that performances are meaningfully compared to those of our ancestors. Others might disagree with me here, but I believe these is something to be celebrated and, as far as possible, safeguarded. There are landmark times in the sport which have suddenly become more attainable. At a more ordinary level, the fact that to qualify for Championship Entry for the Virgin London Marathon, a male now needs to run 1:12:30 as opposed to 1:15:00, I think, partially reflects the benefits of these shoes.[5]

Thirdly, purism leaves little place for confusion or ambiguity concerning performance; but I feel that these have never been higher. Personally, I want to applaud great times and running in the best form possible; but I am sceptical about the extent to which this is attributed to the plates. Moreover, since some people are seemingly high-responders to the shoes, while others are only low-responders, the playing field is not as level as we might desire. Significantly, this is without going into questions of equal access to the shoes at both professional and amateur levels in terms of availability and affordability, respectively. 

Suffice to say that the purist in me is still processing my own response to a carbon-fibre running world. I admit to having felt some disillusionment with the sport – not helped by a harsh lockdown winter – where I was lamenting running going the way of other sports where one’s gear has such a significant impact on performance. At other times, I have felt indifferent, although, in my case, these shoes will not have so great an impact in my principal discipline of cross-country. I sympathise, however, with those who prioritise road-running, and who cannot fork out £200+ for these shoes on a regular basis. Yet, part of me is coming round to accepting them and moving with the times literally and figuratively. It seems that they are here to stay: the market will stabilise and perhaps we have to accept that we are moving into a new running era.[6]

I realise that, for many, this commentary will seem, at best, resigned or, at worst, deeply negative. While I can swing between extremes of seeing things as sublime or awful, negativity – particularly surrounding running! – is not usually in my psyche. I would like to think that this comes from being an athlete who is trying to live out the Christian faith. I shall happily defer to sports scientists researching the impact of the shoes; but I want to offer a few brief theological considerations by way of conclusion.

Purism and Gifts

There is a well-known quotation attributed to the American athlete, Steve Prefontaine, that often circulates the night before major races in the calendar: ‘To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift’. [7] The inspirational element is undeniable: if an athlete does not make a maximal effort in a race, s/he spoils or even impurifies the gift and ability given. Yet, as I have returned to this quote, after some years of thinking about notions of sacrifice[8] in a classical and theological key, this quote has also confounded me. Sacrifice can have a positive sense; sacrifices can make something holy and fit to belong, which is clearly not the idea here. While Prefontaine’s idea is admittedly clear – not giving your best is to forsake or waste the gift – I wonder if we can modify it slightly. My offering would be: ‘To give anything less than your best is to imperfect the gift’.

Here, I take a cue from the biblical scholar, John Barclay, who has worked on language of gift/grace (both translations of the Greek word, charis, from which we derive ‘charity’) extensively over the last decade.[9] Barclay offers six different ‘perfections’ of gift/grace discourse: ways of drawing a concept to its end-point or extreme,[10] while allowing for more than one ‘perfection’ to be possible.[11] For this debate, however, Barclay’s most helpful contribution has been to challenge Western notions of a pure gift: a gift is never one directional; some element of reciprocity, usually involving a return, is involved.[12]

Here is where notions of purism regarding gifts – among which I certainly consider running! – begin to unravel and emerge as illusions. Although we may think that what we are giving has been manufactured by us, much of our gift will have come to us through others. On a human level, these would include people to whom we are communally attached who enabled us to have opportunities or with whom we developed the gift: for instances, coaches and training partners. I would also argue that gifts are not created out of nothing and that this points us towards a divine giver and source of the gift. Therefore, super shoes or not, the idea of a pure gift, and indeed running as a pure sport, must be rejected.[13]

Nevertheless, I would still make an appeal to purism of another sort: one which focuses on playful, friendly competition and liberates us from concerns of time. I think this has been the common ground in the debate: all parties want to ensure that the virtue and aesthetic of competition remains intact. Again, it can be argued from a theological perspective through the doctrine of creation: we were created to play, and this is a gift that we should be looking to ‘perfect’: to celebrate in full by giving nothing short of our best.[14]

So, for those of us operating in running circles, whether we are on board with the super shoes or not, let us ensure that there remains a level of purity and equality within the sport of running: that it remains a gift which liberates and does not corrupt. Running is neither wholly pure nor perfect; but when played in the best way possible, it is above all, a gift. Let’s keep it that way.

[1] Incidentally, in some parts of the world, the pronunciation of ‘Muir’ causes a few challenges: suffice to say it rhymes with ‘pure’.

