On Joy

What image comes to mind when you think of joy?

I can’t think about joy without picturing a couple sitting around a kitchen table in an anonymous Communist-style tower block apartment back in Ceaucescu’s Romania. They had lost jobs, been in prison, were regularly hounded by the Securitate, had poor health and little or no access to decent medical care.

They were (and are) two of the most joyful people I have ever met.

Joy is a hard thing to define. You know it when you see it – and know when it is missing. As I suggested in the last post, I’m suspicious of the idea that joy can be so deep down that it never surfaces in visible, tangible ways. Joy, I think, can’t really exist without a delight in life and in other people. It’s a sense of happiness and gladness that can’t be contained. It is not superficial cheeriness, but neither is it possible without smiles, humour and laughter.

There is a lot of joy in the New Testament – in Jesus, John, Paul and others. I did a little study of joy (chara) and grouped some examples into different categories (this is not exhaustive and not researched – just a quick sketch).

  1. Joy at the promise of the Messiah

Luke 1:14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth

Luke 2:10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.

  1. Joy at the word / gospel / kingdom of God

Mat 13:20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy

Mat 13:44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Luke 8:13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy.

1Pe 1:8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory

  1. Experiencing the joy of God

Mat 25:23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’

  1. (Mega) Joy at the resurrection

Mat 28:8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Luke 24:41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marvelling he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

Luke 24:52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy

  1. Joy in Mission

Luke 10:17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord even the demons are subject to us in your name!”

Luke 15:7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Acts 8:8 So there was much joy in that city.

Acts 15:3 So being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers.

  1. Joy in and through Jesus

John 15:11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

John 16:20 Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.

John 16:22 So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

John 16:24 Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive that your joy may be full.

John 17:13 But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.

  1. Joy in the actions and goodness of God

Acts 12:14 Recognizing Peter’s voice in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate.

  1. Joy in the Spirit

Acts 13:52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

Rom 14:17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Rom 15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

Gal 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

1Th 1:6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction with the joy of the Holy Spirit,

  1. Joy in Relationships within the family of God

Rom 15:32 so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.

2Cor 7:13 Therefore we are comforted. And besides our own comfort, we rejoiced still more at the joy of Titus, because his spirit has been refreshed by you all.

2Cor 8:2 for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.

Philippians 1:3-4 I thank God in my remembrance of you always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy

Philippians 2:29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honour such men

2Ti 1:4 As I remember your tears I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy.

Heb 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

2Jo 12 Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face so that our joy may be complete.

  1. Joy in Spiritual Maturity and Progress of others

2Cor 1:24 Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.

2Cor 7:4 I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy.

Philippians 1:25 Convinced of this I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith,

Philippians 2:2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

Philippians 4:1 Therefore, my brothers whom I love and long for my joy and crown stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.

Col 1:11 May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy,

1Th 2:19-20 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.

Heb 12:11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant [joyful], but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

1John 1:4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

3John 4 I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

  1. Joy in the midst of suffering and persecution

Heb 10:34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.

Jam 1:2 Count it all joy, my brothers when you meet trials of various kinds

  1. The Joy of Jesus

Heb 12:2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Perhaps there are things that strike you afresh as you read that list. Here are some that occurred to me in no particular order:

i. Christian joy is, well .. Christian. It is centered on the good news of Jesus – as promised Messiah, the faithful saviour, the risen Lord who ‘for the joy set before him endured the cross.’

ii. Joy has to come from somewhere. It is a virtue that needs sustaining, And in a Christian framework it is tied to the Spirit who gives new life. Joy is a sign of the Spirit at work. Joylessness is a sign that the Spirit has vacated the building. This is why it is almost impossible to separate joy from other fruit of the Spirit.

iii. Christian joy flows from rejoicing in the spiritual progress of others and seeing fruit in mission. It is other focused. Many instances of joy are relational, radiating from deep friendships and a common identity as followers of Jesus.

A personal aside here. This week at IBI we have been celebrating with students the end of the academic year. Many have shared stories of what they have learnt and experienced at College – and it has been humbling and deeply encouraging to hear again and again students say that they have been transformed, challenged, envisaged, and impassioned. And the other consistent theme is joy in deep friendships made – along with a lot of affectionate mockery, craic, fun and lack of proper respect for their teachers may I say …

iv. Ultimately Christian joy depends on the good news of the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Christians can be and should be joyful in the world of tears because this world does not and will not have the last word.

The unsmiling dour Lurgan Spade Christian who has a deep deep joy is I’m afraid ultimately life-denying and gospel denying. Unattractive gloom does not speak of hope, love, joy and transformation. It speaks more of a fatalism and hope-lessness, a gospel of bad news rather than good.

There is not one instance I could see where joy resulted from a material thing or experience.  This is not to go down a grim ascetic route, God created the world and it was very good. It is just to note that the focus in the NT is joy revolving around the serious things we discussed in the last post. The material (fallen) world as a source of joy is relatively unimportant.

