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A Dangerous Business

27/02/2015

Here’s the text of an article I wrote on the ‘Dangerous Business’ of theological education, published in the latest Irish Bible Institute newsletter. One of the most encouraging things for me in re-reading this is how it ties in with what students actually said themselves about the transforming power of theological education. In other words, the three themes talked about below are actually happening; it isn’t just theory or nice ideas or empty words.

Feel welcome to contribute to a discussion on these. If you have studied at a theological college, what sort of experience did you have? Are you put off going to a Bible College for some reason (other than time and money)? How well can the sort of things described below happen outside a college setting in a local church? Would you list different priorities of what theological training is all about?

A DANGEROUS BUSINESS

January 2015 marked 20 years that I’ve been involved in theological education. So this is a good time to reflect! What difference does Bible College actually make in the lives of students? Let me share three themes that I hope and work and pray to see develop in the lives of students who come to IBI.

  1. Learn more about God’s redemptive story and your place within it

The ultimate source of Christian theology is the Bible. Therefore the Bible is (or should be) central to all Christian ministry and all theological education. So far, so obvious – I teach at a Bible Institute after all. But what do we mean when we say the Bible is central to Christian training?

When I started out teaching, I assumed that the ‘right’ way to introduce students to the highpoints of Christian theology was in systematic categories. Isn’t that what most evangelical statements of faith do? – a series of bullet point summaries of what is believed about God, Scripture, Man, Jesus, Spirit, the future and so on. But after trying this for a while I (and I think the students) felt increasingly something was missing.

Now of course this might just have been the teaching (!) but it felt too much like a series of disconnected topics. It also felt too much like the purpose of the exercise was primarily to ‘know’ the ‘right’ information and so the content became too much about ‘us’ – defining ‘our’ theology. The biggest problem was that there did not seem to be much connection to mission and discipleship – the heart of the Christian life.

I’d better throw in two clarifications here. I believe in the importance of right doctrine and the supreme authority of Scripture. But over time I’ve come to love and appreciate the Bible more and more as one great all-embracing narrative with Jesus Christ at the centre of the story. And the purpose of that story is not given to us just as interesting information, but for personal and corporate transformation.

The Bible tells the (true) story of universal history. Its opening chapter begins with creation and its closing chapter ends with new creation. In between, we are given the story of Israel which, after many twists and turns, culminates in the promised saviour. Jesus is the ‘shocking’ Messiah no-one expects: a crucified man who is also creator, judge and resurrected Lord of both Jews and Gentiles, before whom every knee will bow (Phil 2:10).

Too often we reduce this story down to Jesus as my personal saviour. While this is true for every believer, on its own it individualises the gospel and narrows the Bible story to be ‘all about me’. This is why I have re-shaped my teaching to a more narrative shape. This changes how we ‘do’ theology profoundly. It is the Bible asking questions of us. It puts us and our narrow concerns off centre and in their proper place within the flow of God’s work in the world, and taking our (small) place within the story of God’s people (more of that in a moment).

The more you read the Bible this way, the more all the great doctrines of the Christian faith – such as justification by faith, sin and salvation, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the mission of the church, the future hope – make sense. I want students to ‘get’ the biblical storyline, and how the myriad of sub-plots fit within the redemptive mission of the triune God. This draws them in afresh to that story and their place of serving the Lord within the story of their own lives. And that’s one of the most satisfying and exciting things to see happen in someone’s life.

  1. See your whole life as a calling to participate in God’s mission within God’s people

But there is more to biblical theology than even this. It’s also exciting to see students ‘get’ how intimately the gospel is connected to God’s choice of a people to bear his name. In other words, understanding the Bible as a narrative connects individual faith with the mission of the church.

This goes against the grain of our individualised, consumerist, Western culture where, even for Christians, church becomes an ‘optional extra’ to ‘my’ faith. But the Bible will have none of this. The identity and mission of each individual Christian is to be worked out within the role given to the church within the mission of God. It is an incredible privilege and high calling to be invited by God’s grace to join in with others in his redemptive work in the world! How many job offers like that do you get in a lifetime?

This leads to how good theological training is taught and lived out with others in a local church community. A goal of going to Bible College is therefore far more than mere academic progress; it should help to equip and train students to preach, teach, do pastoral care, evangelism, lead, listen, and model a life of service to Jesus alongside other brothers and sisters within the family of God, wherever exactly God has placed them (Eph. 4:11-13).

