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Christianity as life-lite and other defeater beliefs

28/08/2014

In Northern Ireland there is a phrase that someone is ‘good livin‘. I don’t think it exists south of the border* (I’m not sure if it exists anywhere else actually).

There’s a lot of meaning and history in that wee saying.

It’s shorthand to describe someone who is ‘born again’ or ‘religious’. What that means in practice is rather vague, God doesn’t really come into it – he is only there in the background. The good living person is perceived not to be into certain behaviour as they try to live a good life.

Some guys I spend time with sometimes apologise to me when they swear more profusely than usual because I am perceived to be ‘good livin’. It’s sort of assumed ‘good livin’ people are different in that they don’t swear, tell dirty jokes, sleep around, drink too much etc and might get offended or shocked by such behaviour.

This is Christianity as vaguely moralistic, mildly negative and mostly inoffensive. A bit of a boring normal life. Life-lite if you like.

And at the same time the good livin person is trying to be better than others who are aren’t good livin.

The motive to be ‘good livin’ is left unexamined. Being Northern Ireland, with its embedded evangelical history, there is enough familiarity with born again salvation stories to know that some people, for whatever reason,  ‘get religion’ and are not the same again.

Seeing Christianity as merely an attempt at ‘good livin’ is a peculiar Northern Irish version of what Tim Keller would call a ‘Defeater Belief’. A belief, once held, that means those who hold it are innoculated against authentic New Testament Christianity. There is an inbuilt resistance to the gospel because it has already been dismissed as implausible before being seriously considered.

For Christianity as merely a mixture of being nice, bland, yet vaguely superior to those who aren’t good livin, isn’t exactly very compelling or attractive is it?

 What are some defeater beliefs that you encounter?

* I guess there is a parallel to Catholic culture and talk of ‘the Religious’ – which refers to nuns and priests; the religious professionals in it for life at the expense of all worldly distractions like sex and marriage and making money. Religion here is for the really serious types who are willing to sacrifice all to God. Normal people are only religious amateurs who need to (or at least should) turn up to Mass on a reasonably regular basis. The phrase ‘the Religious’ reveals the gulf between laity and clergy in Irish (Catholic) Christendom. In the past of course this calling was admired and venerated. There was nothing more to be proud of than a son going into the priesthood. Now a religious life is (for most?) an incomprehensible waste of a life.

The Christian Consumer: love of neighbour

25/08/2014

A third Christian perspective on consumerism unpacked by Laura Hartman is to love thy neighbour. She focuses on the Catholic Worker Movement of Dorothy Day in NY city in the 1930s as an example. [What a character and story!)

If God commands us to love one another as he loves us, then this will show in our consumption choices. Hartman uses a sixfold framework of proximity:

This could get a long post, so here’s a snapshot. If love is a ‘committment of the will to the good of another’, Christian love is framed by God’s sacrificial love  of even his enemies.

How then can you and I love those who touch our lives, and who are impacted by ours?

Hartman’s categories are useful for making us think about ‘consumption’ – we need to define what sort of consumption we are talking about.

1. SELF LOVE:-  – means caring for the self. What that means is slippery. A Dorothy Day who lived frugally cared for herself through eating and living modestly. Yet for most Westerners, such a simple life of voluntary poverty would be close to self-abuse. We Christians live lives of remarkable luxury. We over-consume food in a self-destructive way. I doubt that there is much difference in obesity stats for Christians and the wider (expanding Western population. When does self-love become selfishness?

2. LOVE OF CLOSE-OTHERS: – we consume things all the time in order to bless others. What is buying a present but other-centred consumption? (Yes, motives can be mixed but you get the point). Most parents consume for the benefit of their children, often putting their own needs last. Inviting friends round to dinner to consume lovingly prepared food is other-centred consumption. This is a life of generosity and giving.

3. LOVE OF SOMEWHAT DISTANT OTHERS: – the people you and I meet occasionally and can have some sort of relationship with. Perhaps the Good Samaritan and the guy on the road – their paths literally cross (well as literally as you get in a parable. In the context of consumption, Hartman connects this to love in the marketplace.

She quotes Luther here railing against unjust sellers. He links injustice and greed with lack of love of neighbour. The seller’s main concern should be “directed more toward doing him [customer] no injury than toward gaining profit for yourself”

Imagine such neighbour love being practiced by Irish banks ? Imagine the implications for capitalism if practiced with some sense of relational responsibility to each other? Imagine buyers not taking advantage of desperate sellers to sell as unsustainable prices?

