Tolerance, Christians and Jerry Springer The Opera

Jerry Springer The Opera is set to come to Dublin this week. (I hadn’t noticed til someone told me).

Back in 2005 the BBC received a record number of complaints when it was screened on BBC2 (around 55,000). And it had regular protests when on tour in the UK. There were failed court cases by some Christian groups to get it shut down – on incitement of religious hatred and blasphemy.

Yes it’s a comedic exploration of the darkside of our obsession with celebrity culture at whatever cost yada yada … but personally, I do find distasteful the depictions of Jesus  in the show (I’ve watched clips).

And that’s the point. It is designed to cause offence – and the free publicity it generates ain’t bad for business.

Some Christians may want to respond as some did in the UK – with protests and campaigns to stop the show. But such protests don’t do well. At a pragmatic level they don’t succeed. They also reinforce wider cultural perceptions of Christians defending their own ‘rights’ while simultaneously wanting to control and tell others what do to. And that’s especially unfortunate given Ireland’s recent past when the church was in power. So missionally I don’t think that they are a good idea.

Some will shrug shoulders and say nothing – that’s the world we live in. There are endless films and shows and books that dismiss, mock or denigrate Christianity … Let’s get on with Christian life and service where we are without getting distracted. God doesn’t need our legal defence. What really matters is being authentic community on the ground, loving God, loving others.There are also far more important issues of justice to get worked up about – such as the disgraceful way Ireland treats asylum seekers for example.

But maybe Springer coming to Dublin it is an opportunity to say something about a hard-edged tolerance within a plural society.

For tolerance, properly understood is not just accepting what you agree with or can reluctantly live with. That’s such a soft form of tolerance it hardly qualifies as tolerance at all.

A robust tolerance is engaging with views you disagree with, views you find offensive and distasteful, even blasphemous. Getting into discussion and debate with the people who hold those views. Naming and identifying where and why those views are harmful or destructive. But at the same time tolerating the right of people to hold those views.

[Obviously there are legal, ethical and moral boundaries to tolerance. There are views that should not be tolerated in a civil society and this needs to be worked through in each case – views that promote violence, abuse, exploitation of others and so on.]

But the bigger point is that a robust tolerance works both ways. For the ‘flip-side’ of Jerry Springer in Dublin is that Christians also have every right to hold and communicate their views – beliefs that their opponents may find offensive and distasteful, even dangerous.

And there are voices today who do think exactly that and would seek to exclude legally Christianity from any legitimate place in public life because of the perceived ‘threat’ it poses to a plural society.

But a hard-edged or robust form of tolerance will mean that Christians who believe that their mission is to proclaim and teach the good news of Jesus Christ who is the risen Lord of all and before whom every knee will one day bow, will not only be tolerated but that their freedom to engage in mission should be defended by their opponents.

That’s quite a different thing from an increasingly shrill form of public discourse where ‘tolerance’ is redefined as meaning not having the right to disagree or say something is actually wrong. To do so is ‘offensive’ and ‘hurtful’ and ‘intolerant’. This is not tolerance at all, but a thinly disguised manipulative power-game that insists that to have a legitimate place in the public square ‘you must agree with me’.

So, even though I dislike it, I’m not going to be protesting against Jerry Springer The Opera. I’d defend the right of the Grand Canal Theatre to put on the show. And I’d argue for a robust tolerance that cuts both ways.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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Theology for an urban world (2) the rise of the city

Seeking the city without foundations: theology for an urban world

The Rise of the City

In the first post we looked at David Smith’s sketch of the conflicting forces at the heart of the city: on the one hand the city as a place of freedom, creativity, prosperity, employment, opportunity, human flourishing. On the other hand, the city as a place of alienation, loneliness, injustice, violence, despair and human fragmentation.

Chapter 2 looks at the inexorable rise of the city in the 20th Century – and how the advance of the city is a deeply ambivalent development.

The 21st century will see a completely unprecedented global wholesale transition to urban living. The move to the cities is accelerating. Smith quotes some UN stats:

– in Europe, North & South America, West Asia – it has exceeded 50% and will be 80% by 2020.

– Africa, Asia and the Pacific started later, and will reach 50% early this century.

In Africa, the shift to the city is happening at breakneck speed. Old colonial cities like Lagos, Kampala, Nairobi, Salisbury, built and dominated by European elites,  are now being engulfed in a ‘tidal wave of migrants’ seeking to share in the prosperity so ostentatiously displayed by their former colonial rulers. In less than 50 years cities like Lagos, Kinshasa, Johannesburg, Khartoum have grown by over 5 million each.

