A Christmas 2017 reflection: four stories

The Gospels are richly theological accounts of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Messiah. They are, in other words, not only telling us ‘what happened’ but also why it happened.

Think of it this way:

The Gospels tell us all about ‘the story of Jesus’. That story, of course, begins with the incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas.

But the story of Jesus only makes sense if set within 3 other broader stories that, together, frame the story of the Bible.

The story of Jesus is the innermost or climatic story of the 4.  We need to appreciate how it fits within the wider framework if we are to understand the ‘why’ of the incarnation.

  1. THE STORY OF GOD

At the broadest level, there is the ‘Story of God’ himself. This story encompasses all the others for the Bible is, in effect, the story of God ‘s redemptive action in the world in response to sin, death and rebellion.

That response is trinitarian: Father, Son and Spirit, working in love to bring life, forgiveness, restoration – to form a covenant people bearing his image and to redeem all of creation.

2. THE STORY OF THE WORLD 

The second story is of the world we live in – a world of beauty and of ugliness; of hope and despair; of love and of hate. A wonderful, awe-inspiring creation disfigured by sin, death, grief and injustice. It is God’s love for this world that is the divine motive for the incarnation.

3. THE STORY OF ISRAEL

But before the incarnation of the Son, we must not skip the third story – the story of God’s elect people through whom salvation comes. So much Christian theology tends to do this – to jump from creation and fall to the coming of the Christ. The Old Testament takes up most of the story for a purpose! The story of Christmas only makes sense within the story of Israel. Jesus is first Israel’s Messiah – who is also the saviour of the world.

4. THE STORY OF JESUS

This is the story that, in effect, is the focus of the entire New Testament. The Gospels and the rest of the NT is a theological explanation of the story of Jesus (Christology) in light of the story of Israel, the story of the world gone wrong and the story of God. Pretty well every page of the NT is this sort of dialogue being worked out in hundreds of different ways. Jesus fulfils the Story of Israel. Father, Son and Spirit together work to effect salvation.

It is the story of Jesus and the Spirit that broadens the story of Israel to welcome in the Gentiles. It is in Jesus’ death that victory is won over all forces that oppose God’s good purposes – sin, death, the Devil and the powers.

THIS CHRISTMAS

But, most relevantly for this Christmas week, it is in the story of Jesus that we see who God is most clearly revealed. See how the four stories are interwoven in Colossians 1. 1-15 and especially its focus on the unique identity and authority of the Son.

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

So, this Christmas we celebrate the Lord of creation, in whom dwells all the fullness of God himself, come to earth as a real man who can shed real blood. No greater act of self-giving love is possible to conceive.

And in doing so, we look forward to Easter, for it is this God-man who dies on the cruel wood of a Roman cross to bring reconciliation and peace to this world and all of creation.

So, whatever your circumstances this Christmas, may these four inter-connected stories give you joy, thankfulness and hope. For being a Christian, is to join our own story in with the story of God (by God’s grace), the story of the world gone wrong (owning our own sin), the story of Israel (a Christian becomes a member of the new covenant people of God) and the story of Jesus (by turning to him in faith and repentance).

Best wishes for a joyful and peaceful Christmas!

 

 

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Some things Jesus was terrible at

Incipit to Luke
Incipit to Luke, Book of Kells

I’m doing some reading and writing on Luke 6 and particularly Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Plain’ (6:17-49). A couple of excerpts from Luke:

Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man. (6:20-22)

And

But to you who are listening I say: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.  (6:27-36)

What might you call the theology behind Jesus’ call to discipleship in the Sermon on the Plain?

An anti-success theology?

You are going to be poor, hungry, weeping and hated. This in contrast to being rich, comfortable, well-fed and well-respected (vv. 24-26). This is just slightly incompatible with the capitalist pursuit of wealth and happiness in the here and now.

A guarantee of suffering theology?

Enemies may, and probably will, do their very worst to you. Be ready for it.

A very-delayed gratification theology?

Blessings are promised now but are guaranteed only in the next life. ‘Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.‘ (vs. 23) In the meantime in your suffering continue to have faith and trust in a future day of justice for you ain’t going to see it in this life.

