Paul and the Christian life (7) N T Wright an anabaptist at heart?

The final chapter in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective is by a certain N T Wright and it’s called ‘Paul and Missional Hermeneutics’.

9780801049767Just to reiterate the context of this discussion: the big question of this book is how does Paul the Jew – now a follower of Jesus the Messiah – envision a life pleasing to God? How does he see the relationship with Jewish belief and practice of his day [shaped around the Torah] and what it means for both Jews and Gentiles to live a life worthy of the gospel? What are the implications of these questions for living the Christian life in the 21st century?

Now what on earth new can Wright say about Paul after his colossal 2 volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG). Well, in this short piece he reflects on themes arising from the PFG and, as with pretty well everything he pens, it is engaging, thought-provoking and enjoyable prose.

The term ‘missional hermeneutics’ is a nifty one: it relates to both Paul’s identity and task. He’s a missionary who is doing hermeneutics – thinking, praying and writing in dialogue with the Scriptures of Israel in light of his missionary task. So tightly are these two aspects woven together, Wright says that “we may say that Paul’s mission was hermeneutical and that his hermeneutics were missional.”

And it’s Paul’s missional hermeneutics that Wright focuses on here. He thinks it a useful phrase for three reasons:

  1. Christian hope: where Scripture is read through the a new creation lens – a new-creational horizon – and this frames the missionary task within the larger ‘mission of God’.
  2. It ties in to how the authority of Scripture works – the authority of God that “gets things done” – that is much more about transformative action than abstract answers to tricky theological problems. What Wright calls a “more dynamic hermeneutic” which forms missional communities.
  3. The nature of the NT representing documents written “to build up and energize the church to be God’s people in God’s world, living between Jesus’s resurrection and the final renewal.” Where the primary task of mission is served by theology and not the other way around. Thus Wright’s central argument in the PFG in his own words is

The central argument is that we should understand how Paul invented Christian theology in the first place or, to be more specific, how Paul was teaching his communities the vocational task of learning to work with Scripture in hand, prayer as the energy, Jesus as the focus, the church as the matrix, and God’s future as the goal. (182)

And so a consistent core concern in the NT is that the church would live up to its calling and task to ‘be who they are’ – the holy people of God. Where the church would embody a previously unimagined body politic in the ancient world.

But, Wright here acknowledges a puzzle (or maybe a puzzling silence would capture it better) – there is just not much said about the task of this new church body to ‘do mission’ in the ancient world. It’s not there in Paul however much Wright says he wishes it were.

I grew up in churches which assumed that the early church was always being encouraged to “do mission” in some way or another, because that’s what we were all trying to do, usually in the Platonic form I mentioned earlier. We were all supposed to be telling our neighbors about Jesus; and it was assumed that the early church did that as well. But Paul, perhaps to our surprise, gives us no direct warrant for that. (182-3)

Of much more prominence is the Pauline call for the church to be two things – united (across all boundaries) and holy (living lives worthy of the gospel).

So what is mission? How is it enacted in the world?

Wright has come to the view that it is primarily achieved in and through the church living up to this dual calling – “a united and holy community in the Messiah”. A sign to the world; a challenge to the powers and principalities; a new way of being human, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.A way of life that can face the reality and pain of suffering incurred by violent rejection by the world.

And, it is by looking at the church that the world will “see the lordship of Jesus at work”.

Wright goes to Philippians 2:1-18 as the closest place where Paul talks of the missional task of the church.  See 2:14-16

There must be no grumbling and disputing in anything you do. That way, nobody will be able to fault you, and you’ll be pure and spotless children of God in the middle of a twisted and depraved generation. You are to shine among them like lights in the world, clinging to the word of life. That’s what I will be proud of on the day of the Messiah. It will prove that I didn’t run a useless race, or work to no purpose.

