A mini-essay on why The Good Place didn’t end in a good place

SPOILERS AHEAD

This post will make sense only for viewers of Michael Schur’s The Good Place. If you haven’t seen it and may want to one day, then best to quit now because there are SPOILERS all over the place and I’m assuming a working knowledge of the show – which I’ve loved by the way.

The Good PlaceThe four unlikely friends, Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Tahini (Jameela Jamil), Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and Jason (Manny Jacinto), have spent 4 seasons of a comedy show navigating some very surprising twists and turns of the afterlife accompanied by their reformed demon friend Michael (Ted Danson) and all-knowing Janet (D’Arcy Carden).

Who knew that the route to heaven was a complicated points race for good behaviour on earth? Who knew that demons, getting bored of conventional torture in the ‘bad place’, had devised ways of making deliberately incompatible groups of humans drive each other mad in a cheery paradise-hell masquerading as the real Good Place? Who knew that the afterlife was ruled by an impatient judge with little empathy for humans who likes nothing more than binge-watching the Leftovers? Who knew that due to a fault in the system, no human has qualified for heaven in hundreds of years?

Many Christians might find such a premise trivial, not to say heretical. I can understand if it’s not your cup of tea. But underneath the colourful froth and humour, Schur cleverly explores some profound moral and philosophical questions. He combines wit, warmth, fun, and surreal silliness with real emotional and intellectual depth. It’s not often a hit comedy show, with episodes of 25 minutes, includes discussion of Aristotle, Kant and Schopenhauer et al. Can someone be redeemed by learning to be morally good? Where is meaning ultimately to be found? When is judgment merited? On what basis is anyone worthy of heaven?

Over the 4 seasons each of the characters are, in their own way, transformed for the better to live for the good of others: Eleanor the selfish bimbo, Chidi the insufferable ethicist, Tahini the superficial socialite, and Jason the amiable wastrel from the backend of Jacksonville. So much so that finally, and to their surprise, they earn their way to the real Good Place as a reward for fixing the system and giving all humans a fighting chance of getting there.

Good Place Season 4Maybe the show should have finished as they got in a balloon and ascended toward heaven. It would have been a fond farewell to deeply human and loveable characters. But the final double length episode goes a step further to ask ‘What might life in heaven be like?’ And the answers it came up with left me feeling rather depressed.

It turns out that the Good Place isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

After 50 episodes, our heroes’ arrival in the Good Place is an anti-climax. It felt, and looked, empty; reminiscent of the artificially manicured campus of an anonymous multinational. Very quickly we get a sense of imperfection. The hyper-nice managers of heaven pass the buck of running heaven on to Michael and clear off as quickly as they can. Why they do so soon becomes clear – perfection is boring. The Good Place, it turns out, is effectively life on earth with all obstacles to pleasure, happiness and fulfilment removed. However, endless satiation, we learn, dulls the mind. Phoebe from Friends is there as Hypatia, a Greek philosopher-mathematician who can hardly remember her name, let alone any algebra. Her mind is turning to mush. The citizens of heaven are a subdued lot – there is nothing to look forward to, nothing to challenge, nothing to fight for as they sleepwalk through eternity.

Faced with such an appalling future, our friends persuade Michael to give people in the Good Place an opt-out clause – non-existence. All they have to do is, when ready, to walk through a door and dissolve into a great nothingness. This introduction of finitude into heaven, paradoxically brings everyone alive again. Life is worth living once more – the party begins and the energy rises. Joy, it seems, can only exist in opposition to loss. Love only gains depth and poignancy in the face of impending separation. Real life only flourishes when it is temporary.

A Future Hope of Non-Being

And so, one by one, our friends make their own journeys towards that pretty door of woven branches in a forest glade. They are in no rush – there is infinite enjoyment in the Good Place after all. There is a sense of perfection or fulfilment to be reached, but once this transcendent moment arrives, it is time to die to the self – literally.

Good Place doorJason cannot ever top a flawless game of Madden with his father. Chidi reaches complete peace with himself, his family and Eleanor. Tahini perfects herself by acquiring endless new skills (I was reminded of Bill Murray in Groundhog day here) and by finding reconciliation with her sister and her parents. Eleanor, the real heroine of The Good Place, finds ultimate fulfilment in helping Michael realize his dream of becoming human and experiencing life (and eventually death) as a mortal.

The mood for each parting is a strange mix of muted grief and cheerful thankfulness for love and relationship that has now reached its end. Jason says goodbye to his beloved Janet. Tahini’s about to go but finds a reason to delay in a new career as an architect creating other worlds – but we can only assume this too will eventually pall and she will return one day, alone, to the door.

