PAUL DISTILLED - AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR GARY W BURNETT

Paul Distilled

In the first weeks of Lockdown in 2020, Gary Burnett did a wonderful series in Fitzroy on the theology of Paul. He took 10 themes in Paul's letters and gave 10 minutes teaching session on each. Gary's research in into Paul's writing and the social history of the first century was wonderfully illuminating.

A year later and Gary has added a few more themes and put it all down in a book that is launched on March 10th 2021. I had the honour of endorsing the book with these words:

"Gary Burnett has an academic mind, a devotional heart and a cultural perception. This unique blend gives him the ability to take big theological ideas and distill them into short accessible teaching sessions. They are inspirational, insightful and instructional. You will read the text afresh and hear the call to live in challenging ways."

I got a chance to ask Gary a few questions about himself, the book and of course Paul.

 

When did you start taking theology seriously?

About 30 years ago, after having been a Christian for many years, and thinking I knew my Bible pretty well, I went to a year of evening class study at Belfast Bible College – and realized how little I really did know! That spurred me on to do a theology degree and then I couldn’t get stopped, so I did a PhD. After that I began teaching, mostly in Union College, but also in the Bible College and Stranmillis College

 

What then drew you particularly to Paul?

The church I grew up in was a great fan of Paul and so I knew Paul’s letters pretty well. But during my studies I discovered there were a great many other approaches to Paul than what I’d grown up with, so it was very intriguing to start to drill down and see if I could get a better handle on him. 

Plus, I’d become very interested in the social history of the first century world, and I really appreciated trying to understand Paul within his own context. In the light of what we know – and we know a great deal – about his world, how might we understand what he has to say? And what relevance might that have to our world and our lives?

So, as I approach Paul, I’m always reminded of what John Stott said was the job of preachers – to try and understand the two worlds of the first century and our own, and then to build a bridge between them. And that’s pretty much what I’ve tried to do over many years. But there’s hard work involved!

 

Paul Distilled started as a teaching series. What was the original inspiration for that?

Well, last Spring the pandemic had hit and the whole world was turned upside down. We went in to lockdown for the first time, and we were aware of a great deal of suffering all round the world because of the havoc caused by the virus. So, I suppose I just wanted to do something positive, to provide a little bit of encouragement and inspiration for people.

So I knew that there was great potential for that in Paul’s letters – something, of course, that I know a little bit about! What he has to say about resurrection, about anxiety, joy, the power of the Holy Spirit and about love seemed to me to be the perfect antidote to the malaise we were all feeling.

As a result, I did this series of ten “Paul in Tens” – little video presentations, taking a theme in Paul and trying to make it engaging and hopeful for everyone, and doing each one in just 10 minutes. And they seemed to go down quite well, so after the videos were completed, I talked to the guys at Wipf and Stock about turning the material into a book and they were enthusiastic. I then set to work to augment and re-arrange the material and turn it into Paul Distilled.

 

In your introduction you suggest that many people have issues with Paul. Why do you think we ended up with a wrong take on him?

Well, you’ve got to admit, some of the trains of thought in Paul’s letters can be a bit confusing! Even the apostle Peter said that he thought brother Paul’s letters were “hard to understand.” And he lived in the same world as Paul! So perhaps we can be forgiven for getting the wrong end of the stick sometimes.

And then, of course, we have 2,000 years of theology to contend with – much of which is good and helpful, but some of it is a product of its time and its own social setting. So, along the way, Paul has been used to support slavery, despotic regimes and dreadful treatment of women, for example, and that legacy lingers on. But, trying to understand Paul in his own world can be a great help in untangling some of the knots we’ve got ourselves into at times.

Knowing something about the Roman Empire, its religion and its values, for example, can be a great help in seeing that Romans 13 isn’t the only passage in Paul that can guide our attitude to the powers that be. There are other passages where he is really being quite critical of all that Rome stands for.

 

Your subjects are intriguing. Usually Paul is all about "justification by faith” but though you use a Bob Dylan quote to almost take that as read, you are dealing with poverty, peace-making and justice. Why do we often miss these themes in Paul?

Yes, it’s maybe strange to have a book on Paul which doesn’t cover what most people think of by the term “justification by faith.” And, of course, that is important. But I did want to highlight some of the areas many of us have missed – perhaps by the very concentration there has been on that phrase. 