  1. Being transformed by the Spirit to love God, love others

A third theme is how God’s primary agenda for students, and for every Christian, is personal transformation into the likeness (image) of his Son (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor.3:18). As Jesus both taught and demonstrated, love is both the motive and the practical form of a truly Christian life. Love is the primary result of the Spirit’s transforming presence. It is love alone which is eternal (1 Cor. 13:13) and without love all Christian ministry is a waste of time (1 Cor. 13:1-3). Love is most supremely demonstrated at the cross of Christ and gives shape to all Christian ministry (1 Cor. 9): it is not about the self – our own agendas and ambitions and achievements, but about loving and serving others for whom Christ died (1 Cor. 8:11). And for many Christians globally, sacrificial love leads to suffering.

So it has become clearer and clearer to me over the last 20 years that love is the first and most essential ‘mark’ of authentic Christian ministry. It is why ‘character’ or ‘Christian maturity’ is in Scripture the primary ‘qualification’ for any ministry. This is why the relational track record of someone in life and ministry is of primary importance, not just a footnote at the bottom of their CV. Therefore any form of theological education that does not place a high importance on Christian character is failing to do its job.

Conclusion

Understanding the Bible; knowing your true identity and calling; joining with others in serving the risen Lord; participating in God’s mission to redeem this broken world whatever the cost; being transformed, head, heart and hands, to love God and love others – this is what going to Bible College is all about. It’s a dangerous business – might God be daring you to give it a try?

Patrick Mitchel

Musings on sex, capitalism and the same-sex marriage referendum

24/02/2015

Ireland will vote on same-sex marriage in a referendum in May.

I’ve been re-reading Daniel Bell’s excellent The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Baker Academic, 2012).

What have these two rather random things to do with each other? Well, while Bell’s analysis of capitalism isn’t focused on sex, reading him with the upcoming referendum in mind opens up what I think is an often overlooked angle on how we think about sex and sexuality. Namely: how deeply and profoundly contemporary our attitudes are shaped by the beliefs and values of free-market capitalism.

Some of these unacknowledged assumptions are rising to the surface in the same-sex marriage debate. Assumptions shaped by the ubiquitous, pervasive and ‘normalised’ nature of capitalism in our culture. Since it’s the air we breathe, we don’t notice it. It’s such a natural and assumed part of everyday life that it just ‘is’.

The purpose of this post is to suggest, and invite discussion on the idea, that the culture in which we live is deeply shaped by a capitalist and consumerist view of human relationships. More specifically, it is to suggest that the reason that the same-sex argument for equality of treatment of gay couples with heterosexual couples is so ‘obvious’ and powerful (and unstoppable) is because if fits perfectly into the assumptions and beliefs of contemporary capitalism.

Just to be clear – this post is making no comment at all on the rights and wrongs of same-sex marriage. That’s another topic entirely. These are musings on why the same-sex marriage argument is going to win the referendum.

Nor am I proposing that it is ‘only’ proponents of same-sex marriage (or sexual equality and freedom in general) who are shaped by the beliefs, assumptions and values of capitalism and consumerism – just take a look at the disintegration of traditional marriage in Irish and many western societies (and Christians are far from exempt).

So, to Daniel Bell. He sketches various characteristics of what he calls ‘HOMO ECONOMICUS’: an anthropology shaped and moulded by capitalism. I’m loosely linking to just some of his ideas.

  1. The Individual

The freedom of the individual will benefit society. Limits on the expression of individualism will harm society in terms of freedom and prosperity. Individual autonomy comes before any form of collectivist control (state or religious).

This means that there is little expectation or vision for what society ought to be. Indeed, there is no ‘ought’ in capitalism apart from the market being free.

In terms of human identity, each one of us becomes our ‘own’ manager: creators of our own ‘brand’. We alone are owners of ourselves: our bodies; our possessions; our lives. We are free to dispose of and do with them as we wish. No-one has a right to tell us otherwise.

At the top of O’Connell St in Dublin you can go the monument to Charles Stewart Parnell. At its base there is a quote from him saying this

No man has a right to fix a boundary to the march of a nation

In his day, nationalism was the unquestioned good shaping the direction of Ireland. Today, we could paraphrase Parnell to say

No man or woman (or anyone on the gender spectrum in between the two) has a right to fix a boundary to the onward march of the individual.

To question unfettered individualism is a very modern heresy.

Links to current debates about sex and sexuality are not hard to see. The 1937 Irish Constitution was written in a different world: a culture where the individual’s rights were circumscribed by family, faith and nation. Some arguments opposing same-sex marriage are functioning from (or wishing we could go back to) that framework. Some argue that the big issue is what form of marriage is best for children. But such is the unquestioned good of individualism within capitalism such arguments will gain little or no traction.