A blessing of opposition theology?

To be persecuted for the name of the Son of Man is a privilege not a disaster. Don’t complain, embrace it.

A willingness to be hated and taken-advantage theology?

Love enemies in a way the boggles the mind of them and anyone else watching. It is going to be personally extremely costly – emotionally and financially.

A self-sacrifical costly love theology?

There is zero self-interest in this life to Jesus’ calls to love enemies. Love for the sake of it. Love because God is like that. Love as God loves whatever the cost.

Jesus the terrible salesman

Jesus is simply a terrible salesman.

Nothing about material comfort, security, the right to happiness, social standing. Not a  word about how much we are loved by God. Not a mention of unconditional grace.

But instead a whole bunch of well-on-nigh impossible exhortations that are guaranteed to seriously inconvenience disciples’ lives.

Surely this sermon needs to be sent back to the marketing department for a serious re-write.

I wonder what the re-draft would look like?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Have we lost touch with the foolishness of Christianity?

Last weekend I had the privilege of being the speaker at a Christian Universities of Ireland (CUI) weekend down in Castledaly Manor, near Athlone. A great bunch to work with – thanks Louise, Peter, Helen, Neus and Grace and the rest of the team – and students!

The theme was ‘Fools Talk’ and there were 4 talks:

  1. God’s Foolish Choices
  2. God’s Foolish Method
  3. The foolishness of the Christian Life
  4. The foolishness of Christian Hope.

Preparing and delivering these talks was hugely enjoyable – and in doing so it hit afresh just how ‘other’ and unexpectedly strange the story of the Christian faith is.

Put another way, the shift from OT to NT, from old covenant to new covenant, from John the Baptist and the preceding OT prophetic tradition to Jesus the crucified Messiah represents a profound and radical disruption within the biblical narrative.

Or yet another way – there are a variety of helpful diagrams that outline the entire biblical narrative. Take this one, adapted from Tim Chester’s little book Creation to New Creation:

story

I developed my own diagram of Paul’s narrative thought in a chapter within The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life. It tried to capture both continuity and discontinuity between Saul and Paul, between Judaism and Christianity.

Such diagrams are great at showing how there is one unfolding, coherent narrative – and how crucial it is for any authentically Christian theology and Christian ethics to work out from that overarching narrative.

But here’s the thing that struck me with new force last weekend. They make it appear that the narrative is ‘easy’ and obvious, flowing in one smooth direction – the story unfolding in a logical sequence that participants would have recognised.

Far from it.

At just about EVERY point, the disruption or ‘plot twist’ caused by Jesus is so unexpected and radical, that the story takes an almost unrecognizable new direction. It is only with a lot of re-reading of the original narrative (OT) that you can begin to see the links. They are there, but it took extraordinary events for the first Christians to have their eyes opened to those links (see Peter’s speech in Acts 2 for example).

In saying this, I am shifting from a strong emphasis on ‘one unfolding narrative’ to at least somewhat towards a more apocalyptic reading of the NT as a shocking divine incursion into human history.

For example, just consider the depth of the disjunctures below:

Picture2However, you understand the reconfiguring of ISRAEL, the inclusion of Gentile sinners is no small plot development in the story; it is a paradigm shift of mind-numbing proportions.

So too is the relativisation of the TEMPLE in the NT to where Jew & Gentile believers form the Temple where God’s Spirit dwells.

As is the fulfilment of the TORAH through life in the Spirit and the irrelevance of covenant markers like circumcision.

All this even before we begin considering the deepest disjunctures in the story so far – a theology of atonement centered on a CRUCIFIED MESSIAH.

And, most remarkable of all, the story now brings into focus a new understanding of GOD himself – the eternal Son of God incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary, the risen Lord who takes on YHWH’s titles and roles; and the Spirit of God now given as a gift to all who have faith in the Son.

What other major disjunctures would you add?

Here are some more.

LAND – the story of the promised land hits another radical disjuncture in the NT. Most Christians see the narrative trajectory of land coming to an end with the global constitution of the people of God by the Spirit.

