Down With This Sort of Thing: How is the Gospel Good News in Contemporary Ireland?

Now we are pretty well all confined to quarters, maybe it is time to catch up with some reading.

Praxis Press is a new Irish Christian publishing venture. They published their first book last year – Down With This Sort of Thing by Fraser Hosford. Other ones are in the pipeline.

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This is what I said in endorsing the book

It is so good to see an Irish pastor writing about theology, culture and mission for our contemporary Irish context! Fraser Hosford asks an important question – how is the gospel good news in Ireland today? What is so fresh about this book is that he answers this question by engaging thoughtfully and graciously with what real people in Ireland today actually think, believe and hope for. It is from this foundation of careful listening that Hosford unpacks how the gospel is good news for all of life. Peppered with stories and illustrations, the result is a very readable account of how the gospel leads to a flourishing life. Anyone writing about such a great theme has my attention, I suggest that he should have yours as well.

Highly recommended. Not only an excellent read but by buying a copy you will be supporting a new Irish Christian publisher committed to helping the church think about and practice mission in 21st Century Ireland.

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

SPOILERS AHEAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Future Hope of Non-Being

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

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

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

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

Sugar Coated Suicide

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

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

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

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

Which eschatology?

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

The end of love or unending love?

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

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

Impersonal universe or personal creator?

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

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

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

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

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

Relentless eternity or eternally creative life?

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

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

Death or Life?

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

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

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

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

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

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

What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (4) towards a kingdom-centred approach to politics

If you have been reading these posts on an Anabaptist view of Brexit and might be thinking – cut to the chase, you’ve spent time pointing to shortcomings of other views, what is an Anabaptist kingdom-centred view?

So, in brief, here goes. And I am going to use John Nugent’s nuanced and well-made argument but not nearly do it justice …. I’d warmly recommend reading his book in full.

  • Christians are given no mandate in Scripture to make this world a better place
  • There is no ‘cultural commission’ for the church to reform fallen cultures and create new ones.
  • Within the biblical narrative, God’s people are never commissioned or given power and authority to manage or rule the world.
  • Within the OT and NT, human powers are given delegated authority by God to govern in a way that facilitates human flourishing. The great temptation and trap for the people of God is to become like the powers – to seek political power for themselves.
  • It is God alone who will, one day, step in and make this world a better place.
  • He does this in and through the incarnation, ministry and mission of his Son. Jesus inaugurates the kingdom of God, which is the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes, “the reign of God over his people on behalf of all creation.” (p.67)
  • The kingdom is God’s new world order. It is not entirely future, it has begun now. It is not ‘other-worldly’, it is this-worldly.
  • The kingdom has come, it is God’s gift. Citizens of the kingdom are followers of the King and Lord Jesus Christ. Members of kingdom have:
    • Entered in a new era in world history
    • Entered a new world / new creation within the old world
    • Entered new life
    • Entered a new social reality, a new community / new set of relationships
    • Entered a new way of life
    • Entered a new status / identity
    • Entered God’s abundant blessings
  • The people of God have a unique missional task – to be God’s better place in the world.
  • And a core way they are to do this is through LOVE.

Nugent is spot on the money here. As was highlighted for me in writing The Message of Love, there is just not very much at all in the Bible about love for the world or love for others outside the community of the people of God. We may find this surprising or awkward, but it is a fact. Nugent quotes Gerhard Lohfink

“In view of contemporary Christian consciousness it comes as something of a shock to realize as an exegete that in the New Testament – it we abstract from Jesus’ saying about love of enemy – interpersonal love almost without exception means love for one’s brother in the faith, love of Christians for one another. There seems to be hardly anything else about the New Testament which is as intensively suppressed as this fact.” (90)

In similar vein, after a survey of biblical material on poor and oppressed, widows and orphans etc, Nugent concludes this

“The disturbing bottom line is that, in the New Testament, love and service are reserved especially for fellow believers. This is, frankly, embarrassing. It’s not what I want my Bible to say. If God cares so much about this world, why doesn’t he give his people an important role in fixing it? Why teach us how to live properly in this world if God doesn’t want us to infiltrate its structures and wield our superior knowledge to get them on the right track? Why not help all people everywhere? Isn’t it selfish to dedicate our time, energy, and resources primarily to the church family?” (101)

The twist here, is that the mission and calling of the church is to be the church – to be a light to the nations, to be a community of love and justice for the world’s sake.

It is a calling to reflect the love and beauty of God

“Since loving one another is God’s plan, it must become our highest priority. No more embarrassment. No more second guessing. No more imitating worldly strategies for making this world a better place.” (102).

And this embodying of God’s kingdom – the better place – is to be accompanied by proclamation of the gospel. Words and deeds. Not via political power. Not by political lobbying. Not by imagining that we can change the world through access to the levers of power.