The centrepiece of the episode is Chidi regretfully leaving his soulmate Eleanor, despite her desperate attempts to inspire him to stay with her by revisiting together all the places he loves most on earth. But once she sees he has experienced ‘the’ moment of complete fulfilment and ‘has’ to walk through the door, she knows it would be ‘selfish’ to make him stay. It’s like both of them have no choice – they can only submit to the inevitable dissolving of their relationship – and literally of themselves.

Sugar Coated Suicide

Eschatologically speaking The Good Place presents future hope as non-being. Death, ultimately, is the goal. Jason, Chidi and Eleanor all voluntarily end their own lives, their selves fragmenting into the impersonal universe.

In other words, these were at once cheerful, sad, yet noble, suicides (‘an act of taking one’s own life intentionally and voluntarily’).  They may be a very long way from a brutal and upsetting suicide In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri that I wrote about some time ago, but they shared its portrayal of self-inflicted death as poignant and virtuous.

In the finale, in one of the only references to a specific religion in the show, Chidi explains Buddhist philosophy to Eleanor; life is like an ocean wave, it takes form for an instant, before dissolving on the beach and washing back into the ocean. The two lovers are comforted by that image as a prelude to Chidi’s dissolving. He will not be ‘gone’ altogether, his self will be absorbed into the great oneness of the universe.

Everyone I’ve talked to about the finale has shared a sense of unease, loss, ‘being cheated’ or feeling depressed. And for good reason. Let’s be blunt, the message is ‘death wins’. After all the laughs, fun, learning and growth in love among the main characters, all those relationships are eradicated. Why The Good Place was such a great show was the sheer likability of its characters. Each discovers that life at its best is self-giving love for others, but the finale celebrates the cessation of all relationship. The ‘second death’ of Jason, Chidi and Eleanor (to be followed by Tahini and Michael) not only ends the show, it negates what the show has been about.

Which eschatology?

All this made me think afresh about what Christians hope for. A number of contrasts with The Good Place come to mind.

The end of love or unending love?

First, The Good Place’s eschatology is one where individualism trumps love. Chidi has to follow his inner sense of completion all the way to the ‘death door’ in the forest. Obedience to the authentic self comes at the expense of his love with Eleanor.

In the Bible, the goal of God’s redemption is love. The message of 1 Corinthians 13 is that love in the present is just a foretaste of ‘love unleashed’ in the future. The Christian hope is of a ‘good place’ of creative, dynamic and joyful other-centered relationships, where love flourishes to an unimaginable extent as citizens of heaven are perfected to love as God loves. Love, not non-being, is the whole goal.

Impersonal universe or personal creator?

Second, I mentioned earlier the weird emptiness of The Good Place. It took me a while to pin this down and then I realised that it was because when the friends arrive there is no-one to meet them. A few moments later Michael finds himself in charge. The Good Place may be filled with people, but they remain on their own, each pursuing their own version of happiness. And when that pursuit palls, they can always dissolve themselves into an impersonal oneness.

In contrast, Christian eschatology is personal and relational through and through – God’s people together enjoying the presence of God because of his relentless commitment to restore and redeem his good creation.

Probably the most powerful image of this is in Revelation 21. The descent of the holy city, the new Jerusalem, marks the union of heaven and earth and of God and his people.

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. (Rev 21:3)

Christian hope is not happiness, nor heaven, nor overcoming death, nor personal fulfilment: ultimately it is being in the presence of the triune God who is the source of all life and love. Believers look forward, not to an empty paradise, but a new creation in which God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor 15:28).

Relentless eternity or eternally creative life?

Third, using a literalist and individualist perspective The Good Place concluded that heaven will become boring, even oppressive, as the self comes to the ‘end of itself’.

This isn’t a new question; Christians have long speculated about what life in the new creation will be like. Rather than an endless praise service, biblical imagery suggests a dynamic, productive and creative existence full of joy and purpose. From a mortal point of view this is literally unimaginable. No human language can describe an unexperienced future. But the picture is of life in the Spirit lived outwardly to the praise of God and the good of others. It is in giving that we receive life and that is a source of inexhaustible fulfilment.

Death or Life?

The Good Place pictured death as a friend to be actively embraced, a form of release from the burden of even what the very best of life has to offer. Not without reason, there has been a lot of online comment about the finale being a trigger for those wrestling with suicidal thoughts.

