On Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight

As a teacher who also loves to write, now and then you come across a book that makes you wish you’d written it. It captures what you have been thinking and teaching about for a long time, only in a much better way than you could ever have hoped to articulate!

Mark Clavier’s On Consumer Culture, Identity, The Church and the Rhetorics of Delight is such a book. It’s a gem. He is Residentiary Dean of Brecon Cathedral.

I got a copy out of curiosity since the description overlapped so much with themes covered in a course I teach called ‘Faith and Contemporary Culture’.

In the course we spend most of the time exploring the story, appeal (‘Rhetoric’) and pervasive power of consumerism to shape our identities and capture our hearts.

We consider how consumerism shapes contemporary Christianity at an individual and corporate level, and how, despite its ubiquity, it is rarely preached and talked about – almost like an invisible force shaping every aspect of our lives that we remain blind to.

The core of the course is the idea that consumerism is an issue not of the ‘head’ but of the heart, and it is the heart that truly shapes our ‘loves’ and our choices – how we live our lives day by day.

We spend time particularly with Augustine, the great Christian theologian of the heart, who saw more clearly than most, how it is the heart that is the seat of our identity.

We look at the teaching of Jesus on money and how Augustine’s focus on the heart is faithful to Jesus’ radical challenge around discipleship.

We bring in J K A Smith and his modern re-appropriation of Augustine and his argument that so much Christianity is rationalistic. Human beings are not ‘brains on a stick’ but lovers – we ‘believe’ through passionate commitments to stories that capture our hearts and imaginations.

An aside: It is my conviction that Christian discipleship should ultimately be framed around love. The baseline issue in being a Christian is what or who we love the most. And so any discussion or ‘programme’ of discipleship that does not focus on the heart is missing the point …

So, it has been a joy to read Clavier: he captures the dynamics of modern consumerism; he engages in depth with Augustine (the book series he is writing for is ‘Reading Augustine’); he links to J K A Smith; he brings in Stanley Hauerwas and he resists any easy ‘step by step guide’ to ‘how to beat consumerism’…

Another aside: In The Message of Love, published next month, I have a chapter on ‘Love Gone Wrong: Money’ – in which all of the above themes appear so you can see why I have found this book both helpful and significant.

So, after a rather long break from blogging – due in part to some globe trotting over the summer – this post is the first of a series on Clavier’s excellent book. More to come.

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Christ is Risen!

Greetings this Easter Sunday, a day to celebrate the victory of God in Christ, the Risen Lord.

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddAfter our Lenten series, what could be more appropriate than some words from the marvellous writer and theologian, Fleming Rutledge on the theme of Christus Victor.

The Christus Victor theme in the New Testament … speaks with new force and relevance for today because it grants evil its due. The theme emphasizes the infernal intelligence, the annihilating force, the lethal fury of the demonic Powers. In the contemporary world we know too much of this kind of evil. Anyone following the news as the twenty-first century continues to unfold must know the feeling that our globe is inhabited by truly unbearable wickedness, and that this wickedness is out of control. (392)

It is in to this reality that Easter speaks – of the crucifixion and apparent defeat of good by evil, and of the Risen Lord, triumphant over Sin, death and the powers of evil.

Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus

… the Christian life does not go on as if the world had remained unchanged. The church is not a redeemed boat floating in an unredeemed sea. It is not as if the only thing that has changed is that our sins are forgiven and we, person by person, come to believe in Jesus. Rather, there has been a transfer of aeons, an exchange of one kosmos for another. The Powers and the principalities may not know it but their foundations have been undermined and cannot last. The creation itself has been and is being invaded by the new world, the age to come. (393, my emphasis)

Romans 8:20-21

20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

 

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (29) The wrath of God understood pastorally

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.

And, in a very big chapter, we are going to focus in on one issue that Rutledge discusses along the way – that of the wrath of God.

The wrath of God is linked to both the law court (we are guilty) and to the larger apocalyptic framework of his war against Sin and evil Powers.