And Wright sums up what’s going on here like this:

When we stand back for a moment from the whole passage, what do we see? Obviously, the poem of verses 6–11 is one of the most striking christological and also theological statements in all Christian literature. It embodies the missional hermeneutic Paul is expounding, drawing together the great strands of Scripture, from Adam to the Servant, focusing them on Jesus and his shameful death, then broadening out, just as the Servant Songs themselves do, to embrace the world, and thereby celebrating Jesus as its rightful sovereign. And in the context of Philippians, the meaning for a missional hermeneutic is clear. The dark world in which the church must shine like the stars through unity, holiness, and suffering is the world which Caesar claims for his own. (186-7)

And what is going on here in Philippians is just a specific example of his missional hermeneutic that shapes his overall reading of Scripture

Let me take a step back to look at Paul’s overall missional reading of Scripture. The allusions to Isaiah, to Exodus, and to many other passages are not mere random gestures toward a distant text assumed to be authoritative. They fall within an implicit narrative upon which Paul draws at various points. It is precisely, in his hands, a missional narrative: the story of how the creator God called a people through whom he would undo the plight of the world, and of the human race, rescuing the creation rather than abandoning it. This story runs from Genesis to Exodus and on, with highlights such as the close of Deuteronomy and the promises to David and the shocking fact of covenant disloyalty and subsequent exile, and the strange, unfulfilled promises of a glorious return, of God overthrowing the pagans and coming back to Zion to be king, of covenant renewed and creation renewed. (187)

This is Wright’s own pithy summary of his narrative reading of Paul. He freely acknowledges that some reject or struggle with interpreting Paul this way.

One is the still powerful “older Protestant narrative of sinful humans, Jesus as substitute, and heaven after all” – which while capturing elements of Paul’s theology fails to put it in proper narrative context and struggles to embrace the idea of the kingdom coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.

Another is a sort of postmodern critique that sees only an ecclesial power trip at work in such a narrative – where the church as God’s people are the ultimate winners. But, Wright, contends, this is a long way from Paul whose vision for the church is as a suffering community of powerlessness, to be characterised by kingdom-of-God-living, not triumphalism or neo-imperialism.

The Christian life, or ethic, is about living in light of this narrative of new creation. And the church is the spearhead of this missiological task.

All this sounds really quite anabaptist to me – the missionary task of the church is “to be the church” in the world. Mission begins at home – in a Spirit-filled alternative community of love and worship in which ethnic, gender and socio-economic boundaries are overcome. The church’s job is not to control or change the world externally, but be a new creation within the old.

Which makes me recall when Wright spoke in Dublin a few years ago. In the  Q&A I asked him if he was an anabaptist in disguise, which I think he found quite amusing. Despite his rejection of that label then and I guess now, I still think his reading of the NT heads pretty strongly in that direction.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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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.

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

One of the (many) peculiarities of Irish history, is the uneasy and ambiguous place of the Bible within Irish culture and memory.

I’m trying to do a bit of reading and writing around this theme at the moment.

A rough sketch of some ideas on Irish ambivalence towards the Bible goes something like this:

1.The strong historical association of the Bible with Protestant proselytism.

One example is the Pre-Famine ‘Bible War’ of the 1820s between the revitalised missionary zeal of the Established Anglican Church and a newly resurgent and defensive emerging Catholic Church. In this struggle of faith, politics and identity, the Scriptures were perceived as a tool in a religious zero-sum competition for converts. Few places were more contentious than schooling.

Donnelly writes that Protestant missionaries became more active after 1815

in circulating the Scriptures, in distributing anti-Catholic literature, and in establishing schools aimed at the children of the Catholic poor. The Religious Book and Tract Society for Ireland claimed in 1823 to have issued over 1,160,000 tracts and 86,000 books since 1819 alone.

Formal schooling, however, was a far more serious and contentious affair. The controversies that raged after 1819 at the national level about schools under Protestant auspices, their management and funding, and the use of the Scriptures within them were in part a reflection and in part a cause of strife at the local level. [1]

In Munster and Connacht there was particular Catholic clerical opposition to the Baptist Society schools and the London Hibernian Society “whose inspectors required that children in its schools recite the Scriptures from memory.”

And such polarisation around the Bible and social action reached a climax with charges of ‘Souperism’ (converting in order to survive via the Protestant soup kitchen) during the Famine itself – with the legitimacy of that charge continuing to be debated to this day.

And Catholic resistance to the Bible as a dangerous tool of Protestant evangelism can be traced right up to the middle of the 20th Century – with documented occasions of evangelical missionaries distributing Bibles and Bible literature being run out of towns.

