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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Message of Love is on its way!

9781783595914

Delighted to announce that The Message of Love will be out in September. You can pre-order your copy now before it sells out!!

Seriously, I won’t be pushing the book on this blog apart from this announcement and maybe a couple of posts when it comes out.

Few things are more boring than an author obsessively banging on about their book.

So excuse me this post and then we will move on.

It has taken up weekends, evenings and holidays for the last couple of years or so, so it’s exciting to see publication in sight.

I’ve loved writing about love. For me, the book effectively turned into a biblical theology of Christianity.

It did not start there but that is where it feels like it finished.

By ‘biblical theology of Christianity’ I mean it engages with the great core questions at the heart of the Christian faith. That theology emerges via exegesis, discussion and contemporary application of 17 individual key ‘love texts’ in the Bible.

The sorts of issues are listed below. They are not a table of contents but some of the theological themes that surface along the way.

Who is God and what is he like?

God’s love for his people Israel – unbreakable covenant love, judgement and forgiveness.

God’s just love for the poor and marginalised

The love of the Father for the Son

God is love

God’s great love shown in Jesus Christ

God’s love poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit

Human love for God

Wholehearted love for God – heart, soul, strength

The cost of discipleship love

Love and worship

Love and obedience

Love for one another

The difficult discipline of love as a foretaste of the future

Enemy love

Love, freedom and the Spirit

Erotic Love: sex, the body and desire

Love and Marriage

Misdirected love: the love of money

Every chapter has discussion of implications for how the ‘Bible Speaks Today’.

The more these themes came into focus, the clearer it became how and where a biblical theology of love confronts and contrasts with how love is understood in the twenty-first century West.

Overall, the book discusses how the Christian faith is effectively a beautiful vision of a flourishing life together. 

But it also asks some hard questions.

If God’s people are called to love and worship a God who is love, what does that look like in churches? In how Christians treat opponents? In a culture where the church is often seen as opposed to love rather than the embodiment of it?

If love describes God’s character, his dealings with his people and his attitude to the world; if love is the ultimate goal of his redemptive work and is heartbeat of the Christian life and future hope; if churches are to be communities of other-focused love – what challenges does this pose to churches today?

To you and I?

Where do we need repentance and renewal? What is the connection between love and mission?

That hopefully gives you a flavour of what The Message of Love is all about.

A couple of encouraging endorsements are in from NT scholars Scot McKnight and Ben Witherington.

Press Reviews

For close to two decades I have studied both how the Bible presents love and how Bible scholars have expressed that presentation. Luminaries like James Moffatt and Leon Morris, from two considerably different traditions, have become standard treatments but I found both coming up short for different reasons. No one will ever offer the final word on what the Bible says about love, but I know of no volume that is as thorough, sensitive to context and contour, as Patrick Mitchel’s sparklingly clear and faithful exposition of how the Bible presents love, how in fact the God of love loves the world and the people of God in Christ. This will become a standard text for my classes on New Testament theology.

Scot McKnight, Professor of New Testament, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Lombard, Illinois, USA

Oddly enough, it has been decades since a really good study of love in the Bible has appeared. Finally, we may now thank Patrick Mitchel for remedying this oversight in The Message of Love. There is a reason that Jesus said that the great commandment has to do with love, and Paul said love was greater than even faith and hope. It is because God himself is love, it is the essence of his character, and Mitchel in this book lays out for us how that is a consistent theme throughout the Bible. Highly recommended.

Ben Witherington III, Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies, Asbury Theological Seminary, USA

 

 

 

 

 

 

How important is love? (7) Luther and love

aliandnino

The question behind this post, and this mini-series, is how important is love?

If it is essential and important, what are implications for discipleship? For preaching and teaching? For holding each other accountable for lives which show tangible evidence of transformation? For prioritising the fact that authentic Christian faith ‘works’ – it is seen in lives of love and good works?

For facing up to, and confronting, the heresy of lovelessness in our lives and in our churches?

In the first post of this mini-series on the importance of love we talked about how, in some strands of post-Reformational Protestantism, love and works have been relegated to secondary importance behind the issue of primary concern – justifying faith.

But, as Stephen Chester argues [‘Faith Working Through Love (Galatians 5:6): The Role of Human Deeds in Salvation in Luther and Calvin’s Exegesis’] this relegation of love and works does not originate with Luther (or Calvin). Indeed, Luther was at great pains NOT to separate faith and love.

Some quotes from Luther (drawn from Chester’s article).

Look out for how he connects faith with love and good works.

“Paul’s view is this: Faith is active in love, that is, that faith justifies which expresses itself in acts.”  Table Talk, 1533.

“Therefore he who hears the Word of God sincerely and clings to Him in faith is at once also clothed with the spirit of love, as Paul has said above, ‘Did you receive the spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith’ (Gaiatians 3:2)? For if you hear Christ sincerely, it is impossible for you not to love Him forthwith, since He has done and borne so much for you.”

“[Paul] does not say ‘Love is effective.’ No, he says: ‘Faith is effective.’ He does not say: ‘Love works.’ No, he says: ‘Faith works.’ He makes love the tool through which faith works.”