[2] As a fairly strong ‘ISTJ’ on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I suspect that the majority of runners would have preferences in at least two of the three S, T, and J categories.

[3] Here, I particularly want to thank my main training partner in Edinburgh over the last year or so, Tom Cunningham; and my principal training partner by dialogue despite distance, Mark Vardy, with whom I have discussed these matters in some detail.

[4] I wrote about this topic 18 months ago on a piece about ‘progress’ and the debates have not really abated since then: https://alexmuirblog.wordpress.com/2019/11/06/progress/

[5] Any Power of 10 ‘stalkers’ of mine might know that my official HM PB is 1:13:15, so I suppose you could say this is somewhat personally motivated! I think it still illustrates a basic point, however. (I am also still somewhat hesitant to commit to marathon training.)

[6] I am unlikely to buy any, however, until I (hopefully) run some road PBs and move out of (somewhat self-imposed) ‘PhD penury’.

[7] As with many sayings of this nature, there is little evidence that Prefontaine actually said this. For some entertaining and light-hearted discussion, see this thread: https://www.letsrun.com/forum/flat_read.php?thread=7559599&page=2

[8] I particularly have my Edinburgh colleague (and indeed more of a marathon expert than me), Patrick McMurray, to thank here. He has written a very interesting thesis on sacrifice and kinship in Romans that will hopefully be published in the coming year.

[9] In particular, his sizeable and technical, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015). Barclay has recently distilled its content and added a few extra angles in his Paul and the Power of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020). I would certainly recommend both – although the latter is more accessible. These books have focused mainly on the divine aspect of grace, but he also promises a future contribution on the human dimension of giving.

[10] Barclay, Paul and the Power of Grace, 28.

[11] In the case of the letters of Paul, Barclay argues that Paul perfects the ‘incongruity’ of grace in the light of Christ’s death and resurrection: ‘God works in the absence of worth, to create something out of nothing’ (151). He acknowledges that other interpreters have argued that Paul perfects grace in other ways though.

[12] Ibid., 23–25.

[13] Another runner, Russell Bentley, wrote a passionate piece about why he will never buy the shoes, which I appreciated: https://russellrunner.com/why-i-will-never-wear-performance-enhancing-shoes/.
Early on, he claims: ‘Every run I have ever done, every race I have ever run, every second, was 100% me. Not 95%, not even 96%. When I next run a performance I am proud of, I want all the glory, I don’t want to share it with my enormous, expensive shoes.’
I do not know Russell and whether he would be sympathetic towards notions of running as a divine gift; but, even allowing for hyperbole, such an outlook overlooks the role of others in the running-gift network.

[14] The most developed articulation of this I have seen is by Lincoln Harvey, A Brief Theology of Sport (London: SCM Press, 2014). Harvey argues powerfully about the ‘contingency’ of the creature within creation and the place of sport within it: neither creation nor sport is strictly necessary; but they are beautiful because of their playful aspects.

Hearing Prophetic Voices in a Year of Zoom and Wilderness

As someone who mentally tries to inhabit antiquity – particularly the first-century Mediterranean world – as much as possible, I am no technological guru. That’s my excuse at least. In any case, I had never heard of Zoom just over twelve months ago when, reluctantly but necessarily, Boris Johnson imposed lockdown on the United Kingdom.

Most of us, however, have found ourselves on Zoom a lot over this last year. I think my record is nine hours in one day. I realise that is probably paltry by some standards. We might complain about it; but Zoom has some significant positives which have led us to stick with it despite the fatigue it can bring. Personally, it has enabled me to keep in contact with my family – Team Muir Sunday afternoon Zoom is a highlight of the week! – and friends around the UK and further afield. In my research, it has also created opportunities for hearing and accessing lectures and ideas from other institutions, which would not have been possible otherwise. I particularly fondly recall tuning into a book review panel that was being hosted in Cambridge and hearing some delightful English voices which sounded nearly foreign to me, having been ‘exiled’ in Scotland for so long.

There is an inherent issue with Zoom and other such platforms, however: how can we find our own voice and hear other people’s voices as effectively as we can in-person? Even with breakout rooms, the process is slower and less natural. The fact that only one person can speak at a time means that dialogue is harder to develop. It is less easy to gauge other people’s reactions – both positive and negative – in the room and to explore those feelings and emotions. Inevitably, some voices end up being amplified, while some go muted. In short, the relative polyphony that comes through physical presence is reduced.