[An aside – a lot of American evangelical Christianity today desperately needs to hear and respond to this message. The word ‘evangelical’ has become debased because of its links to political power.]

The mission of the church is not to partner with the powers in order to make this world a better place. Lessons of church history (and Irish experience is a sobering reminder) show that the church not only loses focus on its God-given mission, but also becomes corrupted by power when it achieves it.    

Nugent wisely comments that all this likely is making readers feel uncomfortable and uneasy. What does all this mean in practice?

Should Christians have nothing to do with organisations which seek to help those in need?

Is it back to the old caricature of saving ‘souls’ and having little or no concern for people’s physical and social needs?

Is this retreat from society into a sectarian holy huddle? [I know some friends who have lived in Christian communities cut-off from the outside world and they have not tended to end well].

You may have guessed that the answer to these questions is ‘No’.

Since we started these reflections talking about Brexit, what then does a kingdom-centred view of political engagement look like? Since this post is long enough already, you’re welcome back to the next post for more discussion on this.

What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (3) problems with the world-centred view

Problems with the World-Centred View

In the last post we left off with John Nugent’s description of a ‘world-centred’ approach to Christian action and witness. It should sound familiar – it encompasses people like N T Wright (Surprised by Hope) and Richard Middleton (A New Heaven and a New Earth).

Jesus has inaugurated a new creation in which God’s people are called to participate as image bearers, acting to bring God’s future world into this present one wherever and whenever possible (Nugent, p. 13). We cannot redeem the world, but our action in the present will point to and be ‘folded into God’s ultimate global redemption.’ (p. 13).

And the church itself is to be a foretaste of that new creation.

This all sounds good and right does it not? What’s not to like?

If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have unhesitatingly affirmed this world-centred framework. It avoids the undue optimism of the human-centred view (that humans can transform the world along the lines of God’s kingdom) or the anti-worldly and often dualistic theology of a heaven-centred theology.

However, researching and writing The Message of Love reinforced something that I had felt but not fully worked out – that there is remarkably little in the Bible about God’s people loving the world. And there is next to nothing about God’s people being called to transform the world.

But there is an overwhelming emphasis on the people of God living up to their calling to be a community of love and justice in the world.

It is this unique ecclesiological calling that tends to be blurred within the world-centred view. I use the word ‘blurred’ deliberately, because ‘loss of focus’ describes well what is going on.

The specific task and calling of the church to be the church is subtly widened to include making the world a place that better aligns with the kingdom of God. This happens when biblical commands aimed at the people of God are misinterpreted to become general endorsements to transform the world.

Nugent gives some examples:

  • OT prophetic denouncements of Israelite social injustices such as the rich exploiting the poor (Amos) is broadened into a mandate to denounce and fight against all injustices everywhere.
  • Mary’s Magnificat celebrating God’s rejection of the proud and powerful and choice of a humble peasant girl becomes an endorsement for political action to liberate the marginalised and oppressed in general.
  • Jesus’ and James’ teaching about caring for the poor within the kingdom community shifts to become a basis for political action to end global poverty (and we could add in Paul’s command to ‘remember the poor’ in Galatians 2:10 here).

Many more could be given but you see the pattern: the mission of the church, and Christians within it, becomes heavily invested in political activism. ‘Kingdom-work’ gets broadened to include all sorts of activity that loosely connects to themes of justice or social improvement.

Focus is lost on how, in both the OT and the NT, attention is on the integrity and communal life of the people of God. In the NT, it is the Spirit-formed body of Christ that is now being renewed and which represents God’s new-creation in the world.

Nugent puts it this way;

“… the world centered approach risks putting the cart before the horse. Even though the New Testament presumes and proclaims God’s redemption, reconciliation, and restoration of all things, it gives primacy to the new thing that has already begun among God’s people. What Christ has begun to do in the church is the core of what will be folded into his ultimate renovation of all things. The order of priority is first Christ, then his renewed people, and finally the redemption of our bodies and then of non-human creation.” (p. 18)

His conclusion is that

“God’s people are not responsible for making this world a better place. They are called to be the better place that Christ has already made and that the wider world will not be until Christ returns.” (p.20)

Quite radical implications follow

If political and social activism to make the world a better place becomes primary, then Nugent argues that this oversteps the church’s mission, eclipses part of the gospel and leads to neglect of believers’ true calling.

This challenges disciples to ask where are our energies, time and resources focused? Are they detached from the church into community and political activism?

Are all our energies and time and money invested in seeking to make the world a better place – whether in political lobbying, environmental protection, business development, social justice activism and so on?

Do we see ‘kingdom-work’ being engaged in any activity that is somehow making the world a better place?

And, returning to Brexit, are our emotions, worries, time and energies focused on the political drama unfolding in Westminster? If they are – what does this say about where we see real powers in the world at work? Are we obsessed with Brexit because we believe that human political power is where things are really at?

