Introducing Obadiah Slope

This column is named “Obadiah Slope”, which the elect will recognise as the name of the “odious evangelical” in the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope’s six-part Chronicles of Barsetshire.

Alan Rickman played Obadiah Slope in the BBC series, The Barchester Chronicles.

Obadiah Slope

This column is named “Obadiah Slope”, which the elect will recognise as the name of the “odious evangelical” in the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope’s six-part Chronicles of Barsetshire …

Trollope made fiction out of the foibles of cathedral politics. You might recognise some ministers you have encountered in your life as a Christian in his books.

The character of Obadiah Slope captures many of my sins: arrogance, ambition, combativeness and being an all-round know-it-all.

He also reminds me that there is more to Christianity than people who see things the way I do.

This pseudonym first was used by me when jousting with liberal Episcopalians (US Anglicans) on the old Beliefnet website. This was so long ago that many of the more progressive correspondents did not want to use their real names, so I found myself a good one.

This column will be factual, but we hope entertaining. I got through the six big Barsetshire volumes, but the longer series Trollope wrote later defeated me.

This column won’t demand that much of your time.

Trollope wrote on the trains while inspecting Irish post offices. If you can’t be grateful for the things he wrote, you can be pleased that he invented the street post box. Like Trollope, I’ll strive to fit this column around the other stuff I do. It will be somewhat regular.

* * *

Observed: Looking around at church a few weeks after the mask-wearing rule was relaxed in our state, aside from my family, the others still wearing masks were the medicos.

* * *

Jeremiah 29:11 is still a favourite. Not my favourite verse, but immensely popular.

What’s not to like?

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
(Jeremiah 29:11 ESV)

Bible Gateway reports that it was the second-most-popular verse on their site for 2021, after John 3:16.

This verse offers several layers of comfort.

God has plans for us. We can compare this to Jesus saying that the very hairs on our heads are numbered. God wants to prosper us (that’s the controversial bit). God wants to give us hope and a future.

It is rare to see this verse cited with its full context.

That context challenges the simple, mantra-like way Jeremiah 29:11 is often used, but I believe that understanding exactly why God said it, makes it even more precious.

Especially for those of us whose life does not run smoothly, who wonder at times what God’s plan could be for us, who need hope and wonder if we can prosper.

Is that you? It is undoubtedly me.

By the time we get to Jeremiah 29, the worst has happened. Jeremiah has prophesied and been imprisoned for predicting the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian army.

Jeremiah 29 centres on the letter Jeremiah sends to the exiles in Babylon, the people who have been forcibly removed from the promised land. These captives are the ones who sang Psalm 137:

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there, our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?”

It is to them that the prophet writes, offering hope and a future, not to those holding out in Jerusalem.

“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.'” (Jeremiah 29:4-7 NIV)

They are to stay in Babylonian exile for 70 years.

To those resisting the occupation of Jerusalem, the prophet speaks judgement. “The Lord Almighty says: ‘I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten.'” (Jeremiah 29:18 NIV)

This judgement of the resistance fighters seems really strange to us. Think of this prophecy in terms of modern war: that the exiled captives, not the resistance army, are doing God’s will. Unthinkable.

God’s plan for prosperity led through two generations of exile. The people getting Jeremiah’s letter would die in Babylon. Many of their children would likely die there also.

God’s prosperity is different from society’s prosperity. To me, this comes clearly through in the area of disability.

Today I interacted in a Facebook group with a man leading a youth group on disability. He was wondering about a line in a Joni Eareckson Tada book, “Disabilities aren’t germs that you’re able to share. They’re a part of creation; there’s no need to be scared.” The word “creation” was troubling him. Was Tada twisting scripture?

“When the Psalmist writes ‘Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward’ (Psalm 127:1, ESV), there is no footnote that says ‘only if they are perfect according to society’s norms’. My daughter is a blessing, so is your son,” I responded. (We both have offspring living with a disability).

“‘Creation’ is used in scripture sometimes to mean the world as it is … Romans 8:19, for example.”

For some, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” comes at the eschaton.

The people of Judah’s path to prosperity, hope and a future led through exile. Ours may too.

It is not a lesser prosperity.

It is not a lesser hope.

It is not a lesser future.

But it is not instant gratification.

* * *

The way we live now: On the ABC news channel Saturday Morning, a long report features the work of evangelical charity Samaritan’s Purse from a field hospital in a basement in Lviv. This is followed immediately by a feature on the autobiography of Jason Om, a journalist with a coming-out story. Co-existence.