Then there is the small matter of the RESURRECTION of the Messiah – an utterly unexpected event, on top of his utterly unexpected crucifixion.

And to this we could add ESCHATOLOGY – the surprise new ending to the narrative of the parousia of the Messiah and Lord, who will act as judge and dwell with God in the new creation (Rev 21-22).

And then you have completely foolish stuff like loving your enemies and following Jesus AND Paul’s gospel of non-violence.

It is no wonder, is it not, that one of Paul’s favourite words for what God had done in Christ was MYSTERY that had been hidden from everyone?  Consider these verses:

… we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. (1 Cor 2: 7)

All this raises a challenge for being Christian today does it not?:

– if Christianity is pervasively and shockingly ‘Other’

– if the gospel is a Mystery that was completely hidden from view

– if God is the author of that mystery who does things no-one sees coming

Then how is it that so much of our Western Christianity seems well – so unmysterious? Unsurprising? Un-shocking? 

Where much church life is pretty conventional, predictable, ‘normal’ and fairly easily adapted to 21st Western culture?

Where ‘being Christian’ tends not to involve that radical a disjuncture with the dominant values of the Western world?

And does ‘renewal’ then involve recapturing something of the ‘Otherness’ and surprising power of the Christian story in a way that disrupts comfortable assumptions?

Any suggestions or resources for going about this welcome!

 

The Song of Songs, love, sex and hidden meanings (3): celibacy better than sex?

Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last-1

In this post (it’s in the text if you look hard enough) and this post (an ambivalent attitude to sex and the body) we have looked at two reasons why in Church History Christians have defaulted to an allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs.

So far we moderns may be feeling rather smug at the naive foolishness of our predecessors.

Of course let the text be the text!

Of course the body and sex are to be celebrated and enjoyed! 

Not so fast. As we come to the third reason we begin to be faced with some uncomfortable truths about the Church’s accommodation to Western romantic individualism and its idolisation of the body and sex.  The third reason is this:

3. In the New Testament, celibacy IS the better option than marriage for a disciple of Jesus.

The first Christians and the early church fathers knew this far far better than we do. They knew the words of Jesus and of Paul. Let’s remind ourselves of them:

JESUS

In Matthew 19:1-12, after an exchange with the Pharisees about divorce (which Jesus seems to prohibit but that is another story) his disciples say

‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.’

To which Jesus does not disagree. Later in Matthew 22:30 Jesus states that

At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven

Which rather drastically relativises the significance of marriage in the future life to come.

PAUL

In answering the Corinthians’ belief that “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Cor 7:1) Paul takes a path that, I think, we would be very slow to walk today.

Basically he disagrees with their renunciation of sexual relations. He sees the place for sex within marriage, with a remarkable and counter cultural sense of mutuality between husband and wife it should be said.

The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.  The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 1 Cor. 7:3-4.

However – and it is a big however – he sounds quite Augustinian (yes I realise that is a wee bit off chronologically) in saying that sex and marriage is OK for some, but really he wished that they were all like him – single and celibate.

The whole of chapter 7 can be summed up with Paul’s teaching to ‘Stay as you are’. If you are single, stay that way. Don’t pursue marriage and sex and children and all those responsibilities and burdens, leave yourself free to live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord (v. 35)

each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. 1 Cor. 1:17.

Marriage is specifically described as not a sin (v. 28) but that is hardly the most ringing endorsement of marital bliss that you have ever heard. (Don’t hear this bit of 1 Corinthians preached too often at weddings funny enough – that honour goes to chapter 13).

Yes Paul is clearly NOT laying down laws here. He is at pains to emphasise that much of this is his personal preference – he has taken his apostolic ‘hat’ off. But the fact remains that this teaching, like that of Jesus, radically redraws the purpose and importance of marriage, sex and procreation within the kingdom of God.

My point in this post is to suggest that the early church recognised far more clearly than we do, the radical implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus as inaugurating God’s kingdom within the world. Death itself has been overcome in Christ.