Rather than understanding that the future of the world lies elsewhere and that the nations are but a drop in the bucket to the one true God (Isaiah 40:15)

Again, this is not a call for pietistic retreat. It is not a heaven-centred ‘washing of hands’ concerning desperate needs within this broken world and a dualistic desire to ‘get out of here’.

What a kingdom-centred approach to life within the world is where we will go in the next post(s).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Kickstarter to launch Praxis Press, Ireland – an invitation to participate

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A group of Irish Christians are getting together to launch a new publishing imprint, Praxis Press.  

They have a kickstarter campaign to raise €5000 which closes on the 03 May. Check out the website which has a series of short videos sharing the vision.

Something like this takes passion, dedication and courage – if you can, do consider how you can help them reach their target.

The plan is to faciliate Irish voices, engaged in the frontline of ministry and mission, getting into print.

This is important because so much of our theology and thinking about mission, while often excellent – and sometimes not – is ‘imported’ from very different cultural contexts, particularly America.

The plan is to launch 3 books. The first one is already written by Pastor Fraser Hosford. I’ve read it and wrote this endorsement.

It is so good to see an Irish pastor writing about theology, culture and mission for our contemporary Irish context! Fraser Hosford asks an important question – how is the gospel good news in Ireland today? What is so fresh about this book is that he answers this question by engaging thoughtfully and graciously with what real people in Ireland today actually think, believe and hope for. It is from this foundation of careful listening that Hosford unpacks how the gospel is good news for all of life. Peppered with stories and illustrations, the result is a very readable account of how the gospel leads to a flourishing life. Anyone writing about such a great theme has my attention, I suggest that he should have yours as well.

Here is the vision behind Praxis Press in their own words:

There are unique challenges facing the people of God in Ireland. Challenges which resemble challenges faced in other places but are still unique to our island. And so it is that theologies and practices from England, Europe, America and beyond, while meaningful, will never be exactly right for Ireland. This place, this island of poets and dreamers, with its legacy of writers and revolutionaries, of deep spirituality and profound faith needs to elevate its own voices and examine its own mind. In a post Christendom reality, the church must rise again to the challenge of mission, to see itself as sent, in love, to the world. This is not a dire change but a liberating one. As one form of church begins to wane, a freedom actually emerges and it is here that the Irish voice will rise. We seek to elevate the naturally modest Irish missional practitioner. We seek to examine the context of Ireland as a place of mission, engagement and love. We seek to share the ideas, explore the theological reflections and tell the stories of ordinary yet brave Irish Christians who are searching and finding God on the frontier of mission. We want to elevate Jesus in His people, free and at work in this complex and wonderful place.

 

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (43) sub-Christian teaching on the Christian Life

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

We are in the final theme in the book – that of recapitulation.

In the last section of the chapter, Rutledge turns to the ethical implications of the motif of recapitulation.

She uses the idea of ‘takeover’ for recapitulation: believers are delivered from Sin, Death, the Law and have a truly new identity in Christ (incorporation).

There is power here too – not just a theology or an idea, power to live a new life. Rectification (her translation for justification) is powerful – a power to make right what was wrong, not only in believers but in the entire created order.

Being ‘incorporated’, means that believers die and are raised to new life. This is an objective reality, not a subjective feeling or experience.

Yet, she asks searching questions here.

If this is all true, what does such an ontological transformation look like? What does the powerful and victorious Christian life look like?

Her answer is, rightly, ‘cruciform’. This is the paradox of the cross and it is the paradox of the Christian life.

‘Power’ and ‘transformation’ are worked out in suffering,

“… not the ordinary suffering that comes to everyone, but the particular affliction that must come to those who bear witness to the Lord’s death … The suffering endured by Christian witnesses does not come from a place of weakness, but from a place of strength. That is the difference between Christian witness and masochism.” (566-67)

Christian suffering is radically reimagined in that Christ has already ‘paid the price’ and died our death in our place.

“He has lived out – recapitulated – the fate of condemned humanity to the last frontier of the demon-haunted kosmos, and in doing so has brought us over from eternal bondage and condemnation into the eternal realm of the righteousness of God.” (567)

The Gospel and the Christian Life – moving beyond moral exhortation

Linking back to the previous post here and my comments on ‘depressing androcentric preaching’ – Rutledge freely admits that in mainline US Churches there is no shortage of moral exhortation to ‘live a life worthy of the gospel’ – to be more loving, more inclusive, work for peace, be tolerant, care for the sick, provide for the poor … etc.