Hartman has a discussion of neighbour-love in economics via feminist theologian Kathryn Tanner and Japanese evangelist Toyohiko Kagawa (1888-1960). To be loved and blessed by God is to share that blessing outwardly and generously with others. Such other-focused love leads to formation of community: co-operatives; businesses owned by the workers and consumers for mutual benefit, not for the powerful few.

Tanner counters capitalism’s innate privatization and individualism. A ‘common possession right’, while each person has a right to a share of God’s gifts, means that private property is relativised. A communal identity transcends the hermetically sealed ‘self’ that has little need of others or of neighbours. This is an attempt to re-envision the marketplace in terms of mutually beneficial relationships. A call to fair wages and fair pricing.

4. LOVE OF PLACE. For Hartman this is love of the ecosystem, primarily local. Love of the local, buying local, looking after the local ecosystem, walking the area etc. This section didn’t hang together for me.

5 LOVE OF FARAWAY OTHERS: This is where global capitalism promotes anonymous goods in our supermarkets and shops. They ‘just are'; sitting there without context or any sense of where they came from or who made them or how they got here.

This is where it gets tough to make informed decisions. How do you love people you have never met and know nothing about? How can me deciding to consume less chocolate (for example) actually help the poor? It might help my waistline and wallet more immediately!

John Schneider’s response is not to worry about it. We can’t change the world, we are only responsible for what we can impact. Even trying to consume locally is impossible given globalisation. Otherwise we are overwhelmed by things we can do nothing about. This is pragmatic boundary drawing.

Schneider does have a point. It is very hard to figure out practical steps that don’t seem like mere tokenism when it comes to love of far away others. Yes, we buy only Fairtrade. Yes, we can say that there needs to be a massive readjustment of living standards in the West if the global majority are to share equitably in God’s creation consistent with their human dignity and environmental sustainability. But such abstract goals remain nice ideas.

But Schneider’s myopia is also all too conveniently self-serving. It asks no questions of Christians as to who is their neighbour. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan asks each of us what sort of neighbour are we? How does our consumption impact others?  Hartman talks of the will to love, regardless of how ‘successful’ such love may be.

She advocates virtue ethics of moderate consumption, temperance, prudence, and generosity. Love being the highest virtue of all.

6. LOVE OF GOD.  Loving God means loving what God loves – justice, the poor, the world he made. The loves described above are, Hartman argues, ways of loving God.

How does our consumption reflect love of God? Love of his creation? Love of those made in his image? Love of justice?

Loving others means a desire to transform the world and its economic systems.Visions of justice and love are framed by an ultimate eschatological vision of a re-made world when all will be made right. And it is eschatology that forms the focus of Hartman’s fourth and final Christian perspective on consumption.

Comments. as ever, welcome.

Learning from Rory and maintaining vocation in a googleized world

18/08/2014

Golfers, being hopeless optimists that their once-off best-ever score really represents their ‘normal’ game, are always desperately hoping and searching for a ‘secret’ of success; some new club, or thought or drill that will give them that edge – and make them a wee bit more like the pros on TV. [Hence they are endlessly suckered into spending hundreds on the latest cool driver or new fangled putter. Heck, you used to be able to buy whole sets of clubs for what one high-tech driver costs these days - but I digress.]

Anyway, this is to explain the numerous jokes out there about ditching the wife / girlfriend as a route to golfing nirvana, for it sure seems to have ‘worked’ for Rory. The moment the lovely Caroline departed, Rory’s fortunes have soared to new heights. 4 victories including 2 Major Championships, the WGC at FIrestone and the British PGA at Wentworth (flagship event of the European Tour), all done with stunning flair and breathtaking talent, have swept him back to the top of the world rankings. Once again, the statistical parallels (4 Majors by 25 etc) are being drawn with Nicklaus and Woods and you don’t more exalted company in the golfing pantheon than that.

As the wunderkind says himself, he’s been able to devote himself single mindedly to his profession in a way he hasn’t done before (or maybe not in the same sustained way). There is a new steel in Rory and a determined focus that seems to have released his remarkable free-flowing confidence to a point where he has just swept all the very best tough and prodigiously talented pros in the world aside. Over the last three weeks it has been a joy to watch  Rory give his very best (especially for a Holywood Golf Club man!).

All this sort of links to musings on technology, Google, and distraction in a world of Too Much Information (TMI).