For it’s the unfettered imagination, creativity and entrepreneurial power of the free individual that drives capitalism. In terms of sexual identity the individual must be allowed and encouraged to pursue his or her own authentic identity – whatever form it takes: bisexual, lesbian, gay, transgender or queer or ….

  1. Freedom for freedom’s sake

It’s important to understand capitalist freedom. It is freedom for freedom’s sake. What matters is that the individual is free to choose. What the individual chooses is virtually irrelevant because capitalism has no logical internal ethic or moral core. It has no teleology – no ultimate goal or end result in sight. It is freedom from restriction of choice rather than freedom for something in particular.

So, when capitalist freedom is applied to sexual ethics, it is obvious that the individual should have a right to choose whatever sexual identity and practice they wish. Human dignity derives from the individual’s right to choose. To deny such freedom is to deny human dignity and identity. Free choice is a virtue to be defended.

Opponents of same-sex marriage (and various other restrictions on freedom of sexual expression) are therefore not defenders of morality but deniers of virtue.

  1. Self Interest

Bell uses the term ‘interest maximizer’ but this really means self-interest. Let me clarify here – I’m not proposing that somehow all proponents of sexual freedom for the individual are motivated by selfishness. Self-interest is not the same as selfishness. It is self-interest that is a vital factor that drives the success of capitalism.

For example, Adam Smith saw human life as being shaped by self-interest and this to him was a very good thing. It is the way the world works. Self interest drives the market: it is a powerful source of reform, renewal, market efficiency, creativity and liberty.

Apply capitalist thinking to sexual ethics and you end up with no particular moral or ethical boundaries to sexual relationships. If two (or more – there is no logical boundary to formalising polyamorous relationships) people enter into freely chosen behaviours that are in their mutual self-interest, this is what the market allows and should not be restricted but rather facilitated.

Therefore, those that would put boundaries on the individual right to pursue their own self-interest are seeking to control freely chosen acts of autonomous individuals and should be resisted.

  1. An invisible God

A final characteristic of capitalism is the irrelevance of God and / or religious belief. The ‘god’ of the free market is invisible and impersonal; a hand of providence that ensures that the individual pursuit of self-interest ends up (supposedly) benefitting the whole. The system does not need God, or any form of particularly Christian ethics to function. It believes that most good is done when most individuals pursue maximal gain.

Again, apply this to modern debates about sexual ethics and it becomes apparent that this sort of capitalist thinking well describes the zeitgeist. Religious beliefs should be kept invisible; they have no place in the public square. They are actually a hindrance to the wider good. Most good is done when most individuals have the free choice to live as they please. No particular ethical or moral framework should be allowed to dictate to free individuals. God, if he exists, is in the far background out of sight and mind.

Individualism

Freedom

The virtue of self-interest

 An invisible God (no particular moral or ethical framework)

These are powerful forces in western contemporary culture that when combined provide a formidable cultural wave that will wash opposition in Ireland to same-sex marriage aside.

What do you think? How does this description make you feel?

If capitalism reinforces and affirms individual freedom and sexual identity above all, what are the implications for Christians living in such a culture?

Do you agree that much conservative and Christian opposition to liberalising law around sexual ethics tends to concentrate on the symptoms and not the cause? In other words, conservative and Christian opposition to same-sex marriage tends to ignore how capitalism has reformed and deformed human relationships. Neither does it tend to be self-critical of how Christian practice of marriage and sexuality has also been debased by capitalist consumerism.  This is because capitalism is either seen as a good thing or it is such a ‘natural’ everyday presence that it is not even noticed.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The unique contribution of theological education?

16/02/2015

This post is prompted by a day of oral presentations recently given by final year students at the Irish Bible Institute reflecting critically on their own learning journey during their studies.

It was a fascinating day. There were no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers for which students would get better grades (including being complimentary or not about the staff and teaching at IBI). The focus was on the process of critical reflection itself.

Obviously I can’t name names or get into detailed specifics , but the presentations highlighted for me the distinctive and powerful contribution of formal theological education in preparing and better equipping men and women for the demands of Christian ministry.

Bible studyI’m aware that some may disagree, but I think that the focused scope and content of many things the students talked about just would not happen in any structured way in the messiness of daily life and/or in church ministry.

Nor will it happen in the same way within an ‘in-house’ church discipleship programme.

And this is why I’m convinced that giving dedicated time to theological education is a powerful and transformative process that remains virtually indispensable for those that would lead and minister.

Please note that I’m not saying that such things can only occur at a Bible Institute / College / or Seminary. In each point listed below, I have used words like ‘greater’ or ‘increased’. Theological education builds on what is already there in the life of a Christian.