I wonder here how much my life – and the church in the West – finds sources of joy largely within the world on its own terms. Things like good food, friends, holidays, creation, slick technology, a home etc. And so, bit by bit, we find it harder and harder to imagine joy that does not depend on these things?

v. Christians are to be joyful because they belong to that new world, right in the midst of this old one. Not in an escapist sense – exactly the opposite. They are to be serious people of hope, and justice, and mission and courage because God is and will redeem this gloomy serious world into a new world of joy.

Joy, theologically framed, is therefore a foretaste of the world to come. We love and laugh and rejoice now because of the joy set before us.

9780567669964Back to the conversations between Brian Brock and Stanley Hauerwas one last time. The book finishes on an entirely appropriate note – that of joy. I love what SH says here (not sure how he knows he has only 5 or so years to live)..

Joy isn’t something you try to have. It’s an overwhelming that you suddenly find yourself taken up in an activity that just offers satisfaction that you could not have imagined as possible. Yesterday when I came in and you and I looked at each other it was joy, wasn’t it? I find it when I’m at worship, over and over, the joy of having been made part of this wonderful world that otherwise could not be imagined. I find it in the joy of the work we have been given as theologians. Funny as it is! How silly to think you could know how to talk about God? But that’s what we’ve been given to do. I just find it a constant surprise. To speak in another key, I wonder what it means that I’ll be 76 in July. I don’t have more than five— or a little more— years to live. I thought I would be afraid of death, and I may be, but I haven’t experienced it that way yet. Probably because I still don’t know I’m going to die. I think, one, I have had such a wonderful life and, two, whatever Heaven may be, it will be joy. I don’t know what it means to be part of that, but I am sure it is there, because I think that all that is is surrounded by joy. [286]

Brock later quotes from Hauerwas’ commentary on Matthew,

The world is not what it appears to be, because sin has scarred the world’s appearance. The world has been redeemed— but to see the world’s redemption, to see Jesus, requires that we be caught up in the joy that comes from serving him.

And Hauerwas responds that in effect being caught up in joy means “the great adventure” of refusing “to let the old world overwhelm the world that we have been given in Christ”.

The Christian life as the great adventure of joy – I like that.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Paul & Gift (2)

img_20161104_225105One more post on Paul and the Gift.

Contrary to popular (particularly Reformed) Christian views, Paul does not somehow stand out uniquely from all other Jews of his time as the only one who suddenly ‘gets grace’. He is part of debate within Judaism in terms of the priority of grace (God’s initiative) and its incongruity (the mismatch between the goodness of God and the unworthiness of the human).

What does of course stand out is how Paul interprets

“the Christ-event as the definitive enactment of God’s love for the unlovely, and to the Gentile mission, where the gifts of God ignore ethnic differentials of worth and Torah-based definitions of value (“righteousness”)”   565-66

This theology of grace re-shapes Paul’s understanding of the identity of Israel. His theology of grace is NOT AGAINST Judaism (as a religion of works). God’s grace relativises the Torah in a way absolutely at odds with any of his Jewish peers.

“Paul is neither anti-Jewish nor post-Jewish, but his configuration of the grace of God in Christ alters his Jewish identity and makes him question his former allegiance to the Torah. 566

The crucial theme of Barclay is that for Paul the gift of God’s grace is incongruous (without regard to the worth of the recipient). Non-Jewish ‘un-worthy’ Gentiles pagans are ‘called in grace’ to be in Christ and gifted with the Spirit. But so are Jews (like Paul himself in his own experience). The Christ=event dissolves every pre-existent classification of worth. So the new communities of Christ are Torah free (not anti -Torah) made up of people from across social, ethnic, religious, gender distinctions.

The flip side of this inclusive grace is an inclusive theology of sin. No exceptions – the radical claim that all are sinners (Jew and Gentile) are under the rule of sin. The Torah can’t solve it. The only thing that can is the grace of God in Christ and the gift of the Spirit.

This ties to Paul’s mission:

The goal of Paul’s mission is the formation of communities whose distinct patterns of life bear witness to an event that has broken with normal criteria of worth. Paul expects baptism to create new life-orientations, including forms of bodily habitus that express the reality of resurrection-life in the midst of human mortality. 569

In other words, the gift of grace carries an expectation of transformation and obedience to the reality of new life in the Spirit.

In Christian history, grace was reapplied in very different contexts to the original missional one of Paul. For example, in the Reformation grace is ‘rediscovered’ by Luther, NOT in the context of preaching the gospel to people who had never heard it to form a new community of Jews and Gentiles detached from their previous cultural identities, but INTERNALLY within Christendom (my term not Barclay’s). In other words, grace was applied as

“a tool for the inner reform of the Christian tradition, its critical edge turned against believers, undermining not their pre-Christian criteria of worth but their pride or purpose in achieving Christian worth … an attack on the believer’s confidence or independence in adhering to Christian norms. 570

The ‘law’ is reinterpreted as = a reliance on self-righteousness. And Judaism unfortunately is therefore seen as a religion of works from which Paul was freed by the grace of G0d.