In utter contrast, Christian theology sees death as an alien destructive power, an enemy to be overcome, a malign force that ruins God’s good creation and devastates relationships. It is such powerful an opponent that the climax of the whole Bible story revolves around the ‘death of death’ in the victory of God in Jesus Christ. It is the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, God’s Son, through which death has lost its power:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15:54-56)

Christians affirm life, not a culture of death – however cheerfully and colourfully packaged.

Detoxing from the news this Brexit Day

On this ‘historic’ ‘B-Day’ – a post about the news.

I haven’t listened to RTE news (or any Irish news station) for a long time – I used to consume them voraciously. Neither do I watch RTE. Some years ago we got rid of the TV, so I don’t watch the news there or watch online (I confess that I’m rather delighted not to pay the licence fee. Long may it last before threatened action by the Govt to introduce a ‘household charge’ for RTE regardless of whether you ever watch it or not as an act of enforced patriotism to support ‘the national broadcaster’. There’s something Stalinesque about that argument Richard Bruton).

The first time I realised that an election had suddenly been called in Ireland (for 8 February rather than an expected date in May) was walking home one evening from work and seeing two guys up a ladder putting up election posters.

I joined Facebook for a day about 10 years ago, regretted it instantly and deleted my account (if such a thing is really possible).

I’ve looked at Twitter now and then. I can see the appeal; there are a lot of witty, smart people posting witty, smart things but it’s not for me. First of all, I’m not witty and smart. Second of all, is the relentless assault on the mind of information, ideas, campaigns, political opinions, controversies, trivia, moral outrage etc. It makes me feel like I do when I listen to or read a lot of news – which brings me to the main point of this post which is …

Consuming too much news* is toxic for the soul

(* I’m defining ‘news’ here broadly in terms of information about the world that we watch or listen to via TV or online. It includes social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram)

This is a personal opinion (and experience). I can’t say I have a high-minded and carefully researched philosophy to unpack for you. If you want to get theological, I accept that even the concept of the soul is debateable, but let’s leave that aside for another day.

Neither can I say I am consistent. I’m well aware of the irony of arguing this view by linking below to resources that are from newspapers and magazines. I’ve a particular morbid fascination for the unravelling of contemporary American politics that I have to resist getting lost in. I listen to radio news and read online newspapers, but I’m trying to wean myself off them bit by bit. I’m also aware that I am of a particular vintage which may colour my views of this new-fangled interweb thingy. But perhaps, just perhaps, experience counts for something.

Here are some voices I’ve come across that have resonated with my own experience in some way.

FIRST is the well-known research by Jean Twenge arguing that smartphones are causing a devastating mental health crisis. If you have not read this, you should. Related to this, today my Firefox browser tells me that adults spend about 4 hours on their smartphones per day and gives tips on how to cut down.p068myhz

SECOND is the witty and smart novelist and commentator Sarah Dunant talking about a growing explosive anger building within her for years from consuming news of one political disaster to another.If you have 10 minutes do listen, she is quite brilliant. Her response was to try a complete news detox. She went cold turkey,

“… turning your back on the whole seething noisy excruciating mess … cut the adrenaline feed .. I stopped listening to news bulletins, stopped accessing news websites, buying or reading any newspaper, participating in any social media. Nothing. How did it feel? Well some strange things happened. The passage of time, for instance, altered. It got slower. Or maybe that was just putting together all those little gaps where my fingers used to be on the keyboard or staring at the screen. In public, I noticed people more. I actually spent time looking at them. Almost willing them to look up from their phones, and if they did, I smiled … I am up to seventeen returned smiles. I have also taken to breathing, consciously that is …. To tone down the volume of thoughts, to try to be in the moment.”

She knows such a radical detox can’t last. But her experience of making human connection in is telling. We are embodied people. Love and relationship are innately physical, not virtual.

51n1jdr470l._sx314_bo1204203200_THIRD, is the Swiss writer Rolf Dobelli who has written Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life.

He can find out the important stuff that is going on without daily consumption of news bombarding him from every angle. He gave an interview in the Irish Times (yes, I know) earlier this month.  Consuming news neither helps us to understand what is going on nor does it help us make better decisions in our personal lives or work.

News consumption, he argues, breeds superficiality and short attention spans. Online ‘noise’ militates against sustained engagement with ideas. It is also overwhelmingly negative and fosters chronic stress, anxiety and has physical effects of lowering a person’s immune system.