But I am suggesting, from experience, that time at such a place is powerfully transformative in a way that almost impossible to replicate elsewhere. Student after student said it was a life-changing experience.

These are the sort of things (in no particular order) that students identified as happening within their own experience of theological education and training:

  • The value of formal constructive criticism – in academic work, in personal accountability and so on. The value of having a mentor.
  • Greater clarity of the need to train and disciple others and the skills to do so
  • Deeper awareness of one’s own learning style and taking appropriate steps in response
  • How to handle the Bible better: skills in biblical exegesis and appropriate application
  • Training in pastoral care: practical skills, theological framework and the importance of knowing your limits
  • Deeper self-awareness of one’s own theological assumptions, biases and prejudices;- this particularly highlights the value of diversity within theological training. Such diversity will tend to be flattened out where all teachers and students are from one tradition.
  • A stronger foundation for Christian faith: one that has been explored, questioned and examined critically in dialogue with various alternative voices
  • The importance of dependence on God and on others rather than independence: the power of a diverse community of learners.
  • Improved self-esteem coming out of a stronger theological understanding of being made in the image of God
  • A holistic (rather than a previously dualistic) understanding of life and ministry. All of life and work is ‘holy’ and Jesus is Lord of all.
  • Improved skills of communication; oral and written. Like any skill, practice leads to improvement.
  • A deeper ability to integrate theology with everyday life: not easy or automatic, but a call to faith and trust in the goodness and providence of God in the face of suffering and fear
  • A clearer sense of the primacy and importance of love within all Christian ministry
  • An enhanced understanding of the context and challenge of Christian mission within a post-Christendom culture: earthed and worked out in discussions with interviewees.
  • A clearer understanding of self-identity within the greater mission of God. Salvation is not just ‘all about me’ but how I can love God, serve others and shape my life around the mission of God.
  • Increased humility (I know how little I know) and less dogmatic: and therefore more compassion for others
  • More able to teach; less focused on narrow ‘what does this mean to me?’ interpretation but on wider context and theology of the text.
  • A greater understanding of the place and importance of the church within the redemptive plan of God
  • An increased appreciation of the whole Bible and the importance of the OT for contemporary life and ethics.
  • More awareness of the importance of listening: to other points of view; to non-believers; to the wider culture – and a sharper sense of the alternative story of the Christian faith.
  • A deeper faith that is concerned about much more than personal happiness, but can face suffering, persecution and rejection.
  • A sharper awareness of personal and corporate (church) failure and sin – and the need for grace, compassion and good news in everyday Christian life and ministry
  • A clearer sense of personal gifting and calling to specific areas of ministry emerging out of critical reflection, mentoring and constructive criticism
  • A more positive and holistic view of life in general and an ability to enjoy the good things of God’s creation with gratitude and thanks
  • A greater sense of urgency in mission
  • A committment to every member ministry in light of the gifting of the Spirit to all believers
  • A sharper awareness that Christianity, and the Bible, is centered on Jesus with all sorts of implications for discipleship, teaching, evangelism, preaching and so on.

Hearing these sorts of things was very encouraging.

I’d be interested in your opinions on this list – anything strike you in particular?

Do you think that formal theological education does have a unique contribution to make to the church? If so, what is it? If not, why not?

 

 

In honour of Greece

12/02/2015

David McWilliams is by far the most entertaining and creative economist in Ireland today. “Not much competition” I hear you mutter. Perhaps. It’s true that those adjectives are not normally associated with the ‘dismal science’. But McWilliams has a wonderful gift for making economics both understandable and, more importantly, human.

That’s because he’s a great story teller and his post of a couple of days ago is one of his best. Germans, Greeks, Bob Marley, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Jubilee, Capitalism, Communism, Catholicism, morality and the future of Europe all appear.

He is, in my amateur opinion, absolutely right about Europe now being a Bankocracy. And a bankocracy, I suspect, will collapse sooner or later as the elite whom it best serves become more and more isolated from an alienated majority.

I wish the Greeks well in their bid to re-negotiate down their absurd, immoral and unpayable level of debt. I admire the people’s courage to call the bluff of European elite who are protecting reckless lenders from taking responsibility for the risks they took while ruthlessly punishing the entire Greek nation for the mistakes their own leaders, bankers and some of the people made in getting into such debt.

We visited Greece for the first time last summer. On an island, after a tough enough hike in the hot sun down to a secluded and beautiful beach, we gratefully found a little family-run tavern nearby. The owners treated us like family, bringing out a delicious supply of mama’s home-made creations to sample. Afterwards, the son offered to drive us back up the long and uphill road. We were so glad of the lift!