Augustine was key here as one who interpreted “boasting” in believers as “pride” of those who attribute merit to themselves and not to God. It is this inner turn of grace within the life of the believer (which is not what Paul was talking about) which is then taken up so famously by Luther. Paul’s polemic against ‘works of the law’ are taken to mean “subjective evaluation of one’s own good works as effective for salvation.” 571-72

Reading this, I’d put Barclay closer to the side of the ‘New Perspective’ which has been making similar points (if not identical, Barclay’s approach of the incongruous nature of God’s grace and framework of worth are crucially new).

He identifies his departure from the New Perspective around the theology of Paul’s mission.

A criticism of Sanders for example was that he found actually little difference between Christianity and Judaism – both were religions of grace. The ‘problem’ of Judaism was that it was not Christianity.

Famously also J D G Dunn had argued that Sanders’ Jewish Covenantal Nomism’ actually preached “good Protestant doctrine” (grace is God’s initiative [prior], human effort is the response to divine initiative, and that good works are the fruit of salvation, not its root). Justification by faith for Paul, according to Dunn, seemed little more than the boundaries had been widened to include Gentiles.159

N T Wright’s fulfilment theology, where Israel’s sin was to hold on to ethnic and national privilege despite the righteousness now being available to all nations, also tends to downplay the importance of grace in Paul’s theology. 163

So Barclay wants to highlight that it is the theology of the Christ-gift given to all that lies behind Paul’s radical mission.

A nice line:

“It is because grace belongs to no one that is goes to everyone” 572

“Paul’s ecclesiology has its roots in his soteriology of grace”

A challenge for churches today is to identify and re-articulate “what it is about the good news that makes them socially and ideologically distinctive.”

I think he means by this that grace was deeply radical in Paul’s day, it remains deeply radical today. Not only ‘internally’ in how no individual can be ‘worthy’ of God and needs grace, but also in how churches can be communities of grace in a fast-changing post-Christendom culture.

A culture where little can be taken for granted any more in how ‘church’ and ‘gospel’ and ‘grace’ are understood.

And perhaps a culture that is perhaps as deeply divided in its own way as Paul’s was in terms of social, religious, gender, economic and cultural boundaries.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Chris Wright on the Great Commission

At Belfast Bible College, we had the pleasure and privilege of having Chris Wright speak at our Celebration of Studies last Friday and then at a half day conference on “The GREAT COMMISSION: what does it really include?”

 

Chris Wright @ BBCChris was exploring a biblical theology of mission, engaging along the way with contested ideas of mission, and criticisms of his own approach as outlined most fully of course in his magnum opus The Mission of God.

Some notes and observations of the half-day conference: – and these do not therefore represent exactly what Chris said but one person’s interpretation ..

Both terms ‘holistic mission’ and ‘missional’ are useful but both can easily become too anthropocentric – they revolve around ‘us’ and what we must do. They do not in and of themselves resolve the question of what ‘holistic’ and ‘missional’ actually mean – they mean different things to different people.

Based on the Great Commission of Mt 28, Chris unpacked some key themes. The Great Commission if framed within the lordship and presence of God. It is both cosmic (all of creation – See Eph 1:9-10 etc) and  Christocentric (based on the Messiah’s saving work).

Mission is God’s activity, not primarily ours. It has both a global scope and cosmic scope. The mission of the church needs to reflect the scope and size of God’s mission.

As a foundation for understanding mission, Chris went to the 5 marks of mission first articulated by the Anglican Communion in the 1980s / 90s. In brief they are:

  1. Evangelism (proclaim the good news of the kingdom)
  2. Teaching (teach, baptise and nurture new believers)
  3. Compassion (respond to human need by loving service)
  4. Justice (transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation)
  5. Creation care ( strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth)

All intrinsically flow from the Lordship of Christ

Chris broke these down into 3 themes that he unpacked in turn:

A. BUILDING THE CHURCH

Including 1 and 2: evangelism and teaching

1. Evangelism

Is a call for people to submit to the lordship of jesus. Gospelizing is proclamation of the good news. Mission work is telling the story of Jesus and its call for response of repentance and faith. Christians are to be baptised in the name of Jesus and are to follow him as Lord, not other gods or idols. The gospel of Jesus is at the heart of all Christian mission.

This is in contrast to some understandings of ‘holistic mission’ where it means everything else apart from evangelism. (see photo). Holistic mission should never be shorthand for social justice or other activity divorced from evangelism.

Neither should it be the case where “mission” becomes just one option in the buffet bar of Christian activity: some are into evangelism, others not .. Rather Chris was arguing for the centrality of the gospel as an integrating centre.