As I reflected last Tuesday on the anniversary of lockdown, it came home to me that these have been difficult months, where collectively, we have doubtless lost more than we have gained. For many, it has been a time of great wilderness. Recently, in addition to some excellent devotional material,[1] I have slowly been reading through Hebrews. I came recently to one of my favourite parts where the writer repeatedly quotes the second half of Psalm 95 about the Israelites’ experience in the wilderness (Hebrews 3:7–8, 3:15, 4:7 = Psalm 95:7–8, AT[2]):

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion, as in the time of testing in the wilderness…

Here, and in Exodus and Numbers, we read that in the wilderness, the Israelites rebelled against God. They heard his voice, saw his works, but they were led astray and did not enter the rest of the promised land for forty years – some of them didn’t make it at all. They didn’t even have Twitter to fill those forty years! It is a sobering account which is used here and elsewhere in the New Testament (see, e.g., 1 Cor 10:1–13) as a means of exhortation to communities to listen to the spirit of God and enter rest and freedom.

Then and now, the process of listening and responding is always a collective one. It won’t have escaped our attention that we have heard some very important voices over the last twelve months. I’m thinking in particular of: those at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly following the murder of George Floyd; female victims of rape and harassment, following the murder of Sarah Everard; those abused by supposed pillars of communities – religious and otherwise. Many of these voices have been prophetic in some way: calling for necessary change in the face of injustice. Many of these voices have been rightly amplified, having been muted for too long. Crucially, in all these areas, further voices still need to be heard.

What do social and political events of the last twelve months have to do with faith? Well, certainly in the Christian tradition that is rooted in ancient Judaism, God consistently sides with the oppressed and the disempowered. According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus Christ famously makes this clear at the start of his ministry, by citing some Jewish Scripture (Luke 4:18–19 = Isaiah 61:1–2, AT):

The spirit of the Lord is on me because he anointed me to preach to the poor, he sent me to proclaim release for the captives and sight to the blind, to release those who have been shattered, to proclaim a favourable year of the Lord.    

Having opened the temple scroll to this place and read it aloud, Jesus then sits down: his work more or less done for the day. There is considerable discomfort among those present who are powerful.[3] Those in the temple gaze awkwardly and probably angrily at Jesus, as he sits down. Luke adds that Jesus says one more thing as a bit of a mic-drop: ‘He began to say to them that today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing (lit. in your ears)’ (Luke 4:21, AT). This doubly prophetic voice – Jesus via Isaiah – still applies in our testing times today. Collectively, there is a responsibility to let the voices of the oppressed ring in our ears, then not to harden hearts, but to seek to liberate. By doing so, we shall see not just a year of favour – which we probably all think we’re definitely due – but one which belongs to the Lord, on his terms of justice.

I believe that when we follow Christ, we are called to listen to other human voices; but to help us to do so and to discern their prophetic value, we are first called to listen to the voice of God. Returning to Psalm 95 as cited by the writer of Hebrews, before the part about hearing God’s voice today, the psalmist declares (Psalm 95:6–7, NIV):

Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.

Here, we are presented with the image of God as shepherd. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus applies similar imagery to himself in his declaration: ‘I am the good shepherd’ (John 10:14). Jesus then articulates how his followers are called to be a united flock around him. Jesus was talking about how gentiles (non-Jews) would be incorporated into his flock; today, the flock is to remain united regardless of race, gender, wealth, and more besides. Collectively, the task of the ‘one flock’ (John 10:16) is to listen to the voice of the one who laid down his life for the flock, who can be trusted in the wilderness, and who brings release from earthly and cosmic powers of captivity. Through hearing the voice of the shepherd, the flock discerns and develops its own prophetic voice, which really matters in a time of Zoom and wilderness – and will continue to matter as we emerge from it.[4]

[1] I have found Simon Ponsonby’s last six Monday devotions on ‘The Wilderness: Where God is’ (available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gM5iHVdu2cs) and the most recent book from my own dear godfather, Canon Andrew White: Glory Zone in the War Zone: Miracles, Signs, and Wonders in the Middle East, to be particularly inspiring.

[2] Author’s (/Alex’s!) translation.

[3] I know that as a privileged white, straight, male, many of the narratives of the last twelve months have made me feel uncomfortable and have led to some soul-searching and reflection. I was grateful for my church’s recommendation to read Ben Lindsay, We Need to Talk About Race: Understanding the Black Experience in White Majority Churches, from which I learnt much as part of this ongoing process.

[4] In terms of things mattering, I still stand by what I wrote this time last year (https://alexmuirblog.wordpress.com/2020/03/22/things-that-matter/). I hope this piece brings another angle, a year on.