Once you start thinking about what the idea of the “gospel” was to a first century Jew like Paul, then you are immediately into the idea of the expectation of the kingdom of God arriving on earth. And that was his expectation – except now, it all revolved around the person of Jesus the Messiah. His coming, death and resurrection, Paul saw, were the way in which God’s promises to Israel were being realized. And that meant the peaceful world that Isaiah had envisaged; that meant the great reversal of rich and poor that Mary had seen; that meant the new day of justice that Israel’s prophets had looked for was now arriving; and that the transformation of the world was beginning.

So, I think, once you get that clear, and you see that the gospel is not simply “getting saved and going to heaven,” then as you read Paul, you’ll begin to see ideas about peace and love and justice popping up everywhere. 

What I really like about Paul’s letters is that in them we can piece together this grand vision that Paul has for seeing the significance of the coming of Christ. Which will culminate in the day of resurrection when God comes to renew the world. But, for Paul, that day of resurrection has already begun – which has enormous implications for our individuals lives, but also for the world. We Jesus-followers are called to anticipate God’s new creation in the present by seeking peace and justice in our church communities and in the wider world.       

 

And then the woman issue. Paul is often seen as against woman. You challenge that assumption.

Sadly, Paul is often seen as restricting the role of women in leadership. With the result some people just give up on him, thinking he is some sort of misogynist. Part of the problem is that there are a couple of verses in his letters that have been magnified out of all proportion. But if we start at the right place – which I argue in the book is Romans 16 – then we begin to get a much different understanding of Paul. One where he clearly works with and appreciates a whole range of women leaders in the early churches. So, the evidence from the New Testament really does not support restricting women in leadership. Far from doing that, actually, Paul supports women in church leadership!

         

How do you hope people might use the book?

I hope that the book is a good starter for people. That it gives them a way into Paul and opens up their thinking about the way that he thought about the gospel, about Jesus, about the world and the potential for transformation. That it might whet their appetite to study and think more about Paul’s letters. 

But also, I’ve included a set of questions at the end of each chapter, so that the book could be used in a church or home group setting. Where, perhaps, people could read a chapter and then come together to chat about some of the issues it has raised.

But again, like the Paul in Ten videos, I hope people will find this little book interesting, challenging and inspiring.

 

More details at www.pauldistilled.wordpress.com


CLEARING MY PARENTS' HOUSE - LIKE A LITURGICAL ACT

Mum's Skip

It was like a liturgical act, embedded with a hard spiritual truth. 

We were clearing my parents house. It was a beautiful house full of beautiful things but with mum having passed away and dad living in a Residential home with dementia the things were no longer needed. A few things found their way to family members, most of the furniture to Habitat For Humanity Restore and the rest ended up in the skip. It was all top end, expensive and tasteful.

Impermanent things. As we cleared I became aware that I was acting out a song and a Biblical truth.

 

“All these impermanent things
Well they're trying to convince me
Baptize my soul and rinse me
Purge my mind of honesty and fire
All these impermanent things
Well they all add up to zero
They make-believe that they're my hero
Then they fill my mind with doubt and false desires

Why keep hanging on
To things that never stay
Things that just keep stringin' us along
From day to day”

-          From Impermanent Things by Peter Himmelman

 

Wikipedia will tell you that Peter Himmelman is an orthodox Jew who prays 3 times a day and is the son-in-law of Bob Dylan. The Jewish part explains Himmelman’s deep spiritual insight. When I did my weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster I played Himmelman very often. Impermanent Things was the most played.

As a preacher it is one of my very favourite songs. I have used Himmelman's words in a sermon on Matthew chapter 6 v 19-34. If you didn’t know about Himmelman’s deep Jewish faith you would be sure that he had used this passage as his inspiration. 

Of course the Gospel account of Matthew Gospel is the Gospel most intent is revealing Jesus as a continuation of Jewish tradition so perhaps it is not so surprising that he and Himmelman would be on similar themes.

Jesus is saying in the second half of this most famous Sermon that where are treasure is our hearts will be also. He is suggesting that we invest our lives on eternal things that last rather than the impermanent things that Himmelman so poetically describes in this song.