It is impossible, I think, to take the Bible seriously and not face head-on the way that God’s wrath is integral to both Old and New Testaments.

Hundreds of texts could be referenced. Rutledge refers to Isaiah 13:11-13. One I find particularly sobering is Isaiah 63 – which reappears in revelation 19:13, this time referring to Jesus as the divine warrior whose robe is dipped in blood.

Why are your garments red,
like those of one treading the winepress?

“I have trodden the winepress alone;
from the nations no one was with me.
I trampled them in my anger
and trod them down in my wrath;
their blood spattered my garments,
and I stained all my clothing.
It was for me the day of vengeance;
the year for me to redeem had come.
I looked, but there was no one to help,
I was appalled that no one gave support;
so my own arm achieved salvation for me,
and my own wrath sustained me.
I trampled the nations in my anger;
in my wrath I made them drunk
and poured their blood on the ground.”

Revelation 19:11-16

11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:

king of kings and lord of lords.

This is a long way from ‘Jesus meek and mild’.

Rutledge acknowledges that such texts have all but disappeared from mainline USA churches but argues that

“It takes effort and risk to sit with these verses in order to study or teach them, but if we do not, we are left with sentimentality instead of transformation.” (322)

If creation is to be set to rights this means there must be a day of reckoning,

“a conclusive judgment upon and rejection of all that threatens God’s eternal plan.’ (322)

This poses a challenge for preachers and teachers today not to give a distorted picture of the nature of God. His wrath

“is always exercised in the service of God’s good purposes. It is the unconditional love of God manifested against anything that would frustrate or destroy the designs of his love.” (323)

Consider Romans 5:8-10 – how do you read this text?

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

Is it to be read chronologically? Namely:

  1. We were God’s enemies
  2. We needed to be saved from his wrath
  3. Now ‘justified by his blood’ we were reconciled
  4. God’s wrath has now been lifted.

Rutledge argues that this chronological view is a “misleading reading of the passage” (323). What do you make of her interpretation here?

“God did not change his mind about us on account of the cross or on any other account. He did not need to have his mind changed. He was never opposed to us. It is not his opposition to us but our opposition to him that had to be overcome, and the only way it could be overcome was from God’s side, by God’s initiative, from inside human flesh – the human flesh of his Son.” (323)

Rutledge is keen to avoid here any sense of ‘schizophrenia’ in God (if I may be so bold to use such an image). She does not say this, but close to the surface here is a concern with creating an impression that God has to overcome his wrath in himself by taking out that wrath on his Son.

Rather,

“The divine hostility, or wrath of God, has always been an aspect of his love. It is not separate from God’s love, it is not opposite to God’s love, it is not something in God that has to be overcome.” (323)

To which I say, Amen.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (24) modern objections to self-sacrifice

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 we finish Chapter 6, ‘The Blood Sacrifice’. Again, there is far more here than I am commenting on, this simply gives a flavour of the discussion.

Some of the themes unpacked are:

  • Sacrifice in the book of Hebrews
  • The lamb of God
  • The story of Abraham and Isaac – a theological interpretation of sacrifice and substitution
  • The temple veil and the mercy seat
  • The Greek word hilasterion – does it mean ‘propitiation’ (the barrier lies within God himself, hence a sense of somehow satisfying God’s wrath) or ‘expiation’ (an action aimed at removing the barrier of sin that lies between us and God). Rutledge denies neither, coming down on expiation as the primary cause of the atonement and propitiation as a secondary result.

The idea of self-sacrifice today

But the topic we are going to zone in on is Rutledge’s discussion of modern attitudes to self-sacrifice.

This blog has had regular discussions of contemporary consumerism as a theological issue and form of modern idolatry. Rutledge is spot on in her description of our Western consumer society as unheralded in human history, ‘it is like nothing the world has ever seen before’ (271).

