Is it possible to think any more?

This post is prompted by four things

1. Reading an interview with a guy called Cal Newport who’s just published a book Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload.

2. Re-reading parts of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. It was published back in ancient history (2010) but remains, I think, an important exploration of what the digital age is doing to us. It remains remarkably current.

3. Trying to find space to be creative: to think about a new writing idea: to clarify the concept; to identify the audience; to articulate a compelling rationale; to plan a structure; and – finally – to begin the writing process from the starting point of a blank (yes) screen. I’m reasonably disciplined and am used to writing, but I’ve found this way harder to do than usual. Of course there could be many explanations for my brain fog (isn’t much going on in there / haven’t got much to say / add your own insult) but I wonder if its connected to Lockdown and more enforced screen time, more time indoors etc?

4. Supervising an MA dissertation on church and the digital age

Both authors above, from different angles, are saying things probably most of us are experiencing. The all-encompassing encroachment of the digital age into every area of our existence has some serious downsides. The digitalisation of life is negatively impacting our thinking, creativity, work patterns and imaginations, amongst other things.

So, yes of course we can think, but are we thinking less well, less creatively, and less imaginatively than if we were not in a state of constant distraction and information overload?

Here’s a flavour of Newport’s argument

Modern knowledge workers communicate constantly. Their days are defined by a relentless barrage of incoming messages and back-and-forth digital conversations–a state of constant, anxious chatter in which nobody can disconnect, and so nobody has the cognitive bandwidth to perform substantive work. There was a time when tools like email felt cutting edge, but a thorough review of current evidence reveals that the “hyperactive hive mind” workflow they helped create has become a productivity disaster, reducing profitability and perhaps even slowing overall economic growth. Equally worrisome, it makes us miserable. Humans are simply not wired for constant digital communication.

His book is about freedom from the tyranny of email – relegating it to be a servant of effective work practices rather than the master. He argues that a solution has to go beyond the lone individual battling against a tide of haphazard communication – there needs to be a fundamental shift in workplace culture to put email in its place.

That master-servant analogy also applies to Carr’s book, indeed he uses it early on;

The computer screen bulldozes our doubts with its bounties and conveniences. It is so much our servant that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master. p. 4.

He means by this that the net is doing something to our brains. Its fragmented, hyperlinked and confetti-type nature is fundamentally alien to the way human thinking and culture have been developed and sustained. It has pulled us into the shallows, where we are mired in distracted thought.

Add on to this other unplanned consequences of the digital age that Carr discusses:

– vast amounts of available information does not necessarily make research and writing any better or any easier

– every time we follow suggested links we follows scripts written by others, limiting intuition, creativity and accidental discovery

– long hours in the electronic world keeps us, in effect, in an ‘urban’, busy, high-stimulus environment. Overwhelming research shows that our brains relax in natural environments. Spending time in nature leads to better cognitive functioning.

– a calm, attentive mind is also more empathetic. Human relationships are complex interactions of verbal and non-verbal communication. Take out the physical leads to a loss of empathy and a dehumanisation of those we engage with online. Since 2010 when Carr wrote this, the toxicity of the internet has poisoned public debate and polarised politics.

But my main focus is distraction so I’d better get back to that! Carr writes,

I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lost the thread, begin looking for something else to do. p.5

Which describes just about how I’m feeling at the moment. How about you? Does the following describe your experience?:

  • constantly connected
  • distracted
  • having multiple conversations on multiple platforms at the same time
  • spending most of the day looking at one sort of screen or another
  • feeling bombarded by images, texts, messages – many unsolicited and trivial
  • never feeling you have enough time
  • anxious if you misplace your phone and can’t rest until you have found it
  • struggling to concentrate
  • endlessly flicking over to email, news, netflix, whatsapp, FB or Twitter or Instagram
  • checking your social media accounts obsessively
  • at work feeling like you spend most of the time reacting, especially to haphazard emails
  • struggling to maintain boundaries of work and the rest of our life
  • used to read books but now find either little time or inclination to do so
  • used to read your Bible but now find either little time or inclination to do so
  • physically less active than you used to be?

If so, then you don’t need me to say there is a problem.

I’m old enough to be a digital migrant rather than a digital native. College studies and PhD research were all done ‘long-hand’. For the latter I had to travel 100 miles to the nearest university library to photocopy articles and hand write notes. I wrote it up in WordPerfect on a 386 running on MSDOS with (I think) a 256kb hard-drive and saved files on floppy disks. The internet hardly existed in any useful form. We lived in the country and had a terrible dial-up connection. No mobile phones, certainly no smartphone, no social media, no whatsapp – and not that much email.

So I had to smile reading Carr talking about what he had to do to actually write The Shallows. It’s an irony that, despite all the technological progress since the 1990s, he essentially retreated backwards to our lives in the Irish countryside pre the Web.

If I’m finding it so hard to concentrate, to stay focused on a line of thought, how in the world did I manage to write a few hundred pages of at least semicoherent thought? It wasn’t easy. When I began writing The Shallows … I struggled in vain to keep my mind fixed on the task. The Net provided, as always, a bounty of useful information and research tools, but its constant interruptions scattered my thoughts and words … It was clear big changes were in order … I moved with my wife from a highly connected suburb of Boston to the mountains of Colorado. There was no cell phone service .. the internet arrived through a relatively poky DSL connection. I cancelled my Twitter account, put my Facebook membership on hiatus, and mothballed my blog. Most important, I throttled back on my email application … I began to keep the program closed for most of the day.

The dismantling of my online life was far from painless. For months my synapses howled for the Net fix … But in time the cravings subsided, and I found myself able to type at my keyboard for hours on end or to read through a dense academic paper without my mind wandering. Some old disused neural circuits were springing back to life … I started to feel generally calmer and more in control of my thoughts – less like a lab rat pressing a lever and more like, well, a human being. My brain could breathe again. pp.198-99.

So what to do? I could suggest to my wife that we move back to the hills of Tipperary. She may like the idea but I suspect that the internet connections are a lot better than they used to be. Smartphones ain’t going away. And Carr’s move to the wilderness isn’t the most practical solution for 99.9% of people.