True faith “arouses and motivates good works through love … He who wants to be a true Christian to belong to the kingdom of Christ must be truly a believer. But he does not truly believe if works of love do not follow his faith.”

“Paul is describing the whole of the Christian life in this passage [Gal. 5]: inwardly it is faith toward God, and outwardly it is love or works towards one neighbour. Thus a man is a Christian in a total sense: inwardly through faith in the sight of God, who does not need our works; outwardly in the sight of men, who do not derive any benefit from faith but do derive benefit from works or from our love.”

“As the sun shines by necessity, if it is a sun, and yet does not shine by demand, but by its nature and its unalterable will, so to speak, because it was created for the purpose that it should shine so a person created righteous performs new works by an unalterable necessity, not by legal compulsion. For to the righteous no law is given. Further, we are created, says Paul, unto good works … it is impossible to be a believer and not a doer.” Dialogue with Melanchthon, 1536.

“believers are new creatures, new trees; accordingly, the aforementioned demands of the law do not apply to them, e.g., faith must do good works, just as it is not proper to say: the sun must shine, a good tree must produce good fruit, 3 + 7 must equal 10. For the sun shines de facto, a good tree is fruitful de facto, 3 + 7 equal 10 de facto.”

So, for Luther, love and good works, while never an effective cause of justification, are a constituent part of justification. You cannot have justifying faith without the accompanying presence of love and good works. Faith will work in love de facto.

Luther is at great pains to develop a theology where love and works are integral to saving faith – not an additional optional ‘add on’.

Contrary to how works have been treated with suspicion or even hostility within some later post-Reformational Protestantism, Luther (and Calvin) take great care to integrate love and works within their doctrine of salvation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What strikes you from these verses?

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

Here’s a 10 point summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments, as ever, welcome.

How Important is Love? (4) lovelessness as heresy

This is Calvin and Hobbesa fourth of a series on the importance of love in Christian theology and contemporary culture.

In the third post we looked at one verse, Galatians 5:6 where ‘faith working love’ is the only thing that counts.

Staying with Paul, below is just a snapshot of other texts that, together, show how love is absolutely core to his theology and experience, and that the whole fabric of the Christian life is made up of love.

A couple of comments before those texts. In the New Testament, perhaps even more than today in the West, new communities of believers in Jesus were socially revolutionary. No-where else in the ancient world would you have Jews and Gentiles, slave owners and slaves, rich and poor, men and women, not only mixing together but worshiping together on a ‘level playing field’ where all were one in Christ (Gal. 3:28).

Love is the only thing that could hold such communities together then, and it is the only thing that can hold diverse communities together today.

A question: are Christians known, first and foremost as people of radical, other-focused love? Are churches known for being communities of love? Is love the first thing that people associate with followers of Jesus? With you and with me?

If not, why not? And what can be done about it?

Given the importance of love (see below), ‘lovelessness’ is not just an ‘unfortunate reality’ of church life, it is actually heresy in action. It is a denial of the very purpose of salvation and the work of the Spirit. It is a sign of counterfeit faith that is worth nothing at all.

Love in Paul

Love is the goal or purpose of the new covenant ministry of the Spirit

  • The purpose of Christian freedom from the flesh is to ‘serve one another in love’ (Gal.5:13).
  • The ‘entire law is summed up in a single command, “Love your neighbour as yourself”’ (Gal.5:14, cf Rom.13:8-10).
  • The Spirit ‘produces’ love in believers’ lives as they keep in step with him (Gal 5:22-26)
  • It is through the Spirit that believers experience God’s love (Rom.5:5).

The love of God has been most supremely demonstrated in Christ’s death on the cross (Rom.5:8).

God’s people are loved by God (1 Thes.1:4; 2 Thes.2:13, 16; Rom.1:7; 2 Cor.13:11, 14; Eph.1:4-5, 2:4, 3:17-9, 5:1-2; Col.3:12).

Nothing in all creation will be able to separate them from his love expressed in Jesus (Rom.8:37-9).

Believers are to act in love for each other (1 Thes.4:9; Rom.14:15; 1 Cor.8:1; Eph.4:2, 15-16; Phil.2:1-2; Col.2:2).

In 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 Paul teaches that all Christian life and ministry is of no value at all if it is not done in love.

At the close of 1 Corinthians he simply commands ‘Do everything in love’ (1 Cor.16:14).

In Ephesians 5:2 Christians are commanded to ‘walk in the way of love’

In Colossians 3:14 they are to ‘put on love’ on top of a list of other virtues.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:8 Paul includes himself in the exhortation to ‘put on faith and love’.

Paul often expresses his deep love for his communities (e.g., 1 Thes.2:8; 1 Cor.16:24; 2 Cor.2:4, 11:11; Phil.4:1).

Husbands are to love their wives (Eph.5:25; Col.3:19).

Paul prays that believers’ love would grow (1 Thes.3:12; Phil.1:9)

He is glad to hear of a church’s love (e.g., 1 Thes.3:6; 2 Thes.1:3).