The realities for Christian discipleship meant that martyrdom and celibacy were very much live options for serious believers. Marriage and sex and family were ties to ‘this world’. They were not a wrong choice, but the overwhelming consensus of the early church fathers is that celibacy was by far the better option.

If this is so then some questions for us today:

How is celibacy viewed in contemporary Western culture today? (Hint – the picture below).

An Irish related context question – how has the recent religious history of Ireland helped to shape contemporary attitudes to celibacy?

How is celibacy and singleness (whether for heterosexual or homosexual people) thought of within the Church? How do you think of it?

If you are single, what has been your experience ?

What do Christian divorce rates tell us about contemporary Western Christianity – its priorities and real beliefs ‘on the ground’?

In the last post on this mini-series, we’ll turn to think about the revolution in thinking about gender and sex in Western culture and questions it poses for Christian witness and discipleship. Easy answers guaranteed (not) !

Ben Witherington @ Irish Bible Institute on ‘Rethinking Romans’

Last Friday we had the great pleasure of hosting Prof Ben Witherington for IBI’s 2017 ‘Summer Institute’. The theme was ‘Rethinking Romans’.

IBI was full and it was a terrific day of teaching on Paul’s most famous epistle. It was also a pleasure and privilege to meet Ben and his wife Ann. He is remarkably prolific and has blessed the Church worldwide with a lifetime of top-class scholarship made accessible for teachers, preachers and lay believers.

He is also a top-class communicator. There are lots of video resources out there, but what doesn’t come over in those more formal recordings is Ben’s wit and humour – it was a fun day as well as an educational one. Thank you Ben.

Romans is perhaps the most influential letter ever written in human history. Every chapter resonates down the centuries of Christian theology. Themes like Christian anthropology, sin, justification, ethics, pneumatology, eschatology, predestination, Israel and the church, and Christian morality all emerge in the course of Paul’s persuasive argument for Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome to be united.

For example, take justification. From Luther, Calvin & co onwards – right on through to the New Perspective on Paul from the late 1970s to the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) between the Roman Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Lutheran World Federation – justification has been a continuously ‘live’ theological issue for centuries and Romans is at the heart of it all.

I’m not going to recount all that was covered in a packed day, but here are 8 snapshots. For more you can always go to a copy of this book sitting on my desk!

Snapshot 1: A female Apostle

Romans 16:7: ‘Greet Andronicus and Junia’ – a husband and wife team, both apostles, who are noteworthy in that group.’Deal with it’ said Ben in regard to Junia being a female apostle.

They have been jailed with Paul. Women did not tend to go to jail in antiquity. This is an indication of a remarkably courageous and counter-cultural witness which is also a deconstruction of patriarchal paradigms.

Following the work of Richard Bauckham, Ben suggested that Junia – which is the Latin name of Joanna – is the SAME person who is a patron of Jesus in Luke 8:3. Andronicus and Joanna were ‘in Christ before me’. Was this Joanna, wife of Chuza, of the gospels who was a patron of Jesus who then later became a co-worker of Paul? She went to Jerusalem with Jesus. Chuza could have had the Latin name Andronicus, or she may have been widowed and remarried.

If so, Ben suggests that we should think of TWO prominent names among the Jerusalem believers – that of the apostle Peter AND the Apostle Joanna (Junia).

Now that’s a head-wrecker for all sorts of theologies build on male apostleship AND those that elevate the primacy of Peter. All sorts of implications follow …

Snapshot 2: What is Romans all about?

Ben argued at length that Romans is best understood through the lens of ancient rhetoric – hence his series of NT ‘socio-rhetorical’ commentaries on the New Testament. The key ‘thesis statement’ of Romans is, he argued, Romans 1:16-17.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

The whole thrust of the letter is aimed at Gentile believers in Rome to understand their place in God’s story of redemption, and the place of Jews, and Jewish believers in Jesus, in that story.

Paul’s big concern is to ‘level the playing field’ between Jewish and Gentile Christians and to appeal for real embodied unity, love, and common worship among the Christian communities in Rome.