The final of the PDC World Darts Championships always signals the proper start of the New Year for me. I have caught a good amount of it this year and look forward to tonight’s final between Gary Anderson and Gerwyn Price. As with practically all live sport in recent times, the atmosphere is clearly not the same despite the best efforts of ‘Sky Sports Fans’ sounds alongside the charismatic MC and referees, particularly Russ Bray. No doubt some players, who tend to be more popular with the Ally Pally crowd and feed off their energy, have been adversely affected by this. I wonder though if some players, particularly Anderson, who have reached the latter stages have not minded and their play has not suffered. We could say that their play has been unhindered by the absence of fans and they have played more boldly and freely.

In the last few days of 2020, I felt inspired to spend some time reading over the last two chapters of the book of Acts in the Bible.[1] It seemed an appropriate place to land following a year of trials, shipwrecks, and much running aground in the world. In Acts 27–28, the apostle Paul’s journey to Rome and arrival there is narrated. According to Acts, facing some charges of sedition, Paul uses his Roman citizenship to appeal to the authority of Caesar for a trial. He is allowed to go to Rome and makes the arduous journey there via a storm, shipwreck, and spell on the island of Malta. Nevertheless, he makes it to Rome intact and the book ends with the following portrayal (Acts 28:30–31):

He stayed in the same lodging for two whole years and he welcomed all those who came to him: proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with total boldness, unhindered.

I have often been struck by the power of ending the account in this way, particularly with its final word, ‘unhindered’, to describe Paul’s preaching in Rome. Over the last few days, in the light of this passage, I have spent some time reflecting on what it might mean to set out in 2021 ‘unhindered’, which I offer here.

On the one hand, it is entirely reasonable to believe that Paul spent two years preaching the gospel with great boldness, and from that perspective, unhindered. Luke and Acts are determined by movement and Paul conceivably wanted to reach Rome – the centre of the empire – for the message of Christ to be shared most effectively and to gain influence, which against the odds, gradually happened over the next few centuries.

On the other hand, this portrayal of Paul in Acts could be viewed as somewhat sanitised.[2] No mention is made of Paul’s probable death following these two years and the conditions in prison were less idyllic than these final verses suggest. If Philippians was indeed written from Rome, we see signs that Paul really needed money from Christ-believing congregations to sustain him in his imprisonment (4:14–16). While the letters of Paul often show him to be courageous and virtuous as in Acts, there are occasions where he is weak and downcast – particularly in 2 Corinthians.[3] These should be borne in mind alongside Acts’ presentation of Paul’s circumstances as entirely ‘unhindered’.

I think this background of Paul’s hindrances can be an encouragement to us as we embark on 2021. Already it feels like there is so much hindering us: extended lockdowns, uncertainty about what should open when, and continued loss. These initial months of 2021 are not going to be easy. Yet, I believe that we can and should still hope for an ‘unhindered’ 2021, as portrayed at the end of Acts, regardless of how quickly vaccines are rolled out.

Acts tells the story of some of the main events and people of the early Church. That story continues with the Church today. By ending with the image of being ‘unhindered’, a baton passes over to future hearers and readers of this text: including us. We face struggles both similar to, and different from, the earliest followers of Christ in the Roman Empire. While our circumstances might be hindered as much as ever, the gospel never really suffers from hindrance. The message of Christ will keep going out through – and in spite of – the Church. This is where Acts is entirely realistic: Paul’s ability to proclaim the kingdom of God and everything about Jesus Christ was unhindered by the circumstances in the background. The death and resurrection of the divine Christ set in motion something which cannot be hindered, even when our times suggest otherwise.

So, let us step or stagger up to oche of 2021. Despite our hindered circumstances, let us aim at Christ, and recall his unhindered love and unchanging companionship.[4]

Happy New Year. (And come on Gary Anderson.)

[1] I even put together a little Twitter thread which I seek to expand here: https://twitter.com/Alex_W_Muir/status/1343507712282419200

[2] Such a view of Acts might strike some people as problematic. The main consideration is that as ancient texts, the genre and purpose of Acts and the letters of Paul, are different. Acts, while wonderful and useful, was clearly written a good deal later than the letters of Paul and is second-hand evidence for the life of Paul. The finest account of the genre of Acts of which I know is by Sean Adams who argues for Acts being ‘collected biography’; see Adams, The Genre of Acts and Collected Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[3] Notably, 2 Cor 1:8, 4:7–11, 6:4–10, 11:21–30, 12:1–10. In fact, there currently seems to be a growing and fruitful trend in Pauline scholarship that draws attention to Paul’s weakness – even disability – as an apostle.