2. Teaching

A big obvious reality from Scripture is that teaching is part of the mission of God: Jesus is the Rabbi. Paul the teacher / missionary. The OT is one huge story of theological education (after Andrew Walls). A unravelling teaching programme about God, ethics, identity, holiness, faith, covenant, creation and so on that forms an indispensable platform for understanding the significance of the NT.

[I like to see the whole NT as theological reflection on the OT in light of Jesus]

Chris linked to Paul and Apollos: BOTH were vital in the mission of God. Paul is the evangelist / church planter, Apollos is the teacher. Both are about mission work and extending the lordship of Christ in the world. Therefore both evangelism and teaching are part of the Great Commission

(including theological education – the challenge for theological education is to ask how much is it intrinsically missional?;  how are teaching and modules serving God’s mission in the world?)

For Pastors, weekly preaching is part of the Great Commission. It is not some sort of ‘secondary’ task to mission / evangelism.

This does NOT diminish the necessity of global cross cultural mission .. but traditional ‘mission work’ does not summarise or represent the true scope of the Great Commission.

B. SERVING SOCIETY: COMPASSION AND JUSTICE

Chris put compassion and justice under the heading of ‘Serving Society’.

To the objection that “Is this really part of the Great Commission?” he argued how each is naturally linked to the Lordship of Christ. Jesus commands and actions to show compassion on the poor only echoes texts like Deut.10.12-19 and God’s desire for compassion and justice. When God is “godding’ – he is by default with the weak poor and needy. This is who God is and what he does. Likewise, Jesus’ in Matthew describes what true obedience to God looks like – and it is not to neglect the weighty matters of the Torah – issues like justice (see Micah 6.8). His disciples are to be “the light of the world” – meaning people whose attractive deeds shine with goodness and mercy. Like in Isaiah 58:7-8 where light is good deeds done in the name of the Lord. Just as Israel was to be a nation of light and justice, so Jesus’ new community of the kingdom is to be a renewed community of the King – the light of the world.

Such integration of discipleship and acts of compassion and justice are woven though Acts – there was no needy person among them (Acts 4:32-38)

Chris made the often overlooked point here that Paul & Barnabas’s first missionary journey was, contrary to popular assumptions, actually the famine relief visit to Judea as told in Acts 11. Perhaps overlooked because it did not ‘fit’ the popular understanding of ‘mission’ as overseas evangelistic work.

And in a very strong echo of what Bruce Longenecker has exhaustively researched and I posted about here, Chris argued that the ‘remember the poor’ of Galatians 2 is no side issue within Paul’s theology and life. Actually, it is talked about more by Paul than justification by faith. Economic concern for those in need is an integral part of his mission and therefore the Great Commission.

C. CARING FOR CREATION

The third theme of the Great Commission from Mt 28, Chris proposed, is that Jesus is Lord of heaven on earth. This global / cosmic reign of Christ is seen in Colossians 1 where the death of Christ on the cross has a cosmic dimension:

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.

It’s here, Chris said, that evangelicals above all people should be able to integrate things. They are by definition people passionate about Jesus,  the cross and the atonement – and should be able to affirm how this saving work of God has universal dimensions. Put another way, discipleship talked about in the Great Commission has the context of being worked out within a creation that God is going to redeem. This has implications for how discipleship is understood.

Evangelicals need a better doctrine of creation. And here Chris linked to familiar texts such as Is 65, Revelation 21-22; Romans 8; Colossians 1. God’s agenda is one of redemption, rescue, restoration – not of destruction or obliteration of the earth. The end game is a new heavens and earth; the New Jerusalem and God’s presence coming down to earth. The creation has a future ..

This all means that our best view of creation is as tenants – with temporary stewardship responsibilities. Creation care now is prophetic action foreshadowing God’s restoration of creation to come. Creation care – a career in the sciences, in environmental work etc – is a legitimate and valued calling of the Great Commission.

CONCLUSION

‘Mission’ is not done only by missionaries. All of God’s people are to be involved in the mission of God. There is a profound and damaging dualism in much traditional evangelical theology of mission where there is a dichotomy between those who do mission and those who do not. A better way to see things is the church as a body of people who are all on mission, with some at work overseas.

Just as the mission of God is broad in scope, so not everyone can do everything. Some will be missionaries and evangelists, some in creation care, some teachers and preachers, some working for justice and serving those in need.This is not to revert to the ‘buffet bar’ or ‘bag or marbles’ approach to mission where only some do evangelism and others do justice – the lordship of Jesus must be at the centre of all Christian life and witness.

Chris linked to Lesslie Newbigin here in mission best being understood as dimension of the church not as a specific task of the church. In other words, the church exists in mission; and within that existence are many expressions of mission. Just like within Science there are many expressions of the scientific enterprise; or similarly within the Arts.

So, how does this broad framework for understanding the mission of God help you think about your life and work – whatever it is that you do?