To start with, on a study day I’m starting to turn off email and phone. I’m prioritising reading physical books and articles rather than a screen. I get out for a walk, preferably along or near water. And if writing, to turn off wifi so it would take a bit more of an intentional decision to open up a web browser and check the news or something else irrelevant. It’s not a quick fix but it helps. And if Lockdown eases and I get the chance, I hope to get away to a cottage for a few days and disconnect from all distractions.

How about you?

Lent 2021: Fleming Rutledge. The accursed death of Christ

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

This post relates to chapter 2 on ‘The Godlessness of the Cross’.

We are into some serious theology here – serious both in terms of depth and also subject matter.

What is so refreshing about Rutledge is this seriousness – Christianity is a serious faith about big issues the answers to which will shape our lives.

Questions arising out of this post for me are these:

How seriously is a theology of the cross taught, talked about and understood in the church today do you think? Especially during Lent and climaxing at Easter? How seriously is theology taken in general do you think?

The final section of chapter 2 focuses on Galatians 3:10-14 along with two or three other texts which, take together, Rutledge argues represent ‘the accursed death of Christ’.

Galatians 3:10-14

  • Everyone is living under the power of God’s curse, because the Law (Torah) pronounces that curse on all lawbreakers
  • Rectification (which is Rutledge’s rendering of ‘justification’ – to be ‘set right’) by the Law is impossible since the Law does not give life, only faith can.
  • Only God can do the rectifying and has done so through his Son who took the full curse of the Law onto himself at the cross.
  • A Christian’s identity is not found in the observance of the Law but from the gift of the Spirit through faith in Christ. (99-100)

Rutledge comments on popular caricatures and misunderstandings here. To the objection that it would be a monstrous sort of Father who allows his Son to be abandoned and cursed on the cross, she rightly shapes a reply around the Trinity – Jesus takes the accursedness that is ours on himself by his own decree.

2 Corinthians 5:21

A second text Rutledge turns to is a famous one – probably the strongest text in the NT for some sort of imputation (exchange) of Christ’s righteousness to believers and our sin to him.

For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Much ink has been spilt over this verse. [N T Wright famously and controversially rejects imputation here and elsewhere in the NT, as if we are ‘given’ the righteousness of Christ].

Rutledge says no-one can say for sure what it means that Jesus is ‘made sin’. Wisely, things are framed around Sin with a capital ‘S’ – in Paul sin is a power that is in league with death, opposed to the good work of God. It is much more than merely ‘missing the mark’, but a hostile spiritual force that, in effect, uses the Law to condemn us to death.

Coming back to Galatians 3, Paul’s quotation of Deuteronomy 21:23 is in effect saying Jesus is condemned by the curse of the Law.

In his death, Paul declares, Jesus was giving himself over to the enemy – to Sin, to its ally the Law, and to its wage, Death (Rom. 6:23; 7:8-11). This was his warfare. That is one of the most important reasons – perhaps the most important – that Jesus was crucified, for no other mode of execution would have been commensurate with the extremity of humanity’s condition under Sin.  (102)

This is where Rutledge is so good, she gets beyond one-dimensional theologies of the cross to how, in Paul, it is a rich kaleidoscope of images and themes converging to form a complex, powerful and beautiful portrait of the love of God in Christ.

By one-dimensional, I mean reducing the cross down to a mere individual transaction – ‘my sin problem resolved’. Yes, the atonement includes this, but there is much more going on, particularly in terms of who the enemy is and the scope of the victory won.

Rutledge draws a creative and memorable parallel here: Jesus’ treatment under Rome is similar to humanity’s condition under Sin. Jesus is:

  • Condemned
  • Rendered helpless and powerless
  • Stripped of his humanity
  • Reduced to the status of a slave
  • Declared unfit to live and deserving of death

So, at one level Jesus takes the literal form of a slave on the cross, but ‘behind the scenes’ the cross is ‘an apocalyptic battlefield where the Lord of Hosts goes to war with the forces of the Enemy’. (103).  [Rutledge returns to the atonement as a battlefield in chapter 9 – Christus Victor].

This is what happened at the cross. The Son of God gave himself up to be enslaved by Sin, condemned by the Law, and subject to Death … Linking all these passages together then, we see that Jesus exchanged God for Godlessness …

… What we see happening on the cross is that Jesus, who dies the death of a slave, “was made to be sin”. Does this mean that Jesus become his own Enemy? It would seem so. Just as his own human body turned against him on the cross, smothering and killing him, so his human nature absorbed the curse of the Law, the sentence that deals death to the human being (Rom. 7:11). By making himself “to be sin”, he allied himself with us in our farthest extremity … Thus he entered our desperate condition. No wonder he cried on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (103)

[Note: This is a re-post from a daily series I ran during Lent a couple of years ago on Rutledge’s book. This Lent I will do some re-posts from that series].

Love in Paul (10) love for one another

We’re continuing a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

This is the first post in strand 3. If strands 1 and 2 were ‘vertical love’ (love of God for humanity; human love for God in response), this strand is ‘horizontal love’ – at a human to human level. It is also the strand about which the Apostle Paul has by far the most to say.

Indeed, he has so much to say about love for one another that I call him the ‘apostle of love’. He’s right up there with John in the frequency and importance of love within the community of God’s people. The love believers are to have for one another is to be THE distingushing mark of these fledging churches, reflecting their new-found identity in Christ and marking them as belonging to a different story and ethic to that of the surrounding nations.

We’ve mentioned earlier how Douglas Campbell calls this ‘agapeism’ – that love captures all that is important about Pauline ethics. And I agree, it does. Let’s take two broad themes in this post, and we’ll continue with others in the next post

The Missional Focus of Pauline Love

Here’s a sweeping generalisation – there is a strange lack of attention paid to the importance of love within Christian mission. There can be much discussion of context, strategy, culture, vision, leadership, apologetics and so on, but, rarely a sustained focus on the most important element of all – the integrity and attractiveness of the Christian community. (happy to be corrected here)

Paul, it seems to me, has a razor sharp awareness that love is essential for the health and witness of his Christian communities. There was nothing like them in the ancient world. No other communities embraced individuals across the profound religious, gender, socio-economic status and ethnic divisions of the ancient world. Believers now have a new primary identity in Christ as brothers and sisters (adelphoi) within God’s household. Previous identity – whether Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave or free – are relativised, not erased they are – radically – now of no spiritual significance.