The gospel is first to the Jew. Gentiles are not to think more highly of themselves than they should. It is God’s power and God’s gospel that graciously includes both Jews and Gentiles.

The gospel is shocking and surprising – a crucified Messiah. But rather than be ashamed of the cross (as everyone in antiquity would have been), Paul is determinedly not ashamed. The only explanation for embracing the cross in this way is if the cross has been shown to be a place of God’s victory over death – in the resurrection of the Son.

Along with Richard Hays and N T Wright, BWIII goes for pistis Christou meaning ‘the faithfulness of Christ’. But his faithfulness is always accompanied by others placing their faith in Christ. The faithfulness of Christ is the basis of faith in Christ. Jesus’ faithfulness in mission means that anyone (you or I) may believe (response of faith)

When if comes to righteousness, Ben contends that it would be better if the dikaio word group was not translated as ‘justification’ at all. It is too redolent of legal / impersonal language to capture the way righteousness is all about God setting relationships right. It is all about moral transformation – that is the heart of Paul’s concern for the believers he writes to in the New Testament.

Snapshot 3. No imputed righteousness but moral transformation of the believer

Ben is a Wesleyan. His commentary on Romans is one of the few written from an Arminian perspective. While he said he has much to thank the Reformers for, not surprisingly he interprets Romans in a very different way to traditional Calvinist readings.

For example, take Romans 4, Abraham and righteousness. The righteousness in question is that of Abraham. It is NOT Christ’s righteousness somehow imputed to believers. God sees us as we are. Ben sees imputed righteousness as a ‘legal fiction’. Imputed righteousness is not there in Romans 4 – it is reading back into the text by the Reformers who were overly shaped by Latin translations of the text.

What is being talked about is an imparting of righteousness to believers, in the Spirit which leads to holiness and moral transformation.

Luther’s presuppositions led him to read Romans 7 as typical of the Christian life. But it is a total misreading of the text to see it as a description of the normal struggles of the believer (an internal conflict of flesh versus spirit). What Paul is doing is talking about the pre-Christian condition through the lens of Adam.

I agree wholeheartedly with this view of flesh and Spirit. For more on flesh / Spirit see this post. My chapter ‘Solus Spiritus’ in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life argues, as the title suggests, for the Spirit being at the core of Paul’s understanding of new creation life that leads to a transformed moral and ethical life in the world.

Snapshot 4: a transformed life of holiness

Ben’s reading of Romans 8 can be summarised like this:

This is not to say Christians cannot sin, it is to say that Christians are without excuse. Whatever your struggles are, greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world. Call on the Spirit of God. We are in the process of being sanctified by Jesus Christ. I am saying that we sin against the grace of God. God’s grace and Spirit is sufficient to help us avoid intentional sin. Christians are MORE responsible for their sin than non Christians.

This reflects the high expectations of holiness in the Wesleyan tradition – and of course Ben would add – Paul and ultimately God himself.

So Christians should be eagerly pressing on to the goal of the new creation and resurrection life to come. If we are not, we are failing to fulfil our calling.

Snapshot 5: God is good – not all that happens in this world is of God

Romans 8:28 famously says

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him

Ben argues that this is a long way from God fore-ordaining all things such that cancer, violence, injustice and evil are all somehow part of his good plan.  God is not the one who blights us, sends us disease, and afflicts us. Not everything in this world is of God – there are powers of darkness and evil at work.

The ones for whom all works together for good are not some abstract humanity – they are the ones who love God. Paul’s concern is the destiny of those who love God. This is a word of encouragement. Today we can know that if you are in Christ you have a great destiny.

Snapshot 6: Can  you lose your salvation?

Basically the answer is ‘Yes’.

Ben argued that ‘lose salvation’ is the wrong way to look at it. Paul’s warnings are not about misplacing your faith – they are about intentional apostasy. Calvinism does not take Paul’s warnings at face value – or the warnings of Hebrews 6.

It is clear, he contends, that apostasy is possible. This is ‘throwing away your salvation’ rather than losing it.