[Just watching the news tonight, the world’s population has now reached 7 billion. Looking at one country, Zambia, its population of 13 million today is set to treble by 2050 and reach 100 million by the end of the century]

Such growth highlights the ambivalent nature of the city. It is the place people choose to go – offering some hope of a better life than rural subsistence in a traditional culture. But it is also the place of unimaginable poverty and social breakdown.

Tale of Two Cities: Smith chooses two cities to tell the tale of modern urbanisation:

And no place better is the ambivalent nature of the city seen than in the new sleek city-state of Dubai. Where, hidden away a few miles from glittering skyscrapers, malls, pleasure resorts and man-made islands, are thousands of semi-slaves who have built this utopian rich-man’s playground. This is a consumerist fantasy vision of the city. And as Smith notes, it is profoundly unsustainable (hey it has ice rinks and winter wonderlands in a 50 degree desert…) 

Chongqing in contrast is an anonymous megacity of 31 million people in China (where there are over 90 cities with over 1 million inhabitants). Smog chokes the air, 10s of thousands of peasants continue to migrate to the city every year. Vast numbers are destined to live in squalor and poverty.

A 1993 UN Report said that almost 1 billion people were urban slum dwellers and if present trends continue, one third of the world’s population will be living in urban slums within thirty years.

So to the theological question of how should Christians think of the city? Smith notes that Christians often jump to mission and to alleviation of poverty – good and essential things but if divorced from an urban theology there will little or no confrontation with the forces that have created that poverty and inequality in the first place.

So Smith makes some proposals and will unpack these ideas in the book:

– engage with traditions of theological reflection in urban settings throughout the history of the Christian movement

– dialogue with scholars working in a range of academic disciplines related to the city (geographers, sociologists etc)

– draw on wisdom and insights of those Christians who are living in conditions of poverty in slums across the world. [And it is a remarkable fact that scholars from different disciplines have noted the importance of the church as a seed of hope in the vast city slums of the global south (especially Pentecostalism).]

– listen afresh to the Bible and its response to the rise and influence of the great imperial cities of the ancient world

– travel in hope

Sundays in Mark (76) The end of the story

Tidying up our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark.

Did Mark intend his Gospel to end so abruptly with the words ‘they were afraid’? Is there a lost ending? One that would have told the story of resurrection appearances and a response of joyful faith by the disciples in Galilee as hinted at in verse 7?

Or is that our assumption of what a proper gospel ending should be? (And the addition of the later ending shows others shared that assumption).

Or did Mark, in true Markan style, end as dramatically as he began? He sure has a consistent emphasis on themes of fear and astonishment. And these reactions are pretty well always in response to the astonishing authority, actions and power of Jesus.  Is Mark ending this way to draw attention to the revelation of the awesome power of God in raising his son from the dead?

There is, of course, no way to answer this definitively.

One thing is sure. The Gospel writer leaves all of us, the readers, confronted with the empty tomb and all that it signifies.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

N T Wright in Dublin (2)

OK so here is your faithful reporter’s take on last night’s C S Lewis Lecture by Prof N T Wright, ‘God in the Dock: what place now for the Christian Faith in the Public Life?’

A really well run and organised event. Good wine and snacks beforehand. Well designed hotel conference room. Smooth. Sean Mullan did an excellent job introducing and responding. And NTW is always entertaining and a pleasure to listen to – wonderful communicator.

I tooks notes on my phone – for what they are worth here they are. And I’m leaving them rough – hey this is a blog post. Any of my comments are in brackets:

Three Narratives of faith in the public square

1. Secularist narrative.

The church made hell on earth to save people in heaven. The answer is eduation, science, progree, tolerance, beyond superstition. Religion bad for u. Strident. Media takes the narrative for granted. Assumed the church internally corrupt. No place for church in modern life. No voice in public sq. And soon church will disappear.  [In Ireland we’ve taken to this narrative zealously].

 2. [An inadequate] Christian response.

Secularist story has failed. Look at the crimes committed by secularists and atheism. Guillotine, gas chamber. Also a straw-man caricature of all religion bad.

But this story does not really address the place of church in public life. And the cold fury of the failure of public faith [and this goes deep in Ireland – deep deep disgust]. It tends to assume that life will go on as before. And overlooks how church had been practicing its faith. So a response to the New Athiests may have some success but does not reflect on how church got lost. There needs to be more honest self- reflection and transparency within the Church.

3. An Alternative narrative of Jesus and the Kingdom of God

Back to Jesus and his followers. New athiests tend to ignore Jesus. Kingdom of God brings us to the question of Jesus the King. And in the Creeds the life of Jesus is missing. [well known point of view of NTW here – somewhat in conflict with Scot McKnight’s argument for strong continuity in gospel terms between the NT and the Creeds in the King Jesus Gospel. Clear elements of gospel in Creed but NTW is right that the life of Jesus is missing].