In this vein, coming from a social-scientific angle, David Horrell (2016) makes the argument that Paul is primarily concerned with the construction of a corporate solidarity that acts to heal inner-communal conflict and draws strength from a vocation to holiness within an immoral world.

So, in Paul, love is not an end in itself. Rather, it is the defining characteristic of the first Christian communities in their new vocation to live lives worthy of the gospel under the Lordship of Jesus Christ within a world that is ‘passing away’ (1 Cor 7:31).

Love is only thing that could possibly hold such ‘households’ together. Love is essential to the life and witness of the church. Without love no church and no family can survive – and that’s as true today as it was then.

Love as following the paradoxical way of Jesus

For Paul, Christian love is cruciform love. God’s love is demonstrated and experienced through the cross of Christ. Cruciform love is costly, it acts for the good of others at the expense of the self.

This is the paradoxical way of Jesus.

Sometimes this can be misunderstood. Christianity does not call believers to be ‘doormats’ – walked over by others at every turn. Nor does it call for self-abnegation or self-hatred. Rather, it proclaims that real flourishing, happiness and purpose is found in loving others. Loving another means acting for their good, even at cost to the self. Christianity is a corporate faith, which is another way of saying it is orientated around living well with others within a network of mutually loving relationships.

This conflicts head on with Western individualism that says fulfilment is found in self-realisation, finding yourself, loving yourself, expressing yourself and so on. This sort of ‘expressive individualism’ is centered on the self rather than on loving others. It has no place for community and its ‘eschatology’ is consumerist – short-term individual pleasure or achievement. There is nothing ‘bigger’ or more significant than the self.

We see other-focused Jesus-type love applied by Paul to a multiplicity of situations and contexts. Here are some examples and we could keep going at length here:

  • Other-focused love is seen in his repeated appeals to maintain unity (Rom 12:16; 14:1-15:7; 1 Cor 1:10; 12:21-27; 14:12; Gal 6:10; Eph 4:1-3; Phil 2:1-2; Col 3:12-13; 1 Thes 5:12-15; Titus 3:1-2, 8)
  • In his many warnings against divisive attitudes or behaviour (1 Cor 3:1-4, 16-17; 6:1-11; 8:9-13; 10:24, 31-33; 11:17-34; 2 Cor 12:19-20; Gal 5:15; 6:3-4; Eph 4:25-32; Phil 2:3, 14-15; Col 3:5-9; 1 Thes 4:3-6; 1 Tim 6:2b-10; 2 Tim 2:23, 3:1-5; Titus 3:9-11).
  • Converts to Christ are to act in love for each other (1 Thes 4:9; Rom 12:9-10; 14:15; 1 Cor.8:1; Eph 4:2, 15-16; Phil 2:1-2; Col 2:2).
  • Famously, in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, all Christian life and ministry is of no value at all if it is not done in love.
  • The Colossians are encouraged to clothe themselves with love on top of a list of other virtues (Col.3:14)
  • In 1 Thessalonians 5:8 all believers are to put on the breastplate of faith and love.
  • Paul prays that believers’ love would grow as they await the coming of the Lord (1 Thes 3:12; Phil 1:9) and is glad to hear of a church’s love (e.g., 1 Thes 3:6; 2 Thes 1:3).
  • In Philippians he is thankful when Christ is preached ‘out of love’ (Phil 1:16) – regardless of who the preachers are.
  • He rejoices when he hears of believers’ love for God’s people (Col 1:4, Philem 1:5, 7)
  • He encourages the Corinthians to show the ‘genuineness’’ of their love by giving financial help for brothers and sisters in need (2 Cor 8:8, 24).
  • Rather than use apostolic authority, he prefers to appeal to Philemon about Onesimus ‘on the basis of love’ (Philem.1.9).
  • And, as a pastor, it is significant how often Paul expresses his deep love for the communities to whom he ministers (e.g., 1 Thes 2:8; 3:12; 1 Cor 4:21; 16:24; 2 Cor 2:4; 8:7; 11:11; Phil.4:1).

That’s a pretty strong case for ‘agapeism’ right there. More to come in the next post.

Lent 2021: Fleming Rutledge on the cross versus gnosticism

A lenten post on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015). We are in chapter 1, ‘The Primacy of the Cross’.

A major section of this chapter is how, both historically and today, gnosticism is the ‘most pervasive and popular’ rival to Christianity, particularly in terms of the cross.

Now this might sound a peculiar thing to say – wasn’t gnosticism an ancient philosophy? You don’t tend to see any local congregations of gnostic churches dotted around our towns and cities today.

The Greek word gnosis means knowledge. Combine it with the idea of special spiritual knowledge being the path to ‘salvation’ and you are getting to the heart of gnosticism.

So far this may sound quite innocuous. After all didn’t Jesus gather the twelve around him and teach them in ways not available to outsiders? But the real problem is how this secret path of knowledge is open only to the select few who are wise enough to discern the way.

The teaching of Jesus in parables to the twelve prepares them for public proclamation of the kingdom to all.

‘Gnostics, in contrast, are mystery-mongers’ (46).

1 Corinthians is full of references to Paul combatting proto-gnostic ideas among the spiritually elite Corinthians. Wisdom (sophia) and knowledge (gnosis) are recurring words with the apostle often sarcastically asking ‘Do you not know?’ Are you not wise? In other words, he keeps puncturing their balloon of spiritual self-regard, reminding them that they are not wise, powerful, rich or influential but God has chosen them regardless out of his grace and love.

It is no accident that his theology of the body (1 Cor 12) elevates the ‘inferior’ parts that hidden in shame to be of equal status and importance with the visible and impressive parts of the body – this is anti-gnostic theology. As of course so is John’s great statement ‘the Word became flesh’ (John 1:14).