Do you find this liberating from old-style dualisms between the sacred and secular?

What do you see as potential weaknesses or dangers of this broad understanding of the Mission of God?

And, reflecting on this more, I wonder if certain jobs ‘fit’ more easily within the 5 marks of mission than others? Chris argued that those at all sorts of work are routinely engaged in ethics and issues that call for justice, truth and rightness and their calling needs to be seen as vocational within the mission of God, just as much as any missionary or pastor involved in ‘spiritual’ work. I agree with this – but do the 5 marks of mission [summarised under ‘Church work’, ‘serving society’ and ‘caring for creation’] still leave out most types of work that most people do day to day?

Yes, if you are a teacher, nurse, counsellor, carer, religious worker, environmental consultant – your work can fairly easily fit in the 3 themes. But I am not sure they really make space for someone working in IT, or accountancy, or business who are not doing church related stuff, nor caring for others pastorally or focused on looking after creation.  I guess I wonder if ‘serving society’ needs to move beyond a pastoral focus, to include bringing positive benefit to society – like creating jobs, giving the opportunity for the dignity of work, training people to develop in life skills and experience and so on.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Barth, Schweitzer and the weirdness of Christianity

At particular times in the history of the church, ‘disturbers’ have emerged, protesting against the cultural captivity of the church. They have rightly seen that authentic Christianity should never be domesticated and made ‘safe’.

Maybe you can think of some ‘disturbers’. A couple that come to mind are:

SchweitzerAlbert Schweitzer’s apocalyptic Jesus brushed aside the anaemic Jesus that had resulted from 19th century liberal theology’s quest for the ‘historical Jesus’. Schweitzer was magnificently right in his rejection of the un-Jewish and un-troubling Christ of the First Quest. His portrait of Jesus of the Gospels was far closer to the truth – even if Schweitzer finally drew the wrong conclusions about Jesus as a failed apocalyptic revolutionary.

The 20th century Jesus Seminar was in many ways a replay of the First Quest – a de-historized Jesus, shorn of miracles and the eschatological urgency of the kingdom of God. One of N T Wright’s many achievements has been his compelling rejection of the methodology and conclusions of the Jesus Seminar in his Jesus and the Victory of God. What shines through Wright’s work on Jesus is how he brings the Gospels, and their main subject, to vibrant disturbing life.

Another ‘disturber’ was the Swiss pipe-smoker Karl Barth. His protest was against a culturally captive form of Christianity, unable even to identify the threat Hitler posed.  His great ‘NO’ to any form of natural theology denied that God could be reached ‘from the bottom up’. Barth’s genius was to insist on absolute otherness of God; God could only be revealed from the ‘top down’ by the triune God himself.

Karl BarthThus, God, for Barth is both the Revealer and the Revelation. It is God alone who can choose to reveal himself, and he does so in Jesus Christ. It is God’s Spirit alone who can effect God’s revelation in Christ. It is a mixture of hubris, pride and naivety that leads people to believe that they can put God in a nice neat box. Barth blew up the box.

Schweitzer and Barth, in very different ways, saw clearly that when we downplay the ‘weirdness’ or ‘Otherness’ of Christianity, God and the gospel become quickly domesticated, diluted, insipid; unable to stand against evil; to give prophetic witness; to form radical and counter-cultural communities of faith; to speak of an alternative kingdom of God that has broken into this world.

It’s no coincidence that both Barth and Schweitzer spent much time considering Jesus. The Jesus of the Gospels just isn’t dull, predictable, undemanding, easily accommodated into our lives and having little to say about the broken world in which we live.

Once we lose touch with the weirdness of Christian faith, it is inevitable that we end up with a form of Christianity that is virtually indistinguishable from the wider culture.

So what are some signs that we have lost touch with the strange Otherness of Christianity?

Here are some suggestions in no particular order – feel welcome to add your own:

1. When the content of much Christianity tends to be primarily therapeutic.

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. The church is a community where you will be loved and accepted unconditionally. The gospel will give your life new significance and meaning. God will help you navigate through the storms of life. The pastor is there to remind and encourage you that you are loved.

This is Christianity lite – a form of spiritual consumerism that promises all and demands little. God is there for you because you are worth it.

No place here for the NT’s embrace of suffering, injustice and persecution as ‘light and momentary troubles’.

No place here for the notion that being a Christian means death: death to the self; death to sin; death to an old order of existence.

2. When faith is assumed.

This is perhaps the most damaging legacy of Christendom. Everybody is ‘in’; everybody has been baptised; Christianity is natural, universal, and all-embracing. The focus of preaching and teaching is on equipping and exhorting and encouraging members to be more committed to helping the church maintain its structures and existence. Mission is marginalised and almost irrelevant.

Little place in an assumed faith for the deep mystery of the atonement: that somehow in one man’s death and shed blood, something happened of universal spiritual significance that forgiveness and freedom from sin needs to be appropriated through repentance and faith.