In the car he told he was a qualified architect, but like everyone his age group, he had absolutely no hope of any work. He had had to return to his parents little home to have a roof over his head and food to eat. It’s his ‘lost generation’ that I wish well. I hope that some sort of reason prevails that can give people like him some sort of hope about the future instead of endless economic contraction and imposed austerity.

Here are some photos in honour of a beautiful country with generous and welcoming people.

IMG_2909

Corinthian Canal

Corinth

Delphi

Delphi

Tholos in Delphi

Tholos in Delphi

Naxos

Naxos

Parthenon

Parthenon

Young Athlete 340-330BC

Young Athlete 340-330BC

Epidaurus

Epidaurus

IMG_3121

Nafplion

Entrance to Mycenae

Entrance to Mycenae

Stephen Fry and the disease of Life

07/02/2015

Stephen Fry is almost an honorary member of our family. It’s rather unlikely that he knows of his esteemed position, but he’s been an integral part of parenthood & childhood (via Harry Potter audio books) and, more lately a source of fun and education on QI, and in the rediscovery of classics like A Little Bit of Fry and Laurie and Blackadder. [Hugh Laurie is another honorary member].

Stephen Fry’s given us all much fun and joy, for which I am hugely grateful. We ain’t going to throw him out of the family just yet. You are welcome to dinner anytime Stephen!

Stephen FryIn his most recent interview yesterday he says he is glad that what he said has got people talking. And how.

I’ve had a browse of (an admittedly tiny) selection of Christian responses. Tiny because, as Stephen Fry says, this life is short and we’ve got to make the best of the time we’ve got ;) – and that probably doesn’t include hours reading people trading insults in the comments section of the Guardian (of more below).

One of the most gracious and moving was by someone called Chris Stead. His story of faith, hope and love in the midst of watching powerlessly the daily traumatic suffering of his daughter, gives the lie to superficial stereotypes of Christians blindly and unreflectively following a ‘stupid and capricious God’. Christians can and do rejoice at the utter goodness of God even in the midst of great suffering. Facing suffering with dignity and hope and strength is woven into the fabric of Christian faith. It is Christianity which has inspired countless millions to give their lives caring for others  – and to continue to fight injustice and to alleviate suffering often at great personal cost.

One of the most unpersuasive was by Canon Giles Fraser in the Guardian. He got an awful bashing in the comments section from atheists and others quite rightly rather vexed that his ‘defence’ of God led to the conclusion that

For God is the story of human dreams and fears. God is the shape we try to make of our lives. God is the name of the respect we owe the planet. God is the poetry of our lives.

I’m sorry but this is liberal twaddle at its worst. ‘God’ is exempt from the charge of being responsible for evil and suffering because … he doesn’t exist outside our imaginations. Well, that’s things solved then. God is ‘love’ in the abstract. To be honest I’m at a loss how someone who holds such a view can continue to work as a paid cleric in the Church of England. Would not the local humanist association be more fitting?

In a very good piece, Krish Kandiah, the newly appointed President of London School of Theology, highlights the parallels between Fry’s moral outrage and how C S Lewis moved from atheism to Christian belief. He also says this

At the heart of the Fry’s argument is the idea that the world that exists is as God intended it to be. He assumes that God deliberately created a universe with appalling undeserved suffering. But a central doctrine of the Christian faith is that God created a good and perfect world and after the fall of humanity nothing is fully as it should be. To blame God for natural disasters and childhood cancer is like blaming the landlord after tenants have trashed their house.

Closer to home, Aberdonian exile Kevin Hargaden at Creideamh, points out the irony in Stephen Fry’s moral outrage – from whence comes the morality? He also rightly argues we need to move beyond philosophical speculation to specifics of the Christian God incarnate in Jesus Christ. And when we do this we see that

There are many problematic things about Christianity. There are weak points where opponents can score points. Suffering isn’t one of them. The God that the Christians declare is one who revealed his divinity in momentous suffering … no human has ever been more human than when the Godman suffocated under his own weight. The new-atheists never try to kill that God. He’s already died. He sides with the suffering and the broken, the oppressed and the downtrodden.

I find myself saying “Yes … But” to both Krish and Kevin.

Yes Krish’s first three sentences are I think indisputably accurate description. But it’s the last line that isn’t fully convincing. The atheist sceptic will reply, “OK, even if I accept that man is directly responsible for the vast amount of suffering that goes on in the world, God is still ultimately responsible. He created the world in the first place and made this world of natural disasters, suffering and injustice possible.” In other words, while the Fall introduces death and sin and all the horrors that follow, including a twisting of creation itself, presumably God could have chosen not to create.