Rutledge’s argument then, is that gnosticism is a form of spiritual hierarchy that puts human wisdom, knowledge and experience at the centre of revelation and the path to enlightenment. It blurs the distinction between God and humanity. By minimising God’s transcendence and our transient mortality, gnosticism elevates humanity to the realm of the divine – all of us, potentially or actually are God’s children and can reach enlightenment.

This is a lot ‘more appealing than orthodox Christianity’s teaching that God is the creator and we are his creatures, made in God’s image but not God’s substance.’ (50).

Rutledge has a swipe at Richard Rohr in passing (footnote) who uses typical gnostic language in talking of the ‘deeper wisdom teaching’ of Jesus that is the ‘goal of religion’ that helps those on a ‘serious spiritual journey’ towards ‘contemplative seeing’.

A key symptom of gnostic theology then is stratification: where an elite few exist within an inner circle of those ‘in the know’.

What forms of elitism come to mind within contemporary Christianity in your experience? Where have you been made to feel inferior because you did not ‘measure up’ to the knowledge or experience of others?

Rutledge identifies the modern appeal of gnosticism here:

Much of it is in tune with today’s American attitudes. It seems to offer greater openness and flexibility to those who experience Christian orthodoxy as rigid … it is thought to be more welcoming to women, artists, freethinkers, and free spirits … It definitely seems more “spiritual,” and offers a selection of paths to follow … yet without restrictive dogma. For example, gnostic devaluation of the material world offers two views of our sexual nature, both of them conducive to a libertine way of life. Either the sexual act is thought to be immensely spiritual, offering access to the divine, or it is a matter of no importance one way of the other, since the flesh is unspiritual. Either way, the gnostic is free of sexual restrictions.  (51-52)

But the most serious incompatibility between gnosticism and Christianity is in the former’s optimism about human capacity for self-enlightenment.  Gnosticism says, in effect, we can save ourselves. Suffering and the cross are not only to be avoided, they are unnecessary.

Which raises questions:

Where and how do some modern forms of Christianity mirror gnosticism’s discomfort with suffering and the cross?

Where and how, to use another Bonhoeffer’s language, do some modern strands of Christianity represent a ‘cheap’ form of grace that refuses to pay the cost of discipleship?

[Note: This is a re-post from a daily series I ran during Lent a couple of years ago on Rutledge’s book. This Lent I will do some re-posts from that series].

Love in Paul (9) Love, Faith, the Spirit and Union with Christ

We’re continuing a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

This is the last post within strand 2 – the responsive love of God’s people to God’s prior love. In this post I want to sketch the connections between faith (pistis) and union with Christ. The role of the Spirit is critical here. And the ‘outworking’, or we may even say ‘purpose’, of being united in Christ through faith alone is seen in a life of love.

The gospel calls for a response of faith which results in believers being joined together ‘in Christ’. This is a remarkable image when you think about it. It speaks of Paul’s high christology that is some cosmic / spiritual sense all believers are united together within the ‘body of Christ’ – the church.

To be ‘in Christ’ is therefore an eschatological concept – believers ‘in Christ’ belong to God’s new creation (Gal 6:14-15; 2 Cor 5:14, 17). Elsewhere Paul talks about them being baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection.

A tight connection between faith, the Spirit and love is typically Pauline. It is the Spirit through whom God’s love is poured out into believers’ hearts (Rom 5:5) and through whom God is known (1 Cor 8:3; Eph 3:19). Indeed, faith and love are often mentioned alongside one another (Eph 6:23; 1 Thess 1:3; 3:6; 5:8; 1 Tim 1:14). The primary evidence of the empowering presence of the Spirit is love (Gal 5:6, 13).

It is important we see the apostle’s pastoral concerns here. So often we get lost in technical theological debates about justification and soteriology that we miss how Paul’s priorities are primarily ethical – that believers would be living lives of love and holiness pleasing to God. This is his heartfelt plea to the believers to whom he writes.

Paul leaves some things unsaid – he doesn’t really explain how someone ‘in Christ’ is transformed by the Spirit into a person of love. The NT scholar Michael Gorman lists different biblical images or ideas that various scholars have argued captures how union and moral transformation ‘work’ in Paul: participation, incorporation, identification, (mutual) indwelling and even (Christ-) mysticism (Gorman, 2019). Volker Rabens (2014) has done outstanding work on unpacking the relational role of the Spirit within the community of the church.

Most recently, Douglas Campbell’s Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love (2020) gives five chapters to love within the theme of ‘Formation’. For Campbell love explains everything important about Pauline ethics – he calls this ‘agapeism’. And I’m inclined to agree with him on that point.

Two points to note – and these are absolutely crucial for understanding the theology and pastoral mission of the apostle Paul. Both, I think, are too often missed or marginalised in teaching and preaching today

1) Christianity is a Communal Faith

Or, to put it negatively, Paul knows nothing of individualism. The idea that a believer would or could try to follow Jesus apart from a community of believers would be incomprehensible to the apostle. Faith, the Spirit, and union in Christ brings a Christian into a new community – and it is within that new community that he / she is live and love and forgive and serve and teach and care. And it is in doing so that the Spirit works to effect moral transformation. That doesn’t happen on your own.

If you are reading this it’s likely that like me, you are a Western individualist – shaped and formed by an individualist culture that says follow your own dream, do your own thing, be yourself, you’re worth it etc etc. It is easy to frame the gospel around this sort of narrative – it’s about me and my happiness, or my experience of God’s love, or my assurance about the future and so on. Of course the gospel is personal and individual – it has to be real for each person. It requires personal faith and repentance and a turning around to follow the Lord. But it’s a reduced and distorted Christianity that makes it all about individual experience or individual salvation.

Yes, church can be the hardest place to be a Christian. Yes, churches can be toxic. Yes, any community is going to be difficult. But this was nothing new to Paul – just read 1 Corinthians! His passion is to see renewal and reform – the idea of opting out to go my own way was inconceivable.

2) Every Christian is in a spiritual battle – and love is God’s weapon in the war

Second, love lies at the heart of an eschatological conflict between forces belonging to the old age and the new.