The fragmenting of social ties and a culture of instant everything, has, she argues, resulted in an emptying out of ‘any sense of the value of sacrifice in ordinary life’ (271)

So you agree with this? Is it too strong? Are not many millennials searching for significance and a worthwhile cause precisely because of the emptiness of our all-embracing consumer culture?

Women’s objections to sacrifice as empowerment

But Rutledge’s main discussion is on women’s objections to sacrifice as empowerment. By this she refers to a reaction by many women thinkers, arising out of women’s experience, that they have been the sex expected to bear a disproportionate burden of sacrifice.

“Many women have been conditioned to think that they have no choice except to be ignored, patronised, exploited, and abused. This has been disabling for women, profoundly so in many cases, and it is part of the work of the church in our time to rethink this whole matter. (272)

My comment – there is some echo of Nietzsche here and his critique of Christianity as weakness, representing life-denying death and nothingness.

The central objection, Rutledge says, is that sacrifice has functioned, and been valued, as a means of denying fulfilment to women. It has resulted in women being subordinated and disempowered. This is religion of repression and is far from the authentic teaching and life of Jesus (273).

We will never get past this hurdle if sacrifice is thought to be a form of weakness and abject self-suppression. (273)

Sacrifice as an alternative mode of power

The alternative Rutledge proposes sounds surprising

The way to rethink sacrifice is in terms of power (273)

But she means by this a ‘good’ sense of power, rather than ‘bad’ (suppression). Jesus lived a self-sacrificial life that embodied ‘an alternative mode of power’ (274)

Here we get to the paradox of the cross. It is in apparent ‘weakness’ and sacrificial self-giving that the powers of Sin and Death are confronted and overcome.

Paul particularly, sees Jesus’ death as an ‘apocalyptic confrontation with the forces of the enemy’ (274). Jesus’ giving of himself is the ultimate ‘weapon’ in the war.

If I can bring in love here – the same paradox is in play. I have a section discussing this same point. The battle is not won by taking on Sin and the powers on their own terms – it is won by ‘the alternative mode of power’. Love is God’s weapon in the war.

And I wonder how different the history of Christianity would be if those who bear Christ’s name really believed this rather than trust in the weapons of the world to effect ‘peace’?

Rutledge quotes Hebrews 2:14-15 to make a similar point – it is in death of the Messiah that the battle is won. This is the upside down model of power in God’s economy

14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

‘True power is best seen in a life willingly offered as sacrifice for the sake of others’ (275)

And where Rutledge is so good is in preaching mode where she sets out a vision for this alternative way of being in the world for the people of God today. It is worth repeating what she says in full;

Such a life, rightly understood, is uniquely empowering because it is aligned with the self-giving God in Jesus Christ. Wherever there are gracious acts of unselfishness, there are the signs of God’s kingdom of remade relationships based on mutual self-offering. Even in this old world ruled by Sin and Death, who would want to live a life of utter selfishness? To show any kind of care for others at all, some sort of sacrifice is necessary every day – to be magnanimous instead of vindictive, to stand back and let someone else share the limelight, to absorb the anger of a teenager in order to show firm guidance, to be patient with a parent who has Alzheimer’s, to refrain from undermining a colleague, to give away money one would like to spend on luxuries, to give up smoking, to bear with those who can’t give up smoking – all such things, large and small, require sacrifice. What would life be without it? (275)

Sacrifice for the ungodly

Yet, even this is not the last word. The paradox of the cross goes further … summarised in these two texts:

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.  1 Peter 3:18

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

The deepest paradox of the cross is that the righteous dies for the unrighteous.

It marked Jesus’ life and this means ‘constant identification with death on the part of his followers’ (277).

This is what C S Lewis called ‘deep magic’.  It is the most revolutionary idea imaginable. It is the way God does things.

What does ‘identification with death’ mean today? What really ‘costs’ you to follow Jesus? And how is this sacrifice, paradoxically, life-giving?