Yes, Kevin puts it so well: it is often in suffering that goodness and love and grace are poured out in profound ways. God is no deist; he is a God of utter love and compassion; he is on the side of the poor and oppressed; he has even entered our world of suffering and embraced death in Christ. The heart of God is revealed in the tears of Jesus at the death of his friend Lazarus. Jesus’ grave-side indignation is at the way death ruptures the way things should be. His raising of Lazarus foreshadows the resurrection to come when death will be done away with. But a focus on God’s response to evil and suffering, however loving and self-sacrificial, still does not answer the objection that an omnipotent God made this post-Fall world possible.

Put it another way. Forget for a moment Fry’s examples of eye-burrowing worms (which might not  actually exist apparently) or bone-cancer in children. These are emotive and awful diseases, but ultimately a distraction in the argument. The much bigger ‘complaint’ Stephen Fry really has is the ‘disease’ of Life itself.

While he says that life is to be celebrated, shared, enjoyed and lived to the full (Amen), it is a simple fact that the very possibility of life as we know it means the inevitability of death. For life is terminal, one way or another. We are fairly fragile carbon-based life forms which, sooner or later, start to malfunction and then die. And most of the time death involves suffering. Getting old, as my 90 year old father says, is ‘not for wimps’. So Fry is really blaming God for designing a world in which death and suffering were possible.

The irony in this whole discussion is that both Stephen Fry and Christians desire and want a world without suffering, pain or death – and both feel the desperate ‘wrongness’ of this broken world. Stephen Fry blames God for allowing this world to exist. Christians believe that this broken world was not God’s original design. Death and suffering are alien intruders who will one day be evicted.

It seems to me then, that there are two big background questions lurking behind this discussion:

Why creation at all?

Where does evil (that led to the Fall) come from?

And it is here I think Christians need to be upfront and say there aren’t easy answers. For, as far as I can tell, Scripture does not ask those sort of philosophical questions (the book of Job gets nearest).

As to why creation itself, we can suggest answers such as the creative glory of God, the wonder of the cross, the necessity of human free will, the context for faith, love and hope to flourish, the mysterious purposes of God that are [unsurprisingly beyond our knowledge since he is God and we are not] – but that’s as far as we can go.

And when it comes to the origin of evil, the Bible simply does not tell us how it came to be. It does say that Satan rebels and becomes the enemy of God, the ‘prince of this world’ and the author of evil. But this is not quite the same thing as saying how evil entered a good creation.

We can, however, insist on the certainty of three things that shape our thinking about God and suffering.

1. God is absolutely and utterly Good. As Kevin and Chris Stead highlight, this goodness is revealed in his response to suffering. It is revealed in his ultimate end game which is blessing. It is supremely seen in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2. God is God: omnipotent creator of all and Lord of history. He is not to be explained away in order to excuse him from the responsibility of being God (Giles Fraser)

3. Evil exists and is opposed to God. Despite what Stephen Fry asserts, God is not the author of sin, suffering, disease, injustice, and death. God stands against these things deeply and passionately than any human can imagine. He overcomes them at infinite personal cost. It is at the cross where God’s absolute goodness, omnipotence meet head on with the forces of evil and defeat them utterly (Col. 2:15). That decisive victory is what gives hope of a world without bone cancer or holocausts or even death itself.

So while Stephen Fry sees ‘God’ as ultimate bad news, Christians will insist that the gospel of God is the ultimate good news: good news about who God is, what he has done, what he is doing and what he will do.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Americans and American Exceptionalism

05/02/2015

For someone not naturally disciplined about watching TV, one of the best things we did a while back was to ditch the box altogether. Don’t really miss it. A benefit is that you have to choose to watch something online (free of ads). Quality of viewing up, waste of time down. And (for the moment) not paying a TV licence to subsidise RTE feels very nice indeed.

The-AmericansOne show I’ve got into is The Americans. It tells the story of an apparently all American couple (married, two kids, living in the suburbs) during the 1980s who are actually KGB spies. Recruited as young communist idealists, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) were sent to the West. Their idealism remains intact (hers is steelier than his). Their double lives are complicated by having to negotiate real jobs, teenagers who know nothing of their parents’ true identities, dangerous missions given to them by ‘the Centre’, as well as the conflicted messiness of their own ‘marriage’.

There is an authentic joylessness about their relationship and family life, flowing from the lie that hangs over the whole family. The children are part of their cover, and so there is a constant tension between the pull of protective parenthood and the reality that their children’s very existence was a utilitarian strategy to serve their greater goal.