Online news and social media works on clickbait. We not only waste time but get sucked into an ephemeral world where nothing is solid. News has become little more than a form of entertainment, desperately trying to catch the consumer’s fleeting attention.

And so the noise, and extreme opinion, gets louder and louder.

News, the Body, the Mind and Eschatology

So in 2020 I’m trying to turn the volume down and perhaps you might give it a go as well.

Perhaps this upcoming Lent, what about trying a total detox from the news and social media and see what happens?

Since we are embodied pepple, what about getting up from your chair, or lifting your eyes from the screen, and getting outside for walks in places of beauty? Take up Park Running on a Saturday morning – its’ a great detoxifer. If possible, talk to people rather than emailing or texting them. Spend the ‘extra’ time away from the screen in connecting to people ‘in the flesh’. Cook food and invite friends around. (Feel welcome to add other suggestions for an ‘embodied life’ in the comments if you wish).

9781540961136Finally, since this is a theological blog, there is a question here related to the mind and what we put in it.

Recently, Craig Keener has written a major book on the neglected topic of the Christian Mind – The Mind of the Spirit: Paul’s Approach to Transformed Thinking (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016).

At the heart of the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:1-2) is an eschatological dynamic. It is from the perspective of God’s future that a renewed mind is enabled to discern right choices in the present

1 Corinthians 2:15-16 and the mind of Christ versus human judgments

15 The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, 16 for,

“Who has known the mind of the Lord
    so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.

Colossians 3:1-2 and minds set on things above rather than things on earth cf Phil 3:19-20).

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Philippiaans 4:8 needs to be heard and acted upon in these days of information overload

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

The ‘tryanny of the urgent’ within the never-ending cycle of news of human behaviour is relentlessly non-eschatological. It is also relentlessly anthropocentric. Both emphases are inimical to Christian faith in the triune God.

If Christians fill their minds with such content it is not hard to see what the results will be:

– a lack of prayer

– anxiety

– fear

– a loss of transcendence;

– obsession over human agency in the world

– a loss of hope

– anger (as with Sarah Dunant)

– an over-reliance on politics to fix the world

– a shrivelled sense of worship.

Perhaps it’s time to detox and use the body in better ways and fill the mind with better things.

Character and Virtue in Theological Education (1)

Marvin Oxenham, Character and Virtue in Theological Education: An Academic Epistolary Novel (Carlisle: Langham, 2019)

“It is AD 2019, and theological education is suffering from Philistine domination. As we face the giants that occupy the land of contemporary education, we often feel outnumbered, forced into conformity and unable to fully deploy our own weapons. We struggle under the predominance of critical thinking, the supremacy of measurement paradigms, the captivity of secular accreditation, the pressures of efficiency, the prioritization of academics, the demands of professional competences and the strains of achievement and ranking. In all this, we strive to keep alive that which is at our heart: the holistic formation of kingdom humans. This book argues that it is time to arm our slings with the stones of virtue and character and reclaim portions of lost territory that are rightfully ours. It is time to revise our tactics and revisit our calling. It is time to inaugurate a new season of flourishing for the church and society as we recover the central place of character and virtue in global theological education.” (xv)

So begins Marvin Oxenham’s creative, scholarly and passionate argument for a reimagining and a restructuring of theological education. I’m going to engage with this book here in the next while.

Anyone who works in this area will recognise the reality of his opening words. There is a tension that we wrestle with in theological education. Let’s call that tension SIDE A and SIDE B.

SIDE A

Quality theological education is powerful and life-changing. In fact, I think there is little to rival it in terms of its capacity to enable profound personal change and spiritual growth. Again and again I have seen students’ lives transformed during their studies: in their love of God; in being captivated by the beauty and richness of Scripture and the story that it tells; in their ability to understand themselves and the world in which they live; in developing ability to think critically about church, ministry and mission – and therefore act to renew and develop praxis on the ground; and in being challenged personally in terms of character – to think, act and speak in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ in all of life. The real dynamic for such transformation comes as learning through teaching and personal study is integrated within a life of service in a local Christian community. Learning happens most powerfully in relationship with, and service of, others.

SIDE B

Refers more to Oxenham’s challenges. Very broadly speaking, third-level secular university education in the West has detached learning and knowledge from character and virtue. For many, the university has no place, and no right, to be telling students what to believe or how to act. They are treated like rational, individual consumers of information. While they are required to show that they know information (exams, qualifications) that knowledge has pretty well nothing to do with how they live their lives. For one to intrude on the other is, for many, a gross violation of personal freedom.  And so much third-level education is narrowed in the way Oxenham describes – the priority of academics, grades, mastery of information, the competition for results, education as a tool for economic advancement and employability.