In 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 love is both the goal of God’s salvation and an eschatological foretaste of God’s new creation in the present. Within the present believers are to ‘pursue love’ (1 Cor 14:1) and are later exhorted ‘Let all that you do be done in love’ (1 Cor. 16:14).

In Galatians love grows and matures in opposition to attitudes, desires and actions that belong to the ‘present evil age’ (Gal 1:4) or ‘kosmos’ (world). It is only the empowering presence of the Spirit which can transform uncontrolled ‘desires of the flesh’ (Gal 5:16, epithymia, ‘desire’) that lead to destructive ‘works of the flesh’ (Gal 5:19). In contrast, ‘those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions (pathēma, ‘passion’) and desires’(Gal 5:24).

In the ancient world it was not unusual for the passions to be seen as obstacles to a virtuous life. What is of profound importance in Paul is how the Spirit and love is the means by which the battle is fought and won. Love in this eschatological perspective is God’s ‘weapon’ in a cosmic battle against destructive forces opposed to his good purposes.

Think about this for a moment. This is the heartbeat of the Christian faith. It takes us back to the previous post on Stanley Hauerwas and the way of Jesus being love and non-violence. The radical core of Christian faith is love – not force, not selfish power, not exclusion, not human reason, not Torah obedience. It is the way of the cross. And this all flows from God’s own loving nature – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Hauerwas on love and community in an age of Christian nationalism

I’m re-reading Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Towards a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (1981).

I’m working on a writing project and am thinking about the connections between the narrative of the Christian story and the love ethic within Christian community. In other words, if humans are story-formed people, how does the particular story of the Gospel shape the ethics and aspirations of followers of Jesus? Where and how does love fit in?

As usual Hauerwas is on the money. Note in the quote below how he connects the cross, discipleship, community and the Gospels. Christians share in Christ’s story – a story of love and self-giving. Such a calling is not to power, coercion or violence. Nor it is motivated by fear and protective self-interest. Nor does it imagine it can or should seek to control the world.

We need Hauerwas more than ever these days. While Trump is no longer President and has again been acquitted by the Senate, forces of Christian nationalism are on the rise. The erection of a cross outside the Capitol on January 6 during a violent and deadly assault represented an idolatrous rejection of the way of Jesus. The symbolism was unambiguous – God blesses our political objectives; God blesses our violence; God blesses our version of America. God’s way of the cross is subverted, the cross instead becomes a weapon of war. God blesses our ‘politics of purity’ by which we are going to ‘cleanse’ America from all who (we believe) are defiling the nation’s God-given calling. This is the politics of exclusion, of fear, of oppression – it belongs to the ‘powers and principalities’ of this age, not to the Kingdom of God.

We’ve seen this before of course. The cross used as a symbol of Empire, a battle standard in Christendom’s wars with Islam. We had our own version here in Ireland with Padraig Pearse’s Easter Rising in 1916 and in Protestant versions of ‘For God and Ulster’. America has long had a corrosive strand of religious nationalism where God’s blessing is routinely invoked on its special destiny as the nation of ‘freedom’. What’s happening now is this form of religious nationalism is ‘heating up’, the fires stoked by Trump – ironically someone for whom ‘Christianity’ is little more than a useful symbol to use for his own political self-interest. Once the fires have been lit, ‘hot’ nationalisms are hard to put out. (Which is why it is Bible-believing devout evangelicals enablers of Trump like Kayleigh McEnany who I think are most culpable).

To be a disciple is to be part of a new community, a new polity, which is formed on Jesus’ obedience to the cross. The constitutions of this new polity are the Gospels. The Gospels are not just the depiction of a man, but they are manuals for the training necessary to be part of the new community. To be a disciple means to share Christ’s story, to participate in the reality of God’s rule.


I have tried to suggest that such a rule is more than the claim that God is Lord of this world. It is the creation of a “world” through a story that teaches us how such a rule is constituted. Christians learn the power of this rule by loving as God has loved through Jesus’ life. That is, they love their “enemies, and do good and lend without expecting return” for, if they do, their “reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and selfish. Be merciful, even as your father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36).

It is through such love that Christians learn that they are to serve as he served. Such service is not an end in itself, but reflects the Kingdom into which Christians have been drawn. This means that Christians insist on service which may appear ineffective to the world. For the service that Christians are called upon to provide does not have as its aim to make the world better, but to demonstrate that Jesus has made possible a new world, a new social order.

Page 49.

Relentless Love: Trócaire, Tearfund Ireland and Integral Mission

In chapter 11 of Relentless Love I compare and contrast how the Bible is used within two approaches to social justice in Ireland – that of Trócaire and of Tearfund Ireland. Trócaire (established 1973) is the overseas development agency of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. Tearfund Ireland was launched in 2008 and is a sister organisation of Tearfund UK, a global relief and development agency operating within an evangelical ethos.

The chapter was originally published in Anderson and Kearney Ireland and the Reception of the Bible (2018). The broad theme was the Bible and social justice in Ireland. As I was trying to figure out what angle to take I knew it needed to engage with Catholic thinking and practice and not just the ‘minority report’ of Protestant/evangelical thinking and action on social justice. And so a comparative analysis of how the main relief agencies of those two communities approached social justice seemed a good way in to the subject.

In terms of budget Trócaire dwarfs Tearfund Ireland. It takes in c. €30 million each year in donations alone during its annual Lenten appeal. But my interest was more in the two organisations theology and practice of social justice.

On the surface, they have much in common: Both:

  • are professional and experienced faith-based development organisation which depends to a significant degree on support from local churches across Ireland,
  • prioritise aid to the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world
  • offer resources and training for churches in Ireland to engage with issues of social justice.
  • recognise that the causes of poverty are complex and that bringing justice involves both aid to relieve suffering and action to address the root causes of injustice.
  • place significant emphasis on sustainability and empowerment at a local level.
  • root their call to action in God’s love for all people and the God-given worth of each individual

But under the surface some significant differences emerge. Below is a summary of the argument.

Trócaire

From its beginning Trócaire was focused on global economic justice – ‘no nation has a right to build its own prosperity on the misery of others.’ What emerged in the analysis is a tension running through Trócaire’s work between its identity as a Catholic relief organisation set up by the Irish Bishops and informed by Catholic Social Teaching (CST), and its largely secular approach to establishing justice through human rights legislation within a firmly ‘this worldly’ political framework.