Leaving aside the unbelievability of some of their missions, not to mention how they manage to combine an active espionage life (including numerous undercover missions and affairs with targets), two full-time jobs and parenthood without the kids being brought into state care for neglect – this is curiously compelling viewing.

In Reagan’s time Russia was the ‘evil empire’. It’s only now, in the moral complexity of the post-Cold War era that it is imaginable that a series about Russian spies, told from their perspective, could be made in the USA. The Americans humanises the enemy within, revealing their battles to maintain loyalty to their cause amidst the lure of the American dream and relational tension within this most un-American of families.

This is interesting for being robustly post-nationalist TV within a vigorously nationalist nation. While the Russian agents are necessarily ruthless, they are no more so than their American opponents. The politics of the FBI HQ are just as cut-throat as those of the Russian Embassy. This is a re-writing of American demonization of their old enemy and of the lionization of their own security forces. Here the battle is depicted without favour or stereotyping.

This parallelism is most explicit in the doomed relationship between the FBI agent hunting Elizabeth & Philip and Nina, a Russian Embassy worker locked into being a double (triple?) agent. Both appear as tragic figures, trapped between their duty to nation, feelings for each other and conflicted loyalties to others. The struggle of being human; of the relatively powerless individual navigating treacherous waters of love, sex and desire are pitted against bigger forces of national security and international politics.

I guess what I’m saying is that the modernist myth of American exceptionalism is missing from The Americans – and perhaps that is why it is so good.

I saw and experienced a little bit of communism in the late 1980s in Romania under Ceaucescu. It was destructive, dehumanising, dispiriting, corrupt and, yes I would use the word ‘evil’. Yet, while ‘40 years late’, The Americans reminds us of the common humanity in even our worst enemy and the value of trying to stand in their shoes.

Barth, Schweitzer and the weirdness of Christianity

03/02/2015

At particular times in the history of the church, ‘disturbers’ have emerged, protesting against the cultural captivity of the church. They have rightly seen that authentic Christianity should never be domesticated and made ‘safe’.

Maybe you can think of some ‘disturbers’. A couple that come to mind are:

SchweitzerAlbert Schweitzer’s apocalyptic Jesus brushed aside the anaemic Jesus that had resulted from 19th century liberal theology’s quest for the ‘historical Jesus’. Schweitzer was magnificently right in his rejection of the un-Jewish and un-troubling Christ of the First Quest. His portrait of Jesus of the Gospels was far closer to the truth – even if Schweitzer finally drew the wrong conclusions about Jesus as a failed apocalyptic revolutionary.

The 20th century Jesus Seminar was in many ways a replay of the First Quest – a de-historized Jesus, shorn of miracles and the eschatological urgency of the kingdom of God. One of N T Wright’s many achievements has been his compelling rejection of the methodology and conclusions of the Jesus Seminar in his Jesus and the Victory of God. What shines through Wright’s work on Jesus is how he brings the Gospels, and their main subject, to vibrant disturbing life.

Another ‘disturber’ was the Swiss pipe-smoker Karl Barth. His protest was against a culturally captive form of Christianity, unable even to identify the threat Hitler posed.  His great ‘NO’ to any form of natural theology denied that God could be reached ‘from the bottom up’. Barth’s genius was to insist on absolute otherness of God; God could only be revealed from the ‘top down’ by the triune God himself.

Karl BarthThus, God, for Barth is both the Revealer and the Revelation. It is God alone who can choose to reveal himself, and he does so in Jesus Christ. It is God’s Spirit alone who can effect God’s revelation in Christ. It is a mixture of hubris, pride and naivety that leads people to believe that they can put God in a nice neat box. Barth blew up the box.

Schweitzer and Barth, in very different ways, saw clearly that when we downplay the ‘weirdness’ or ‘Otherness’ of Christianity, God and the gospel become quickly domesticated, diluted, insipid; unable to stand against evil; to give prophetic witness; to form radical and counter-cultural communities of faith; to speak of an alternative kingdom of God that has broken into this world.

It’s no coincidence that both Barth and Schweitzer spent much time considering Jesus. The Jesus of the Gospels just isn’t dull, predictable, undemanding, easily accommodated into our lives and having little to say about the broken world in which we live.

Once we lose touch with the weirdness of Christian faith, it is inevitable that we end up with a form of Christianity that is virtually indistinguishable from the wider culture.

So what are some signs that we have lost touch with the strange Otherness of Christianity?

Here are some suggestions in no particular order – feel welcome to add your own:

1. When the content of much Christianity tends to be primarily therapeutic.

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. The church is a community where you will be loved and accepted unconditionally. The gospel will give your life new significance and meaning. God will help you navigate through the storms of life. The pastor is there to remind and encourage you that you are loved.