2. The sacramental structure of Catholicism itself

Whereby the Bible, while revered and affirmed as the Word of God, is sidelined in the actual daily practice of living the Christian life. The altar at the heart of a Catholic Church as opposed to the pulpit in a Protestant one speaks of what is central to spirituality. The Bible has not had a central role in Catholic spirituality – for many ordinary Catholics it has been a closed book.  I think this is a fair observation that increasingly many Catholics also affirm – and want to change.

[And such has been the decline of the place of the Bible in Protestant spirituality (including evangelicals) that I wonder what % of ‘Protestants’ actually ever regularly open a Bible – but that is a topic for another post!]

3. A post-Christendom scepticism towards the Bible

Where, in a culture rapidly divesting itself of the vestiges of a claustrophobic Catholic Christendom, the Bible is seen in postmodern terms as a tool of control, power and injustice; a weapon, for example, of inequality against those of LGBT orientation. The Scriptures, rather than being seen as radically liberating for all, are viewed with a hermeneutic of suspicion as a source of institutional legitimation and self-preservation of a fading era of Church domination. The church and its Scriptures are seen as marginal and irrelevant to the pressing questions of modern life.

Now that may all sound rather negative. But if even partially right, this gives a flavour of the missional challenges in contemporary Ireland.

Some words come to mind:

Unconditional Love. Earning Trust. Transparency. Honesty. No strings evangelism. God’s grace. Integrity. Gospel centered. Jesus focused. Embrace of Irish culture and identity. Selfless service of others. Care for the poor. Listening. Humble confidence in God’s Spirit to speak through God’s Word.

These are some attitudes and actions that need to characterise mission in contemporary Ireland.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

[1] James S. Donnelly Jr, ‘Pastorini and Captain Rock: Millenarianism and Sectarianism in the Rockite Movement of 1821-4’ in Samuel Clark and James S. Donnelly Jr, eds., Irish Peasants: Violence and Political Unrest, 1780-1914 (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003) 102-142.

Learning from Rory and maintaining vocation in a googleized world

Golfers, being hopeless optimists that their once-off best-ever score really represents their ‘normal’ game, are always desperately hoping and searching for a ‘secret’ of success; some new club, or thought or drill that will give them that edge – and make them a wee bit more like the pros on TV. [Hence they are endlessly suckered into spending hundreds on the latest cool driver or new fangled putter. Heck, you used to be able to buy whole sets of clubs for what one high-tech driver costs these days – but I digress.]

Anyway, this is to explain the numerous jokes out there about ditching the wife / girlfriend as a route to golfing nirvana, for it sure seems to have ‘worked’ for Rory. The moment the lovely Caroline departed, Rory’s fortunes have soared to new heights. 4 victories including 2 Major Championships, the WGC at FIrestone and the British PGA at Wentworth (flagship event of the European Tour), all done with stunning flair and breathtaking talent, have swept him back to the top of the world rankings. Once again, the statistical parallels (4 Majors by 25 etc) are being drawn with Nicklaus and Woods and you don’t more exalted company in the golfing pantheon than that.

As the wunderkind says himself, he’s been able to devote himself single mindedly to his profession in a way he hasn’t done before (or maybe not in the same sustained way). There is a new steel in Rory and a determined focus that seems to have released his remarkable free-flowing confidence to a point where he has just swept all the very best tough and prodigiously talented pros in the world aside. Over the last three weeks it has been a joy to watch  Rory give his very best (especially for a Holywood Golf Club man!).

All this sort of links to musings on technology, Google, and distraction in a world of Too Much Information (TMI).

It was significant that after his first 2014 win at Wentworth in May, Rory said he’d put away the laptop and switched off his phone (well at least for a while). Not being a celebrity world-famous golfer (or blogger, or theologian etc!) I can’t begin to imagine the pervasive clamour for your attention from a seemingly infinite number of people, both in the flesh and globally via the digital superhighway.

In a way that Nicklaus, and perhaps not even Woods, had to deal with, Rory lives in and has to negotiate living his life transparently under the fish-eye lens of social media and a voracious global media. As a ‘digital native’ he has participated freely in that world (in a way that a digital-settler like me can’t really get). But I wonder if his remarkable burst of success is in part the result of putting the babble of that ‘unreal’ world to one side and focusing on his ‘vocation’. Rather than it controlling him, perhaps he’s gained some degree of control over it. I hope so – and if so Rory, keep going! For I suspect it will be his ability to pursue his ‘vocation’ that will determine how close to Woods and Nicklaus he gets. As Roger Federer says, there is a lot of background ‘noise’ that is best ignored.