All these are good and important, however, she argues that,

“What is often missing from such exhortations is the powerful proclamation of the One who is doing the calling, who has ratified our calling in his own blood, who has entered upon the life of ‘Adam’ in order to defeat from inside human nature the work of the Enemy. This is the resounding, foundational gospel message on which the life of the church is built …” (568)

I love this …

“We do not hear enough of the working of God nowadays, though we hear a good deal about our own working – especially our religious working. The message of the gospel, however, is not that of building the kingdom as though we were subcontractors or even free agents …. It is not our spiritual journey that lies at the center of our faith … it is the journey of the incarnate One to us that enables our participation in the redemptive working of God.” (569)

That paragraph takes some chewing.

A personal comment

This is where care and theological attention is needed in preaching and teaching. It is easy to slip into Jesus as a moral example and we essentially now face the task and challenge of living Jesus-shaped lives today – in love, in service, in prayer, in self-giving and so on.

Again, this is not obviously wrong – indeed it is obviously right at one level. In Philippians 2:5-11, Paul encourages Christians to follow the self-giving example of Jesus the incarnate, crucified and resurrected Lord.

Rutledge gives the similar example of 1 John 4:17 “because as [Christ] is so are we in this world.”

But, and this is a big “but”, the Christian life is NOT a moralistic effort to be like Jesus.

Returning to the discussion on depressing preaching in the last post, such moralism ends ‘beating people up’ with the perfect example of Jesus without giving proper attention to these vital things:

  • Our absolute inability to live a righteous life. [Rutledge says ‘incapacity’]
  • The fact that we are not Jesus!
  • Little or no awareness of the ‘apocalyptic war’ – that Christians are in a battle with enemies. And that the Christian life is empowered by the Spirit of God.

Such teaching is therefore theologically naïve and pastorally unhelpful. It is sub-Christian in that it fails to speak of the depths of the human problem and the heights of Christ’s recapitulation of human nature as the second Adam.

The last word to Rutledge on this, as ever she is wonderfully articulate and passionate;

“The apostolic message speaks of our having “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16), being “like him” (1 John 3:2), and “being changed into his likeness” (II Cor. 3:18), but this is true only insofar as he has entered the life of his utterly, irredeemably, lost creation and rewritten its wretched story in his own flesh and blood. Never is it more necessary to say sola gratia (by grace alone) than here.” (570)

In the next post, we move into the Conclusion of Rutledge’s magnum opus.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (42) Unevangelical Preaching vs Evangelical Preaching

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

We are in the final theme in the book – that of recapitulation.

I freely admit that a post or two cannot do justice to a long chapter, much of which traces the thought of Paul in Romans.

This post is breaking in to Rutledge’s discussion of how recapitulation is preached.

To summarise, recapitulation can be seen as “Christ reliving the story of Adam.” (558). As a real human being (incarnation)

“The Son of God secures our redemption, not over against us as a divine being, but restoring our human nature to the righteousness of God from within the depths of our unrighteousness.” (588)

None of this is dependent on us, but on Jesus’ own righteousness.

Rutledge quotes T. F Torrance’s work The Mediation of Christ here (he is the quote within this quote)

‘… we are not saved by any will or any decision of our own. Our rebellious, egocentric, and disloyal human wills have been established “on an entirely different basis by being replaced at the crucial point by Jesus Christ himself.”’ (558-59)

So, if you are a preacher and teacher, how do you preach the good news of the cross? And specifically the theme that ‘all that is Christ’s becomes ours’?

Unevangelical versus evangelical Preaching

Torrance talks about ‘unevangelical preaching’ “which emphasizes human acting and deciding, and true, ‘evangelical preaching’.” (559). Rutledge quotes Torrance at length and with approval. It is worth doing the same and asking some questions as we do so …

What is your response to what Torrance says here? Exciting? Liberating? Troubling?

How does this compare to preaching you hear regularly?

Does it ‘over-do’ divine action and minimise the role of human faith and repentance in salvation?

Torrance:

“From beginning to end what Jesus Christ has done for you he has done not only as God, but as man. He has acted in your place in the whole range of your human life and activity, including your personal decisions, and your response to God’s love, and even your acts of faith. He has believed for you, fulfilled your human response to God, even made your personal decision for you, so that he acknowledges you before God as one who has already responded to God in him, who has already believed in God through him, and whose personal decision is already implicated in Christ’s self-offering to the Father, in all of which he has been fully and completely accepted by the Father, so that in Jesus Christ you are already accepted in him.

[I]t is not upon my faith, my believing, or my personal commitment that I rely, but solely upon what he has done for me, in my place and on my behalf, and what he is and always will be as he stands in for me before the face of the Father.” (559, Rutledge’s added emphasis to highlight Torrance’s use of recapitulation, incorporation, substitution and participation).

In the first paragraph, the theological point being hammered home is that ‘my faith’ is NOT what ‘saves me’ – it is only and completely the work of the incarnate Christ on the cross.