[4] I have spent much time in recent weeks listening to this song from folk at HTB, ‘Love All Along’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_hiCsr3wFA.

Christmas Today 2020

‘For today a saviour was born for you who is Christ the Lord’ (Luke 2:11)

I am sure I won’t be the first person to point out an ironic difference between the first Christmas and Christmas Day 2020. When Christ was born, according to Luke’s Gospel, there was a census which required people to return home to register.[1] Yet, on Christmas Day 2020, many of us find ourselves unable to return home because of restrictions – borders between administrative regions and even nations effectively closed.

Despite the Muir clan’s best-laid plans to be together over Christmas in Scotland this year, last week’s (understandable though late) governmental decrees put paid to them and any chance of scotch eggs and pints in Newbury in the New Year for me. Thankfully, however, I have been able to join forces with my dear grandmother up here in Scotland. We are enjoying a busy schedule of watching TV (an eclectic mix of quiz shows, sport, and music-related programmes), eating, drinking, and blethering. While sorry that the Muir clan cannot be together in person this side of the border as we had planned, we are thankful that we can still connect over Zoom. We also think of those who have been far worse affected this year. 2020 has not been a normal year and the celebration of Christmas is perhaps the strangest thing of all. It might not feel like Christmas today and I imagine many will not really want to be celebrating Christmas today.

Some of us might have taken the decision to delay Christmas in some way. Its dating is, of course, rather arbitrary: there is no evidence that Jesus was born on 25th December. While the Anglican tradition to which I belong makes a great deal of Advent as preparation for Christmas in the church calendar – I believe meaningfully – other venerable traditions hardly celebrate Christmas at all. On one level, the timing of Christmas does not really matter.

What matters most, however, is that in some way, far beyond our comprehension, the Son of God entered the world through a young virgin girl. It was an event that changed history and it took place on some day around 2020 years ago. So, when the angel addresses the shepherds, he announces that: ‘Today a saviour was born for you who is Christ the Lord’ (Luke 2:11). For the shepherds, the birth on Christmas happened on their today, whenever that was.

I would gently submit that ‘today’ is one of the most important words in the Bible.[2] The coming of Christ as an expression of the power and kindness of God still translates into our present, our today, enhancing it. As many have recognised, Christ’s incarnation is not an event that can be cancelled: we tend to celebrate it on 25th December; but the reality continues to echo through time. On account of events of the past year and social-distancing measures that are making gatherings so difficult, hearing the music in the same way is challenging; but a symphony beyond any conducted by Rutter or Rieu still reverberates in creation because God became human. That melodious strain is still being played despite present earthly strains and pains.

At the first Christmas, such a strain was sung by an army of angels. Before that chorus appeared, however, a single angel delivered a wondrous message to an unlikely group: some shepherds in Bethlehem. As this happened, we read of the glory of the Lord shining around them: the weighty presence of the divine. These humble shepherds initially experience a great fear, but the angel reassures them with a gospel proclamation of great joy. This good news will extend from and beyond the shepherds to every single people group through the arrival of a Saviour: the Messiah, the Lord. In the darkness of that night, there was joy and wonder.[3]

Our emotions and feelings change from day to day. Some days they simply defeat us; other days, often through the help of divine and human sources, we can look past them. We never know what became of the shepherds: they saw something miraculous but that they never experienced doubt and sadness again is unlikely. Today we might find it difficult to sense the same glory and joy that the shepherds experienced; but such glory and joy are still present because Christ came into the world and that event cannot be reversed and it was ultimately out of love for us: to restore us to God once more.

So, as one carol says in building on Luke:

Today, Christ was born … today the righteous rejoice, saying: “Glory to God in the highest, Alleluia.”[4]

I hope and pray that you may experience some of the joy and presence of that first Christmas today, wherever you may find yourselves.[5]

[1] As with most things on this blog, this is a devotional piece rather than an academic one. For anyone looking for an even-handed treatment of some of the historical issues in Luke 2, see Prof. Helen Bond’s Bible Odyssey article: https://www.bibleodyssey.org/passages/main-articles/nativity-luke-2120.

[2] Language of ‘today’ appears over 200 times in the Bible. If I can get my act together in the New Year, I might even put together a series of some of the most significant moments where ‘today’ features. One of these is Psalm 95:7, ‘Today if you hear his voice…’, which is picked up by the writer of Hebrews in chapters 3–4. The Word still speaks us into our today.

[3] Nothing has captured this movement in Advent better for me than the first 7 or 8 minutes of Ps & Gs Alt. Carols: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDaimbdR05I.