Kingdom is GOD IN CHARGE: This king will be and is king of the whole world. Where this gets political is Jesus is God in charge of all. BUT to many this seems unbelievable. God is not in charge – just look at the world. Also undesirable – leads to theocracy, rule of clerics. Fundamentalism.

Thus a response is for the state to becomes divinised – communism and secularism. Now liberal democracies pose a competing narrative. They have tried (are trying) to replace the church – where the political becomes caring provider just as the church did. So the church is marginalised and religion is privatised.

This is the Enligtenment and earlier Epicurean idea of banishing the gods to their world and hunans living theirs. (Sounds like Kant). Hobbes, Rousseau. Modernist science and democracy hopes for naturalism and human progress. So church can do its private thing and has no place in public faith. Not about tolerance, it is about the belief that god and the world do not mix.

Ireland today is the brittle disjunction of God’s world and ours. And often the church has colluded in fulfilling this disjunction – see in african spirituals and in RC purgatory.  Even those opposing the marginalisation of Christians in public life have tended to do so by arguing for ‘our rights’ and left the dualistic structure of western thought about faith and society unchallenged.

[NTW mentioned an un-named former archbishop here – must be Lord Carey. I blogged about ‘persecution’ of Christians in the UK here – and I think NTW is dead right here.  The Christian Insititute and others on the right are ‘fighting’ for rights, but there is little deeper engagement with the secularist narrative and especially there is little or no self-reflection, humility, and engaging with the ‘powerlessness’ and ‘foolishness’ of the ‘upside down Kingdom of God – and this is where NTW went next].

NTW argued that kingdom speaks of power redefined. NOT of the church fighting for a slice of bit of power. It is Jesus power; redefined power. A call for Jesus people to live kingdom life in this world. Beatitudes. NOT God sending in the tanks! But God sends in love, humility, gentle self-giving love. By Jubilee projects.  By justice issues. NOT a private individualism.

Good works in NT are for all as well as the church (Gal 6). This is subversive christianity of the early church. [sounds much like anabaptism!?]

The Church is a society of repentant sinners. And many in the church are doing wonderful servant things unseen and unreported.

The call of church is also to hold power to account.  A prophetic gift to the world. Yes church will get it wrong and needs discussion and discernment. But it is not to  wait til second coming before holding power to account. [And this is where he defends the role of Bishops in the House of Lords etc. I think he argues that this is where his view diverges from anabaptism of Yoder and Hauerwas etc. But I’m not so sure – they also hold power to account. Their anabaptism is NOT non-political. It is politically engaged, but refuses to use power to achieve ends.]

Jesus is Lord of all. But this does not lead to theocracy. The call of the church is to be salt and light etc … In small local ways in tough situations. The small and insignificant, from the bottom up. [Anabaptism again]. Youth groups, pastors on streets at 3am, in care for poor, etc. Being ‘Poor in Spirit’. Meek taking over the earth without powerful noticing. This is an alternative powerless kingdom.

I liked all this because I have strong anabaptist leanings. In the Q & A, I got to ask NTW if he was an anabaptist bishop in disguise 😉 He found that amusing but disagreed. He thinks anabaptism too disengaged. He used the image of a visiting an interesting and attractive zoo, but cut off in its own world. But that’s a bit of a caricature. I’m unconvinced that there was that much difference between what he was saying and the best of anabaptism – Hauerwas, Yoder.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

N T Wright in Dublin

Tomorrow evening a certain ex-Bishop singer called Prof Tom Wright will be giving the EAI annual C S Lewis Lecture on God in the Dock – What Place Now For The Christian Faith In Public Life?

The title being a nice link back to Lewis’s own God in the Dock updated to 2011.

I caught him being interviewed by George Hook on ‘The Right Hook’ radio show on the way home on the train.  Impressive that he has done his homework about the particularities of the Irish discussion on faith and the public square. He was well up with Enda Kenny’s rant attack on the Pope and the Catholic Church and acutely aware of not trying to defend the indefensible, while taking opportunity to actually talk about what the Christian faith is ….

Your faithful reporter will be there …

Theology for an Urban World (1) two views of the city

This is the first post in series on a new book by David Smith Seeking a City With Foundations: Theology for an Urban World which addresses one of the great themes of the 21st Century – urbanisation. Over half the world’s population now live in cities and the effects of such rapid and intense urbanization reach far further.

Aerial view of Dublin

In the introduction, Smith outlines two popular theological responses to the city. Each one drawn from the biblical narrative that begins with a perfect garden and ends with a perfect city.