3. When Jesus is marginalised.

God IncarnateYou know – things like his apparently crazy teaching on non-violence. His teaching on money and possessions. His utterly uncompromising demands of his followers. His passion for justice. His words of coming judgment. His unrelenting eschatological focus on the kingdom of God and his urgent summons to enter now.

And, to top all of this, is the NT’s exalted Christological claim that this local Rabbi was God in the flesh. A completely unexpected development; foolish nonsense to Greeks, revolting heresy to Jews, unbelievable religious jargon to contemporary atheists, a threatening universal truth claim to modern pluralists.

This is why I love this picture of Jesus by Oliver Crisp – it brilliantly captures the otherness of Jesus who resists all easy categorisation.

4. When the Spirit is paid only lip-service.

Pentecostals and charismatics rightly protest against a sort of virtually ‘binitarian’ Christianity, where the vital, central and life-giving role of the Spirit is replaced with a form of rationalism. Where there is little expectation of the empowering presence of God himself to change lives, heal, and work visibly in the church and the world.

5. When ‘God is on our side’.

I mean by this a form of religious nationalism where Christianity is co-opted to bless and sanctify our politics; our identity; our nation. ‘God bless America’. God on the side of the British Empire. God on the side of Catholic Ireland’s fight for freedom against that Empire. God on the side of [Protestant] Ulster not to be subsumed within Catholic Ireland.

God sure does switch sides a lot doesn’t he?

Once God is safely for us, then our enemies are unrighteous. Since error and heresy have no right, all sorts of horror follows. For examples, read some Irish history.

6. When we buy into the sacred / secular divide.

A nice image here is of an orange and a peach. A Christian view of life is not orange – nicely segmented into distinct categories, with spiritual being one sitting alongside work, family, leisure etc. Rather life is like a peach – one whole fruit where everything is spiritual with Jesus as the centre stone.

The sacred / secular divide attempts to neuter the universal Lordship of Christ over all of life. It reduces Christianity to some sort of Kantian subjective experience. Truth becomes individualised and privatized. The gospel is reduced and personalised. The church has little to say to the world.

7. When we lose touch with the eschatological heartbeat of the Bible.

The OT and NT look forward to a new creation; a remaking of all things within a different order of existence where death is banished. No hospitals, doctors, medicines or morgues there. A future where evil and sin will have no place and justice will be done for ever.

But this is not just away in the future sometime – the future is already here in the present. The ‘proof’ is the presence of the promised Spirit, a foretaste of God’s rule to come. The resurrection of Jesus is the forerunner of the resurrection to come for all who belong to him.

Now that just doesn’t sound ‘normal’ and rational and scientific does it? Such a vision invites scorn and ridicule (as well as joy and hope). Well, let the scorn and ridicule come for Christianity is nothing without eschatology. Whenever the church loses focus on future hope it becomes fat, lazy, complacent and inward looking.

 

So, any attempt to make Christianity acceptable and reasonable to modern culture by removing the ‘unbelievable’ bits is doomed to failure. Even with the best of intentions, what remains will bear little resemblance to historic orthodox Christian faith.

I’ve nothing against good apologetics (defending the historic reliability of the Bible, the historicity of the resurrection etc) but increasingly I see a Christian’s primary task as simply announcing and telling and discussing the good news as it stands – without apology, or qualification or embarrassment. (And without aggression, arrogance or coercion either).

The irony is that it’s when we take it upon ourselves to change the story and try to make it more popular and relevant, that we do the greatest damage.

In other words, let the weirdness and Otherness of the Christian gospel stand on its own two feet. This is the apostolic story that we have been given – let’s keep to the script and trust in God to do the rest.

Suggestions for rediscovering the weirdness of Christianity

Canterbury Cathedral Jesus
Canterbury Cathedral Jesus

Dictionary definitions of “weird” explain it as “very strange” “bizarre” or “peculiar”.

Maybe you disagree, but strangely enough, even in these post-Christendom days, I don’t think too many people in Ireland think of the Christian faith as bizarre, very strange or peculiar.

Let me suggest that it would be a good thing for the health of the church if both Christians and non-believers were able both to understand and experience more of just how weird Christianity really is.

The picture of Canterbury Cathedral captures something of what I’m getting at – the strange ‘Otherness’ of Jesus.

I’m by no means saying I’ve got this all sorted (!), but the longer I am a Christian and the more I have thought about the gospel, about the ultimate story of the Bible, about the life and mission of Jesus, about the atonement, about what it means to follow Jesus, about the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and about the nature of Christian hope – the stranger and stranger Christianity becomes.

There is, to put it differently, a deep and profound ‘Otherness’ to the gospel of God.

In Ireland, and many places in the West, Christianity remains deeply embedded in history, culture and popular perception. Church spires puncture the skylines of every town and city. A declining, but significant proportion of the population still attend church for some sort of reason.

