Musings on beauty, Barth, buildings and blessed hope

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Had a wonderful hike up Slieve Donard over the bank holiday weekend. Can’t say it was easy (getting on you know) – after rather a lot of huffing and puffing there were fantastic views to enjoy – including the best golf course in the world (last photo).

When have you last heard a sermon on beauty? Or read something on the relationship of beauty and theology? There were a lot of people on pilgrimage up Donard – all doings something physically demanding in order to experience beauty. There is something compelling about beauty – humans are drawn to it and go to literally great lengths to see a beautiful place.

Within the evangelical Christian tradition in which I grew up, live and work, beauty has tended to be neglected. There are probably a few reasons for this. Four come to mind, and these are simply musings, feel free to add your own reasons.

And if it is the case that beauty is marginalised within our lives, our theology, our churches – what might be some ways to recover an appreciation and experience of beauty? Beauty can be found in many places, not just a mountain top experience. Where do you find, and take time to appreciate and perhaps create, God-given beauty?

1) The Revealed Word versus Natural Theology

Christianity is a religion of the Book. Christians believe God has revealed himself in his written Word which therefore has authority above any other source of revelation.

No-one was a fiercer opponent of any form of natural theology (the idea that God can be in some way known outside his self-revelation in Jesus Christ the Word of God) than Karl Barth. His great ‘NO!’ to natural theology insisted that there could be no such thing as ‘theology from below’. Its fatal weakness is to open the door for human hubris to reinvent God in our own image.

Barth was in the midst of a fight against classic liberalism and its utter failure to speak out against the rise of national socialism. I am no Barth scholar but he may have softened his views towards the end of his life. But the point is Barth was essentially right. No natural theology can ‘reach God’. Without revelation we end up turning ‘God made beauty’ into ‘beauty is God’.

The Christian gospel is essentially mysterious, surprising, scandalous and apocalyptic. It can only be revealed by God in his Word and through his Spirit, never discovered in and through human reason – whether through the physical creation or beauty of mathematics (I’m told maths is beautiful and wondrous but have to take others’ word for it!) or whatever other forms of natural theology.

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2) Suspicion of beauty: musings on church architecture

But, I wonder, has the flip side of the supreme authority of the revealed Word been an overly suspicious attitude to beauty within much post-Reformation Protestantism?

As if beauty is, at best, a secondary distraction and, at worst, a pathway to idolatry and worship of the created world rather than its creator?

Take the Reformed Tradition of which I am also a part (Presbyterian). The theology of the Word is reflected in the architecture of its churches. The early Presbyterian churches in Ireland were stark ‘meeting houses’ – and most churches today remain plain and simple. The pulpit and the Word is what matters. There is, I think it fair to say, deliberately not much a tradition of the beautiful in the design of Irish Presbyterian churches.

Or take another strand within evangelicalism – that of culturally adaptable communities who deliberately eschew ‘churchy’ buildings, imagery and symbolism in favour of modern pragmatic facilities which, with the best will in the world, are hardly ever beautiful.  Beauty, within such pragmatic utilitarian theology, is simply not ‘useful’ and therefore effectively unimportant.

As I’ve gone on as a Christian I find I desire and appreciate beauty more than I used to. Beauty has the power to draw us into the presence of God beyond the world which we can control and manipulate. Dismissing beauty, or seeing it as an optional ‘add on’ to what really matters, seems to me to deny something essential about God, the creator of beauty. And, as a result, such spaces fail to inspire or draw our hearts towards him in wonder and praise. Rather, they can merely echo the narrative of our pragmatic, utilitarian and relentlessly ‘this worldly’ capitalist culture.

3) Dualism

A third reason for the marginalisation of beauty is the legacy of the Enlightenment. As Descartes’ dictum, ‘I think therefore I am’, unfolded historically, the elevation of reason promoted a type of dualism between the ‘higher’ mind (reason) and the created order. This sort of Cartesian dichotomy impacted Christian theology in spirituality that neglected the physical world – including the body and the affections.

To be fair, such dualism has a much longer legacy than the Enlightenment – one of Augustine’s negative legacies is still felt in his neo-platonic linking together of sex and sin for example.

Regardless of how exactly these influences developed, my point is that Christianity has a long and an ongoing struggle with dualism. Deliberate focus on and integration of beauty within Christian theology and practice can act to overcome such dualism. God has created us with minds, hearts and bodies and calls us to worship him holistically using all our God-given senses.