It is people with a clear sense of purpose and a determination to pursue their personal mission who tend to make the greatest impact in life. That focus is not only mental but physical. Rory has put in intensive work preparing his body to be in peak condition to thrash the ball repeatedly way over 300 yrds. Focus, discipline and training – these are words that come to mind with Rory these days.

Paul of course used sporting metaphors to describe his single-minded determination to preach the gospel whatever the cost.

25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. 1 Cor 9:25-7

Now I suspect every ‘age’ has bemoaned technological change and how it will ruin the (better) ways things were. I’m not going there. Take GOOGLE. I love Google search, Google Maps and reluctantly can’t do without gmail (prefer Outlook). Google docs are great for team interaction and I’m getting into Google Scholar. Google earth is fun. And Google books are deadly handy to get a preview of a work that you don’t have access to.

What Google does is bring the world to our fingertips in a way unimaginable to any previous human generation. Google’s mission statement is to organise the world’s information and make  it universally accessible and useful – a vastly ambitious goal which it is fulfilling brilliantly, rapidly and rather creepily. Its mysterious algorithims work invisibly to give us instantaneous results to any search. We have access to infinite information without getting off our derriéries.

But to what purpose? How can we process and filter TMI without drowning under a tsunami of data?

Have you ever found yourself spending far more time than you expected when planning to buy something fairly mundane? Maybe somewhere to stay on a trip? After looking at Tripadvisor and reading 25 (conflicting) reviews, you try Hotel.Com and a couple of other sites to get different options. One night’s stay becomes a navigation of 50 people’s opinions …all very interesting, often useful but also a time-consuming distraction.

And let’s not be naive, Google isn’t in business for fun, however much fun it supposedly is to be a ‘Googler’. Its main source of income is advertising and that stream of income is the driving force behind Google’s ‘open information’ culture. It’s been said that one of the dangers of the Web 3.0 is how it serves us. We are at the centre of our universe as Google serves us up with all our possible desires based on its predictive knowledge of our online habits. And I’m not going to get into Google’s virtual omniscience about everything you and I do on the web ….

And that reference to the French posterior is no small point. continuous googling is passive activity. Remember this wee saying ? As we spend more and more hours sitting looking at a screen we become fatter and and more unhealthy. There is an inherent mind / body dualism in the Google universe that echoes Gnosticism. The abstract (information, data) is what really matters. The body is relevant simply to tap buttons and click a mouse and soon I’m sure that won’t even be necessary either. But we are not disembodied minds, we are physical beings; mind, body, spirit.

There is no small irony in me writing this on a computer screen in WordPress that I opened with Google. I’m not anti-technology. But I do wonder how can Christians learn from Rory and pursue vocation through focus, discipline and training in a Googleized world?

How do you? Where is the googlized world distracting you and seducing you into running aimlessly? Where are you wasting your time in an e-world, consuming time and energy in trivia? How much time do you sit passively consuming someone else’s work via a screen? Do you suffer from paralysis by analysis due to too much information? How often do you just ‘google it’ to get the answer rather than think and pray about a situation?

What can you and I do to counter a sort of creeping Google gnosticism that relegates physical exercise and activity to a lower order behaviour?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The kindness of God (2) Mission, violence and suffering

Kindness of GodWhat can we make of the fact that Christian history is soaked in blood?

Christianity is a cross-shaped faith. Christians follow a Messiah who freely gives up his life on the cross for us. The death of Jesus, God’s son, is the critical event of the NT and forms the core of the missionary proclamation. The message of the gospel is one of reconciliation and peace with God and with one another.

Yet in events like the Crusades, the cross of Christ was paraded as a symbol of God’s blessing on military carnage. Where soldiers were promised forgiveness and absolution for participating in God’s work on the battlefield (a sort of Christian jihad when you think about it).

What do we make of the fact that spiritual giants like Bernard of Clairvaux could write hundreds of deeply devotional hymns and yet be a passionate supporter of the wars against Muslims?

These are some of the questions considered in chapter 3 of David Smith’s The Kindness of God, called ‘Mission, Violence and Suffering’.

David points to different voices and approaches to Islam such as Francis of Assisi, who ‘waged peace’ on Islam in Egypt (interesting story this). Smith gives other examples; his point is how to engage ‘on the frontier’ with other cultures, particularly Islam, is a critical challenge in global mission.