Snapshot 7: N T Wright can be wrong

As is well known and I have posted about here, BWIII is not a fan of NTW’s equating Israel with the Church. The former argues that Romans 9-11 is about how the Jews are TEMPORARILY broken off from the people of God, but God is not finished with them yet. When the full number of the Gentiles is gathered in, there will be a divine overcoming of what Paul calls the ‘impiety of Jacob’ – which is non-Christian Israel. The church is not Israel. Israel will be saved when Christ returns – by faith in Jesus, by grace.

I’m still figuring out this one. Reading my old post and listening to Ben, the differences are not that great. There is one story, the only way in is by faith in Jesus, the Mosaic law has come to an end. The Abrahamic covenant has been fulfilled.

The difference is BWIII’s insistence that ‘Israel’ does not mean church and Israel has a distinct future which involves many Jews being brought into the story of Jesus.

Snapshot 8: If you are a Christian, you are not your own

Quite simply the framework for Romans 12-15 is this

You do not belong to you. You belong to the Lord.

Live accordingly through faith in Jesus and by obedience to the Spirit.

You can’t get much more counter-cultural to Western individualism than that.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

What is the place of joy and laughter in the Christian life?

You might read this question and think several things:

You might think, ‘But joy is not equivalent to humour and laughter’.

And of course you’d be right. Joy, in a New Testament sense is a hopeful rejoicing in light of the gospel, whatever particular circumstances we find ourselves in (Philippians 4:4). There is joy even, or particularly, in the midst of suffering and persecution. But I’d like to maintain that it all nigh but impossible to be joyful and for that joy not to find expression in humour and laughter, in some form of visible delight at life and in others.

You might think this is a rather silly and trivial question for this normally deeply serious and intellectual blog (!)

I’d like to suggest that it is perhaps one of the most serious and important theological questions we can think about.

You might think that this is a naïve question that could make those who struggle with depression and other mental health issues feel even worse for rarely ever feeling joyful.

Yes, that is a possibility, but I’m not suggesting a law or required behaviour. Joy and laughter cannot and should not be forced.

So here are some admittedly superficial musings on joy and the Christian life. They take two forms.

One is ‘ON SERIOUSNESS’  – where life is just too grave, earnest and significant to be distracted from what is truly important (this post)

One is ‘ON JOY’ – for joy to be a visible, tangible and frequent characteristic of a mature Christian faith (next post)

Feel welcome to add your own comments for either side.

ON SERIOUSNESS

Humour and joy are not exactly what come to mind listening to the news each day. The world is a very serious place. Here’s a particularly cheery vision of the future to brighten your day.

Is it therefore a sign of triviality to find joy and laughter in the midst of what can seem overwhelming darkness? A type of naïve superficiality indicative of a moral and intellectual failure to engage with the realities of the world? A retreat into self-absorbed self-delusion where we fool ourselves that the world is not as bad as it seems while amusing ourselves to death? (to paraphrase the late Neil Postman)

There are many Christians who say ‘Yes’ to these last three questions. They may not have worked out a formal ‘theology of non-joy’ but their theology is visible in their lives and faces and worship. (Like the old joke about Presbyterians being people of deep deep joy – so deep it never surfaces).

Such Christians are resolutely serious – there is, after all, much ministry to be done which has eternal consequences. There is much pain and suffering to try to alleviate – and to endure. There is much sin and injustice to confront. All this doesn’t leave much room for the self-indulgent superficiality of laughter.

After all, the Bible is not exactly a joke book. Indeed, from Genesis 1-11 onwards, much of its power and relevance comes from its stark unsentimental realism about the world and human nature. The history of Israel is true to our world of violence, power-politics, human pride, injustice and forced displacement. The wisdom literature of the OT faces the darkness and ambivalence of our human experience head on.

Jesus is the ‘man of sorrows’ and apocalyptic prophet of the kingdom of God – not a slick, easy on the ear, joke a minute preacher. The climax of the biblical narrative leads to a crucified Messiah. Darkness and evil are confronted at the cross. One day in the future all will be judged by a perfect and righteous God. Christian mission has therefore eternal consequences.