4) Sin and the Fall

A fourth possible reason for Christian ambivalence towards beauty is the doctrine of the fall. This world is broken. Sin, death and injustice stalk creation, which itself, Paul tells us, groans for liberation from its bondage to decay (Rom 8:21). Wrongly understood, the brokenness of creation can lead to an anti-worldly theology of escapism – where there is little of value to be redeemed here. Our main task is to ‘get the hell out of here’ and not get too entangled with temporary marginal distractions like pleasure, beauty and the joys offered by the material world.

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Towards a Christian integration of Word and Beauty

God is an artist.

The fact that we live in a wondrously beautiful world tells us that beauty is a creation of God. All beauty derives from him. The universal human desire for beauty points us to how we are created with a sense of wonder to appreciate, enjoy and create beauty. The Psalms are full of this link between appreciating the beauty of creation and the worship of God.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.

Psalm 19:1-6

Yet the next verse of the Psalm continues

The law of the  Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.

The beautiful world is never detached from the beautiful Word.

As someone who ‘deals with’ the Bible every day, the more I study it the more I am struck by its beauty. It is a magnificent work of art as well as God’s inspired Word. Each book is a remarkable literary work in its own right. Overall, at heart it is a story that overflows with images, symbols and themes that draws readers into a magnificent drama of divine goodness, beauty and love versus all that would corrupt and destroy.

In the New Testament we are even told that it is in and through Jesus Christ that ‘all things were made’ (John 1:3; Col. 1:16). It is this beautiful creation that is in the process of being redeemed by its triune creator.

The new creation will be a place of unimaginable beauty (Rev 21-22). What is the image of the new Jerusalem but a vision of perfect beauty in which God dwells with his people? The future outcome of this drama is a restored creation in which love, beauty, worship and goodness flourish in all their all fullness.

All this means, I suggest, is that Christians should be people above all others who love and appreciate beauty.  A Christian theology of beauty integrates Word and world, creator and created with hope. Beauty points us to God himself in thankfulness and praise.

Not saying you have to climb a mountain to experience beauty! But why not take time out to search out, experience, create, appreciate and share beauty wherever you are.

Thus endeth the sermon

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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Love not necessary for marriage?

ephesusReturning to Ephesians in this post – love and marriage in 5:21-33 to be more precise.

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Subversive Then

Such a famous passage needs no introduction and I am not here going to get into ‘complementarian’ versus ‘egalitarian’ interpretations of the ‘roles’ of husband and wife.

Far more interesting is how, in these verses and throughout the letter in general, Paul (and I do think Paul wrote Ephesians) is engaged in an audacious act of subversion.

Basically he is instructing believers in the Ephesus region to live to a different story to that of their world. That sounds all very nice but what does it mean? Very briefly, at least this:

live by a different power. They are filled with the Spirit, not the powers of this dark world (6:12)

to a different ethic, as children of light not of darkness (5:3-14)

walking in love (5:2), not in futility and greed (4:17-19) as the surrounding pagan world walks

in eschatological hope: putting off the old and putting on the new (4:22-23)

imitating their Lord, showing forgiveness and compassion and so building unity rather than division (4:29-32); self-sacrifically serving each other as their Lord gave himself up for them (5:2)

And this theme radical counter-cultural living continues right on into the famous ‘household code’ of 5:22-6:9.

We get so distracted with our modern obsessions about ‘individual roles’ that we can miss the wider story of what is going on here in the apostle’s instructions to 6 groups of believers: wives/husbands, children/parents and slaves/masters.

The reality of the culture is assumed – this is the world they lived in. A world of hierarchy, power and status. A culture of patrons and clients, of rulers and ruled. But that world, so apparently ‘given’ and ‘normal’ and powerful, is being shaken to the core.

Do you see how?

It is Paul’s very act of writing that puts the ‘writing on the wall’ for the power structures of the Greco-Roman world. He addresses personally every one of those 6 categories on the same basis. Whether a wife or husband, child or parent, slave or master, they are to live primarily as disciples of the risen Christ – ‘as to the Lord’.

Do you see the implications?

Now, their primary identity is not the social group in which they happen to find themselves. It is in their joint union of being in Christ. They belong to Christ and to each other in a revolutionised set of relationships that we call the Church.

for we are members of his body

Power, status, hierarchy, patronage, honour and birthrights are radically relativised. A new world has arrived. The old world would eventually crumble, as the social and political implications of the gospel eroded it from within.

