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Desert island texts

David Parkin
9 August 2018

One of the best short walks around Windermere is to climb Orrest Head. It’s a modest little hill, no more than a few hundred feet high — but the view from the top, to my mind anyway, is unsurpassed anywhere in the Lakes. There is a full 360 degree panorama including: the Scafell range, the Fairfield Horseshoe, the Howgill Fells, Morecambe Bay, the Coniston Fells and, in the foreground, Windermere itself.

The first time I went to the Windermere Centre I climbed Orrest Head each morning before breakfast. Four mornings were clear and the views superb. On the fifth and final morning the cloud was down and, though I still climbed to the summit, I could see nothing. Another walker was up there — on his first visit — and I tried to describe the view to him. But it wasn’t easy. The view was out there — even though it was hidden — but mere words seemed inadequate to describe it.

That seems to me to be one of the problems with speaking about God. Mere words are not enough, mere words are inadequate. But words are all we have — so we have to try.

In my first term at theological college we were asked to do an exercise called Desert Island Texts. In the manner of the Desert Island Discs castaway being asked to choose eight pieces of music we were asked to choose eight passages from the Bible — four from the Old Testament and four from the New — which we thought reflected the heart of God’s dealing with humanity. And we had to be prepared to defend our choice at our tutorial group.

My Old Testament choices were:

  • Genesis 12: 1–8: The Call and setting out of Abraham
  • Psalm 145: “One generation shall tell of your mighty acts to another”
  • Jeremiah 32: 6–16: Jeremiah’s purchase of the field at Anathoth.
  • Micah 6: 6–8: A growing realisation that God is more interested in relationships than ritual.

And in the New Testament:

  • John 1: 1–18: The prologue about the Word becoming flesh and pitching a tent among us
  • Luke 24: 13–35: The road to Emmaus story
  • Luke 15: 11–32: The story of the prodigal son
  • Philemon: Relationships being based on a new social order — perhaps a NT response to the Micah passage.

Would these still be my choices almost twenty years later? Quite possibly, although there are a couple from Isaiah that I would find it hard to leave out — Isaiah 43: 1–7 and 65: 17–25.

Why were these not included it in my four Old Testament choices? Probably because I didn’t know Isaiah as well at the start of training as I did at the end. But I would certainly include them now. And which of the chosen four Old Testament passages would I leave out, assuming I could have both Isaiahs as one choice? Probably Psalm 145 — or possibly Genesis 12. Certainly Jeremiah and Micah would have to stay.

Why the Isaiah passages? Because, for me, they contradict so much of what the Old Testament says about God. The dominant portrait of God in the Old Testament is one of a demanding God, an angry God, a vengeful God, a God before whom you bow in fear and trembling. And this is the God, sadly, that for far too long was used by the Church as a threat — the God who would rejoice over the wicked burning in hell, so you’d better behave yourself and do as you’re told!

But there is a sub text there that bubbles away beneath the surface and that keeps breaking through, one that speaks of a God of love and compassion and justice. The Isaiah passages are part of that sub-text. “Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by your name, you are mine.”

You might like to think what your eight texts would be.