Jesus goes on to talk about how we shouldn’t be worrying about impermanent things and Himmelman puts it beautifully here how these impermanent things play tricks with our heads and hearts and throw us of the better more lasting course. Jesus is on the same idea.

So why do we get obsessed with impermanent things? We are back to me piling my parents' things onto a skip outside their house. So many things. A few months before they were vital things in my parents lives but now they were useless; rubbish even! It made me ponder Himmelman's song and Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. A cold liturgical lesson in the emptiness of things.

On a more recent Himmelman record There Is No Calamity, the first song 245th Peace Song begins:

 

"The holes in people’s lives need to be filled
I get that. I understand that.
But you’ve got to be careful what you fill them with
Do you get that? Understand that?"


DAVID GRAY - SKELLIG

Skellig

I loved David Gray. Century’s End, Flesh and Sell, Sell, Sell were like a prophet spitting out spiritual depth charge after charge. I remember researching my essay on his work in my book The Rock Cries Out and the abundance of provocative thoughts was so overwhelming that I could only listen to a couple songs at time.

I was so pleased when White Ladder finally took off. I had bought the original Irish release, out before anyone outside Ireland was interested.  It took time. Irish DJ Donal Dineen took Gray on as a crusade and I was so pleased the first time I heard Babylon on the radio. Recognition at last.

Something got lost though. Maybe it was just more subtle but I missed the angsty protest and social critique of Let the Truth Sting, Birds Without Wings and What Are You?. The more popular it got the less I bothered.

Until now. Skellig. Oh my. Skellig is a rough and wild outcrop of rock off the west coast of Ireland. In the 6th Century monks lived in stone beehives upon its dangerous jagged rocky edges. The extreme measures of it caught David Gray’s attention and through it he got mine:

 
"Each heart a burning vessel
Out on a pitch black wave
Chewing the bone and gristle
When it's the flesh of love we crave"
 
That's the sharp, insightful of all that's important about life, David Gray in the very best of his old traditional early 90s ways! 
 

Gray speaks of Skellig, the place, “Pondering that idea, of setting up a monastery in such a remote place, how close to God could you possibly wish to be? It blows my mind anyway, to get so close to God in a contemplative way.”

You can see why I am hooked. The thing is that the entire album seems to have the reflective spirit of those monks. It is as if his meditations on Skellig as he lived through lockdown. The entire album is like seeking the purity of our core humanity, stripping back, finding the wonder. 

Accumulation seems to the antithesis, like a throw back to Sell, Sell, Sell. What we need to find refuge and escape from:

 

Mindless need is loosed among us

In our homes and down our streets

Singing like some mythic creature

Of great Edеns, through the gates

And you can have bеtter suction

Even wanton destruction

And all of this at very competitive rates

 

There is something about the sound of the music that is like a 21st century sound of those monks praying. The album was made over 5 days, like a creative retreat. It is simple, quietly gentle, very organic. Contemplative.

It is beautiful, at times poetry, at times beautiful melody, always engaging. The backing vocals are not at all big but sound as Gray himself puts it, “like a Celtic Choir”.

To these ears it is soothing, interrogating, loving and uncomfortably challenging all at once. Like a Sacred Retreat might be. I am back to those pre White Ladder days when I was sure that it would be revealed that Gray had been brought up in Welsh Presbyterianism. I couldn’t believe it when he hadn’t.

 

Well, on Skellig it is not so much Presbyterians as he is channeling 6th Century Irish monks that he channeling and prodding my soul again… so beautifully. 


A WOODEN CROSS, SO CHERISHLY HONED (...AND I BELIEVE)

Jim's Cross

My dear brother Jim Deeds gifted me this beautiful rosewood holding cross. I had caught Jim doing a Facebook Live from his carving shed where he carefully works wood into beautiful things. I had commented on the wonder of this one and Jim being Jim later arrived at more door with it as a gift.

I am not sure Jim realised how spiritually significant it was. I have not been on full power these last few weeks and this little cross was more than a tonic for the troops. 

It reminded me of this poem and I have re-written aline or two to include Jim's cross. Every cross I see brings a refreshment to my soul. It is powerfully mysterious how it impacts me deep within.