Next we move to chapter 7 on ‘Ransom and Redemption’.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (23) The Blood Sacrifice

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 we continue within Chapter 6, ‘The Blood Sacrifice’. This is a big chapter and I am only focusing on a couple of discussions.

Perhaps you have done something ‘sacrificial’ for someone recently?

What makes something a sacrifice?

Rutledge says at least two ideas are present:

  • Something of value is relinquished
  • The purpose is to gain a greater good

This can be a verb denoting an action – you sacrificed something for that person.

Or it can be noun – where the thing itself being relinquished is itself the sacrifice. Like a pawn in a chess match perhaps (239)

In Jesus both the verb and noun come together.

He acts sacrificially. He chooses to go to Jerusalem. (Rutledge does not mention this, but Philippians 2:7 and Jesus’ ‘self-emptying’ and making himself a servant comes to mind here).

He himself is the sacrifice. He willingly allows himself to be sacrificed.

And in combining these two ideas in one person

‘the claim made by the apostolic preaching stands alone in the history of the world, let alone the history of religion, in this one regard: it proclaims this one sacrifice as efficacious for the whole human race and the entire cosmos for all time. (240 emphasis original)

The cost of atonement

There follows a long discussion of sacrifice in the OT, particularly Leviticus. Rutledge’s conclusion is

Basic to the ritual is the idea that atonement for sin costs something. Something valuable has to be offered in restitution. The life of the sacrificed animal, together with the sense of awe associated with the shedding of blood, represents this payment …  The use of the phrase “the blood of Christ” in the New Testament carries with it this sacrificial, atoning significance in a primordial sense … (245)

One of the simplest ways of understanding the death of Jesus is to say that when we look at the cross, we see what it cost God to secure our release from sin (245-46)

And the fundamental message of the book of Hebrews is that in Christ a superior, perfect and complete sacrifice has been offered in Christ.

This is NOT to say that God somehow tried the OT sacrificial system as ‘Plan A’ and, when it did not work, abandoned it for ‘Plan B’ – the sending of his Son. Rutledge rightly resists this Marcionite type of reading of the Bible that radically devalues the OT.

The inadequacies in the system were not a flaw in the design, but part of God’s purpose from the beginning (Heb. 7:11) (246)

In other words, the concept of sacrifice as atonement for sin

was part of God’s preparation of his people for the sacrifice that would not fail, namely, the self-offering of the Son. This is a crucial theological point, namely, that the sacrifice of Christ was not God’s reaction to human sin, but an inherent, original movement within God’s very being. It is the nature of God to offer God’s self sacrificially. (247, my emphasis)

Have a think about that last sentence. If it does not lift our hearts in awe and thanksgiving then perhaps we have yet to understand and experience the ‘wonder of the cross’ for ourselves.

In the next post we continue within this theme of the cross as a blood sacrifice.

How Important is Love? (6) John and Love, a 10 point summary

aliandninoOn this Valentine’s day it seems appropriate to turn to the supreme theologian of love in the NT – the apostle John. No-one, not even Paul, speaks more of love than John. But it’s not just a matter of quantity – John’s theology of love elevates love to new heights. It is he alone in the Bible who describes God as love (vs 8 and 16).

A good way in to John is to look at the most condensed section of his teaching on love in 1 John 4:7-12.

7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

It’s worth counting the number of times love appears in these 6 verses (I make it 13).

While John’s style is simple his content is anything but simplistic.

What strikes you from these verses?

Again, look for how love is both the MOTIVE and the GOAL of God’s action in his Son.

Here’s a 10 point summary

1) Love originates in God – he is both the source of love and, in himself, is love.

2) By implication, all that God is and does is loving. In him is no ‘unlove’ – or, as John puts it, since God is light, in him is no darkness at all.

3) No-one else loves like this, of no-one else can it be said that they are ‘love’. There is a qualitative gulf between divine and human love. Humans cannot ‘naturally’ love in the way God loves. Such love is a gift from God.

[An aside here: I don’t think John is necessarily saying humans cannot love – he is saying they cannot love in the way God loves without knowing God himself.]