To illustrate: the organisation’s six core themes (sustainable livelihoods; human rights; gender equality; HIV; climate change; emergency relief) are framed within a general theme of justice rather than being developed around specific biblical themes.

So there is little talk in Trócaire’s many publications, as far as I found, of themes such as the kingdom of God; future hope; the New Testament’s eschatological structure for Christian ethics; themes of sin; forgiveness, the uniqueness of Christ; new life in the Spirit; the church as the people of God and so on.

The three elements of CST that Trócaire highlight are dignity (all people are created in God’s image and are therefore due respect); option for the poor (putting the poor and vulnerable first); and the common good (everyone is included with a right and responsibility to promote the community’s good and benefit from it). These are applied in ways to support (good and valuable) development objectives of helping practically those in need.

The same can be said in general for how the Bible is used. Verses used include classic “justice” texts such as Isa 58:6, 10 (fasting as loosing the bonds of injustice), Mic 6:8 (do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God), Prov 31:8-9 (speak out for those who cannot), Luke 4:18-19 (good news to the poor), and Luke 10:25-37 (parable of the Good Samaritan). These texts are applied within a broad creational framework to support general rights-based teaching on the value of all human life which compels those with resources to help those without.

The overall impression is of a highly professional aid organisation, but one in which its Christian identity is largely in the background. The approach is primarily political and legal and sits comfortably within the values and goals of secular aid agencies. On the ground, Trócaire is a non-missionary organisation, its primary focus is a rights-based approach to global development.

Tearfund’s theology of integral mission

The critical difference between the approaches of the two organisations, in my view, is Tearfund’s commitment to integral mission. I’m not commenting here on the merits of either – just observing that it is Tearfund’s explicit attempt to integrate mission and social justice that distingushes it from Trócaire.

Within integral mission, mission is framed within the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption and consummation. The church exists ‘between the times’ of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, Pentecost and the consummation of all things when Christ returns.

This means that the call of the church is to declare the good news (gospel) of forgiveness of sins but also new life under his lordship in the power of the Spirit for all aspects of life.

This leads to the most significant different between the two organisations. Integral mission has the church “as a caring, inclusive and distinctive community of reconciliation reaching out in love to the world” (Dewi Hughes) at the centre of Christian mission. Hughes argues that

“[t]he church is not the means by which Tearfund can deliver ‘development’ to the poor but the most convincing evidence that we now have of the outworking of God’s purpose to redeem his creation.” While churches are frequently broken and imperfect, it is Tearfund’s “privilege to be continually looking for such churches within the worldwide evangelical community that we may encourage them in their integral mission” since “showing mercy and acting on behalf of the poor belongs to the essence of the church. . . . a church that does not care for its poor is not a true church. (Dewi Hughes, ‘Theology of Integral Mission”)

And so an integral vision for mission is to knit together Christian mission, development and the local church into a coherent rationale for praxis. This means that integral mission embraces practical needs being met, increasing participation and empowerment of the poor, advocacy to challenge structural injustice, personal understanding of individuals as made in the image of God, local church engagement in service to the poor alongside worship and witness.

This sits very much within the Micah Network’s Declaration on Integral Mission

If we ignore the world we betray the word of God which sends us out to serve the world. If we ignore the word of God we have nothing to bring to the world. Justice and justification by faith, worship and political action, the spiritual and the material, personal change and structural change belong together. As in the life of Jesus, being, doing and saying are at the heart of our integral task.[1]

From the Micah Declaration on Integral Mission: http://www.micahnetwork.org/integral-mission.

And this issues in a different perspective on human rights and the goal of a Christian relief agency. Tearfund say human rights legislation needs to be viewed through a Christian lens. It may be the calling of Christians to accept injustice and violation of their rights, but simultaneously be committed to seeking justice for other people’s rights. A motivation of love rather than law.

Reflections

First, the comparison between Trócaire and Tearfund revealed some fascinating distinctives in their theology and praxis. Perhaps this is best summarised in Trócaire having more of a ‘top-down’ rights-based approach to development and Tearfund having more of a ‘bottom-up’ emphasis of change at a local level in partnership with local communities of Christians.

Second, more broadly, given the negative legacy of so much of ‘Catholic Ireland’, the work of Trócaire, and many other Catholic organisations committed to serving the poor, is a reminder of a ‘thread of grace’ woven into the fabric of Christianity to serve those in need.

Third, the motive for engaging in social justice is crucial. Within Ireland, (some) Protestant relief work during the Famine fatally tainted an astonishing range of aid by multiple organisation. Within Catholicism, the enormous contribution of the Church to social action in Ireland has tended to be lost today. Not only because of scandals, but because it tended to be pragmatic – as a means to an end (the dissemination of the Catholic faith) rather than out of a ‘no strings attached’ love or desire to reform embedded injustices in Irish society. All churches today – of whatever hue – need to love and care for people as people rather than ‘care for the poor’ becoming, however subtly, a means to an end, whether church growth, praise from others or as a means of attracting funding.

Fourth, in an era of unrestrained capitalism that is wrecking havoc on the world’s ecosystems and harming the poor most of all, the call for Christians is to reflect the character of God. He is a God of the poor in whom there is no partiality. His church is called to loving action in his name.


Becoming a Community of Resistence in a Consumer Culture

I can honestly say I love teaching all my modules on the undergrad and post-grad courses in IBI. But it’s when you get ‘in’ to the nitty gritty of teaching and interacting with students that a module comes alive – and every time is different because every group of people has its own dynamic.

We’ve recently begun ‘Faith in Contemporary Culture’. But it could just as easily be called ‘Everyday Discipleship’, or ‘Being Resident Aliens’ (re quote Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon) or even perhaps ‘How To Develop Your Love Life’ – but I suspect that might lead to disappointment.