This new community is to be marked by virtues and attitudes common to every member.

All are to walk in love and imitate their Lord (5:2)

All are to live pure lives (5:3ff)

All are to live to please their Lord (5:10)

All are to submit to each other (5:21)

Subversive Now – the example of love and marriage

If to be a Christian is to live in community with others ‘as to the Lord’ before all else, this has deeply radical implications today just as much as it did in the first century.

Where the Ephesians lived within a world of highly stratified boundaries that were rarely crossed, we live in a world where the individual is king or queen.

And perhaps nowhere is the ‘freedom’ of the autonomous individual challenged more than in being accountable first and foremost to others in that community of the church.

Take the example of love and marriage today. In our culture there are few things more private that our love lives. Romantic love is idolised. The two lovers find themselves in each other. Nothing should stand in their way of true happiness. Love trumps all.

Their primary identity is in their relationship. Other things like church involvement may follow, but is secondary to their love and to any children that follow along. It is family first.

But this is a modern example of living to the story of our culture rather than to the story of the gospel. Rather, Christians are ‘members of his body’. No identity, even marriage, comes first.

Even more subversive, this means that marriage is not private but public – it belongs to and within the community of faith. It is within the body that husband and wife learn to live out their marriage and their faith.

And even more heretical yet, this means that privatised individual love between a couple is not the primary ‘location’ for Christian love to flourish. Love between the couple sure helps, but the primary location for Christian love is the community of the church. Whoever we are, – whether we are in positions of weakness or privilege: wives or husbands, young or old, slaves or masters – we are all commanded to ‘walk in love’.

And this is why the paterfamilias, the husband with all the authority and power within Greco-Roman culture, is commanded four times to love his wife. It is his status within the culture that is being most subverted by the radical social implications of the gospel. He is being told to live to a different story – not one of assumed rights to be served but one marked by self-giving love for others supposedly less ‘worthy’ then he – like his wife.

The ever quotable Stanley Hauerwas puts it like this,

The church makes possible a context where people love one another. Love is not necessary to marriage, and the only reason why Christians love one another – even in marriage – is because Christians are obligated to love one another. Love is a characteristic of the church, not the family per se. You don’t learn about the kind of love that Christians are called to in the family and then apply it to the church. You learn about that kind of love from the church and then try to find out how it may be applied in the family.

Comments, as ever, welcome

 

Ephesians: a love letter

Working through Ephesians at the moment when time allows. It is an immensely rich letter and it is a privilege and pleasure to spend time in it. I know it’s a question of ‘Well you would say that wouldn’t you?’ but the Bible is really rather amazing. Here’s this ancient text, getting on for 2000 years old, written to an obscure minority within a great Empire and it is just bursting with power, creativity, freshness and compelling good news.

It is also beautifully written, with layer after layer of careful thought and structured chiastic patterns, all arranged to draw the reader into the compelling argument of the letter.

There are lots of excellent commentaries on Ephesians. Some of the ones that I have found most helpful are:

John Stott. The Message of Ephesians. 1991. A classic Stottian masterpiece.

Clinton Arnold. Ephesians. 2010. ZECNT. Very good.

Frank Thielman. Ephesians. 2010. BECNT. Excellent.

Klyne Snodgrass, Ephesians. NIV Application Commentary. 1996. Extremely readable and well researched. Gotta admire the name.

Harold W. Hoehner. Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary. 2002. Baker Academic.. Heavyweight and more technical.

Heil EphesiansBut for sheer originality and freshness, nothing has surpassed John Paul Heil, Ephesians: Empowerment to Walk in Love for the Unity of All in Christ. (SBL. 2007).

The title says it all. What Heil does so persuasively is to argue that the essential theme of Ephesians is love. But on either ‘side’ of that core theme are ‘power’ and ‘unity’.

POWER

Heil argues that the Epistle not only talks about power a lot, but as it was read orally, the reading in itself would be powerfully transformative.

God demonstrated his great power in raising Christ from the dead, a power now available to believers (1:19-20).