Conversion is at the heart of mission. But there is a difference between proselytism and conversion. The former seeks to make the other exactly like me.  Conversion sees the other come to Christ but does not necessitate the other losing his/her cultural identity. You see this cultural pluralism in Acts 15 and the inclusion of Gentiles into the budding church.

Smith offers three guidelines or principles for doing mission in our troubled and deeply divided world.

1. ‘Other worlds’ across cultural boundaries are going to be places of surprise.  Mission is ultimately God’s initiative and we are given the privilege of joining in what he is already doing. This means for example, suggests Smith, that God may already be at work within Islam, preparing the way  and he quotes an Islamic prayer as an example.

What do you think of this notion of (some) divine revelation within other religions? Smith points to how God was ahead of Peter, working in a pagan Gentile’s life (Cornelius).

I recently met an ex-student who comes from Iran. It was not only wonderful to see him again, but encouraging to hear of many stories of what God is doing among Iranians in Iran – very often through dreams and visions. God is present and active well beyond the ‘reach’ of formal mission contact.

2. The need for an informed and sensitive understanding of the social, political and religious factors that may have caused a negative reaction to evangelism. Smith mentions Muslim and non-Western reactions to Western imperialism. (Ireland is a good example here too with its long legacy of politicised Protestantism suppressing the Catholic threat to English rule.)

3.The task of disentangling the gospel from the cultural wrapping in which it has been contained. Along with an understanding, in our post-Christendom west, of the factors why Christianity has, and is, being rejected. Only then can the church begin to re-translate the gospel afresh to the world.

Comments, as ever, welcome

The Kindness of God (1)

At IBI we are looking forward in a couple of weeks to a visit by David Smith, who is senior research fellow at International College Glasgow and the author of significant books on urban mission and theology – some of which I have blogged on. David is coming to teach for a week on our Masters programme.

Kindness of GodI’m going to do some posts on his new book, The Kindness of God: Christian Witness in our Troubled World, (2013). David writes both passion and with compassion – a rare combination. And I can guess he ain’t go to be popular with Christian supporters of the blessings of free-market capitalism.

One of the flip sides to global mission is that it is not a one-way process. In the past, there was the notion of Western missionaries bringing the ‘pure gospel’ to the pagan rest of the world. This gospel was imagined to be culturally free. But as David Smith, says, mission “triggered entirely unanticipated critical question concerning the relationship between the message of Christ and the missionary’s own culture.’ (39)

And the critical questions he refers to revolve around the relationship of Christianity in the West with free market capitalism. He puts it this way,

“I want to propose that in truth the most urgent dialogue which needs to take place is that with the advocates of modernization and Westernization and that therefore our primary task is to reflect on the degree to which the fundamentally secular assumptions of the ideology of market economics may have distorted our understanding of the gospel and compromised our mission.” (36)

In chapter 2, he traces the story of the rise of economism, where economics began to be treated like science, with the associated credibility and prestige of being ‘true’. This development was a fruit of Enlightenment optimism and confidence in human reason. The future would be brighter, richer and progressive. As economics advanced, theology retreated to the realm of the private and personal – even as evangelicalism grew in strength in the 19th century.

Quoting Newbigin, who talked of the ‘syncretism’ of the church in with West, Smith’s argument is that Christianity in the West has developed a dualistic theology that has left it dangerously comfortable with the status quo (the quasi-religious deification of the sovereign power of the market and the privatised world of faith). A result is that the church has been ill equipped to offer prophetic critique to the gods of the age.

Returning to the theme of mission, Smith suggests that it is Western Christianity’s captivity that led Western missionaries to engage in mission without questioning their assumptions around capitalism and colonialism. And of the greatest challenges of world mission today is Islam, for it is Islam which has resisted such dualism and fears Christianity is but a vehicle for Western imperialism. It is the Islamic vision of the just state which offers for many a powerful and attractive alternative to the ugly ruthlessness of Western capitalism.

So, Smith asks, will it be places like Africa that will develop new theologies of the political and economic realm? For it is Africa that Christianity intersects with Islam and with the terrible realities of human suffering and injustice.  (there’s a challenge to Hargaden, off to do a PhD in Aberdeen on the theology of money!).

Comments, as ever, welcome.