So I wrote this back in the early 90s. There are nods to the CS Lewis film Shadowlands, Bruce Cockburn’s Southlands Of The Heart and Lies Damned Lies The Next Life. My friends Stuart McCrea, Nigel Reid and James Small turns dit into a song with their band Horsey Morgan.

Thank you Jim...

 

When you feel you are always one step behind

You’re arriving for the just departed train

When the slowest car on the road, it seems

Is at the end of the passing lane

Two twigs entwined

By a piece of string

Puts perspective on everything

And I believe

Yes, I believe.

 

When life doesn’t have to, but it still does

And you forget the beauty of her face

When the golden valley is shrouded in mist

And imagination is all laid to waste

The sweetest taste

Of bread and wine

Says a better day is mine

And I believe

Yes, I believe.

 

When the prickly thorns of the truth

Are sharper than the smell of the rose

Weeds strangle all the flowers of hope

When God only knows

A carved wooden cross

So cherishly honed

Tells my soul I am not alone

And I believe

Yes, I believe.


CHOOSING THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE FAIR TRADE FENCE

Sonop Other side

photo: Gordon Ashbridge - "The Wrong Side of the Fence" taken on the right side in Sonop Vineyard

 

Our very first visit to the Sonop Vineyard on the Western Cape Winelands was a more remarkable learning curve than we could ever have imagined, more provocatively challenging than we could have contrived.

I was there with Queens University Presbyterian Chaplaincy students where at the time I was Chaplain. For some time we had been a community interested in Fair Trade. In fact we had been endeavouring to make our Chaplaincy as Fair Trade as possible and were campaigning with Christian Aid and Tear Fund to push Queens University to become a Fair Trade University.

So we had a rough idea. Fair Trade proponents and pioneers The Co-op had put us in touch with this Fair Trade Vineyard about an hour’s drive out of Cape Town.

Meeting the workers at the Sonop Vineyard was an inspiration. They were so excited about their work but more importantly about their new found freedoms. They spoke about their ownership of land; they own their homes and have their own land where they have their own vines that they tend and sell on to the mother company.

In South Africa, of course, land ownership is a raging issue. For the non-white to own land is a whole new sense of security, dignity and freedom. No longer could they be tossed out of their homes and sacked on a white man’s whim. Yet more than that, education is so vital to the new South Africa. That which the oppressed used as a protest against apartheid by boycotting has now become the very avenue to consolidating the change by making sure the children get the education that their parents never had.

So we heard about the nursery school in their own village, the Primary School where the bus takes them and the possibility of University – all paid for! Even the adults are getting all kinds of practical schooling. It is a world not dreamt about ten year ago but very much a reality. The sense of dignity, self worth and driving purpose of these workers as they develop their land is a joy to inhabit.

But there was more… so much more. Moments later and just a few hundred yards away we were standing by a fence in the workers’ village.

On their side of that fence were beautifully painted houses and carefully groomed gardens. There was that little school and a play area. There was colour and beauty and all of that freedom and ownership we had just heard about was bursting with life.

But on the other side of the fence…was the neighbouring vineyard. There was literally the thinnest breadth of wire dividing. And on that other side there was dirty, faded, paint peeling houses. There were rough dust and dirt paths between them. There was no colour, no energy, no pride and no sense of hopefulness.

It was a stark contrast. It was the most challenging piece of land I had ever stood upon. The choice was clear and stark. Buy into one side of the fence and there is a sense of care and justice for the workers. Buy into the other and there is simply exploitation, disregard and neglect of workers and their children.

When my students stand in their local Co-op to buy coffee, sugar, tea, chocolate or whatever they now know they now have a visual aid to help them decide what products to buy. Their decisions have suddenly become a whole lot bigger and a whole lot clearer.

There is a thin line between justice and oppression and we stood right at the sharpest part of the fence. Which side will we be investing in? What side of the fence best describes the redemption of heaven? Which side is God most thrilled with? What does it mean in our everyday shopping for us to bring God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?

So, when I stand and see products without a Fair Trade mark I wonder what happens on the side of the fence where the grapes were picked... or the tea... or the coffee... or the bananas... or whatever... and I just can no longer bring myself to buy. I have driven a few miles to another store at times to makes sure my choices are on the right side of the fence!