[4] For the Latinists and choristers: hodie Christus natus esthodie exsultant iusti, dicentes: Gloria in excelsis Deo, alleluia. Latin always sounds better.

[5] As you read this, there is a fair chance that I’ll be nibbling through the generous supply of chipolatas that were acquired before last Saturday’s governmental decrees.

Patience is a Virtue

These remain difficult times: so much uncertainty, loss, and near impossible decisions to be made. Particularly over the last few months where we have tried to re-establish a normal, I have often found myself lamenting, among other things, the inefficiency that Covid has caused. One such occasion was on Friday evening, where it turned out I was wrong about my office’s opening hours with the current restrictions. Normally, we have 24/7 access, but it turned out that it shut at 8pm. When I pitched up at 8.15pm, I wasn’t locked down; I was locked out without my phone, keys, wallet and more. Thankfully, my dear lodging family were at home and university security allowed me back in the next day to retrieve my possessions, but what inefficiency!

In these days we currently find ourselves at greater physical, and therefore social, distance from one another. This means that getting things done can take a lot longer. Thankfully, not all of us are task-focused individuals who prize efficiency, but I happen to be one. This is undoubtedly something I have inherited from my own dear father. Sadly, he is no longer with us, after his untimely passing in 2012, but those of us who knew him remain so thankful for his life.

There is a long-standing tradition in efforts to comfort the bereaved to dwell on what the deceased has been spared. These often include calamitous events, of which Covid would be a classic example. There have been a few occasions where I have found myself thinking: what would my father have made of Covid? On one level, I suspect the confinement and lack of freedom would have frustrated him, as they have frustrated us all. He would have found the closure of golf courses and swimming pools for a second time particularly irksome, but he would have been gracious about it. As for delayed press conferences and confusing PowerPoint slides, he would have been far less impressed. Being a successful chartered accountant, he had high standards and stood for little nonsense or waffle. On another deeper level, however, I think he would have valued the chance to take stock and to spend time with close family and friends. Yet, I think he would have been distressed by other issues: the suffering, the loneliness, and the ways in which Covid disproportionately affects the poor and vulnerable.

November 2020 would have seen my father’s 60th birthday and I want to remember him well by considering one of his frequent aphorisms: ‘patience is a virtue’.


As we finished up our Team Muir Zoom call on Friday morning, my mum said there was a fun gift coming in the post. An hour later, just as I was about to head out for the day, a basket of M+S fruit arrived. A very kind gift: preferable to a bouquet of flowers – and certainly a lot tastier! With characteristic creativity and devotion, my mum had written about the fruits of the Spirit in my birthday card. They appear famously in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23, NIV).

This is essentially a list of classic virtues. The fourth one in the list, ‘forbearance’ which translates the Greek word makrothumia, rendered more literally by the King James Version as ‘long-suffering’, is also commonly translated as ‘patience’ (e.g., ESV).

I can frequently recall my father saying that ‘patience is a virtue’: particularly in my younger years at mealtimes, when wanting to move onto dessert. Given Galatians 5, his words were rooted in truth. I have discovered in recent years that the supposed motto of the Muir clan is the Latin phrase: durum patientia frango (‘I break what is hard with patience’).[1] My father – who was very fond of the Classics and greatly encouraged me in that direction – would have agreed. Patience is inextricably linked to suffering and it is indeed a virtue. There is much virtue and courage to be shown in suffering. Some of the ancients embraced suffering rather readily as an opportunity to show virtue; but I wonder if Covid is forcing us to be courageous by showing patience, and whether there are lessons to be learned here.

Being patient will mean some adjustment in what we expect of ourselves and others in these next few months. Occasionally slowing down will be a sign of strength and not weakness. I’m not sure anyone gets this perfectly right – I know I don’t, and I know my father didn’t always – but I can remember my father often being good at ensuring that holiday time was holiday time, and although not a runner, he was very good at pacing himself and realistic in what he set out to do. Patience and realism go hand in hand.

Patience, then, is indeed a virtue and a fruit: something that will benefit us and those around us, providing a portion of the hope and peace that those in Christ are promised in an eternity with Christ. My father might not have celebrated an earthly sixtieth birthday, but he’s never been more alive and at peace with the one who is unfailingly patient towards us.

[1] The crest we found over the summer in St Andrews is particularly remarkable for depicting a Muir of colour – no doubt there are/were some! Shame about the small orthographic error: patentia instead of patientia.