A personal comment on depressing preaching

The gospel calls for a personal response of faith and repentance; this must not be lost. But I like where Torrance is going even if I am not sure I’d go all the way with him.

I have been around a while and there have been too many sermons I’ve heard in my life (and probably preached as well) by the end of which I have ended up feeling frankly depressed!

The thrust has been ‘it all depends on us’: ‘if only we can grasp this’; this experience or that advance ‘is within our reach’; I have discovered this and ‘you can too’ and so on.

Even though God’s grace is talked about, the actual sub-text is that for it to be effective, it is really all up to us / me.

It all adds up to rather exhausting moral exhortation – hence my depression.

The focus is switched from what Christ has done (theo-centric focus), to what I must do if I am to ‘get it’ (andro-centric focus). It almost becomes a form of Gnosticism that we talked about at the start of this series – a secret route to enlightenment for the few and a second-class Christianity for those further back down the path somewhere.

Whereas the preaching of the Christian life, it seems to me, is more like be who you already are in Christ’.

The focus is off ourselves and on Jesus’ completed cross-work:  this is the good news and it is theo-centric through and through.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (28) Therapeutic Christianity

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

This post zones in on one issue raised within Chapter 8 ‘The Great Assize’ – the relationship of the cross to the last judgement.

Rutledge addresses our propensity to want to downplay or get rid of judgement.

Is this your sense of things today? Is judgement rarely talked of? Is God’s love rejoiced in but rarely his righteousness (putting things right through the atonement)? Is God pictured more like a powerful friend than King and Lord of all? Is sin and atonement marginalised – and if so why?

In particular Rutledge explores modern discomfort with images of God as judge associated with the law court and forensic understandings of justice.

Why has there been so much resistance to the law-court motif in interpreting the atonement? … reaction against [judgemental preaching] coincided with the emerging sentimentality of popular late-nineteenth century American culture, with interesting theological results: God was no longer expressing judgement upon sin the sacrifice of his Son, but only love for sinners; no longer was God’s activity portrayed as onslaught, but rather as infiltration. Instead of an apocalyptic invasion, we got “gentle persuasion”. (317)

This is “therapeutic preaching” (317) that minimises God acting against Sin as well as for redemption.

The motive Rutledge identifies is that we don’t want to be judged by other people or by God, we want to be judged by ourselves. We want to be in charge of our own destinies, and, in line with various self-help philosophies, paper over the deep anxieties and conflicts that rage within us in the illusion that we can sort ourselves out.

Yet the good news is that we can’t! It is that God in Jesus Christ has ‘cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands … set [it] aside, nailing it to the cross.’ (318)

Other reactions against an over-emphasis on forensic imagery

Another related reason Rutledge explores is an over-emphasis on the atonement in forensic (legal) terms. This, she argues, sidelines the bigger picture of the cross as God’s apocalyptic ‘in-breaking’ of God into human history to effect a dramatic victory over Sin and Death and the Powers.

An overly legal / courtroom view of the cross tends to reduce its scope to that of judgement and often in individualistic terms. It will also, she argues, tend to focus on legal standing before God – of who is ‘in’ and ‘out’, of guilt and innocence, or moral standards. Yet those lines run through every person.

We need a bigger perspective that the cross is about

‘deliverance from hostile, enslaving powers that are waging war against God’s purposes.’ (320)

The apocalyptic way of seeing transcends an individualistic, pietistic, inward-looking ‘spirituality’ and opens up a horizon of political, social and cosmic implications that has everything to do with the state of our world today and our role as Christians in that world.

If we begin by talking about being acquitted in the courtroom, we are working from a diminished perspective. (319-20).

These are important and controversial proposals. If the gospel is only framed in legal terms there are unforeseen consequences.

If the preacher / pastor is stuck in the realm of the law court, the presentation of the gospel is likely to drift into a moralistic frame of reference. (320)

Forensic imagery if taken in isolation is inimical to the gospel – but not for the reasons that many critics think. The problem is not that we should get rid of the concept of judgment, which is a major theme of both Old and New Testaments. The problem is understanding judgement exclusively in terms of the metaphor of trial, verdict, and sentencing in a court of law. (320)

Rather, Rutledge concludes, the atonement as a courtroom verdict, must be located within the wider and broader apocalyptic framework of God’s deliverance.

My comments – within evangelical Protestantism it is the forensic image of the law court that has for centuries dominated thinking about the atonement. There are links here with what Rutledge is saying to criticisms of how justification by faith become virtually synonymous with ‘the gospel’, yet the two concepts are quite distinct, the former a consequence of the latter.

And how justification by faith, improperly understood, does result in a narrow, individualistic, ‘ledger balance’ understanding of Christ’s work on the cross. It can give the mistaken impression that the Christian faith is a ‘done deal’. ‘My sin problem’ is sorted out and so the Christian life and all that follows – a life in community, service, doing justice, prayer, and spiritual transformation is somewhat detached from ‘salvation’.