Christian theological colleges offering university level qualifications live in this tension between SIDE A and SIDE B.

SIDE B skills are valuable for a lifetime: skills of study, researching information, excellence in writing, developing an ability to think clearly and express yourself; an ability to assess arguments and come to your own conclusions and so on. Especially in Christian ministry, knowing how to interpret and handle the Scriptures, while humbly being open to learn from theologians and biblical scholars, is an essential preventative against destructive or superficial teaching shaped more by someone’s prejudices and personality than by the Word of God.

But no Christian education worth its salt should allow SIDE B to overwhelm SIDE A.

Where I work (Irish Bible Institute) we constantly wrestle with the multiple challenges Oxenham describes, while striving to keep central the overall purpose of authentically Christian theological education which he so well summarises – ‘the holistic formation of kingdom humans’.

In our 2018 revalidation of undergraduate and postgraduate courses, we worked hard as a team to integrate ‘head’ (cognitive skills, knowledge) ‘heart’ (character, self-awareness) and ‘hands’ (practical skills, being a reflective practitioner) into every level of every module.

However, we are far from resolving this tension – it is an ongoing process within all Christian education. And this is why I have so enjoyed diving into Marvin Oxenham’s book. It is a cry from the heart for the restoration of character and virtue to the centre of the theological enterprise. Aristotle plays a central role as you might expect.

He makes his case through a series of fictional ‘letters’ between a Christian educator in the West and his friend and peer in the Majority World who is working to re-imagine and re-start a theological college in his context in which virtue and character are at the heart of the whole enterprise.

What would such a college look like? That will emerge as we engage with the book.

Love and the Mission of the Church

Last Saturday I was invited by the Omagh Presbytery (Presbyterian Church in Ireland) to be the keynote speaker at their annual elders’ conference.

My title was ‘Love and the Mission of the Church’ and breakout sessions discussed implications personally, among elder teams, for local churches and loving neighbours. Rev Terry Laverty also spoke on Romans 5:5.

Thanks to Rev David Cupples and First Omagh for their hospitality. It was a really encouraging day with about 100 elders there.

Here are the headings I used as a framework which give a flavour of the day.

THESIS 1: LOVE IS A RELENTLESS COMMITMENT TO OTHERS’ WELL BEING

Covenant love. Friendship love.

THESIS 2: ‘GOD IS LOVE’ HAS BECOME ‘LOVE IS GOD’

Love as the religion of our Western age

THESIS 3: OUR CULTURE INCREASINGLY SEES CHRISTIANITY AS OPPOSED TO LOVE

Both ‘internally’ (divided churches) and ‘externally’ (judgmentalism, exclusion, intolerance) Christianity is seen as antithetical to love

THESIS 4: LOVE IS ESSENTIAL FOR THE AUTHENTICITY OF THE CHURCH IN A POST-CHRISTENDOM CULTURE

No room, or reason, for self-pity, a persecution complex, naively thinking that ‘success’ in mission will come from getting externals right. Not our job to try to ‘win back’ the culture. The calling of the church is first and foremost to authenticity

THESIS 5: WE ARE FIRST AND FOREMOST LOVERS

We worship what we love (J K A Smith following Augustine).

THESIS 6: THE LOVE OF GOD IS THE CORE STRAND OF THE BIBLE (around which the next two strands are entwined)

OT to NT – divine love shown without partiality, without merit, with a relentless commitment to his people. Culminating in Gods’ ‘great love’ in Jesus Christ (Eph 2:4)

THESIS 7: HUMAN LOVE FOR GOD IS COSTLY AND TRANSFORMATIVE

OT to NT, God’s people are love as they have been loved. A community of love and justice; thankfulness, obedience, worship and joy, experiencing the love of God in the Spirit (Rom 5:5). Wholehearted love for God, whatever the cost.

THESIS 8: LOVE IN COMMUNITY IS GOD’S ULTIMATE AGENDA FOR HIS PEOPLE

Love is not a nice by-product of the gospel, love is the whole point.

‘The only thing that counts is faith working through love’

Galatians 5:6

Love for one another. Love for neighbour – who is an enemy. Forgiveness of those who have sinned against us. Love as God’s weapon in his cosmic war with sin, death and evil. Love as a foretaste of the future kingdome come in the present.