We try to set the historical context and also consider what culture is and how it works in the first 3-4 weeks. The idea here is to look at the ‘big stories’ that have framed Christian faith and experience for centuries: Christendom (Irish style) to post-Christendom; modernism (human progress, reason etc) to post-modern scepticism and disenchantment. I used to spend more time on these big stories. Another major one is nationalism (again Irish nationalism was a very particular expression but still typical of a of modernist metanarrative of the onward march of the nation leading to a utopian future).

But I’ve shifted to spend more time in the present – in the contemporary stories that shape our culture. Here’s the overall framework.

Several ideas lie behind this approach

One is that we are storied people – identity and purpose are found in and through narratives of meaning.

Old narratives are in the process of fragmenting in all directions.

The narrative of the free self, with love at its core, is probably the dominant story of Western culture.

We are first and foremost ‘lovers’ – people who are shaped by desires and loves. To quote JKA Smith, we are what we love.

Contemporary culture is a desire factory. Consumerism is first and foremost, after our hearts.

Christian theology needs a robust theology of love and desire if it is going to even begin to grapple with the pervasive reach of contemporary consumerism.

Augustine’s theology of love and desire is a profoundly important entry point to begin to think theologically and critically about contemporary consumer society.

A theological response of what it looks like for Christians to be ‘resident aliens’ or a ‘community of resistence’ will need embodied practices that reflect an alternative narrative. In other words, to live as disciples of Jesus, to live to his kingdom and not the kingdom of the market, means intentionally resisting the corrosive story of consumerism. It means living to another story.

To even begin to do this requires first recognising consumerism’s power, its pervasive reach, and unmasking its ‘invisibility’ – how consumerism is taken for granted as a perfectly ‘normal’ way of envisioning a fulfilling life. It’s the air we breathe every day.

[I’m not the first to say this, but my sense here is that swathes of modern Christianity have a comfortable and uncritical relationship with the values, story and destructive impact of contemporary consumerism. A gospel of personal salvation has little or nothing to say about the idolatry of the market. If an illness is undiagnosed and we don’t even know we are sick, then we aren’t going to pose much of a challenge to the marketeers and gods of mammon.

More positively, the Christian faith has a positive vision of what it means to live a flourishing, good and happy life – and it is not a consumerist one (to put it mildly). Christians follow a crucified Messiah after all.

This course encourages and facilitates students to work out that Christian vision for a flourishing life for themselves.

So that’s a flavour of what’s going on – comments and suggestions for reading welcome

Golf and Slavery: an unholy alliance

Two images collided in a Sunday afternoon browse of the net.

One was of the closing moments of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship from the Abu Dhabi Golf Club in the United Arab Emirates. As a Holywood man I always hope Rory is going to win and he was leading into the last round. It wasn’t to be this time and Tyrell Hatton took home the first prize of over €1 million and Rory had to make to with third and €407, 158.14.

The other image was from Aeon Magazine and an article called ‘Gulf Slave Society’ written by Bernard Freamon, adjunct professor at New York School of Law and author of the book Possessed by the Right Hand: The Problem of Slavery in Islamic Law and Muslim Cultures.

Freamon’s argument is compelling, sobering and unsurprising. I’m not going to do it justice in what is necessarily a brief summary. Do read the essay for yourself. Here are some salient points:

  • Dubai and Abu Dabhi are two of six modern gulf city states, constructed on the back of unimaginable wealth generated by oil and gas and global financial capital. (The others are Kuwait City; Doha in Qatar where the 2022 football world cup is to be held; Manama in Bahrain; and Dammam in Saudi Arabia).
  • Abu Dhabi has 420,000 citizens, who ‘sit on one tenth of the planet’s oil’, are worth about $17 million each on average and have $1 trillion invested globally
  • Each of these 6 gulf states are an example of a ‘genuine slave society’
  • A ‘genuine slave society’ is one that depends on slaves – core functions of its economy and social fabric would not work without slavery
  • In the UAE migrant workers make up 90% of the population. They have very few rights, work in extremely dangerous conditions and are housed in ‘squalid dormitories’ akin to work camps
  • Passports are confiscated. All waking hours are spent working or being shipped to work
  • Domestic female migrant workers face similarly awful conditions. They are essentially property of their employers (the kafala or sponsorship system requires a worker to have their employers’ permission to leave or travel). They are underpaid, or not paid at all, have no access to health care and are frequently subject to sexual exploitation
  • Pretty well all such workers are brown skinned or darker – there is a systemic race issue at the heart of the gulf slave states’ economies
  • Such states, Freamon argues have profound parallels with ancient Greek city-states. The city dominates and the slaves are essential to make it function. To be a ‘genuine slave society:
    • slaves must contribute more than 20% of the population
    • slaves must be essential to the production of economic surpluses for the elites
    • slavery must be a central cultural and economic institution
  • In slave states the slaves will be ‘outsiders’ and considered inferior. Race and ethnicity mark out the lower status of slaves
  • Slavery depends on force and the use of or threat of violence. Freamon argues that both the race / ethnic markers and the role of violence are present in the Persian Gulf societies.
  • Yes, the migrant workers do not have all contacts cut off from their homelands and families but Freamon concludes this is not enough to overturn the overwhelming evidence that these 6 gulf city states are built on slavery

Freamon concludes

If there is to be true abolition in the Persian Gulf, all of the markers of slavery that I have identified, particularly the racialisation of labor and rampant worker abuse and exploitation, must be eliminated.

There are tiny steps beginning to be made but they are only scratching at the surface. Freamon is active in setting up a website Ijmāʿ on Slavery that is seeking to be a catalyst of reform within Islam – for this is an Islamic problem. Racism is not only white on black. Slavery should in theory be illegal under Islamic law.

Golf and Slavery

If Freamon is right – and there is little reason to doubt what he says – the actual courses they play and the opulence which golfers of the European Tour enjoy every time they visit Abu Dhabi and Dubai, are built on slavery.

The money which funds the European Tour’s season long Race to Dubai is tainted with slavery.

Indeed the strategic shift from Europe to the Middle East in the schedule and funding of the European Tour is all due to the attractive power of gulf states money. Quite simply the money on offer from UAE is unmatched anywhere else in Europe. The US Tour has enormous wealth, it doesn’t need Gulf money. The European Tour has fallen significantly behind the US Tour in pulling power. It needs all the money it can get – and seems to be willing to pay a high price.