It was significant that after his first 2014 win at Wentworth in May, Rory said he’d put away the laptop and switched off his phone (well at least for a while). Not being a celebrity world-famous golfer (or blogger, or theologian etc!) I can’t begin to imagine the pervasive clamour for your attention from a seemingly infinite number of people, both in the flesh and globally via the digital superhighway.

In a way that Nicklaus, and perhaps not even Woods, had to deal with, Rory lives in and has to negotiate living his life transparently under the fish-eye lens of social media and a voracious global media. As a ‘digital native’ he has participated freely in that world (in a way that a digital-settler like me can’t really get). But I wonder if his remarkable burst of success is in part the result of putting the babble of that ‘unreal’ world to one side and focusing on his ‘vocation’. Rather than it controlling him, perhaps he’s gained some degree of control over it. I hope so – and if so Rory, keep going! For I suspect it will be his ability to pursue his ‘vocation’ that will determine how close to Woods and Nicklaus he gets. As Roger Federer says, there is a lot of background ‘noise’ that is best ignored.

It is people with a clear sense of purpose and a determination to pursue their personal mission who tend to make the greatest impact in life. That focus is not only mental but physical. Rory has put in intensive work preparing his body to be in peak condition to thrash the ball repeatedly way over 300 yrds. Focus, discipline and training – these are words that come to mind with Rory these days.

Paul of course used sporting metaphors to describe his single-minded determination to preach the gospel whatever the cost.

25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. 1 Cor 9:25-7

Now I suspect every ‘age’ has bemoaned technological change and how it will ruin the (better) ways things were. I’m not going there. Take GOOGLE. I love Google search, Google Maps and reluctantly can’t do without gmail (prefer Outlook). Google docs are great for team interaction and I’m getting into Google Scholar. Google earth is fun. And Google books are deadly handy to get a preview of a work that you don’t have access to.

What Google does is bring the world to our fingertips in a way unimaginable to any previous human generation. Google’s mission statement is to organise the world’s information and make  it universally accessible and useful – a vastly ambitious goal which it is fulfilling brilliantly, rapidly and rather creepily. Its mysterious algorithims work invisibly to give us instantaneous results to any search. We have access to infinite information without getting off our derriéries.

But to what purpose? How can we process and filter TMI without drowning under a tsunami of data?

Have you ever found yourself spending far more time than you expected when planning to buy something fairly mundane? Maybe somewhere to stay on a trip? After looking at Tripadvisor and reading 25 (conflicting) reviews, you try Hotel.Com and a couple of other sites to get different options. One night’s stay becomes a navigation of 50 people’s opinions …all very interesting, often useful but also a time-consuming distraction.

And let’s not be naive, Google isn’t in business for fun, however much fun it supposedly is to be a ‘Googler’. Its main source of income is advertising and that stream of income is the driving force behind Google’s ‘open information’ culture. It’s been said that one of the dangers of the Web 3.0 is how it serves us. We are at the centre of our universe as Google serves us up with all our possible desires based on its predictive knowledge of our online habits. And I’m not going to get into Google’s virtual omniscience about everything you and I do on the web ….

And that reference to the French posterior is no small point. continuous googling is passive activity. Remember this wee saying ? As we spend more and more hours sitting looking at a screen we become fatter and and more unhealthy. There is an inherent mind / body dualism in the Google universe that echoes Gnosticism. The abstract (information, data) is what really matters. The body is relevant simply to tap buttons and click a mouse and soon I’m sure that won’t even be necessary either. But we are not disembodied minds, we are physical beings; mind, body, spirit.

There is no small irony in me writing this on a computer screen in WordPress that I opened with Google. I’m not anti-technology. But I do wonder how can Christians learn from Rory and pursue vocation through focus, discipline and training in a Googleized world?

How do you? Where is the googlized world distracting you and seducing you into running aimlessly? Where are you wasting your time in an e-world, consuming time and energy in trivia? How much time do you sit passively consuming someone else’s work via a screen? Do you suffer from paralysis by analysis due to too much information? How often do you just ‘google it’ to get the answer rather than think and pray about a situation?

What can you and I do to counter a sort of creeping Google gnosticism that relegates physical exercise and activity to a lower order behaviour?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Christian Consumer (4): delighting in consumption

06/08/2014

If Christian asceticism is at one end of the spectrum of attitudes to consumption, embracing God’s good creation is at the other.

Laura Hartman, in her stimulating book The Christian Consumer, explores different voices, Catholic, Reformed and prosperity, that affirm and rejoice in consumption.