Love as imitation of Jesus:

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Eph 5:1-2

On Leadership

The January 2020 edition of VOX is out. As usual the team of Ruth Garvey-Williams, Jonny Lindsay and others have done an excellent job.

There is a range of articles on leadership, mission, homelessness (see http://www.irishchurches.org/homeless for small groups study resources), restfulness, music, winter and personal stories. If you are in a church in Ireland that does not receive VOX why not get in touch with them and help widen the circulation.

Irish Bible Institute is one of VOX’s partners and it’s a privilege to be involved personally. My ‘Musings’ column is on leadership in the New Testament and I’ve clipped it in below.

On Leadership

I feel ambivalent about the word ‘leadership’. I’ve been involved in leadership for a long time in Christian organisations and in church. I’m no expert, have made plenty of mistakes and am continuously wrestling with the unique character of Christian leadership. Unlike any other form of leadership, Christian leadership is shaped by life in the kingdom of God.

Modern Leadership

In our culture the word ‘leadership’ often carries with it images of a courageous individual forging a path for others to follow. Leaders discern priorities and set vision for the direction an organisation should go. They decide how it is going to get there and so the ability to evaluate, plan and make things happen is seen as intrinsic. This understanding of leadership requires the leader to be a particular type of person: a charismatic personality; a skilled manager who can co-ordinate resources and people to achieve strategic objectives; a creative communicator; and decisiveness in determining the way forward.

In other words, this sort of ‘take-charge’ leadership is all about exceptional people who have superior ability to achieve organisational goals. Such leaders are given significant power and are trusted to use it for the benefit of the business.

The trouble is that pretty well none of this describes leadership in the New Testament. My ambivalence comes from the feeling that much Christian leadership practice is shaped more by modern leadership’s preoccupation with the unique individual getting results than it is by the Bible.

What Christian Leadership Is Not

Jesus warns against leadership within the kingdom of God aping the Gentile world’s leaders who use their power and status to ‘lord it’ over others (Mark 10:42-43). Instead he deliberately inverts any hierarchy of importance, ‘the greatest among you should be like the youngest’ (who had least status, Luke 22:26). While Paul has plenty to say about leadership, he is also deeply counter-cultural and fully in line with Jesus. It’s remarkable how Paul consistently does not address leaders of the churches to which he writes, even when the church has serious problems. Rather he talks to the whole community, teaching them to act with one mind together as disciples of the Lord (e.g. Romans, Corinthians, Philippians, Ephesians, Galatians, Colossians). In these churches Paul never tells church members to fall in behind the vision of their leaders nor does he ever exhort leaders to take charge and sort things out. In fact, like Jesus, he deliberately rejects controlling leadership, valuing significant achievements of individuals or trusting in the power of a magnetic personality (1 Cor. 1:18- 2:5).

What Christian Leadership Is

It is surprising just how little detail the New Testament has in relation to what leaders actually do. They are to be able to teach (2 Timothy 2:24-25) and provide oversight (1 Peter 5:2; Hebrews 13:17). Most detail comes in Ephesians and even there the emphasis is not on any natural talent of the leader but on Christ’s gifting of specific people to ‘prepare God’s people for works of service’ in order to build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16).

Rather than modern leadership’s obsession with the unique ability of an outstanding individual to get things done, the New Testament is far more concerned about who leaders are as examples of mature Christian character (Hebrews 13:7; 1 Peter 5:3) living out kingdom-life in their homes, work and community. They are to be trusted, composed, hospitable, gentle, free from greed and ambition (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1).

There is nothing unique about Christian leaders – they are simply to display kingdom qualities. Paul commands all believers to ‘submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ (Ephesians 5:21). His overriding concern in his letters is that believers unite as one in Christ under his lordship – it is Jesus they follow not their leaders. Every Christian is first and foremost a follower – and that includes leaders. The New Testament authors are of one voice – there are no levels of superiority and status within the body of Christ. [And all of this means that there is absolutely no logical reason why leadership should be gender-specific. Women, just as much as men, are called to display exactly the same kingdom characteristics].

What does ‘Success’ in Christian Leadership Look Like?

Such leadership is simply unparalleled in the world. Rather than ‘success’ being measured by achievements such as the size of our churches or whatever other quantitative metric we use to measure ‘progress’, the job of Christian leaders is to use their God-given gifts to help the church to grow and ‘build itself up in love as each part does its work’ (Ephesians 4:16). Love is the church’s most fundamental purpose and calling and is therefore what Christian leadership is all about.

That’s a vision of Christian leadership I’m not ambivalent about!