This is Christianity lite – a form of spiritual consumerism that promises all and demands little. God is there for you because you are worth it.

No place here for the NT’s embrace of suffering, injustice and persecution as ‘light and momentary troubles’.

No place here for the notion that being a Christian means death: death to the self; death to sin; death to an old order of existence.

2. When faith is assumed.

This is perhaps the most damaging legacy of Christendom. Everybody is ‘in'; everybody has been baptised; Christianity is natural, universal, and all-embracing. The focus of preaching and teaching is on equipping and exhorting and encouraging members to be more committed to helping the church maintain its structures and existence. Mission is marginalised and almost irrelevant.

Little place in an assumed faith for the deep mystery of the atonement: that somehow in one man’s death and shed blood, something happened of universal spiritual significance that forgiveness and freedom from sin needs to be appropriated through repentance and faith.

3. When Jesus is marginalised.

God IncarnateYou know – things like his apparently crazy teaching on non-violence. His teaching on money and possessions. His utterly uncompromising demands of his followers. His passion for justice. His words of coming judgment. His unrelenting eschatological focus on the kingdom of God and his urgent summons to enter now.

And, to top all of this, is the NT’s exalted Christological claim that this local Rabbi was God in the flesh. A completely unexpected development; foolish nonsense to Greeks, revolting heresy to Jews, unbelievable religious jargon to contemporary atheists, a threatening universal truth claim to modern pluralists.

This is why I love this picture of Jesus by Oliver Crisp – it brilliantly captures the otherness of Jesus who resists all easy categorisation.

4. When the Spirit is paid only lip-service.

Pentecostals and charismatics rightly protest against a sort of virtually ‘binitarian’ Christianity, where the vital, central and life-giving role of the Spirit is replaced with a form of rationalism. Where there is little expectation of the empowering presence of God himself to change lives, heal, and work visibly in the church and the world.

5. When ‘God is on our side’.

I mean by this a form of religious nationalism where Christianity is co-opted to bless and sanctify our politics; our identity; our nation. ‘God bless America’. God on the side of the British Empire. God on the side of Catholic Ireland’s fight for freedom against that Empire. God on the side of [Protestant] Ulster not to be subsumed within Catholic Ireland.

God sure does switch sides a lot doesn’t he?

Once God is safely for us, then our enemies are unrighteous. Since error and heresy have no right, all sorts of horror follows. For examples, read some Irish history.

6. When we buy into the sacred / secular divide.

A nice image here is of an orange and a peach. A Christian view of life is not orange – nicely segmented into distinct categories, with spiritual being one sitting alongside work, family, leisure etc. Rather life is like a peach – one whole fruit where everything is spiritual with Jesus as the centre stone.

The sacred / secular divide attempts to neuter the universal Lordship of Christ over all of life. It reduces Christianity to some sort of Kantian subjective experience. Truth becomes individualised and privatized. The gospel is reduced and personalised. The church has little to say to the world.

7. When we lose touch with the eschatological heartbeat of the Bible.

The OT and NT look forward to a new creation; a remaking of all things within a different order of existence where death is banished. No hospitals, doctors, medicines or morgues there. A future where evil and sin will have no place and justice will be done for ever.

But this is not just away in the future sometime – the future is already here in the present. The ‘proof’ is the presence of the promised Spirit, a foretaste of God’s rule to come. The resurrection of Jesus is the forerunner of the resurrection to come for all who belong to him.

Now that just doesn’t sound ‘normal’ and rational and scientific does it? Such a vision invites scorn and ridicule (as well as joy and hope). Well, let the scorn and ridicule come for Christianity is nothing without eschatology. Whenever the church loses focus on future hope it becomes fat, lazy, complacent and inward looking.

 

So, any attempt to make Christianity acceptable and reasonable to modern culture by removing the ‘unbelievable’ bits is doomed to failure. Even with the best of intentions, what remains will bear little resemblance to historic orthodox Christian faith.

I’ve nothing against good apologetics (defending the historic reliability of the Bible, the historicity of the resurrection etc) but increasingly I see a Christian’s primary task as simply announcing and telling and discussing the good news as it stands – without apology, or qualification or embarrassment. (And without aggression, arrogance or coercion either).

The irony is that it’s when we take it upon ourselves to change the story and try to make it more popular and relevant, that we do the greatest damage.

In other words, let the weirdness and Otherness of the Christian gospel stand on its own two feet. This is the apostolic story that we have been given – let’s keep to the script and trust in God to do the rest.

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