Cue Action

O'Sullivan Selby

Two weeks later and I’m still thinking about it: Ronnie O’Sullivan’s scarcely credible comeback against Mark Selby to make the final of the World Snooker Championship – which he went on to win against Kyren Wilson – followed by his remarkable comments afterwards about his cue action.[1]

The thought of snooker as a source of entertainment will confound most of the planet; but for the chosen few million, it is just that. The World Snooker Championship famously still takes place in a relatively small theatre in Sheffield called The Crucible. This year there was certainly drama to match and, some might say, elements of the magic that broods over Miller’s play of the same name.[2]

Ronnie O’Sullivan is undeniably the protagonist of the snooker world: the one who really increases the viewing figures. His ability to play rapid-fire snooker – ambidextrously no less – has earned him the sobriquet, ‘The Rocket’. Most would say that he is the most talented individual ever to play the game. As part of a programme that commemorated forty years of action at The Crucible, there was a section which showed O’Sullivan’s fastest 147 maximum break in snooker history. Most intriguingly, another former winner, Peter Ebdon, commented on the feat: “it’s artistic, it’s creative, it’s clairvoyant, it’s psychic: he’s tuning into higher energy without any shadow of a doubt”; snooker presenter Jason Mohammad added: “we’re watching a magician at work”. That 147 was in 1997 though. O’Sullivan had won five World Championships (2001, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2013) but in each of the last five years, he had failed to make it past the quarter-finals: hardly the form of a protagonist or a magician.

On the evening of Friday 14th August, 16-14 down, it looked for all the world that the world title would again elude O’Sullivan. He was playing wild shots that suggested he had thrown in the towel. His opponent, Selby, should have finished the game; but, whether on account of O’Sullivan’s gamesmanship or otherwise, he didn’t. O’Sullivan came back to play three exquisite frames to win the match. Yet, as has occasionally happened in his career, his post-match comments in the tournament will be remembered just as much, if not more than, his table play.[3]

His comments after this victory were certainly enigmatic. Maybe he was trolling the BBC a little (he frequently appears on Eurosport as a pundit) but he refused to be drawn into discussion about relishing the final and the stories that snooker produces. Instead, he appeared obsessed with his cue action. According to O’Sullivan, his cue action had deserted him throughout the tournament, and he had only managed to find it in those final frames. The final would only be enjoyable if he could find a cue action and he quipped that he would be getting onto Bezos to see if he could procure one from Amazon. He was understandably bothered about the most basic part of his game: his cue action. Following the interview, pundit John Parrott set the record straight about O’Sullivan’s cue action with classic British bathos: “I think it’s alright.” Yet, for O’Sullivan, it wasn’t. Like an actor on stage, he felt he was fluffing his lines and needing a cue. Amid his brilliance, there were spells when his snooker soul looked tortured, stripped of its proper action; when in the heat of the crucible, he had lost his power and flow.

Rewind nearly two thousand years and there were some people in the city of Corinth who had lost their flow, but instead of needing a cue action, their action needed restraining. They had become obsessed with a form of pseudo-spirituality which was not divine in source. They had developed a false apprehension of spirit action that needed adjustment and reorienting. The apostle Paul brought such a message to them. He drew a distinction between the spirit of the world and the Spirit[4] which is from God through which it was possible to ‘know the things which have been begraced to us by God’ (1 Corinthians 2:12). In turn, through this Spirit, believers could develop the very mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16).

Later in the letter, Paul had more to say about spiritual matters and divine action. When introducing these different types of spiritual gifts, he remarked: ‘Indeed there are distinct [spiritual] actions, but it is the same God, who activates all [actions] among everyone’ (1 Cor 12:6). Paul goes through the list – wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, powers, prophecy, discerning of spirits, speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues (1 Cor 12:7-10) – and lands it by talking about how the Spirit of God activates them: ‘the one and the same Spirit activates all these gifts, distributing to each person respectively, just as he wills’ (1 Cor 12:11). This leads to the formation of a bodily community among the believers where there is a proper and effective Spirit action.

Seeing and hearing O’Sullivan wrestling with the most basic aspect of his game – his cue action – caused me to reflect upon a central aspect of discipleship: growing to have the mind of Christ. This is only possible, however, through receiving the gift of divine, Spirit action, and allowing it to operate. There is a sense in which this is the believer’s cue action: a basic rhythm and aim. On the one hand, like O’Sullivan’s diligent practice, it is developed through similar repeated practice and discipline particularly in conversation with God through prayer, digesting Scripture, and fellowship with others in the believing community. On the other hand, our cue action is not a repetitive motion, but much freer. In snooker, sometimes the player adds an extension to his cue or uses a rest to play a difficult shot. The Spirit can function like this as well and in even more imaginative and surprising ways.