Eschatology and Advent (11): is Christianity a delusion?

As Advent comes to a close, this is the final post in our series. Here’s a fundamental question that we are left with:

Is history moving towards an ‘end’? And to be more specifically Christian, is that end a good one in which God renews and restores this broken world?

OR

Are such hopes human delusions? History just keeps grinding away. There have been and are any number of utopian dreams, both religious and secular, that imagine history is about to end and a dramatic transformation is about to occur.

The political philosopher John Gray was on BBC Radio 4 ‘Point of View’ this week arguing the second option. The title of his talk was ‘The Recurrent Dream of an End Time’.

‘Human beings dread the prospect that the world they know is coming to an end, while at the same time they long for a world different from any that has ever existed.’

He gives various examples of a ‘millennarian mindset’ – particulaly political ones – in which hopes of a dramatic and imminent transformation of the world is about to dawn.

Failed Dreams

CHRISTIAN MILLENNARIAN MOVEMENTS – there have been many throughout history

FRENCH REVOLUTION – a new world order of reason – that descended into chaos and bloodshed

COMMUNISM: Russian and Chinese (Mao). Gray could have included Pol Pot in Cambodia setting the clock back to year zero. They also ended in bloodshed, genocide and disillusion.

LIBERAL OPTIMISM: the dream that ‘history had ended’ with the spread of liberal values (Francis Fukayama in the 1990s. It wasn’t convincing then, its seems even more foolish now).

ALIENS: (no, not the movies). Think H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds’ and movements since that imagine imminent catastrophe or new beginnings.

EXTINCTION REBELLION. The world as we know it is about to ‘end’

SILICON VALLEY. The dreams of tech executives that an ‘Omega Point’ in human history is about to arrive where we can develop a new sort of humanity, coupled with AI, to create a new age of transhuman immortality.

“The belief that the end of history is imminent is always near”

Can We Face the Truth?

The reason, Gray suggests, is that if history is linear it is going somewhere. There is a story to the world, to our lives, and the fact that we can have a part to play in participating in that future gives hope.

The human animal, cannot bear to think that its existence has no wider story. It denies the reality that our lives, and our civilisation, will start and end, to be succeeded in time by others.

It is this delusion that Gray rejects. All dreams of a golden new age will perish. There is no escape from everlasting recurrence. History is not going anywhere.

The question is, he asks, is whether we can overcome our obsession with hope of a better age to come, or will we be like the hapless characters in Samuel Beckett’s piece ‘For to end, yet again’ who are always waiting for an ending that never arrives?

If Christ is not raised

Gray is always refreshing to listen to. He sees how much politics, technology and religion overlap in how they represent ways to think about our place in the world. Nothing is ‘value free’ or ‘story free’. He’s especially astute in describing the optimism of so much secular liberalism – that it is somehow ‘beyond’ the outdated and regressive beliefs of religion(s).

So I’m with him. Human dreams of a new age about to dawn are just those – dreams. We do not hold the future of the world in our hands. In fact, we are horribly brilliant at making a violent and unjust mess of this world.

And this brings us right back to advent and apocalyptic theology. The Christian faith is either true or it isn’t.

Either God has been active in and through human history (the story of Israel) or he hasn’t.

Either God has apocalyptically invaded that human history in the ‘once and future coming of Jesus Christ’ (to quote the strapline of Fleming Rutledge’s book) or he hasn’t.

Either history is pitiless endless recurrence (Gray) or it is unfolding in God’s eschatogical time towards the parousia of Jesus, final judgment, resurrection of the dead and new creation in which all things will be finally be put right.

In the Bible, Paul sees this ‘either / or’ of God’s eschatological future or human delusion just as clearly as Gray does.

While he was not writing apologetically trying to ‘defend’ the truth of the gospel (his main concern is to affirm the resurrection to come), in 1 Corinthians 15:14-19 he imagines the world if Jesus Christ was just another man who lived and died.

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

So am I – and you if you are a Christian – a ‘hapless’ figure waiting for an ending that will never come? Well, it all depends if the new age has already begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ or not.

Eschatology and Advent (10) Fleming Rutledge on the good news of judgment

If you are a Christian, what are you waiting for?

Or, in other words, what is the content of Christian hope?

This is an advent question since the Christian faith is lived out in the overlap of the ages, awaiting the return of the King.

To make the question more specific, how is God’s judgment hopeful?

In her book of (mostly) sermons related to Advent preached over decades, Fleming Rutledge addresses this question from various angles.

One angle is how divine judgment is good news.