I’m speculating here (hey isn’t that what blogs posts are for? Please correct me if I’m off base here) but I suspect that for many people in Ireland, Christianity is seen as a mixture of:

(i) a code of rules for religiously-minded people who like to get out of bed on a Sunday morning to assuage their guilt

(ii) an irrelevant and boring institution

(iii) a malign force of religious conservatism that has no place in a pluralist Ireland.

However you cut it, it isn’t seen as particularly bizarre or radical. It remains, for the time being, socially acceptable and unremarkable. It’s part of the furniture, even if of the dusty antique sort in the ‘good room’ that is used for polite conversation with visitors.

I also wonder how ‘weird’ Christianity is for many professing, committed Christians, many of whom have grown up in church: Sunday mornings, singing hymns, prayer meetings, preaching, Bible studies and such. For such people (and I am one) it is a familiar, predictable and largely unsurprising world (especially if you are an Irish Presbyterian 🙂 ).

If I’m even partly right on this description, why is this the case?

What, for you, is most ‘Other’ or ‘weird’ about Christianity?

And where most has the sheer ‘otherness’ or ‘weirdness’ of Christianity been diluted or domesticated?

Comments welcome – I’ll add some more thoughts in the next post.

Questioning Theological Education India style

One of the best conferences I was ever at was the International Consultation on Evangelical Theological Education (ICETE) in Hungary in 2009. It was fascinating and humbling to meet leaders from all over the world and hear their stories of what God was doing, often in and through profound suffering, in their contexts – Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, Middle East.

Theological Education (TE) is a challenging and complex task – but also a hugely rewarding one. Nothing is more exciting to see someone’s identity, thinking, and life transformed by engagement with the living Word. And then, through that life, to see other lives impacted for the gospel.

This came back to me when the latest edition of Evangelical Review of Theology (ERT) landed on my desk this week. Most of the articles are addresses given at the subsequent triennial ICETE conference, this time in Kenya 2012. Since Kenya was too distant and expensive to get to, reading these papers was the next best thing!

And they are good stuff – rigorous and creative reflections on the task of TE globally. This is no congratulatory back-patting, but searching self-questioning on how to see men and women transformed and equipped through the experience of doing theology in their own (very different) contexts.

The theme of the conference was “Rooted in the Word: Engaged in the World”. Contributors include Chris Wright and others from different parts of the world.

I hope to come back to a couple, but a wonderfully imaginative and searching piece is written by an Indian woman, Havilah Dharamraj, who is Dean and head of OT in the South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies in Bangalore:  ‘We reap what we sow: engaging curriculum and context in theological education’. You can read it and other articles here

She uses this picture, drawn by two Catholic women artists from a village in South India. Indian JesusIn the village, a certain species of tree is worshipped within animistic religion. The artists also make the tree central to worship, but it is Christ on the tree who is the object of worship.

As she notes

“His arms align the branches into symmetry. His feet are embedded in the trunk, with his heart in a straight line with the heart of the tree. Working under the tree is depicted the community of faith that harvests this Tree of Life, making its seed available to the world”

Her overall argument is the need creatively to ‘curry up’ how we read the Bible in engagement with our local context by greater awareness of what we do NOT teach (the null curriculum) and what we don’t realise we are teaching (the hidden curriculum).

She tells a powerful story of reading the book of Ruth in dialogue with the appalling treatment of Hindu widows abandoned into prostitution and poverty by their families in the sacred city of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges.

By teaching the book of Ruth with little or no contextual engagement in India, its message is not really heard or applied. But reading Ruth in dialogue with a documentary on Hindu widows, helped students to read Ruth in powerful new ways that are also fully consistent with the original radical message of that most wonderful of OT books.

Without such contextual ‘sowing’ we will reap little. She returns to the image of the tree at the end of her article.

All TE should be strongly rooted in the Word. [And Chris Wright’s article is a long and passionate exhortation for a deeply biblical form of TE].

But if TE stays there, it will be like a winter deciduous tree: still alive, growing, sap still being pumped, but withdrawn into itself. Bare and leaf-less. Not really engaged with the world outside.

And what she says here can apply to any church just as much as TE. When a church becomes withdrawn, self-focused, serving only the needs and hopes and fears of its own members, it also is like a winter tree.

“But how much more attractive a tree which brings forth life its fruit in its season, whose leaves also do not wither! How much more attractive, how much more complete, how much more alive, how much more engaged in service. What are seminaries going to be, deciduous or evergreen? We harvest what we sow.”