One dreams of an idyllic rescue from the city. A restoration of Eden. Where the city is a place to be endured now and again but not lived in.  In this framework, the city is a disaster, the burden of civililsation, a place of darkness. Some sociologists point to the link between the rise of great industrial cities and enslavement, forced labour, and destruction. The city is linked with Empire, wars, invasion and power and militarisation. Smith talks of profoundly anti-urban traditions in various disciplines (including theology) that see it as a ‘parasite’, a ‘vampire’, a ‘man-eater’. This is city as symptom of human voraciousness and pride.

He doesn’t mention this here, but as a huge fan of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, you see his anti-urban theology bubbling away barely hidden under the story line in all four books. Just think the mechanisation and destruction wrought by Saruman and the orcs, his betrayal of Fangorn Forest, their ugly destructive militarisation, the scouring of the idyllic Shire and the simple good life of the rural Hobbits  and so on … Tolkien didn’t like industrialisation and urbanisation. His books long for the past – for a utopian retreat from the ravaging effects of ‘civilisation’.

But there is another way to interpret the city. If you read the narrative backwards, the telos, the goal of the story of the Bible is the city of God.

The future – God’s future – is urban, and since the final image in the Bible is of a city whose proportions far exceed those of any existing megalopolis, the transition from rural innocence to urban civilization is granted the divine stamp of approval. p.23

And so in this framework the city can be interpreted as a place of creativity, life, vibrancy, culture, community, ideas, full of potential and leading to liberation.

And Smith brings in Augustine and his Two Cities. One dark and dysfunctional and of this world (Babylon) one full of light, hopeful and of the next world (the New Jerusalem).

The tension to be explored in this book is this promised urban future of God in which creation and civilisation are reconciled. This is no utopian retreat to a rural idyll. But a city in which humans dwell in harmony with their God and exercise their full God-given and restored image.

So what is your attitude to the city? Do you love the city and all it brings with it? Or do you avoid city life like the plague and certainly would not live there (joining the middle class ‘flight to the suburbs’)? Or somewhere inbetween?

on teaching theology

A friend asked me recently to reflect a little on how I teach an Introduction to Christian Theology course at Irish Bible Institute (we run university undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Applied Theology and exist to serve, strengthen and help train men and women in ministry and leadership in the small but developing Irish church).

So the course is at first year UK/Irish university level, with students who are active committed Christians but who may not have studied the Bible and theology formally much before. Later in the degree we get into Christology and Pneumatology.

So this is a little bit of ‘reflective practice’. And a question for discussion here is where and how has the structure or content of your teaching / preaching / theology developed and changed over the years and why?

When I started out I pretty well followed what had been modeled to me. I assumed that the ‘right’ way to do 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 felt increasingly dissatisfied.

Now of course this might have just been the teaching (!) but …

– It felt too much like a series of disconnected topics. There was little holding them all together. Each one too easily felt like an ‘end in itself’.

– It felt too much like the purpose of the exercise was primarily to know the right information and propositions that constitute orthodoxy. And in the process it too easily could slip into to being too much about ‘us’ – defining our theology and thinking.

– It also could become predictable – students ‘knew’ the ‘right answers’ (or thought they did!)

A few clarifications here! I believe in orthodoxy and the normative authority of Scripture. And I’m not rejecting systematics as having no value.

But over time I’ve re-shaped the course to a more narrative shape. I want students to get the biblical storyline, and how the myriad of sub-plots fit within the whole. Most of all I want them to get their place in the story within the ‘mission of God.’

This changes doing theology profoundly. It is theology 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.

Was it Barth who said the Bible is not primarily for information but for transformation?

So in my course, story is the overarching framework. And the more you frame it this way the more all the great doctrines of the Christian faith make sense within a storied theology.

– The story of the Bible – the redemptive mission of the triune God

– The story of creation to new creation (eschatology)

– The story of God’s people (Israel, church)

–  The story of mankind (broken to restored image)

–  The central story of Jesus fulfilling all that had gone before and shaping all is to come (kingdom of God, cross, resurrection, ascension, Lord)

–  The Spirit within the bigger story (fulfilled promise, deposit)

–  Or take one aspect of the atonement, justification: essentially Paul unfolds what this means by telling the story of Abraham, Israel, Law, faith in light of Jesus.

I’m well aware I’m not doing or saying anything radically new here, this is just my personal ‘story’. But, let me suggest that the default theological starting point for many (most?) evangelical students is still very much a point by point systematics rather than narrative.  So I’ve found that opening up theology as story not only helps people ‘get’ the Bible, it also 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 a classroom …

Comments, as ever, welcome.