I’m referring mostly here to material from two sermons within a section of the book on ‘Justice and Final Judgment’. The sermons are ‘Loving the Dreadful Day of Judgment‘ and ‘The Great But

Some key points she makes include (and this sort of summary does not attempt to capture the flow of a sermon which is dialogical, the text of a spoken address)

1. The judgment of God as good and necessary

‘Judgmental’ is a relatively new word, not appearing in the OED until the 20th century. Today, to be ‘judgmental’ is socially unacceptable and a perjorative description of an intolerant person.

Rutledge comments that in the past judgment was a process of discernment leading to wisdom in assessing the value or truth of something.

The real theological problem here is that we have lost sight of the fact that an act of judgment may very well be an act of liberation (180)

… The coming of the Lord will be accompanied by the final judgment over all things – over the waste we have made of God’s creation by wars and greed and rapacity and cruelty and self-aggrandizement at the expense of the poor and needy whom God loves (180-81)

(My comments) We don’t have to look far back into 2019 to know what she is talking about.

If we struggle with the idea of judgment, we need to look into the heart of darkness – not to ignore those raped, abused, trafficked, used and discarded; not to close our eyes to injustice and exploitation, to those that deal in arms at the expense of millions globally. God will judge the destruction of his good creation and those he loves.

And as we look upon this broken world – our hearts should cry out for the justice of God to be done.

  1. Syria: 13.1 million people needing humanitarian aid. 6.7 displaced. 350,000 or so dead.
  2. Yemen Civil War. 22 million displaced. 230,000 dead. 380,000 cholera. 1.8 million children suffering malnutrition
  3. Royhinga ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar military: 750,000 fled. Rape and murder, systematic destruction of a people with no place to call home.

It is these sorts of evils we need to look at in the face, especially if

we are unable to live with the thought of the judgment of God because we don’t want to allow it into our tidy concept of God as loving, forgiving, and accepting (175)

… in such circumstance, we can understand that the judgment of God upon all evil is good, right, and necessary, A culture of impunity is nothing less than hell. (175)

2. God will save us from judgment but he will not save us without judgment

But, if we are honest with ourselves for a minute, we know that we cannot stand before God’s judgment either. It’s too easy to see the manifest wrong others do and either naively or self-righteously exempt ourselves.

This is the ‘BUT’ Rutledge refers to. How are we going to survive such judgment? She refers to this Advent text from Isaiah 57:15-19

For this is what the high and exalted One says –
he who lives for ever, whose name is holy …

I will not accuse them for ever,
nor will I always be angry …
I was enraged by their sinful greed;
I punished them, and hid my face in anger,
yet they kept on in their wilful ways.
I have seen their ways, but I will heal them; I will guide them and restore comfort ..

‘But I will heal them’ is the only source of hope for God’s people.

Hear also this advent text from 1 Thessalonians 5:2-5

for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety’, destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.

Judgement will come – but those in Christ are children not of darkness but of light. They have no fear of God’s final judgment because judgment has already been passed in Christ.

This is the reason for Christian hope – the saving love and compassion of God.

GOD WILL SAVE US FROM JUDGMENT, BUT HE WILL NOT SAVE US WITHOUT JUDGMENT (182)

3. Personal Judgment

And such judgment is more than a ‘not-guilty’ verdict. It is transformative. The Christian gospel is anything but naive about human nature. It is not as if Christians are somehow morally superior people who have ‘done good things and will therefore be rewarded’ (181)

Even our best efforts are like dirty rags (Isaiah 64:6). We need the judgment of God.

Rutledge is refreshingly honest here. There are not many leaders / preachers who speak as she does of a growing weariness of personality traits with which she (and therefore others) have struggled, even though she has worked hard at overcoming them. She looks forward to God’s refining and purifying judgment when all that is sinful and twisted will be ‘judged and gone forever’.

We rejoice to know that it is the Lord himself who will come to be our Judge. (184)

This reminds me of Eugene Peterson who said something along the lines that the gospel brings us to the end of ourselves. Self-obsession is a dead-end, it is in losing our lives that we find them; it is in repentance and humility that we come into the presence of God.

These themes are not popular today which is why Rutledge’s writing on Advent, and her book on the cross, are so important.

Do you think of the judgment of God as ‘good and necessary’? What causes you to cry out for justice to be done?

Do we have space in our ‘tidy’ theology of a loving God for a God who is also a fearsome judge?

What is it about your own life and character that you look forward to having purified and transformed by the judgment of God?