The Bible in Irish memory (2) and contemporary mission

Miriam Moffitt has written two major books on 19th Century Protestant missions – mainly those in Connemara done by The Society for Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics (ICM).

soupers and jumpersThe first is Soupers and Jumpers: The Protestant Missions in Connemara 1848-1937 (2008)

ICMThe second is The Society for Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics 1849-1950 (2010)

They tell the remarkable, contentious, important and sometimes wild story of the what Desmond Bowen called the ‘Protestant Crusade’: full of larger than life characters like Alexander Dallas, riots, violence; public debates; incredible mobilisation of resources and people; the desperate tragedy of the Famine; courageous and passionate conviction; outrageous rhetoric and the increasing politicisation of religious identity throughout the century.

What follows are some observations and questions not a summary of her arguments and conclusions.

When we look back into the past, we often tend to assume that ‘today’ is normal and those guys back then sure did believe some strange stuff. This is what C S Lewis delightfully called Chronological Snobbery.

Of course in a few decades some folks yet to be born may well be thinking the same about us. I wonder what they will point out? Any suggestions?

In other words, it’s tempting to look at the work of ICM and other evangelical Protestant missionaries of those days wonder how could they have been so wildly over-confident and naive to think something like the following (and this is a very broad sketch full of generalisations – remember blog posts are discussion starters not carefully worded essays! I know these events are still contentious.)

Being taught to read the Bible alone will lead to the Catholic poor being set free from their ignorance and the control of their clergy in order to convert to true vital religion [conversion is generally a lot more complex than this]

The desperate tragedy of the Famine was an opportunity to give alleviate starvation and at the same time encourage the missionary development of Bible education and schooling among the Irish peasantry [such actions then, and even more in subsequent folk memory, opened up their missionary activity to the charge of Souperism – conversion through a combination of bribery and desperation. Moffitt wonders if social action had been less obviously and aggressively linked to missionary agendas would results have been much more positive in the long term?]

With enough missionary effort the vast majority of the Irish Catholic population will see the error of their ways and turn to biblical Christianity [this led to exaggerated claims of success that failed to stand up to scrutiny. Evangelism was done by negatively pointing to the errors of Rome]

These new converts will become loyal citizens of the British Empire whose greatness and moral strength is derived from its Christian foundation. Thus the fate of Ireland will be secured and solidified within the Empire in the face of the threat of Catholic Emancipation [a false hope – Emancipation led to disestablishment and ultimately to Irish independence]

If all of Ireland were Protestant, most of society’s ills would be healed. A quote from a Presbyterian Church in Ireland mission report from the late 19th Century said if “Ireland were Presbyterian, instead of Romanist, oh what an Ireland that would be!” [I wonder who would say this with such confidence today with our awareness of the brokenness and fallibility of religious institutions]

The imminent return of Christ and the conflict with the Antichrist (papal power) is unfolding now in the crisis facing Ireland and compels true Christians to urgent missionary zeal to save lost Roman Catholics, even in remote places like Achill Island (Edward Nangle). [Is it just my perception or is very little said about eschatology and the return of Christ these days? Maybe in response to such confident schemes such as Nangle’s that don’t seem to have panned out? Apparently he said that Christ would return by 2016 at the latest!!]

Social, political and cultural factors in mission are virtually irrelevant: once Catholics understand the truth of the gospel as revealed in the Bible they will willingly and automatically leave their culture, community, and identity behind to become Anglican Protestants. [Moffitt makes a couple of points here: The ICM seemed to have given little thought on how an Established Church with many landed gentry could assimilate and embrace thousands of new poor Catholic converts. The missionaries also seem to have largely discounted the impact of Protestant missions being funded from British sources. This was naive at best, arrogant at worst].

And here’s a final point which Moffitt makes that, if true, is the most telling one:

The ICM missionary campaign of the 19th century was more answering the religious, social, cultural and political needs of Protestants than the needs of Catholics. [In other words, while done out of a sincere religious desire to see Catholics saved from apostasy, the wider context of increasing threat to Protestant hegemony posed by a revitalised Catholic church and the rise of organised Catholic political consciousness meant that a subtext of Protestant mission was self-preservation.]

The story Moffitt tells, whether you agree with all the details or not, raises searching questions for anyone involved in contemporary mission [and I believe in the continuing legitimacy of Christian mission!]:

– what are our motives in mission? What domestic agendas might lie behind engagement in mission? Can these honestly be identified and acknowledged? 

– how can the temptation to exaggerate missionary success and significance to funders be restrained? What does integrity in mission look like?

– how can mission be done with ‘no strings attached’ for the blessing and benefit of the ‘recipient’ (both physical and spiritual)?

– has some hard thinking been done about the cultural context of mission and significant potential barriers to mission identified and action taken?

– do we think ‘we’ have all the truth and all the answers as we engage in mission? Is our vision of mission a one-way street? What is our ‘posture’ in mission? 

– has thought and prayer gone into how to ’embrace’ and welcome and disciple potential new believers within a community of faith?

– How can mission be ‘led’ by the good news of the gospel rather than attacking the beliefs of others? Where and when is there a need for confrontation in mission?

What do you think? Are these useful questions for a church or organisation to be thinking about in light of Irish history? What might you add or change?