Heil puts it this way,

The very experience of listening to the Letter’s elaborate and ornate language of power and grace communicated by the way of the oral patterns of its chiastically arranged units not only persuades but empowers the audience to the conduct envisioned for it by Paul. (p.2)

Here’s an idea – why not try reading the letter out loud to yourself or a group and see how that goes …

TO WALK IN LOVE

‘Walk’ appears at critical junctures in the letter (2:2, 10; 4:1, 17; 5:2, 8, 15). Like modern English, it carries a sense of a ‘way of life’. We talk of ‘walking the walk’. A key command, which shapes all that comes after it is 5:2.

Walk in love, as also Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

‘In love’ (en agapē) is a recurrent phrase – see 1:4; 3:17; 4:2, 15, 16; 5:2. It carries the sense of a dynamic domain of love, a sort of fusion of God’s love poured out for us in Christ which empowers believers’ love for God and for one another. The verb ‘love’ (agapaō) occurs even more often. Love is beginning, middle and end in Ephesians.

Just consider the closing verses of the letter to see the overwhelming emphasis on love.

Peace to the brothers and sisters, and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love. 6:23-24

UNITY

The empowering by God (and the Spirit is a major theme here), associated with ‘walking in love’, leads to a profound and deep unity in Christ.

There is the cosmic unity of all things being united in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth (1:9-10). This finds its fulfillment in the marvellous verses of 4:15-16 where believers are united together in Christ and with each other.

… speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. 4:15-16.

Power, Love, Unity – Ephesians in a nutshell.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

PS Update. I meant to say that the NIV, in my humble opinion, does a poor job in communicating the importance of  walk (peripateō) in the letter. For example, 5:2 is translated ‘and live a life of love’. This is a real loss. It loses the contrast between the Christian walk of 5:2 and the command in 4:17 not to walk as the Gentiles do (the NIV translates this ‘that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do’). Commands to ‘walk’ are significant in the letter but you would not know it reading the NIV. The ESV is actually much better here.

 

 

REFLECTIONS ON ‘LIFE IN REVERSE’: END, MIDDLE AND BEGINNING

Over the last three weekends I have attended three very different Christian services. The first was my mum’s funeral, the second our IBI Graduation Service and the third a baptism.

Their sequence is ‘life in reverse’ – from death, to celebrating a significant milestone in life together, to a sacrament welcoming a precious new life into the community of the Church.

I hadn’t planned to write about this. I’m beginning without knowing where this is going. It may make it on the blog or into ‘Trash’ on windows explorer. If you are reading this, then you know what happened!

In IBI we are always encouraging (and requiring) students to do ‘Reflective Practice’ which is a structured process critically examining events, attitudes, and feelings with the aim of developing and improving future practice. This blog post is getting close to this – not so much reflecting on my practice but on my feelings and attitudes as a Christian who believes the creeds of the Church catholic.

DEATH

First, my mum’s funeral conducted by Rev Noble McNeely in 1st Holywood Presbyterian Church, a friend and caring pastor.

I have had very little experience of death. In our technological, medicalised and commodified Western culture death is pushed to the margins of everyday life. Unless your line of work brings you into contact with death and the grieving, it likely rarely intrudes. We are busily taken-up with the frenetic business of living. Our consumer culture promises us every possible joy and pleasure that life can offer with no ‘sell-by’ date attached.

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Stanley Hauerwas

As Dylan says, we can be taken up with the conceit that we are too good to die. Or, as Hauerwas likes to say, we can fool ourselves that our technology will enable us to get out of life alive. (Always wanted to get those two together theologically!)

Yet, as OT wisdom tells us, our lives are indeed like vapour, we are here one day and gone the next. Even though I was with her when she died, I’m only beginning to get used to the reality that my mum, such a strong, supportive and reliable presence for all of my life, is gone.

In the blink of an eye, you and I will follow.

I can only speak personally here and you may disagree, but it is only a Christian funeral service that can look death in the face and yet speak with hope. It would be easy to lapse into vague sentimentalism about our loved one living on with us through love or memories, but Christian hope is much more earthy and robust.

It tells us the specifics of a historical story. That Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son, has looked death in the face for us. He has experienced death itself and descended to the realm of the dead. Yet, death could not hold him. As Peter proclaims in the first ever gospel sermon, the Messiah

… was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. (Acts 2:31-33)

Is such belief just a crutch for those who can’t bear to accept that this life is ‘all there is’? Is it ironically a similar form of conceit to that of which Dylan and Hauerwas criticise? That we are ‘too good to die’ and can ‘beat death’ after all through resurrection life? Is it a refusal to face the fact of our own mortality that we dream of immortality?