4) The supreme way he shows his love for us is in the sending of his Son into this broken world (‘sending’ here is shorthand for incarnation, life, death and resurrection).

5) The cross of Christ is where sins are atoned for. While not spelt out, it is in and through atonement that humans can come to know God through being born of God. There is therefore a humility required in order to love – a need for faith and repentance and openness to God’s help and empowering to love.

6) God, out of love, enables humans to know him who is love, and therefore to be transformed into people of love.

7) Divine love in this sense is contagious. It is in knowing God and having God live in us that humans are enabled to love.

8) Yet this is not ‘automatic’: love is a moral choice. John invites and exhorts his readers – ‘Let us love one another’; ‘we ought to love one another’.

9) Love is an essential and universal requirement for every Christian – it is the fundamental ‘baseline standard’ for the Christian life.  Note how John the great apostle includes himself in the call to love – ‘Let us love’. An absence of love reveals that God is not known at all.

10) What does love ‘look like’ in practice? The answer, as is so often the case, is Jesus.

Verse 17 ‘This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: in this world we are like Jesus.’

Love is a life looking away from the self and poured out for the good of others.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

How Important is Love? (5) Jesus and Love

aliandninoIf love is hugely important in Paul, how important is love in Jesus?

The best book that I’ve come across over the last couple of years of reading a lot on love is Simon May’s, Love: A History.

It is excellent: his writing is a pleasure to read, his overall argument is exceptionally well made, and he paints fascinating portraits of philosophers and theologians who have written about love through the centuries.

But when it comes to Jesus and love, May argues that love just wasn’t that important for the Messiah as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. Certainly not in the way it was for the two major theologians of love in the NT – Paul and John, nor compared to how love came to be elevated in later Christian theology, especially from Augustine on.

Jesus, his argument goes, does not make love the ultimate virtue. He does not say ‘God is love’. He basically reaffirms OT love commands: love of God and love of neighbour is fulfilment of the law.

Even the radical innovation of enemy love is a sub-set of neighbour love – the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that your enemy is your neighbour.

Does this sound surprising?  Isn’t Jesus the anti-establishment prophet who shows love to all and makes love the defining characteristic of Christianity (as opposed to the legalism of the Pharisees and the OT law generally)?

Certainly in some strands of Christian theology, Jesus is held up as the one whose way of love liberates us from OT ‘law’ (Anders Nygren). But such ‘love versus the law’ theology is unsustainable. It is almost Marcionite in its negative view of the OT. It doesn’t fit Jesus, nor Paul. Both see love as a fulfilment of the law.

So I want to agree and disagree with May.

Yes, Jesus’ teaching on love fits fairly and squarely within the OT.

But I don’t see a chasm between Jesus and Paul & John when it comes to love. Love is critically important to Jesus. The entire goal of the law and prophets is fulfilled in love for God and neighbour. Those who love are greatly commended.

What May, I think, downplays, is how there is a development of theology of love in the NT.

It is not that Paul and John can be compared to Jesus as if all three were independent ancient philosophers of love, and that Paul and John, in very distinct ways, are responsible for ‘inventing’ Christian love and taking it to places that are foreign to the teaching of Jesus.

Rather, as I see it, the theologies of love in Paul and John undergo radical development in light of Jesus – and most especially in the shadow of the cross and in the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit.

The cross is reinterpreted not as a shameful defeat, but as a glorious demonstration of divine love.

The Spirit is the empowering presence of God who enables spiritual transformation – the most significant aspect of which is love.

It is these two developments that give shape to a NT theology of love. It is not that Paul and John are going off on a totally new tangent of their own. Nothing they say is incompatible with Jesus’ teaching on love.

What both of them see, in different ways, is how love is both the motive for God’s saving work in Christ (the cross) and the desired outcome of that saving work (a life of love lived in the Spirit).

It is to the unique importance of love in John that we turn next – tune in!

Comments, as ever, welcome.