This misses the kingdom of God which is at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ, and tends to marginalise the bigger purpose of God for his people to be a kingdom community in the world. It downplays the work of the Spirit and that a response to the gospel is only the beginning of a transformed life lived within the ‘now and the not yet’ of the kingdom come and yet to be fulfilled.

Comments on this welcome!

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (16) Sin: where to begin?

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post, and the next couple, we turn to chapter 4 and ‘The Gravity of Sin’

What is your response to the word ‘Sin’? Emotionally? Intellectually?

What is sin?

Would you agree with Rutledge’s argument in this chapter, that the church has largely lost a sense of the gravity of sin? Are God’s love and grace much talked about, but sin little mentioned? Is it just too ‘negative’ and depressing a topic to focus on?

What is the connection between sin and the gospel? In other words, what is the relationship between the ‘good news’ (of Jesus Christ) and the ‘bad news’ (of human sinfulness)?

So, how to talk about sin today? It is hardly a fashionable, attractive or exciting topic.

In a culture of optimistic self-affirmation, sin is simply not taken seriously as an idea. If mentioned, it is a bit of fun, used to sell some form of ‘sinful’ self-indulgence because ‘you are worth it’ – chocolate, cream, a spa, a holiday. The ‘sin’ of making space for ‘me time’.

The idea of ‘sin’ here is purely ironic, a marketing mechanism. The message underneath the ad being that ‘sin’ (of a bit of self-indulgence) is really a good thing. And the sub-text is that the idea of sin itself (that there is something fundamentally wrong with us and the world) is nonsense, to be smiled at as a primitive idea and dismissed.

The reason Rutledge had the chapter on Justice before this one on Sin – and Anselm in the middle – is that we need to understand God’s justice as his good intent to put things right – ‘liberating and restorative, not crippling and retributive’ (169). Then we are in a position to discuss Sin.

Rutledge uses a capital S – Sin singular, in terms of a general term describing human rebellion against God, a brokenness of relationship that impacts all other relationships.

To be in sin, biblically speaking, means something very much more consequential than wrongdoing; it means being catastrophically separated from the eternal love of God. It means to be on the other side of an impassable barrier of exclusion from God’s heavenly banquet. It means to be helplessly trapped inside one’s worst self, miserably aware of the chasm between the way we are and the way God intends us to be. It means the continuation of the reign of greed, cruelty, rapacity, and violence throughout the world. (174)

Plural ‘sins’ follow on from ‘Sin’ singular.

The point here, and throughout this chapter, is that we have an inbuilt tendency to downplay the gravity of Sin.

In the following quote – does what is said seem surprising or puzzling to you? Why?

The church has always been tempted to recast the Christian story in terms of individual fault and guilt that can be overcome by a decision to repent. This undermines the gospel at its heart. (171)

Hang on a minute – is not the Christian story all about overcoming guilt through repentance? How does it undermine the gospel?

What Rutledge is getting at here is the shift from utter dependence on God to confront and overcome sin, to a more optimistic and spiritually naïve anthropocentric emphasis on what we can do – as if Sin is overcome by our action (of repentance). For Rutledge

‘human repentance is not powerful enough, nor thorough enough or dependable enough to deliver the human race from wrong. (172)

This is why Rutledge is critical of evangelical revivalism – it focuses and actually depends on the human response as the overriding determining factor of salvation. The aim in such evangelism is to whip up emotion, primarily guilt, about ‘my’ sinfulness as a precursor to the resolution of ‘my sin problem’ through my repentance.

To be clear – Rutledge is not denying the importance of repentance. What is being criticised is where one ‘begins’ when talking about the gospel.

This takes us right into recent debates within contemporary evangelicalism, specifically for example, Scot McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel which was discussed at length on this blog some time back.

To recap, McKnight’s criticism is that evangelical revivalism fostered an individualistic salvation narrative, namely, a ‘gospel’ ‘method of persuasion’ designed to evoke a crisis of guilt and a subsequent decision to repent. Ironically, this took the focus off the announcement of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ and zoomed attention in on the resolution of the individual’s ‘sin problem’.

This not only reduces the breadth and scope of the good news, it makes ‘the gospel’ all about ‘my salvation’ (individualistic soteriology) rather than the good news of Jesus and what God has done in Christ (Christology and soteriology – with salvation being much broader than individuals ‘being saved’).

So rather than beginning with the bad news of sin, Rutledge is arguing this,

‘If a congregation is led to an understanding of salvation, the sense of sin will come as a consequence – and then the knowledge that the danger is already past will result in a profound and sincere repentance. That is the proper time to start talking about sin. (173)

In other words, coming at things from a very different angle to McKnight and others, Rutledge is agreeing with them by saying the announcement good news (gospel) of what God has done in Christ comes first. This puts focus where it should be – on the grace, love and saving action of God.