He is thankful when Christ is preached ‘out of love’ (Phil.1:16).

He rejoices when he hears of believers’ love for God’s people (Col.1:4, Philem.1:5, 7)

He prays that the Lord would direct their ‘hearts into God’s love’ (2 Thes.3:5).

Rather than use apostolic authority, he prefers to appeal to Philemon about Onesimus ‘on the basis of love’ (Philem.1.9).

All this is why I like to call Paul ‘the apostle of love’.

 

 

How Important is Love? (3) Just ‘the only thing that counts’

Gal 5 vs 6Galatians 5:6 is a crucial verse when it comes to the relationship between faith and love.

NIV ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’

ESV ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.’

NRSV  ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.’

The Greek can be rendered more literally, ‘faith working love’ – the sense being that faith and love are integrally connected, almost like one tangible ‘thing’.

We may put it like this, for Paul, for someone to be a Christian (in Christ) is to be living a life of ‘faith working love’. Or, differently, the very purpose of being a Christian is ‘faith working love’. Without love that faith counts for nothing.

There is no such thing as Christian faith that does not work in love.

This takes us straight to 1 Corinthians 13 where the Apostle makes this point even more bluntly and with greater rhetorical effect – without love, whatever someone does for Jesus, however impressive, powerful or sacrificial, is completely and utterly worthless.

If so, how should this impact the priorities of church life? Of personal discipleship? Of training programmes, preaching and theological education generally?

Note how this is different to the ‘love alone’ theology of the previous post.

Christian love has a specific form – it is umbilically linked to faith. That faith in turn has a specific focus – Jesus Christ.

This means that there is a sharp contrast between Christian love and popular contemporary understandings of love.

In contrast to ‘love alone’ theology, Christian love:

  • Is interpreted and understood from within the narrative of the Bible
  • It has a specific content – the self-giving love of God in Christ
  • Nothing is easy or soft about Christian love – it involves spiritual transformation of desires through walking by the Spirit.
  • It is not concerned primarily about the self, it involves self-sacrifice for the good of others.
  • It is communal through and through – lived out in all the messiness of relationship with others within the community of the church and overflowing into the world.
  • Ethically, ‘love alone’ does not justify and legitimise what is moral and good. Christian love means obedience (‘If you love me you will obey my commands’).
  • Nor is Christian love itself divine, only God is. Love itself does not give our lives ultimate meaning – being children of the God who is love does.

Paul’s emphasis on love does not hang on a couple of extraordinary texts. Love pervades his theology and his letters – God’s love for us, our response of love for God, and – most of all – exhortations and commands for the people of God to love one another.

Nor is Paul out of sync with the rest of the New Testament. While John is the theologian of love par excellence, the priority of love is everywhere. We’ll have a look at some texts in the next post.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

How Important is Love? (2): ‘Love Alone’ theology

aliandninoThis is a second of a series on the importance of love in Christian theology and contemporary culture.

In the last post we talked about the relegation of love within the theological priorities of post-Reformational traditions where love comes in a very definite second to faith.

In this post we’ll look at the opposite trend: how in (some) contemporary Christianity love is celebrated and extolled, prioritised and spoken about in terms that elevate it to such a degree that it becomes a goal in itself.

By this I mean that love takes on a sentimental and even mystical nature, that when experienced you have reached a higher spiritual existence.

Love itself becomes divine – the ground of our being.

This links back to a post on how, in contemporary culture, we have shifted from John’s famous statement, ‘God is love’ to ‘Love is God’. Where love itself is idolised and revered as that alone which gives life meaning.

As the fab 4 sang, ‘All you need is love’.

This is all quite subtle and hard to pin down, after all, you have to be a miserable old curmudgeon to be anti-love don’t you?

‘Love Alone’ theology

Here are some symptoms of what I call ‘Love Alone’ theology

1. Love is spoken and sung about in ways that it is detached from the narrative of the Bible. Love becomes what we want it to be. Yet, in contrast, Christian love has a particular character – it is shaped by God’s self-giving love in Christ. It calls for a wholehearted response of obedience to God. It requires humility and repentance. It depends on God’s grace. It entails deep cost to the self.

2. The ‘content’ of love is assumed – the assumption being ‘sure we all know what love is don’t we?’. That content tends to be sentimentalised – love is warm, inclusive, feel-good, fulfilling. It is that which meets our deepest needs.

3. The difficulty of love is downplayed  – it is assumed that love is automatic and easy. Little or nothing is said about our own distorted loves and sinful desires.

4. The cost of love is ignored – love is that which brings happiness and joy, not that which often involves pain and sacrifice.

5. The focus of love tends to be individualistic – faith in God is what gives ‘me’ an experience of God’s love that brings me comfort and hope.

6. Love trumps all – if something is loving, the presence of love trumps all.  So, for example, a couple in love who want a baby to love pay a woman to rent her womb. Love trumps any ethical concerns over surrogacy. The outcome (love) justifies the means.

Comments, as ever, welcome.