L. Shannon Jung – a reformed ecotheologian. Author of Sharing Food.

Creflo A. Dollar Jnr – aptly named prosperity teacher

John Schneider – reformed theologian defending American middle class lifestyles. Author of Godly Materialism

St Thomas AquinasThomas Aquinas – in his Summa Theologia famously argued that everything in nature, including hungers and genuine needs, is good, because God created them good.

I ain’t going to recount the whole discussion. But what these diverse voices have in common is a way of looking at the world not through the lens of avoiding sin, but as a source of blessing.

Just as much as asceticism, this is an essential Christian response to the material world. To embrace creation is to enjoy the physical world and all it gives us. It is to be alive!

For example, tomorrow evening we’re having a few people over for dinner. My daughter has volunteered to cook – she loves it. Her cooking (I’m speaking in faith here!) is an act of creativity, of sharing, of service and of love. I’m already looking forward to the meal – one of my favourites (beef tagine).

Life would be drab and monochrome if it were not for such pleasures. The voices Hartman discusses, generally agree (Dollar apart) that there are boundaries to an ethical Christian consumption. Good consumption should be done with

- a sense of gratitude to God

- savouring  (enjoyment, delighting in consumption) linked to gratefulness (a long way from Francis reportedly stirring ashes and cold water into his food to dampen its sinfully tempting qualities!)

- sharing – where consumption is not done for selfish gain but to bless others. Good consumption is stewardship of God-given good resources. The wealthy can be a source of blessing to others as they share their resources with others.

Such theology is linked to a positive view of the Christian as a beloved child of our heavenly Father – and, as someone once said, what father does not delight in giving his children good things?

It’s here of course that embrace of creation easily branches off into Dollar’s crass doctrine of virtual human deification.

Such a positive view of wealth and enjoyment of creation also tends to maintain the status quo. Yes, we are called to exercise moderation, but this end of the sprectrum will not tend to produce radical reform of unjust structures.

Hartman explores the question of whether it is acceptable to enjoy and delight in consumption while others suffer deprivation.

She unpacks Jung’s argument that Christians are to challenge injustice  as well as to delight and share.

She also makes a telling point about Schneider’s robust defence of middle-class lifestyles: at least he is being honest. Since it represents the unspoken position of most of American evangelicalism, why is so little written to defend and articulate such a lifestyle?

So, what do you think? Asceticism and embrace of creation both legitimate biblical perspectives? Are they simply contradictory? How do we negotiate a way between them (if that is the right way to put it)?

As Hartman says about Francis and Dollar, they represent theologies and life-practices so divergent that “they may be hardly recognizable as adherents of the same religion.”

Does Jesus himself represent both ends of the spectrum as the Messiah who came feasting and drinking, yet one who gives up his life in suffering for others?

She closes with an endorsement of ‘hedonistic self-denial’ – a pattern of consumption that delights in consumption, but a consumption that is reframed towards frugality, boundaries, other-centredness, sharing, generosity and self-denial. A type of ‘enjoyable asceticism’!

Comments, as ever, welcome.

a renewed retreat centre

05/08/2014

Just down the road from where we live is the town of Lucan.

At the top of Primrose Lane is the Lucan Centre.

I’ve been at a couple of events there recently and it has been wonderfully refurbished. It is now a lovely retreat centre with high quality en suite bedrooms, conference room, kitchen, chalets and playing fields. It’s managed by IBI graduates, Norman and Emily McCorkell.

If your church or group have a weekend or weekday away event planned, check it out. It’s a new option in the greater Dublin area, offering exceptional value.

 

Some thoughts (and questions) on pleasure

30/07/2014
Corinth

Ancient Corinth

We’re just back from a family holiday – and very enjoyable it was too. Not only the company, but also doing a bit of following Paul around in Corinth and Athens and other historical stuff – rather a lot of it lying around Greece.

To the words ‘enjoyable’ and ‘holiday’, I guess you could add others like ‘pleasure’ and ‘fun’ and ‘craic’ and ‘play’ etc.

Life is full to bursting with pleasures is it not? Each of us has our particular sources of pleasure. We are embodied creatures, each sense attuned to the physical world and able to connect with the joy and beauty of that world.

What are some pleasures that you enjoy from the physical creation ? Here are some of mine:

- a hug from a loved one

- the smell of the hot earth after long-awaited rainfall

- jumping into a crystal-clear azure sea

- splitting the fairway with a drive when you need a good one [golf obviously being the highest and purest form of enjoyment known to humankind]

- sharing a good red wine with friends over a meal

- tucking into a big plate of Linsen mit Spätzle made to a secret German recipe (it’s a lot nicer than it looks, honest!)