Human response follows – including a deepened awareness of sin and subsequent repentance.

Karl BarthRutledge retells a story of Karl Barth about a Swiss legend. A rider unknowingly crossed a frozen Lake Constance by night. When he realised what had happened he broke down horrified at his near death experience. This is like the impact of the announcement of the gospel. We hear retrospectively the news of what God has done. It is only then we understand the fate from which we have been rescued.

The words of Karl Barth

Do we really live in such danger? Yes, we live on the brink of death. But we have been saved. Look at our Savior, and at our salvation! Look at Jesus Christ on the cross … Do you know for whose sake he is hanging there? For our sake – because of our sin – sharing our captivity – burdened with our suffering! He nails our life to the cross. This is how God had to deal with us. From this darkness he has saved us. He who is not shattered after hearing this news may not yet have grasped the word of God: “By grace you have been saved!” (Barth, Deliverance to the Captives, emphasis in the original in italics. Rutledge, 172-73)

So when it comes to Sin, there is a deep personal response – but it is to the gospel of good news of God’s love and saving action. Salvation does not depend on ‘me’, but on God.

Gospel first, then joy, gratitude, thanksgiving, repentance (a turning to God and from ourselves) and subsequent obedience.

 

Paul’s non-violent Gospel is for all believers

Let me be upfront in this post – any believer who argues that Christians, in particular circumstances, are justified in engaging in war and violence is pushing against the overwhelming ethos of the New Testament and early Church History.

Rather than Christian non-violence being seen as a ‘minority report’ within much of later Western Church history, it should be the other way around – that there should be a default scepticism and ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ around Christian ‘just war’ theory because it is so manifestly out of step with Jesus, Paul and the rest of the NT.

This isn’t just an ‘ethical issue’ – non-violence is integral to the gospel, it should shape the lives, attitudes and words of all Christian disciples.

Below is a review of mine of a book making a convincing case along these lines for Paul. Jesus’ teaching to love enemies and of non-retaliation is not just some idealised unrealistic ethic that can be left safely with the ‘perfect man’ – it was embodied within Paul’s own experience and understanding of the gospel itself.

Have a read and see what you think – comments welcome

Jeremy Gabrielson: gabrielsonPaul’s Non-Violent Gospel: The Theological Politics of Peace in Paul’s Life and Letters (Pickwick Publications: Eugene OR, 2013. Pbk. pp.204. ISBN 978-1-62032-945-0)

This book represents the fruit of a PhD completed at the University of St Andrews under the supervision of Bruce Longenecker. Gabrielson’s theme is that non-violence for Paul was “not simply an ethical implication of the gospel, but is itself constitutive of the politics of the gospel.” (168)

By this he means that the gospel forms a counter-cultural political body that responds to evil and enmity not with violence or force but with good. The motive for such counter-intuitive enemy-love is not to avoid suffering. Rather, quoting Yoder, it “heralds to the cosmos that in God’s kingdom ‘the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history’.”(169)

A distinctive element of Gabrielson’s articulation of Christian non-violence is his focus on how Paul’s personal biography of violence informs his theology. In other words, Paul’s teaching of peace and non-retaliation are not merely generalised ethical principles drawn from his Jewish context (important though that is) but should be interpreted through the grid of the apostle’s dramatic experience of supporting and subsequently renouncing violence.

This thesis is unpacked in most detail in the longest chapter in the book, ‘Trajectories of Violence and Peace in Galatians’. The ‘pre-Christian’ Paul is a violent persecutor (1:13, 23) who tried to ‘destroy’ the fledgling messianic movement of Jesus-followers. Gabrielson is cautious about filling in the details of Paul’s account via the later writings of Luke; he argues that Paul’s own words (‘destroy’ and ‘persecute’) presuppose physical violence. Based on parallel examples in Philo, he suggests that Paul’s exceptional zeal could have been understood as a virtue whereby perceived transgression of the Torah would rightly have been violently punished. So, while there is no explicit mention in Paul of being involved in killing, his own language, the Jewish context and the documented experience of the first Christians of violent persecution all combine to support such a possibility.

This leads Gabrielson to propose that Paul’s experience of the risen Christ not only causes deep and profound shifts in his understanding of the law, faith and righteousness but also in his understanding of a peaceable life that pleases God. Gone is the notion of ‘righteous violence’. Instead, the humiliating and debasing horror of crucifixion is reimagined to a degree that the apostle can rejoice that he has been ‘crucified with Christ’ and his former self no longer lives (Gal. 2:19-20) now that he is a ‘slave’ (1:10) of Christ. Gabrielson concludes

“The violent Paul died when Christ was apocalypsed in him; now Christ-in-Paul shapes Paul’s life in the flesh in a cruciform existence.” (95)

This stance frames the author’s unpacking of Galatians’ rich understanding of the Christian life. New life in the Spirit will embrace and overcome suffering. It will be a life of love and giving; bearing burdens and enacting forgiveness. It leads to the paradox of Christian freedom, where freedom takes the form of voluntary ‘slavery’ of love and obedience to the risen Lord.