Next week the Tour stays in UAE and moves to Dubai for the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. The week after that it moves to King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia for the Saudi International powered by Softbank Investment Advisers.

The first tour event in Saudi Arabia was controversial, scheduled at it was during the political fallout of the abduction, murder and disposal of Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi in late 2018. Rory did not play but a whole host of top-ranked golfers from the US and Europe had no problem turning up.

Tour organisers, sponsors, players, TV rights and a host of other interests all have a common motive in not asking any questions about the morality of hosting and playing major international sporting events in slave states.

This is fantastically hypocritical.

Internationally golf tours and sponsors are desperate to promote inclusion and support anti-racist programmes. But that principled push for inclusion, equality and anti-racism seems to be at best selective – it does not seem to reach brown-skinned people from Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines, East Africa and elsewhere.

To be morally consistent, the European Tour – and its players – should refuse to host and play in sporting events in slave societies. Yes they depend on Gulf money, but it works both ways. Major international sporting events bring immense credibility and prestige to those slave states. Tour organisers and world famous players like Rory have real power to effect change that will not happen from within.

I pray to see the day when a famous golfer stands up and says ‘No’ to this unholy alliance between golf and slavery.

LOVE IN PAUL (8) Towards a theology of love and suffering (and a critique of some contemporary Christian worship songs)

When bad things happen to us we often doubt the love of God. Is he really there? Does he care?

We’re continuing a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

We are in strand 2 – human response to God’s prior love.

So how to respond to God when our world falls apart? When a beloved spouse dies?  When a business collapses and bankruptcy looms? When a doctor says ‘I’ve got some bad news …’?

However counter-intuitive it feels to us today, for Paul there is no conflict between suffering, persecution, hardship and even martyrdom and being loved by God.

To put it another way, being loved by God is no guarantee of some sort of divine protection from the harsh realities of life.

Now, that is a lot easier to say than to live through, but we need to get a theology of suffering in right perspective. If we don’t, then when suffering comes we are unprepared. Its arrival can shatter faith – and reveal unexamined assumptions about some sort of guarantee of divine protection and blessing.

Love and Suffering

Recall how I’ve been arguing that there are deep continuities (as well as some profound discontinuities) between Paul the OT faith in regards to love. This call to faithful trust in God whatever happens brings us back to OT wisdom literature and especially to the book of Job.

If you’ve read Job you may recall Job’s response to his wife who urged him to ‘curse God and die’. In her thinking there was an unspoken assumption of divine protection and blessing for those who loved God.

When God did not keep his side of the bargain, all bets were off.

But Job rejected her advice, saying that

Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad? (2:10)

And he is affirmed for this right answer.

Paul stands in this Jewish wisdom tradition: God is still good, even if things that happen to us are not.

His emphasis is on trusting God in the face of ageing, and whatever hardships come our way, while awaiting a future eternal glory (2 Cor 4:16-18).

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Indeed, from this eschatological perspective Paul does not even address the question ‘Why me?’ or ‘Why suffering?’. These things are inevitable and to be expected – but they do not have the last word. He can even call them ‘light and momentary troubles’ of relative insignificance compared to what lies ahead.

Now I’m not suggesting that telling someone in the middle of a traumatic crisis to cheer up because their troubles are relatively insignificant is a good strategy for pastoral care.

But I am suggesting that we need to get our theology of love and suffering right before that crisis hits. Paul’s words could easily be misunderstood. He is not trivializing suffering. He is putting it in a far bigger eschatological perspective. He has a profound understanding that our lives are lived in the overlap of the ages – where the forces of Sin and Death and Evil still hold sway.

And, while those forces hold no fear for the Christian in Christ, they are still real and will do their worst. Since we are not yet in the new creation, all believers will feel their cold grip.

This means we need a theology that combines being loved by God with a theology of suffering, lament and longing for that new creation.

Distorted Love

And I’m suggesting that this sort of theology is lacking within a lot of contemporary Christian spirituality. Or, to put it another way, what Job and Paul (and Jesus) tell us is increasingly alien to much Western Christianity, distorted as it is by a misshaped theology of divine love.

I’d better explain that rather big assertion.

We are inundated with songs and sermons celebrating the immeasurable love of God – that we are special, that we are chosen, that we are the apple of his eye, that we are beloved etc.

None of this is untrue of course. But it is what is not said that is as important as what is said. The overwhelming impression can be little different from a session of hug therapy that helps us feel better about ourselves when we leave.

Within this culture of peppy optimism about ourselves and about God’s all-embracing and unconditional love, there is little room left for lament, for expressing anger, for tears, for confession and repentance, for grief.

David Smith, who teaches on our MA programme at IBI, recently wrote a book on this. Stumbling toward Zion: Recovering the Biblical Tradition of Lament in the Era of World Christianity. After the death of his wife, his experience of much Christian worship left him feeling like an exile. It had little or nothing to say to someone grieving a deep loss.

He laments the absence of lament in the “unremittingly affirmative, positive and celebratory” ethos of much contemporary Western Christianity.

Worse still, more than a few of those songs are more like romantic love ballads. They speak of being held in the arms of God the lover who will protect us and help us feel secure. Here’s one very well-known example:

Hold me close let your love surround me
Bring me near draw me to your side
And as I wait
I’ll rise up like an eagle
And I will soar with you
Your spirit leads me on
By the power of your love

Geoff Bullock, 1992 Word Music/Maranatha Music

This is the language of sexual intimacy between two lovers. It is personal and private, not public and corporate. The music is soft and emotive. Within the 240 word lyrics I counted 49 first-person pronouns (I, me, my) and not one plural pronoun. God becomes ‘You’ – an ambiguous term that makes it even easier for the lyrics to fit into the genre of a pop love song. In this song – and many others like it, Jesus does not appear – nor is there any reference to the Bible story, the incarnation, the cross, future hope etc.

There are hundreds of other examples we could talk about. Maybe that’s a subject for a blog series. Save to say that all this is a long way from the theology of Paul (and the rest of the NT)