- hiking to the top of a mountain on a clear Irish summer’s day and drinking in the view

- singing along with your daughter trying to remember all the words of Dylan’s Desolation Row

- getting engrossed in a great story whether film, TV or book

- finishing a piece of writing that hangs together

And so the list could go on and on …..

And yet, if asceticism is an intrinsic Christian response to the material world, does not all talk of pleasure for Christians have a double-edged feel? To abandon ourselves to the pursuit of pleasure is to love the world and what it gives me. It is a form of selfish indulgence that also ignores vast inequalities and injustices.

Holidays are for the rich who have the luxury of planning their lives and the funds to travel to places that they are welcomed. Golf, wine, good food, hobbies, sport, books, computers and leisure in general are unimaginable luxuries to much of the world’s population.

So a Christian ascetic will tend to reject the frivolity and self-indulgence of enjoying the pleasures the material world offers. If you, like me, only have a little streak of asceticism, maybe it manifests itself in a vague sense of guilt after taking a holiday? All that time (and money) just to relax and enjoy ourselves? (help me out here if you can!)

But it’s here that other Christians say ‘NO!’ to such guilt. God has created this ‘very good’ world. He has given us senses of sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing. To reject pleasure is to reject the goodness of the creator and the life he offers.

Taste and see that the Lord is good! (Ps 34)

Good consumption enjoys the blessings of God’s creation; it is grateful, celebrating the created world around us and the rich diversity of experience it offers. We need to consume to live and God calls us to fruitful and full life. God is the ultimate hedonist who created pleasure.

Is such a tension simply contradictory? How can asceticism and enjoyment of God-given creation co-exist?  Do you feel a pull from one to the other, enjoying a feast at a good restaurant one day yet uneasy at the extravagance looking at the bill the next?  What counts as greedy self-indulgence and what is ‘good consumption’? How the heck can such questions be negotiated without falling into petty legalism on the one hand and thoughtless pursuit of selfish pleasure on the other hand?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

[All this btw is to seamlessly set up Laura Hartman's next chapter of The Christian Consumer on embracing creation.]

Irish evangelicals and evangelism

28/07/2014

Reading about an evangelical Christian being sacked from South Tipperary County Council for persistent evangelism and subsequently winning the court case, prompts some (wildly generalised) thoughts. Please do add your own to a conversation – these are just descripitve musings ‘out loud’ rather than value judgements. Perhaps you will disagree or want to add your thoughts. I’m no lawyer and could be off on a tangent here:

First, there is a strong cultural strand to this story; it just would not have happened in Belfast with long familiarity with evangelicalism. Now I don’t know Mr McAteer and how he does evangelism. There are winsome ways of sharing the gospel and there are ways that I imagine could get people’s backs up (monologuing etc). But however done, Mr McAteer’s behaviour was interpreted as culturally alien. Irish Catholic culture tends to have a deep-seated suspicion of personal talk of Jesus and the Bible, it is, for many, much too ‘in your face’. If Mr McAteer had been a passionate Tipp GAA man who always talked hurling, I somehow doubt he’d have lost his job.

Second, here’s equality legislation working in favour of minority religious views and associated behaviour (evangelism). The ruling took the view that John McAteer was dismissed not because of anything to do with his work, but that he refused to stop talking to colleagues and members of the public about Jesus during work hours.

Now this is an interesting interpretation of European legislation: someone’s practice of religion is covered within the Employment Equality Acts. In other words, evangelism (seeking to persuade, communicate and tell the gospel) is actually protected in the workplace. Do you see implications for this at your work? What, for example, are implications for those in health care or counselling, where (as I understand it) there are relatively strict guidelines about ‘talking about God’ with patients / clients? What about in a corporate setting – is ‘religion’ out of bounds at the lunch table in Google or Intel?

Third,  reading between the lines, it seems that the management of South Tipp Co Co took the view that insisting on talking about Christianity was seen as inappropriate, out-of-place and socially awkward.

In other words, their reaction pretty well mirrors that of most contemporary evangelicals towards evangelism.

In the past, public evangelism was a primary marker of evangelicals.  I’m talking about door-to-door, street work, tract distribution, mission campaigns etc.  While they haven’t disappeared altogether, like McAteer, those that continue to engage in evangelism with strangers in a public setting are in the small minority and tend to make most other evangelicals as uncomfortable as the management of South Tipperary County Council.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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