I can think of many sober and serious Christians I’ve known. Mostly I can think of their rather grim faces. (There is an Ulster saying about someone having a face like a Lurgan Spade. It was used to cut peat in the bog and was long and thin).

And I freely admit to belonging to this tribe at times – of sometimes despairing of hope when looking at the state of the world and man’s inhumanity to man – let alone my own sins and failures. It seems to me that without Christian hope, the only logical attitude to life would be nihilism. Atheist optimism seems to me to be whistling in the dark.

And there certainly is a type of ‘Christian’ joy that is a sign of triviality and self-indulgence. Where life is focused around ‘me’ and what makes me happy. Where I am in my own little bubble and either unable or unwilling to step outside it to listen to and help others. Where I am joyful if I have all I want and miserable if I don’t. Where God is there to meet all my needs and faith is little more than a resource to help me live a more fulfilled and happy life.

This is a pseudo-faith that finds happiness in a lack of engagement with a holy God, a lack of worship, a lack of repentance,  a lack of lament, a lack of mission, a lack of self-sacrifice and a lack of service.

In contrast, authentic Christian faith is genuinely a serious business.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

Contested Love (5) the deadliest opponent of love?

9780300118308Getting back, eventually, to Simon May’s fascinating book Love: A History.

We are in chapter 7 on ‘Why Christian Love is not Unconditional’

We don’t tend to link thinking about money with thinking about love. They are very distinct things are they not? What has one to do with the other? We assume that wealth, and the things that go with it, are benign, if not actively good. It does not have much to say, one way or the other, about our loves lives does it?

May writes as a philosopher looking in to Christian theology and ethics from the outside. While I don’t agree with some rather sweeping generalisations, he nails the Bible’s warnings about the spiritual danger of wealth and its connection to pride.

Pride destroys our capacity for love. Thus it is the deadliest sin of all.

Jesus’ greatest enemies, he says, are money, pride and hypocrisy. They feed into vanity, greed, selfishness, a lack of concern for others, and a vain morality that pretends to be for the good of others but is about making ourselves feel good.

Love, in contrast, is a determined focus on the good of the other.

“Jesus’ tremendous focus on money and the vices of pride – hypocrisy and self-righteousness – returns us to a central theme of this book: the precondition for love … is submission to the real presence of the other; submission to her individual lawfulness and what she calls on us to do …

And this is why money and the pride and self-sufficiency it fosters, are Jesus’ main target in his prophetic denunciations within the Gospels

… pride and the some of the conditions of wealth-accumulation can be huge impediments. Pride is about self-protection, self-sufficiency, barricading oneself against one’s neighbour, absorption in, or the business of self-esteem, a myopic dedication to one’s own prestige and power that darkness the mind to the reality of others – all attitudes that exclude submission; while the pursuit of wealth necessarily places the impersonal demand of utility at the centre of our relations with those caught up in this ambition – a far cry from the attentiveness that is at the heart of love …

This theme is so overwhelmingly pervasive in Jesus, that May asks this question.

What might your answer to it be ?

Why then has Jesus’ message been so perverted? Why has Christianised civilisation been so concerned with sex, and so much less inhibited by Jesus’ preaching against pride, possessions and power? Whether we are talking about the historical Church, the ‘civilising mission’ of Victorian Britain, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (the atheistic embodiment of the deeply religious Russian nation) and its unspeakable vanity of bringing revolution to the whole world, the ‘manifest  destiny’ with which American ‘Anglo-Protestantism’ dignifies itself, or the Christian fundamentalism that gives it such strident voice today – in all these cases intense sexual prudery is combined with ruthless pursuit of power and property, flaunted with the very pride, the very self-congratulatory lording it over others, to which Jesus’ whole life and death are a standing reproach …

He concludes with this stinger.

it is remarkable how often people who seek to civilise the world by force, often in the name of Christianity and with a sense of being guided by God, themselves profess a hierarchy of values so completely at variance with those of Jesus.”

pp. 105-6.

Do you agree – is pride the greatest opponent of love? What else makes the flourishing of love all but impossible?