I can’t prove this of course, but I think not. Such hope depends completely on the historic events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, evidenced by the outpouring of the Spirit.

As a consequence, it seems to me that Christian hope, through being united to the resurrected Son in faith, has given, and continues to give, believers courage to face death, persecution and suffering.

But not only this, it calls Christians to make this life count, to live a life worthy of this gospel, not getting distracted by temporary distractions but focus on loving and serving others in whatever short time given to us.

And perhaps it is those who have faced death and been given a reprieve, who can see these priorities most clearly (thinking of someone in particular here, I am sure you can too). Life is an infinitely wondrous gift. Let’s not waste it.

CELEBRATING A MILESTONE

The second service was a joyous occasion. Many friends and family came. Current students baked a fantastic graduation cake and made delicious desserts.

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Cutting the cake

Students spoke of a life-transforming experience of theological study and said nice things about staff and teachers. We sang songs. We laughed. We took many photos. We dressed up in gowns and suits and dresses and formally marked significant achievements of learning together. We acknowledged the sacrifices students and their families had made. We listened to Prof Craig Blomberg preach about ‘the real world’ being God’s inaugurated kingdom that one day will be really real and the present ‘unreal’ world will be remade anew. We congratulated students on their hard work, their teachability, their desire to learn and their passion to serve – head, heart and hands.

I think modern life has too few such occasions in which to mark significant achievement. The mixture of joy and formality at graduation is appropriate. It is a public recognition of individual success but this is not to say graduation is the end of the process. Rather it is simply a milestone to celebrate on the way.

The purpose of the learning (ideally) has multiple effects: to learn about God, his Word, what previous and contemporary Christians have thought, and to know ourselves. It means learning to think critically, to write, to articulate ideas, to lead, to communicate, to work with others, and to use God-given gifts in service of his people and the wider world.

In other words, this was a service about adult Christian faith engaging the world. It was full of life, enthusiasm, progress and a vibrant sense of how the gospel (good news) is good news for all of life.

Christian faith is not just a theory to believe in that might get you to ‘heaven’ when you die. It is, rather, an experience of living in God’s story in the here and now and participating as disciples in his mission to redeem the world which he loves.

BAPTISM

The third service was back to the beginning of life. It was another joyous occasion.

It was the baptism of the long-awaited and cherished infant son of good friends. There was prayer, singing, music, Christocentric worship and afterwards much good food and much conversation.

The church leader was welcoming, relaxed, hospitable and articulated winsomely the case for infant baptism. It not does magically make the child a Christian, but welcomes him into the church community. His parents promised to raise him in the ways of Jesus, but not on their own. In Christianity it takes a community to raise a child.

The church leader likened it to teaching him to be a Man City supporter. He may be dressed in the kit, learn the songs, go to matches, learn about the team and its history … but at some point he has to decide for himself whether to be a Man City supporter or whether to support another team, or not follow football at all …

The parents’ job – and that of the church – is to embody authentic Christian faith for him to see, touch and experience for himself. I pray he does so and in doing so finds much joy in loving God and loving others.

CONCLUDING REFLECTIONS

As I reflect on these three services, from death – to adults celebrating a milestone in their lives – to welcoming new life into the world, I have been challenged and refreshed. From a Christian perspective, all three services reinforce one another.

Perhaps these are simple conclusions, but things seem simpler after the last few weeks.

  1. Life is a beautiful gift, to be celebrated with thanksgiving, beginning, middle and end.
  2. It is also short and not to be wasted. A gift is to be used well.
  3. It is to be lived in community with others. That is where true life lies. We celebrate new life together. We rejoice at milestones reached along the journey. And we comfort each other in hope at the end of life.
  4. True purpose is found in living life for others – for God, his people and the good of the world.
  5. Such a calling is anything but a life spent selfishly pursuing temporary wealth, security, pleasure and comfort. It is a call to costly self-sacrifice in whatever context we find ourselves in.
  6. Christian faith has a telos – an end – that reaches beyond death. Christian hope is founded on the eschatological future promised by God in the resurrection of the crucified Christ. Such future hope should profoundly shape our present
  7. Such hope also proclaims that death will not have the last word. That word has already been spoken by God: loving Father, incarnate, crucified and resurrected Son and the life-giving Holy Spirit.
  8. And so it is in him alone that we are called to trust, worship and follow in this unpredictable pilgrimage called life.

Comments, as ever, welcome.