This new life leads to a new political order of ‘doing good’ to all, especially the household of God (6:9). Yet peaceableness does not mean that violence will not come one’s way. This is why Paul warns his communities that the violent world would probably do its violent worst – they should expect suffering and trouble.  But their response was to repay evil with good; to embody a politics of peace in the face of a politics of violence.

Gabrielson’s argument is well made and persuasive. A vast amount of scholarly attention has been, and continues to be, focused on Paul, righteousness and the law. This is perfectly understandable given the weight and breadth of the theological issues at stake. Those debates revolve around questions such as how exactly did the ‘new’ Paul differ from the ‘old’ Paul?; what was Paul ‘converted’ from?; what were the continuities and discontinuities in his understanding of the Torah? It is refreshing to see another, frequently overlooked, angle to these sorts of questions unpacked in this book – that of Paul’s shift from violence to non-violence.

Paul, Gabrielson argues, did not come to such a remarkable and counter-cultural position lightly. In an opening context-setting chapter on ‘The End of Violence in Matthew’, he argues that the Gospel makes plain, on multiple levels, that Jesus was remembered as the Messiah who, despite living in a culture steeped in violence, chose non-violent resistance – and that choice cost him his life.

Paul’s general commitment to non-violence is traced in a subsequent chapter on ‘The Memory of a Non-Violent Jesus in Paul’s Letters’. After careful analysis of Jesus Tradition in Paul, Gabrielson concludes that Paul, ‘like virtually every early Christian author’, included the most memorable and startling elements of Jesus’ teaching. Living peaceably in a violent world was one of the

“most salient features of the teaching and example of the historical Jesus … because it was this Jesus who was recognizable as staying true to the living voice of Apostolic testimony” (78).

A further chapter focuses on supporting evidence for this conclusion drawn from a study of 1 Thessalonians. The case made here is that as early as 50 CE Paul is exhorting Thessalonian Christians to imitate the peaceful response of non-violent perseverance to suffering earlier demonstrated by the Judean churches (1 Thes 2:14-16). If referring to the Judean church’s suffering under Paul’s own persecution in the early 30s CE, this locates Christian non-violence at the earliest possible stage of church history in a non-Pauline church. The implications are significant: the practice of Christian non-violence was demonstrably evident in every geopolitical context (Palestinian, Asian, Greek and Roman Christianity) and under different founding missionaries and leaders.

In other words, non-violence is intrinsic to the gospel of Jesus Christ – who pioneered the non-violent politics of the kingdom of God for his disciples to follow.

A significant hermeneutical question lurks in the background of Gabrielson’s analysis. Namely, is Paul’s biography of violence paradigmatic for all believers?

While not exploring contemporary implications in detail, Gabrielson believes it is. A life of non-violence is not just a personal ethical ‘choice’ for a Christian; it is an intrinsic part of belonging to the new age of the Spirit.

“The sway of the cosmos, the old-age modus operandi, led to Paul’s violence, but Paul’s new modus operandi, his new trajectory involves living into the new creation which has as its gravitational center the cross of Christ” (99-100).

At one point Gabrielson quotes approvingly from Michael Gorman’s excellent book, Inhabiting the Cruciform God (158-9) that

“If the conversion of Paul, grounded in the resurrection of Christ, is paradigmatic, it is paradigmatic in multiple ways, not least of which is his conversion from violence to non-violence.”

Such a conclusion is, of course, highly contested. The biblical and theological case for Christian non-violence has been well mapped out, as have Christian counter arguments. While this book does not offer anything radically new to those discussions, it does add a fresh, coherent and strong strand to the case for Christian non-violence.

There are some weaker points and omissions. It is not clear that Galatians 2:10 is Paul speaking autobiographically of his ‘old’ violent self. The link from righteous violence in Philo to righteous violence in Paul is possible, but theoretical. The conclusions drawn from 1 Thessalonians are implicit rather than explicit. It is surprising that there is no discussion of Romans 13 given its significance in how Paul’s relationship with violence has been interpreted historically.

But overall, if Gabrielson is right, and I believe he is, this work has profound implications for all Christians globally.

It also highlights how, such is the coherence and unified witness of Paul and the other writers of the New Testament, that a Christian argument for a just use of violence is almost inevitably forced to go beyond the biblical texts to try to find other grounds on which to base its case.