In many ways, believers are called to develop a Spirit action in the way snooker players develop a cue action. In snooker, there are times where the player is kept away from the table by the opponent; and there is no doubt that there are opposing forces which seek to dislodge us from receiving the Spirit of God. Yet, the Spirit comes from a God who is powerful enough to set a table and to prepare a meal for the believer in the face of affliction (Psalm 23:5). There is no dualism operating here. Through a strong Spirit action – continuously received and developed – we can begin to see things the way God sees them, and this will bring freedom and blessing to the world.

As we continue to negotiate the devastating effect of Covid, we find ourselves in a crucible. I believe that the Spirit of Christ manifested in a variety of gifts can enable us to find a way out and through. This same Christ suffered death on a crux but was raised by the action of the Spirit (Romans 8:11). This message of the cross might seem just as foolish now as it did to the supposedly super-spiritual Corinthians of the first century; but to those of us who are being saved by following in the way of the cross, we can say with Paul, that it is the power of God (1 Cor 1:18). It is the best cue action on offer. No magic is involved – just Spirit action.

[1] The interview can be watched here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_S3MOV06Sv0.

[2] Somewhat shockingly, I only read The Crucible for the first time last week!

[3] Unlike some quarters of the press who exploit and castigate O’Sullivan for his tendency to give colourful off-table interviews, I have no wish to do so. He has been open about his serious battles with mental health, which is commendable; and, frankly, I think more kindness could be extended towards him in this area. It is notable that he played some of his finest snooker in years at The Crucible this year, where owing to Covid restrictions, he had less of an entourage. I focus only on his memorable comments about his cue action and the evident effects this had on him in the tournament.

[4] Any theological friends reading this will be aware that it is debatable whether Paul refers to the third person of the Trinity, as eventually worked out at Nicaea some 300 years later. Yet, he undoubtedly saw this pneuma as divine, and so I capitalise it here to capture what later tradition (rightly) came to see. Pneuma was also the preserve of ancient philosophers, particularly the Stoics, and it is reasonable to think that Paul borrowed much philosophical thinking from here. For some discussion, see Lincoln Harvey (ed.), Essays on the Trinity (2018), especially the essays by Chris Tilling, ‘Paul the Trinitarian’, and Douglas Campbell, ‘The Trinity in Paul: From Confession to Ethics’; for still more advanced reflection: Wesley Hill, Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters (2015); particularly on Stoicism and pneuma: Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit (2010) and Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body (1995). I plan to read Simeon Zahl’s new book, The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience (OUP, 2020), this semester which also looks illuminating from a more systematic angle.

A Synagogue in Glasgow: A Short Reflection

Glasgow Synagogue (2)

I was fortunate to get over to Glasgow for a few hours today. While there, this synagogue caught my eye. On leaving, I felt led to take a picture of it – mainly, I admit, because of the beautiful Hebrew written above it! My Hebrew is still a work in progress, so I needed a bit of help from Google to piece it all together. It turned out it was a passage from Deuteronomy 32:12: “The Lord alone led him [Jacob/Israel]; no foreign god was with him” (NIV).

I was amazed. I have not read Deuteronomy for many years, but have been reading it gradually since June, and astonishingly, I read these very words this morning (in a bit of a hurry before my long run)!

This to me seems more than a coincidence; I would call it a “God-incidence” – an instance of God speaking to me and possibly to others too, hence my sharing. These words are from Moses’ song towards the end of Deuteronomy not long before he dies, having led the Israelites out of Egypt, and in the wilderness. Yet, Moses does not lead Israelites into the promised land; this role falls to Joshua – or as he is otherwise known, Yeshua (Hebrew) or Iēsous (Greek), meaning “saviour”, from which we derive the name Jesus in English.

We have been in a time of wilderness and darkness not unlike Israel’s. While we may now be gaining occasional glimpses of a post-COVID “promised land” as things open up again, we know there is still some way to go. The Lord alone led Israel in the wilderness; there was no other god. The Hebrew word for “alone” (badad), when used as a noun, can also mean isolation. Similarly, I believe that the Lord has been with us too in these times of isolation.

So, where do we go from here? Sadly, so much of Moses’ song and Israel’s history is about how this was forgotten, as God’s people turned to other, false gods. We often do the same thing looking elsewhere and forgetting about the God who loves Israel and all nations. Yet, the saving love of God through Jesus is a pandemic in that it is freely available for all people. We are called to turn to it, to receive it, and to be led by it and nothing else. Through it, we move from the wilderness into an eternal promised land.

At this time, may we be a people led by the Spirit of the Lord.